Last night, I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about…what else…the dark? I thought about the darkest dark I had ever experienced and remembered the time I got stranded at night on top of a very, very big mountain.
I was about eight and we had gone blueberry picking with my grandparents up on Iron Mountain near Fernie, deep in the Rockies of British Columbia. The old green Chevy truck sounded gutted as my granddad tried to start it.
He left to walk down the mountain into town, hours away on foot. While he was walking for help, darkness fell quite suddenly, as it does in the mountains. My grandmother, bless her soul, decided we should walk down the mountain.
There were no houses, no streetlights, no other humans for miles around. I remember pressing close to her, the safety of her roundness, as we began our slow descent. I couldn’t get near enough to her. I wanted to crawl inside her skin and tuck myself away where I’d be safe.
As darkness pressed in around us, it was not the first time that I knew darkness to be a living thing. I’d always been afraid of the dark. I was a kid who insisted on the hall light being left on — because with all the lights off, the darkness took form. It pressed its face close to mine and breathed its sinister breath. Black wings emerged to brush my cheeks. Inky fingers stroked my hair. And the darkness had a sound. It buzzed and whispered to the rhythm section of my heartbeat as I lay paralyzed by the fear of ghosts. The fear of being left alone. The fear of dying of fear itself.
But I had never known dark like this. The dark up on the mountain had no respite. With the stars hidden behind clouds, we shuffled our way down the dirt road. It’s a cliché, but we literally could not see our hands in front of our faces. I could smell the sweetness of the cedar stands and somewhere, not far away, something shuffled through the bush.
There were bears on that mountain. Lots of bears. My grandfather has come face to face with them. A camper had been killed in her tent at the campground. I couldn’t remember if you were supposed to play dead with grizzles or with brown bears or black bears. What kind did we have? Which one ate you if you played dead?
My grandmother’s leg was bad. Many few years before, she had broken it falling down the basement stairs and it had been set wrong. It swelled up to twice the size of a normal leg and now she limped along on the rutted roads, uncomplaining.
By day, this was some of the most beautiful country on the planet. By night, all I could think of was what was lurking out there to kill us. Things were near, I could feel them. But were they human psycho killers, squirrels or bears? It was blueberry season, after all.
Once my grandmother had been out picking blueberries when she heard someone muttering and rustling on the other side of the bush. “Michael,” she called, thinking it was my grandfather. He didn’t answer so she called out again, annoyed. She parted the bushes. A bear with his mouth full of blueberries looked back at her.
Sometimes now, when I’m stressed or swimming through the darkness of depression, I dream about bears and being lost in the woods in the dark. Often, in my dreams, bears are trying to get into my house through the windows. My great-grandmother once told me a story about an entire farming family killed by a bear that got into their house.
If I had to think of my spirit animal, I somehow don’t think it would be a bear.
We had miles to go to reach town. My little brother nuzzled in so close I could hardly walk. He was unusually quiet. His hand felt sweaty in mine. My grandmother marched on as fast as her leg would allow. She was brave that night. “There’s nothing out here to hurt us,” she said.
I knew she was wrong but it felt good to hear the words. I just wanted to be home, snuggled in my bed in the attic, listening to the long whistle of the coal train echoing though the Elk Valley.
When you’re a kid, time gets kind of warped. It’s…timeless. I remember having no sense that the road would ever come to an end. We were in a moment that went on and on.
Once, around that same time, my dad left my brother and I alone while he went off on some adventure across the U.S. border. It was night when he left and we were scared and by ourselves. We wandered around his mobile home, my brother and I. My mom lived just five minutes away but despite how afraid we were, we never thought to call her to come and rescue us. It just didn’t dawn on us. For two days, we called no one. We just stayed in the mobile home, in the moment.
On that mountain, the moment went on for hours. As we wound down the dirt road, I tried whistling but it sounded horrifying against the backdrop of crickets and snapping twigs.
What was following us? “Something’s out there, maybe a bear,” I told my grandmother to which she responded with an age-old grandmotherism, “It’s your imagination.”
“No, definitely a bear.” My little brother whimpered. I felt annoyed at him because I would have felt compelled to protect him if a bear attacked.
“Shush,”I told him and he snuffled but he did what I said.
And then we heard it, coming closer, wheezing its way up the dirt road, grinding its teeth, farting and growling. A bear? A wolverine?
It was a truck. As it rounded the corner, the headlights smacked us with light and my grandfather jumped out.
“What the hell…?” he said. He always said that.
My grandmother marched on past him and loaded us into the rescue truck.
“Let’s go home,” she said as she smoothed down her dress. “It’s after dark.”
Last night, sitting there in the dark, with the lights voluntarily turned off for Earth Hour, I thought back to that night, the biggest dark I ever knew.
And it was big, but it was an innocent dark, if you know what I mean.
The dark now is so much more complex and tainted with worry about things I can’t control no matter how much I apply my will to them. It’s tougher now to stay in the moment like I could when I was a kid, when fear had a singularity — and all you had to do was hold on tight and keep walking.
“Darkness Round the Sun” Dia @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“darkWood” maic2010 @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.