Our school bus crossed the narrow causeway and dropped us on Candlewood Isle, fourth graders on our own at last. No nannies or mothers met us at the bus stop. A long low log cabin with a store, a post office, and a bank, the Trading Post looked like the buildings in the TV westerns we watched after school. Storming the store for Tootsie Rolls, Three Musketeers, and Double Bubble gum, we checked for mail, pushed each other out the door, and ran up the hill, starting our half-mile trek home. In the balmy May sunshine, the white birches stood out along the road, their black markings making shadows. During the school year, the city people came up only for weekends, so most of the houses we passed were empty. As soon as we changed into play clothes, the island would be ours.
My family lived for three years in a Candlewood Isle home whose rough sawn boards retained their tree like shapes and textures as they weathered. Set back from Deer Run, we were surrounded by summer cabins and compounds. Opening the casement windows I nearly entered the woods of white birch, hickory, oak, and maple. To feature the lake view, the levels were reversed, living room on the second floor, our bedrooms downstairs. A heavy door with a window next to my room led outside. On nights when restless, I imagined demons, monsters, and strange animals lurking just beyond the door.
Right after Ellen left for her house that afternoon, the boys began punching each other and whispering. “What’s wrong?” I snapped, uneasy.
Peter grabbed my arm and Johnny started pushing me uphill towards an overgrown field. I pulled away and turned on them, shouting, “Stop!”
“Let’s go,” Phil muttered, grabbing my arm again.
They had me surrounded. No matter how hard I resisted, they kept pushing me up the hill. We had fought as cowboys and Indians and jungle warriors, but this was no game; they were ferocious. As a tomboy, I’d always felt equal to any of the boys, but three against one was scary. Why were they picking on me? Why couldn’t I stop them? They were silent, ignoring my protests. My feet stumbling on the rocks and grasses, I yielded one foot of ground after another. I struggled to keep us on the road, hoping a car would drive by, or someone would walk up and stop this weird fight. I kicked and screamed, but they stayed silent, grunting with the effort. There was no one to hear the struggle. Finally the road was obscured by tall grass and weeds, an occasional bush. Just us in an overgrown field, the grass flattened by our fighting. It seemed I’d dropped through a hole in the island, into a hostile world, a world without rules.
Phil was bigger than me, his dark hair falling over his eyes. Johnny, a scrawny kid, nudged Phil as he moved closer. Peter, a redhead about my size, knelt behind me so I couldn’t back away from the other two. Their faces were fixed, eyes glaring. I’d been all over the island, but had never seen this field. No houses, fences, dogs, or people in sight or hearing. I was lost.
“Strip her,” Johnny growled at Peter.
“Yeah,” Phil grunted.
“Let me go!” I demanded, as my arm slipped in his sweaty grip, burning from the pressure. “Agh! You’re hurting me!” The brilliant May sky seemed to mock my pain. What had I done to enrage them?
They kept quiet, now grim, their eyes down. I had to make them talk. “You’ve seen me naked before. Why—?”
“Shut up!” Johnny barked.
This wasn’t a desert island, for television had just begun to offer us westerns, Ernie Kovacs, Howdy Doody, and Kate Smith. When not watching TV, we kids would run in packs through woods, yards of vacation homes and country roads acting out scenarios. I had always felt safe running through the woods, walking to and from the Trading Post, hanging out at friends’ houses. We could drink from the brooks, climb fences and trees, and find mothers at home when we needed them. Life on the island had seemed idyllic. How could this be happening?
They looked nothing like the boys I had run with for the past two years. Their faces were fierce, their bodies awkward but punishing. They glared at my body and each other. No one said a word. Johnny was frowning, Phil was sweating, but I couldn't see Peter—his shoulder pressed the back of my knees.
Johnny pushed me. Stumbling, I caught myself, but then Phil dove at my feet and I fell back onto the ground. I felt smothered by their bodies. The sky and the grass disappeared, I saw only their arms and legs, their straining faces. The dirt felt hard, pebbles pressed my back, brambles scratched my arms. As I kicked and screamed, they grew more determined, pressing my body into the ground. Johnny’s breath was sour; his sweat dampened my shirt. Their knees dug into my legs, and their hands crawled all over me. I struggled to catch a breath. They were no longer those three boys, but just bodies bruising and smothering me, bodies I had to repel. I kicked Johnny in the stomach, and tried to roll out of his reach. Phil ripped the buttons off my shirt, startling us both. I lurched up, hit his face and kicked Johnny between the legs. Suddenly free, I turned on them.
“I hate you!” Shirt in my hand, I scrambled out of the field and up the road towards home. The narrow road seemed steeper. The trees cut off the sun. The vacant houses offered no shelter. No one followed me. I put my shirt back on and tied the tails to keep it closed. I was breathing hard. My legs were bruised. Everywhere I looked there were lilacs. Their heavy sweetness sickened me. Finally, my house came in sight. Our black setter, Smoky, ran out to meet me, his tail wagging. I brushed past him and burst into the house. “Mom! Where are you? I hate them!”
The kitchen had the same dull red counter. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and scuffmarks on the linoleum shone in the sun. I could smell tomato sauce burning and heard the whirr of my mother’s sewing machine. How could everything seem the same when I felt so bruised, breathless, and betrayed? I had to tell my mother. She would help me get revenge.
“I’m in here, Karen. What’s wrong?” She didn’t wait, but met me in the kitchen, throwing her arms around me when she saw my tears, dirty face, and bruises. “What happened? You look like you’ve been in a fight. Are you OK?” Hugging me, she let me sob. Then she washed my face, combed back my hair with her fingers.
"They––” I began, but started to cry again.
“Take your time.” She breathed into my hair as she stroked my back.
With a shudder I stopped sobbing and, tears running down my face, blurted out: “They tried to strip me!”
She pushed me away with stiff arms and stared hard at me. “Who, Karen?”
I tried to talk, but nothing came out. After telling her what happened, I struggled to stop crying. I needed her help. “Why would they do that, Mom?”
She backed away. “You must have misunderstood. You’re exaggerating!”
Like the boys’ attack, her response shook me. I had been sure that she’d be as shocked, angry, and determined as I to condemn them. I was telling the truth— how they hurt me—yet she didn’t believe me. I felt abandoned, no, distrusted by my own mother. “How could you take their side?” I demanded. “They jumped me and grabbed my clothes. It’s true!”
“I . . . I don’t know, Karen. They’re your friends.” She paused, looked me in the eyes and asked, “Why would they do that? Did you have a fight?”
“No! We were walking home from the Trading Post. They waited till Ellen left, and then said, ‘Come on.’ They ganged up on me, hurt me. Why would they want to strip me?” Mom shook her head and reached out to me. I looked around her studio. I felt like the half-sewn dress laid on the table, empty, undone. No longer did I care how it might make me look, nor want to stand still as my mother tailored it to my body. Nor would I have the heart to practice my new piece open on the piano rack. How could this be my home when I felt so alone?
“I know you’re upset now, but you’re ok. Let’s wait until your father gets home, and we’ll talk about it. Maybe this was just a misunderstanding.”
I wrenched myself out of her arms and fled downstairs. My blue room looked the same, everything in place, as I threw myself down on the bed. The white metal bed frame and pink quilt seemed like a child’s, like the small desk my parents had made for me years before. Its flower motif seemed silly. My horse books on the shelf were a part of my past. Shadows of trees flickered on the wall, but the sun had gone behind a cloud. I wished I could go back to the morning before this happened. Images of the boys' bodies pinning me to the ground pushed my thoughts away. We'd fought before, but never like this. I fingered my torn shirt—no, it really happened. How could it have been my fault?
A year or so earlier several of us boys and girls would gather in a clearing in the woods. I would sidle up our road into the trees beyond any homes. Entering separately, gradually disappearing through the trees, following a path of snapped branches, we met up in a clearing we had made, about twenty feet in diameter, its perimeter marked by twigs and branches. The ground was a rich brown, a mixture of humus, dirt, and leaves that felt soft and ripe as we stripped down and began to crawl on all fours. Pretending we were animals, we reveled in being naked, rolling on the ground, nuzzling each other, and carefully digging holes to pee in. The moist smell of the clearing becalmed us. The only sounds were birds and our few words. The light filtered through the trees, almost dreamlike. We'd linger there entranced by our bodies, each luxuriating in self and others. We all knew to keep this secret.
Following me to my room, Mom slipped onto my bed, her hand stroked my back. It felt good, but she didn’t believe me. Why didn’t I go to dinner and try to persuade my father to help me? Had I begun to feel guilty? Maybe my mother’s reaction made me ambivalent about the attack. Mom seemed to understand my need to be alone, and even brought me tea and toast instead of making me come to dinner. Soothing my body, letting me be wasn't enough. I needed to be heard.
The next morning I asked her what Dad had said, but she brushed me off. They couldn't do anything about it. Something about witnesses, the boys being my friends. I didn’t understand. Why hadn’t I gone to dinner to plead my case?
How could I walk to the bus, go to school, play in the neighborhood? My parents advised me to keep it to myself, and promised it wouldn't happen again because they would talk to the boys. I was furious, but alone with my anger. I began to see how limited my parents’ world was, yet had no way to go beyond it. There was no place for my anger, my confusion, my shame.
I went to school and straight home in a daze, hoping that once again my father would get a new job, so we could move away. After my parents did nothing, I knew better than to tell anyone else. When I saw any of the boys, I tensed up, self-conscious. They probably knew I wasn't believed, but they weren't nasty about it. They may have been relieved they didn't get punished. I wanted to disappear or to attack them. But as time went on, and nothing was said, we acted as if we'd never been friends. They didn’t tell anyone in school, or, if they did, I never heard about it. And I gradually accepted that no one was going to punish them.
There was a gap between my mother and me. She still made me clothes, praised my piano playing, and I admired her paintings and washed the dishes. But whenever I brought up the boys’ betrayal, she changed the subject. While I could relive every moment of the attack and ached to have the boys punished, Mom pretended it had never happened.
They had been the kids I played, gossiped and ate with, not some strangers who escaped undetected. Why hadn’t there been a showdown? While many kids knew about sex and its perversions, I didn’t learn about rape till I was twelve. The word, rape, caught the pain of my experience—strip had never seemed harsh enough. They had tried to rape me.
Now I had a word, a concept for this memory, but why hadn’t my parents helped me demand an accounting? Sometimes I faltered. Did the attack really happen the way I recalled? Was I entitled to my outrage, my desire for justice? How could I trust people to be friends after these boys turned on me?
Years later I was haunted by the loss of several people who had been close friends. They had not died nor disappeared. Our daily intimacy had been replaced by total separation, a teaching friend, for instance, who no longer answered my e-mails after we had both retired. There had been no fight or parting of the ways. We simply lived in different worlds. Eventually I accepted her choice. But this uneasiness took me back, I gradually realized, to the trauma I felt when the boys attacked me. There were probably hints, a nudge here, an appraising look there, that might have warned me that the boys saw me differently. But I had missed those nuances as a nine year old and no one had helped me learn to detect warnings. Our secret clearing in the woods had been obliterated by our battle in the weeds.
About the author:
Karen Jahn taught English at two colleges for almost thirty years specializing first in 19th century British and then African American Literature and music. She presented at conferences on music in literature widely. After retiring, she finally got to writing personal essays, earned an MFA at VCFA to expedite the process. She has published an essay with The Intima and received a residency at The Marble House to work on her braided essay about the blues and mass incarceration