Night Walks

“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city. 

The city bakes under the heat dome. In the suffocating weather, we become night walkers, transferring our outdoor time to the hours of darkness. We go out at nine p.m. when the sun no longer burns, though the air is still close, heavy and enveloping like a fur. It’s not quite dark. In the east, the sky is a pale periwinkle blue with a few gray clouds strung across it, tipped with white or silver; in the west, the sinking sun makes an apricot-colored band along the horizon with dark, opaque banks of cloud built up above it. We walk within a ring of clouds beneath the soft immensity of the sky. There is the evening star. Up the street, a little amber room shines out like a terrestrial star, with a picture on the wall and, in a basket on the windowsill, a sleeping cat.

The pock of a pickleball echoes through the fence at Waterman Elementary School, mingled with louder slaps from the darkening basketball court. Tall figures leap for the hoop; smaller ones watch, leaning on their bikes, or make their own game on the grass. The streetlamps begin to look brighter against the sky. At the same time, the fireflies come out, irregular chips of yellow-green pulsing from the lawns. Kids still run and shriek in a few backyards, but the day is closing down, the life of the city absorbed into the houses. Peace descends on the porches, the rosebushes in bloom, and the open hillside leading up to the church with the arched, reddish-gold windows, its steeple faintly lit from below, the sky behind it smoky with outcroppings and curlicues of clouds suspended in the windless air.

In these long, curving residential streets, the distances become strange in the dusk. Sometimes a nervousness brushes over us in the wide gaps between the streetlamps—not a fear of violent crime, because it’s common for people to walk alone in our city, even women and children, something for which we are grateful, and we know what we would do if we felt threatened, we’d simply run up to a house, any lighted house, and knock at the door—so no, it’s not fear that crisps our skin, just the alien feel of the darkness. It’s the feeling that we can’t quite trust our sight. We might pass a parked car and flinch as we suddenly realize there’s a person inside it, a ghostly shape in the glass looking back at us, phone pressed to its ear. Objects are hard to recognize. A garden ornament or shrub might look like a dog in the gloom, a large unchained dog sitting in a yard. The big willow tree on Taliaferro Street, obliquely lit by a streetlamp, its trailing branches stirred by a stray breeze, becomes a mysterious troupe of cultists in green ceremonial robes performing a slow ritual dance on the grass.

This slightly unsettled feeling intensifies the cozy, intimate radiance of the lighted windows. We would like to assure our neighbors that we are not spying—we have no sinister designs—we simply love to see their windows lit up at night. Most of all we love to glimpse a little corner of an interior, though we don’t see many of those, since most people have their blinds down, their curtains drawn, just as we do at our own house. The windows make luminous shapes along the street, the yellow of living room lights, the shifting bluish squares of television screens. Light filtered through curtains turns a whole room into a lamp. It’s as if each curtain is a lampshade, the window bright as a bulb in the dark house. And how delightful it is when people appear suddenly, distinctly, porch lights glinting down on couples relaxing on wicker couches, their hands raised in greeting as we pass, or a window with the blinds drawn up to reveal an old lady in a chair with several children playing around her. It makes us feel so snug, so tucked in, being out at night, seeing the silhouettes of cats in the windows, a foyer with potted plants, a shelf full of porcelain figurines, a wall of framed, indistinct photographs. Why should we feel embraced when we’re not in the house but walking along the street outside? It’s a secretive, spellbound feeling, imagining the lives in the houses, spotting the beam of a desk lamp high in a curtainless upper room that makes us think of someone reading or writing. Somehow, when we see these interiors—people washing dishes or working on puzzles, big dazzling screens where video games are in progress, or one of those crowded rooms, all armoires, sideboards, and china cupboards, where lace doilies cover everything like snow—we imagine that the people inside are happy. Is this just our optimistic nature? Do other walkers imagine rooms full of sadness and distress? Or is there something inherently cheering about a lighted window, a domestic interior seen from the street?

Somebody’s home. That’s the feeling: someone is there. Perhaps these lighted windows stir up childhood feelings, the memory of adult voices arcing down the street, the long singsong fading notes calling the children home.

Night thoughts in the night city. They swerve and stray, like our meandering path. The fireflies have snuffed their candles out. The overgrown yard on Green Street feels like a genuine forest in the dark, where nocturnal creatures leap and catch in our hair. Facing the moon as it emerges from the mist, huge in the dark blue sky, irradiating the street that still gives off a hot tarry smell, we wonder: Is the day coming soon when our city, like Miami, will have to hire a Chief Heat Officer? Passing the junglelike vacant lot where, earlier in the day, we glimpsed a tent half-concealed among the trees, we struggle in vain to make out its lost outline in the darkness, wondering: Where would we go tonight if we had no home?

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.