It’s a still, sweet July evening. The air is cool, the sky cloudless. The birds are chattering away in the hedgerow outside of our cabin where my family spends the summer. We’re isolated from the world. Mile after square mile of dense Pennsylvania forest stretches out beyond the hedgerow, a four-mile dirt road separates us from the nearest town. My father is on the front porch staring into the woods. I watch him through the kitchen window.
I’m twelve years old and my parents’ marriage is on life support. The air is thick with silence. Each glance my father throws at my mother slams into her body, making her limp and weepy. The rest of the time she’s hard like marble. I go to hug her and she recoils. “Stop hanging on me,” she says. “You’re not a monkey.”
My father is different. He’s gone inside of himself, inside of his own head, and only emerges in her absence. Just yesterday he asked me to take a boat ride. It was odd because he never took me anywhere by myself, but I said sure. The lake was like a mirror, and iridescent green and purple dragonflies swirled above our heads. After we’d rowed to the middle and made small conversation about the sunset, he unburdened himself about their marriage. How unhappy he was, how crazy my mother was, how she was sick and would always be sick, and how he couldn’t live this way forever. I put my hand in the water and let it flow through my parted fingers, and I pushed his voice away until it was nothing but a heavy, dead hum. He talked and I said yes and no in all the right places, even as I threw a piece of my soul into the water for the perch to feed on.
And now I’m back from a day of swimming. Dinner is on its way and I set the table for my mother. It makes her happy when I do something without her having to ask, and I want her to be happy. As I set the table, I watch my father through the window. He’s on the porch facing the woods, his arms in front of him as if he’s holding something. There’s something about the way his arms are bent and how he stares at the woods that is both frightening and compelling. My head starts to buzz. It’s the buzzing that always starts as I’m drawn to danger — like when my brother set off those M-80s with his friend in the woods — and soon the ping pong balls get going in my chest. Then like some moron in a horror movie, I move toward the thing that terrifies me. I open the screen door, and step onto the porch, and move close enough to my father to see him holding his .22-caliber rifle. The stock is dark and smooth and polished, the barrel spotless. He turns to me, and he has the bad eyes. The hard, wild eyes that both see you and don’t. I look at the gun and ask him if he’s going to shoot skeet. I know he’s not, but it’s better than asking him what he’s doing because he might take it the wrong way.
“Hear them?” he asks.
I can’t hear anything because my heart is beating in my ears and the ping-pong balls are knocking around in my chest.
“There’s a pack of dogs out there.” He cocks his head. “You hear?”
I hear birds singing in the hedgerow and blood whooshing in my ears, but the dogs may be very far away, and my father has better ears than me.
“Where would they come from?”
“Sometimes farmers’ dogs get loose and run away. They turn wild and form a pack.” I must look scared because he lifts up his rifle and says, “Don’t worry. I’m ready.”
I will my ears into becoming superhuman like my father’s, like a barn owl’s, like the Bionic Woman’s. And then I do hear something. Maybe it’s the faint yaps of dogs carried on the wind, maybe it’s the movement of air and blood in my ears. There’s my father, the gun, his bad eyes. I need to hear something.
“Mom needs help with dinner,” I say. Then I go to my room, sit on my bed, and push the fear down until it’s nothing but a heavy, dead hum.
It’s a quiet night, ten years later. I’m reading a chapter for my Abnormal Psychology class and come across the phrase, folie á deux. It’s French for the madness of two. It’s when one person suffers from a delusion — like their dental fillings are receiving radio signals — and another person gets drawn into believing it herself. I close the book and wonder how anyone could be so suggestible, so gullible, so fucking stupid, then turn in for the night.
I pop up in bed like a funhouse dummy two hours later, wet sheets sticking to my chest. Still panting, I gather the pieces of my nightmare before it dissolves. I’m walking alone in the woods when I see a grizzly bear sitting on its filthy haunches. He’s going to tear me to pieces. Then five more appear. I don’t dare run. Running will only provoke them.
I get up and change my shirt. As I crawl back into bed, I think, folie á deux, and then in a flash I see my father on the porch holding his gun.
You are twelve years old. It’s a still, sweet July evening. The air is cool, the sky cloudless. Your father is on the front porch, rifle in hand, staring into the woods with his bad eyes. Can you hear the dogs? Do you want to hear them more than anything you’ve wanted in your entire life?
Laura Rose, an advertising copywriter and manager, lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with her husband and daughter. Her nonfiction has appeared in Narrative, Memoir Journal, and Bucks County Writer.
SEPTEMBER 19, 2018 / MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #5 / CHILDHOOD/PARENTHOOD