The Unknowable World


[Image description: blurred black and white photograph of a forest of thin, bare trees. The branches at the bottom of the image are too dense to allow any light to penetrate them.]   enki22  / Creative Commons

[Image description: blurred black and white photograph of a forest of thin, bare trees. The branches at the bottom of the image are too dense to allow any light to penetrate them.]

enki22 / Creative Commons

It’s three o’clock in the morning on the first day of October, and I’m sitting at the desk in my basement bedroom, trying to get some work done. The wee hours of the morning are my favorite time of day. I’m rarely disturbed by texts or phone calls before dawn - even social media is quieter than usual at this time of night. As an insomniac with an anxiety disorder, the world usually feels like a safer, more peaceful place for me when most of the people who live in it are asleep.

Today, however, my little world is not quiet. There’s a man wandering around in the woods behind my house, screaming. He alternates between “normal” screams — inarticulate bellows of anger, rage, pain, perhaps even fear — and animalistic snarls that mimic the hostile challenges of wolves, or maybe wildcats. I’m not sure exactly what effect he’s going for, but it’s terrifying.

Because I live in a basement with no windows and no air circulation from the upper floors of the house, I prefer to keep my deck door open whenever I’m awake - even at night - so fresh air and cool breezes can penetrate the dark, humid cave I call home. Outside my basement door, there’s a fenced-in garden that separates my back deck from the miles of public park behind my house. Over the deck door is a motion-sensor light.

On several occasions, I have heard the screaming man tear through the underbrush of the abandoned yard next to mine, as though he’s considering climbing the fence and making a charge on my property. Tonight, however, the stomping and snarling noises sound like they’re coming from further away - though still audible, still distracting. Propped against the wall behind my desk is a garden hoe. The handle is five feet long - solid oak, no cracks - and the blade is slightly muddy, but not rusted. I doubt I will ever need to use it. I think the screaming man is probably sick and frightened, rather than homicidal. But I keep the hoe behind my desk anyway. I also keep my door propped open, the better to hear him if he does approach, the better to see him if the motion-sensor light over my door switches on.

I’m sure that keeping my back door open while a screaming man bellows threats from the cover of a dark forest just a few yards away from my threshold will seem like a strange decision to many people. A locked door is generally considered a more reliable defense against late-night prowlers than a woman armed only with a gardening utensil, after all. But here’s the thing: this is my room. If I want to be comfortable in it, my door needs to stay open. I’ve spent enough of my life making myself uncomfortable in the name of safety. I have better strategies to deal with threats these days.

[Image description: blurred black and white photograph of a forest of thin trees with thick, dark leaves. The trees along the horizon are more defined than those closer to the foreground of the image.]   Hunter McGinnis  / Creative Commons

[Image description: blurred black and white photograph of a forest of thin trees with thick, dark leaves. The trees along the horizon are more defined than those closer to the foreground of the image.]

Hunter McGinnis / Creative Commons

I never felt safe as a child. Before kindergarten, I had figured out that the adults and authority figures in my life were scarier than any threat I might encounter outside of home or school. My mother, for instance. During the Satanic Panic of the late eighties and early nineties, she earnestly believed that our quiet, lower middle-class neighborhood outside Raleigh was crawling with Satanists who were searching for blonde haired, blue eyed children to sacrifice in a black mass. She made certain that I shared her fear, and in the process became as terrifying to me as the dangers she thought she needed to protect me from.

I was never permitted to celebrate Halloween as a child, because it was the devil’s holiday. At an age when most children are reassured by their parents that there’s no such thing as ghosts, no monsters hiding in their closets, my mother was explaining to me that demons were everywhere, that even Christians like us could be tormented by their rasping whispers and sharp claws. I was afraid of the dark — not the darkness of the night sky, but the dark, empty rooms of my own house — until I was fourteen. My mother had warned me that reading occult literature (ghost stories, for instance) or watching occult television shows (such as The X-Files) would open the doors of my mind to demonic influence. So, naturally, I read as many ghost stories and horror novels as I could get my hands on, and watched The X-Files religiously until I grew bored of David Duchovny’s face in season five.

Once, lying in my bed at night, I woke to the sound of one of my posters — a particularly majestic portrait of a unicorn standing in the blue mists of a waterfall — coming unstuck from its double-sided tape. The sound it made, as it wafted gently to the floor, convinced me that the demons had finally invaded my room to punish me for my ungodly thoughts. I yanked the blanket over my head and began praying with all my might. But I continued to scour the library, and later the internet, for every particle of information I could find regarding ghosts, hauntings, and “true” encounters with the paranormal. My mother had raised me to believe that I lived in a demon-haunted world, but the only hope of safety she could offer me was to ignore the threat — never to think about the demons, lest they take it as an invitation. But I instinctively rejected this approach. The more frightened I was, the more I needed to know. I came to believe, with religious fervor, that ignorance was the enemy, both in the material world and the spiritual realm.

But ignorance is a strange thing. Growing up, I learned instinctively how to deal with certain threats, only to find that my instincts were all but useless when it came to others. There are a lot of potentially dangerous garden implements in my storage room, but the hoe is my weapon of choice because, once, when I was ten years old, I used a hoe to kill a copperhead that was threatening my dog. I’d been watching reruns of Dark Shadows on the Sci-Fi channel when I happened to glance through the glass sliding door and see Daisy, fifty pounds of spotted English pointer, in a standoff with a snake. A sudden sense of crisis prickled over me. My dad was napping in an upstairs room, and I knew that by the time I got him to wake up and come downstairs, it might be too late for Daisy. I can still remember the chain of reasoning that led to me sliding the glass door open, grabbing the hoe, and hacking at the snake for all I was worth:

I’m afraid of the snake. But Daisy could die. If Daisy dies, it will hurt worse than if I get bitten by the snake. I have to fight it. But if I just make it mad, it might bite me. So I have to kill it. I don’t know how to kill it. I’ve never killed anything before. But I have to.

It’s just me here. I have to do it.

Killing a snake with brute force is harder than you might think, especially for a fourth-grader. I thought it would be over faster. Once it was over, I looped the snake over the end of the hoe and dropped it in the trash bin. Then I sat in the grass and hugged Daisy for a while. I never told either of my parents what happened. There were a lot of things I didn’t tell my parents when I was growing up, and there were a lot of things they never told me in return.

My mother had given me strict guidelines for how to avoid demons when I was a child, but even after I grew older, she never told me how to protect myself from people like the guy in my Latin class who threatened to commit suicide if I didn’t go to the prom with him when I was in ninth grade. As a result, I spent a miserable April evening in the school gymnasium while my date maneuvered me into dark corners and felt me up under my dress. Afterwards I felt like one of the soiled, ragged old cloths that my father used to clean the engine grease off his hands after working on his truck. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. I couldn’t exactly take a garden hoe to my prom date, nor did I want to; I wanted someone else to make it all go away for me. But my mother had warned me, when I was nine or so, that I’d better be careful never to let a boy hurt me, or my father would kill him and go to jail forever. Bewildered, traumatized, and painfully ignorant of how to protect myself, I protected my family instead. I kept my mouth shut. Only years later did I start to wonder why I had the ability to master my fears when the well-being of my dog was at stake, but not when the threat was aimed at me.

Most of my life has been predicated on the assumption that knowledge will save me when nothing else can, so I turned inward for the answer, and started therapy. Six months and one complex trauma diagnosis later, I had a much deeper understanding of the abuse I’d survived as a child, and the duality it had created in terms of my self-perception. I had an enormous degree of confidence, bordering on arrogance, when it came to my proven abilities, but everything else about myself — everything that was left when you peeled the high-achieving veneer away — filled me with disgust. Strip away my talent, and there was nothing left worth fighting for.

It took a very long time to convince myself that I deserved at least as much care and protection as my ten-year old self had felt my dog deserved. The process was especially grueling because, as a single queer woman living in poverty with no nearby family or friends to lean on, society sometimes goes out of its way to let me know it would be more convenient for everyone if I just disappeared. But it’s too late for that; now that I’ve made up my mind to fight for my own survival, I’ve discovered that I’m pretty good at it. Like most kids who grow up with abuse, I can read minds and see the future. I survived to adulthood because I learned how to predict the behavior of dangerously unpredictable people. I calculate risks with a degree of certainty normally only possessed by insurance adjustors. And at the bottom of it all is the conviction that, after everything I’ve already survived, and everything I’ve heard from other survivors, human evil no longer possesses the power to mystify me. It is no longer an unknown quantity, and as such, no longer something to be feared — only resisted.

[Image description: blurred black and white photograph of a forest of thin, bare trees. There are few visible leaves; only trunks and the light filtering through them.]   Rachel Docherty  / Creative Commons

[Image description: blurred black and white photograph of a forest of thin, bare trees. There are few visible leaves; only trunks and the light filtering through them.]

Rachel Docherty / Creative Commons

These days, when it comes to dealing with strange, threatening men, my maxim is to convince them that I am even stranger and more threatening than they are. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to put this theory to the test, and it’s worked fairly well so far. Last summer, for instance, I was sitting on my front porch when a man approached me to bum a cigarette. I glanced up from my phone, only to discover that his shorts were down and he was masturbating, looming over me with his exposed genitals inches from my leg. My first instinct, instilled in me from early childhood, was to pretend it wasn’t happening. But then new instincts rose to the fore. I pointed back in the direction he’d come from and screamed, “FUCK OFF. I WILL HURT YOU. FUCK. OFF.”

I was prepared for a range of reactions — anger, violence, laughter. Instead, the masturbating man stared at me with what I can only describe as shock and bewilderment. Then, moving slowly, he walked back in the direction my finger was pointing. When a cop answered my 911 call a few minutes later, he gently suggested I not sit on my front porch after dark any longer. It’s my porch and I like sitting here, I declared to myself as he drove away. I’m not going anywhere.

When it comes to the screaming man, my philosophy is similar. I want my door to stay open. I like it when the stray cats and opossums wander by for a visit. I like breathing fresh air. More to the point: if the screaming man is ever in a position to hurt me (or my cat), I want to know as soon as it happens. I never want to sit frozen at my desk, wondering if the rattling noise outside my locked door is a dangerously unstable man shattering the window that leads into my storage room, or just a band of enterprising raccoons searching for tasty garbage. That uncertainty, to me, would constitute living in a state of intolerable fear. I cope with the tenuousness of my existence by knowing as much as I can know about everything, but it is impossible to reduce every unknown in the universe to a comprehensible quantity. On some level, it’s possible that I want the screaming man to appear in my doorway. As it stands, he is fear of the unknown embodied. In my world, he is a haunting: a tortured voice howling in the darkness, a crash of branches near my door. He has no face. I expect that, if I ever do see his face, some part of me will be relieved.

B.N. Harrison lives in Baltimore. More of her work can be found at Language and Light.