Through a Window, Darkly

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“A litany of sounds floods the room. I sense possibility and my own vulnerability.”

By Cynthia McVay


I  sleep with the window open. Wide. It’s not just the window but the wall that opens. The five-by-five-foot pane sweeps over Dexter’s dog pillow, brushes the foot of the bed, and is secured by a two-foot stump. The Great Outdoors lies just beyond a sheer nylon screen. The pulsing, screaming, shrieking, clicking, crashing, fluttering, threatening, unabashed nocturn washes into the room. And so, I am a voyeur of the night.

I spent two summers living in a tent while studying monkeys in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon decades ago, and adored it, but I don’t go camping. There’s no need. My bed’s proximity to nature is akin to sleeping in a tent, but with a good deal more comfort, amongst Belgian linens, propped on a half dozen pillows.

For reasons not entirely understood, Dexter—as well as deer, coyotes, birds, and, for the most part, mosquitoes—accepts the screen as a barrier. I am amazed and thankful that my English Setter, bursting with excitement having heard a howl, say, will not even paw the screen.

As a puppy, Dexter sat outside in the grass by the open window at dusk, while I sat inside on my bed, with a laptop or book. Now he sits on a comfortable chair, which we sometimes occupy together, scouring the field for movement. Occasionally he runs to the lawn’s edge to investigate or intimidate an intruder. Dawn and dusk are his favorite times at his perch, on watch. When he’s had enough, he turns to the window and stares me down almost patiently until I meet his eyes, then him at the door.

At night, the reading lamp reflects on the screen to create a visual obstruction, a large dark square, punctuated by whatever presses up against it—moth triangles, or, tonight, the underbelly of a praying mantis, angling in a billowy 18th-century hippy hoop skirt. I pray she will amble out of Dexter’s reach, who is on her side, outside, before he comes to check in with me and spots her.

When I turn off the lamp, my eyes adjust to the moon’s light in the room and outdoor world beyond. Without the distractions of sight, the litany of sounds floods the room, seems louder. The air is moist. I sense possibility and my own vulnerability. Thirty feet outside the window, a stand of poplars, also known as dollar trees for the way their leaves shimmer silver on their stems, amplifies the slightest breeze.

A couple years ago, I erected a four-foot-high fence so Dexter could run unencumbered, but not away. Before the fence, at night, coyotes used to pad and yelp right there, outside the window. They would have taken playful, innocent Dexter like they did the orchard’s sheepdogs next door. I found coyote feces atop the four-foot round bales in the field; surely, they could jump the fence. Perhaps, even with their menacing and endlessly fascinating howls, they are shy. When I hear them, I use my stern voice—Come. Now. Dexter races back to the door, sensing urgency. It occurs to me that it may be too late—that is, too late for Dexter. The coyotes likely lurk nearby, quietly, long before they make their presence known.

When Dexter’s safe inside, the biologist in me tries to separate individual voices, without success, to count how many are in the pack. On a clear night, if I sneak to catch a glimpse, to assess whether their yips coincide with a kill, the slightest movement in the dark—even behind a closed window—silences them.

I’ve heard that a house built in the woods on five acres impacts 30 acres of ecology around it. I am aware I leave wounds and footprints, but it is hard to believe nature hasn’t moved back in. It seems I am forgiven my trespassing, released of my human presence, as the nocturnal creatures let it all hang out. Shrieking owls, cooing and hooting ones. Screaming rabbits and jarring squeals.

On spring mornings, I roll over in bed to see robins every six feet, pulling and snapping elastic worms from the lawn. I keep a meadow beyond the lawn to encourage wildlife that has nowhere else to go in a mostly tilled and otherwise wooded region. We’ve lost three billion birds over the past 25 years in the US in part because their Midwestern habitat is consumed by commercial agriculture, and in part because of domestic cats. Many birds have relocated to the more hospitable Northeast, and perhaps to the field outside my window. At least I hope so.

In the wee hours, when the deer wake and move from the deep grass where they’ve bedded down for the night across the field to the apple trees, Dexter senses movement, stands at the window, points with his tail, tracking. He emits a suprasonic whine, or stands looking at me until I let him out to chase the deer. Sometimes he stalks slowly, almost imperceptibly, and then bursts into a barking frenzy to surprise them. It’s the best he can do, since he’s contained and comparatively small. Mostly they don’t pay him mind, aware of his limits. Sometimes I join him and do a deer-bark, their warning call, a heaving cough from the chest, half seal. “Huh! Huh!” I clap my hands or run toward them. Dexter throws me a glance, pleased by our collaboration.

Despite my love of the nocturn, I am a morning person. I often lay awake in the final hours of the night in anticipation, not wanting to miss dawn’s magic: the orange smear of sun behind the poplars or a shaft of light through the birches catching the fog rising from the meadow on a cool, wet morning, or creating blocks of light.

Before the fence, a half dozen turkeys strutted and gobbled at arm’s length outside the window. I lay witness to competition and courtship. Turkeys can fly, of course, but their preferred mode of transportation is waddling. I have not seen them inside the fence.

Visitors rarely leave their window open. I so want friends and family to experience nature as I do, but, inevitably, they close the window to a slim crack or completely. My daughter dons an eye mask and earbuds and draws her curtain, the only curtain in our barn-home. I have never had curtains in my bedroom, not in my entire life. In most places I’ve lived, no neighbors are within sight, even when I was an urban dweller, so there was no need for privacy. A curtain would shut out the natural light. Why would I do that?

And so, visitors miss the night. They miss the morning, too.

Can it really be too cold? Do the lights in their room attract mosquitoes? I’m not sure, and don’t press. But I suspect it is the unvoiced, unarticulated sense of vulnerability that precludes others from experiencing what I adore, indeed, seek and need.

Or perhaps, simply, they desire uninterrupted sleep. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve slept through the night. Far too much is going on for that. I have always been a light sleeper, so am easily roused by coyote calls, even Dexter’s body tensing before his bark pierces the night.

From late spring until mid-fall, the window remains open until a thunderstorm threatens to throw art off the walls—as it did once, knocking a porcelain lamp to pieces—or heaves rain at angles soaking Dexter’s pillow. When a storm is in the forecast, or the sky turns slate, I watch the windows to see which way things are going and blowing, then edit the openings.

People nod. They, too, like to sleep in a cool bedroom. They tell me how they set their AC to 60, missing the point entirely. I am not a climate-control person. I mostly take whatever nature serves up. It’s not just about saving money or the planet, although that’s reason enough. Rather, I resist shutting out the outdoors, under humming AC or a bubbling furnace. Perhaps if I lived beside industry or traffic, I’d succumb. But I have the luxury of a natural context. I purchased this property for what many people spend on a home in a trailer park, or a studio in Queens, with all its demands and generosity. I consider myself privileged in recognizing its bewildering treasures.

This October morning, the thermometer in the room said 49 degrees. When I got under the covers to warm my nose last night, the sounds were muffled, inaudible, compromised. The window may need to close soon. This is not a casual decision but an admission that the seasons are moving on, winter is nigh. Already I mourn the raucous sounds and smells of summer. I remind myself as I swing the window closed, that this, too, is part of nature’s cycle, that things are quieting down. The crickets and peepers are tucked away. Through the glass, I will try a little harder to hear the owls.


Cynthia McVay G’88 WG’88 is an artist, writer, and rower based in the Hudson Valley and St. Croix.

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    3 Responses

      1. Beth Browne

        Lovely, evocative piece and poignant, too. I am unexpectedly moved to tears at the end. I live with nature too and it baffles and saddens me to see others close themselves off from it.

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