Brian Kornell

Part 1 of 3 

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, about a ghost.

The witch’s wheel. It was in the woods that ran the length of the street I grew up on, behind my neighbor’s house. The girls that lived there said they had seen it. Knew where to find it. It was a rumor in the neighborhood that people snuck into the thick of trees that separated my street from the next one to meet in secret, to perform unspeakable, dark things. This was the time when the fear of satanic cults had taken hold in the general public, when razors were said to be found in candy. We were primed for things to be after us. The woods were mysterious, especially for an area mostly surrounded by concrete and asphalt. The woods separated my mostly upper class suburb from the lower, working class suburb right next to it. My street was the last in the “good” part of town, gave people the “right” address, even though the families here had more in common with the residents on the other side of the trees, but wanted to appear they belonged somewhere else. Some of them, many of them, longed to be somewhere else.

My neighbor’s father had been the only one brave enough to take down the tall metal linked fence behind their house and replace it with a knee-high sized green fence. The material was pliable and easy to step over. A fence more for show than function.

“Let’s go,” Sara said, the older of the two neighbor girls, the one who I spent the most time with. The one both of our parents would joke about the two of us dating, getting married one day even though we were only ten. Even though we didn’t see each other that way, never would. My parents hopeful that what they could already see in me wasn’t really there.

She stepped over the fence into the woods. It was the middle of the day, no reason to be afraid. I wanted to see the wheel. Know if it was real or not. For a moment, I thought we should tell someone where we were going in case something happened to us. Let someone know where to look for us if we ended up missing. But I knew, if we did tell someone, they would forbid us to go. We had to go without saying a word.

“Hurry up, before we get caught,” she said.

I stepped over the fence to join her.

Branches from trees blocked what looked like a path that led deeper into the woods. Fallen or purposely placed, it was difficult to tell. Even though part of me took it as a warning, I kept going.

I didn’t know what the witches wheel would look like. I pictured a wheel from a horse drawn carriage. One of the neighborhood kids had once said it was made out of animal intestines or covered in human skin. Sara had seen it, but didn’t offer any details. “You just need to see it,” she said.

We walked for maybe five minutes Not that long. Sara stopped. She needed a second to find her bearings. It was impossible to see the houses on either side. Birds flapped their wings above us. Tree branches bent as squirrels jumped from one to the next. This was the perfect hideaway, except I couldn’t shake the idea of being watched.

“This way,” she said turning to the right.

At this point, I knew how to get myself back–a straight line back home. After this, I wasn’t sure if I could return on my own. Even though the woods were contained by the streets around it, by the people living around it, it still felt possible to get lost in here. Already I felt like I had been gone too long. I had to be back before both my parents were home or at least before dark.

“Are you coming?” Sara walked ahead without waiting for an answer. I had hours. Home would have to be okay without me.

We didn’t have to walk very much further before the density of the trees thinned out and there was a clearing. There were no leaves or any other debris on the ground, the dirt looked swept, cared for, recently. There was a circle of tree stumps. There were four giant pendants hanging from four trees, one for each direction that looked like dream catchers. When I’m an adult, I will tack a dream catcher to the wall above my bed. It will help me sleep better at night.

“This is the witch’s wheel,” Sara said as she sat on one of the stumps.

“What do they do here? I said. “Sacrifice animals? Summon demons?”

“Heal people,” she said. “I think.”

“What makes you say that?”

“It feels peaceful here. Not like bad things are done here,” she said.

She was right. It did. I walked around the circle. Regardless of what was done here, it was respected, looked after, so it was difficult to not feel like an intruder. A few feet away from the circle was an orange Volkswagon Beetle. No tires. Flowers and plants filled the trunk, which no longer had a cover. This would be a great place to hide. A sanctuary.  But it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Sara’s. We had to leave.

I have to go home, I said. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her as we parted once we were back in her yard. I don’t remember seeing her again before her and her family moved two towns away. After she moved, I wished I had said goodbye. Maybe that would have been a way to keep her here. She was the only friend I had in the neighborhood. When she left, I would just head home after school.

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, about a ghost.

As a teenager, I remember feeling I needed to watch the house. This was my responsibility and mine alone. This meant that despite my family being poor, memories of the electricity turned off for non payment from time to time, I was forbidden from having an after school job like most of my friends. My job was to break up fights between my mother and father. When I was smaller than my father, I could only throw myself in his path or jump on his back, shouting in his ear to leave my mother alone, tugging at his hair until he bucked me off. When I finally became bigger than him, it meant holding him back. It meant striking back.

But their fights, the times I needed to stand guard, were inconsistent. I remember some nights in our house were quiet. Times like the summer Sara and I went into the woods, when my parents and I would sit out on the deck behind our house without an argument, without anyone pushing or hitting each other. One of those nights, during a silence in whatever conversation my parents were having, there was the snap of branches in our section of the woods. We all looked towards it. The lights from the back of our house stopped right before the fence.

“Deer,” my mother said.

I felt an immediate desire to confess that I had been back there, but kept quiet. My parents taught me how to be a secret keeper.

My parents restarted their conversation. Another snap. The rustle of leaves coming closer to us. I waited for my mother to say it was a whole family of deer, but she said nothing. We waited. A small tree branch sailed into the yard.

I slid down to sit on the floor of the deck, to hide, my mother grabbed her ashtray from the chair arm and stood up.

My father, beer in hand, stomped down the stairs toward the fence. “You think you can fucking scare us?!”

“Gary,” my mother said my father’s name in a way that chastised him. If she was upset that he was shouting and could disturb the neighbors, or whether she worried about inciting whoever was in the woods, wasn’t clear.

My father picked up the branch and threw it back towards the woods. It hit the top of the fence. He picked it up and poked at the mass of leaves. He stood at the fence for a moment, it sounded like he was talking to someone, but was talking too quietly for me to make out what he was saying. He walked back towards the house and tossed the branch aside in the middle of the yard.

“Get inside,” my father said.

I couldn’t help thinking this was my fault. I had gone somewhere I shouldn’t and there was to be some kind of punishment.

My mother and I walked back into the house. My father shut the sliding glass door behind him as he walked in. He put a wooden rod in the frame because the lock on the door was broken.

I listened for noises the whole night, which was not unusual, but for once I was checking to make sure there weren’t any coming from outside. “Go away, go away,” I whispered. If I had made them appear, maybe I could make them disappear too.

Part 2 of Brian’s essay will post next Monday. 

Brian Kornell’s writing appears in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, Luna Luna Magazine, OCHO, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a memoir about growing up gay in the Midwest as well being closeted and married until he was in his early thirties. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter (@briankornell) or on Tumblr (

Submit a comment