All in the Family

By William A. Caldwell, Pulitzer prize winner, long-time Vineyard Gazette columnist etc. From the Vineyard Gazette editions of January, 1983:

It meant no harm and did none, the mosquito that spiraled down into the cone of light on my bedtime story one midnight this week. It lowered its landing gear and cut the engines and circled to a pretty six-point landing on my wrist. I could have zapped it. It could have tapped me. We didn’t do anything except commune. After a while it vroomed off to practice cello encores in the far corner of the room, and I turned out the light and wandered into wondering (a) what people mean when they say they dread being alone, and (b) whether anybody ever was.

She may be away for quite a spell this time — surgery is indicated — and I don’t especially relish being cooped up in a big old house by myself. But she’ll be home in due time. Meanwhile I can stand me. No need for lying awake explaining to myself how it is that in solitude one is not alone. Theologians have known for millenniums. I have to puzzle it out for myself, and thinking is hard work for a man with my modest talents. What was that?

At night the great gray geese, which have been keeping a gunshot span of open water between themselves and the blinds along the shore of the bay, move in toward land. They gabble. They gossip. This is not the far-carried clamor of a skein of geese against the sky, it is small talk, meant to convey not meaning but reassurance. What was that?

Something has gotten into the crawl space under the house. Despite all our precautionary plugging of ground-level chinks and burrows, some living creature has found its way in from the cold and is gnawing away at the foundations of its refuge. What was that?

When she’s here she can sort out and demystify the noises that signify one is never quite alone. The shudder that ran down the spine of the house just now was nothing but the heating system’s pipes and coils and tubes, cooling off, snuggling down. The furtive footstep in the next room is a stout timber’s adjusting itself, as it was built to do, to a shift in the direction or velocity of the wind. What was that?

In broad daylight that was a tapping at the window. This was not the whisper of a blowing leaf. It was a rap-rap, and it is repeated sharply. I tell myself to go see. It is a small fat bird, well dressed in formal black and white. It perches on the sill and communicates — not complaining mind you, just calling the management’s attention to the fact that last week’s ration of sunflower seed has run out and what’s a fellow supposed to live on, air?

On the roof there’s a thump and a rumbling. In the panic of a fine old World War I dogfight over and around and around the house a gull has fumbled its hard-earned clam or scallop. The gull won’t dare to return and retrieve it. Unless I take it down to the shore and scale it back into the water the thing will die.

That? The sunrise crow, shouting down the chimney. That? The small birds that nested once in the flue and refuse vehemently to understand that our screening them out was for their own security. That audible silence? Nothing but the 60-cycle hum of the water pump in the shed, the refrigerator, the furnace, the freezer in the workroom. That grisly croak? Some late heron, harrumphing about its business.

And always the shrill rant and mewing of the gulls.

From mice to mosquitoes, all the presences about us can be explained. The only problem I have with the explanations that come to mind after I’ve turned out the light is that they don’t explain anything.

You see, she says sometimes after she has answered some question, but she’s not asking me whether I see, she’s telling me I do. When I start and ask, “What’s that?” I don’t really need to know a dog or a deer has come calling; I want to know why, and I don’t see.

Try to bear for a moment more with a fellow creature’s effort to think.

We’ve been habituated to suppose that the universe is hostile and that whatever in it is unlike us and undertakes to intrude itself into our lives is sinister. What’s that? Whatever it is, beware. Things that go bump in the night are to be feared and detested. So from the cradle up we’ve been taught to believe and behave.

I have a theory. It is that we are not the discoverers of the stark truth that everything that lives is a member of every other living thing. The creatures knew it first.

They want to be near us, not to threaten or damage or destroy us but to certify to us and themselves that we matter to each other. I don’t know how anyone could devise a test of my proposition, and it might be difficult to prove the benign intent of the white shark and the spirochete of syphilis, but on the whole I choose to surmise that everything extant would like to be a friend of mine if I’d let it.

I’ll be back soon, she says, and you’re in good hands. The skunk waddles across the floodlight’s cone of light on the lawn. The white-faced owl floats past. A dog snuffles in the darkness. The mosquito is back. Something it forgot.

We are not alone. God knows.

Compiled by Eulalie Regan