A few nights ago, I woke at 4:30 in the morning. This, unfortunately, is a fairly common occurrence, but given that I can usually fall back asleep rather quickly, not one that I worry much about.
However, as I was lying there, relaxed and drifting back towards sleep, I heard the sound of a car crash.
Now, it needs to be said that I live close to downtown Minneapolis, and just over a block from a U. S. Interstate which is a major artery for transit to, through and from the city, always bustling, always busy, never quiet. Hearing air brakes, squealing tires, and even, unfortunately, impacts is not all that uncommon.
From the sound of it, this accident was indeed on the Interstate, and seemed to be fairly minor. The impact was solid, but it was a single blow, with no additional crashes (those are the worst – the chain reactions). There was no sounds of glass breaking, metal being dragged, or voices calling out, no horns honking. Reflecting on it later, I didn’t even hear sirens, even though there is a first responder firehouse close by. The parties involved must have been able to exit under their own volition.
But what did strike me that night was that after the sound of the collision, silence fell. True silence.
Living this close to a constant, buzzing fixture of urbanity, you get used to a ceaseless rumble just underneath your active awareness. Ambient noise of the city, as it were. When we comment to a passing neighbor that “It’s mighty quiet tonight”, we’re remarking on a lack of gunning engines, loud music, loud voices, bad mufflers, children’s playful shrieks, dogs barking, airplanes overhead, branches tossing in the wind, birds chirping or cawing or cooing. Not a lack of the hum of traffic. Never that. It’s just that we don’t even really notice it anymore.
That is, until it’s gone – which it never is. Until that moment. As soon as the sound of the impact faded, silence descended. Pure, pristine silence. For at least a few minutes, traffic on the highway either came to a stop, or slowed enough to keep the extant noises from spilling over the sound barriers erected by the side of the road, to reach my bedroom window.
I remember lying there, and marveling at the lack of sound. At the true silence. Where, if a dreaming bird were to chirp in its sleep, its voice would have cut the night. Where a sudden sigh from the dog sleeping on her bed in the corner became a focal point of sensation.
I fell back sleep before the highway sounds started up again, but not before I indulged in a few sensorial memories from my childhood in rural Iowa, where crickets replaced engines as the aural constant, except in the calm of deep winter, when true silence blanketed the night, just like the snow.
Thinking back on this the next day, I was reminded of how taken I was with Carolyn Ives Gilman’s excellent novel, Dark Orbit, in which one of the main characters, Thora, spends part of the book in complete darkness. Not blind, but sans even the smallest smudge of light, unable to utilize her sense of sight in any way.
Several times I have seen phantom lights floating ahead of me and made toward them, only to realize that they were just photisms generated by my straining, light-starved brain. This darkness is so oppressive, I want to rip it to shreds, to revenge myself on it. It presses in on all sides, suffocating and impenetrable. Sometimes I find it difficult to breathe, the darkness is so thick. Nothing could keep me prisoner more effectively. I am perfectly free to move, to escape, and yet completely unable to act. No sadist could have invented a more infuriating captivity.
Later, Thora is discovered by a girl who lives in this darkness, who leads her to safety but not to any light; the inhabitants of this planet live underground, with no concept of day or night, light or dark, above or below, no concept of colors, even. Their sense of direction is tied to underground breezes, there are no fences to delineate property nor walls for privacy, they “see” where to go via grooves and other marks gouged into the ground which they feel with their feet. (Thora’s shoes are an extreme puzzlement to the clan.) Even their food is cooked via heat from an underground hot spring. They are incredibly functional, graceful, gracious, intelligent, but uncomprehending of Thora’s request to be led to the surface of the planet, or her concerns at being at being able to contact her ship (or even the idea of a ship, or sky, or stars). Thora, in turn, is unable to acclimate to her new surroundings, even after a passage of time. “My senses longed for light the way a starved person longs for food.”
It’s a tour de force of sensorial understanding.
It’s really amazing what we take for granted from our senses. Even now, sitting on a quiet winter afternoon in my living room, there is the hum of my computer, the ticking of a clock on the wall, the breaths and quiet woofs from my dog, sleeping on the couch next to me; she wakes, stretches, licks her lips and sighs to settle back into napping. A delivery truck backing up gives off a set of warning beeps. Other cars pass by, a lumbering school bus makes the window behind me rattle. A plane passes far overhead. My fingers tap keys and words appear on a screen in front of me. I hear them in my head.
We know and experience so much, at any given moment in our lives. It is absolutely amazing that so much is happening around us, and that it does not drive us mad. That our awarenesses are so layered and so thick and so functional that we don’t even realize they are there, until that which stimulates them is taken from us. Hopefully only for a moment. Hopefully only until the new day dawns, and we awaken to that remarkable ambient noise that we aren’t even aware is there, to a light that we take for granted, to smells and tastes and touches that surround us and inundate us with rote and glorious life.
~ Sharon Browning