The other evening I started a fire outdoors in the metal pit someone gave us, the kind on legs with a little shelf all around and a grate at the bottom to let the ashes fall and the air rise. I lit it partly out of desire to get rid of some ugly old scrap wood rotting by the shed, and partly because I like a bonfire in the evening, when the air is cooling and the smoke will go straight up.
I got it going with dry kindling split from the door frames we replaced last summer, setting some of the damp pieces around the edges to bubble and steam. Then I drove to pick up a daughter and some hotdogs and s’more ingredients. Everyone roasted and ate and sat a while, then headed in one by one until only my oldest daughter and I were left. We bantered about this and that–life now, plans for the future, me trying to be a good listener but use openings to offer perspectives from hindsight.
Then she went in too, and I sat in the dark letting the glowing embers roast my knees. There was still too much light from the house so I turned off the nearest bulbs so I could see the stars, tumbled up like gems. Orion always draws my eyes first, then the Big Dipper, and the humble North star. I checked in on Cassiopeia too, which I’ve added to my mental cupboards, thanks to a star map.
Darkness is a comfort to me–the darker the better, except for campfires, stars and moonshine. I sometimes wonder why, but as a child I sought dark places. Two memories I can think of to reinforce that–one, playing Sardines–the game where one hides and waits for each other person in turn to discover and creep into one’s hiding place, so that at last all are hidden away cozily and trying not to giggle while the last seeker gets nearer and nearer, feeling abandoned and nervous, then, everyone leaps out and yells, “Sardines!” It was the only legitimate time to cuddle with siblings or friends, under cover of dark.
Second was the dark that would creep in from the edges of my circle of vision as I lay under warm, clean sheets for a minor surgery I had two or three times before age seven. Hovering over me were the dark brown face of Doctor James, and the nurse whose face and hair I remember, though not her name. Doctor James would tell me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in his Indian accent as I sank into the friendly dark, where everyone was watching over me until I woke up.
Sometimes when I have to get up at night I purposely walk forward before my eyes have adjusted to the dark, before I can dimly perceive the shapes of doorways and chairs. Feeling with my feet and pressing my face into what seems almost like a substance, as if I am closing my eyes and dunking my face into the surface of some body of water. I want to move by feel alone, sensing not only objects I touch, but the nearness of other objects, or emptiness, by feeling the almost imperceptible currents of air.
I grew up on a gravel road without streetlights, no houses lights visible at all from the front of the house. At ten o’clock I would go for a run, seeing the road only by the light of the heavens, knowing I too was a shadow. That was the safest way, I felt–to stay in the darkness so as not to be seen by anyone. In the rare event that a car approached, I would crouch at the edge of the ditch until it passed and and I could see in the dark again. Because it was the added light that made one not able to see, not the darkness itself. The idea someone tried to teach us young women of the city, that one should walk on lighted sidewalks only, even out in the empty street if necessary so as to be lit up, never made sense to me.
I have streetlights in front of my house now, and can never see much worth seeing out on a walk at night, though the moon and stars still manage to come through the electric haze. Maybe it’s time to scout out a hillside away from them all, sit still and listen to the deer cracking twigs, owls calling, raccoons squabbling. I’d even like to walk straight into the dark of the woods, going by feel. But I don’t really have the courage to do it alone, fearing as I have been taught the possibility of nasty humans lying in wait.