QUIET HERE ON THIS MOONLESS NIGHT. The crickets are singing somewhere off, and I swear I heard the almost-silent chuff of an owl’s downstroke after the shriek of a dying rodent. The leaves brush soft cheeks against each other and whisper. But of human-spun sounds, I hear not one. No cars, no planes, no electric devices. Just the world, and the shuss of my boots on the dirt road, walking step by step without benefit of light from anything but the stars, feeling my way in the real blackness you can only find away from people.
Crossroads. The place where you stand to make a choice, to swear yourself a new future, to summon up all the pain of the past and send it walking in the direction you do not intend to take. I can see almost nothing—black bulk of trees to my right, black line of fields to my left, black sky, white stars. Beneath my feet, though, I can feel the road talking to me. North, South, East, West. You can go anywhere, do anything, leave the pain behind. You have nothing left, so you now have a future in which everything becomes possible.
Crossroads. Every direction is something new.
Walk far enough, and you walk off the edge of the world. Walk far enough and not even the pain will be able to find you.
But I intend something other than running.
I reach the center of the crossroads. Break out my shovel, dig a good hole in the sandy dirt. Into it I throw a photograph, a harmonica, three cigarettes, and a ball of string. Tokens of my past. Tokens of the hurt that’s eating me alive. In my right front pocket, our wedding rings and my list of the mistakes I would fix if I could, but at the last second I don’t throw them in. I cover the other things with dirt, grateful for the dark, because I couldn’t see what I was doing anyway; I’m crying too hard. Tamp down the dirt with one booted foot.
In my left front pocket, a long, sharp silver pin —result of long research, and a visit to Ashville to troll antique stores for silver hat pins until I find one that’s only silver. I fish the pin out of my pocket, try not to think too much about what I am doing.
I am surprised by how much the stab to my fingertip hurts. Three drops of blood…and in this darkness, I couldn’t count three drops of blood to save my life. I figure the rule about approaching in darkness supersedes a specific three drops. I decide to be generous—more being better than less in most cases—and give my fingertip a hard squeeze. When I’m sure I’ve dripped enough blood onto the dirt, I shove the long silver pin point down into the center of the mound—metaphorical stake through the heart of my past.
And then I close my eyes, and turn slowly, listening for something that won’t come to my ears. Turning, turning. And there it is. The pull. The new way to go. The direction. I open my eyes, not worrying about which direction it is. It will be the right one.
I start walking. The breeze dries the tears on my cheeks. Picks up. Gets cold on this hot summer Deep South night, gets hard-winter cold. The hairs on my arms stand up—lift along with the ones on the back of my neck. My skin pebbles, my mouth goes dry, my heart races, and every sound becomes something behind me.
I refrain from turning around—that is part of the deal—but I do stop walking. I feel myself kin to the little creatures cowering in the tall grass from any sudden rain of owl talons. Behind me I hear notes on the harmonica, which I should not be able to hear because I buried the damned thing under the dirt.
But I have heard the voice of that harmonica for thirty years. I know it as well as my own voice. It wails a lost-soul cry, sobs in the stiffening wind.
I don’t want to think about the harmonica.
And then the wind dies and the harmonica falls silent, and in the darkness the silence of night insects, night birds, night beasts all cowering down, unmoving, unblinking, runs its finger down my spine and I shudder. Hold my breath.