Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

How many kinds of darkness can you count? How many kinds can you feel?

There is the dark that happens when one turns out the light. Suddenly, there is a nothingness. You blink. Your eyes adjust, and there are shadows. With the shadows are the knowing of familiarity; even in a hotel room, you have an idea of where the bed sits. Because you remember this, you were never truly in the dark.

I was once in deep cave, admiring stalagmites and stalactites and other intriguing formations, when the guide warned us that he was going to turn out the light (this was long before smartphones; I daresay this trick wouldn't work now as someone would have something lit up). He wanted us to experience total darkness.

The light went out.

There was no seeing in that blackness, and because we were being led from one briefly lit place to another, and the space unfamiliar, there was no seeing anything in my mind's eye, either.

You cannot close your eyes and recreate the eerie pitch darkness in the depth of that cave. The darkness without light is darker even than that. Trapped in a place where no sunlight ever filtered through, the black was total. Suffocating. Absorbing. The air felt heavy and lifeless; I could smell the earth, hear the scuffle of feet from someone nearby. Only my ears told me I was not alone.

One could disappear in a darkness like that, falling away into the nothingness of the dark. Even after a few minutes, my eyes could not find anything; there was no light for them to see. No stars, no moon, no blinking computer eye.

I was afraid to move. Indeed, how could I take a step forward, suffocating as I was in that inky blackness? How could anyone do anything other than stand there, feeling the panic rise from the pit of the gut?

I do not know of the darkness of the blind. Perhaps an unfortunate soul without eyes who must live in total darkness has an idea of the blackness of that cave.

When I was younger, and Botetourt more rural, I could look out in certain directions and see only stars. I could even see the milky way, which is something I've not seen in several years. We have too much light now. We have more houses, each sending out its little beacon of brightness to keep the darkness at bay. In the city, one can barely see the moon, much less the stars. I wonder sometimes if constant city dwellers even know how many stars light the sky.

Far, far too many to count, that's for sure.

Some nights can be longer than others. Sleepless nights can lend themselves to walking the floor, or laying in bed looking out the crack in the curtains, where even on the darkest nights of the new moon I can still see a tint of cloud or a star. That deep, incredible dark of the cave exists only underground, not outside.

I only need to open my eyes, and there is always a little light.

There is another darkness, still, that I have experienced. It's a darkness that seeps from inside, casting a cowl of blackness over my head and heart that weighs so much it is as if I've been tied to a cinder block and tossed from a ship. The sinking, choking feeling of that blackness is worse than the total darkness in that cave, because in that cave I knew someone would eventually flick on a flashlight. That darkness would not last forever.

This other darkness goes deep, piercing like Sting, Bilbo's dagger, and it cuts deeply through flesh and sinew. This is a darkness explained away by those who love me as a bad day, or a tough time. A darkness so deep that Gollum could not find his way through the tunnels, not even with the One Ring on his finger and Sauron the Deceiver calling his name.

It is a darkness without name, one that they dare not speak even in the language of Mordor. Darker than the spider lair in the Mountains of Shadow near Cirith Ungol. Even I do not call it by name. Even dwarves sometimes fear to go underground.

Darkness goes, though, when I open my eyes.

I must remember to open my eyes.


  1. Beautiful essay. I had a similar cave experience to yours. Jewel Cave, South Dakota -- the guide extinguished the lights, because he wanted us to listen to the darkness. You could hear stalactites dripping, and the distant trickle of water, as well as the whooshing air moving through the large chamber we we in. I could also hear my one friend's silent panic -- she neglected to mention her claustrophobia until we were down inside the cave, and held onto my hand so tight when the lights were doused, I still have a faint crescent mark on the back of my hand. As for stars . . . this urban dweller knows how much of the night sky we miss, and sometimes misses the dark nights and camaraderie of a fire from back when friends and I used to go camping.


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