Spooked!

October 31,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

L. is having trouble getting to sleep again. When he was eight, he used to drag his sleeping bag to the landing and sleep there, at the top of the stairs. He hasn't done that in a couple of years, though--until a few weeks ago. Now he's back at it, bedded down on the hallway runner, his head on a pillow. When I come to bed I prod him up to his feet and help him, my hands under his armpits, into his room and up the ladder to his loft bed. We're not sure what's causing his nighttime anxiety now--what he might of seen, or thought about--a bad dream, or a scary image, or some dark, imponderable thought.  Are these school worries, surfacing when the lights go out? I worry. I've see traces of his anxiety surfacing now and again, like fine cracks. I smooth them out with my words; I wish for some giant magic eraser to rub them away once and for all. 

Those stubborn, relentless cracks.

**********************

And speaking of dark fears...In honor of Halloween, I'm posting here one of the kids' favorite spooky tales: I told it to them again yesterday, of course, because it was the night before Halloween.

When we lived in Turin, Italy, our house was in the hills, about twenty minutes or so outside the city. We had no neighbors directly across from us; only a farm in the distance and, every other year, a massive corn field. If you've ever lived across the street from, or in the vicinity of a corn field, you probably know that corn fields make disquieting neighbors. There is something about the dry rattling of the husks in the wind, the swoosh and clatter sound the stalks and leaves make even on perfectly still days, and the strange sheen of the tassles in the sunlight. I don't find corn fields particularly beautiful at all; when the farmers ploughed the whole field clear at the end of each season the dirt was literally teeming with tiny displaced field mice and the broken stalks poked and pierced at the sky like angled, mutilated limbs.

One morning we had to get up early for a trip--I'm not sure where we were heading, but we had to get up early enough so that when I took out our family dog for her morning business, the world was that pre-dawn gray where nothing is defined and the chill of the colorless sky settles around you and makes you shiver from the dampness. I crossed the road and stood on the opposite side, where there was a grassy strip for the dog to sniff around for inspiration. When I stood there, I was so close to the corn that I could stretch out my hand and touch the stalks. But I didn't. I stood there in the gray one-dimensional light of early morning, with our dog sniffing around me and I was lost in sleepy thought.

They say that animals can sense things before humans; in ghost movies, the family dog is always barking at some unseen presence in the hallway while the owner dim-wittedly watches television, or cooks up a meal in the kitchen. But the dog and I both sensed something at the same time--it was almost instantaneous. The fur across her back rose and I turned slightly at some sound--perhaps that skeletal corn rattlling sound--and I swear I felt, or saw in the periphery of my vision, a sudden black sweeping something, something moving like a shadow moves at the bottom of the ocean, except this was a shadow sliding along the base of the corn stalks. If wind had a color and a shape I would say that what I saw, or sensed, was the color and shape of a dark wind, spreading like spilled ink. The dog and I both turned again, away from the corn, and darted across the road--in fact, the dog was pulling so hard at the leash that I let go at the front gate and watched her slip into the driveway and through the open front door, leaving me to race back alone, my heart pounding.

When I tried to tell my family about why I was so terrified I couldn't explain exactly what I had seen. I actually hadn't seen anything; it was more like an impression, as if I had felt the sight, rather then seen it with my own eyes. Does that make sense? Can you feel a sight, and not see it with your own open eyes? Even today, when I think about evil, or ghosts, or all the inexplicable phenomena in the world, I immediately think about that slipping sense of darkness; that spreading shadow running along and around the corn stalks, and the sense of a heft and weight belonging to something purely evil and unseen.

Happy Halloween!