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It’s four am on Super Bowl Sunday and I’m wide awake. I don’t know why. The forest outside is impenetrable in the cold dark. I woke up about an hour ago to the hooting of my old friend the owl. Our relationship is made more interesting by the fact that I’ve never seen him. I only hear him out there in the trees.
I don’t hear him every night, only rarely and briefly—come and gone like the mailman. It’s probably self-serving to believe he’s bringing me some kind of message, but I can’t resist the idea that he’s doing exactly that. Can it be coincidence that he comes so close to the house, that he hoots at the window I sleep behind, hauling me out of a lonely dream? I suppose it could be, but I don’t think it is.
What would an owl have to say to me, anyway? Hello, jackass, your species is really a bunch of nitwits? Want to share a dead mouse? I plan to fly away with your barncat, just so’s you know? I’m superstitious enough to fear him calling my name—which is supposed to harbinger death. I wonder if that old human survival instinct–suspicion–is something I should really be pondering on Super Bowl Sunday, at four am, in the early days of a still-disorganized Third World War. On a dark winter morning in the Cascades I think that it might actually be healthy.
Maybe the owl comes to tell me to relax—he’s got this. Maybe the owl is the spirit of my dead father saying hey, kid, I miss you too. I would like to believe that the same way I believe that the spirit of our dog Luke became a hummingbird who hovered, near enough to touch, one afternoon on the summer porch, insistent, available, as though he might land on my shoulder and whisper solace into my ear. If energy is neither created nor destroyed then Luke went somewhere—and I think that he became a hummingbird. Laugh at that at your own risk.
This is my favorite hour of the day, if I’m being honest, though I’m often too lazy to greet it properly. This is what folks once called the warrior hour, when we are up and alert and the small world we are meant to defend is sleeping safely. The oldest dog knows I’m awake and we eye each other knowingly—like cops at shift-change. This shit is yours now, he seems to say–enjoy.
The graveyard shift was always my favorite even if it was the most brutal. Human beings have not yet evolved to live at night. Our eyes point in the wrong direction, for one thing, and are generally poor for the task of seeing in the dark. At night we are meant to be in the tree-limbs, or in a hillside cave, up above the killing floors where the big predators command the dark. But there we were, down among them, easing the city into a fitful sleep, stalking those who stalked others. Some nights the city was like a baby that just won’t go down, and cries and screams and rattles the crib before finally crying itself to sleep.
When you worked the graveyard shift you learned the city in ways that most of the people who live there will never know her. You sensed her moods. You could feel the charge in the air and think: tonight this city is going to go off, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. She’s just going to run around the corral kicking out the rails and we will be chasing her down until sunrise.
On other nights you knew it was going to be a struggle to stay awake, as if the city, and everyone in it, had been drugged. You’d get so tired you’d stop at an intersection and wait five minutes for the sign to change—except that stop signs never change, and then you’d snap out of it and push forward again into some dark pit, sweeping it with your alley lights, waking a one-eyed bum who’d peek out from under his cardboard blanket and offer you the finger, mad at the world.
In the morning the found-body calls came in. Grandpa dead in the kitchen. A bum down in the iceplant. In a big city someone is always dying, and if you work graveyards you catch those calls about the time everyone else is getting their first cup of coffee. And so you’d handle dead grandma in a roasting apartment—the dying always turn up their thermostats and when you get there it’s a hundred degrees inside—maybe get her bug-eyed rat terrier to stop gnawing on her toes, and then finally head home and have a cold beer for dinner while the neighbors were getting their kids off to school and the trash trucks went grinding through the neighborhood. It’s possible to miss that sort of thing, and I occasionally do, usually on early mornings like this when it’s quiet and easy to believe that I am the only person left on the entire planet.
It might snow today. I have no reason to believe that, but it might. The sun is coming up somewhere and the treetops are now silhouetted in that stormy blueness. I still can’t see the barn from the window where I work but I know it’s out there, almost within reach, and I can hear one of the horses fucking around with the water trough. Horses never sleep. All horses everywhere are connected by a cosmic thread running through them as one body. From the steppe to the outback they are one creature. If you doubt me it can only be because you never looked long enough into one of their huge, dark eyes. If you decide to do that make sure you are anchored to something. If you slide all the way in you may never be able to get back out.
My friend the owl stopped hooting when I got up, which must mean something. He’s gone now, somewhere, and the big football game is still hours away. There’s plenty of time for more spy balloons to come floating in from the arctic, or for Hunter Biden’s laptop to grow legs and go striding around Manhattan in a sandwich board. I don’t care who wins the game but I can imagine some player is just now waking up in a hotel room in Phoenix, saying to himself: Self, you’ve worked your whole life for this day, don’t fuck it up.
Back here in the Cascades, where the treetops are now turning pink and I’m starting to think my forecast for snow was very wrong, I can’t possibly care who wins. Like so many other things, I’m just hoping that its close.
Lisa Beckman says
I hung on every word; fighting back tears a couple times, and laughed out loud at others. (Could have moved faster over the “bug-eyed rat terrier” incident, but I’ll be okay.) Felt like I was doing a ride along with the author. Thank you for that. Now time to get ready for church. Have a wonderful day, my friend, snow or no snow and regardless of who wins the big game.
Craig Rullman says
Thanks Lisa. Put in a word for me with the big guy, will ya? Thanks for being here 🙂
The other, four to be precise, evening just at dusk I watched a raven ( don’t call me crow ) fly all the way across the scab flat towards my house from the tree line above the stream. It had made a ninety degree turn to adopt this vector. It landed in a juvenile juniper no more than fifteen feet away from me and perhaps double my height above. It looked directly at me and began to caw incessantly while doing so. I could not tell if I was being castigated, warned or implored, but it was definitely telling me something. I was annoyed that I lacked the inter species empathy to know exactly. I tried in vane to make the noises I’ve heard ravens make at each other when it appears they’re just talking. Eventually, I suspect it grew tired of my feeble interpretations and flew off making low guttural noises like it was admonishing me under its breath. I think there is much to learn of ourselves as we learn what we don’t know about other critters. Anthropocentric arrogance gets in the way.
Wait it’s Superbowl Sunday?
This is a good piece. To be perfectly honest sometimes your writing lacks focus but this is a good one. Of course, I’m not a perfect writer. In two of the three short stories I’ve publish were serious rewrites because I’m a lousy proofreader.
Night time can really change things. It’s a whole different world.
John G says
An excellent rumination to start the morning. Thank you, Craig.
It fits both definitions
1. A deep or considered thought about something.
“philosophical ruminations about life and humanity”
2. The action of chewing the cud.
“cows slow down their rumination”
David Tindell says
I get up at 4:20am every weekday (sometimes a little earlier, if the dog has her built-in alarm clock set wrong) for my shift at the radio station. It’s always dark when I leave the house around 5:15, with mid-summer perhaps the lone exception, when the sun is coming over the horizon and the glow to the west, over the trees that line our lake, heralds our star’s daily arrival. I’m usually too busy during that hour or so to notice much of anything, except how cold it is when I pull out of the garage in the winter and how icy the roads might be. Did I do my morning stretching and pushups? Should I have shaved? What shall I pick up for a light breakfast at the coffee shop? What’s on the schedule for later? Is it a gym day or a pool day, and did I bring the right gear bag? Both eyes on the road, with one of them watching for deer, and an ear cocked to the radio with Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country channel playing, and maybe my mind wandering a bit.
I should be retired, sleeping in a little, maybe hearing an owl. They’re here in northwest Wisconsin, too, and we occasionally hear their hoots, along with the yipping of coyotes and occasional howl of a wolf. One of these days, I’ll be able to pay more attention.
Craig Rullman says
Indeed. The demands on our time never seem to slow down much.
Ruth Schaefer says
Good One Craig 😍!!! Love ya. Ruthie
Quixotic Mainer says
I like the term warrior hour much better than; “insufficient officers to work graveyard overtime”.
You’re spot on about the soul gaze that a horse is capable of. I had missed a week riding, things going bananas at work and losing my dog to a sudden genetic illness. But as soon as I made eye contact with my mare she registered everything I was feeling and was caught up. She’s usually aloof at her round bale til I catch her, but she immediately marched over and gently put her suitcase sized head against me and just stood there for a bit. They are on some other level.
Craig Rullman says
They sure are. Entirely different dimension.
Dean Reiman says
Craig, I’m a little late with my response to this column (which, by the way, I think is one of your best). Despite being retired and gone from Sisters now for 3+ years, I still rise in the wee hours to greet the prairie dawn here in flyover country; there is nothing more regenerative than sipping that first cup of coffee and seeing the blaze of orange and purple rising in the east.
Your piece also caused me to ruminate on the years when I lived in Seattle and my time as a pasta maker in the Public Market. I had returned from my first trip to Italy in the summer of 1975 and needed income to support my college habit. As luck would have it, Seattle’s first fresh pasta maker was looking for someone to process his wholesale orders. The graveyard shift suited me, leaving the days open for classes and youthful excesses. The Market was different then; not the tourist trap that is has become. When I would finish my workload I would head to the Three Sisters bakery for a warm bagel and a great cup of coffee. Most visitors to the Market have no idea that there are freight elevators on the east side that take you down to a catacomb of stalls where merchants store their carts and wares. As I would sip my coffee the merchants would rise up and exit the elevator doors and begin their journeys across the street to set up for the day; if you were recognized as a “market citizen” greetings would be exchanged to acknowledge our solidarity and membership in this clan.
It was over coffee that I met the legendary Seattle journalist Emmett Watson, a curmudgeon if ever there was one. This man who became my friend and is solely responsible for teaching a dumb kid from eastern Washington the many flavors and joys of slurping fresh oysters. Coffee over by 6 and I would morph back into a college kid but a college kid with a secret identity.
Thanks for letting me ramble. I’m older than you so you have to let me. Oh, by the way, I am judging the final round of the Minnesota Book Awards this year. I’m having a blast!
Craig Rullman says
This is terrific. Thank you for sharing. Good luck with the books! What fun. Cheers.