Whistling In the Dark

When I was a little girl, the thing that scared me the most was darkness

(Photograph by Twenty20)

I was frightened of our dinosaur-green vacuum cleaner, with its electric tail and greedy roar. I was frightened of the escalator's vertiginous drop. I shivered when I heard a siren's wail. I was scared of clowns and bees and Dobermans that snapped at me from neighbors' yards.

But at the end of the day—at the end of every day, when I was 5 and 6 and 7—the thing that scared me most was darkness.

I slept with my bedroom door half-open, a light shining in the hall and a smaller bulb aglow in the bathroom. My parents let me play a Flintstones record—each side contained one complete episode, and I knew each by heart—before I fell asleep. I clutched a stuffed bear named Fred.

My father often worked late, and my mother used the nights for writing. I lay there, listening to the staccato tick of her typewriter, the occasional squeak of the powder-room door. A toilet's flush, the drizzle of water into the sink. If there was too long a silence—Was she all right? Had she left the house?—I'd yell, "Mom, are you still there?" I called for water not because of thirst, but because I needed to hear a human being answer back.

RELATED: Finders, Keepers; Losers, Weepers

My parents worried: Maybe television or movies had jacked up my nighttime fears. Doesn't the mama die in "Bambi"? Aren't Cinderella's stepsisters malevolent? They said I had to stop watching "Dark Shadows" with my after-school snack. But that didn't help. At night, in my room, shadows clumped and throbbed. A maple limb scritched against the glass … or was that a skeletal finger?

Sometimes, at 2 or 3 a.m., I padded into my parents' room. "Mom. Mom? Do robbers come in the window at night?"

"No, sweetheart," she murmured. "They don't." And she inched over so I could spoon into the warm spot.

RELATED: The Death of Alexander Hamster

We could change the television channel, we could upstage Barnabas Collins with "yabba, dabba doo." But I couldn't redact the night I'd stood on the porch with my mother—my dad was out of town—as she struggled to open the front door. She wiggled her key. She twisted the knob. Finally, she forced it, leaning in with her hip.

We saw what was in the way: the television from my parents' bedroom was parked incongruously on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. In the dining room, the doors of a wooden cabinet were flung open and a candleholder—a modern one, six black arms radiating from a central hub—had tumbled out, a brushed-steel tarantula crouched on the carpet.

That's when we heard voices from upstairs. My mother whisked me through the house, out the back, down the driveway and next door to the Goldstones', where she rapped on the kitchen door until George or Jackie rushed down and let us in.

I slept that night on the Goldstones' leather couch. The pillowcase had a design of a clock. I heard fractured conversation, my mother's voice tight and urgent on the phone: "forced entry ... police report … no, I can't give a description … yes, still there when we came home."

Years ticked by; I grew up and away from my childhood terrors. The vacuum was just a cacophonous machine, the sirens weren't headed for my house. I learned to breathe through that ripple of vertigo and step boldly onto the down escalator. I made friends with my cousins' dog, realized I could tolerate bees, forgot my fear of clowns.

But, that night, with the barricaded door, ransacked cabinet and rough voices one floor up, haunted me. The burglary had pierced the skin of refuge; bad things outside could enter, after all, even if the doors were locked and the windows unbroken and the porch light cast its honeyed oval on the slate.

Do robbers come in the window at night? No, sweetheart, they don't.

It's what we have to tell our children, the thing we say to soothe ourselves: This place is safe. This block, this house, this body. It won't happen here. We say it, as if casting a spell of security, even as we recognize the lie. The house is lath and windows. The holiest places can be broken, entered, breached. Even the body is not inviolate.

We do not tell this to our children. Instead, we replace the batteries in the mermaid nightlight and trudge upstairs with water for the zillionth time. We check beneath the bed for monsters, then proclaim with brio that there certainly are none.

The children know better. At 5, I sensed the world was rife with menace, even if I misplaced that danger onto objects that really couldn't hurt me. The burglary wasn't so much aberration as proof that my anxieties were real.

I still dream echoes of that night: I am in my parents' house, someone is pressing hard on the front door and I cannot hold them back. Or I'm walking through the den when a stranger in a dark, ribbed cap leaps from a murky corner. I wake myself, and sometimes my partner, with a strangled yelp.

Also, I remember this: One night, sometime after the burglary, my parents went out and left me in my Pop-pop's care. My Pop-pop, who didn't go to college, who recoiled from hugs, who saw every occasion as a teachable moment. When I was a baby, he sang as he stirred raw egg into my mashed potatoes: "C-A-T, cat, R-A-T, rat." Later, he drilled me with flashcards featuring simple words in large red letters: Mommy. Window. Door. When I got them right, he smiled around his cheap cigar.

The night he babysat, we did the flashcards, we read some books, I put on my pajamas and he reminded me to brush my teeth. A Dixie cup of water. Then another. The ritual of the nightlight, the partly open door. And still, I couldn't sleep.

"Pop-pop, I'm scared. Mommy types, but how will I know you're still there?"

When my parents came home from their date, hours later, they found my grandfather standing, smoking, reading the Daily News … and whistling in the foyer. Maybe it was one of his favorites: "It ain't gonna rain no more, no more; it ain't gonna rain no more. How in the heck gonna wash your neck, if it ain't gonna rain no more." He had a large repertoire. He'd probably whistled them all.

What are you doing, my parents wanted to know. "She was scared," he shrugged. "She wanted me to make some noise."

Who knows what twisted through my brain that night as I curled on my Mary Poppins sheets? The world I lived in was capricious, violable. Sirens, smoke, dark shadows I couldn't blame on the TV. And my Pop-pop, standing at the base of the stairs, where the burglars had left their footprints, his cigar tip a ruby star, whistling and whistling against the dark.