Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Loud Quiet

In all the years I lived in cities, I never had a problem sleeping—traffic, sirens, dogs barking, doors banging, people yelling, loud music—I slept through it all.  It wasn’t until after I moved to the quiet of Sonoma County that sleep eluded me. I was staying up later than usual, cramming to complete the work for my M.A. degree. Over the tap-tap-tap of my keyboard, I often heard a little party going on in the wall between our two bathrooms. The rustling, scrabbling and peeping sounds would start about midnight, just when I was putting my thesis to bed.

“We have rats in the walls,” I announced one morning at the breakfast table.

“No we don’t. You’re imagining it,” my husband said.

“How would you know? You’re asleep by the time the party starts.”

“I’ll look into it,” he said and stuck his nose back into his morning paper.

The fiesta continued. Word got around and all the neighborhood rats showed up, while my husband slept on, and the bags under my eyes started carrying backpacks. Lying in bed, I listened to the raucous rats and brooded over the endless stream of ideas that were not materializing onto paper. 

Sleep deprived, I wondered if I was hallucinating from exhaustion when I noticed tiny red dots move on the bathroom walls.

“David, there are red dots crawling around our bathroom. Some kind of mite. I think they’re coming from the rats.”

“There aren’t any rats.”

The rats hired a DJ. The reddish dots danced around the electrical outlet, crawled into the towels, and lounged in our bathrobes hanging on the back of the door. I developed a rash that covered my mid-section and looked like measles. I itched. My husband snored and I scratched and thrashed, keeping my head under the pillow so I wouldn’t have to listen to the drunken brawl going on inside the wall. Did I hear those rats laughing at me?

My husband finally heard the rats about the time the rash covered a significant portion of my torso and my insomnia complained it was sleep deprived. He set traps; the party quieted down, but I remained wakeful. In between tosses and turns, I heard the thwack of the trap springing above my head in the crawl space.

Eventually, night-time silence returned; the red dots vanished and I didn’t itch from their bites anymore. Bedtime became my favorite time, that is, until the owl moved into the barn. Hoo-hoo. Hoo-hoo, all night long.

“Be grateful. Owls eat rodents,” David said brightly.

The owl moved over to the neighbor’s apple orchard and our young cat took over rodent control in the yard. A good hunter, she shared every success by carrying her live catches into the bedroom for praise and play. Have you ever heard a mouse scream? No sleep that night! Can you sleep with birds flapping into the walls over your head, their downy feathers floating up your nose? And who could sleep through the scrabble-hiss of gophers attempting to dig their way below the carpet? I started running a midnight catch-and-release program, not being able to kill those hapless creatures.

I’d finally started sleeping through the sounds of the night when David reported a strange nocturnal bark. Armed with a flashlight, he investigated, returning to bed to swear that the creature stood up on two legs and flew away, emitting its hoarse call.

“I think it was a chupacabra.”

“There are no chupacabras. They’re imaginary,” I said and rolled over into slumberland.

But the story bothered me. I’d heard about the mythical beast that lived off the blood of farm animals. I wouldn’t let my old deaf dog outside after dark. Several nights later, David and I were both outside with flashlights. The rasping bark sounded first from the bottom of the yard by the creek and came toward us. I clutched my husband’s arm. Then suddenly, two grey foxes and their tiny cub bolted under the gate into the lane.

The foxes moved on, and after almost a decade of living in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain, I’ve come to love my noisy nocturnal neighbors. I still have restless nights, but they are rare. Although sometime I’ll tell you about the frogs in the hot tub.