Lois Tilton December 24th, 2006
I meant to post this yesterday, on the solstice.
Consider it a sort of Christmas card to the blog.
“The Longest, Darkest Night”
by Lois Tilton
The little white lights, like stars.
There is a thin crust of icy snow on the ground. I hear it crunch under my feet. The air is still, crisp and silent. This is my favorite season of the year, the longest night. Somehow I almost feel … there only seems to be one word to describe it – alive.
In this weather I can pull my hood up over my head and wrap a scarf around my face without looking suspicious. To walk like this, out in the open street, is liberating, exhilarating. My step quickens without urgency. I have hours, the whole long night ahead of me.
I enjoy looking at the lights. Almost every house has a tree in the window, and most of the shrubbery outside is illuminated, too. On the corner – a magnificent spruce at least twenty feet high. There must be a thousand white lights.
I can remember the Christmas trees in our parlor when I was a child: those few minutes on Christmas Eve while the candles were lit, the glorious blaze of light. Oh, it was beautiful. And so painstaking to achieve, fastening each little holder, making sure the flame couldn’t touch another branch …
I hear voices up ahead, and I instinctively seek the shadows. It’s a group of children, boys heading home with skates and hockey sticks over their shoulders, strong and vital. I let them pass. Too many of them, and it’s early yet. Besides, I’m enjoying my walk.
A solitary jogger comes past me, stripes flashing silver on her sweatsuit’s arms and legs. The warm fog of her breath hangs in the crisp air, and I can sense the heat and sweat of her exertion, the strong, healthy pulse of blood through her body. I think, if she keeps going into the park, I’ll follow. But instead she turns onto another street, lit by the headlights as she runs against the traffic. I shrug and keep walking. There’ll be another, later on.
I think I hear a radio somewhere ahead, playing Christmas carols. Then I turn around a corner and see them – about two dozen people standing in a rough semicircle in front of a house on the next block, all wearing coats and boots and gloves. Singing.
I’m amazed. A caroling party! I can remember doing this, so long ago. Before …
I watch them, curious, as they finish the carol and move on to the next house, laughing as they get into position. There is a pause, then a woman’s voice begins to sing, and in a moment the rest are joining in: Silent night, holy night …
They go from house to house, closer to where I stand watching, listening. I’m not sure just what I’m doing here. There are twenty of them, at least. It’s late enough now that I’m starting to feel my hunger coming to life. I should be heading back to the shadows of the park, waiting for a solitary man out walking his dog, or a kid taking the shortcut home.
Instead, I’m standing here. It’s not that the singing is all that good. But it isn’t so bad, either, and most of them seem to know all the words to the verses. They’ve obviously rehearsed this, at least once or twice. I find it astonishing, in today’s world, that people would still do this simple sort of thing.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay …
I glance upward, into the deep black of the sky. They still do.
But now the carolers are crossing the street, coming my way, and I know I’ve waited here too long, I can’t afford to draw attention to myself, let myself be seen. But I still don’t move as they assemble again in front of the brick colonial on the corner, not fifty feet from the tree where I’m standing in the shadow, and the leader begins the first notes of “O Holy Night.” The key she’s chosen is a little too high for most of the singers, and the song is a little ragged. I find myself silently forming the words along with her: the stars are brightly shining …
The thing that I’ve become has lost the capacity for tears. Yet I feel a deep melancholy welling up in my chest, the more painful because it has no means of release. My throat aches. A few yards from me the voices are falling away on the higher notes. The leader’s soprano is almost alone as she reaches the line: O hear the angel voices …
Then, without willing it, I hear my own tenor joining in, supporting her. O night divine!
Her eyes dart in delighted surprise toward the parkway where I’m standing in the tree’s shadow. Most of the others turn around to stare, but a few join in on the final notes. I can see the leader hesitate, but then she begins the more obscure second verse, and I’m with her, I still remember the words.
But it’s my voice that I can barely believe, even as I hear myself. Not in over a hundred years.
But the song comes to an end, and the leader turns around and hurries in my direction. I suddenly realize the tremendous reckless foolishness of what I’m doing, exposing myself this way. I’ve pulled my scarf down from my face so the words won’t be muffled, and now I pull it up again, shivering as if I were cold. I’ve schooled myself over the years not to flinch away from their eyes, but I’m still not ready for this encounter.
The woman is smiling – friendly, welcoming. I can sense the warmth of brandy on her breath and a suggestion of nutmeg – eggnog. Her cheeks are slightly flushed with it, and the cold, and the happiness of what we’ve just done, but the flush is blood, and the closeness of her is flooding my senses.
“That was lovely! We’d be so glad to have you join us,” she’s saying, but I back away a step, from the others surrounding her, the bloodwarmth of their presence, almost overwhelming.
“No,” I say, trying to keep my face in the shadow, “no, it’s already too late, I have to go …”
I hurry away, back toward the darkness and safety of the park. My hunger is aroused now, my senses are acute, but deep inside I’m shaken. The echo of the song, the thrill of the high, clear notes ringing in the air – had I really done that? I try to clear my throat, but all I manage is a constricted croak. After so many years …
It doesn’t matter. Nothing has changed. The night is silent. The loudest sound comes from the slow heartbeats of a nest of squirrels dormant in the branches of a nearby locust tree. I cross slowly to the other side of the park beyond the frozen lake. The floodlights where the hockey players had been skating are dark now. Everyone has gone home.
No. I hear them now, the sound of running shoes – crunch, crunch, hitting the snow-crusted pavement. Coming closer, the breath pumping in and out of his lungs, the warmth of it. A man in strong condition, his breathing is regular as he jogs, even in this cold. Plain gray sweatsuit, no reflective stripes, a navy watch cap pulled down over his ears.
I see where the path goes past a stand of trees, a good place for shadows. My hunger is working in me now. I pull the scarf away. By the time he sees my face, it will be too late.
A midnight clear. The stars in the sky look down, silent and bright and cold.
Where he lies. In the bloodstained snow.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
copyright 1991 by Lois Tilton