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Blog

Now every shadowed stump seemed a stranger

Hillary Jo Foreman

 

The park map had not shown the Whitetail Trail widening slightly, sprouting sparse grass to become the Bluebird, but that was my path. It cut through thick borders of leafy weed stalks and skinny-armed saplings and stocky, long trunks. Spider webs stretched invisibly from one side to the other, and I was running—out of breath, out of shape after one sedentary week—into every single one. They plastered against my sweat-slicked chest as I pumped up a long incline, ducking and swiping the threads from my face, losing momentum. I knew the webs were sticking in my hair and I hoped with a shudder that the spiders weren’t skittering across my scalp, still attached to their broken silks.

Some experiences, however scary, become funny stories with time. Others transform like rustling leaves into footsteps fast-approaching from behind. I turned around, tensed to flee or fight, but the trail was empty, of course. I tripped on a root as fat and gnarled as a brain exposed in the middle of the path and barely caught myself. 

Seven days ago a young female jogger was sexually assaulted at Mounds State Park, less than three miles from my mother’s house. According to local news reports, a male in his twenties grabbed the jogger from behind. He forced her to the ground, slapped and groped her, and she scratched and punched, fought until he let her go.

In the eight years I have been running alone at Mounds I have never feared for my safety. Normally, I wouldn’t be afraid on this trail either, though I’d never run it before, but once the safest place no longer feels safe, nowhere does.

Now every shadowed stump seemed a stranger, every restless squirrel a stalker. I slowed to a walk. Lost was the solitary peace of solo runs. I’d spent the last week mourning, angry for this loss and for the park I’d called home. But in my grief I also realized how privileged I was to have had a safe place for eight years, or the illusion of a safe place, for nowhere is truly safe. Not even gate-guarded parks. Not even Christian schools.

As I crested the hill, the path opened into a parallelogram-shaped meadow, its slant-stacked sides traced by the tree line. I emerged at one acute corner and ran up the short shelf toward the forested chute at the adjoining angle. July noon cast harsh shadows in the tasseled grass. Horseflies galloped around my head. A woodpile—the beginning of a forest fire?—was stacked against the upper border. I adjusted my direction, neared the pile, and my perspective improved.

Not kindling but women. A tangle of mouths and hands holding distended bellies, misshapen by the hungry mouths and hands of memory. Laying like that, the women were impossible to number. Some had fallen on their backs, four legs splayed skyward, playing dead. Some leaned like steep slides and some stood straight up and down, paralyzed like scarecrows. Only a few sat right-side-up.

Wary of snakes hiding in the delivery room’s long grass, I chose a patient on the pile’s dusty edge. I squatted beside the woman and she screamed and shifted like an antique chair, uneven for some unseen reason. I rose quickly, reassured her and sunk again, slowly. She sighed but stayed put this time. I stayed too. She spoke, and I learned her language. She labored, and I listened. We breathed and cried, and when it was time, she pushed until the splintering memory emerged. We held the bloody body between us as if it were the world.

 Taken off the Bluebird Trail at Paynetown State Recreation Area in Bloomington, Indiana.

Taken off the Bluebird Trail at Paynetown State Recreation Area in Bloomington, Indiana.

Hillary Jo Foreman recently graduated from Taylor University with a degree in English/Creative Writing. In the fall, she will begin working toward her MA in Fiction at Ohio University. Her fiction is forthcoming from BRILLIANT flash fiction.