The year is 1922, and in this sleepy Michigan hamlet the night of the first snow has brought silence to the world. The powder piles deeply around each oaken home, where it shifts mystically by faint firelight or gleams in the newer electric glare. There is nothing but forest for miles about. Stately pines in their fresh white robes, maples gnarled and leering, shadowy hemlocks like strange dark fences, and baleful palings of birch. Among them, things that prowl. The moon shines silver on ghostly coyotes and bobcats stalk soft-pawed for hares. The deermice are burrowing across the snow, and when the owls swoop after them their wings make not a sound. To everything there is the kind of hushed reverence that is almost gone from the world. For in this place the night still holds many mysteries, and much wonder, and much fear.
Now and then the listless window-watchers of the night catch flashes of yellow eyes out there, beyond the reach of the light. And some are afraid, and some lock their doors.
But if the yellow eyes look back, they find in the dwellings of men and women only an inscrutable shadowshow: silhouettes that move strangely on backdrops of sourceless light, something entirely senseless, something best left alone.
What would it look like, perhaps, to a curious owl or a wayward cat, as this large and scattered family reunites at the old homestead at the outskirts of town; as their strained hellos give way to guarded talk, to lengthening silences, and finally to wondering why they came here at all? What would it look like, and where would the sense be in that?
If you unfurled your wings, if you sailed the chill air above the reach of the chimneys, would you cease your nocturnal hunt for a moment, would you notice the tailor at work through her window? See her sitting alone by the sputtering woodstove. Her work nearly done for the evening, she sews the last dart into the back of the new shift dress for the McCleary girl. Behind her, above the hickory dresser of her trousseau, beside her grandmother’s old mantel clock, hangs a daguerreotype of a bright-eyed man whose last letter she still reads every night. And she mends her dresses and the snow gently falls, and in that silence each tick of the old clock sounds as loud as a shot.
Then, alone beneath the stars, as you stalked your way down the zig-zag cobbles on main, would you look upwards, and in the moonlit attic above the inn see the woman sitting at the writing desk beside the dormer window? The wavering flame of a spermaceti candle spills over the reams of handwritten verse that she has never shown to a soul. As she watches the moon climb spiderlike upon the cobwebbed frosts of the pane, her wound-up thoughts begin to unspool onto paper – thoughts of things she has yet to do and places she has yet to go, of the family she never asked for sleeping soundly below, and of her remaining years which were dwindling before her. And she questions the moon about duty, about its scope and its depth, about what we owe to a family, to a town, and whether there comes a time when a woman just needs to get her own.
And what more, you prowlers, what secrets are here? What would you see as you looked on these scenes? Could your wild eyes find something I cannot? Do things appear clearer to one without words, or only more senseless still? Can these words, across time, across space, find something to shorten the gap? Or do the years make us strange as the creatures at night – peering from trees through too-narrow windows on worlds too foreign to know?
Now walk with the lynx—creep with her down this twisting lane, and peek in the window of this slanting shack. Here a dark and muttering man sits scribbling diligently on an old notepad. His left arm is gone, shot off in “that goddamn snot-nosed chickenshit European war that sunuvabitch Wilson drug us into.” He has seen the promise and the danger of the coming century as bright and clear as a nuclear bomb, and he wants to warn his neighbors of it. He wants to tell them their lives will change beyond all recognition and that all their teachings and traditions will be uprooted. But he knows they’d just laugh at him, crazy old cripple that he is. So, friendless, he fills his nights with dreams and designs of what is to come – of images carried on beams of light through the air, and of radios you can hold in your palm. Dreams of his grand invention, of his one big break when his genius will be seen at last.
But all of these are human things; all strangers to an owl’s flight or coyote’s tread, strangers even to the lanky prowlings of a cat. So after watching a while the ears turn always down, the sharp beaks turn away, and soft paws slink back to the snow-filled forests, past lonely willows and the dens of sleeping bears, and the yellow eyes recede from sight.
Patrick is a third-year math major at Pomona who should really be doing homework instead of writing poems, but can't help himself sometimes!