THIS SIDE UP

Emerging from the dark

By JOHN HOWELL
Posted 7/2/20

I was in the dark. Total darkness. I raised my hand, bringing it slowly to my face. I expected to see something before bumping my nose. I didn't. My world had closed in and my other senses heightened. The air was fresh and clean. I felt the gravel under

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THIS SIDE UP

Emerging from the dark

Posted

I was in the dark. Total darkness.

I raised my hand, bringing it slowly to my face. I expected to see something before bumping my nose. I didn’t. My world had closed in and my other senses heightened. The air was fresh and clean. I felt the gravel under my sneakers and heard it crunch as I moved slowly forward. Not far off, surely no more than 10 feet, drops ticked as they fell to the forest floor from the canopy above. I stood absolutely still, concentrating on listening. Might I hear an owl, perhaps the snapping of twigs as a deer made its way through the woods? There was nothing, just the falling drops. It had rained earlier and now the moisture rolling was off the leaves and drawn to the earth.

I declined Jack’s offer to drive me back to the house.

I had come this way hundreds of times since I was a boy. I knew the way. I knew where the road went from asphalt to dirt and after climbing a gentle incline, it turned abruptly to cross a gully. With no houses nearby and giant trees reaching upward, I figured this would be the most challenging passage of my night walk through the woods.

I had second thoughts on Jack’s offer as soon as I left the house.

I stood still for a moment to let my eyes adjust. The dark outline of the mountain beyond the road came into focus, as did the silhouette of the tree in the nearby field. Fireflies, hundreds of them, flickered, some soaring to the top of the tree. A half moon gave a misty glow to the field. I looked down. The surface of the driveway was invisible.

There was no point fishing in my pockets for my phone, which would have provided some light. I had left it at the house with the charger.

Do I turn around and head back to the house?

No, I was up to this challenge.

I pressed on, soon arriving at the asphalt road. Splotches of moonlight filtered through the branches reflecting off the still wet pavement like puddles of milk. This was going to be easy. I picked up my pace. Just as I knew it would, the pavement ended and I felt the crackle of gravel. Now the woods closed in and what I had taken to be darkness was comparatively light to the hole ahead.

But I know the road. I know that it keeps rising until it curves downward. I know a drainage ditch ruins along the mountain side of the road. I know where trees have fallen and their downed trunks stretch toward the road where they have been cut off.

I couldn’t see those severed fingers reaching out, but I knew they were there.

The gravel under foot was reassuring, tethering to my course. I had navigated the curve. I should be on the home stretch. The drive to the house should be no more than 400 feet, just after the path that angles down toward the lake.

I didn’t want to take that.

I gave myself a couple of minutes and stopped. I felt the side of the road with my foot. There was no indication of the intersecting drive. I moved another 20 feet or so. My feet started to drop off. This had to be the drainage ditch. I returned to the road. Again I stood still. I hadn’t lost my bearings. I knew where I was, or at least within 50 feet of where I should be. If there was just a few seconds of light I’d know precisely where I would need to turn. That wasn’t going to happen, and certainly I shouldn’t be wishing for a lightening bolt.

Is that what we are looking for in these times, a sudden flash that illuminates a path ahead? That would be wonderful, a vaccine that would put all our worries behind us and enable us to carry forward on what we perceive to be the “normal” path. We have come this far and with every step that goal seems more elusive. Have we reached the darkest depths, is there a way yet to go – a second wave to hit?

We can’t let this paralyze us, we must carry on – find a path.

I considered my options. I dismissed cutting through the woods. I could retrace my steps and get Jack to drive me back. I could wait knowing that Ted was driving up from North Kingstown that night and within the hour he would be driving this road. I could continue knowing that I had missed the drive, turn around, and approach from the opposite direction.

That’s what I did.

House lights came into focus. They were tiny at first, but soon I could discern windows and I knew I had reached a distant neighbor. I reversed direction, entering darkness once again, but reassured I could find my way. I walked the side of the road as much as I dared, intent on feeling the slope of the drive. When I did, I turned. One hundred feet further and I knew I had missed the mark and was on the path to the lake. But now I could see the lights of my destination through the woods. I kept them in sight and stepped off the path, hands out stretched for trees, carefully placing each step forward. I made it without tripping and with mounting confidence each step.

May our collective trip through darkness be as successful.

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