Monday, February 09, 2009

Moonlight: I recommend it.

It’s been a long couple of days, and the evenings have been busy too. I turn from one task to another in the office, and when I’m done I’m tired, but I look back on the telephone conversations, the correspondence, the busyness, and I can’t find a single thing I can point to with a sense of accomplishment. I call home, and in the few moments available to me, I try to make myself feel connected and relevant, then I’m changing my clothes, and heading to another reception or meeting or dinner.

Tonight’s event was outdoors, at least. I made conversation with colleagues from the four corners of the globe, all well-traveled and interesting. There were drinks and cigars and a small fire burning in a corner of the patio. There were people I knew and some I hadn’t met, and everyone was engaging and pleasant. But the moon was rising full over the garden wall. It shone through a eucalyptus tree until it topped the silver branches. As it rose, it drew a tide inside me.

I was talking and listening and doing all those things required of one in such a setting. I was polite and attentive. All the while, however, I was watching the moon, and it was tugging at me, and I was chafing to be away.

I remembered a night like this, a little more than twenty years ago, when I was stationed on Crete. It was warm, shirtsleeve weather, as it is here now. I worked in shifts, those days, and it was eleven O’clock when I finally escaped the office. I remember leaving the building, looking up at the moon, and feeling like I was surfacing after being underwater for hours. I couldn’t get home fast enough, and when I did, I changed into my riding clothes and got on my bike. More than two decades ago, and I can still remember the way the street shone like quicksilver, the hum of my tires in the warm, silent night air, and the dark, mute mass of Mount Ehdri blocking out the stars.

Tonight I left the party as early as I could. I rushed home, pulled by the gravity of the moon, and left my clothes in a pile at the foot of my bed. I stepped into my riding clothes and wheeled my bike out, into the liquid moonlight. No quicksilver street for me tonight. Instead, I took to the trails, where the moon shone bone white on the limestone and sand. Moonlight and darkness changed the face of the path, and I had to trust to memory more than eyesight. The moon cast shadows like chasms across the trail, and gleamed bright and solid where I knew the sand to be most slippery. Still, I flew. Sometimes I fight the bike, and I bump and jar my way across every rock and depression, but tonight the bike was just another extension of my body. It rolled smoothly and eagerly along, finding the right line through the turns, effortlessly rising and falling beneath me in time with the terrain.

The moon threw my shadow over the broken flagstones paving a section of the trail. I watched the shadow separate from the underside of my front wheel as I shifted my weight back and lifted the handlebars to clear an outcropping of shining bedrock. Shadow and wheel rejoined, and I climbed the sandy gravel hill, surefooted as a mountain goat. A little bat jittered and dipped a cockeyed course above me, and then disappeared from view. The trail rose to where it intersected a street. My tires hummed across the pavement, and then I dropped again into the hush of the trail. It was all silence and moonlight until I approached Quincy House, the residence of our Ambassador. Here the Saudi security guards were startled by the apparition that flashed without warning into the outer reaches of their floodlights. They shouted in alarm, and for a moment, I was tempted to keep on going. Prudence carried the moment though (It has been twenty some years since my last moonlit ride, after all) and I turned around. The guards seemed relieved, but whether it was because I turned around, or because they were able to confirm that I was man, not ghost, I am not sure. I rode back the way I came at what seemed twice the speed, leaving them laughing with relief.

I followed my own tracks, and passed where I had entered the trail. I rode the rutted descent that gives me pause in the daylight, without even thinking of using my brakes. I darted through the deserted park, where palms dappled the walkways with their variegated shadows, and then I was back into the blazing moonlight.

I turned the corner where the trail follows a high finger of rock, looming out over the wadi, and I looked down into the cool dark tops of the date palms, far below me. The moon was anodizing the upper fronds a silvery green, and everything beneath was impenetrable mystery. The trail turned away from that outcropping, back into a narrow turn between two rock faces, where the moonlight could not reach. I sliced into the darkness and the sound of my tires on sand and stone was joined by another sound, just as quiet, just as rushing. The turn had taken me into the midst of a pack of wild dogs, running the moonlit trail. For the briefest of moments they were unaware of me, and we surged along together. In an instant though, they were whirling and leaping in fright. As the rock faces dropped away the path widened, and they ran as one up the slope beside the trail, loping, stiff-legged, wolf-like, chalk-white. Only after I’d passed through them and left them silhouetted on the hilltop did they begin to bark. For many turns of the trail, the night echoed with their challenges.

After the barking faded behind me, I descended into the palm grove, and took the road that runs along beside it. I passed the little pond, and the air was filled with the voices of frogs. Not the resonant croaking of bullfrogs, or the peeping of the tiny amphibians I remember from home. This was a querulous, eerie sound that made me all too conscious of the darkness under the palms. I shifted into a bigger gear, and the bike accelerated easily.

I burst back into the moonlight and it felt like redemption. I was flying then, working hard, but not feeling it a bit, enjoying that perfect rhythm that I look for in every ride, but find in very few. Then, in that moment of bursting moonlight and perfect rhythm, I knew it was time to head for home. Before I broke my stride, before I crashed into some unyielding obstacle hidden in the dark, before the moment could be diminished in any way.


Hangyakutya said...

It's astonishing that you can paint with words too... When I was reading it, I felt and saw everything as if I was there.

The moon was very special last night. My wife said that it looks larger than usual. I couldn't secede from the work all night long, I was thinking and preparing for my next tasks instead of sleeping... I'm happy to hear that you managed to do something extraordinary that will be able to brighten your mood in the casual days of work.

Keith Miller said...

Beautifully written! It reads like a novel, and it's the next best thing to being there.