Bedtime is approaching at our grandparents’ farmhouse. The northern twilight has lingered as long as it can; now darkness spreads across the prairie, made even blacker by the absence of the moon.
My little brother and youngest sister have already brushed their teeth with well water splashed into a basin from the long-handled pump in the kitchen. (I would be a teenager before city water would be piped to the farmhouse and we could brush our teeth with water from a faucet.) Now in their pajamas, the two are tucked into the hide-a-bed in the living room, ready for the night.
But something is missing: my brother’s stuffed bear, Gentle Ben. The house is searched, but no bear is found.
“Kayann, can you find Gentle Ben? You know where you were playing.” My mother hands me a flashlight. I am nine or ten, the oldest of four children, and it’s my job to take care of my brother and sisters. We are visiting my grandparents’ North Dakota farm, as we do every summer, and my four-year-old brother’s stuffed bear is lost someplace in the tall grass where we had been playing. Without Gentle Ben, my brother will not go to bed. He is crying now as I take the flashlight in my hand and open the screen door off the kitchen porch where my grandfather processes the milk from his few dairy cows each day.
That afternoon, my two sisters and brother and I had been down in the tall grass by the narrow dirt road that crossed the countryside in front of my grandparents’ farm. Years later the road was paved to create a highway between the Canadian border and the county seat 25 miles from the farm, but in my childhood it remained a rural road, travelled mostly by farm families heading back from the city or by tractors coming in from the fields. In the summer, we can spot a car in the distance by the dust it raises before we can see the car itself.
The roadside seems an odd place to play, but the grass is highest where the spring rains run off the road into a ditch along the edge. The ditch is dry now but the moisture has done its work: the grass is taller than my littlest sister’s head. On hot summer afternoons until dinner, we play hide and seek by tromping the grass into shelters under which we can burrow. Gentle Ben must be there now, hiding alone in the dark.
Flashlight in hand, I step out into the darkness. Sunset comes late on the North Dakota prairie, so as kids we often go to bed before the sky is truly dark or the stars have emerged, but this night the search for Gentle Ben has delayed our bedtime and the sun has already fallen behind the long horizon.
I don’t know how far the farmhouse is set back from the road, but it surely seems longer than a city block at home. I walk from the kitchen door to the end of the stone path that meets the edge of the driveway stretching down to the road. Silent barns stand across from the house, the chickens and cows long since sleeping.
I’ve never been outside alone before, at least not like this. The night is blacker in the country where no lights can be seen. Within the glare of street lamps or the glow of a neighbor’s porch light slanting across a lawn, cities are never really dark, but nighttime in the country is complete.
Shining the flashlight across the gravel, I start toward the road and the grass where we played. In the dark, I can’t see where I’m headed, but I know which direction to walk. I swing the flashlight’s beam to the left across my grandmother’s flower garden and then right against the wheat silos standing sentry at the farmyard’s end. Acres of pasture lie beyond those silos. Wandering there, I could truly be lost, so I turn the flashlight back to the driveway and keep walking.
I don’t remember ever being afraid of the dark, even though I sleep alone in a basement bedroom at home, but inside and outside dark are not the same. Until tonight, I have never seen the sky so black nor so filled with stars. How could a universe so large consider the smallness of me worth protecting as I walk slowly toward grasses still lost from my view?
But I’m not afraid. I’m exhilarated to be alone in the world, without sisters or brothers to care for, without parents to tell me what to do. Darkness, I realize, is just a cover for sunlight. Everything at night is exactly the same as it is in the day; you just can’t see it as clearly.
When I grow up and live in the country, I’ll get a call in the middle of the night from the police asking me to check the license plate on my car. Another car with the same number has been involved in a hit-and-run accident. After verifying that it is the police who have called, I will fumble outside without caution or contacts, find my license plate intact, phone the police with the good news, and go back to bed. In the morning my partner will show me the bear prints near the back door. Maybe if I wear glasses, I will notice them.
But now another bear is waiting. As I edge down the gravel driveway toward the long grass that hides Gentle Ben, I turn off the flashlight and let the night sky conceal me in blackness. I don’t think of words like “shroud” or “cloak” for the dark and I‘m not afraid. I look back to see the light of the farmhouse shining through the curtains. Everyone else is inside that light. I am outside, alone.
Thanks to members of my ecobiography workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology for feedback on this story.