It is ten-till-two AM on a Thursday morning in late January. A winter storm has temporarily cut off the power. Many candles burn. The candlelight loves the heavy red velvet curtains, the cranberry wallpaper with images, all the color of copper turned teal green, of nymphs and flower urns. A stick of amber incense adds a subtle sweetness to the atmosphere, an atmosphere that wants poetry and good red wine.
My wife, Rochelle, sleeps upstairs. The house is quiet, the neighborhood is quiet, in the way only a slow heavy snowfall can hush the world. It’s the memory of quiet that makes me look up from my book to take in the candlelight. The quiet invokes a familiar feeling. It’s a feeling I realize I’ve had many times before, but once it passes, I forget about it until it returns. And as I return to my reading, reveling in the delicious cadences of long, well-written poems, the ingenuity of revealed wisdoms, the unexpected turns of thought that can surprise even after many readings over many years, I am suddenly aware of a quiet, background sound. Is it an echo from far off?
Pausing to listen, I recognize it, comforting, familiar all the way to my bones. I smile and return to my reading when I suddenly have the kind of wait-a-minute revelation one has when they detect that something is very out of order. Because the sound that has comforted me late at night at times like this, throughout my life, is not possible. It is the clippity-clop sound of a horse, trotting on cobblestones in the snow, pulling a small carriage, in the night.
The book I’m reading falls to the floor.
Almost worried, partly amused, I stand and walk to the window. Snow is falling slow and steady between the houses. I go to the front door, pull it open, and step out onto the sheltered front step. The cold is thrilling. Breathing it in has a purifying effect on my lungs. Was I half-expecting to see gas lamps out on the street, and a carriage coming up the hill in the snow? Maybe I was. But the power is out, and all is hush and dark. The snow falling has the soft sound of air moving gently. It tastes like electricity.
Sometimes a snowfall like this one warms the air. Friction, I suppose. But it is too cold to stand here all night, although I want to. The veil between worlds has become very thin — how do I know that? Because each of my senses is being called to it, the senses I know and think I can direct, and the ones I’m not aware of. They are searching for a thread after taking a hint.
In this state, I doubt anything could surprise me. If an ancestor I’ve not heard of, maybe one who looks a little like me, male or female, or even some hound or other animal familiar, should step out of the falling snow and hand me something I need, or impart a piece of advice, warning, or merely a comfort, I would accept it. If that creature demanded a gift, I would give it. I turn my head slowly side to side, encouraging those senses to reach out and explore. I am tempted to make a slow sideways movement, like a Tai Chi gesture, a secret step. If I do it properly, an open-sesame will occur. I will see the Pythagorean angles in time all around, and, if I want to, I could slip between them, becoming an adumbration. And I would be standing in another time. Another now. As another me.
Pleasant voices echo quietly from a short distance away in the falling snow, their words not quite discernable to me. It’s as if, in this half-space, so random and rare, I’m home. I know these people. They know me. Love is present. But I’m on the front porch of my house late on a wintery night. It’s 2019, I’m older, the love of my life is upstairs quietly sleeping, and I’m happy. Happier than I’ve ever been. And I can hear the snow muffled clippity-clop of the horse and carriage as though it was coming from just the other side of those dark, quiet houses across the street, the sound slowly fading into the snow. I want to walk out into the night and follow it, but I don’t dare. The chill penetrates my heavy sweater and jeans.
Back inside, I remember lying in my bed as a child, on a night like this, hearing that noise while watching the snowflakes pass through the light from the streetlamp outside my bedroom window. Then I’m middle-aged, at a pensione in Verona; I get up in the middle of the night and run to the window and see nothing in the street but parked cars. Then in my late twenties, in a spooky old house in central Ontario, the moonlight bright through the window turning everything blue, there it is again. In many different places and settings have I had this experience, now brought vividly forward in my mind. Each time taking for granted that such a sound, even the impossibility of it, was normal. Like it was as natural as any other sound that might occur in the middle of the night, in winter, when you’re alone with your mind.
Lately, in books and magazines, I have noticed philosophers and physicists revisiting the idea that all time happens simultaneously. That there is no yesterday or tomorrow, there is only the now. That the other lives you may have led, you are also leading now, at the same time. That the places you go in your dreams are the places your other selves inhabit, and the people you meet in those dreams reside there, too. But in the here and now, those people pass in your dreams as random imaginings, or bits of memory in collage. When first I was exposed to that notion, I instantly felt that it was true. It explains déjà vu, pre-cognitive dreams, premonitions, and perhaps a lot more.
People depended upon horses for thousands of years. The new houses across my street are in a development called The Mews. Was there a public stable there once upon a time? My parents were old enough to remember being young when people used horses to get around. So it really wasn’t that long ago that the use of horses in daily life ended.
When I was in my early twenties, a girlfriend gave me a set of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I devoured them. What I found so enchanting wasn’t the charming characters of Holmes and Watson, though charming they be, nor was it the clever and complicated plots and the unpredictable solutions they inspired; nor was it the clean, clear prose Conan Doyle used to harness his fictional structures. No, it was the transport into that strange world of late nineteenth-century London I found so mesmerizing. Candlelight, a slow-smoldering fireplace, dense pipe-tobacco, musty crowded bookshelves that sit heavy in the room. Dressing every day in tweeds, cotton, starched shirts, heavy sweaters, hats that fit well, shielded the eyes, and kept one’s head warm and dry. The smells of horsehide and dung, burning coal, claret, good port or strong whiskey. A place where everything is made from iron, steel, tin, heavy leather, and good hardwood. Is my suddenly hearing a horse-drawn carriage an atavistic feeling? What else could it be? Is a quiet late-night snowfall an ambient trigger to memories stored in my DNA?
After falling in love with the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, I quit my job and, at the suggestion of a radio disc jockey who lived across the hall, I began to recreate some of those Holmes stories as audio dramas for the radio. I thought I was going to be the next Orson Wells. Once, at about two in the morning, the studio director for my Holmes adaptations called. “Jimmy, the neighborhood is quiet. Get over here!”
When I arrived, he had set up his microphones on an upstairs balcony. We’d been looking for an ambient sound to serve as background for the outdoor scenes we were creating. Getting an outdoor sound without cars or airplanes or any modern indicators was almost impossible. But this night was quiet. There was no traffic at all.
We sat in the studio listening to nothing. The needles on the recording studio’s machines weren’t moving. So, I went out onto the balcony and howled like an old dog, and lo and behold, dogs from all the neighborhoods around began barking back, creating just enough echo to register on the machines.
I use that memory now to analyze the sounds I think I’m hearing from behind the snowfall outside. No, I conclude, there is no rational explanation for what I’m hearing: Hoofbeats. Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop. I pour some wine and return to my book of poems. But this strange revelation about what I have been hearing, or not hearing, has put me in a mood of nervous disquiet. Never until this moment did I find it odd in any way. Which is, of itself, odd.
I put down the book again. Maybe it’s these damn poems that do this to me, I think, reaching for my journal. Not long ago I would have sat down and written someone a letter. I used to write dozens of letters as a way to warm up to a writing session. I would write a letter to a friend, then write basically that same letter to a second friend, and then perhaps a third to a third, growing my ideas and inquiries with customized alterations depending on each recipient’s circumstances, while remaining conscientious about how those circumstances did or did not bump up against my own. Within a few weeks, postcards, letters containing long, off-topic, free associations, even books on related subjects, would start arriving in the mail. These communications benefited by being gradual rather than immediate.
Mind you, reciprocity from my pen-pals was always weak in volume if not in substance. What’s worse is that since the publication of my first book of essays, those old chums have taken it upon themselves to do me the favor of returning to me my many correspondences from over the years. I was astonished to learn they had kept them.
There’s a kind of morbid finality to opening a packet containing your own letters, some written as far back as forty years ago. It occurs to me that the letter I would have written tonight, normally addressed to an intimate yet innocent bystander, is the page beneath my pen right now. Is it for my son? Maybe. To a grandchild living or unborn? Perhaps a great-grandchild may take an interest in these pages. But I doubt it.
No, these missives now are for people who I will never meet. Perhaps that’s as it should be, these late-night meanderings somehow more accessible when approached by a stranger. As if they will be placed in, and ultimately found in, some sort of Tomorrow Box, left for an unknown apprentice to help decipher and decode.
A friend asked me once if his turning fifty was too late for him to begin a journal. “Of course not,” I said. “You may live another thirty years, so explore your thoughts and experiences.” I gave him a few pointers. “Above all, don’t bitch. Include sights, sounds and the other senses. Write down what people say. And remember, someday, someone might read it. They will find it in the Tomorrow Box you build each day. Keep whoever that might be in mind. Be nice to them. They might be the last person on earth to ever fall in love with you.”
Initially, in my writing, I intended to simply explore my own mind. Without this process, most ideas and enquiries might flicker by and then extinguish themselves, unexamined.
Like hearing the clippety-clop of horses trotting in the snow.
I get up to step one more time out the front door. Perhaps this time I will take that side-eye turn. But the power comes back on with a sudden flash of lights. Music resumes playing from the living room, the furnace in the basement thunders back to life, a television somewhere starts hollering. I turn most everything off, returning the house to quiet and candle light. I finish my wine and the poem I was reading and go upstairs. Rochelle is still purring like a kitten. I crawl into bed beside her.
And as I yawn and stretch and settle in, I see out the bedroom window snowflakes gently falling through the beam from the street lamp outside, and as all returns to darkness and quiet the comforting clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, of a lone horse in the muffled distance returns, gently pulling a carriage through the snow, creating a back-beat that carries me, all the way, into tomorrow.