It's late and it's almost dark, but who can sleep when the sky is full of stars and you're out of work, and the cares of the day lie heavy in your mind, your tired mind struggling against a plague of disordered thoughts? It's never completely dark, even in the dead of night. There are the stars, of course, and the neighbor's night-light, and the silver ripples on the surface of the lake as the moon sets, and the eyes of the creatures who prowl at night. It's late. The hour of Lowell's skunk and Bergman's wolf, when the old and sick slip away, and the young toss in their sheets, eyelids fluttering, dreaming of flight. Refugees. The hour when the water-softener hisses and the refrigerator hums in its black corner. Who can sleep here tonight, with the insatiable owl peering into the impenetrable woods? Eyes everywhere.
I put on my shoes and slip out into the night, thinking the dogs will bark if the sneaky bear comes around, nosing into our garbage, like a lazy burglar. Bear will steal and eat anything, just like us. Numberless stars are visible, even here, so close to the city, with its unnatural halo off to the southeast. No bats this year, they too are dying off, mysteriously, in caves, the insect-eaters. Nothing looks the same at night, the trees, the bushes, the rocks huddled off to the side of the road, shapes only at this hour, all mass, no surface. Whose heart is like a stone.
Science has its metaphors -- entropy, some degree of disorder, or perhaps chaos, random behavior. Theology too, the dark night of the soul. San Juan de la cruz, his dying, suppurating flesh said to give off a delightful fragrance. Or Hemingway's nada who art in nada. Dead tropes. I walk a ways down Lakeside Drive, looking neither right nor left, listening to the sound of my heart beating, and the sound of some small creature skittering through the underbrush. The human world will come alive soon enough, the world of money and machines and endless chatter. But not yet.
I walk up the hill near Alturas Road and come upon a cottage with a wide picture window framing a brightly-lit interior. A startling blaze of light on an otherwise darkened street. It's a small dwelling, one of the many converted summer cabins around here, no more than three or four rooms. In the dark I can't tell whether the outside surface is painted wood, or vinyl siding. Through the bright window I can see the knotty pine paneling and modest dimensions of the main room. And a woman moving about. Middle-aged, wearing a gray tee shirt, her body sagging inside it, her gray-brown hair pulled back. She reaches into a closet and takes out an ironing board. It is strange to be standing there in the street, not fifty feet away, and silently watch her. Who is she? I've never seen her before.
She begins to slowly and rhythmically pass the iron back and forth across the board. I can't see what she's ironing, just the gentle movement of her arm. It feels like I'm standing there for an eternity, watching this quiet women work through her laundry in the middle of the night, never looking up, pushing the iron across those garments. Minutes pass, perhaps half an hour even, I've lost all track of time watching her. She doesn't stop, she keeps ironing. I think it's impossible that she has that much ironing to do. I don't know. Perhaps she's just going through the motions, to keep herself occupied -- another soul who couldn't sleep. I don't know. It's become too private, her constant motion, the deliberation with which she handles the iron, the concentration she's bringing to it, it's not right for me to stand around and watch her. I've got to leave, to turn and reenter the dark from whence I came. Perhaps that's all she does, perhaps she irons all the time.
I turn and go back down the hill, the cottage behind me now, the room with its bright light receding, not knowing any more than I knew before. But the immensity of sky begins to brighten, and there's a slight glow to the east, and the first birds begin to sing. Soon it will be daylight. Tell me, when are we going to sleep -- that woman and me?