close to home by Rachel Rosenfeld
If one is identifies an issue, one can usually create a solution. I’ve always feared uncertainty above all else. Even worse is the uncanny valley – a threat very close in appearance to safety. We often fear what we do not understand, so clarification should assuage that anxiety. We arm ourselves with knowledge. We familiarize ourselves, smiling at one another over opposite sides of a fence, hands tucked in khaki pockets. Neighbors are strangers until community barbecues are hosted. We watch the news, studying threats reported from a city about 40 minutes away by train.
I used to frequently fall asleep in my mother’s arms while she watched the news, occasionally a movie, or an episode of Law and Order. It was due to this ritual that at a young age I had already romanticized high school as a John Hughes film, anticipating Judd Nelson victoriously launching his fist into the air on a football field. My visual bedtime stories prepared me to request Dr. Gregory House, should I suspect I had contracted an obscure and geographically impossible illness.
However, my mother has always been one to deliver a cautionary tale – so more commonly occurring, were the images of kidnapped girls and abused children burning into my retinas, Anderson Cooper narrating. School shootings, animals abandoned and starved, children’s bodies found after weeks or months of having been missing: these were the nonfiction scary stories I was told before bed.
I stopped going for solitary walks in the Hastings woods adjacent to our house when I was around nine. In the fourth grade I would climb over the stone wall which divorced our yard from the woods to collect ingredients for potions – I evidenced my intentions through donning a velveteen witch’s hat long before, and long after, Halloween. I reveled in the light thumping of my Converse over the smooth dirt path. I would arrive at Sugar Pond and collect red berries and honeysuckle.
The path was lined with trees older than the town, their tops bending toward one another exchanging leafy banter. Their branches laced together like fingers, creating vaulted ceilings, revealing only freckles of cerulean. The crooning of tree frogs would be shushed by wind combing rich foliage in the daylight.
To this day I admittedly still fear the dark (i.e. The Unknown), thus I’ve never ventured far from my rabbit hole alone past dusk. My childhood bedroom wall facing the woods was almost entirely window, thinly veiled with white cotton. The Unknown seemed to leer inside, and I would catch myself vacillating between keeping my lights on and turning my lights off, unable to decide if seeing or hiding would provide greater protection. Even at night, the mossy bark and hollowed logs would not rest – beyond Sugar Pond, deep in the Hastings woods, a residual fireplace accommodated hormonal invaders nearly every weekend.
My bedroom had blue moons and yellow stars painted on the ceiling beams. While focusing on the stencils, too afraid to look out my window at actual constellations, I could overhear the high-schoolers’ conflicting mixture of insecurity and invincibility. Despite the broken glass and cigarette butts, I imagine the forest took pity on the gangly visitors, as they may have resembled Bambi stumbling back over the stone wall into my yard around 2am. My mother once tamed a vomiting Metallica T-shirt with bread and water. There were no American Girl guidebooks on encroaching puberty with instructions on how to Frankenstein pilfered liquors together in Poland Springs bottles. I could not identify the loud creatures, but I understood that in a few years’ time they would reach out for me like weeds. My play-date with the honeysuckle would return in the morning.
One winter afternoon, I arrived at Sugar Pond to find it had frozen over. I was under the misconception that the red berries growing around the pond in the spring were holly, and that they would still be growing in December. I waddled toward the ice in my cumbersome snowsuit, dragging a red sled behind me to transport my cargo. I stopped when I noticed a form jutting out of the glacial surface. It was twisted in an awkward position, and at first glance I thought it might have been part of a fallen tree trunk. I wiped my nose across my mitten and stared across the pond at the figure for what seemed like a long time.
Thus far, death had not been tangible to me beyond the glow of CNN or HBO. A year after this, in 2006, a classmate’s brother would drown in his family’s pool. T-shirts proclaiming supportive slogans would be donned in hives of mourning. My classmate didn’t make the T-shirts, and I felt uneasy about the public reactions of those who didn’t seem to know her brother very well. At the time, I didn’t understand why someone would want to grieve a loss that was not their own. With less eloquence, I viewed the T-shirts as politicizing tragedy. I wasn’t supposed to think this. I didn’t hear about her brother while lying next to my mother in front of the television; he hadn’t climbed over my stone wall and disappeared into The Unknown. I knew what he looked like, I knew his name, and I recognized where he lived and died. I didn’t receive a T-shirt, and I said nothing to my classmate.
In the Hastings woods, in the winter of 2005, I realized I had been having a staring contest with the posterior of a deer, half frozen in my childhood pond. I don’t recall running home, or having left my sled behind. I remember my brother telling me that other passerby had seen the deer, and that it was eventually extracted. He had heard it was concluded that the deer’s head had become entangled in some roots lining the pond’s murky floor, and drowned with the water freezing around it. He swore to me his friend saw its hind leg twitch. The following nights I wondered why I didn’t see the deer appear on the news.