Swimming in the dark
And so begins the great lengthening of the light: two minutes today, more tomorrow, and on and on until June 21.
You’re sitting right now in darkness lit by a glowing tree. You’re remembering light, and people, past and present, dear to you.
Fireflies, little magicians of bioluminescence. You spent so many days, this long year, writing and rewriting a tiny novel about, in equal measure, a firefly, a cricket and a vole. But when you think about the tiny novel, it’s the firefly you think of first, lighting the night.
You grew up in a house in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains so removed from anything resembling a town that at night, the only light visible was a sky full of stars. It took you an absurdly long time, after you were grown up and had lived in cities for many years, to realize that the Adirondacks sky is no more full of stars than anywhere else. When the darkness around it is left undisturbed, a sky full of stars is the way sky is.
When you were nine years old you slept over at a friend’s house. She lived in the village, “the village” being the town of 300 that lay five miles south of your house. You remember hardly sleeping because of the streetlight on the corner that glowed all night long. It was so bright.
It’s surprising how much brightness a person can get used to.
In a clearing on a hill in Vermont is a tiny, one-room cabin. You and your friends built it from a kit you bought off eBay.
The night sky there is full of stars, and the pine woods that surround the cabin are full of fireflies. Someone close to you lived there for half a year, and every night he and his dog went to sit on the bench he built there, down the slope from the cabin, to watch the fireflies come out.
You remember a night at the State Fair four years ago, when your youthful companion and her friend Charlie stood gazing longingly at a kiosk that sold helium balloons on sticks, rubber bouncy balls, and other plastic kitsch. Feeling generous, you bought them each a light-up sword.
Later, as you walked out of the Midway and across a dark meadow to get to your car, your youthful companion and her friend took off across the slope. They wove their way among the trees, their laughter floating through the air, light-up swords flashing in the dark.
You remember buying a package of glow-in-the-dark stars and moons and planets from Spencer Gifts when you were a teenager and your baby brother was turning seven. You stood on a chair in his room reaching up –you can still feel the ache in your arms– pressing each one onto the ceiling of his room.
Those stars and moons and planets are still there in that old room, glowing in the dark when your brother’s young son, visiting his grandparents, goes to sleep.
Here’s a memory of darkness from when you lived on the ocean. There was a white van, and you and someone you loved sitting in it with the engine turned off and the windows open. Summer. A sand road that led to the dunes, and the ocean beyond.
Dark sky above, sand glimmering faintly below, and the murmur of the waves. No one else around. You both took your clothes off and ran in, invisible in the dark water.
But no, not invisible after all. You began to glow, the two of you, arms and legs shimmering beneath the surface of the water. It was an astonishing sight, something you’d never seen before.
There was a reason for it, something to do with oceanic phosphorescence. He explained it to you. But you don’t remember the explanation. All you remember is the sight of him, arm over arm, propelling himself out beyond the break, a swimmer trailing fire.
Here’s a memory of light that didn’t happen to you, but you see it so vividly that it’s as if it did. An airline lost-luggage deliveryman making his way around the curves and hills of the Adirondacks, trying to find that house so far away from anything familiar.
“Dear God,” he said when he finally gave up and called, lost, from his truck. “Where do you people live?”
Your mother laughed.
“Stay on the phone and I’ll guide you in,” she said, and she stood on the porch waving a flashlight back and forth, slowly, a miniature version of the way giant spotlights crisscross the city when a new club opens.
When you were five years old, she woke you in the middle of the night. She took your hand and guided you downstairs and out onto the porch.
“Look up,” she said, and you looked up.
The dark night sky shimmered and pulsed with light. Red and yellow and green and blue, soundless and unearthly.
“That’s the northern lights,” she said. “The aurora borealis.”
You hung onto her hand, your mother whom you loved, and watched the heavens silently singing above.
Years later but long ago now there was another night when you were lost in the darkness in Vermont, driving into the country, searching for the place where someone else you love lived. It was late. Back and forth you drove, past dark houses, dark farms, dark roads, trying to remember the directions he had given you.
Finally you realized you were already there, had been there several times, in fact, in your wanderings. You turned off the headlights, drove down the driveway in darkness, turned off the engine and climbed the steps, everything dark but the faint red glow of the stereo.
Once under the quilts you listened to the sounds around you. Creak of bedframe as you turned over. Tiny rustling animals. Wind in the top of the pines. Crickets. The breathing of someone asleep next to you. If, when you picture it, darkness has a sound, then these are the sounds it has.
If darkness has a smell, it’s the smell of furrowed fields and pine woods, salt water and sand.
If darkness is defined only by light, then light is stars and fireflies, skin glowing in the ocean, the faint red flicker of a stereo after a long journey, the presence of those you loved and love.