The night walk
When I was young, I was in the habit of lying in bed in the falling night. I was waiting.
When I would rise from the bed, my body stayed behind.
This room of my childhood was no different from any other room, in any other house, in any other place. My bed rested below a long window that looked out on a pine grove. To the right, the grove opened onto the empty yard. When the wind blew, the dark and light night shades flickered riotously through the room.
I could feel the sound.
If I sat up in my bed, the pillow scrunched against the pine headboard, I could see the small barn. You could touch the stillness on a night like that, the hens clucking softly, the goat curled in warm hay, her ears cocking at the sound of rustling leaves. Our garden, row after row of vegetables, promised an abundance at the summer’s end. The swamps lay beyond, a maze of knotty root clumps and brackish, snake-infested water, where the wiry mosquitos that chased us from dawn to dusk bred.
One sister sleeps in another bed against the wall. She’s still, her eyelids fluttering as if invisible wood sprites danced on them.
I move out through the door, rough floorboards scraping my feet. My father and I have just finished laying down new boards pilfered from the big house in town they had razed. The boards are irregular, lined up in that half-way that we did so many things.
I slip into the next room and feel my way to the back. Another sister is on the top bunk, her head rolled off her pillow. She seems barely asleep. How can she rest? She catalogs everything that should be done, but isn’t, and her dreams race to fill the vacuum.
Another sister lies on the bunk below, frozen like a fossil from Pompeii. She has only just learned to walk, to improve on the crippled lurch that propelled her with uncertain purpose throughout the house.
The baby is in the crib. Every breath is a punch at the night. She wheezes.
There is nothing here. I can leave this room.
The fragrance of the house lingers on the landing: yeast and oil, soapy bathwater, the rich oils of drying paints; the crisp shock of turpentine; the pine of the forest; the dank wet of the swamps.
In my bed, my body stirs.
I step across into the big room. The carpet is like packed dirt. The bed is a swooping shadow. I rise over it, suspended by a thread of starlight.
My father is by the window, on his side, slight and deflated in sleep, a look of surprise fixed on his face. His beard is limp. My mother rests tiny, her back to his, her forehead raised up as if attracted to a sudden warmth, her lips caught between a grimace and grin. Their bodies do not touch. She is almost not there.
Out the window, I see the passion rush of night spirits circling the house. I take the starlight and weave a giant web. The strands come alive and encircle the roof in a silvery mesh. It is safe. The house is still. We can all sleep. Whatever will happen next, whatever crisis of heart will come — and it will — can wait. We’re all in our own dreams and in our dreams, it’s our own sorrows that we can manage.