Mundane + Dark + Moon = Spooky

I was trying to sleep last night, it was a rare windless night, so every little sound in and out of the house set off my tribe of dogs. We have a guest, so that could mean someone in another room flipping a light switch or closing a door. It was garbage night, so it could also mean a neighbor wheeling out their week’s haul for the next morning’s pickup. Or it could be inexplicable whistling noises followed by coyote howls, as the case may be. The heat wasn’t anything that was genuinely stifling, but without the normal breeze to push some of the cooler night air through the house, it was definitely warmer than we were used to and it made it just that much harder to sleep.

My kid was sleeping in my bed between us, and I was surrounded by dogs, and I heard kind of a squeeking, whistling noise. I assumed it was the puppy Loki with a typical burst of night energy and he was just tearing up some squeeky dog toy. But it set off Sheba, which would have been odd if it really was Loki, and she did her growling-barking-running-into-things deal and ran outside and was barking and growling and running into things outside our bedroom window, which was open. My wife groaned, the girl tossed and turned, and I just remained in place. Sheba gave up quickly and came back in. Watson started his click-panting, and they everyone was restless for a minute. Anette asked if I heard it as it happened again.

I said, “It’s just the puppy with a toy.” She didn’t say anything. As I took inventory of my aches, I realized I had a dog laying next to my feet, a dog across my legs, one on the floor next to me with my hand on it, and I could hear Watson’s click-panting at the foot of the bed, so it couldn’t be the puppy. My eyes popped open and I was awake. Not scared or nervous, just curious, and I’m The Dad, after all. I put on some glasses, which are really useful in an unlighted house in the middle of the night, and went to the window first and when I didn’t see anything, I did a quiet patrol of the house. The puppy followed me around, and I could feel him bumping into the back of my leg and stopping when I stopped and just generally staying close. I didn’t see or hear much until I was in the kitchen, and I heard something outside through the window again. It wasn’t close, definitely not anywhere on our property, and while it had a whistling quality to it, it sounded more like a smaller animal squeaking. It’s hard to play “Do These Sounds Match?” in the middle of the night, so for all I know, it wasn’t the same noise. Or maybe it was. I don’t know. It was a half moon, give or take, so the coyotes would be out hunting, so as much as I felt bad that it was probably a rabbit being taken out or something, I was also slightly relieved that it didn’t sound man-made. I heard some distant dog barking and some kind of howling – it’s hard for me to distinguish a single unenthusiastic coyote from a single enthusiastic dog, but it was all in the distance, and on a calm night here, “the distance” was most likely several miles away.

I put my glasses somewhere I could find them and laid down again. The dogs were mostly settled, and since it had only been a couple of minutes, that was reassuring, too, because they’d lose their minds if whatever they heard was close. After a couple of minutes, we all heard something again. With the fan on in the room and all the dog panting and stuff, not to mention years of playing loud music, it was hard to make it out, but it didn’t get more than a couple growls from the pack so I let it go. Then Anette said, “Should we be worried about the car or anything?” She was still convinced it was someone out walking around, and maybe she’d heard actual footsteps or something. Since the car out front is not even a month old, what with me dramatically wrecking the old one in a spinning, flipping freeway accident and all that, I figured I’d check again.

I turned off the one light that was on in our hallway, nobody was up walking around anyway, and I felt around in our front closet for some shoes to put on. I’d found my glasses easily, a lifetime of half-blindness has created generally good habits about where I put them, and it wasn’t nearly cool enough to need a sweater or anything. Loki the puppy erupted with some barking when he heard the front door open for me to slip out, so my “slipping” was rendered pretty un-ninjalike by my hissing “Shut up!” because I didn’t want to really wake my kid up. He’s not old enough to be stubborn, so he stopped right away. Good dog. (Mostly.)

It was very, very calm out. I could hear the bristly sound of my shoes on the front doormat, and with my first couple steps I could hear every little piece of gravel or barkdust I stepped on. I could hear the sounds of the few cars on the freeway several miles away, it has to be pretty calm to make it to us, and I could hear the hum of a couple of the neighborhood electrical transformers – or whatever they’re called, the green boxes at the front of each property where people hook up to the grid. Every little breath and scrape and shuffle seemed to carry forever. I stopped about 15 feet in front of my house in the shadow of our big pinon tree, and I took a moment to recognize that even halfway full, the moon here is strong enough to cast shadows in the middle of the night. It gives moonlit nights a pretty strange quality, like in the early James Bond movie Dr. No, or in old Star Trek episodes, where they simulated night by filming during the full light of day with some kind of lens filter on to give the impression of darkness. (On full moon nights, it’s not at all difficult to read by the light of the moon, it’s more like a street light than a celestial body.)

I didn’t hear anything unusual, I could even hear my dogs whining and complaining a little a half acre away in my bedroom, so I walked to the street. It was genuinely still while I stood where my driveway meets the dirt road. There had been workers out earlier grading the street and using a backhoe to empty out the culverts – monsoon season has caused some trouble, and out here, a good mud is much harder to drive in than any amount of snow or ice, and they were trying to help the drainage on our road – so I could smell the fresh, damp dirt, and I could hear some crickets. I took a deep breath and just soaked up the night for a second, and I felt a vague appreciation for where I live. (I can only say “I really like living here” so many times without feeling stupid.)

Suddenly I heard a howl of some sort, and it was unlike any coyote or dog howl I’ve heard before. I knew it had to be a coyote, we don’t have wolves in this area, but it was still a different version of it than we usually hear – it’s a lot more common to hear the “laughing” type calls, or the “we’ve just torn up something delicious” pack noises, this sound was more like a foley library’s wolf call, something you’d hear right after Sesame Street’s “The Count” has enumerated 7 cookies. I could tell it was coming from the north and a little west, but as the sound spooled up and got louder, it surrounded me. It echoed off the houses and cars around me and I could actually hear it surround me. Clockwise. In music-production-geek terms, it sounded as though it had a slow chorus effect created by some sort of Doppler motion.

The sound was distant enough that I didn’t sense any imminent peril, but it was creepy enough that it sent chills down my back. I froze, just in case there was some kind of movement around me that was going along with it that I’d missed – the sound blocked out everything else for a second, and it startled me to realize that my other senses had just checked out for a second. A slow, second howl started, and it was followed by a couple others this time, and it was more like the usual coyote din, and there was some of the “laughing” barking as well, so I figured one of the local packs had just found some food. I’ll never get used to the sound, and it gave me another chill, but I rationally knew that my car was OK, and that’s what I was worried about. As I realized that most of an acre lay between me and my front door and I was listening to coyotes out hunting in a pack somewhere nearby under the light of the moon, my sleep-deprived and generally addled mind realized that I should probably also take some basic steps regarding my own well being, so I walked back to the house, slow enough to keep the foot noise down and fast enough to get the hell out of there.

I didn’t hear them again the rest of the night. It was another one of those odd things that made me feel that those sounds were meant for me alone; nobody else was out standing in Surround Sound Coyotevision like I was, and while I rationally realize how narcissistic it is to feel that it was all just for me, it’s also easy to believe it after having been there. It’s somehow reassuring to think that in this big, modern, technical world that it’s possible to be completely alone and have old experiences right in the middle of your neighborhood. It probably doesn’t hurt when your neighborhood borders America’s Outback, but still…