[Written for and performed as part of “Light,” a production of Thought Theatre in Pioneertown, CA that ran for three nights in December 2017.]
The sun has been down for hours, though it’s only 8:00 pm. I grab the leash; the dog races to meet me at the door. We go outside.
The moon is old. It will not rise until just before dawn. Until then, it is dark. At the foot of my driveway, away from the bit of light leaking through my windows, I can just make out the dog six feet away. I cannot see the road at all.
But we have come this way hundreds of times before, and tonight it is too cold for snakes.
I like walking in the dark anyway. Carry a flashlight, and your world contracts to the pale ellipse it illuminates; the brighter your light is, the darker all the world outside becomes. Turn off the light and wait, and within a few seconds the night world will reveal itself.
We walk into the necrotic glare of a streetlight. Swooping bats chase the insects gathered there, in that cone of unnatural yellow. And then we walk out the other side. I am blinded for a moment, but the stars come back one by one. Our sodium vapor shadows lengthen. A mile down the dark dirt road they are gone.
Ten miles west, Yucca Valley’s pallid smear obscures the horizon, a band of pale, hazy light soiling the sky and washing out the stars behind it. Out here, the Milky Way is bright and colorful above my head. The visual taint the town leaves on the western sky is an annoyance, but it is not bright enough to cast shadows. Orion hangs low to the east. Above him, the Seven Sisters – the Pleiades – shine in a tight cluster.
As I watch, the cluster winks out, almost as if someone had drawn a curtain across it. The stars are gone for half a second, and then come back just as suddenly. I spot a bit of dark motion just left of the cluster: an owl, visible only in silhouette against the Milky Way, settling in atop a power pole a hundred feet away.
I can’t see it well enough to figure what kind of owl it is, but then it speaks: “Who-who! Who. Who.” A great-horned owl then, and one with an important question.
Skies are dark here, but I once lived in a place where they were darker still. Fifty miles south of the outskirts of Las Vegas, with a mountain range between The Strip and me, I would venture out in the cool of the summer sunset, the temperature plummeting to a mere 101 Fahrenheit, and watch the shadow of Clark Mountain cut across the Ivanpah Valley like a dagger. The red in the western sky would fade to indigo, then violet, then black. To the west, a string of white diamonds draped itself along the slope down from Mountain Pass; headlights on Interstate 15, ten miles west.
And then the brightest stars in the eastern sky, Vega and Deneb and Altair, visible as the sun set, would be joined by dozens of their kin. Then hundreds. Then thousands. The sky was sable, a raven’s pelt with a hundred thousand fiery glints scattered all upon it. I would leave my house and walk away from the few feeble lights of the tiny town I was living in, and watch the sky grow darker still as my eyes relaxed into night.
Walk a few hours with only starlight to show your way, and a few things change in you.
The moon casts bright light from one direction, and the objects beneath it throw a shadow heading the other way. The moonlit world thus retains the relief of day, the shapes and contours of the land limned in patches of relative light and dark. But a sky full of stars sheds light from all directions, and thus deprives you of most shadow. All but the largest hills and holes in your path are concealed. You learn to walk more tentatively: at any time, the Earth may be a few inches away from where you expect it.
Without a single, sharp shadow to remind you of your discrete and opaque identity, you might forget to assume that you are separate from what surrounds you. You might start to feel more like a single small particle of stuff enmeshed in night, different from but no more important than the cholla, the rock, the nighthawk swooping languid parabolas above you, the insects the nighthawk is chasing, the owl posing tough questions from atop its power pole perch.
On one night in the Ivanpah Valley when that precise question vexed me, a divorce in progress and with no sense of what my future held, I walked out into the moonless night. My eyes grew accustomed to the dark. The stars shone with what seemed unusual brilliance. They illuminated the veins of each Datura leaf, the spines on each cholla, the wrinkles on the backs of my hands. I walked to the railroad tracks near my house: the starlit rails were black lines converging endlessly into blackness.
The road was miles of arrow-straight through a preposterously broad valley. To my left it passed the Nevada state line and headed for the Colorado River. In the other direction lay an ocean of black. At the shoulder, the usual narrow strip of white paint shone as bright as any set of airport landing lights. I began to run atop the stripe, heading for that ocean of oblivion. My breath came a little harder. I took the night’s desert breezes into me. I became suffused with light and dark. The desert held me up as I ran. The starlight told me where to go.