AT midnight in midwinter the sky is a deep blue-black, lit only by a few cold stars and shards of ice in the deepest ruts. The temperature reached nearly 50 today, and the scent from the deep golden grasses on the rolling hills south of the house hangs in the air, tangy and sweet, mixed with the sharper odor of manure from the corrals, and the heavy scent of burning wood. Moonlight gives a faint silver sheen to tall bronze bluestem, tawny foxtail, brown alfalfa. I turn slowly, enjoying a skyline shaped by the smooth shapes of hills; no straight-sided buildings break that gentle arch, no trees slash upward. This is the prairie, during the annual warm spell between the first snow and the spring storms that strike when our cows begin calving in March. To the north, a glow marks the nearest town, 20 miles away. If I lean forward over the porch railing, I can see my neighbor's yard light a mile away.
As a city child, I was afraid of the dark. Out here, where strange sounds in the night may mean a prairie fire or someone stealing cows, I can't avoid the responsibility of investigating. But here the night is more than peaceful; it is inviting, an opportunity not to be missed. Often I get up and prowl outside in my nightgown just for the pleasure of it.
On a moonless night when I was a teen-ager, I found myself on a tired horse far from home after dark. Coyotes howled; a booming rush overhead told me the nighthawks were hunting insects. In my fear, I complained to my horse, who blew her warm breath on my face and reminded me a good horse will take a rider home even in a blizzard. I mounted, loosened the reins, and waited. She raised her head and began trotting confidently straight into smothering blackness, as if a sack had dropped over my head. But I trusted her. Soon the nighthawks swirling around me became benevolent friends, the coyotes sounded happy to be alive. Grass swished against my horse's legs just as it did in daylight; my saddle squeaked. After a while, I could see the birds, and the grass seemed to glow faintly, as if lit from within. Before I'd seen enough, I was home. My fear was gone.
Directly below me, tall weeds around a waterhole rattle briefly - a coyote hunting mice, or a skunk headed for the compost, or the seven deer coming for water. A yearling calf howls, one of the bunch of 26 heifers we're raising for replacement breeding cows. They've been fed together since they were weaned and always move - like teen-agers - in a compact and usually raucous bunch. Faintly I can see black shapes lying close together a half-mile away, and a light-colored blotch moving toward them from a gully. Perhaps they left her while she napped, and she awoke alone.
I inhale deeply, glad the blizzard roared over our heads two days ago. We could almost inhale snow from the heavy gray clouds, and the winds left a 15-foot hole in the plank corral, plastic flapping on barbed wire, hamburger cartons jammed under tumbleweeds in fence corners. The next blizzard is on its way, and we may not get off so lightly next time. When snow is piled deep on the plains, so even normal sounds are muffled, I put on my sheepskin moccasins before my midnight trips. But I still go.
If I'm patient, on some night when the thermometer reads 10 or 15 degrees below zero, I will hear the grouse calling. First a single note, like the mellow tone of a monastery bell, will ring from the top of a haystack and be answered from the shelter of the willows down the gully. I'll try to get outside without making a sound. If I shut a door too hard, or speak, or even shiver, they stop and may not start again that night.
But if I am quiet enough, I might listen to them ringing back and forth across the prairie for an hour. Finally, with a thoroughly undignified squawk, the first one will launch itself awkwardly and fly toward the others. Then they will all take off, floundering in the air like flying turtles, clucking and muttering, until they bury themselves under a rosebush to peck after seeds for the rest of the night.
Then I move, take a step, and hear the snow squeal with cold underfoot. Each step seems to reverberate until I can hear nothing else. The world shrinks to the sound of my footsteps - acutely symbolic - until I stop and wait for the natural sounds to reassert themselves.
The neighbor's dog barks, a high, frantic yelping. The silence of the moonlight is broken. I'll come back another night, after the snow, to hear the grouse. Now it's time to go back to bed, the warm tangle of husband, dog, and cat, to drift back to sleep among faint coyote howls.