A month or so ago I was walking back from Benjamin Franklin College after a suite dance party. I was sweaty and thinking about the people I had just met, what we were singing and how we could make so much noise in such a small space. I was looking out over the Grove Street Cemetery, thinking about the sky slowly turning from red to purple over the obelisks and through the tree branch silhouettes. I was alone and my thoughts felt private. Aware of this aloneness, I found myself watching a couple ahead of me walking back to Old Campus. The wind felt strong and chilly, and they stumbled around each other in it, holding hands. I was one figure alone, watching them gesticulate emphatically and imagining the secrets they were sharing. But I soon found out I wasn’t the only one watching.
A small furry creature made itself known to me in so many secret noises — the Old Campus Skunk was rummaging in the garbage ditch next to William L. Harkness Hall. I watched as this creature, uncannily too big to be considered a rodent but too small to be considered threatening, tested its luck and emerged from the garbage ditch. OCS seemed depressingly out of place on the paved sidewalk, in the wilderness of College Street. I watched as OCS flirted with the possibility of approaching the couple, as the couple ran wildly across the street to avoid him and then as the couple wildly returned to the other side in order to avoid his darting. All three silhouettes danced animatedly in the horizon.
It must have been two in the morning when my friend and I found ourselves back on Old Campus. The night felt inky and lonely and the trees hung like still bodies in the air. The sprinklers were spraying muddy paths, so naturally we found ourselves crawling around on the grass, avoiding the sprinklers’ paths on all fours. We were on our elbows and knees, getting sprayed with jets of droplets, laughing and trusting that no one was watching. I didn’t tell my friend as I noticed OCS shimmying around a few triangles of grass away from us, circling a tree trunk like a quiet menace and rummaging in the wet mulch. That moment of instant terror when a monster makes itself known in your dream and you can’t move your body, you can only feel the world moving around your body. Like when you see a wasp hovering over a friend’s head but you let it go unnoticed. Poor OCS. This abject, nameless thing sharing all these quiet moments with you, as you tacitly believe everything you do goes unseen.
My mom is eight years old and she’s camping with her family. The four of them rest on the forest floor, bundled together in their sleeping bags in a row in the open air. My mom can’t sleep so she watches the night sky, looking up at the frantic late October leaves oscillating in place. She measures everyone’s breath carefully, imagining their pleasant lazy dreams and how their limbs must feel relaxed and heavy against the ground. She starts to feel her own eyelids grow heavy when she feels an eerie mammalian weight shift onto her stomach. Too heavy for a rodent, too light for a more menacing creature. Her body paralyzes in terror; she remembers what my grandmother told her about staying still when bees would weave around her head and shoulders. And just as soon as it arrived, it passed through, without anyone else knowing. This abject thing encountering her in moments when she thought she was alone, like when she would walk into a garden at home and find herself staring into the eyes of a buck before he ran away.
I’m ten and opening the screeching kitchen door to let my dog in for the night. He brings with him that curious smell, it wafts in from the night air to the warm kitchen. It’s the trace of a secret noticing, some quiet diminutive thing that didn’t come close to making itself known.
It’s late July and my friend and I have been meeting at the beach every night after working our summer jobs. We sit on top of a picnic bench with obscenities marked all across its underbelly and have melodramatic conversations about our feelings and what we imagine college becoming, how we imagine it changing us. A row of neat houses separates us from the parking lot, and a neat row of beach grass separates us from the houses. We’re looking out onto Long Island Sound and the moon makes a path of light across the small waves, much like … the bright white stripe across a skunk’s back, which I suddenly notice digging and shimmying in the sand. I’m listening intently to my friend talking about anxiety as this creature comes dangerously close to his sneakers, but I don’t alert him. I don’t want to upset him.
Even when you think you’re alone, the OCS is always watching you; he is the unnamed listener and observer leaving no trace.
Annie Nields | email@example.com .