Tennessee gave me moss and decaying logs, shy salamanders, blackberries and their thorns, the perfume of leaf mold. A girl—her name was Theresa, I think—lived in the darkest part of the bus route, in a small frame house across the road from the creek. She often wore thin, tight-fitting cotton shirts in faint plaid patterns of blues and grays. Shirts with silver snaps instead of buttons. She had a crown of thick black hair that parted down the middle and waved on either side of her face, defying gravity. A trick my own tresses, disappointingly lank, never learned. Teresa had a momma, too. A serious-looking woman who sometimes appeared garbed at the bus stop in what I later learned was called a housedress. And she had a much younger sister, a pale waif of a child whose wispy yellow hair was nothing like the dense dark waves shared by Theresa and her mom.
One day, when the bus dropped Theresa off and the blond toddler ran across the yard to greet her, I heard murmurs as the driver pulled away. Snatches of words, hushed and knowing. Story was that Theresa's little sister was not her sister at all, but her niece. That Theresa's older sister, whom I'd never laid eyes on, had gotten pregnant in high school and that the grandparents, Theresa's momma and daddy, had decided to raise the girl as their own child.
The story disturbed me. Not in a dramatic, knock-you-in-the-stomach kind of way, but uncomfortably, like cold dampness that creeps into your skin and hurts when it reaches bone. I was rattled, worried. I thought about Theresa's teenage sister, playing sister to her own daughter. I thought about the stern woman in the housedress, pretending to be her own grandchild's momma. I thought about the little girl, playing with her plastic bucket and shovel in the dirt, and imagined a dust storm whirling around her head. Invisible only to her. And I thought about Theresa, the same age as me, living inside a secret I understood was more dangerous than any ravine.
Of course, my family had secrets of its own. But at age nine or ten, whatever I was then, I was ignorant of them. Overhearing those whispers on the school bus was my first direct acquaintance with something a family hid, or tried to hide, from the world, from each other. I remember it like a storybook: a meeting in a dark wood, the surprise, the narrow escape. Decades later, dark woods and deep ravines no longer frighten me. But secrets? If I let them, they still put a chill in my bones.
Read my new short play, "Wake," inspired by this experience here.