The Boy at Night

February 17, 2011
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At night his mother opened the curtain, flicked it sideways and let the fabric swing and settle, just grazing the sill. Moments after, the lights went out. For perhaps ten seconds the world lay dark, and then the stars glinted.

The moon took longer, but of course she shone brighter. Once she came over the treetops her light fell on the snow, caught the tiny glimmers there, opened the streams of light between the stars and the earth. Whiteness, ringing silence. Hung in shadows, I watched and listened.

For nigh an hour the silence rang, striking in turn the moon, the snow, the stars, and back to the snow again—a distant metallic tone, the remnant of an old angel-song, old steeple bells. Valleys caught it in smooth palms, swept it upward. Trees caught it circling round their waists. Like wind the silence traveled between the mountains, touching stone and perch, skimming water and earth. At the change of the hour the door slammed. The ringing stopped. All fell in the blackness, unbreathing, bone-tense.

Out of the house ran the boy. White legs sticking out, between flapping brown shorts and sock-scrunched boots. Jacket unbuttoned, arms outspread, he flew into the snow. A circle stretched around the rim of the yard as he dashed, kicking snow right and left. Arms swung. Bare hands in the freezing night—the same hands that pressed against me each morning. Warm, sweaty, tender.
Having made three laps, he flopped backwards into a heap of snow. Three seconds and he was swinging his limbs back and forth, flat against the ground. Snow angels—his favorite. Finishing one, he rose, fell, and made another. Another, another. I watched him, from the side of the house, listened to the swoosh of the jacket sleeves like wings.

This boy I knew. This boy I loved. Of the two boys that wore that face, one by night, another by day, I loved the boy at night. Snow angel boy.

Marks and imprints, tracks and weavings, flung across the yard. Even grass sprang through in places, frosty stems poking toward the sky. He rolled, he somersaulted, lap after lap. As he ran his narrow chest heaved. He pushed snow in heaps, smoothed his bare palms over them, patted their bases till they seemed to rise from the earth. Primordial sculptures. Over the snow they marched in sentry rows. Under the trees he built walls, little fences circling the trunks. Block by block. A garden-forest. The trees felt protected—he fed their strength, built hedges from their frozen roots. And, repeating, he made snow angels. And snow angels again.
He was a storybook child. Closed by day, crept open by night, he grew out of the pages he read under the kitchen table, the magic stories, the forbidden stories. Stories of snow and nights and freedom. He was of a race forgotten, washed away, frozen under winters, under covers of ancient books. When he swung his arms in the deep drifts, he resurrected.

Remembrance brightened his face—his mouth twisted—he glanced at the dark house and up at the stars. I could see the clock on the parlor wall. Twelve, the pivotal hour, was just moments away. Realizing this, the boy jolted, raced around the yard, kicking his smooth mounds, wrecking his steady walls, crushing his precious sculptures to nothing. Dragging his hands, he ran low, scooping snow across the angels, sheathing their precious wings. He tore it all down. He flung snow every way. When he finished he flopped backwards and lay still. Sky closing, the field around him quieted as new snow glittered down.

Twelve crept by soundlessly and the boy went back inside. I saw him pass in the hall, peeking as he walked, and disappear into his room, door shut. Silence settled in the house, and slowly the ringing returned in the outer world. Mountains sent the ringing back to me; trees whispered, and snow, gentle sheets of snow, covered the boy’s wrecked creations in the yard.
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At dawn the frost came. Creeping, it formed at my base and snaked upward. Tantalizingly cold, sharply crescentic. Under my watch the snow had amassed. No evidence remained of the boy’s handiwork.

I did not wait long. Just as the sun broke pink over the pines—stars extinguished, moons sunken as pearls—hot breath clouded the glass, melted the creeping frost. Shivering there beside me, her face held close, she looked out at the morning. I sensed her eyes sweeping the yard, the swirls of frost cringing away. Only seconds passed before she stepped backward and snapped the curtain shut. The yard, the snow, the dawn, all vanished with a flick of fabric. All that remained of that world, for me, was the frost, climbing again through the moisture, carving runes into the pane.

A lamp clicked on—muted light fell on the carpet and the blue walls. I saw only this room now. Kettle-whistle. Shuffling footsteps. In the kitchen, the woman made breakfast. Smells wound through the rooms, sounds of clinking dishes, as the sun framed a bright outline on the floor before me, cutting around the curtain-edge.

Something woke the boy, then. Through the dining room he emerged, blanketed and dewy-eyed. I felt his breath from there. Always, he checked the yard. Every morning, while his mother bustled in the kitchen. Now, he stuck his fingers between the fabric folds and slid one curtain aside. A sliver of morning. Like his mother, he squinted through the glass, eyes sweeping the snow-laden yard. Nothing remained. All was shrouded in white. Biting his lip like always, he let the fabric fall again and slowly moved away.

He sat at the table in the dining room, where his mother brought him a mug of unsugared tea. Sipping, he glanced through to the parlor. I never betrayed him, but he always worried anyway. Tea finished, his mother brought a plate of pancakes. As the clock hands swung slow motion, the boy forgot. He went off to dress, his mother set to cleaning, and I watched it all. Human breath circulated. Lights gleamed yellow, cast little shadows through the walls and doors, rotating, shifting the hours like dreams. The familiar hum. The familiar life. Later on, books littered the table and the boy worked. Mathematics, history, the sciences. He was bored by them. When his mother worked elsewhere, distracted, he dug a smaller book from the piles and opened it under the table. Stories. Adventure stories. Fairy stories. While he read these, his eyes twitched toward me now and again—just to make sure. Or perhaps to wonder. To wait for the day to end.
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One night his mother found out. Something roused her from sleep and she walked the dark house in bare feet and robe, tapping her fingers on the doorframes. Passing the parlor, she saw the open curtain and entered. Her footsteps were muffled by the thick blue carpet, bathed in silver moonlight. I could do nothing. His mother squinted through the glass. Her breath fogged, but melted no frost—it was early, far too early. Hardly a quarter of midnight, and the boy played on, built his kingdoms, and his mother saw him and her breath came faster and faster against the pane. Then I felt the cranking, as her hand gripped the metal lever and she worked it until it spun and I was opened. Her voice broke into the night. “Davy!”

It ended. He looked at her. Only a boy, in the snow, at night, short jacket, bare hands, wide eyes. Head-hung, he came inside, leaving his snow angels there. His sculptures stood emblemmed as he trudged into the house.
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Days—and nights—crossed my pane before I saw him again. His mother kept the curtain shut, the parlor door closed. I watched the sun carve herself into the floor each morning, watched the lines fade to red and nothing by day’s end. I watched the hour hand crawl. I felt the frost engrave the same designs on my hidden side, dawn after dawn. I wondered at the silver lights outside, the stars in their far-off sparkle, the moon in her hovering gloom. I sensed the ringing silence. But I saw nothing. Nothing save the empty blue parlor, breathless, defeated.
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Many nights. I lost count. And then he found his way to me again—the boy, the boy at night. Door sliding open, he crept in, pausing at the doorway to clutch the knob and stare. Holding his breath, he padded across the carpet, stuck his fingers between the still curtains. Away they flung, and the night in its sober brilliance flooded the room. No time was wasted. Cranking the metal handle until I opened again, he mounted the sill and paused there, surveying. A smile, an eager breath. Framing him, holding him, I waited, and he jumped into the snow.





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