Friday, May 25, 2007

The hour is late, and night draws in on silent feet

(Photo by Rocketlass)

Though Chicago is nowhere near as mysterious as Venice, this is the best time of year for sitting late on the back steps and watch the city night steal in over the dark cemetery behind our house, its silent occupants waiting patiently for their hours to come. The sodium vapor lights in the alley slowly expand their dominion, the day sounds--of cars and talk and alley basketball--turn to night sounds--of sirens and breaking bottles and the distant music of party chatter. The evenings unfold slowly, and the mosquitoes have yet to renew their annual war on all warm-blooded creatures, so with books and a martini I remain outside until darkness forbids further reading.

From After Dark (2004, English translation 2007), by Haruki Murakami
Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature--or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old. To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm. Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city's moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.

From Lois the Witch (1856), by Elizabeth Gaskell
Evening was coming on, and the wood fire was more cheerful than any of the human beings surrounding it; the monotonous whirr of the smaller spinning-wheels had been going on all day, and the store of flax downstairs was nearly exhausted, when Grace Hickson bade Lois fetch down some more from the storeroom, before the light so entirely waned away that it could not be found without a candle, and a candle it would be dangerous to carry into that apartment full of combustible materials, especially at this time of hard frost when every drop of water was locked up and bound in icy hardness. So Lois went, half shrinking from the long passage that led to the stairs leading up into the storeroom, for it was in this passage that the strange night-sounds were heard, which everyone had begun to notice and speak about in lowered tones.

From At Day' Close: Night in Times Past (2005), by A. Roger Ekirch
"He that does ill hates the light," affirmed a Scottish proverb. Numerous folk, besides burglars, robbers, and other hardened rogues, exploited the evening darkness, often for illicit purposes. Petty criminals were far more numerous, if less feared. For poor families, social and legal constraints of all sorts eased. Indigent households buried their dead at night to escape paying parish dues, which had the added benefit of protecting gravesites from thieves, often needy themselves. Where grave robbers at night stole clothing and caskets, "resurrection men" unearthed entire bodies, freshly interred in churchyards, to sell for medical dissection. . . . The best time for treasure hunting fell after midnight, with some evenings preferred to otehrs depending on the moon's phase. Silence was critical. As a defense against demons, it was customary to draw one or more circles at the supposed spot. More alarming to authorities, malevolent spirits might be invoked to assist in unearthing the treasure. An English statute in 1542 threatened hunters with the death penalty for "invocacions and conjurations of sprites" to "get knowledge for their own lucre in what place treasure of golde and silver shulde or mought be found."

From Peter Haining's introduction to The Ghost-Feeler: Stories of Terror and the Supernatural, by Edith Wharton
It is a strange fact that for the first twenty-seven years of her life, a woman who is today regarded by several authorities on ghost fiction as one of the foremost writers of supernatural stories of her time, was quite unable to sleep in any room that contained so much as a single book of such tales. So unnerved was Edith Wharton by supernatural fiction that she later admitted to destroying any that she came across in the home.

From Blitz: The Night of December 29, 1940 (2005), by Margaret Gaskin
On his brief fact-finding mission from New York, PM editor Ralph Ingersoll had found the most striking aspects of Blitz life were "the normalcy of life by day and the dramatic suddenness with which that life stops at sundown." Though he had adjusted to it, he just "couldn't get over" it at first: in London, "The two worlds, the world of peace and the world of war, exist side by side, separated by only a few minutes of twilight.

From Religio Medici (1643), by Sir Thomas Browne (encountered in The Oxford Book of Death (1983), edited by D. J. Enright
I believe . . . that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandring souls of men, but the unquiet walks of Devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood, and villainy; instilling and stealing into our hearts that the blessed Spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affairs of the World. But that those phantasms appear often, and do frequent Cemeteries, Charnel-houses, and Churches, it is because those are the dormitories of the dead, where the Devil, like an insolent Champion, beholds with pride the spoils and Trophies of his Victory over Adam.

From The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984, English translation 1991), by Jose Saramago
The evidence of death is the veil with which death masks itself. Ricardo Reis has gone past the tomb he was looking for. No voice called out, Hello, it's here, yet there are still those who insist that the dead can speak. What would become of the dead if there were no means of identifying them, no name engraved on a tombstone, no number as on the doors of the living.

One's only recourse, clearly, is to stay awake, keeping company with the owls and the nightjars, opossums and rats. If it means closing one's book when it's too dark to read, well, at least night also belongs to the hoboes and raconteurs, who can surely keep us entertained until dawn.

No comments:

Post a Comment