You know, it is amazing to me to think that the world has changed so much in 35 years that I am afraid to let my 8 year-old daughter walk to school by herself. Even if we lived in a nicer neighborhood, I'm not sure I would do it. But by the time I was 6 and in 1st grade, I walked to school by myself. My brother had won a lottery slot and gotten into a very traditional and strict charter school which is what he needed for his learning disabilities. I would not get a slot until 2nd grade, which is good because it was definitely NOT what I needed.
But anyway, at 6 years old my parents felt confident enough to let me walk alone the two blocks to my school. I remember some of it, but not much. I remember always walking by one particular house and using their low border wall as a balance beam. I remember stopping to strip someone's gate of honeysuckle. And I remember the bridge.
I seem to recall the bridge was more of an overpass for our quiet neighborhood. You could skid down a slanted cement wall and play at the bottom, which my friends and I did. The Vietnam War had just ended, so we did a lot of military maneuvers in that ditch. I was forced to be the nurse and I used to really resent that. I always had to treat the "wounded" soldiers instead of getting in there and fighting with cattails, or sticks or whatever we could find. And I was never allowed to go down there by myself, but I had to cross over the bridge to get to my school.
Now two things coincide here and I am not sure if they relate. One, a woman was raped and stabbed in the ditch sometime while I lived there. She was a friend of my parents and I remember the whispered conversations they would have at night after they thought I fell asleep. So I know someone died there. But that's not what I experienced.
One day as I was walking over the bridge something caused me to turn back. A noise, a movement, a thought, I don't know. But I turned back and "saw" (sensed? imagined?) a woman's body hanging from the guard rail. She was bound with some sort of leather straps at her wrists and feet. I stood stock-still, unable to make my feet move. There was a gentle breeze blowing in the air and her body swayed ever so slightly. I knew she wasn't real, but I also knew she was there. Just as I was about to take a step away from her and towards my school, she opened her eyes. I was caught, terrified and alone. Finally a car came by and broke my concentration and I was able to walk on.
But every time I crossed that bridge, I could sense her. I refused to ever look again, but even today I can close my eyes and conjure up an image of her just hanging there, her neck broken and her head hanging low. I was so thankful when I was transferred to my brother's school because I would not have to walk past her alone.
This haunted me for years. We moved away from Columbus and I got older, but I never forgot my terror. Eventually my dad was transferred back to Columbus, but by this time I was a teenager. The day I got my driver's license I took my car and drove back to my old neighborhood. I parked my car at the empty elementary school and started a slow walk towards my old house. When I came to the bridge I hesitated. I didn't want to look, but I also didn't sense anything.
Relieved, I began to cross the bridge. I thought to myself that it was all just my imagination. I must have heard those conversations about the woman who had been stabbed and made it all up in my head. I know that seems strange for a 6 year old, but I had a very weird upbringing and I thought anything could be possible.
I got to the other side feeling confident and happy. I didn't need to go any farther, I had proven to myself that it had just been my imagination. How foolish I felt, but glad that now I could let the image go that had haunted me for 10 years. As I turned back I looked over the bridge, imagining how I used to play down in the now glass-filled, desolate ditch. It was then that I saw it...there on the wall. Graffiti, just stupid graffiti, I told myself. Only it wasn't just graffiti. Someone had painted a beautiful winged angel bound in leather straps. The paint wasn't brand new, but it wasn't ten years old either. Someone had painted my vision but with wings.
Did someone else sense her presence? Was she their relative? Was it all just a coincidence? I'll never know. But I haven't forgotten her...ever.
Tomorrow: Tales from the Civil War Fort I used to call my school.