birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

The Man in The Woods

When I started dating, my father advised me to keep my legs crossed. I had no idea what he was talking about. When I look back at my early adolescence I can’t believe how naïve I was, but it’s true. No one told me about things they didn’t want me to know. Dating meant going to the movies or playing miniature golf usually with another couple. There was always a mother at home after school. Parties were chaperoned and no one thought to BYOB. We kissed boys good night at the door but only after three dates. If I didn’t like the guy will enough to kiss him, I never went on a third date.
I grew up in a simpler gentler age, an age when parents didn’t worry about pedophiles, and the laws didn’t require that sex offenders register so their names and addresses would appear online. I was, however, dutifully warned not to speak to strangers not to look at men who whistled from passing trucks and never ever go anywhere with a stranger even if they offered me candy. These words were handed down more in the style of hard and fast rules rather than a piece of the helpful advice. Whatever the tone of delivery, it was very good advice as we were all to learn.
It all started out simply enough with the creative impulse. I would take my Kodak brownie camera into the woods across Gutford Road and take some nature pictures. Yeah, I know, it’s pretty dark in the woods so the likelihood of getting a printable photo was almost zero. But I didn’t know that then. There was a lot I didn’t know. I was only in sixth grade.
The weather was warm and the sky was clear. I was happily snapping away at plants like jack-in-the-pulpit when I heard a voice calling me. “Hey little girl, come over here.“ I looked up and sure enough there was a man with me in the woods. He was far enough away that I couldn’t make out his features but I could hear his words clearly. “Come over here. I have something to show you.“ I was still young enough to automatically obey most adults and this occasion was no exception. I turned around and started to walk in his direction. But before I had traipsed too far through the underbrush, I heard another voice. My mother‘s voice in my head. This is what she been warning me about. Don’t talk to strangers. I quickly decided that also meant “don’t go anywhere near them either.”

“I hear my mother calling me,” I called to him, not wanting to be rude. “I can’t come over there,” I yelled as I took off running for home totally disregarding any briars or brambles in my way. Behind me I could still hear his voice. “Come over here. Your mother will never know.”

Once I reached our house, I ran from door to door locking each one, all the while screaming hysterically for my mother. I couldn’t have been more terrified if the devil himself for galloping on horseback up Gutford Road. Unfortunately, in my panic I had locked my mother out of the house. Once I let her in, she calmed me down and life quickly return to normal for a time.
Several days later, however, the events of that afternoon once again became a subject of discussion. A girl my age have been riding her bike on Gutford Road and had been accosted and raped. I didn’t know what rape meant. Maybe it had to do with being beaten so badly that your skin peeled off in strips. Whatever it was, I could tell from my father’s somber tone of voice that “rape” was something really bad.
The sheriff had arrested a man from up the road and had him in custody. My father wanted me to go with him the next day to the jail to see if I could identify him as the man in the woods. My mother didn’t think this was a good idea, but Daddy said it was the right thing to do. I didn’t sleep well that night. I didn’t think I’d recognize the man in the woods. Would I be letting everyone down? And what if I did recognize him? That would be very scary to see him again.
The next morning, however, we learned that the accused man had been released. I was so relieved I didn’t have to go look at him. No matter how many years have passed, I am still grateful for the safety instructions my parents had given me. Without those lessons, vague as they were, I might very well have learned about rape in the most horrid way possible. Instead of a few moments of fear, that encounter could well have been a life-altering trauma.

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