Featured Art by Phoebe Mol
It started with a scream and trailed off like smoke. It was my scream and after it emptied my chest, I felt hollow. The night burned its shadows and I couldn’t make sense of anything. It seemed the air was a jagged, frozen weapon. My heart thudded like a train lunging forward. There was a burning sensation in my ears and my throat was dry. I clutched the buttons of my nightdress as though they were a lifeline that kept me from spilling into the unknown.
I was at our camp on Lake Seymour, Vermont. That’s where we and our family’s relatives summered. My sister and I had the added bounty of cousins which made it most appealing. It was a place where I felt most free; where my mother was distracted long enough by her sisters that I wasn’t suffocated with a no, always followed by another no.
She was over-protective. But that could be misleading. She was protective in ways that mattered little, at least to this seven-year-old: don’t go swimming until an hour after you eat; stay in sight of the porch; don’t go anywhere without first telling me. There were more worthy cautions she should have warned against, but those she never uttered. Since asthma plagued me from a very young age, I felt smothered by her warnings. Too much caution takes a child’s breath away.
How could I possibly not run off with my cousins? The opportunity to build forts in the dense woods behind our camp was simply too great. I loved resting the pine boughs and hemlock on the ground and lying motionless on them, the scent of pine filling my lungs. The sky was wide and blue as the crystal-clear lake.
Always, in the background, the hum of motorboats lulled me into dreams. I sailed into the heavens there on my back, my cousins weaving branches up the side of our fort. In and out went the pliant boughs, a wall taking shape and soon enough it became an entire enclosure—a hut to keep the adults at bay.
We had no curtains, not even a roof. Above us, the crows made their scolding caws and a swell of wind carried its pungent odor by which, years later, I’ll always recognize my state, even blindfolded, especially the Northeast Kingdom where the land seems as prehistoric as the moose wandering the thickly treed woods.
What I loved best at our summer camp were the loons on my childhood lake. I would stay awake listening to their calls as they quietly floated, huddled low in the water. If majesty could finger-point an animal as majestic, surely the loons in their breeding plumage would be its champions.
Only a few loon families take up a single waterway. They’re reclusive birds who cleave to their solitude and seek wilderness areas. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is perfect because of its sparse population that holds many ponds and lakes.
As evening wore on, the loons’ wails would break through the night. Their wails seemed to take up the entire lake. Such cries rebounded from shore to shore. It was a summoning call. Come here they seemed to say. That single sound, its lengthy duration, floated like mist over the entire lake, the moon making their haunting calls the stuff of enchantment.
Their hoot was far different from their wail, and I later learned that this was their social call. They must have been giving each other advice like Over there is the best place to lay eggs; if trouble sneaks in look to the island marshes to the right of you; how many little ones are you expecting this time around?
Perhaps they even talked in loon language about their life mates, how enchanted the other made them feel, or what a great nest guard a certain male was. Who knows the language of loons? But I was impressed by their loyalty to their mates and imagined their effortless paddle towards one another.
It was the loon’s tremolos that most haunted the night air of Lake Seymour. Perhaps a late-night fisherman was out trolling his line, or coyotes were spotted on the beach. There were foxes to contend with and any number of possible dangers. Tremolo seemed to carry both music and a frightful melancholy. It also reminded me of trembling.
What shape did my scream take? I wasn’t entirely sure that it had actually come from me. My sister remained asleep in the same room. I wondered, but only for a minute, had I been dreaming? But I hadn’t been dreaming. Of that, I was certain.
Had I felt what I felt? What about the sound of breaking glass?
What is it, Dianna? My mother would later ask. But I had no words to express that night. Had I begged she sleep with me afterwards? Probably not. She had failed me two years back on another terrifying night. Go back to sleep, she said. You were just dreaming. Sleep never came.
What was my meaning after the night of a broken windowpane? That was more difficult to discern. From an early age, I had difficulty understanding adults who said things like “Children are to be seen and not heard.” In other words, I was meant to be a silence.
Fear thundered in my ears. From the faint light of a match, I saw a man’s outline. I couldn’t distinguish who the man was; shadows obliterated any real identity. I feared he might choke me. He was that close. Because of that I dared not scream.
When one match burned down the man lit another, fumbling as he struck it. He seemed off balance and a strange scent, whiskey perhaps, emanated from him. Between each strike, I prayed he’d leave. I tried not to breathe, to play dead. If he thought me dead, he would perhaps disappear into the night and take with him what he’d done. My knotted nightdress made my back uncomfortable, but I dare not move and I made no sound for fear he would hurt me. Perhaps he carried a knife, or perhaps he had a rope and he’d choke me once he’d finished with me.
Night swallowed the entire camp, grandparents, and mother. The emptiness made the night air swell. Was this my father at my bedside? Two years ago, while I’d slept with my mother, I’d been awakened by him fondling me, and I wiggled out from underneath the covers as soon as sleep took him under, the weight of shame and shock cowering me.
I slipped into the child’s bed at my grandparents’ home in town, and tucked the quilts tight under my legs, the top covers clamped underneath my chin, jaws firmly set. The room had become an icy sheet of silence, broken only by the maddening scream in my head.
The next morning, I stood at the top of the stairwell, my flannel nightdress clutched in my hand. Could I throw myself down the stairs? Could I spare my mother the truth of that night? I stood there a long time, sweat pouring down my face and a terrible ringing in my ears. I imagined myself falling, a dead child at the end of the stairwell, how my family would gather around in disbelief, their mouths stitched mute.
The man murmured as he lit another match. The room was on fire with smoky shadows, the rocking chair’s arms turned to sticks of charcoal.
I imagined that the rest of the family anchored in sleep, grandmother smelling of liniments. The power of my fear would surely burn through the center of the earth. So deep a thing traveled far into the belly of the underworld.
The man was now at the foot of the bed. He reached under the covers and tugged on my feet. I wished for a cement weight to anchor me to the mattress. I held air in my lungs for an enormous length of time. Air would give me the weight needed to render the man useless in his tugging. Where would he take me if he worked me free? Did he have a hideout deep in the woods?
Was he the man I thought I saw one morning from the bedroom window as I tried on my new swimsuit? Had he been spying when I pointed my toes in the air as a ballet dancer might? How could he know that I loved my own loveliness, the way my body grew like the rounded hills of Vermont?
My body belonged to me and to me alone. The curtains were closed, save a tiny crack I later pulled shut, but still, I felt the heavy weight of something amiss and grabbed a beach towel, wrapped it tightly around my shoulders and legs.
As soon as the tugging started it seemed to stop. Again, the man lit a match as if to study how best to remove me from the bed. Under the newly struck match, light curled around one side of the man’s face, light that seemed bent by a stream of air blowing in from the doorway. The man’s face appeared irregular, whiskers gave him an undefined look, a faceless look. Crouched on the floor at the foot of the bed he seemed exhausted from his efforts to extract me from the bed. The muted light became a hand behind his head; a hand which I prayed would snuff him out, grab him by the throat and wring him dead like I’d seen grandmother do with chickens. He wailed a terrible moan; a moan that came from so deep inside him it seemed ancient.
He again struck another match. It failed. Another one he brought to flame across his teeth. It was then that I recognized him, an uncle from the nearby camp. He was far enough away that he couldn’t strangle me or set a knife deep in my chest.
I opened my mouth; my entire body becoming a scream that ripped open the night, a scream so heavy it was mercurial, filling every corner of the room with a blue-black, nearly lavender light, and outside the loons set their voices free over the lake. Their tremolos louder than I remember.
Feet came rushing. My sister in the nearby bed pulled herself into a seated position, rubbed her startled eyes. The scream had taken up so much room inside me that I felt empty.
My father asked, “What is it?”
But most of all I wanted my mother to take me into her arms, her hand-clenched bathrobe tie wadded as though she, too, feared the intruder, her wedding ring, its glassy diamond, reminding me of the man’s lit cigarette.
When morning came, my mother would say that I must have been dreaming, to put it out of my mind for the good of all concerned. When all I wanted was to be believed and told bad things would never again happen, that she would be there to protect me. It seemed as though girls were the playthings of old men. That we must keep our mouths shut at all costs. My father tried to comfort me with a feeble hug, but I pushed with all my might against him as though he needed to be pushed, like the man who visited me, off the very edge of the earth itself.
There was a tussle in the camp’s living room and then a shattering of glass. My father said my uncle’s name and as he did, they knocked the rocking chair into a pane of glass which shattered but stayed put. That shattered pane would remain locked in the windowsill for years afterward. A scream’s artifact or the tracings of a loon’s tremolo.
But I fancied it was my voice framed there, that my voice would save me, it would endure.