Forest Glade by Sketchling
In both positions, I worked what was known as the graveyard shifts, those long hours between sunset and sunrise where the rest of the world slept. Like a ghost of a memory, I would patrol the halls of the college or the wooded glades of the park, the perfect job for an individual who believed in the magic of night and relished the solitude where one was free to think.
Caledonia is one of Pennsylvania’s most beautiful recreational areas containing 1,125 acres of camping grounds, picnic areas, playing fields, and hiking trails. The three consecutive summers I worked the night shift, I worked alone. My job was to maintain order, assist campers with nighttime urgencies, and keep trespassers off the grounds. Though rare events, it was not unusual for people to try to have a late night picnic in a pavilion, try to jump the gate of the pool for a moonlit swim, have a beer party with a group of friends, or, worst of all, simply vandalize the property for the sheer perversity of causing damage.
After a few weeks of wandering the woods and areas at night, my night vision improved dramatically and I learned how and where I could move silently to surprise trespassers. I became adept at the rare occasion when I would have to sneak up on some teens partying in the wee hours of the morning, appearing out of the darkness without the need of my flashlight to tip them off to my presence.
One night I was patrolling the grounds, using only the bright summer starlight as my sole source of illumination. Occasionally, I would wend my way through a small copse of trees where the darkness was complete, and using the star-illuminated fields visible through the tree trunks, I could steer my course without stumbling.
I made my way to where a large stream cut its way through the picnic grounds and that is when I heard them.
A large group of people were partying nearby. I could hear them plainly and they were gaily chatting and their laughter was loud and almost continuous. I could hear individual words and could make out individual speakers. Above the general chatter I could easily make out a deep, male voice speaking above the others, while a young girl giggled continuously.
The sound came from a dark grove of trees near the stream, but what surprised me was the partygoers had no lights of any type. Usually a flashlight beam would break through the darkness, or a small campfire would flicker. Sometimes the burning end of a cigarette would reveal their location.
But this party was being held in total darkness.
No matter. They were trespassers and a stern warning and an escort to the exit would end the encounter as all others had ended.
Staying in the shadows, I crept up on the partygoers who by their ongoing chatter and laughter made it clear they had not seen me.
Carefully moving to stand behind a large tree, I spun around it to surprise the trespassers, turning on my bright 6-cell flashlight to illuminate the scene.
There was nobody there.
However, I immediately saw my error. From the sounds of the celebration, the party was actually about 20 yards further downstream under another dark stand of trees and they had evidently not seen the flash of my light as the happy conversation and laughter continued unabated.
Whoever, they were, they were having a wonderful time and, I confess, I was somewhat jealous. Studying for the pastorate and the son of a pastor as well, my life was ordered and sane and well-behaved. There was no nocturnal starlit partying for me.
Again, I made my way down the stream, staying in the shadows. Again, the pause behind a large tree trunk, the sudden spin around it, the flash of my light…
And, again, nothing.
But this time, aside from the typical night sounds of the park and the gurgling of the stream, the party had stopped in mid-frolic.
With mouth open in surprise, I stared at the bare ground before me from which seconds before, I had distinctly heard a large group of people loudly enjoying each other’s company.
I turned the light off to listen. I heard no sounds of party.
Suddenly, behind me, a voice shouted “HEY!”
With a yell I spun around, flicking on my heavy flashlight and ready to swing it as a weapon.
There was nobody behind me.
Unnerved, I quickly left the area.
It took a few more nighttime adventures before I finally realized what had actually transpired. The stream that ran through the picnic grounds flows very fast and, like most mountain streams, is exceptionally rocky. If the water level is high, the rocks are submerged and the water flows over them without any disturbance. Too low, and the water flows sluggishly around them in silence. Yet, at just the right level, the water cascades over the rocks making an overwhelming sound of gurgling and splashing and for an individual who is using his ears to navigate the dark woods more than his sight, one’s brain interprets the various sounds as speech and laughter. And mixed altogether, it sounds just like a group of people relishing each other’s company.
The romantic part of me would so very much like to believe there is another numinous world of nighttime mystery where inhabitants of another world break into ours for a time of revelry, interrupting their bacchanal only to mock the sad, lumbering human stumbling by as he fulfills his obligations.
In the three summers I worked at Caledonia, when the water level and other conditions were just right, I could still hear the invisible partiers celebrating. I would smile and continue on my patrol, but I confess that the sheer sound of their joy made me envious. A deeper part of me made me wish that they would be gracious and let a lowly human join them.
But I remember the old tales.
If I had joined their festivities, mayhap I would not be here to share this story with you? Perhaps, my voice would have been added to the others to lure other park rangers away from their duties?
I suspect their reticence to invite a creature created from dirt to take part in their celebrations may have been my salvation.
Or my greatest tragedy.
I will leave you, Gentle Reader, to make that decision.