The autumn leaves are rustling in the chilly breeze–the chilly breeze that is coming from the lake–drifting through the trees with the promise or a threat of the coming winter. He threw another split piece of hardwood on the already warm fire.
His wife looks at him when the pack of coyotes begin to howl. There is a den that is only about a half-mile away, out in the woods, near Grandma’s Pond. It gets very dark out by Grandma’s Pond–a good place for a pack of coyotes to live. A few years ago, a neighbor let her brown labrador out for the night. The poor dog was never seen again. The coyotes?
Another pack picks up the howling. Or is it just an echo from the esker across the lake? It’s hard to tell sometimes when only one wild animal screeches in the night…or whether it’s twenty wild animals. The echoes can fool anyone.
He’s been planning on attempting a hike that will take several days to complete. That would mean several nights too. He tried the hike forty years ago, solo. He found that as much as he loved the forest, the quiet, the trees and the sounds…during the day, that it was very different when the sun went down. A flashlight only provides a person with a small cone of light in a large cathedral of dark trees. And, once the flashlight is switched “ON”, the batteries begin to drain…ever so slowly. A hiker can’t carry a pound of Duracells for several nights out. The weight is too much…like the darkness. It tends to envelope the solo camper. It tends to act like a shroud. The burden of the dark and being alone can sometimes drive a “normal” person into levels of fear that can alter their psychology…that can make them do irrational things…think irrational thoughts…make irrational plans.
Those pressures have been known to drive people insane. The fear of what lurks in the dark forest, is as bad as the fear of what lurks in your brain.
What are people capable of doing?
But he’s not alone on this night. His wife is sipping her Chardonnay. Their house is just behind them. There are motion lights in several locations around the house…able to detect someone (or something) approaching. Or, just to make sure you don’t trip over a log.
Or an axe. He remembered he sank the blade of the axe into a stump. He looked around to check it. He could see the orange plastic. The handle arched at an obscene angle…about 45 degrees and pointed toward the area where the coyotes were howling.
The perfect sized fire gave off plenty of light. There were two Tiki torches on each side of the stone fire pit. But, even with this light, there was an intense and awful darkness just beyond the limit of sight.
Was there anything out there? What did he just hear?
As a child, afraid of the dark, he was told by adults that the night forest is just like the day forest. If you could turn on a light at midnight, everything would be the same as if it were noon.
He knew as an educated adult and former science teacher that those reassuring remarks were simply not true. The night forest is very different from the day forest.
But what was out there? He rose from the chair and went to get the axe. He brought it back and leaned it against the stump that held his wife’s wine glass.
He avoided looking into the darkness. Instead, he stared into the bright flames and the red embers. There was comfort there.
It was getting colder. The coyotes stopped howling.
He put his hand on the axe handle. There was comfort there.
He stared into the embers. There was comfort and ease there.
But away from the fire…was overwhelming and terrible discomfort and unease.