I ran out of the woods once, when I was seven I think, and I could feel something fluttering at my ankles. It felt heavier than gravity, magnetism, alive - as if the back of my body had unraveled into strings and I was disintegrating, smaller and smaller, into atoms, bosons - the whole of the woods the unseen entropy of a black hole gaping, choking me back into nothingness, lost forever.
The clearing in the woods used to be a magical, Narnian kind of place, with dappled sunlight diddling down through aspens and long waltzing grass that sprouted just there on the forest floor, because of the light. I read Bridge to Terabithia and that clearing was my Terabithia, and after it became the landing zone for my torment when I was seven and eight, I thought maybe I'd reclaim it someday with my little brother, like Jesse in the book did. But it never happened.
Now I am in my 30s and for a long time I've lived with torment, until it has become like water washing over a river stone, so much a part of life that you don't even notice the layers of self washing away down the stream. Torment comes out of nowhere and never like a train through the dark, with the noise of wheels clacking steel and a whistle to warn you. One night you sleep like a happy mother of children, and the next night you close your eyes and all the people you love, those faces you cup between your hands and call holy and beautiful, they twist into awful visage and become villains of the very worst kind and your heart is broken over and over. Broken worse then the worst break-up you ever had. Broken like if your daddy ever said, "I hate you," or you were 3 and landed in foster care, or maybe broken in some small way like Jesus on the cross when He had to look all that evil in the eye and say, "I love you anyway."
You wake between each nightmare and in that panic in the midnight black you try to remember just one verse to latch on to, because your mama told you the verses will keep you from sinking, a verse to pull yourself out of the ocean of fear.
A verse comes floating out of the deep, and off your lips in the wrinkled pentameter of breathlessness and half-memory:
In those few moments between each nightmare, when you are fully awake, the night is just night, and people just people, loved ones sleeping and breathing. Out on the porch, the air is velvet with the moisture of mid-summer, and you bring the dog out with you for company.
Because you can still feel the fluttering around your ankles, no matter how many years pass, no matter how many times you run out of the dark woods without getting trapped, no matter how many staircases you make it to the top of without being pulled down...they are still there, nipping at your heels and laughing because they've got you running scared.
The husband sleeps, and the children sleep, and over the grassy hill your mama and your papa sleep, too. No one is awake at 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m. when you can't shake the nightmares. Just the dog. She doesn't speak or make a sound. But in those honey eyes with just a hint of red sunset in them, the way the lids pull up and the bottoms droop - those eyes say, I see your pain. I know you're afraid. And that is what is saving me these long, sleepless nights.
She lays her chin on my bare, unshaven leg, and the fluttering around my ankles stills. We breathe together. She lets out a long sigh (ending in grumph) because she can't take my pain away. And I because I can't chase it away. I say it slowly, this time a prayer, a talisman for the next time I close my eyes this night - please, Lord, let me be at peace.
What time I am afraid I will trust in Thee.