Tonight, the wind is howling around my house, and cats are screeching in the night. There is a tall, crooked man with a broad black hat standing at the bottom of my garden, leaning on the fence. There are eyes staring at me from the branches of the tree, its leaves scraping across my window.
Growing up, so many of us were insecure and afraid all the time; afraid of the dark, of UFOs, of diabetes, of demons. In Social Studies class, they showed us grainy video footage of exploding atom bombs and the symptoms of syphilis so that we would have nightmares to carry around with us wherever we went. We kept looking up in fear at the sky, and worrying about redness on our private parts. We were afraid of counting backwards while looking in the mirror, in case the devil should come and carry us off to the underworld. We were afraid of growing up and of not growing up; afraid of the monsters that waited in the shadows of our rooms to rip out our throats if we should forget any part of our nightly ritual.
Later on, we learned to mask our deep, dark fears with idle chitchat about stock prices and cars, hockey teams and crème brûlée. We learned the art of the insincere smile to mask the presence of the shadows behind our eyes. We learned to keep our noses buried in our accounts books and our sports pages, so we didn’t have to keep looking over our shoulders and wondering what was creeping up behind us.
Lately, I’ve rediscovered the fine art of being afraid. Set free by age, I no longer have to pretend that I don’t see shapes hiding in the darkened corners. I no longer have to tell myself that I believe in the sweet rationalities of science and good accounting practice, that there is no such thing as ghosts, no such place as the underworld. I have seen too much to not believe in dark magic. I am as irrational as a 19th century sailor, as superstitious as a miner’s wife. I throw salt over my shoulder, and walk clear around ladders and black cats. I worry about cancer and the end of the world. I keep my eyes on the clouds, and make the sign of the cross when lightning comes flashing off house roofs. Pagan that I am, there are still prayers that come easily to my lips when the witching hour comes.