When we look at the stars, we see the past. We see what once was, a very long time ago. So long, and at such unfathomable distances, that what burns through the night sky could be merely a ghost image, an echo of light.
Such things come to mind when standing in the dark, waiting.
Twenty feet away is my truck, parked dead-center in the road. I’m not too concerned about traffic; it’s four in the morning and this particular lane is little-used anyway. It forks off from the road to the cemetery and hugs the side of a ridge for a few miles before plunging down a narrow gorge to the river bottom. The road through the gorge has a name but I can’t remember it just now. Locals call it the “Canyon Road,” which is surely an abuse of the term. My idea of canyons is of redrock chasms graced with the descending notes of canyon wrens. But I’ve lived here long enough that I’m adopting the lingo.
The lights of Georgia-Pacific filter through a maze of hardwoods and wild plums. A steady clanking tolls, distant and faint, a repetitious tap as if some piece of machinery were counting down the seconds till dawn. The light reaches me in a fraction of a fraction of a second.
Not so with Dubhe, the dying star on the lip of the Big Dipper. While my ears adjust to the silence I trace an imaginary line from Merak to Dubhe to Polaris, the North Star. My father taught me this so I would always know where I was. Unfortunately, the only time I was ever lost was in daylight, with Polaris masked behind a blue vault. The light of Dubhe takes 124 years to reach me.
Polaris is even farther. It’s possible that the Pilgrims were just coming ashore at Plymouth Rock when this beam first shone.
Other than the muted metronomic clangor from the mine, there is only an absolute silence. If I concentrate I can hear a high-pitched whine coming from damaged nerves in my inner ear. This tintinnabulation ebbs and flows like the gentle pulsing of a tide. I strain to hear over it.
Is that the whinny of a screech owl? It’s possible that my hearing is playing tricks on me, even as my eyes did earlier. When I first pulled into the cemetery and cut the engine there was a wink like the popping of a flash bulb, so brief I couldn’t decide whether it was real or my imagination. It didn’t seem to come from any one place but rather from behind my eyelids. And when I drove away lights followed in my wake, half-seen from the corners of my eyes, impossible to fix upon. Will-of-the-wisps or headlights reflecting off gravestones? I didn’t look back.
If there’s an owl it’s so distant that its call fades to a whisper of nothing. Tucking the spotlight under my left arm, I depress the play button on my little cassette recorder. A screech owl calls out, first a warbling whinny, then a steady trill. After two sets, I hit the pause button.
Owling, as this activity is known, is simple. You arm yourself with recordings of local owl species, a Thermos of strong coffee, some edibles loaded with sugar and calories, and sit in the dark waiting while most sane people are fast asleep in their warm beds. If your recording doesn’t elicit a quick response, you move on. Which is what happened back in the cemetery. It’s always been a good spot but this year I was skunked, other than being chased by fairy lights.
Now I watch the stars and try to imagine the vast distances between them. The trees rise stark and bristly against the pale light. A jet flies soundlessly past, visible only by its blinking lights and arc of movement.
I play the tape again, two sets. And listen, and hear nothing more than the clank-clank-clank from the mine.
Onward, a half-mile. An abandoned house looms ghostlike from my right. It always seems like such an owly place and yet I’ve never had much luck here. I try anyway. When the screech owl doesn’t work, I flip the cassette and let fly the amorous jabberwocking of barred owls. Towering Ponderosa pines spear the heavens. Deep woods and a rocky ridge block the hammering from the mine. Nothing.
I descend into the canyon and park near the end of the road. A hundred yards away the trees give way to plowed fields, and the river flows just beyond. Massive oaks form a gnarled canopy over me. Stars peek through the open weave of their winter branches. Cedars, invisible in the darkness, line the hillsides.
I start with the screech owl. Play two sets, listen. The truck engine ticks as it cools. The narrowness of the canyon mouth makes the night seem more intimate and, if anything, darker. The cold seeps into my bones.
When I play the tape again I detect an added voice. Closer, not ten feet away. It asks questions I cannot answer. I am a fake, I want to say. I am not who you think I am.
Another screech owl whinnies from behind me. The spotlight vaporizes the night as a million candlepower burns the trees into bone-white shapes interspersed with inky shadows that dance like living beings. An owl studies me from a bare limb, unconcerned with the sudden absence of night.
As if on cue, a great horned owl hoots from the fields and a black shape eclipses the stars, followed by the challenges of barred owls.
This is the moment when the blood sings. Here on this dirt road on a midwinter’s night, with the ancient light of stars wefting the past with the present, we creatures of the dark hold a strange and incomprehensible communion, and the echoes of our voices propel us toward the future. My waiting is over.