Have you ever been in the forest, in the mountains, alone, at night? No street light a block down giving a muted halo. No LED lights from sound systems scattered like stars around the room. No reflected red light from an alarm clock. No cell phone with a handy bright screen or flashlight feature. No porch light or welcoming glow from a lamp.
It’s not just dark, it’s Stygian.
On the night I’m going to tell you about, there was no moon. The mountains, the ridge line, and the trees blocked out all but a tiny square of sky.
I wasn’t a city girl back then, having grown up in a farming town. But at the same time I definitely wasn’t a mountain girl either. And yet circumstances placed me in the Pacific Northwest mountains. Alone. Well, except for a dog who was equally out of her element.
In the middle of that very dark night, I woke to a woman screaming. What else can you do when someone is in desperate need of help, but grab a flashlight and go? I took the dog with me, who shook as bad as I did. I reminded her that she was half German Shepherd, but she didn’t believe me.
My imagination was vividly awake. A car accident on the road? Was some woman out there in the woods, lost and afraid?
I followed the wavering flashlight beam down the long, narrow driveway with nothing but trees crowding in. Trees that anything could hide behind. I listened so hard that my breath was held captive. I searched until the cold night leached under my skin and numbed my nerves.
I don’t remember how long I stumbled around before giving up and returning to the pile of blankets still retaining a warm pocket. The screaming had ended. I went to bed fully expecting to find a body in the morning.
By the way, this was before cell phones and where I was, there was also no electricity, let alone land lines. And in all honesty it never crossed my mind to drive out to the road and find a pay phone.
What I do remember is this.
The next morning was bright and sunny and clear and crisp. Early summer in the mountains. I drove to the nearby tiny town to open a post office box in the back corner of the general store. Outside the store three elderly men lined up on a wooden bench, watching life. I could hear one as I got out of the car.
‘Did you hear the cougar last night?’
Me, tentatively: ‘What’s a cougar sound like?’
‘Just like a woman screaming.’
I’ll end with this thought. I walked around in that dark night with a flashlight trying to save a cougar.