Walking the dogs down the sidewalk in the dark, I didn’t see him at first.
The man standing at the edge of the park was almost invisible, blending so well into the scenery I didn’t notice him until we were close enough to touch.
I don’t know what got my attention. He didn’t move or make a sound. But when I saw him, standing silent and still, I gasped. I was so surprised I stopped short, making the animals stumble when their leashes were pulled taut.
Looking right at me, he put his finger up to his lips, telling me not to speak.
We were alone at the dark periphery of an empty meadow, alone on a street that had gone in for the night. He was hidden in the shadows and I was distracted and vulnerable. Our eyes locked and I froze.
Slowly, carefully, he raised the other hand and pointed.
That’s when I saw the family of skunks just a few feet away, ambling across the grass, headed in the other direction toward the trees. When my eyes widened, he smiled at me and nodded.
They must have walked right in front of me.
For once the dogs behaved. They didn’t run around my feet, sniffing at the shrubbery, tangling me in the leashes. They didn’t growl or bark. For once they stood quietly, patiently.
The man and I stood together until the skunks were a safe distance away and the danger had passed. Then we both exhaled and laughed.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, no,” I assured him. “You did me a favor.”
Still laughing, we went our own ways.
On the short walk home I thought about my reaction to the man when I’d noticed him. About my fear of a stranger and the perception of a threat. I’d been so intent on him that I hadn’t even noticed the real danger as it strolled beside me.
I suppose it’s fair to point out that getting skunked isn’t as bad as what dangerous people can do to us. But still …
Fear of the dark is so deeply ingrained in each of us it must be in our human DNA. We recognize, on a visceral level, that scary things can hide under the cover of darkness. Recognizing that has always been key to our survival.
But the fear of one another – like the fear of skunks – the fear of what can happen to us if we get too close or step into the shadows, is a learned response.
We learn it from our own experiences, or the stories of others that make headlines and movies.
That fear, like other things that prowl in the night, leaves behind a bitter perfume.