The Day the Lights Went Out

By Joanna Chen

Nothing much happens in the quiet village where I live in the Ella Valley of Israel. In many ways, it’s like a modern shtetel — houses clustered together in a valley dotted with corn and melon fields in season, perched on the edge of a forest ripe with secrets waiting to be discovered. It’s named Sarigim, the Hebrew word for “tendrils,” in reference to the nearby vine groves that burst with purple sweetness in the summer, their wispy limbs curling around wooden trellises. There’s a single supermarket where people buy milk and eggs and stand around gossiping, and on Fridays they buy fresh-baked pastries and braided challah bread that fill the air with the scent of home.

But one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, the pastoral atmosphere was shattered when a lamp post swayed and crashed to the ground on the main street of Sarigim. The street was empty at the time, but still it rocked the neighborhood. It lay there the whole day, for this was the Sabbath, and the local municipality only sent out an emergency team when the first three stars shone in the sky, heralding the end of this day of rest. But bad news travels fast and tongues wagged the whole day at what might have happened if children had been playing nearby or if a car had been parked under it.

The lamp posts of Sarigim are monstrous poles more suited to a motorway than a little village. When we first moved here, 20 years ago, there was no street lighting at all, and at night we would look up at the stars and search for the Big Dipper, the Northern Star and the Milky Way, easily visible against the deep black of night, unfettered by street lights and cities. After a few months, 50-foot high lamp posts fashioned from gray metal were cemented into the handful of streets that make up the new part of the village we moved into. They towered above the houses, and looked ugly and out of place. The inferior metal rusted and cracked; in several places the sidewalk seemed to have been lifted up by an invisible hand from under the earth. Rumor had it the lamp posts were bought for cheap, leftovers from highways or intersections in other parts of the country. Rumor also had it that the person in charge of developing the village streets pocketed the money saved by scrimping on the village’s infrastructure and ran away to Prague, where he opened a casino. People grumbled, others said that in a few years, when the seedling trees planted along the street were taller, the lamp posts would be concealed by foliage. The trees grew, but the lamp posts remained an eyesore, skyscrapers in a shtetel, concrete and steel giraffes placed at regular intervals along the streets, towering over everything else. After a few years, the inferior metal rusted and cracked.

The day after the aforementioned lamp post fell, it was decided that all the lamp posts must be examined urgently, to ensure that there was no danger of another one falling. It became clear that all the other lamp posts posed a similar hazard to the community: they were too tall and too heavy to stand obediently where they had been put into the concrete sidewalk, and were in danger of toppling over.

I took my two dogs out for a walk the next day and thought about this, trying to imagine the deep layers of earth under my feet quaking and trembling as another gigantic lamp post, perhaps the one outside my own house, might break free of the cement clutches of the sidewalk. Could it be heard creaking underground? Were cracks forming under the surface, widening a little every day?

Soon after that, an email was sent to all the villagers, declaring that the lamp posts, every single one of them, were unsafe and would be removed immediately. It also urged all villagers to carry a flashlight with them at night, and requested the use of garden projectors where possible. We do not have one, and that first night I fumbled around in the dark when the time came to take the dogs for a walk. I could only find one leash, so I tied up our old black dog so not to lose him; the other one, paler in color, ran free. The email promised a month of darkness on the streets, and I cursed under my breath as I stumbled out into the night.

The lamp posts, in fact, were not removed. Instead, a huge contraption manned by workers in hardhats and luminous jackets came around and sawed each lamp post down to half its size. The dogs were very excited by this, and spent the afternoon barking in the garden. That night, the village was once again blanketed in pitch black. The moon was a faint crescent in the sky and I fumbled along, cursing again but also becoming attuned to the dark, the different shades and silhouettes of trees and sage bushes as I rounded the village. Gradually, my eyes slowly became accustomed to the thick cloth of night. Black, I realized, is velvet; it is also bitter chocolate that merges into pewter notes the texture of hessian, although you must gauge this with your eyes, not your hands. It is charcoal at dusk’s end, and delphinium blue as night wears on.

When was the last time I did without electricity? Two years ago, while hiking in the desert, and years before that when we first moved here. My partner, Raz, reminded me yesterday as we walked together, how we once took a blanket and lay down on it in the garden, and how we stared up at the at the moon hanging down heavily, full-bodied and bursting with silvery whiteness. It shone so brightly that we could not see a single star in the sky, but we didn’t care.

The next day, I unrolled a hammock we were given by neighbors who visited Thailand a few years ago. Back then, the purple and white hammock was tossed in the back of a closet because the trees in our garden seemed too flimsy to be able to support it. But now I took it out and handed it over to Amalia, the daughter of a friend who was staying the weekend, and she ran out into the garden and carefully positioned it between two olive trees with thick trunks and branches that curved into the garden and over the wall. I went out into the garden half an hour later and found Amalia, already lying in the hammock, legs tilted skywards, arms hanging over the sides. “You did it!” I called out to her, and she turned her sweet head to me and smiled. Later, I lay in the hammock and watched dusk slowly descend on the garden, the last rays of sun flickering through the leaves, the scent of lavender and honeysuckle filling the air.

One night, I turned off all the lights in the house and walked out into the garden and over to the hammock, reading glasses still on my head. I’d been working hard, and I stretched my body, began sitting down on the hammock, missed the spot, and went crashing down into the lavender that grows under the olive trees. The fragrant herbs broke my fall. I sat there for a moment, trying to work out where I was. I touched my head, groped around for my glasses and laughed out loud, a full-bellied laugh that filled the air.

It wasn’t just the colors and shades of night that fascinated me. I began getting up very early in the morning, curious to see the sky slowly blushing, curious to see the garden waking up gradually without the glare of artificial light. I listened to the birds calling to each other in the Ella tree, I watched the last bats swooping through the air between the houses and felt happy.

Six weeks later, the lamp posts have not been replaced. At the supermarket, people grumble about this, but I don’t care. I love it just like this. I’ve learned to see in the dark, and I’ll never fall out of the hammock again.

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