The place was rustic and comfortable, if buggy. An electric paddle fan stirred the air from the apex of the sloped octagonal ceiling. A large stone fireplace opposite the old maple bed with its cotton comforter printed with meadowlarks and orioles and mocking birds. Decades-old knotty pine paneling. Well-worn armchairs and scuffed tables of hand-me-downs cast for their last days into “the cabin.”

So odd, this familiarity and ease in a place I’d never been and knew no one. The previous resident had left a glass filled with alstromeria and a few remnants of a mixed bouquet that scented the air as I reconnoitered the contents of the cabinets. A jumble of pots and lids and this and that in the disarray of a series of short-term occupants busy with their work. I knew the clutter would annoy me and distract me from my writing. Still, I didn’t tidy and organize. That would be a break when the noise of disorder intruded.

The bathroom was much the same. Dozens of hotel-size bottles of shampoo and lotion, smoothed ends of soap, a clutter of ointments and bug sprays and bandaid boxes, detritus of itinerants. The story of a cabin. I threw open both doors, pulled up the shades and opened the five windows to admit the humid air and exhaust the stuffy, slightly mildewy scent.

I woke at the far edge of dawn to the insistent chirping of a cardinal outside the north window beside the head of my bed. Likely perched in the dead, lichen-covered ancient apple, it flew before I opened the blinds. Fully awake and with the familiar headache of crummy wine the night before, I was not likely to fall back asleep. Even with a fresh cup of coffee, the light diffusing through the woods like a low mist seemed an ill omen. It was the forgotten effect of high humidity that muffled light and sound. Beneath the tampered bird calls and the unwelcome sound of trucks from the highway, there came the tumbled rustle of water. A fall, perhaps, but not a large one or a fast stream rushing through narrow banks over rocks and dashing beneath fallen branches.

The morning damp muted distance and softened edges. Birds were subdued, anticipating full sunrise. Something howled in the distance through the woods. The lingering plaint, somewhere between an owl’s screech and a hungry infant’s cry, colored the air in a faint echo of the grieving mothers of Palestine. I went back there amid the rending keens and overwhelming horror as Susan Sontag’s condemnation of the obscene eroticism of the distant gaze upon the suffering of others hit me. Even there in the Georgia woods, each successive howl from afar became less a visceral stab to the heart and more an external thing observed and noted. Inured. The stuff of comment and commentary.

The howl changed then from one long, sustained low note rising into four staccato yelps. Into the sound of disappearing hope and rising fear and urgency. Do we all always become more frantic as our hope dissolves? Does a sense of rising urgency always carry the taint of hopelessness? If so, is hope so eggshell thing and fragile that a single false word or sharp disclosure leaves it shattered. Or does hope endure, buried deep within us, as a vital, throbbing force both solid and transformative? An ancient tree with deep roots.

Photo by Adarsh Kummur on Unsplash

June 2009

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