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by CathyNH

On a certain street, in a certain residential neighborhood in a certain township in New Jersey, if you wander along the sidewalk at 3AM, you may hear something.

This is the hour that stretches longest and darkest on the clock, an hour when a man can forget that he saw the sun set, it happened so long ago, and have no hope that he’ll see it rise again, the dawn so infinitely far away. This is a time when daylight seems a quaint conceit, and hope a foreign word. The world has always been cold and dark and empty, and Fimbulwinter is only a Norse hissy fit away.

If you have any sense of timing, you’ve picked the night of the new moon, darker than most nights along this street. And if drama has any sense of timing, a streetlight or two have blown out and not yet been replaced by the public works department.

It’s an old money town, long-established, well-heeled, well-endowed. The brownstones that line this street are among the town’s many holdouts against a blight of urbanization that features large sterile boxes divided into small sterile boxes in which people eat and sleep and exist. Not here though. You’d never know to look at the outsides of these mature, upstanding structures that the insides have all been thoroughly modern Millied.

The sidewalk is old brick, more than a little uneven after decades of shifting and grumbling and settling, so you’ll have to watch your step in the dark. There are trees planted every so many yards along the way, but they’re stark and leafless, scores of naked skeletal fingers groping skyward, outlined against that one lit window in that building over there, across the street, the only window that’s lit on the whole block. There are curtains tied back on either side of the window – the darkness can pour smoothly inside with gentle inexorability.

The weak yellowish cast of the light indicates it’s probably a single lamp with an incandescent bulb. If you were to stand here instead of walking on by, at some point you might see a shadow move unevenly in front of that light.

It’s very quiet. Sound travels in cold air like this.

Someone is playing a piano.

The playing sounds slow, tentative, as if the hands on the keys are unsure of themselves, perhaps crippled by the cold. But as you listen, you might come to realize that the rests have as much weight as the notes, the silences heavy as guilt, as though the keys themselves have to stop and draw in breath to limp onward.

Imagine that the hands on the keys are a man’s – they look strong, but the long slender fingers that rest lightly on the ivory move from one measure to the next with a hesitancy that whispers much of doubt, and fear, and pain. The keys may be the only thing he can touch so intimately.

The music is nothing recognizable. It may be classical, it may be formless. You may not be sure, but it doesn’t matter.

You might hear a dark theme woven through the wandering notes, something minor and profoundly unsettling that repeats and circles on itself without ever resolving. Listen long enough and the tension will wind tighter and tighter, eventually driving you to cover your ears, or scream, or heave a rock through the window – anything to stop the darkness from overwhelming you.

Music expresses the things we can’t bear to give conscious thought to, things we don’t have words for, things we can’t bear to find words for – even in the silent prisons of our own skulls.

This is what someone may pour out of his heart, rather than give voice or yield tears to.

This is what Orpheus played after he looked back.

When exhaustion overcomes anguish, when sublimation overcomes madness, the night goes quiet again. A shadow may cross the light cast by the lamp. A denser shadow may even approach the window for a look at the emptiness outside.

In the stillness of this long hour, a man desperate enough can convince himself that people are a fever dream, and that he’s all alone in the universe, his belief a Janus of hope and despair. Dreams can be nightmares. Or idylls. Depends on your point of view.

Keep walking. Don’t stop. That way I won’t have to acknowledge that there’s any other living thing in this cold, dark, empty world but me. I like it that way.

Superman had the right idea, with that Fortress of Solitude thing.

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