Up All Night
The other night, I lay in bed listening to the high, thin shriek of some animal being eaten by some other animal. While we are indoors reading books, watching flickering screens, or sleeping safely under the blankets, the night creatures are out there, hunting, killing, eating, mating, birthing, and dying in the darkness. They creep through the leaves and scuttle along the eaves, making cryptic sounds that cause us to turn to one another in bed and say, “Did you hear that?”
During the day, my neighborhood seems idyllic, alive with the melodic trills and chirrups of birds. But at night, the sounds of predation filter through the windows. I hear cries of fear and terror as nests and dens are invaded, eggs eaten, and young carried off. The night is filled with a ravening hunger. Last year, the towhees built their nest in the clematis vine, and one night a raccoon found it and devoured the nestlings. I heard the parent birds screeching, a scuffle, and then silence. The next morning, the nest was gone, tumbled from the vine’s protecting tendrils, and the towhees were gone as well.
Sometimes the sounds of night are unbearable. I put my hands over my ears, bury my head in the pillow—and there I face my fundamental problem: how can I embrace the bird song and reject the messy, brutal banquet that follows? I know that nature is impartial. I know that death is the necessary condition of life, nature’s operating principle. Without night there can be no day. Still, I cover my ears when I hear the desperate cries, because I know that every creature longs to live another day.
In the middle of one cacophonous night, I finally gave up the battle for sleep. I got out of bed and padded into the living room, going from window to window looking out at the hillside encircling the house. The Matilija poppies were in bloom, and their white petals were bright against the darkness. I opened the door and stepped outside. The sweet fragrance of the papery white poppies filled the yard. The night air on my tongue tasted rich and sharp. It was a moonless night, and the darkness was almost complete, except for some stray light trickling over the top of the hill and illuminating the treetops. The hillside was a shapeless mass. Nothing emerged from the gloom; not leaf nor rock, nor even the boundary between shrub and sky, matter and space. Standing out there with the slick meadow grass twining between my toes, it struck me that I had not been barefoot outdoors at night since I was a child. I dug my toes deeper into the grass, enjoying the pleasurable feel.
Squinting at the vague contours of the hillside, I remembered a painting I used to have, a gift from an artist friend. It depicted a dog inside a courtyard barking at a man who has been caught in the act of climbing over the courtyard wall. The title of the painting was The Intruder. A few days after hanging the painting, I noticed vague shapes and silhouettes beneath the paint. I remembered that my friend often painted over old canvases: I was seeing the traces of an earlier painting peeking through. The longer I looked, the more I saw. I saw how tenuously the new rests upon the old. I saw how the past is always intruding upon the present. I saw how every story is shaped by the stories that come before and those that come after.
The story of my life was just a single coat of paint obscuring the innumerable other stories that lay beneath it. There was room on the canvas for infinite variations, layer upon layer of history portraying the conquests of raccoons and the misfortunes of birds, human and animal heartbreak and love, tranquility and chaos, innocence and guilt, sorrow and joy.
Standing in the dark, I sensed a subtle internal shift, like an instrument changing from a major to a minor key. I felt the stirrings of my night self, the instinctive part of me who understands that every plant and rock and animal down to the tiniest mite is connected in some way to all the others. Inside the shroud of darkness, my senses grew more acute. The shadows parted and a hundred eyes stared back at me. I saw a skunk digging for grubs at the edge of the meadow. I saw an earthworm sliding across the soil. I heard the moths unfurling their wings, and I heard the wild birds sighing as they dreamed the songs they would sing come daybreak.