The night walk
My bedroom was no different from any other room, in any other house, in any other place, but I could not have been more aware of how different my place was. My bed rested below a long, tall window that peeked out into the pine grove between our house and the road. To the right, the pine grove opened onto an expanse of yard that let the gentle night light illuminate my walls. Sometimes, when the wind blew, the dark and light shades of the night would flick riotously through the room. I could feel the sound. If I sat up in my bed, the pillow scrunched behind my back, and crossed my legs, I could see over the yard to the small barn.
The stillness was palpable in those nights. I could feel the outdoors at rest, the hens clucking softly in their sleep, the goat curled in warm hay, the soft hairs of her ears lifting slightly with the breeze. Beyond the little barn, the edge of the woods, and a perceptible darkness. Our garden, row after row of vegetables that promised an abundance at the summer’s end. And beyond, the swamps, a network of knotty root clumps and sluggish, snake-infested water that bred wiry, determined mosquitos that chased us from dawn to dusk, but which could never discourage us from plunging further into the soggy depths to discover whatever mysteries were promised.
But the drama lay in the house.
Imagine my consciousness taking shape, lifting itself out of bed, and cautiously walking across the room. In her bed, against the wall, is my sister J. Even then, people would stop in the street and feel compelled to touch her, comment on her beauty. She’s three. We’ve shared this room since she was born. She’s sleeping quietly, her lips still, her eyelids fluttering slightly as if a gaggle of sprites danced on her.
I move out through the door, rough floorboards scraping my feet. My father and I have just finished laying down new boards that we’ve spirited away from a big house in town that was razed after a fire destroyed its top floors. I’ve spent days punching nails, but still have missed several, and in that half-way that we did so many things, some of the boards are rough and poorly sealed. The landing is small: three rooms open on it.
I slip into the room next door and feel my way to the back. S. is on the top bunk, her head rolled slightly off her pillow. She seems barely asleep. How can she rest? The wildness of life and responsibility courses through her room with the forces of tides—no 8-year old soul can resist this power. Below, in a spasm of contortions suddenly stilled by the onset of sleep, is T. She is 10. She has only recently learned to walk, has improved on the crippled lurch, her right leg dragging behind her like a blanket, that propelled her with unexpressed purpose throughout the house. She is still, but with no awareness. Bunched in beside the bunk bed is the crib. Inside, just a year old, is E.. She’s breathing heavily, asleep and defiant in her own confident and good-natured fashion. She was in a crazy rush to join us all—premature by a month or so—and had been working all this first year of her life to get back the energy she lost just getting started in life.
S. sleeps with the intense awareness of a mother bear in her den. These are her charges. This she knows and in her unquestioning way accepts.
I can leave this room. There will be no change in this moment, and perhaps none in the next.
I stop in the landing and the scents wash over me. These are the full smells of a full life: the aroma of yeast and oil from the bread dough rising on the kitchen counters; soapy bathwater; ammonia from the basements; the rich oils of my mother’s paints; the crisp shock of turpentine; the pine of the forest; the moisture of the swamps…
Now I step through the door into the big room. Beneath my feet I can feel the worn thread of the oriental carpet and to my right, the looming shape of the bed. We’ve broken it several times now, jumping up and down in the frenzy of pillow fights; I’ve sat lonely on it, struggling to memorize my catechism and yearning to run outside; tears have been shed over it. Ultimately, this bed, from which all victories and sorrows sprang for this one family, will be consumed in a roar of flames. But tonight, as I make my solitary rounds, my parents rest in it. I stand over them and feel a sweeping away, as if I’m carried on a thread of starlight. They are still. My father is by the window, on his side like a fossil at Pompeii, slight and caught by surprise. His beard is soft and rests gently against his cheek. My mother is tiny, her back to his, her forehead raised up as if attracted to a sudden warmth, her lips caught between a grimace and grin. They dream. I hope they rest.
I can drift back to my bed now, can close my eyes and welcome sleep. It will be filled with dreams, with urgency and excitement, with chaos and clamor. But it is safe. The house is still. We each sleep. Whatever will happen next, whatever crisis of heart or life, can hold for one evening. We’re all in our own corners, taking respite.