Darkness is back again. I open my eyes as wide as they’ll go, which is not very far since sleep still clings to me heavily. My flashlight, not used since some vaguely remembered time last winter, should be somewhere close to the bed but I’m too tired to look for it. It doesn’t matter. Muscle memory takes over, my feet searching and finding the ladder rungs that lead down from the loft.
Downstairs, the plywood floor squeaks its welcome over the soft breathing of the dogs, their shapes only vague dark smudges. I creak the door open and am received by the night: a sleepy rustling of poplar leaves, cold moist air and a sprinkling of pinpoint lights in the sky. Summer has borne fruit, finally the stars are back again.
Mushroom-pale, my skin glows up at them as I cautiously walk over to the outhouse. There’s a black bear around and we’ve come to an arrangement that works for all of us. The bear harvests soapberries away from the cabin during the day, thus avoiding us except for the odd chance encounter when we spook each other. The chubby black hindquarters quickly disappear into the bushes on those occasions, and we’ll make a detour around the spot for a day. It’s when all activity around the cabin ceases at night that the bear takes care of the berry crop right by the house.
I’m not keen on scaring him now, in the darkness. Strange how the lack of light makes me feel vulnerable. How would it be to be blind, I wonder, the Styrofoam seat warm underneath me. Maybe night and day would blend into each other without sharp distinction, just like they do during summer in the North. A moistening of smells, a change of sounds.
A branch cracks. I hold my breath. Nothing, then another branch breaks. Bear or moose? There wasn’t any rustling, just the two sharp cracks. I listen, but all is quiet. Moose, I decide, more on a hunch than anything else, and imagine the animal standing there, downwind from the outhouse and straining its ears and nose to make out my presence. A person out at night in the bush: how unusual do animals find that?
They are finely tuned to our daily rhythms. Just like the bear, moose only walk right by our cabin at night. We’ll find their tracks in the morning and remember that the dogs barked once during the night. In daytime, they moose may wander close but they won’t go past the door that’s forever opening and disgorging people and dogs. Imagine the careful observation of human habits that leads to decisions such as these. It’s when Sam or I feel a late night urge to visit the outhouse (indeed, the call of nature) that we sometimes blunder into one of our animal neighbours. I can only imagine the impact that might have on the latest people survey conducted by moose and bears.
Trees frame in a ragged patch of sky only slightly lighter than the black branches. Alas, no northern lights. But it is that time already, the change of the seasons is underway. The outhouse door squeals like some cheap horror movie effect, then slams shut behind me. I cringe, aware of the difference between the sounds I just released into the night and those two brief cracks that indicated the moose. We are a noisy species indeed. Got to oil those hinges, but not tonight.
Grass brushes against my legs and suddenly, I have an entourage of two mosquitoes. Their ecstatic whine over my expanse of skin, such an unexpected midnight feast, speeds me back to the cabin. From somewhere in the trees, the moose probably looks on and wonders about this latest display of nocturnal behaviour, a fast scurrying between the cabin and that tiny smelly building.
Inside the cabin it seems less dark now that my eyes are used to the dim light. I climb back up to the loft and quietly burrow underneath the covers with Sam. As I try to lure sleep back into my mind, the cool night air and starlight release me only slowly. Though it’s still summer out there, I have just dipped briefly into fall.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.