by Kate McCorkle
Back and forth, forth and back: front door, peep out window, walk to kitchen table, check front door again. January air creeps beneath the door and around its sides, biting during my routine. At the window: await Brad’s headlights bouncing into the driveway. Nothing.
The stars are ominous, silent witnesses. Or maybe accomplices? They’re so cold and unfeeling. Or is it they’re hot—burning? Fuming? All that rage! See, they’re shifty.
Take a section of hair into my mouth before spitting it out, recoiling from the bad habit. When is he going to get home? He has to bring the trash cans up from the curb. Tighten my gray cardigan; hug myself. Back to the table.
Get busy. Get busy. It can’t hit a moving target. I straighten the condolence cards scattered across the small table and search for another task. Brad wanted them out until he wrote his thank-you’s. Annoying. All the platitudes about fathers and “Footprints” and pictures of lakes. Where is he? Trash cans won’t move themselves.
I’m embarrassed I fear the dark; it seems like such a failure of willpower. The different therapies haven’t been able to dislodge it either. It’s as if an infection originates with the setting sun, traveling through my blood until each breath shakes. I want to be strong, but if I go out there, I’ll be destroyed, unraveled, unmade.
You can’t outrun the night.
I shuffle the condolence cards. The one with the lone calla lily is on top.
I was thirteen when the fear first possessed me. Along with my brothers, my mom and I would get home at dinnertime because of basketball practice, and mom would rush to get a meal on the table. I had to retrieve the mail from the end of the long driveway. In the winter, it was solidly dark by four-thirty. Opening the front door, the cold air was bracing, filling me instantly with a feeling I couldn’t adequately describe—an emotion beyond “sad” or “afraid” that failed to appear in my childhood picture books. Wind tearing my skin away, just bones and a beating heart, howling.It intensified the salty residue of sweat coating my face. The piercing chill at least proved I was still alive; my breath crystallizing in the door’s threshold.
Then I’d bolt, through snow at times, to reach the mailbox, open its half-moon door and snatch the letters and bills. In my haste, I sometimes forgot to shut the door, which was frowned upon. I couldn’t bear the darkness, the screaming stillness, the stars trapping us all like a giant domed blanket. How many past light years were present in my retinas?
If I inhaled too deeply, the air threatened to explode my body.
IfI stood still, the stars would shift out of their preordained orbits and begin to dance.
If I lingered, the wind would begin to whisper enchantments; I would lose my mind.
IfI lost sight of the house, Gypsies or witches or goblins with knobby hands would seize my wrists and drag me to their mirror worlds.
Our house was anchored so feebly to its tiny patch of earth. What was stopping all the houses from untethering and simply flying away? The trees with their eternal roots would be safe. It was only us temporary things that would go.
So I would fly back to the house, clutching circulars and letters, bolting the door behind me. Inside, the scent of tomato sauce and spaghetti grounded me; made it less likely the night would unhinge me from myself.
Brad says normal people don’t think this way. They simply get the mail. They don’t wait until morning to put the lawn mower away. They run out for milk or coffee when they’ll need it for breakfast. But if I’m honest—and maybe this is why the therapies haven’t worked—I’m even more afraid to discover what that source might be. It has to be something bad, right? To feel darkness will tear me apart? If there is a root cause or an origin story, I want it to remain a long-embedded subterranean splinter.
I’m still holding these stupid cards.
I slide into a chair, using my backside rather than my hands to push it from the table. Is something wrong with me? Something besides being afraid of the dark? There was this one card.
After my Pop Pop died a few weeks after midterms my junior year, I received a sympathy card with a photograph of a snowy pine forest on the front. The sky was dark, almost black, punctured by these tiny glowing bursts of white. The pines themselves were nearly invisible, but starlight on snow clarified their outline. Snowdrifts in front of the pines had a bluish tint, and I found myself interrogating the picture for a deer or rabbit lurking somewhere among the evergreens.
I’ve forgotten the quote from the card, but there was something about God being present in the silent darkness. I’m sure the card was meant to reference the metaphorical darkness of grief, that even in the depths of my painful mourning, God—and all his/her affiliated joy/hope/peace—was there. I wish I could remember the exact words. I threw out the card—all the cards—years ago. I felt I was holding onto something that was better off letting go. Of all the different cards and notes, though, that’s the one I remember. I can’t recall who sent it, but I still see those snow-spackled pines illuminated by celestial bursts of light. There seemed a fire in the center. It was peaceful.
But I am not.
I wonder if it’s that fire which has terrified me so? Something of a divine power hiding in silent darkness? God shaking the firmament like a New Year’s noisemaker? Is this my intolerable winter night—a holy breath ripping through darkness? Threatening to unhinge me? Unmake me? I do wonder; God couldn’t be that malicious, terrorizing a young girl so.
And yet, it pursues.
Is the wind knocking at my door with a scraped fist something awesome trying to enter? I want the door bolted. I have no use for God. Yet there it is, howling, rolling in through the cracks between door and wall, penetrating the weak insulation. I can’t keep fighting it off. It can’t be a good thing, to be so broken. To be thus consumed.
What will become of me?
I am terrified this power will uproot me, shake me from myself—fling me wildly screaming into terra incognita. Could this power open my screwed eyes to the dancing stars and force me to confront my own dazzling wonder?
I hear it: rumbling on asphalt—trash can wheels.
Spring from table, scattering cards to the floor. At the open door, look to where Brad should be. I can’t see his face, but the noise has stopped. I lean out, cardigan unfurling, a cold embrace taking its place. The air makes me flush. I know I am naked; the dark sees through me in the night.
Kate McCorkle works as a freelance writer and editor because life is not crazy enough with four children under eight, a husband, and a dog. A graduate of The College of the Holy Cross and The University of Chicago, her work has appeared in Rkvry Quarterly, Free State Review, the Newer York, Darkhouse Books, and Diverse Voices Quarterly, among other places. She lives outside Philadelphia with said menagerie and swims to stave off insanity.