You can’t write this.
No answer. Crickets. Literally – the night’s dark out here and filled with crickets. Grinding, grinding, grinding away. Until, maybe walking a dog through the dark, you disturb them with the swing of the flashlight. And then (while on this hypothetical walk), under the beam of your flashlight, a group of crickets quiets themselves, waiting until you pass when, again, they can pick the ratcheting chorus back up. Hordes of them grind out there in the dark – entire families of them: juicy-fat papas, inbred cousins, misshapen youth, spry green ones, and shameless fat ones making the noise of naked legs creaking dryly through midnight. They’re all around me as I sit here on the porch and yet – leg groaning against leg, animal desire chuffing into the night – the voice that I questioned does answer me.
I try again. I speak loudly now, awkwardly. I speak the same way that I walk the dog on these darkest of nights: loudly and awkwardly. That’s all I do, after all, on these darkest of nights – I either sit or walk the dog, sit or walk the dog. And if I’m walking the dog, I wish I was sitting; because, when I’m walking, I’m drowning in the dark, batting the flood of it back with a half-dead flashlight, paddling my feet against the silence of it, swashing the scant echo of sole-on-gravel so that the dark doesn’t flood over me, doesn’t devour me, doesn’t leave me mauled and gasping in the ditch. (If I make enough noise, whatever lopes through the fields will hear me. And if I’m loud enough, maybe it will lope away. But still, I cannot hear the thing that hears me…).
And so, I try again. I swing my words like half-drowned limbs at the thing that listens to me. Loudly and awkwardly, “Why not? Why can’t I write this?”
Because you’re afraid.
“No I’m not.” Awkward, quavering. And now, not-so-loud. I’m drowning against this thing.
I hear the crickets whirring in great packs or swarms or schools or flocks or whatever it is that crickets form when they gather. There’s a slight snapping of a branch – a deer or the wind perhaps – and an entire party of crickets goes silent. The rest whir on, even raising their volume as if they’re making up for the emptiness left by the party that has gone temporarily silent.
The night is hot and ripe and perfect for the mating of insectoid bodies, the procreation of slender, shiny hexapods.
“No I’m not afraid.”
And why not?
This isn’t a conversation. It’s a lesson.
I take a breath, rub my head.
“What is there to fear?”
The spooked contingent of insects – the branch of the great insect family tree – begins to raise its voice again. And, grinding into the dark, they speak words not through their throats but through the spines of rear legs.
I try again, “What am I afraid of?”
I’ve asked the right question and so now the answer comes quickly: The dark, the silence, the unknown.
“I’m sitting here in the night, in the silence, with the unknown and I’m ready.”
You say you’re ready. No.
The answer comes quick and the voice is dry. Dry as dust in the throat. Dry as an eyeball an hour after death. Dry as hexapod legs that move incessantly. Scrawl, squirm, whir, grind. The thing that watches chews the air with its words. I ask the questions and the thing that watches chews answers out of the night air.
You say you sit in the night and yet night is not the same as the dark. The night is great, wide, and open. There is the summer home that sits there – do you see it? – a mile down the road, with the porch light that glows yellow through every season.
I look south down the road and see the low profile of the house that sits empty most of the year, waiting for its family to come back to it, waiting for them to show up one summer night and unlock the door under the glow of the yellow lamp.
The thing that watches keeps chewing the air:
No, night is not the same as dark. Here in the night, there’s the sound of trucks on the highway. There are dogs that run occasionally through the fields – folks from the city drop them off so they don’t have to be put down and they run (flea-ravaged, hungry, sure; but they run!). This is all night. And yet, it is not the same as dark.
Dark is the night that comes with your dreams – the phantom night that doesn’t allow the space of breath. Dark is the claustrophobia of an eternal nightmare. Dark is the space between your ears that is too tight, too knotted with neuronic doubt to give you any kind of meaningful help as you’re running from what you cannot see. Dark is what turns you from human into animal.
The thing that watches keeps chewing the air. The sound of its voice is like the husky clatter of corn stalks in the late fall – hungry. Hungry and damned.
You say you sit in the silence. This is not silence. Here there are the crickets. Here there is the owl and its interruptions and exhaled interpretations of the wind. Here there is the wind itself through the trees, through the grasses, making its own song by breathing across the entirety of the world.
Silence is that thing that crowds in around your ears when you sit here most nights on your own. It’s that same thing that sprawls like a naked creature in the space between the stars. It’s that thing that listens for your voice and then, when you shout out, it’s that thing that swallows your voice as if it never existed. And, in the silent mastication of sound, you become smaller than those cold points of light up above, smaller than the bugs that at least vibrate their bodies off of one another. You are unheard.
And the unknown–…
It goes on and on and it hurts to listen but I know that I have to chew it. I am a child again sitting at the table of an infrequently-visited great aunt. I have a mouth full of pot roast that is tangled with sinew and gristle. Great Auntie Birdie is staring at me from her place at the head of the very long table, her nose like a beak, her eyes hard and accusatory. And so, I have nothing to do but chew and chew and chew, knowing that my teeth are too small for the knotted striations of beef. I’d need the teeth of a dog to eat this mouthful. Or at least the throat of a dog – something ravenous that opens wide and swallows whole.
It goes on and on and yet, it seems unaware that, the whole while, I am sketching its portrait in verbs and nouns, my pencil filling line after line in the notebook on my lap.
I write and I become aware of the flavor of the air on my face. It is cool and heavy with pollen – it must be something like what bees taste as they amble from flower to flower.
Another twig snaps closer to the porch. Another, nearer contingent of crickets goes silent with the sharpness of the sound.
It goes on telling me about the unknown. And with each word, with each description, I can tell that I am learning less and less.
In fact, I’m doing the opposite of learning.
My mind is being pulled apart by the hooks of its consonants and the suction of its vowels.
I am chewing the beef and I know that, as the time comes to swallow, my gorge will rise in revolt against the mangled gristle.
I see in the darkest silence of my mind a vision of Aunt Birdie turning to dust in her chair, her lips turning down and down and down as if her face was pushing away her lower jaw, shoving it off into a sea of other useless items. Such niceties as lower jaws are for folks that use them for conversing or smiling or kissing. If you don’t use it, it goes away.
Another twig snaps and, again, another brood of crickets falls silent. And, in the silence, the thing that watches raises its voice a little more, filling that fresh absence of sound. Its words drone as if they are filled with their own spines. And I feel like I’m suddenly huddled beneath a tangled pine tree, groping for safety beneath branches, groping and digging in the dirt, last year’s fallen pine needles sharp and desiccated, digging into my soft palms, filling my flesh with the venom of pine pollen that raises hundreds of tiny welts as it works its way into my skin by way of the thousands of needles. And still, I dig, rabbit-like, looking for safety.
Another twig snaps and I can hear the long striding of legs now through the uncut grass. Stride, stride, too long, too lopingly long to be anything that was meant for the light of day.
The crickets that go still this time do not start back up.
And as the loping stride comes closer to the porch, as the voice draws down over my ears like a quilt of pine needles, I write. Madly and profusely I write, the pencil turning image into word. I pause only to scan the words that I have just written and, as I do, the scrawling graphite turns the words back into image.
I scrawl the words out onto the notebook and, as I do, I fear only the blinking of my eyes. For, in the closeness of my own flesh, I am not able to fully take in the shape that is now growing in front of me. With each blink, it feels like my flesh is suffocating my own wobbling eyes and it is only with eyes wide open that I can peer into the dark, peel it back, layer by layer, to see the thing that lopes narrowly through the layers of the night like a goblin who, itself, peels aside the curtains of a bedroom, peels aside the waving grass, peels and peels and peels until its long fingers have nothing left to peel but my own flesh. I can see it – shoulders that tower like the knobby tops of broken birches, arms that stretch far below the quivering tops of the grass, legs that lean the way that trees do in the wind. Its voice is dry. I can see it all as it comes in through the yellow glow flickering behind it, the yellow glow from the porch of the summer home that sits a mile down the road.
As it approaches, I hear more cricket tribes fall silent as they listen to the passing of shadow in grass. Their legs are stilled, their antennae tasting the air, tasting the death that stalks nearby, tasting the ragged breath over long teeth made to crush skeleton or exoskeleton and feast on the goo inside.
The wind blows steadily and I can smell its breath now.
I can smell it as closely as if it were my own.
And still, I write. The face becomes plain on the paper before me. It takes shape in the narrow shadow between pencil and paper, in the infinitesimal space between where the graphite lays itself onto the pulp. Its teeth are razor-slender as arcing letters. The paper draws tight as flea-bitten horsehide. And, I can see that this creature has the same effect on the grass that shivers all around it, on the trees that convulse beneath its touch. No, no, I tell myself, forget the vegetation, forget the grass, the trees. Focus on the forehead, the impossible forehead, the close-set eyes that seem to squint even in the pitch of midnight…
I just smile and write: “The strides come, the grass swishes to and fro beneath the sway of legs and arms.”
I take a breath and, in the space of that inhalation and exhalation, I can hear tires sighing up the hill just beyond the yellow-tinted house.
It is the time for vacations, before a new schoolyear gets underway. It is the time for families to regather themselves in the whirring midnights and windswept days. A time for kids to lose their fingers to sand and dirt, to become a part of the wind and the sun and the rain, a time for parents to hand out grilled hotdogs to those same grubby fingers and watch as dabs of ketchup drop into the dirt. It is a time to allow tantrums to rise as suddenly as late summer storms and then to fall just as quickly, for the adults to collect the sleeping children with their hot kid-breath and tuck them into sheets or sleeping bags; a time for the parents to pull their own flesh back to their bosom. And then, when the children are in bed, it is time for parents to fall onto old, sagging sofas, to watch the black-and-white stories that crackle down onto the old TV through antennae tuned to radio waves that somehow still linger (and will linger forever) in the crackling stratosphere.
I scribble now, quicker, maddeningly quick. Vegetation, arms, forehead, sky, moon, all of it – it doesn’t matter. I blink and, even in that fraction of a second when my eyes shut, my hand keeps at it until it cramps in complaint and, even then, I drive it more, faster, scribbling.
The unknown is what will lay you out.
It is close now, uncomfortably close.
I see headlights coming over the hill.
The unknown is what will flay your chest, crack your bone, and suck the marrow. And you will quicken it with your own hand, quicken it with a blade or a bullet just to find a way out.
“You don’t mean that, do you?” I smile, “To quicken is to come alive, after all. It is the first flutter in the womb. No, I think you misspoke yourself… hush now, Thing, your time is over and I have work to do.”
And I write just that: “Hush now, Thing, I have work to do…”
I look at the three dots and then shut my eyes. “Yes, ellipse.”
The crickets are winding up now. The strides that sound as large as the wind itself, that sound like wind-made-flesh, seem to slacken.
“You show me your face.”
I can hear the gravel crunching under the tires that have come up from the city, the tires that have known hot pavement and crowded gas stations and rushing freeway; they’re crunching now slowly over gravel. There will be sounds like that all this week from that old summer home – crunching gravel, crackling fire, squeaking swing set. Grinding and crunching and crackling and moving.
And they will need stories. Stories of monsters that stride through the woods, that come to take away the terrified. Stories of goblins and witches and monsters. Fires to tell by the crackling fire, to listen to as the trees creak in the shadows.
I gaze at the face before me.
I write and I know that this is the one – the destroyer of the timid. How small it is!
I laugh at the story in front of me. I laugh loud and long and full until it feels like my ribs will crack. I suck the air and laugh until my chest burns.
A few crickets slow their mating call while I finish my outburst. And then they start up again as if it never happened.
And, there in the liveliness of the night, I sit a while longer and smile.
I’ll go down in the morning to say hello to Fran and Bren and the kids. But for now, I sit back, rub my sore hand, listen to the insects as they go on through the night talking their insect language.
An owl hoots in the distance.
I go in to get ready for bed and, as I stand at the sink, I run that same tired hand over the length of my forehead, rub my eyes. I’m getting too old! I laugh, “You’re just right, brother, just right,” and smile at the familiar face in front of me, put my hands to my cheeks as if to hold a loved child. “Just right.”
from the collection of: m. gantee