In the Still of the Night

At the river again.

An eagle rises from a branch and lifts toward the far side of the marsh, and a heron methodically moves from the reeds on my right deeper into the duck pond searching for minnows and other small fish floundering near the surface where the water is warmer. Out on the water a workboat chugs back toward the docks at Locklies upriver a mile or so, and Mike is out in his PT banking out across the Norris Bridge and moving in for a quiet landing at Hummel Field.

A new moon tomorrow means spectacular stargazing this weekend, and a few hours ago both Jupiter and Saturn sat above the trees in the west. Tomorrow night earlier than this we’ll check out the moons, the rings. I am always taken aback by this same site seen by astronomers hundreds of years ago, same celestial location, and I am certain with the same terrestrial wonder.

The river is quiet this evening, like a mirror, glass. Some lights on the far shore reflect in a perfect motionless line pointing toward me, and the cars crossing the bridge appear inverted just below themselves. There’s something about standing at the river at night that makes me forget the sun is still out over the Pacific and just rising in the Urals. It’s breakfast time in Irkutsk and lunchtime in Vladivostok.

But here it is dark save the cars and lights across the water, and nighttime on the river can be engulfing. Worries and concerns, anxiety and stress drift west with the night, as if that’s Beryl Markham herself flying up there, gathering the problems of those of us along the shore, and lifting off toward the mountains to let them disperse in the dark. I’m not daft; I know this is a temporal relief to the daytime deluge of discouraging news and worries about tomorrow, about today, and even about things that were, but tonight, in this blackness, nothing is more worrisome than accidently startling the heron or the buffleheads on the water, which not even the workboat bothered as it went by.

And it reminds me of something it took me some time to pinpoint. But I did.

I lived across the street from a reservoir in Massachusetts in a yellow house in a quaint village at the corner of two roads which wound around the water, the Wachusett Reservoir. Across a small bridge and up the road about half a mile, a small strip of land reached into the water to a round piece of land on which is an old stone church, abandoned when I lived there, with thick walls and windows so wide you could sleep on the sills, fresh air blowing through the open spaces.

It was common for me to walk out in December along the road to the skinny stretch to the church, walk into its blackness and climb into a sill and sit for an hour or two, watching the occasional cars go by from West Boylston past my house and up toward the mountain, or up on the road heading north into Sterling, through that village and on up toward Leominster and New Hampshire. It could be cold, and geese often settled there for the night, letting out the occasional honk, not minding me, noticing me just the same.

It is an odd mixture of absolute peace of mind, of space, of being, wanting to stay there for a long time, but stirring my soul enough to make me want to do something, to get my guitar and play quietly, or to find a pub and talk to people, to come to life in the dead of night, but I always knew that as soon as I did something like that, very quickly I’d long for the safety of the old church sill where I could still see the lights inside my yellow house, and I could walk home, close the door, turn off the lights and lay in bed thinking about somewhere else.

I was always thinking about somewhere else back then. It wasn’t dissatisfaction with the here and now; it was—is—a restless spirit that I’ve finally recognized has the dubious role of only being truly at peace if it keeps moving.

Like in Spain. Or Siberia. Or Mexico. Or…

I sometimes think about places I’ve been more in terms of time than location, as if I really were to drive to that reservoir, the old stone church would still be overgrown and abandoned, and my house would still have a light on waiting for me to come home and turn in for the night. When one leaves a place and doesn’t return for many, many years, it leaves the last visit hanging there in the air between back then and now, as a mirage, like water on a desert highway, and the closer you come the more you realize there’s nothing there anymore.

A can hear a truck crossing the bridge tonight, heading north toward Maryland perhaps. Further. By the time I walk home and get ready for bed it will be crossing the Potomac, heading up 301 toward Baltimore. The world is small at night, more navigable. I can stand here at the river and believe I can almost see that desert highway reaching across the Sonoran toward Tucson, and at this hour when the world has no sound at all, I can hear two young friends sitting along another river, talking about other dreams in other times.

I love the night for its limitlessness, its clarity despite the darkness, perhaps even the result of the darkness.

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