In that moment, I knew. I just knew that no matter how many days, months or years that passed, those eyes… those cold, vacant, piercing eyes, will continue to haunt me – forever. Yet, as much as I wanted to do so, I couldn’t turn around and run away as fast as my little legs would take me. Instead, like a deer paralysed by headlights, I was frozen stiff. Rooted to the spot. Unable to move. It was like I was hypnotised or had a spell placed upon me by a witch.
It took the snap of a distant twig to hurl me from my trance and into the present. Before I knew it, a scream had ripped from my lungs and riffled through the surrounding blanket of silence. With unsteady, wobbly legs I was finally free to stumble backwards, spin around and haul myself out of the forest.
One minute my feet were cracking and crunching across leaves and twigs, the next I was within inches of my front door – the miles in between condensed into a seamless blur. I was even completely unaware that the heavens had finally broken, and I was now drenched head-to-toe. I tried to open the door with my key, but every time my trembling hands brought it to the lock, it was fumbled and it fell to the ground. I resulted to banging at the door in a wild frenzy. When it eventually swung open and my grandfather emerged, brow furrowed in fury and ready to yell, I instantly collapsed into his arms and finally released the tears chocking my body. Without a second word, he scooped me up in his arms and carried me back inside. Hours later, when I was no longer convulsing with tears and shaking violently with fear, I finally told him what had happened…
I was in class, trying my hardest to ignore the silly, childish tales Rashad and his friends were trying to scare me with. However, as much as I tried to block my ears from them, snatches of their stories still made their way through the gaps in my fingers. Usually, I knew better than to fall for silly ghost stories – I mean, I was eight going on nine. I wasn’t a small child anymore. But, the way they spoke – fear etched into their eyes, I couldn’t help but become curious. I began to listen, ears perked this time…they called them the ghosts of the night, evil men who dressed up in white and haunted the forest, waiting to catch Black men alone so they can do horrible, unspeakable things to them. It was that moment that I laughed. Loud. Our teacher Miss Ferguson, usually hard of hearing, snapped her attention away from the blackboard and swung around to stare at me, point blank. I apologised and sunk into my seat in embarrassment – I never got in trouble. Ever. But the chuckles were still inside of me. Ghosts – really? My grandfather always told me to believe with my own eyes before I believed in other people’s lies.
When the clock struck 3, I dared the boys to take me to the forest and prove to me that their stories were real. Looking at the ground and shuffling on their feet, they made all manners of excuses not to take me. It was plain to see that they were scared, but I wasn’t. Nothing terrified me. Well, that’s what I thought. Unperturbed by the darkening clouds overhead, with purpose, I made my way across town and followed the dusty road until buildings gave way to trees. Making my way through the sea of green, it dawned on me – what I was doing was crazy – an eight-year-old girl walking through the forest alone. But, I just had to know, I just had to confirm with my own two eyes that what they were saying wasn’t true. Otherwise, night after night, I would be left awake, eyes wide and heart pounding, torturing myself with thoughts of the dark unknown.
So, I continued through the trees with the hope of finding nothing – my sleep and nightmares depended on it. Then I saw him. His lifeless body suspended in the air by a rope sawing into his neck, revealing the bright pink flesh beneath his mahogany skin. At that exact moment, a gust of wind swept in and rotated his body until he was looking straight at me – eyes digging into my soul.
With a heavy heart and eyes etched with eternal sorrow, Grandad looked on, biding his time before wading in with unsettling truths. When I had finished, he sat me on his knee and told me about the Ku Klux Klan. I knew White people existed and I knew all about slavery… but I always found it difficult to believe… I mean, the White people I saw on TV were always happy, laughing and telling funny jokes. That is why the idea that some of them would dress up in all white, just to do horrible things to Black people was far, far too hard for me to understand. Grandad went on to tell me about the burning crosses and white hoods, as he did so all I can do was listen on in mounting terror; the words falling from his lips were far more terrifying than any horror film. The final thing that departed from his lips was plain and simple – Never. Go. To. The. Forest. Again. I promised him I wouldn’t, not knowing that it would be the last promise I ever made to my grandad.