Out of the Dark

Lost in the woods deep into night, he knelt on soggy leaves and made himself recall a short, cherished explanation of joy given him by a student who had once fled for his life in Liberia.

Author: Mark Phillips

It used to be that in this hollow of muddy pasture, roiled creek and narrow road, the music counterpointed the gray of late autumn, songs leaping from hillsides, loping across the cramped lowland, nudging me awake. I would lift open my bedside window, let my dog jump up on the mattress, and in the chilly dark we would tip our heads toward the unseen coyotes, yodelers of yips and whines and howls. We did the same in other seasons, but the singing was most frequent for a week or two after the leaves fell. I never had trouble falling back to sleep.

That is, I had no trouble until the year 2020. About when more precisely, my memory is smoky. Maybe the insomnia arrived when reports of COVID-19 deaths became as commonplace as those McDonald’s signs with the tabulations of Big Macs served. Or when I gave up trying to guess who were the people in the supermarket saying hello to me from behind their masks. Or when a neighbor used a racial epithet while offering unsolicited his opinion that it was OK with him if police officers killed unthreatening suspects. Or when yet more evidence emerged that some of our elected officials oppose electoral democracy. Or when I pictured the wildlife caught within closing nooses of flame out in California. I can only be sure that at some point that year — maybe the point at which all points blurred into one — to my ears the coyotes became discordant, their howls damning their yips, their yips mocking their whines.

I left the window closed.

Scolded the dog.

Frightened away sleep.

Phillips Out Of The Dark

As is typical of treatments for many other maladies, the one I applied to my insomnia had side effects. I could have cleaned the house, but the noise would have awakened my wife, who sleeps lightly in the bedroom over the kitchen. I tried reading but was too agitated to focus for long and had the same problem with meditation and prayer. I didn’t own a working television. Whiskey was tempting, but I prefer not to be drunk before breakfast. Now and then I blamed a specific occurrence for my inability to sleep — the dog jumping up on the bed, the dissonance of the coyotes, an item in the day’s national news — but the fault seemed more obscure than protean or cumulative. I could have sought professional counseling, but I would rather have had a weekend toothache or been forced to watch the entire Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I took long walks in the dark instead, and became lost.

In a sense, I knew where I was as long as I stuck to the roads. In a slower rhythm, my walking stick clopped on macadam like horseshoes do each week when my Amish neighbors, in black finery, ride buggies to whichever home in their community is hosting that Sunday’s religious service. During my night journeys, dogs barked at me and front yards were suddenly flooded with light. Wild mammals crossed my path, darkly indistinct, and owls glided barely overhead, brief shadows briefly corporeal.

Near the end of my longest walk, half a night of chasing or fleeing, I’m unsure which, I hurried to be home before dawn. I crossed bridges of contralto grates spanning watery gullies of washed boulders. I passed pickups and snowmobiles adorning concrete blocks in narrow side yards of house trailers wedged between abrupt hillsides and undulant roads. Fields of corn stubble. Shadowlike barns smelling of hay and silage and manure. Slapdash hunting camps with deer hanging eviscerated from meat poles, tongues sticking out at passersby. A farmhouse window radiating blue, a fellow insomniac watching late night television. Although in a senseless race with the approach of day, when I heard the grumble of a holey muffler and saw the milk of headlights spill over the hilltop ahead, I panicked and hid in the roadside woods until the car passed and the twin red glow faded into the night — as if the driver might be the sanguinary Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Yet I couldn’t quite identify my fear. I feared not knowing, as if I had become a character in a story no longer my own.

A few weeks later, I became lost at night. During daylight, it would be nearly impossible for me to become physically lost anywhere within several miles of my home, although an embarrassed police investigator, wearing khaki shirt and shorts, his legs bleeding from an attack by briers, did once entertain my neighborhood by showing up at a farmhouse to ask for a ride to his car, wherever it might be parked. He had been staking out a remote patch of marijuana, hoping to photograph an entrepreneur in the act of tending the crop, and got lost in the woods on the way back to his car. He should have hired me as a guide, and not just because I already knew about the marijuana.

Back before trail cameras became so ubiquitous that today I can no longer pee in the forest without considering that I might end up on YouTube, I was an inveterate trespasser who explored the landscape far and wide. I can show you an undercut creek bank where a bobcat denned during a long dry spell. And where somehow several acres of maple avoided the axes of pioneers and later the crosscuts and chainsaws of loggers, the boles now hollow and much of the stand dead from old age, snags shedding limbs that drop 60 feet, shattering, scattering punky heartwood over ferns and humus. I can take you into a deep, forested ravine unknown to many people who have lived around here for decades, its sides so steep that in places you must crawl backward to enter it, the crablike descent worth it because of the small waterfall at the bottom.

On the night of a new moon, I was no more than half a mile from the nearest road when treetops began clattering, stars vanished by the dozens, and before long the forest was almost entirely black.

Yet because some people would consider them to be valuable collectibles, I will refuse to show you a large, Native American mortar stone on the bank of a creek, or the black and rusty tip of a meteorite protruding from the ground within a wooded crater. And for a different reason, I will keep to myself the location of a glade, thick now with young trees, where many years ago a woman and I were making love when spotted by the pilot of a small, low-flying plane that then looped back lower yet, and where, my friend and I would also learn too late, poison ivy had joined our date.

I believed I was so intimate with the landscape that even in darkness I could find my way. Partly to test myself, I made several night hikes into the forest during my bouts of insomnia. I didn’t carry a cell phone or flashlight. I liked that I couldn’t see the trail cameras or that the ash trees were infested with borers and the beeches blistered with fungal infections and the maples weakened by climate change. I could pretend all was unchanged: I was in the woods and world of my past.

Of course, it is deceptively easy to become lost in nostalgia.

On the night of a new moon, I was no more than half a mile from the nearest road when treetops began clattering, stars vanished by the dozens, and before long the forest was almost entirely black. I stood still, waiting for my eyesight to adjust. It didn’t. I could make out merely the trunks of large trees within a few feet of me. I turned back the way I had come, extending my arms in turns before me to avoid tangling with brush and deadfalls as I walked. Eventually the wind seemed to change direction, causing me to suspect that instead of nearing the road, I was creeping in a wide circle. Stalking myself. I kept looking for a break in the cloud cover and an orienting view of the North Star, but the sky remained indistinguishable from the ground. Wet snow started to fall, wind driven. I couldn’t see it. It melted on my face.

Although I was close to home and on a somewhat tame landscape, I soon caught myself panicking, rushing ahead, stumbling over stones and fallen limbs. I forced myself to stop and think. I knelt on soggy leaves. I made myself recall a short, cherished explanation of joy given to me by a student back when I was employed as a tutor at St. Bonaventure University. I repeated his explanation aloud, just to hear myself speak in the dark. I wished I could see the fog of my breath. I cupped my hands around my mouth, warming them with what I couldn’t see, and decided I should move incrementally downhill, feeling with my feet the tilt of the dark landscape, knowing that around here each ravine drains into a brook and that each brook leads sooner or later to a road or town. I knew that by following a road I would come to a familiar dwelling and know the road and know its direction.

I was back in the light and heat of my kitchen within a couple of hours, brushing snow from my coat, puddling the floor. I felt silly announcing it, but said, “I’m alive.”

Upstairs, my wife awoke. “Mark, is that you?”

I thought for a moment before I said, “Yes.”

Rather than by his actual name, I’ll call him James.

We often conversed in my office at St. Bonaventure, where he told me about his early childhood in Liberia during one of its civil wars. His paternal uncle and grandfather were both killed in the fighting. His parents fled the war by airplane, leaving him and his two older brothers behind. I didn’t ask why he had been abandoned, and he didn’t say. The three brothers joined other displaced people on a trek out of Liberia, a long, ragged line of them following a road that led through forest.

One day during the journey, their flight was slowed by a barricade of posts and barbed wire and a checkpoint controlled by soldiers whom James characterized as “unfriendly to my people.” Two soldiers were interrogating evacuees at the head of the line, now and then ordering people into a guarded earthen pit behind the checkpoint. The brothers stepped aside to discuss how to conduct themselves during the questioning — knowing what would become of the people in the pit — and as they shaped a plan, whispering until lifting their voices in urgency, a man left the line and seized the oldest brother by an arm, and said, “I know what you are — and I’m turning you in.”

James would explain to me that the man “wasn’t one of our people.”

The abductor was in the company of an elderly woman, perhaps his mother or aunt, and with both hands, she grabbed one of his arms. “You should be ashamed,” she said. “You let that child go. I’m not letting you go until you let him go.”

The boy was released.

The three brothers ran into the forest and hid for several hours before they crept back into the line, made it through the checkpoint, and eventually found their way to a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. Weeks later, they reunited with their parents. The family immigrated to the United States. In his senior year of high school, James held down a full-time job to help support his family, kept up with his schoolwork and won a scholarship to St. Bonaventure.

I was grim one afternoon when he stopped by my office.

My wife had survived surgery for brain cancer, but it was becoming evident that she had significant cognitive damage. My son had fallen from a second-floor deck during a drinking party at his college and was hospitalized with a head injury. There in my office, I asked James how he stayed cheerful day after day, and before he answered, he studied me for a few seconds, perhaps wondering whether I was dafter than he had supposed.

He said, “Mr. Phillips — I know I’m alive.”

Late in the year 2020, the presidential election was over, California had ceased burning until the next dry season, and vaccinations supposedly were on the way. The coyotes were sounding more harmonious, and I became somewhat less nocturnal.

On a clear morning during a thaw, I hiked a hayfield. My dog ran ahead, ears flapping. The view wasn’t available from the road, but after I crossed a gentle rise in the field I saw in the distance a mountain with a crew cut, a remnant of the age before glaciers and streams gouged and eroded the elevated Allegheny Plateau into a long labyrinth of lowlands and highlands, and I knew that on the flat top of the mountain, 2,000 feet above sea level, a person could find stones crumbly with fossilized shells that were worn by creatures alive before the land rose from an unfathomably ancient sea. I knew that should I hike far enough into the forest beyond the field I would come to a deep ravine so steep that I would need to crawl backward to descend it and that if I did I would see a waterfall I knew. I knew that no word in any dictionary could with full justice describe the brevity of my time alive. I knew that on each step over the field I should concentrate on the wet earth giving beneath my feet.

Just a little.

Just enough.

Mark Phillips lives in southwestern New York. He is the author of a memoir, My Father’s Cabin, and a collection of essays, Love and Hate in the Heartland.