I can’t quite remember why we were taken there. My parents were not, and are not, big party people. Most of the parties they’ve thrown over the years have been at my nudging/insistence, but when they do go out they always seem to have a good time. So for whatever reason, we were brought along for an afternoon of holiday hayrides and the warmth of a log-home lodge out in the countryside, courtesy of my parents’ friends.
The home was indeed a bit of a drive (and in the mind of a child distance should be multiplied times five), but at the end of the driveway there was the house, and a little ways ahead was the road heading into the forest, where horses waited to carry the sleigh.
We went inside first, I think. It was decorated for Christmas, and there was hot chocolate with marshmallows on hand – though this may have been in my imagination. Snow was lightly falling – not unlike it is at the very moment I write this – the pretty kind of snowfall – slowly and delicately and just enough for a dusting on the ground, enough to make things pretty again.
Various friends of the family were there – I actually think Suzie may have been there, but for some reason our paths didn’t cross much that day. My brother was with me, but I also don’t recall much interaction with him. It was as if I were on my own at this gathering. How strange that a child should be left so alone.
At some point I was herded outside to take one of the obligatory sleighride/hayrides, through the forest – into the woods. I was reluctant, because I don’t think my parents were coming along for the ride, or if they were they were sitting up front while I was in the back. Or maybe Dad hadn’t even come along for the party and it was just Mom. I only know I didn’t like it, and as the horses took off, the immense evergreens that marked the opening to the path closed off the house behind us, and the light went dimmer.
It was later afternoon, and getting dark anyway. Beneath the boughs overhead it was darker still, and the horses themselves seemed apprehensive, slowing a bit as we rounded bends and went further into the forest. The others laughed, gripping their cups of hot chocolate or hot toddies, while in the back my little body jostled along with the rest of them, eyes wide and waiting for some winter specter of the forest to appear and snatch one of us away.
I was terrified that I would fall off and there would be no way for me to catch up to the horses or find my way back to the house. My mind raced with worry, desperately conjuring what-if scenarios, madly searching my pockets with mental wishes for breadcrumbs or other trail-indicators. And through it all, everyone else laughed and talked, oblivious to all the danger.
I was in no mood for joking, though I tried to smile along with some of the adults. I was not comfortable there – I don’t know why. Today the thought of such a ride thrills me – I would give anything to go back and traverse the pine-laden forest, drawn by horses and dusted by falling snow – but not then, not that day, not when I was a kid. A sensitive child is quick to ruin, easily destroyed, and it’s almost impossible to prevent. This must bring its own form of madness to the parents, and I know that now. I think I knew that then, but what can you expect a kid to do? Close his eyes, whimper, pray, and hope that it’s all a nightmare… and then the ride was over and we were all still intact. The house was lit brightly as we returned, the sky had darkened considerably, but the snow glowed a deep blue as it does on some evenings.
Back inside the kids scattered, making our way upstairs to a loft that looked out over the main floor. It must have been the family room, strewn as it was with toys, a comfortable couch, some chairs, and various chests and storage shelves. I don’t know why it was so dark, but a lone light with a deep amber shade was all that illuminated the expanse.
We played as the monotonous hum of the adults drifted up from below, but it was hard to see. My brother and I discovered a chest that had a gas mask in it. The acrid smell of rubber stayed on our hands as we threw the mask back and forth, both scared and excited at the strange object. When we’d had enough, it went back into the chest, where I kept my eye on it for the rest of the evening, sure it was enchanted with some sort of evil magic, certain it would rise of its own will and smother one of us children in the dark.
Soon we were called downstairs to leave, and after bundling up in our winter coats and boots, we were back in the car and departing the strange party. I don’t think I ever told anyone what I felt that day – and what could have been said anyway? When a child marches into awareness, someone is always scared, someone is always hurt, and someone is always in the dark.