The first stillness is the visiting time. Initially it’s the familiar shades, the ones I wish I could get rid of—both ex-wives, in reverse order, the short one and the long one. My father, shaking his head before I open my mouth. Lucinda who bought sheer stockings when I told her I had a thing for pin-up girls. That was sweet of her. None of them deserve the first stillness, but apparently there are rules to these things. I try to be courteous, and outside my window the hermit thrush trills like a soprano, insisting to be heard. I would insist too if I could sing like that.
I don’t know much about birds, and assumed for the first week that I was hearing a nightingale. I didn’t know that other birds sing at night. Compared to the show-off nightingale, the hermit thrush is modest. The book says its song is oh, holy holy, ah, purity purity eeh, sweetly sweetly. Maybe. All I hear is trills and chirps, but they’re beautiful. The thrush sings its one song again and again, unsure who in the night might be listening, and makes its nests on the ground. I’m not turning it into a symbol. I know the difference between myself and a bird, but it moves me. Besides, hermit.
It takes maybe an hour for the usual characters to put in their appearance, and some of the minor ones don’t bother anymore. Mrs. Harrison, sixth grade, no longer laughs aloud at my sketch. She was the one to put the still life in front of us—vase, apple, ruler—and she had herself to blame if she didn’t like what we did with it. And the day when I mocked Melody Harris’s limp, finding out later that the low wall didn’t, in fact, reach around to disguise me—that’s gone, too. Humiliation wears out like old cloth, its fibers disintegrating with use. Wish I’d found that out sooner.
By the time of the second stillness I’ve gotten up to pee and listened to the house settle, the deep easing sound like old bones. The house doesn’t mind that it’s going to die. Aside from the hermit thrush, going strong in the velvet darkness, thought and sound have withdrawn. The black air opens and the day has drawn back like low tide pulling itself over sand and pebbles, that heavy weight of water. From here, day seems gaudy and self-conscious, annoying as a performing child. Observations like that explain the exits of wives one and two.
The second stillness is a relief. I’m more alert than I will be tomorrow, at my desk, reading reports that I myself commissioned and that will be a face-off between poor writing and strangulating dullness. Power always looks fun when you don’t have it; once you do, it doesn’t look like power anymore.
Once or twice I thought about suicide, the de rigueur move. But the people who assume dark + solitude = suicide have never paused to feel the plushness of night, supple as a cat. Night is sexier than anyone I’ve ever shared a bed with. Night winds and undulates and traces every move. My tingling skin strains to touch that presence that rests on me, nearly a caress. Sometimes I’ve been aroused, just sitting here. I saw on a TV show that medieval monks stayed up through the nights in their freezing monasteries, illuminating prayer books. They might have had a better time than anybody suspected.
The hermit thrush’s song is growing fainter, which always fills me with mild concern. I don’t want him to go away, but most nights he does. Sleep? Boredom? Maybe he’s off grubbing for a snack. I should learn something about birds rather than sitting here tensely, waiting for one more kind of stillness, which may not come or even exist.
The third stillness has nothing to do with my straining anyway. When it comes—so rarely!—it unfurls like a carpet, and I’m too tired to do anything but watch. Memories come back to me, but changed, seen through a new telescope. My first wife had lovely wrists. We would watch TV together, and I would clasp her wrist like a bracelet. My second wife loved animals, all animals. Her voice took on a tenderness when she saw a horse or cat that I never heard any other time. The world was better for that tenderness. And my father taught me how to re-wire a lamp. My mother didn’t want him to, sensibly afraid that I would burn down the garage, but Dad showed me carefully, step by step, and together we re-wired every lamp in the house, until he was sure I understood. To this day, every lamp in my house works.
Lucinda doesn’t come back. That’s fine with both of us.
Then all at once I tumble down a chute and remember the storm of perfume that came when the snowball bush bloomed. Light winking off of maple leaves in wind, the brightness scattering. The rich, throbbing smell of cooked apples. Dry snow squeaking underfoot. The hermit thrush’s inquiring song, now burned into my memory, that will remind me for the rest of my life of the time when I sat night after night in the dark and heard a bird sing oh, holy holy, ah, purity purity eeh, sweetly sweetly.