By Naomi Ulsted
The day I learned about fear I was picking spinach in the fields. It was an unusually rainy summer and the spinach plants were wet and heavy. They were tall, reaching up to my waist, so leaving my jeans and sweatshirt soaked and heavy as I they brushed against me. I dragged my bag of spinach buds behind me. When I looked either back or forward, the rows seemed to go on like endless parallel lines.
I was fourteen that summer. Like most of the pickers, I was too young to get a real job, but in need of money for school clothes. The bus picked us up from the Wigwam Grocery in town and drove us out to the fields for the day. We made money by the hour. And the hours stretched as long as the rows we picked. It was in the spinach fields where I learned about violence.
Now I know much more about violence. More than I wanted. I know how to distance myself from news stories about violence. How erect a wall around myself while I watch, so I can say, “how horrible,” but not feel the horror. I know how to get past violent scenes in movies by reminding myself the blood is fake, the sound effects are made by stabbing watermelons, the actors are only acting. I know to close my eyes or leave the room.
But that summer I was only fourteen. I lived in the kind of town that was big enough for a Dairy Queen, but too small for a McDonalds. The kind of town where we had to drive 25 minutes to a larger town if we wanted to see a movie. Even a Drive-In movie. The kind of town with a sign at the entrance listing the 15 different churches ready to welcome a visitor to their flock. The kind of town where children are not generally murdered.
It was the kind of town where violence was usually kept under wraps. Violence was kept secret so that the damage wasn’t obvious, but pulled at the fabric of the community through undercurrents of fear and hate that swirled invisibly around us. Quiet secrets of abuse, hatred, assault, mental illness, alcoholism. The violence of those secrets made their imprint on our community, but this open, obvious, blatant murder of a child, that kind of violence couldn’t be ignored.
I have tried to make safe decisions. I’ve tried to keep no secrets so they don’t reach their claws up to scar my family, my children. I felt if I could just make myself solid enough, stable enough, I could keep the violence away. But it always lurks just on the other side of the door. I can glimpse it through the cracks. When the door creaks open, it’s hanging there from the metal shackles. Waiting for its opportunity.
My phone rings as I’m pouring coffee and making lunches, and it’s someone I love. She needs to stay at my house because she’s afraid. I am afraid too. I’m afraid because this has happened before with her and I don’t know how to keep her safe. I know what’s on the other side of the door that creaks open for us both.
The spinach pickers stood in the rainy fields and my back ached from bending down to pick the buds near the ground. I listened to the talk. News had spread from neighbor to neighbor. Teenagers had listened to their parents and filled in the blanks for what they did not know. The family was well known in the town. A large family of overachieving children who turned out for after school sports and took piano lessons. They came home and found their youngest daughter murdered. No one knew why. She was twelve, so I figured she’d been sexually assaulted.
When I was twelve, I answered the phone and a man said he was from the police and he confirmed my address. I was home alone with my baby sister, who was lying on a blanket on her stomach, chewing on her hippo toy. I stood in the kitchen, the phone cord twirled around my wrist, and answered his questions because he was a police officer. He asked me to describe how I looked and if I was pretty, asked me if I ever engaged in sexual activity, asked me if touched myself. Finally, much too long into the call, I realized he was not a police officer. I hung up. I pictured him coming to my house. Peering through the windows at my sister and I. I ran around the house shutting all the curtains and locking the doors. I took my baby sister and her hippo toy and hid in the closet until my mother got home. My sister reached her pudgy hand out toward the strip of light where the door met the carpet, while I strained my ears for the sounds of violence.
She spends the night at my house, her children curled around her like fiddlehead ferns. She is accomplished, professional. Smart, educated. Vibrant, beautiful. Like the town I grew up in, with its country roads and fifteen churches that gave the illusion of safety, she seems put together. But secrets bring their violence and they are rising up, threatening to overtake her. I watch, as helpless as I was at fourteen in the spinach fields.
As the summer wore on, we picked the fields clean and talked of the investigation. We waited for the predator to be found. It turned out she had not been sexually assaulted and that perplexed me. I was used to hearing about rape. Girls were frequently raped and killed in the big cities, or so it seemed from the news. The Green River Killer had been raping and murdering women along the I-5 corridor for the last two years. But why kill a girl from a nice family if you weren’t driven to assault her? Nothing made sense. When I slept, I dreamed of walking through spinach fields. The spinach leaves towered above me, dripping rain in the moonlight. I turn to drop some spinach buds in my bag and there is a man behind me. He breathes heavily, like the man on the phone. I try to run, but I have grown into the ground, my feet rooted there between the plants. I hear his breath come closer. I jerk awake, eyes wide in the darkness.
The murderer was not found that summer and would never be found, not to this day. The Green River Killer was found and is now in jail for murdering some 90 women. But this child’s murder remains unsolved and the killer is likely still out there. Hopefully, the violence no longer overwhelms him and he’s left to wallow in regrets and sorrow and shame. Maybe he has already suffered and died. I can hope.
We talk late into the night over wine while her children sleep. I offer counsel. I offer humor. I offer love. I don’t have expectations. I imagine that we strip away our clothes. The silk blouse, the comfortable socks. We let the color fall from our hair so it hangs in true grey. We wash the makeup from our faces and the mirror shows us pale skin and dark circles. We peel away our careers, hobbies, volunteer work and stack them all neatly. We strip away our skin laying it carefully to the side. We stand, blood and bone, vulnerable and exposed. We feel the fear.
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