Weeping willows guarded the old church, hidden behind years of neglect and rarely travelled dirt roads. White paint was curled and peeling from the weather faded exterior and the decayed wooden steps had become a cool place for snakes of all sizes to ball up like necklace chains at the bottom of a jewelry box. I was only ten when I found it for the first time; I’d stumbled into the clearing after fleeing the neighbor boys increasingly crude taunts and constant shoves. Stick-tights clung to the ripped knees of my jeans and sweat was trailing down my backbone like liquid spiders as I ran zig-zag through Reed’s Wood.
No one dared to follow me into the shadows of dappled sycamores and flooded juts of Midwest clay. One hundred feet in, I was the most alone I’d ever been in my life; no t.v. blaring old Matlock reruns while my grandmother rocked in a squeaky recliner, no buzz of a barely functioning air conditioner fuming the single wide with damp sweetness, and no bottles of Jameson clinking together as my momma cleaned off the kitchen table. There were no cruel child sized hands reaching to yank my ponytail or scuffed Chuck Taylors tripping me in the gravel drive.
There was nothing but the lush cadence of bird calls and quaking leaves.
I’d been told Reed’s Wood was a dangerous place for as long as I could remember but in that particular moment I felt nothing but the heavy weight of relief like a glass of cold water down my throat. Grandma’s voice seemed to carry, warning me of water snakes and brown recluse, slowing my steps to a careful tread but I had no intention of turning around to face my tormentors. Chances were, they would’ve left me alone the rest of the day, solely because I’d been brave enough to enter the woods. But I was a child and, as children do, I didn’t think rationally and allowed my emotions to carry my feet forward.
It was no secret who lived in Reed’s Wood, just as it was no secret the type of woman she was. Witch, they’d whisper, so glad she doesn’t show her face in town anymore. Do you remember, they’d ask, how she used to walk around with her nose shoved in the air? Despicable trash, they’d spit. Wynona Reed. The only granddaughter of the richest man to have ever lived in Reed Creek; the namesake of both the small town of fifteen hundred and the bordering wood. The little description I knew of Wynona at my ripe age of ten consisted of: black hair, legs she showed to “steal decent men away from their wives,” and a penchant for animal healing. I’d once heard, standing behind my momma in line at the grocery store, that her eyes were green like the edge of a rotten penny. I suppose who said it hadn’t meant it as much of a compliment but I’d studied the dustings of verdigris and believed to myself she must’ve had beautiful eyes after all.
My mind wasn’t on Wynona Reed, however, as I traipsed through waist-high prairie cordgrass, the tips of my fingers brushing the heads of ripened goldenrod. I found the steady crunch of my boots and breaths sucked from my chests comforting as I passed through patches of sunlight and breeze.
Too busy staring at a fledgling hawk, all mottled feathers and awkward twirls high above me, I crashed into the bulk of a fallen trunk. The collision with the forest floor resulted in gummy moss clinging to my palms and wet leaves soaking my exposed knees; sucking in rattling gasps of air, I leaned my head close to the ground and reminded myself I only needed to turn around and walk back out into the safety of the trailer park populace.
Raising my eyes, I stared across a mass of water not ten feet from me, lapping gentle brown ripples between cattails. The high-pitched whistle of a wood duck, falling and rising much like the party toys we’d been given at birthday parties, filled the air between myself and the water. I could just barely make out the emerald head of a male at the far end of the water, his proud crown perched atop another fallen trunk. With a rustle of petite chestnut feathers, he disappeared from view.
I don’t know if things would’ve played out differently had I not been a curious child. Maybe, in a twisted way, I was destined to stumble on the church no matter the dominant traits of my personality. Sometimes I wonder though, if I wasn’t so much an adventurer like my father, would I have simply gone home after I’d fallen?
Nevertheless, something stark floated at the edge of my peripherals as I stood from the soft ground. A sparkle, like the sun kissing metal or glass, shooting an arrow of rainbow glare. I remember tightening my ponytail…such an infinitesimal thing to remember. And thinking to myself: I have to do this. A ten year old twig of a girl with the spirit of a legionnaire, all my pride hinging on discovering the source of glitter in Reed’s Wood.
Blackberry brambles greeted me along the way, thick spiny thorns adorned with ebony berries as wide as my thumbs. Only a few blush colored berries remained, the full heat of summer ripening the fruit like my own celebratory hidden harvest.
Once outside the reach of the bramble’s arms, however, lay a clearing the size of a football field. Flat spots suggested deer bedding while the incessant buzz of bees reminded me to watch how far my arms swung with each step. All I encountered the first few feet were black-eyed susans and a near fatal heart attack from a confused rabbit underfoot.
Until I spotted the church.
I don’t know how, even to this day, to describe the exact feeling when my eyes and brain and heart all correlated what was before me. In essence, it was as if a rope had been secretly knotted around my stomach and someone yanked it from me, like a backwards noose, and it plummeted to the ground. My body was a whirling mass of contradictory demands: Flee. Stand firm. Explore. Scream. Go slow. Puke.
The church itself wasn’t scarily constructed. Though the exterior was crumbling, the ghost of quaint beauty still clung to its edges and outlines. An intricately carved door, once naval blue judging by the small remainder of paint, was inlaid with angel wings and American flags, with heavy pulls in the shape of falling doves. An unharmed sheet of stained glass above the door depicted a blocky, white cross with peace lilies adorning the sides like a botanical frame.
It was the air around the church which stole my breath. It was as if I’d walked into a box depleted of oxygen, replaced with stale putridity. I instantly regretted a moment from weeks previous, when I’d brought baby chickens home, shoving them in a shoe box complete with tiny holes poked in the cardboard lid. If this is what it had felt like for those chicks, I thought, I was much more like the devil than the savior I’d assumed I was for giving them a home.
Looking back, I should’ve recognized the signs in those next precious seconds: my ears popping as if the air was unstable, the brush of frozen breath along my spine, the paralysis coating my muscles like chains.
“Ida,” hushed the icy whisper, as I slowly looked to my left shoulder.
A feathering of razor-cold fingertips at the base of my neck was the last thing I remember before everything went black.