The Night of the Sparrow
I’ll admit that it isn’t the pinnacle of human preparedness. Not only have I failed to recharge my bike’s headlight, but I have also vastly underestimated the cold of a newly-fallen night. Shorts and t-shirt are not nearly enough to stave off the cold, and not even the life-giving heat produced from feverish biking — trying above all to get home — can withstand it. Have I been smarter in my life? Undoubtedly. Is this insurmountable, as problems go? Likely not. At most, it will be another hour or so of relative discomfort before the familiar glow of street lamps, bar lights, and late-night smokers guides me home. But until that point, I have accepted my misery. I am cold, and it is getting ever closer to darkness.
My headlight, that afterthought of anticipation at daybreak, is now at its lowest setting: barely sufficient to illuminate fifteen feet ahead on a trail which is, mercifully, fairly straight. Within its dim bounds I can still make out stretches of field, patchwork fences, and, increasingly, shrouded woodland. That is the stretch that worries me most. There is an eleven-mile expanse of timber up ahead, which is significantly more treacherous than the blissful straightaway I’ve been on for the past hour. Not to mention that it’s chock-full of deer, and I’d had a bad run-in with a doe and her fawn last year — a harrowing incident which I’d prefer to keep singular. It ended in several severe fractures, months in a hospital bed, and a crisis of faith that everyone who suffers experiences at least once in life. It shook my faith in goodness, purpose, and God to the core. In all, some of the worst months of my life. So I’m a bit nervous about the woods.
What would my husband say? Hopefully, he’ll be asleep by the time I get home, and won’t be waiting anxiously at the front window while I roll up in a shroud of darkness like a pathetic wraith. Ah well. Such is the spirit of adventure.
Of course now, as I think that, my light begins to flicker. If this is adventure, I’d rather the simplicity of our techno-utopia winning out. Mile markers pass underneath me, almost dizzying, and utterly meaningless at this point. Time, like the darkness, seems interminable: a rift in the depths of the sea. So I’ll just ride. Focus on nothing but pedaling and keeping myself on the trail. If I can do that, and that alone, I’ll eventually reach the orange glow of the rotting middle-class suburbs. From one hell to another, but at least a familiar one.
Speaking of hell, my light has just gone out. Shit. Well, okay, let’s take a short break and collect my thoughts. I am lightless. What other sources of light are available? Phone? 20% and weak. Moon? Waxing, but still only half full. Stars? Negligible. Light pollution from the city? Ubiquitous in the distance, but too dim to be of much use or comfort. Always present but when it’s most needed. So, the moon and a phone. Let’s wait to let the eyes adjust.
You know, I often like these brief mental breaks: to regroup and assess the situation in the cold light of reason. And it is lovely out. The cold offers something to the night sky that you don’t get in summer. Perhaps it’s because the frigidity above meshes so well with the chill of the earth below; there’s no change in medium, so everything is perfectly translated from the sky downward. The stars look like ice precisely because they are ice. At least, they seem to be. Only the sun is actually warm to me. That’s the one star I know personally. The vastness of space is not only cold but coldhearted. It’s not genial. It doesn’t try to make itself known; it just sits above, aloof, alien.
I think my eyes have adjusted. Even without the stars, the trail has once again become fairly visible — a vague line in the darkness. That’ll do. Really anything will when survival is one’s goal. I’ll pedal rather slowly, until I get my night-bearings. And hopefully these treacherous clouds stay out of my moonlight. The minutes pass slowly, yet uneventfully. The moon continues her immortal course, and I mimic her below. Even when life is on the line, there’s still poetry to be found after all. But wait: a distinctive darkness up ahead, creeping closer. I will soon be deep in the woods, and I imagine the light will be intermittent at best. I have no choice but to use my phone. Had I reception, I could attempt calling for rescue, but thank God (at least for the sake of my pride) that I don’t.
The trees form a great barrier in front of me now, with the smallest of pathways under their branches. Riding at a fair clip, the fastest I can make it out is roughly 45 minutes — and with the darkness and turns, that seems a touch too optimistic. And I’m not sanguine at the best of times. So let’s take a break, shake out the old legs, and give it a whirl. Phone light is on, and I can mount that on my handlebars easily enough. That gives me about fifteen to twenty minutes of light, and about twenty feet of low visibility. I’ll take it. The initial few feet still retain the moon’s light, and I look up, hoping to rejoin her swiftly at the other side. Then her light is swallowed up, lickety-split. And so artificiality keeps me going. I speed up to the point of uncomfortability; the trees take on the blur of speed, and the ground soars past. I feel some inkling of hope until my battery hits 5% and I realize I’m not even halfway through. After another half-mile it goes at at last, leaving me, it seems, trapped beneath the earth.
Have you ever been, on a dark, cold night, in a forest, with no light or friend to guide you? No Beatrice or Virgil? I can tell you, quite sincerely, that there are few terrors like it. Every sound takes on a new malevolence, and even the crickets seem to be playing at threnodies. They say that the trees seem to reach toward you, but that’s not quite right; the truth is, they’ve always been reaching out at you, and you’ve only just noticed. And it becomes impossible to distinguish between a fear of the darkness, and a fear of what the darkness hides. For anything in the dark is therefore also dark itself. Have I escaped to my mind to avoid the fear that should now have overtaken me? Quite possibly. Am I truly frightened of that fear? Yes. Utterly. So, how can I escape? I won’t freeze if I just sit still until dawn, but like hell am I passing a night here with these moribund crickets.
Sight is gone, smell and taste are useless, my ears are full of half-imagined twigs snapping, and so all that’s left me is touch. I am on a concrete path. Yes. If I take off my shoes and walk my bike along, I should be able to pop out the other side in a little less than two hours. But as I plant my feet to dismount my bike, a light — brilliant, utterly blinding, otherwordly — bursts into existence behind me, perhaps a hundred yards away. As it approaches, I am at once thankful, yet I am also absolutely paralyzed with fear. How? From where? Am I being stalked? Is this a good samaritan or a will-o’-the-wisp, come to seize me and spirit me off to its fen? Let’s not find out. Whatever its intentions, it’s providing light, and so I take off like a shot. And it follows.
My speed doubles, but there is simply no outpacing it. As it nears, I note that the light is at once the navigation light of a plane’s wing as much as it is the flaming lamp of a horse-drawn carriage; it imperceptibly changes between those extremes, blending two such disparate things almost naturally. And the sound! The chain of a bicycle with the purr of a car’s motor and the repetitive chug of a train — and, footsteps? Images from a Suessian childhood swim in and out of consciousness until the whatever-it-is-surrealist-nightmare car arrives directly beside me. And for several distinct moments, it is silent. It has perfectly matched my speed.
Then, like a flotilla’s grand barrage, a cacophony of voices explodes in unison from the contraption:
“My! Know you not the hour?”
“Haven’t you seen the state of the darkness?”
“Have you not the good sense to invest in illumination?”
“But, listen, the lovely melodies of the crickets!”
Several other voices are lost to me within the more prominent ones, until I am wholly disoriented as to how many entities ride with me. But I dutifully ignore all their queries and focus on pedaling ever more quickly. Perhaps I can yet outpace this vehicle of madness.
“I SAY!” A thunderclap of unified voices — a perfect architecture of resonant pitches in thirds and fifths and octaves. They have my attention.
“. . . Yes?” I reply in a voice as trembling as it is monophonic. I feel profoundly outclassed, naked in my isolation. They begin speaking a few at a time, each voice picking up the trailing words of the previous speaker.
“Well, what are you doing at such an hour, pray tell?”
“Have you not seen the blowing storm of snow at present?”
“Are you desirous of catching your death, child?”
Child? A word to rankle, that one. I breathe deeply, wondering just what these people are truly seeing. A storm? Snow? Nothing could be further from reality: an early autumn night under a sky as clear as a mountain spring. I bother looking, for the first time, at my company. In a series of quick glimpses to my left, I manage to make out what I can only describe as monks and courtiers. Each wears a tunic, cut either above or below the knee. Linen fabric, all duns and chestnuts. Loose-fitting robes on others, belts fastened around their middles. All men. All in roomy overcoats overtop their underclothes. Some in various states of balding, others partially shaved. Their eyes are alight with thought and wonder, as if each moment still holds to them an infinity. As if each breath is to them a gift from God. In a modern world that has no use for either gods or infinities, I am deeply rattled — almost embarrassed. What does one say to men with eyes such as theirs? I keep my silence.
“Well, my child?” asks a kindly courtier.
That word again. Again, jarring. Again, something from another paternal age. I refocus my eyes upon the trail. The strange ghostlight of their conveyance casts anachronistic shadows upon the forest walls. The voices again venture forth.
“Without light, what hope have you of reaching the other side?”
I hadn’t actually paused to consider that surviving was anything other than a certainty. That I wouldn’t make it hadn’t yet entered my mind.
“I suppose I trust myself,” I hear myself saying.
“Mmm. But where is the certainty in such a belief?” is the rejoinder.
I bristle in annoyance: the last thing I need at present is an epistemological grilling. With no small acid in my voice, I respond: “Isn’t it called a belief precisely because it deals in something beyond worldly assurances? But if you want a real answer, it’s because I have faith in myself.”
Audible gasps from the mechanism beside me. “Faith in thyself!” one gasps.
“What misguided temerity!” another shrieks.
“How weak a foundation . . .” asserts another, languidly.
Then another voice — older, more prodding — speaks up. “How can you trust yourself so when you yourself know not what lies ahead?”
A chorus of “Yes, quite!” and “Just so!” follow this remark.
I hesitate briefly. “Well, I am familiar with this path, I’ll have you know. I’ve ridden it many times before in many seasons. And I’ve always been fine before —”
“Fallacy! A fallacy!” yawps a young, high voice.
“Fine!” I bark, “I’ll admit that the past isn’t a sure guide to the future, but it does give one a loose set of datapoints for determining competence, trends, and familiarity — and that counts for something in navigating the world.”
A series of confused whispers washes over the path, with “datapoints” and “trends” at their heart. Evidently we are not speaking exactly the same language here. The whispers die down slowly, and silence again resumes its former post. The light changes from halogen to neon to oil-lamp in a matter of seconds.
The soothing elder’s voice again wafts into the evening air. “Ah, so true, so true . . . But what of things that grant a perfect clarity to both past and future? Are such things not better than mere (here he pauses briefly) datapoints and trends in ordering and guiding one’s life?” I could almost laugh aloud, and I am beginning to get the sense that the monastic garb isn’t just for display.
“You mean something with more explanatory validity, or something like a god?” I ask.
Murmurs and shock. “Something like a god!?” quake the voices. There is fervent signing of the cross and eyes are cast at heaven.
“Yes, for what could it be but God?” boomed a resonant courtier’s voice. “What else can illuminate the infinite stretches of Before and After? What else can frame our lives and give unto them a sense of unity and purpose? What else can satisfy our ignorance but God?”
Another choir of agreement. The lantern-flame bends again toward navigation light. The monks are expectant.
“I think you’ve got it quite backwards,” I say quietly. “It’s not that the human life needs these sort of divine bookends. It’s that half the beauty of life stems from these unknowns, and the choices we make in light of our ignorance of what comes before and what follows.”
“But how will we know whence we began and whither we go?” shouts a plaintive youth. “Just as the sparrow flies from a dark winter’s night such as this into our lit hall, stays but for a moment, then flies again into the shadows, so too are we bound by ignorance! How can this be? How can we live without knowing?”
I pause for a few moments, noticing the cracked lines of the concrete beneath our vehicles. The trees creep closer to the trail, listening in, as if they too wonder about the birds that often visit their branches, only to fly away into the unearthly sky.
“But think about that for a moment,” I continue. “You are either the watcher or the sparrow itself. But not both. If the watcher, then it is not your life, and you needn’t necessarily know its origin, and if you are the sparrow, then you already know the path that led you through the wilderness. You are led by warmth and light. There are always markers on the trail. And plus: birds have an excellent sense of direction. It’s a highly imperfect metaphor, if you ask me.”
The group confers in their strange buggy for a few minutes before a few of them again turn to face me.
“You are saying that perhaps we do know where we come from. Perhaps we have forgotten. But we still do not know where we are going. You are saying that perhaps these things are not what is most important?” I realize now that this is a question. I turn and smile at the speaker, meeting his eyes.
“Yes, precisely. I think that, given our ultimate ignorance of what happens outside of the ‘hall’, as you call it, you should simply appreciate the warmth and fellowship you have above all else. And perhaps when the time comes to leave the hall, you will know where to go. After all, there’s nothing to say that the sparrow in your story didn’t find another hall to land in shortly after leaving the light of yours. You might find another fireside, with other company — and perhaps it will be even better.”
The youngest among them — a mere boy — smiles at me beatifically. “But is that not heaven?” he whispers.
I am humbled by his perspicacity, and stumble for words. “Well . . . yes, I suppose it could be.” I smile. “I don’t know. But that’s precisely my point. And if you’re being honest with yourself, you don’t know either. It could be any number of things: heaven, another life in a different form, or even the extinguishing of the self — the soul going dark. We just don’t know.”
The boy looks down, thoughtfully. The others begin to nod slowly, as if they have not considered doubt or its virtues in many centuries. I, on the other hand, have not considered faith in months. And I cannot help but feel as though we are all left a bit unsure about our respective situations: me in my agnosticism, and them in their certainty.
But something has changed. I can no longer hear the firing of pistons, the shifting of gears, the gentle creak of wooden wheels in long-burrowed ruts. When I look again to my left, they are gone. And yet the light still lingers. Or, no, the light is different: amazingly, my headlight has regained some power. Through the canopy overhead, I can barely glimpse the moon. Ahead, the trees begin to thin. And, just as I whisper an inner ‘thank you’ to whatever force has led me through the woods, I am nearly knocked off my bike by a doe and her fawn. They leap from the trees, arcing over the path, caught briefly in my light, and once again disappear into the night.
Talbot Hook is an educator and nascent writer living in Des Moines, Iowa.