Above the silence was a calm swish of pants ahead as the depth of darkness flowed behind. Our trek moved outward, as if no one was there; as if there wasn’t a little mishmash town a few miles off, rife with TV’s and toasters.
From the line in the front, to the twenty-something woman holding up the rear, we formed a caravan of night travelers, all meandering one by one on a narrow, dirt path. I’m not quite sure which direction we went or where we passed, but for the tiniest speck of a moment, I was smack in the middle of the universe.
Life in Hereford was both beautiful and cruel. Swift, gliding hills met dotted tree lines, and long fences divided large plots of land. Gated communities were sneakily hidden down quaint roads. Horse farms flourished, as both barns and churches stood around every corner.
I knew many trees by their shape from the passenger seat.
By my teenage years, my father jumped two towns over and settled in with some evangelists. My mother did the same thing – nearly – it had been over a decade since she last tried to befriend the locals. She pursued various different men from other towns and cities, digging towards a new life and identity.
I was left to whomever would accept me, and within the cupped hands of our sweet little Mid-Atlantic village, there were few. Even when I did get close, being social was a challenge. My social skills had developed slowly, and by the time I was seventeen I could just about speak to a radish.
Oh, but this night hike worked for me. No speaking meant no stumbling over words.
The woods wound outward, they spun wide on either side. Branches weaved upward into a dense roof. The smell of sticks, dirt, old leaves, moss, and chill dispersed into my being.
We walked deeper.
A day or so before the hike, Bekah said, “We’re going on a night hike. You’re coming too.” She was one of those exceptional friends, one who passed over politeness, and instead chose what was best for everyone.
When we began, from grass to skyline, everything was beautiful shades of red, yellow, and brown. About twenty of us walked to the small one lane road, in clumps of bodies. I had on jeans and a cheap sweatshirt. Bekah dressed similarly and sensibly. Her purse was in her bedroom; she had me leave mine there too. I didn’t even have on a watch.
It was exhilarating to carry nothing, although I was lost at first, unable to fiddle with something. This was before cellphones replaced computers, this was back when blue Nokia screens were cutting edge.
We crossed a road into someone’s field. We cut through a few acres towards the trees, trudging in a mass blob of persons.
The sun fell behind the hills quickly. We met the trail as dusk moved to evening and evening to nightfall. Everyone’s voices shrank to breaths and thoughts.
At first, I could see fine, my eyes were adjusted, but that’s when there was still sky. The further we went, the cooler it became, and the closer my field of vision doubled back towards me.
I didn’t want to slip. I wasn’t worried about being hurt – No, I didn’t want to be embarrassed. The terror spun like flashes of white.
I focused on each step, so to keep the perfect distance from the white shirt in front.
Being so careful soaked up my full attention. Unable to see the ground at my feet or my hands if I stretched my arms out, I stilly moved forward. Quietly stumbling, but catching myself, finding every tree root and rock with my shoe, every step I thought I couldn’t take, I took.
With this, I fell out of my head.
Hushed was the obsessive self-loathing. The fragrant self-hatred I toted, since my earliest memories, evaporated. I felt peace fall upon my shoulders, engulf my face, and fly wildly from my core. I felt peace come on like snow, rise up from my ankles, and hold me in cold wind. I felt peace for the first time ever.
I was three years old when I first begged for someone’s life.
It was a bright day, but cold. It might have been spring, but it feels more appropriate to also call this day too, a fall one.
We headed down to Timonium.
I cried, trying very hard to make no noise the entire car ride.
My father had driven. My mother had a frizzy perm and a windbreaker. I kept whispering my goodbyes between tearful no’s. I was overcome by disbelief. I lacked the vocabulary to describe the excruciating shock.
We pulled up to the strip mall. The building was very 80’s. It practically had fins. There were round concrete poles on both levels, pink triangles, blue squares, and cut circles all as part of the gaudy design. It wasn’t quite hood, but it wasn’t nice.
Dixie was in the cat carrier in the back. My tiny fingers touched the metal, touched her fur, the side of her face, through the grate on the front.
My father ripped her carrier from the back seat.
I was a very frightened child. I never crossed them, as they were always rough with me.
But as the car door flung open, some switch snapped deep inside and the fear of losing her, my only friend, was tantamount to any punishment those two could dole.
I screamed, “No! No! No!”
The disbelief had shattered. This wasn’t some punishment because I had been bad, no they were really taking her and “putting her down” – they were “putting her to sleep” – they explained it. They were paying someone to kill her.
I screamed, I pleaded, I begged. I was louder than I ever dared and it did nothing to dissuade him.
When he returned with only a bill in his hand, the sounds I made weren’t even human. I didn’t cry, I howled. And the worst? My mother’s eyes watered, and like a helpless baby, he cried too. He sobbed as if his will was predetermined, he acted as if turning around and bringing my only friend back to me, a gray kitten not even two years old, surpassed him.
Eventually, my mother threw out the few photos from the albums. I kept trying to rewrite history, bring her back, just from looking at pictures. I never tried to forget, even when she denied Dixie’s very existence or made up the gamut of false and contradicting health conditions to explain her demise.
I was powerless in the moment, so I tried with every ounce of my soul, to resurrect her from mental power alone, not for days, but for years.
When I grew to a teenager, if I ever did glimpse reality without the burdensome wall of self-hatred, I’d come to, wakened, as if I never made any contact with oxygen before this point. A burst of life into my lungs was short lived before I’d backslide into the sleepy mud.
During our hike, I made it over stones across a creek. The fresh water lapped. I didn’t fall, nor did I splash.
We walked maybe six miles. Maybe fewer.
Bekah had smartly stuck me in the middle of the group. She was so good at judging others, she even knew I was flighty. I had heard a few whispers up ahead, but I couldn’t understand them from the crushing veil of night.
As far as we knew, most of the world was on mute
We made it to a hill and then to one clearing where ground was flat. We passed through another thicket of forest and emerged into the massive, open field.
Millions of stars rained down on us and speckled the sky. They hung like white sapphires suspended on invisible line. Even though it felt freezing, the chill only made the dotted night brighter.
I saw the road far below and a lone pair of headlights amble down and disappear behind a turn. Huge rolls of hay dappled the field, like a giant’s thatch marshmallows.
Everyone around me, on either side, was pale faced, light eyed, rosy cheeked, mouths all open. We all took it in own way. The boys roughhoused and tore across the open space, too pent up from the woods. Others climbed the hay rolls. There was singing; there was laughter. The rest remained in silent gratitude.
“How do you feel?” Bekah asked. “Good, right?”
“Good.” I answered. The sound of my voice didn’t even seem like mine.
Bekah and I, and everyone, piled into two cars and made it back. I thanked them all and with nowhere to go, I went home.