Snowflakes swam lightly through the air as Oliver walked across the pavement. The snow had not yet settled into a layer, instead speckling the pavement with white. Soft orange light, burning inside lonely street lamps, caught the snowflakes and made them glitter. Starlight and moonlight mingled with street light, marrying the light of man with the light of heaven in a picture of night that Oliver felt immersed in. Under the glow of the lights he could feel the secrets that the darkness hid, the secrets that the light sheltered him from. He was alone, but he felt like part of the night. And so he walked slowly and let the light and darkness envelope him.
All around Oliver were buildings: factories and offices, usually full of machinery and paperwork and poor workers and rich businessmen. But the machines were quiet, and the papers no longer shuffled, and the workers were at home in their beds, and the businessmen were at home in their beds; the workers were dreaming of what they could do, and the businessmen were dreaming of what they had already done, and neither worker nor businessman was on Oliver’s mind. The factories and offices were factories and offices in the sunlight, but in the moonlight and streetlight they were shells, left alone with their freshly oiled cogs and freshly printed documents and old stone walls.
To Oliver the best and worst thing about the night was its end. For a few hours, he could immerse himself in the night light and be alone. For a few hours, the moon was bright and the sky was dark and the streetlights turned the buildings into something ancient and beautiful and secretive. But soon red would seep into the sky, and the world of night would fall away. The sunrise was the fulfilling of a hope that had lasted the whole night; but the fulfilling of the hope meant that the hope was gone, that the mystery was ended, that the once young night had grown old and died. The buildings held no secrets in the sunlight.
That same night, a woman lay wrapped in blankets on a bed in the heart of the city. In her arms she held a baby, born nearly two months before. She held it safe and comfortable in her arms, and she felt safe and comfortable in her bed. The baby was sleeping, but the city was awake: there were motors and voices and lights, but the baby was dreaming far-off dreams, dreams so sweet and innocent and full of wonder that those workers and businessmen would be incapable of comprehending them.
Outside the room it was night, and the city was cruel. But inside the room, on the bed, the mother and child lay together in perfect safety and peace, sheltered from the night and the secrets that it hid. The mother smiled and looked down and saw that her baby had awoken. The baby did not make a sound though. He only looked up at his mother in tranquil silence and let her admire his deep green eyes. His eyes were as full of wonder as his dreams had been.
That same night, two bicycles whizzed down a steep hill at the edge of the city. On the bicycles were two twelve-year-old boys, peddling hard enough that peddling had become useless. Gravity carried them bumpily down the dirt slope, a slope which ended in a sudden and short-lived incline. The boys and their bicycles hit the makeshift ramp at a speed that would alarm any sensible adult, and gravity sent them sailing into the snowy air.
For a few glorious seconds they saw the snowflakes rushing past them, the ground rolling by beneath them, the frozen pond rushing rapidly toward them, and then they crashed into the frozen pond with enough force to shatter the whole of it into fragments of ice. The water was of arctic temperature, and they could feel their skin going numb, but the water was only four feet at its deepest point. So they half-swam, half-walked through it, dragging their bicycles behind them and laughing uncontrollably.
They pulled themselves out of the pond, shivering and dazed but still lost in laughter. They laughed about what a stupid idea it was, and they tried to remember which one of them had come up with it, and they hoped their parents hadn't noticed their absence, and then they forgot about the pond and spent the rest of the night talking about girls as dry clothes and brisk walking relieved their shivering.
That same night, outside the city, the moon shone down on a bridge that spanned a narrow river. The bridge hardly ever held traffic, because not many people bothered with the forest on the outskirts of the city. But that night the bridge held two people, young and in love. The girl’s family was moving away from the city soon, and she and the boy had decided to meet at the bridge. They sat on the edge of the bridge and watched the river flow quietly beneath them, the moon turning its ripples milky pale. The air was still, and the sky was clear, but somehow snowflakes still drifted down. The boy and the girl gazed up at the same stars that shone down on Oliver as he walked the lonely streets.
They had not spoken a single word the whole night. They had let the moonlight shine on their backs and the city light shine on their faces, and they held each other to ward off the frosty touch of the snowflakes. They understood each other, and they loved each other, and so their embrace, as sweet and innocent as the dreams the baby was dreaming that very moment, was enough. Words would only have marred the stillness of the air.
That same night, a husband and wife ate dinner in an obscure café hidden in the recesses of the city. Their love was less childlike than that of the boy and the girl, but it was also much deeper and much older. They were in their late thirties, and the emotions of their youth had evolved into something steadier and quieter that remembered the youthful passions but did not repeat them. That night was their anniversary. They ate dinner in unexpected but comfortable silence; their children were staying elsewhere for the weekend, and the snowflakes were falling softly, and the night was young.
Soon they walked to the park and sat together to watch the snow fall. The moon was making the waters of the fountain shimmer, and the leaves of the trees were swaying in the lightest of night breezes. They placed their hands together, and the wife felt the cold silver of her husband’s ring press against her skin. The night was growing older, but they were in no rush. There were motors and voices and lights in the distance, but they felt as if they had the night all to themselves.
That same night there was sadness. The man was old and wise and weary from decades of life. Now that life was pouring out with a stream of warm blood, a stream that became a cold pool on the pavement, staining the asphalt crimson. He was in a rough area of the city, but no one could do him any more harm now. The murderer who had started the stream of blood was long gone, running into the darkest corners of the night. He had stolen a child, dragged him away into the black alleys and deteriorating homes. But the old man had seen the murderer, seen him before he could touch the child. He had tackled the criminal, allowed the child to run free into the night, away from the alleys and toward the warm city lights.
But the criminal had left a bullet in the old man’s stomach, and now his blood, blood that had once been full of life and passion, poured onto the icy asphalt. A stranger emerged from one of the alleys. This stranger had spent his whole life stealing and lying, but when he saw the lonely old man bleeding out on the street, he could not bear to stay in the darkness. He rushed forward and cradled the man’s head in his arms, not caring that the blood was soaking into his clothes.
The stranger looked into the dying man’s deep green eyes and then clutched his hand, on which he felt the cold silver of a ring. “What’s your name?” he asked as tears rolled down his cheeks and fell into the pool of the old man’s blood at his side.
“Oliver,” the old man replied. Then he smiled faintly; his eyes were looking far past the stars.
That night was the night Oliver would have seen if the most vital moments of his life had been blended into a single night; he would have sat on the bridge and looked onto the city and seen himself being held by his mother, being held by his wife, being held by some stranger as his blood ran onto the ground; and he would have seen his shivering walks in the forest and his lonely walks in the city light; and he would have seen all his days blurred into a collage of sad smiles and lonely tears and midnight passions; and somewhere in that haze of memories, a haze unmindful of time and nature but infused with a thousand emotions, he would have seen beautiful happiness and beautiful unity and beautiful hope.
But I expect that if he had felt those smiles and tears and passions and hopes, all at once, unified into a single night instead of spread over a single life, he would have buckled under the crushing bittersweet weight of their beauty, the sad as potent as the happy, and just as beautiful. Such beauty was not meant for a single night, a single life, or even a single world. He could not have it, he could only glimpse it, and one night as he sat on a bridge with someone beautiful whom he loved resting in his arms, Oliver did glimpse it, and he hoped that one day he could have it.
The last of the blood flowed onto the pavement, and soon the night and city light were washed away by the pure brightness of dawn.