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Trial by lightning

At this sodden time of year, when the thaw can loose quick whiffs of spring, suddenly raising the season's first moths from the woodpiles and leaf layers where they have wintered, I find myself alone with the world, unsettled but somehow soothed. Walking, in the morning, I feel a new warmth bathing me; and this improbable warmth, with the silence it shapes and the smells it releases, instills a contentment laced with uneasiness. The fixed things in my life stand forth now: the sense of my body as I walk, the felt rhythm of walking, the sky, the gray forest, my house. The house surprises me: undraped, stark on the mud-churned yard, it has survived.

I remember the first night I slept here. I came down from New Jersey to attend to some chores before the move. It was mid-August, and hot. I would actually be moving three weeks later. Now I brought with me only a few possessions, and my sense of ritual. Whenever I move, I like to sleep one night in the new house, alone, while the place is still empty. Superstitiously, I suppose, I believe that something may be learned in this way. The house and I, equally defenseless, may come to terms with each other. Together we mark a vigil; in the course of the night, we prove our faith.

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Night was settling in as I drove up to the house. Dull gleams of lightning silently lit the sky over the forest. The trip down had been torrid in the kind of weather that tortures you with the eternally withheld promise that it will break.

I carried in my things, piled them against the bedroom wall, and spread my sleeping bag. As I lay there, resting, with the light still on, I became aware of the night. Night in New Jersey was street sounds gradually fading: civilization giving way, sliding off to sleep with a cough and a rustle, reminders that it would reawaken you tomorrow. Here, I realized, night was the immense life of insects: chirping, buzzings, clackings, whirrings, and insistent twitterings - but all of them somehow cohering in a rhythmic rise and fall, some many-voiced pulsation of the dark. Moths battered at the screen, hovering and punching to get in. Startled, I switched off the light. Now the room was enveloped by the night sounds. The insect calls uprose and pressed upon the house. I sensed their surge, sensed a life sufficient unto itself, inhabiting its world of black trees and sultry air, in which the house, this room, and I figured not at all. Beside me, I could hear the alarm clock ticking its windup tick - a plastic toy making toy echoes in the empty room. Peering, I searched for my possessions propped against the wall in bunched ranks. I had brought my most fragile things - glassware, muffled by Styrofoam; paintings, swaddled in newspaper; porcelain figurines, entombed in tissue.

It was impossible, of course, to sleep. I kept shifting on the wooden floor. The room seemed slightly tilted, as if the whole house, like an abandoned ship, had listed over to one side. I lay still, and a loneliness came over me. Would this empty place, with its bare windows and musty smells, its floors gritty with dust, its damp bereft echoes - would it ever give way to home?

Through my loneliness rose the massed voices of the insects again. Endless, insistent, and seizing the forest, immersing the house. I pictured spiders, crickets, and the countless moths. A kind of curiosity overcame me. Touched by fear and touched by wonder I lay on the floor, attentive to these piercing lives , which live only to voice these sounds, these sounds which make a single life.

I must have slept, because the explosions woke me. The storm crashed and swooped. Lightning flashes overlapped, pale glimmers jumbled with searing bolts. The thunder rolled about like a roiled surf. Rain slashed at the ground. Through the trees, the lightning lit fragments of sky a dull gray, the color of dawn - there for an instant and then gone. Now and again a bolt of garish light shocked the room, making its objects dance alive.

The storm slackened and surged, subsided and raged again. I expected it to pass through, violent but swift. But it gripped the world; it pounded. I thought I heard a tree split. I stared at the window, chilled by the air that leaked in. I resigned myself to staying awake all night. I would see the storm through. Bearing witness, I would preserve myself. And, in my presence, I would preserve the house, enabled to do so by the protection it gave to me. The rooms beyond where I lay might be empty, but the place was not abandoned so long as it allowed shelter. My encampment might be sparse; but, lying among my things, I could believe that the provisional cast of life here rose not from dismantling, but from settlement. This was not a wreckage where I lay. No, it was something poised and buoyant, in fragile anchoring.

I had set the clock for eight, but I woke around seven. So the storm had died and I had slept, after all. In the new light, my packages, the sleeping bag, and the clothes I had thrown off seemed to furnish the room, as if they belonged here. Going through the house, I found a puddle where the rain had blown in. I spread a towel there. Then I went outside and walked. The road was deserted, the forest quiet. The storm had left a coolness, which was already beginning to disperse: it would be another hot day. Tired from last night, I let my feet move at their own pace. The memory of the storm dawned on me, and I pictured myself, cowering. I smiled. Then a memory of the insects came - of that vast, resounding voice. I looked around and stopped. I gazed at the forest, listening. There was nothing. They had vanished.

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Water hung in the trees. It sifted in the leaves and rattled down with each puff of wind. Shafts of sunlight striped the road. The grass was wet. Watching the roadside, I noticed suddenly that in the tangle of bushes at the edge of the forest, spiders' webs glistened. The nets were strung at every angle, shaping the morning air into planes and prisms. I marveled at them, wondering that they had not been destroyed. In one web, poised at the center, was a spider, large and muscular, colored pale green with yellow bars. He, too, had ridden out the storm. I stepped near, and he fled to a corner beneath a leaf. I stared at his web. And, staring, I remembered something from last night, something that, though I must have been aware of it, I didn't realize at the time: that even through the thunder, throughout the entire storm, I could hear the insect voices , pulsing.

I walked until I felt fully awake, and then I turned around and walked back. Coming within sight of the house, I stopped and looked at it, my companion survivor.

Alone on its weedy lawn, backed by the forest, it seemed to take relief from the sun. It stood forth to me, no longer an alien thing, but not yet a wholly familiar presence, either. This is the place where I live: I posed this thought, trying it to see how it felt. And I continued to look at the house, even as I look at it now, knowing it as one of the fixed things of my life, in this sodden time of year, remembering back to the time when a faith was proven here, and remembering forward to when summer will come again.

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