When I was a child, I was plagued with a variety of nighttime issues. The majority of them were innocuous things brought on by the simple process of growing rapidly, things like bone-deep aching pain in my calves as the sinew stretched and lengthened in the quiet evolving hours. These would send me creeping softly to the corner of my parents’ bedroom door, where I would cry barely audibly in hopes that I would wake my mother (and only my mother) for help. She was a light sleeper, dad was not. And dad was much more surly when woken at odd hours. But I digress.
What I liked the most – if I can say honestly that I liked any of these things – was the inexplicable wakefulness that occurred every few months. No reason or rhyme to these episodes: I would be peacefully asleep one moment, then suddenly I was as awake as if it were noon. Sometimes it would happen a few times in the same month, sometimes I would go nearly six months in between. But came it did, without cause or provocation, like an old friend sneaking in through the window to take you out on the town.
In the wintertime, there were often fires in the fireplace. I would creep from my cozy flannel sheets to tiptoe into the living room, where the soft glow from the dying embers would cast dim shadows to dance on the furniture. I would tuck my knees up inside my long (and usually hideous) nightgown as I sat on the brick hearth, trying to thaw my frozen feet. My feet were always bare, even in the dead of winter, and the fire was always a relief for numb toes. I would dreamily watch as the last remnants of flame snuggled into the coals, not really thinking about anything in particular, simply enjoying the hushed silence of the house surrounded by a sleeping world.
Other times, I might simply sneak to the refrigerator. My family had two growing boys and my mother often bought large quantities of things from Costco, like chocolate syrup, maple syrup, whipped cream, and sour cream. All things I coveted jealously and would gobble up without hesitation or second thought. So, knowing I oughtn’t, I would pad lightly to the kitchen as stealthily as my bare feet could carry me, and gulp down highly sugared and fat-laden foods like a giant invading mouse. Nibbling a bit of cheese here, a pastry there, drinking syrup straight from the bottle, and eating sour cream by the spoonful. A can of soda, a half-eaten candy-bar, even a few of my favorite vegetables weren’t safe. Then, having gorged myself, I would almost always wash it down with several gulps of cold, creamy milk, and furtively make my way back to bed, half-blinded by the refrigerator light.
But best of all was the summer.
The summer time was hot, even at night. There were days when the lowest temperature of the day was still in the 90-degree range. And sometimes it was humid along with it, forcing us to kick off our covers and sleep with the fans on. On the nights when I would suddenly wake in the summer, it was as though the very air was beckoning me outside. And so – in bare feet – I would make my way through the house to the back door, where I would sneak outside to our enormous back yard. Often as not, the moon was brightly shining, and I would walk onto the wide grassy lawn, often wet from the sprinklers, enjoying the cool sensation on my burning soles. I would look up and wave. I don’t know why I waved at the moon. I do it still. And then I would dance.
It was only dancing in the loosest term. It was more like holding my arms out and spinning, face turned to the heavens, dipping and weaving with imaginary music. Sometimes I would hum little tunes, or make up lyrics on the spot to a song that didn’t have any flow or rhythm to it at all, but always quietly so I didn’t wake anyone. Sometimes the dog would join in the dancing, slowly and sleepily, having been roused by my sudden appearance. The wet grass would coat my naked toes, which was always a challenge to wipe off before going back inside, to avoid arousing suspicion.
But, even better than dancing in the moonlight… Water.
The pool was respectably sized, though not the largest by any means, and deeper than I was tall at its lowest point. If I was awake when everyone else was, and it happened to be dark out, the underwater light would illuminate the whole thing. But for some reason, with the light on, I held this terror that an impossibly-sized shark lived in the deep end and would chase me as I got to the shallow end. As a result, when I went to exit the pool – even if it had been a perfectly relaxing swim to that point – I would race through the shallow end. It terrified me, this irrational and non-existent shark.
But if all the lights were off, there was no threat of an unseen imaginary shark. And so it was that – sometimes, just sometimes – I would slowly wade into the dark waters. I only did this on starry nights, when there was no moon. I would move slowly, secretively, feeling the cool water caress my skin where the hot air kissed it only just before. I played a little game to see if I could get into the water without making ripples, feeling almost guilty about marring the glass-smooth surface. And then I would turn, floating on my back, and fall into the Milky Way.
There are no words to describe proper night swimming. It has to be quiet, soft, and tender. Oh, certainly, there is skinny-dipping and other night-aquatic activity, both innocent and risqué. But there is a sacred art to the night swim, wherein the breath becomes a hymn, and buoyancy a prayer. There is truth beneath the surface that will bear you up, and an echo of the womb sleeps in the depths. The stars would rain down on me in their eternal dance, sheltering me like a canopy and yet being as wide and far and welcoming as only they can manage. There was never a coldness to them, only a silvery journey across the endless sky. It was me, the water, and the stars. Nothing else existed. I might as well have been floating in the constellations myself, just a little speck in a quiet, dark river.
Now, the night sky is often hidden by the harsh glow from street lights, and I seldom have the time to indulge my old night-time habits. But somewhere deep within me, there is a little girl, still floating in the starry sky, still dancing in the moonlight, still sitting by the firelight, and who still loves sneaking foods from the fridge. I wonder sometimes if one of my own children will do something similar. I want to be able to give them that gift. But I cannot explain why I would wake in the middle of the night, and cannot predict that they will also. Perhaps this gift was given to me only.
I feel sorry for the world if I was the only one to share in the joy of the gentle night.