A sudden sobbing in the night. After a shocked pause, the dogs of the neighborhood began to bay. I recognized the voice of the yellow Labrador across the street; other dog voices spread out into the distance, like ripples from a dropped stone. The sobbing did not stop. It was a liquid clatter, its tempo rising and falling, but always loud.
It roused my wife and me from our midnight drowse. The windows were open to the cool. The moon was already high enough to shine in the west window; I had wondered whether I should pull down the blind so its milky light wouldn’t keep me awake. Now I was at my window, looking for a clue, but the pines stood silhouetted and offered no answers.
“What’s that?” my oldest son Parker said, emerging from his room. I told him it was some hurt animal, but that was all I knew to tell. This interesting mystery seemed to clear the sleep from his eyes in a second. As I watched, a yellow cat emerged from the woods, slipping away low to the ground. Having gained the meager shelter of our tomato plants, he paused and looked back over his shoulder. A guilty look, I thought. Maybe he was the author of this distress. I pictured a nest of birds brutalized into noise by the cat. This was hardly likely, because the distress of prey doesn't scare a cat. It excites him to further violence. Besides, the volume of the noise argued for something with larger lungs than any bird I expected to find in our little woods.
The sound had gone on for several minutes. I heard a neighbor open his back door, and somewhere else someone told her dog to be quiet. No matter how hard I stared into the dark woods, nothing seemed to move.
I went to my back door. I hated to open it, because I knew how noisy it was; often when I went out, the crows stopped their conversation to look at me before flying off, as if annoyed at the intrusion. But the squeal of the hinges didn't stop the sobbing clatter. I stood on the back porch to listen. It had changed now, slowed. It sounded like weeping translated into some foreign tongue. Something was still alive and, I imagined, mourning its pain.
“It was like those sounds we used to hear,” my wife said the next morning.
“The ones that weren’t owls.”
I remembered then. We had heard them in the spring, when we began, after a winter’s hiatus, to leave our windows open at night. They were soft question marks of sound. We would hear one or two syllables at a time, and when I went to the window to attend them, they were gone. The discussion of them had always run roughly the same, and we switched roles for the repeat performances:
“What was that?”
“Not that. The other thing.”
“Maybe it’s an owl. It sounds like an owl.”
“Sort of, but not really.”
“No, not really.”
These episodes seemed important to the current mystery. I felt certain that the non-owl of spring had been living in peace, doing whatever it was he did; but now, on the verge of autumn, he’d fallen victim to violence.
As usual, I couldn't leave the doings of an animal uninvestigated. Next morning Parker and I walked the woods behind our house in search of clues: tracks, broken branches, body parts. I saw nothing out of the ordinary. The forest bore no signs of mayhem beyond the usual—the chewed scrap of a deer’s scapula, for example, but the crust of lichen on it meant it was the mayhem of an older year. A chickadee went flittering ahead of me at height, suspecting me of bad intentions, I suppose. The trees resisted my advance, so that my path into the woods was a tangle. In the distance a jay made his complaints. We went slowly, taking time to bend or break the branches at eye level. We stooped to look at the ground. Saplings rooted in leaf mold and soil, riddled with filaments of root and coated with moss.
If the woods weren't talking, maybe the library would. It supplied me with a tape of wildlife sounds. Parker and I hunched in front of the stereo a couple of nights later to listen. The biologist who recorded it might have been a children’s TV host dipped in sugar, but I tolerated him because I couldn't let the mystery go. He intoned:
“Hear the singing of the green frog.”
A menacing belch, cut by stutters into a slow rhythm.
“He got that right,” Parker said.
“Hush now,” said the biologist, “and listen to the gentle sounds of the spring peeper.”
A squeaking rattle, like the jostling of bubbles.
“I've heard that before,” Parker said.
“One of the most startling sounds heard in our woods is the fighting cry of the raccoon. Listen now.”
It was the racket we’d heard in the night, the racket that had waked the neighbors and the dogs. Even the pauses were right.
“Cool,” Parker said. “Now we know.”
We stopped the tape. It was cool, I guess. But it was also disappointing. I couldn't forget the beauty of an ordinary night sanctified by mystery.