I was relaxing at my parent’s house in Pennsylvania when my dog, Felix, began whinnying and pawing at the door.
“You have to go out?” I said. Felix’s reply was a short bark.
Hauling myself off the couch, I slipped on my shoes and opened the front door. Felix bounded outside and began sniffing the ground with gusto. Then he dropped into a crouch and emitted a low growl. Uh oh.
“Come here, boy,” I called. “Come here.” Too late. Predatory instinct overcame his usual obedience and he tore off into the woods.
“Shit,” I mumbled. It was one in the morning and there was no moon was in the sky. In the darkness I could hear Felix barking and the sound of something heavy crashing through the woods. I turned on the small penlight I always keep in my pocket and followed Felix into the woods, worried about what I was going to find. Bears are a common occurrence in these parts; one even has a particular hankering for the birdfeeder on my parent’s deck.
As I plunged into the forest I cursed the inadequacy of my penlight. Normally good for small illumination tasks, the forest’s darkness laughed at its luminal output. I could hear Felix running around but couldn’t see him. I was thinking about retrieving the 1000 lumen lightsaber I keep in my car for emergencies when I became aware of a presence to my right.
Turning slowly, my weak flashlight revealed a majestic buck standing ten feet from me – a deer hunter’s wet dream. I looked at him and he looked at me. Dousing my light, I clapped my hands to scare him away and that’s when I realized I was standing in the middle of a herd of deer. In the darkness I felt the disturbed air rolling off my skin as dozens of spectral shapes flowed past me in the moonless night.
When I remembered to start breathing again I strained my ears, listening for the jingle of Felix’s dog tags. I heard nothing and was worried. Felix is fast and strong but a deer could easily kill him. Pressing uphill I called his name over and over, trying to keep the worry out of my voice. I learned long ago that dogs will avoid their masters if they think they’re angry. When I reached the road I found Felix panting happily. He was having a good time.
“Stay,” I commanded. Then I scooped him up and took him home.
When we got back to my parent’s house I reprimanded him for running off. “And what would you have done if you caught that buck?” I said. “You’d have been in trouble.”
Felix seemed immune to my criticism. Even though he’s far removed from his lupine ancestry he is still, in his heart, a wolf. He was doing what came naturally.
After Felix ate some food he lazily circled and plopped down on his dog bed, worn out from chasing Bambi. I was about to turn in myself when I remembered the feeling of those deer running past me in the blackness. Heading back outside, I walked into the woods and went in so deep I couldn’t see the light on my parent’s porch. Finding a large rock, I sat down and let my eyes adjust to the blackness. I left my flashlight in my pocket.
I always carry a flashlight wherever I go – usually two. Most people think I do this because I’m afraid of the dark but they’d be wrong. I love the dark. Contrary to popular opinion, light isn’t always a good thing. Light can dazzle and distract. It can blind, disorient and reveal things best left hidden. The well-lit path isn’t always the right one.
People fear darkness because they can’t see what’s coming or what lies ahead. But life has taught me that none of us can ever really see what’s coming. Darkness has gotten a bad rap and we associate it with all sorts of horrors; but if night never cooled the Earth our planet would quickly become a sunny hell. Darkness can be restorative and healing. Last time I checked most people sleep in the dark. Heck, most of us have had some really good times with the lights off.
Black is the color of Mystery – the unseen, the unknowable and the unapproachable. The night sky reminds you of just how small you are, your life less than a blink on the scale of cosmic time. Darkness is a reminder that we are hurtling towards something that both attracts and scares us. None of us knows how our journey will end, not really. We have ideas, theodicies, instincts, hopes, exhortations and theories but no one has a map of the “undiscovered country” in their pocket. All our theology, philosophy and science are like flashlight beams swallowed by the forest primeval. Eventually we will all leap into the void not knowing what we will find, if anything.
Darkness is also a warning, an admonition that we can’t know everything. How well do we know the people around us? Think of the millions of faces you’ve seen and how little you know about the stories behind them. Stand in Times Square at rush hour and let the strangers run past you like water – it might feel like that herd of deer flowing past me in the blackness. We don’t even know everything about ourselves. At some point we all have to make peace with unknowing. If we don’t we’ll go nuts.
Sitting on that rock I remembered ninety-six percent of the universe is dark – but that is why the stars are so gloriously beautiful. Darkness is light’s mother and mystery is mankind’s muse. Light and dark interact in ways I can’t wrap my head around.
Sitting in the woods I felt another presence. Did the buck return? Maybe a bear was out there licking his chops. I resisted the urge to pull out my flashlight and stretched out my senses. Basking in the other side of light I wondered if what I was sensing was that mystery shrouded in darkness – humming like background radiation from the Big Bang, like music playing just out of the range of human hearing; something so intimately familiar and ever present that we forget that it’s there. Or my mind could’ve just been filling in the blanks, cooking up answers to quell my anxieties. Humans have a tendency to find patterns where none exist.
Feeling very tired, I got off the rock and headed towards my parent’s house, using their porch light as a beacon. After I brushed my teeth and got under the covers Felix jumped into bed and snuggled under my arm. As his breathing settled into sleep I listened to the wind blowing through the trees and the odd noises houses make at night. Then I fell asleep, dreaming of shapeless forms running along the edge of understanding.