One evening several years ago, I had to make a quick trip to the grocery store. I hurried out of the house, got into my station wagon that was parked in the dark driveway, and started the car. As I glanced over my shoulder to start backing up, two dark shapes leaped up from the darkness behind the back seat.
They shouted “Boo!” I screeched. When my heart had stopped racing and I was able to breathe again, I explained calmly and reasonably to my daughter and stepdaughter that if they ever did that to me again I would ground them and take away their allowances until they were 85.
They apologized. They really didn’t intend to frighten me into a heart attack. They didn’t know their prank had triggered a fear I had had since I was much younger than they were. When I was a little kid I was afraid of the dark. Not the dark itself, really, but all the nameless, formless Things that might be hidden in it.
I remember on summer evenings, especially when cousins were visiting, we kids would play outside after supper. The sun would go down, and the twilight would begin to deepen into dusk. The change happened so gradually that we scarcely noticed the darkness. Eventually, though, someone would turn on the yard light. Suddenly our arena for play narrowed to the spotlighted stage between the yard light and the house. Beyond the circle of light lay an ominous dark territory where we didn’t dare trespass.
Even that wasn’t so bad; as long as there were several of us, there was safety in numbers. The experience that was truly frightening was one I sometimes had to do all by myself—going out in the dusk to shut the door to the chicken coop.
Every spring my mother would buy a couple of hundred baby chicks. They were kept in a brooder coop out by the well, quite a long way from the house. At first, when they were cute yellow balls of fluff, they were kept shut up with heat lamps to keep them warm. As they got older, though, turning into homely adolescents with scraggly feathers and meager combs, they were turned outside during the day. As it started to get dark, they would head back into the coop to roost. Somebody had to go out and close the door, to protect them from marauding skunks, civet cats, and raccoons. Too often for comfort, that somebody was me.
This wasn’t so bad as long as it wasn’t quite dark yet. But on those nights when full darkness had fallen, this chore turned into a task straight out of a Boris Karloff movie.
Getting to the chicken coop meant making a long walk parallel to a strip of trees that served as a windbreak. In the daytime they were perfectly ordinary rows of Chinese elms. After dark, though, they turned into looming, menacing shapes capable of hiding anything from lions to tigers to bears.
I never knew whether taking a flashlight made things better or worse. True, using one meant I could see where I was going. But it also advertised my presence to whatever might be out there in the dark. It felt as if that bobbing circle of light was a beacon announcing, “Hey, guys—she’s right over here! Come and get it!”
The trip out to the chicken coop, one breathless step at a time away from the shelter of the house, was scary enough. I would finally get there, close the door on the murmuring birds, and latch it. Now came the worst part of the journey, the return. It meant turning my back on the menacing darkness and everything lurking in it.
I could see the lighted windows of the house, which seemed an impossibly long distance away. They represented safety. The challenge was to get there.
I’d start walking, carefully so I wouldn’t trip over anything in the dark, quietly so nothing would notice me. At this stage, I never ran. Running only made it worse, because it felt as if whatever was behind me was getting closer and closer, and if I tripped and fell it would get me for sure. But as I walked, I kept moving a little faster and a little faster. Past the looming dark shape that in the daytime was the combine. Past the old machine shed and the car bodies behind it where anything might be hiding. Past the first granary. Past the second one. Past the tool shed. By now I was almost to safety. Probably they weren’t going to get me this time.
And now I was onto the packed dirt closer to the house and I could start running—faster and faster, past the yard light, past the car and the pickup, through the gate, into the yard, up the steps, through the porch, and into the light and safety of the kitchen, panting and out of breath. But safe.
Until the next time.