FICTION: If you go down to the woods

BY BRONWYN LAW-VILJOEN

Check

Racism never detects the particles of the other.

Just before six. So. A good hour. The traffic coming up Beyers is a trickle. It will be backed up all the way from Judith by the time I’m headed back, but that’s then. The park and the dogs are now. I can ease into my skin, regard the day first. I glance in the rear-view mirror. Mouse has her front paws up on the back seat. She’s watching me—her eyes are sucked brown sweets—making sure I know what I’m doing, that I’m going the right way. Morris is hangdog. I look at the back of his knobbled head. He’ll have that glazed expression that makes people in the other cars smile. The journey to the park is a rude encounter with cold that he doesn’t like, until, that is, we are in the park.

We pull into the lot at three minutes to. It’s darker than yesterday, winter creeping in, holding onto the night longer and longer. The burgundy Cherokee is there, but no sign of the German woman with her nine rescues given to aggressive pack behavior. They are to be avoided. But not because of Morris, who for all his rock jaw and brick-shit-house body, is not a fighter, but will stand wagging desperately to announce he’s cool—cool man—while the pack rushes him. It’s Mouse, no flight dog, all seven kilos of her ready to punch way above her weight.

I coax them out of the car, and as he touches ground the bull terrier is ready, shoulders squared, line of fur rising along his spine, on his toes in that swagger gait. Mouse is off to the dustbin to find old bones or something rotting, her docked tail erect. The car guard watches us. The park is still.

I walk into the cold and wonder if I have too little or too much clothing on, notice the chill on my ankles above my socks. At the bottom of the hill the dam lies breathing. Our vapour rises into the dark. I check the moonbag—keys, leashes, turd bags and two half treats. I swing the bag around, pick up the pace.

The dogs are all ears, stopping to piss for a moment and then off, noses to ground, Mouse running ahead to find a scent and track it all the way to a pile of discarded KFC, Morris heading left to pick up a trail he found yesterday, angling back across the path to check on me, and then off the other way, his haunches bunching to a stride that’s more bounce than trot, feet high, ears up, his whole body present. His reserves gathered in sleep now squeezed into his veins and his big heart so that he’s on all cylinders, looking for something.

Mouse heads back and suddenly the two of them are off at a sprint, the Jack Russell after the bull terrier, nipping at his arse so that he wheels around in full flight to throw her off but she’s at him, barking and biting at his tender sphincter displayed under his lifted tail, soft grey muscle that contracts when another dog approaches or just before he needs to relieve himself, and irresistible to Mouse. It’s a ritual of tag that circles around my walking until they split apart and pick up a scent, bouncing away at the end of the invisible bungee cords that tie us to each other. Off they go. My thoughts unravel with them in loose threads of dreams and morning.

I settle into a fast-paced rhythm, swinging my arms high, breathing deep to match my stride. We know the routine, fall into it easily, the dogs off and back, off and back, my body working itself into a sweat in the cold air. I focus on my feet and the path ahead and look for signs of movement. I think of Joel, and the list.

 

So you are out walking your dogs in the park and you see me walking towards you, well not me, but a guy, walking towards you. What happens in your head? How does this checklist work?

Okay, a guy like you, thirties, black, slightly taller than me, alone, no dog, no bag. Do you have a backpack, are you carrying anything?

No, no backpack.

And what are you wearing?

Jeans, t-shirt, jacket.

Hoodie?

Jeez, that’s a cliché.

Humour me.

Is it cold? Okay it’s cold, so yes, I have my hood up and my hands in my pockets, and I am walking, head down, no backpack.

Do you have anything in your hands, a packet, say, like a shopping bag?

At six in the morning? No. Just me, hands in my pockets, walking towards you.

Okay, which part of the park are we walking in? That’s important—where we are. In the woods, where it’s still dark at this time of the morning? Or near the dam, which is out in the open and I would have a view in all directions?

You decide. You know the place.

Okay, we’re in the forested part, and we’re walking along next to the stream on the path. The dogs are ahead of me, and you come along.

Okay, so give me the checklist. What plays in your head?

 

I watch Morris head into the bushes. He’s after something. Human faeces, maybe, so I run to catch up, calling him out before he can eat it. He comes running back, big grin, looking for the head pat. Mouse is on her mission amongst the trees, but she’s close enough that I know she’s going to come when I call. The cord is slack.

 

So let’s say I have about fifty paces to do this. Here’s the list. Male, young—not too young, but, say, twenties, thirties—in the woods, alone, no dog, dark clothing, hoodie, no bag. Actually ‘no bag’ comes after ‘no dog’ and before ‘dark clothing’. You have no bag, so that means you’re not going to work. If you were you’d have a backpack and maybe a lunch bag, Pick ’n Pay usually.

Christ, you know the brand of the bag?

Pick ’n Pay is easy—red, blue and white. That’s for your lunch, otherwise why else would you have that kind of bag in your hand at six in the morning? And definitely a guy with evil intentions is not carrying a Pick ’n Pay bag. Remember, this is a suburban park, surrounded on all sides by houses, streets, shops, small businesses. We’re not in the bush here. Technically, we’re in the city. Or very near.

Okay, so you start with male. Are you sure? Doesn’t black come first?

Well I’ve thought about this a lot, trying to assess the level of my prejudice, but no, if you’re male, young, white, alone, no dog, hoodie, no bag, I’m just as worried as I would be if you were all of these and black. So no, it’s definitely male that comes first. A woman coming along the path who checked every box except the gender one wouldn’t worry me. If she were black I’d only wonder a little because mostly it’s white women walking in the park and only in the last several months have I encountered black women walking, but then it’s black women in their late thirties with a dog or a child, or both. Middle-class black women. A young black woman would surprise me, except if she were in running gear. A young guy walking alone in the park would make me start checking the list.

Okay, so first gender, and then age, and then race?

Well, I have to admit that I’ve not been able to test this theory because I’ve never encountered a young white male on his own, walking, in a hoodie, in the park at six in the morning. So there’s that.

Okay, so you’re hoping, in a way, that if you did, you’d be afraid. Because that would reassure you—in respect of your prejudice I mean. You’d be afraid but at the same time relieved to find that your reaction to a young white male was the same as your reaction to a young black male?

If you follow that logic then, yes, I guess I would be afraid and relieved, though the relief might only come later, when I had a chance to go through it. At the moment of encounter, it’s fear before anything else, and some calculations about what to do next. Though, I have to say, not fear, as such, but caution, high alert, hair on the back of the neck, an increase in heart rate. A hard breath in. Fear is what I’ve felt only in an actual attack, in the two that I’ve experienced. Something I’ve felt in no other event, at no other time, in my life. And I didn’t know this until those two attacks, and the second time it happened the feeling was bizarrely and instantly familiar, directly related to the first time. A clear, fearful connection to only one other incident in my life. The same flavour. Two moments linked by exactly the same emotion, except the second time around it was attached to a memory of something, whereas the first time it was unprecedented, instantly known as a new thing, like a screwdriver in my arm. Do you see? So no, we’re not talking fear, which is very different to the feeling I have when I see someone coming along the path towards me, before they’ve done anything to make me afraid, except be there. In the park. At six in the morning. Walking.

 

I watch the dogs up ahead as we enter the woods near the dam, crossing the little concrete bridge and turning south towards the reeds that run along the watercourse. I watch their body language, trusting them to tell me what’s up ahead that I can’t see, or in the trees beside the path. What they can smell, who might be coming. They’re intent on everything, sniffing and testing the air, but relaxed and eager, so I walk on without breaking my stride.

 

Oh, there’s something else. I have to admit that I’ve never encountered a man in a hoodie in the park—black, white, young, old. So that’s just in my head from movies I suppose. Would you really be wearing a hoodie? Do you even own one?

I have one, actually, but if I were out walking in a park on a cold morning, I’d probably be wearing a beanie. Is that on the list?

I haven’t thought about beanies. A beanie would worry me less, I think, because everyone wears them. They don’t come with an age or gender category. Hoodies do. Maybe guys know about this hoodie fear, and so if they’re out there, walking in the park they think to themselves, Maybe I won’t wear the hood now, just in case that woman sees me and kaks herself.

Really? Ha! You think a young guy gives a fuck about your fear? An older man maybe, seeing a woman on her own would want to reassure her that he wasn’t planning on jumping her, so he’d wave and smile.

 

Morris has lagged behind and I stop on the path to wait for him. Mouse, up ahead, pauses for us, her body twisted halfway around to keep sight of me and the path ahead at the same time.

 

So, age before race. I encounter quite a few older men, forties, fifties, sometimes older, and I can spot age from some way off. An older white guy is exercising, an older black guy is walking to work and his body language tells me he’s going somewhere with a purpose, he’s on his way and he’s not even going to notice me. There are a handful of older black men out running or walking and mostly the white men are on bicycles or running. Most of the walkers, in fact, are women.

 

Morris has leaped over the stream and is off into the long dry grass in a clearing between the silver birches. He’ll come out on the other side so I press on, keeping Mouse in sight where she’s snuffling along the fence that borders the road. Morris bursts out of the clearing and Mouse, hearing him, tears across in front of me and gives chase.

 

Okay, first gender, then age, then race?

Yes. No. Place before race. There’s a difference between encountering someone on a narrow path in the woods, where it’s dark and you can’t see them coming, and encountering the same person in the middle of a wide-open field where you can see in all directions and there’s plenty of space to run.

Okay I see it, but even out in the open, race comes into it. Because then you’re thinking that even if he’s, what, male, young, black, you can get away, so you have less need to worry?

Well yes, it does, but then I can usually tell someone’s intentions out in the open. And, plus, they are out in the open. Someone walking across a well-used path, the one path that runs from the southeast gate of the park to the northwest entrance, is basically commuting, taking a shortcut to work. He’s headed somewhere. He’s got a bag and a purpose and he’s just going to work.

Or, like you, he’s exercising. And the same guy in the woods would worry you.

Yes, because then I ask myself, what is he doing in the woods? The path in the woods doesn’t lead anywhere. So is he walking a dog? No. Is he out for a six-in-the-morning stroll? No. Is he jogging, in running shoes, track pants?

Okay, but after that, after what it is the person is actually doing—that you can see from some way off that they are doing—comes gender, then age, then location, and then race?

Yes. After place comes whether you are black or white. And black definitely comes before white on the list. I have tried to play it both ways, test it on people I encounter, but I can’t get around it. It’s black first and then white. I put this down to a few things. First, prejudice.

Racism.

Yes, okay, racism. We can’t shake it, right? As you, on occasion, have reminded me. And we can be racist and not assume any reponsibility for it. We can say it’s in our collective unconscious or whatever, so we can’t get rid of it or be blamed for it. It’s there. It’s a function of history, whiteness. All of that. Sort of like saying I have a lame leg and there’s nothing I personally did that makes me responsible for having a lame leg.

 

Morris dashes across the path so close that I have to stop and take a leap back to avoid being mowed down. Mouse has darted off to the side and comes at him from left field, teeth showing in a gnarly grimace.

 

Then I throw in the numbers, statistics, crimes committed by young black men as against crimes committed by young white men. Then I switch to experience, my own, the two muggings I’ve been involved in. The first one, three young black men, on a dark street, with a knife. And the second one, two young black men, in my garage, with a gun.

The only way to test this would be for me to encounter a young white man in the park at six in the morning, on his own with no dog. And I never have. White men are either on bicycles or they have dogs. And young white men don’t walk at six in the morning. They’re at home in bed, because as we all know, young white men are basically lazy, right? Young black men are in the park at six in the morning because they’re walking to work. They’re not walking for leisure or exercise, like I am. Or they mean to mug someone. There it is. I meet a young black guy in the park and in my head I ask him, Why are you here? Why are you walking in this park at this hour? But actually, there’s something else. Something I hadn’t thought about till now. Something that would help me test the order of things on my list.

 

We’ve reached the small field between the reeds and the scrubby brush where, so people say, a snake has been hiding for several months. It has killed some dogs, and if I meet walkers here they stop me to check that I know about the snake, that I know to keep my dogs out of that patch of undergrowth. I do the same. We look out for each other, for the dogs. Keep your dog out of that little bit of bush because apparently there’s a snake in there, you say. Oh, ok, thanks, thanks a lot! And then an anxious whistle for the dog who’s gone blundering in.

Each time I have this encounter, the number goes up. First one dog has been killed, then two, now it’s three. And I have no idea if these are real numbers or just the way a story changes in the telling. So now the snake is wanted. He’s a serial killer. They’ve had the zoo people in there, rooting around for him, but so far he’s managed to stay hidden. I’m secretly glad for him. Good for him. And for some reason, Mouse and Morris, who go everywhere there’s something interesting to look at or smell or taste, steer clear of this patch. They skirt the edge, stopping here and there to pee or sniff, but they never venture in.

 

If I were mugged by a white guy, would that make me rearrange my list, do you think?

So now you’re hoping you get mugged by a white guy so you can work out whether it’s prejudice or experience that makes you put race after age, or place, or wherever it goes in the list?

Well I’m not hoping to get mugged by anyone. I’m just wondering. How did I make this list to begin with? What plays into it? What makes me put one thing before another?

It’s pretty fucked up that you have the list to begin with.

I’m fucked up for making the list, or the situation that makes me make a list like this is fucked up?

A bit of both. And you and me, where does that come into it?

That’s you and me. That’s not lists and categories. That’s your body and my body.

And that’s different how?

That’s experience.

But the muggings were experience.

Yes but those were experiences with fear, with violence.

But didn’t you say yourself, when you first told me about them, that the only other time you had experienced the intimacy of those violent encounters, of a person so close you could smell his sweat, was when you were having sex?

 

The dogs are in single file now, trotting along in front of me, Morris first, then Mouse. We’ve scrambled up the steep slope to get onto the path that runs along the fence between the park and the soccer fields. It’s light now and the sun is at that angle, flashing between the fence posts as I walk, so that I have to shield my face with my arm to keep from getting dizzy. I walk along, watching the path ahead and listening for bikers approaching from behind so that I can call the dogs off the path. I’m warm now and I think about stripping off a layer. Mid-way along the path I take my green hoodie off as I walk, in one motion, not breaking my stride. As we turn with the path, bugweed and pine trees to the left on the slope, fence close enough to touch on the right, a young black man appears in front of me. Twenties, alone, no dog in sight, no bag. Thirty paces.

The dogs get to him first and he leans forward slightly to touch Morris’s head and give him a scratch as they pass each other. He looks up at me as he does this, without slowing his pace. The dogs have not missed a beat, have given me no warning of his approach. They stop when they are past him to turn and wait for me.

I am swinging my hoodie around on its sleeves, making it into a tube that I can tie around my waist. As I do this, quite deliberately keeping at the action, the choice presents itself to me with the clarity of a gong going off in my head. There is an opening to the left, between the trees on the slope. Keep walking towards the man. You will almost touch each other as you pass. Each of you will have to step slightly to one side to let the other by. Or step off the path, walk awkwardly down the slope a little way, put the trees between you and him and come back up to the path behind him, where the dogs are standing, watching.

Ten paces to go. Give him the benefit of the doubt, or step off the path? He will know why I’m doing this.

Five paces to go.

I decide. I step to the left and walk down the slope, tying my hoodie around my waist as I go. He sees what I’m doing, of this I’m sure. As I get even with him, the trees between us, we are only two metres apart. He greets me, without slowing his pace. Good morning, he says. And I say the same. We greet each other as though I have not just stepped off the path in an obvious manoeuvre to avoid passing close to him. To within, what shall I call it, stabbing distance?

The dogs are off down the slope now, into the trees and chasing across the dead leaves, and the man is behind me. In my mind’s eye, I see him, heading along the path, stepping aside to let a cyclist by, walking south before turning west and then north again to leave the park by the gate that I came through in the dark.

This is the first part of If you go down to the woods. Read the rest of the story:

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