Even though the car has been turned off, it’s still warm in the back seat. After a few minutes, I open my eyes slightly and take off my seat belt. Out the window of the car, I can see the moonlit November clouds passing behind the twisting branches of the oak tree in the front yard. My parents and Kirk went inside the strange and frightening house that stretches back into the darkness on the way to the woods, but I feigned sleep so as not to have to go with them. After a while, my own ruse gets the better of me and I nod off. When Mom comes to check on me, I wake up and realize my pants are soaked in my own urine.
Mom takes me into the house, where Dad is talking to an elderly woman, the owner. I sit on a towel in my underwear in the carpeted bathroom with Kirk. We are playing with a wooden toy barn and some plastic animals and people. The old woman comes in, leans down, and reaches over us, and with a sharp snap toggles on the bathroom’s central heat vent near the floor. With a clank and a low metallic whine, warm air starts to flow from the duct. As the bathroom heats up, the roasting dust in the vent brings forth a strange scent. For the rest of my days, I will be able to warm myself just by noticing the scent of burning hair and dust like that which came from the heater.
My parents buy the house, and we move in. Eisenhower Elementary atomizes in my memory, coiled rattlesnakes receding into the sidewalk, other, aquatic serpents spiraling down the kindergarten toilet, never to return. I say goodbye to the orange house on Crestview Avenue, with its grandparents across the street and cousins a few doors down. Neighborhood friends vanish, some to resurface in junior high, some never to return. Last to fade is Tony, a Cheshire cat in Tuffskin jeans, his smile burned into the Halloween night forever.
We live in the country now, miles from town, so there is no more walking to school. Now I ride the bus. At Wildwood Elementary, my new school, a wooded gully drops down at the south edge of the playground; a culvert pipe big enough to walk through without stooping leads under Greenwood Drive to the creek-crossed forest that winds between the neighborhood’s back yards. Older kids go down to the culvert, but I stay with my friends up on the playground.
The woods at home are a different story. Using a riding lawn mower and sheer determination, Dad cuts paths through the underbrush into the first fifty yards of the forest. Autumn leaves fall from elm, oak, and maple, filling the paths with orange and yellow and brown. I walk the trails with my parents and Kirk. Beyond the edge of the paths the forest becomes denser, and the flat ground falls away to a matrix of streams—one of them fed by a pond beside the house—leading to the river about half a mile away. Squirrels are common in the forest, and occasionally a young deer or wild rabbit will let us see it on the next hill. We often stop at a tiny pool where one of the rivulets pours over a ledge, creating a waterfall less than a foot high. This miniature waterworks is my favorite place in the forest. Kirk and I walk to the waterfall by ourselves sometimes, but never beyond.
Mom has hung an iron triangle, a cowboy’s dinner bell, from the mossy-shingled breezeway between the house and the garage, and she rings it for suppertime or whenever she feels we have had enough time alone in the woods. After particularly muddy adventures, Kirk and I enter the house through the screen door in the basement, a cold, cracked, concrete place containing whatever doesn’t fit into our life upstairs. We strip down to our shirts and underwear, piling our wet clothes by the washing machine. Dad is downstairs too, and he calls us over to where he’s standing to show us a strange wonder—a long mesh wound around two thin poles, like a volleyball net, only larger and more delicate. The net works like a spider web, he tells us, only instead of catching bugs, it catches birds. Before we can wonder aloud why anyone would want to eat the finches and jays we’ve seen flying through the woods, Dad produces an even stranger marvel—a collection of thin metal strips etched with names and dates. These are fitted around the ankles of the captured birds, he says, who are then released back to the sky. The mist net and the bands belonged to the elderly woman, but she left them here in the basement when she moved.
Kirk and I shrug and ascend the basement’s steep staircase to emerge in the back of Dad’s narrow closet, itself the length of a small office. The closet is lined with business suits and file drawers and smells of fresh pipe tobacco and shoe polish. Spent cans of Velvet line the shelves of the closet. Instead of tobacco, they are now filled with wheat pennies, paper clips, interesting rocks, and other curios. After visiting our room to put on new pants, we make our way to the small round table in the long kitchen for dinner. The room is snug and inviting, the food abundant. Dinner is a social affair, with Mom and Dad talking and telling jokes, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes cynical. Kirk and I chime in where we can, and after we clean our plates we are excused from the table.
We are only allowed an hour or so of television every day, and when the time is up we must find other diversions for ourselves. We have plenty of toys and games, but I find myself drawn to the tall bookcase built into the living room wall. I have become interested in my parents’ books lately, so Mom and Dad have installed a World Book encyclopedia set, and it thrills me with illustrations of times long gone. I’m only just learning to read, but I know enough to be able to use the alphabetical letters on the encyclopedia spines to find illustrated articles on my favorite topics. I am interested in dinosaurs, in space travel, in knights, and in forest animals, and I pull the appropriate volumes from the shelf.
Dad walks into the living room, lights the fireplace, and sits back in his easy chair with a pad of graph paper, sketching plans for rooms he will add to the house. I finish with the World Book and return to the shelves. The other books here aren’t as new as the encyclopedia, nor are they as sturdy. I haven’t seen these before. It seems that the bird-banding equipment wasn’t the only collection to be left behind in the old woman’s move.
I run my fingers along yellowed spines and pull out one of the larger books. It is bound in red and grey boards and has a pleasingly heavy weight in my six-year-old hands. I lay down with it before the fire and open to a page near the front, then quickly slap the book shut again. When I open it again a few moments later, I see the woodcut once more. In the picture there is a monster with three faces emerging from the ground and eating three men, eating them as if they were popsicles. Above the monster there is written a name—IVDA SCARIOTO—and below it another—LVCIFERO—and around the monster are other men. Some are buried up to their necks, one is buried upside-down, trapped with only his useless legs free to kick the air while he awaits his fate in the monster’s jaws. Nearby, two men stand and watch the scene with worried looks on their faces. I have no idea what any of it means, but am instantly thrilled and insanely curious to know what else might be in the book. As it turns out, the woodcut is typical of the book’s other pictures. Opening to another page I see witches holding live animals over a bonfire while rain falls from above. Here, men dressed like George Washington confer with horned, robed figures. There, mysterious words and symbols are etched on a forehead or an open palm.
Shaken by what I’ve seen, I get up and carefully slide the book back into its place on the shelf. I pull down some of the more delicate books and take them to the hearth. By the light of the fire I turn the brittle pages, some of them crumbling beneath my clumsy touch. Many volumes have no pictures; these are hastily cast aside in favor of those that do. I find a few other books containing images like the strange woodcuts I saw in the first book, but none are as terrifying or intriguing.
From his chair, Dad tells me it’s bedtime, so I put the books back on the shelf and go to put on my pajamas. Kirk is already asleep in his little bed by the time I crawl into mine, and after my parents turn out the light I half sit up and draw the curtain back just enough to peer out into the darkness, toward the woods.
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