My tent, airy and windswept, is sweeter than the finest palace.
Um-Jesid, mother of the sixth Caliph of Islam
Nights are the cornerstones of every journey and the games of kings. Days can be hot or rainy, merry or monotonous, endless, or a mere blink of an eye. But the pilgrim faces them wide awake. When night comes, however, he goes helplessly forward, vulnerable and at the mercy of the darkness. When the windy tail of day sweeps away its footprints and evening falls restless as a pregnant doe, it is time to seek safety, shelter, and rest. I see the land with different eyes, forests take on a new shape at dusk. On balmy evenings, they beckon to me, and their dry peripheries spread out before me like a beautiful maiden. But on nights of hail amid strange mountains, an evening mist at two thousand meters bodes uncertainty, even doom. On such nights, I wish to be far away among people, basking in the sun of morning. But I have no choice. It is time to sleep, time to search for a place to spend the night. Fear not, my timid little brother, I have gone to sleep every night and always woken the following morning. The less I take with me on my journey, the more I am at the mercy of the night and the unknown, and the more beautiful and unusual nights I spend.
With a tent, I am a millionaire: indifferent, oblivious, self-assured. I can go wherever I wish. Spreading out my palace of green, my fear of night vanishes. Heed only the words of the Prophet Muhammad, “First tie your camel firmly to a tree, then consign him to God’s protection.” Thus, I build my tent securely and do not rely impertinently on the mercy of the night. For it is long, and better is to sleep than to patch canvas in darkness, hunt the winds for possessions borne on gusty wings, or bale water out of sleeping bags. Only then do I lie down to sleep.
Tents are like girls, each one has a different smell, but all are equally fragrant. And though they all let the sunlight in, each morning has its own hue. It is strange – some people have never slept in such airy palaces. What unfortunates!
Possessing only a tarp, I am still a wealthy man. A two-by-two-meter canvas is a bundle light and small, and I need not fear the night. I lay beneath it feeling as glad as the rich man and as happy as the outlaw. I have a home, but I also have the wind and the stars. Raindrops, though meddlesome in a tent with a floor, dry up and disappear, absorbed by the earth. When the rain stops, the stars reappear. I lean out from under my roof like a caddis fly from its watery conduit. An occasional drop falls on my face from the branches above, but who cares, my body is dry, and my eyes gaze upwards at the night sky. Strange – some people have never fallen asleep with their gaze fixed on the stars. What unfortunates!
Finally, there are the journeys when I carry no shelter at all. I prepare for the night without tent or tarp. It is bad to walk into long and rainy darkness. My gaze scours the sky, the clouds, and the thickets. It is alright, the afternoon clouds have dispersed with the coming evening, dissolving into faded blues and vanishing altogether. It is growing rapidly cooler. The night will be clear and cold, but I do not mind the chill, I adapt to it quickly. I console myself with the memory of Taras Bulba, knowing that evening frost on wild fields gladdens Cossack bones. Lowering my pack, the day is behind me. Suddenly, there is plenty of time. I sprawl in the grass. The earth has completed her daily Sun Dance; having twirled before her star, her face fades with the approaching night. Strange – some people cannot carry all they need upon their backs. What unfortunates!
I break off pine boughs to place under my sleeping bag. Blessed is the land where I can go about this work and fear no pricking of the conscience. For breaking off branches in Carpathian forests is like pulling a few hairs from a girl’s mane in love-play: it only makes her wilder. Yet preparing such a bed of boughs in Czech forests is like tearing out the last of an old man’s bristles.
Before nightfall, I gather wood for a “foc mare”, a great Romanian fire. Blessed are the lands where there is still wood enough for the nocturnal pilgrim! Fire, the most sparkling of nighttime games, would deserve its own chapter. Fires are joyful and pure, you can gaze into them for hours. I remember them as I do lovers. The quiet, three-log fire I slept by in Poloniny National Park. The secret watch-fires of forest dells and craggy glens. The fragrant fires of precious woods from the southern Slovak Karst. The blazing pine-log fires which illuminated and heated our rocky shelters beneath the limestone walls of Veľká Fatra and the sandstone overhangs of Děčín. Driftwood fires on the sandy shores of the Tisza River, the smell of fish, mud, freedom, and bacon cooking on a willow stick, the hot dust of herds and plains. The clear fires of wood from beaver dams at the border of Poland and Lithuania where pure water splashes down onto the steep, desolate banks of deep Suwalki lakes, and sheldrakes’ cries ring out above the surface of the water. Shepherds’ fires of juniper, rosebay and scrub-pine amid the Transylvanian Carpathians and the Macedonian Pirin Mountains. Fire and sheep – such safe and soothing smells. We lived among them for thousands of years, a few short years amid the stony walls of cities cannot wipe that out. I sleep with shepherds near silent flocks. Sheep bleat from their dreams. They shake their heads with a soft ringing of bells and a dog laps the stranger’s dusty hand. Silence. Such great good cannot be expressed in words and I can never be grateful enough to fire, the oldest good, which fends off wild animals, and banishes fear from the soul and cold from the body. I believe I would never be done with the game of sparkling fire, so beautiful and so beneficial. And therefore I will spare no more words upon it, my blanket-loving brother! But when you grow tired of your blankets and your bed, pull night’s wide and starry brim down around your head! For who knows if the term wide open sky did not originally come from the wide hats under which 19th century poets slept as they wondered the land, or if instead it reminds us of the broad midnight heavens so familiar to ancient pilgrims. Thus, when you grow tired of the world, pull night’s wide and starry brim down around your head! Bed down under a moonlit bluff, bed down in a south-facing fallow. There the ground is dry and hard and your bed of plants smells pungent beneath your head as crickets sing. Above such mattresses, the stars shine brightest and the full moon glows like the window of a dark ship on the Black Sea. I lie in the grass recalling the names of constellations. Once I knew them all and had learned them with delight, but now I see it was not necessary. It is good in youth to know much about stars – though not only about stars – but even better is, in old age, to knowingly forget unimportant external things. To keep only what is meaningful – only what nourishes us inwardly. Just as the names of animals and plants are not what is most significant about them, neither are the shapes of age-old constellations that which is most important about stars. It is enough to lie beneath them, to graze your thoughts on verdant pastures and water your deeds at clear streams as the words of an evening song of thanks flit like silver swallows upon your lips.
So as not to discourage you from nocturnal journeys, my chilly little brother, I will comfort you. There are other ways to sleep beneath the starry heavens that are just as beautiful! Under the open sky I wake often to check the midnight breezes and scour the sky for clouds. The calls of night birds wake me too. I sleep lightly under the open sky, like an animal prepared for anything, ready to flee in search of shelter from rain, storms, danger. Remember that the best place to sleep is in the hay – amidst dried grasses. Perhaps that is because our early ancestors hearkened from the sultry eastern steppes. We are the brothers of horses. Moonlight streams into the old hay shed. The fragrant warmth of a fresh night wafts through the air. You lie in the depths of your sanctuary. If there is someone to place a warm arm around your neck before you sleep, all the better. So much the better, my sensuous little brother. Hay sheds: the most wonderful confluence of nature and civilization, grass and ingenuity. Unsurpassable. I lie there exhausted and satiated. All that was meant to happen has happened, the day is finished. A last gentle burp and the heavenly taste of the departing day, with all its blessings, drifts through the body. The balanced taste of garlic and chocolate. Two seemingly disparate smells blend silkily together. Garlocolate.
I lay and I listen – is someone dancing outside in the dark? No, it is only the grass running before the wind. Strange that I do not believe in grass fairies, for all that is necessary for their birth and dance lies here at hand, beneath the stars of the heavens. Perhaps I do not believe in them simply because I cannot see them, just like without a radio receiver, I cannot believe in radio waves that travel around the earth, inaudibly roaring even through the silence of my moonlit hay shed. After that I rest without thoughts, heavy with fatigue, as warm and hefty as pewter. I can no longer move my arms, sleep is a light death. From out of the forest, night, the dark sister of time, enters the hay shed. She lays down beside me and presses close, I can no longer hold my eyes open. In vain do I remind her of the Prophet’s words – that prayer is better than sleep. She laughs, her warm body fills the depths of my sanctuary. Her kingdom draws ever nearer, the realm of sleep, the realm of sleeep, the realm of sleeee…