Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Limit


Years ago, a friend from grad school and I decided to spend most of one summer rambling around rural New England on foot. Sergei had been born in what was then still the Soviet Union and was studying engineering (he later pioneered a mechanism that greatly increased the efficiency of wind turbines). I was studying environmental science but had no clear career path in mind, nor would I for some time thereafter. We both figured that it wasn't going to be long before we got sucked up into some kind of corporate or academic drudgery that would keep us occupied for years, and that this might be our last chance for anything resembling freedom. Sergei wasn't even all that interested in the outdoors, but he had an adaptable character and was equally happy spending his days walking a rural road in the Northeast Kingdom as he was watching television in his dorm room or tinkering in the engineering lab.

We were both agreed that we wanted to avoid the well-traveled trails, even if that meant going out of our way or missing some of the scenic high points. We also took care not to venture too far from civilization, since our provisions were limited to whatever we could carry on our backs. We could go a day or two on trail mix and the like if we had to, but when ever possible we would load up on bread and cheese at some local store in the towns we passed along the way. Foraging wasn't something we had any inclination or background to engage in, although we did eat our share of berries we found along the roadside.

In order to minimize the weight we had to carry we didn't bring a tent, just our sleeping bags and some sheets of plastic that we thought might keep us dry but never did. Luckily it was a dry summer and most of the time we managed to find shelter of some kind when it rained. Here and there we were offered a bed for the night by people we met along the way, but we usually declined. Somehow we managed to wander from western Connecticut up through the Berkshires, across the Green Mountains and through New Hampshire into central Maine, before circling back through eastern Massachusetts and heading home, without getting eaten by bears, bitten by rattlesnakes, or murdered by psychopaths, and we were even still speaking to each other when it was all over.

I'm a lifelong insomniac, and although my symptoms abated a bit under the daily routine of trekking ten miles or more a day, I was never like Sergei, who could plod along from sunup to sundown without ever appearing tired but then for want of a better bed could sink into an apparent coma leaning against a tree when he finally came to a stop. Sometimes I fell asleep easily enough, but after an hour or so I would wake into a miserable combination of exhaustion, anxiety, and exhilaration in which I often lingered until the first grey beginnings of dawn. I would wake in the morning sore and depressed, though I bounced back soon enough once I stretched my legs and had a bite to eat.

One evening, not long after we crossed the upper Connecticut River into New Hampshire, we left the road and went off into the forest a half-mile or so to find a sheltered place for the night, not wanting to be too obvious about it since we were presumably trespassing. We found a little clearing where the undergrowth had been nibbled down by deer and spread our sleeping bags out under the stars, which on that moonless night were as brilliant and abundant as I had ever seen them. It was comfortably warm and the only sound, once we settled down, was the chattering of flying squirrels somewhere high above us. Sergei of course was out like a light at once, and I too fell asleep before long, but I woke a while later — how much later I couldn't tell, as my watch dial wasn't luminous — and at first I couldn't remember where I was. I could hear Sergei breathing lightly a few yards away and eventually I came to my senses, but with a feeling of despair that it was probably hours until dawn and that I was too agitated to return to sleep. I got up and walked around a bit, but didn't stray too far lest I stumble over something in the dark. Had I been a smoker now would have been the time to light up, but I didn't have even that recourse.

I took a sweater out of my knapsack and pulled it on against the beginnings of a chill. I sat on a fallen tree trunk and looked up at the stars and thought about everything and nothing: about the vastness of the universe and my own insignificance in it, about my family and some young women I knew from school, about the future, about a hundred things that seemed to matter at that late hour but probably wouldn't in the light of day. I don't know how much time passed by. I felt a bit drowsy but didn't have the energy to get into my sleeping bag again and wage the struggle for sleep.

From somewhere in the dark, high above, I heard a single brief sound, just distinct enough for me to recognize the hoot of a barred owl, the sturdy night-bird of the many childhood evenings I had spent out of doors. They were common enough where I grew up and often active in the day; I had seen them dozens of times. I listened until I heard the telltale call in full: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Softly, not so loud as to risk waking Sergei, I echoed the call: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? There was dead silence for a long time, then I thought I heard a fluttering not far off. I repeated the call and the owl responded, closer this time, maybe just ten yards away. I held my breath, then gave the call once more.

Immediately, without warning, the owl swooped down and began striking its wings fiercely against my face. I fell backwards off the trunk and as it followed me down I felt its feathertips and the pressure waves of each wingbeat. I covered my eyes with my arm, expecting at any second to feel talons tearing my face. I opened my mouth to yell to Sergei for help but my voice was paralyzed and nothing emerged. Eventually the owl's rage subsided and it flew off as invisibly as it had arrived. I felt my face and my hands for blood but there was nothing. I crawled into my sleeping bag, pulled it up around my head, and lay panting, finally weeping.

At dawn I crawled out of the sleeping bag and looked around; there wasn't a feather in sight or any other indication of the incident, and except for a bruise on my elbow where I had fallen back I could have dismissed it all as a dream — but I knew it was not. When Sergei began to stir I told him what had happened. He didn't understand at first — I had to repeat the whole story — but I think in the end he believed me.

When I try to think back on the incident in a reasoned manner the encounter still baffles me, but I think I understand now that I had somehow violated a sacred boundary. It wasn't my physical presence in the clearing that had crossed a line, or even my pretending to be an owl and calling out in the dark in a language I didn't understand. It was something else; I had transgressed, if only for a second, a margin where the domain of the human reached its terminus. The owl and I could exist in the same space, but in every other way our worlds were mutually impenetrable. I could no more understand the owl's behavior that night than it could understand the road maps we carried or the pop songs that were stuck in our heads.

Sergei and I made it safely home and finished up our studies the next spring. We still drop each other a line every now and then.

NB: The above is fiction, except for the insomnia.