Sounds in the Dark

by Akula H

Crickets chirped and frogs croaked in the dark moonless night. Vinay and I lounged outside the little cottage at the edge of the Tholpetty Forest (part of Western Ghats Rain Forests of India), soaking up these sounds. Suddenly the melody of the night was interrupted by the sharp alarm call of a Chital (Spotted Deer). As I floundered in the dark for the sound recorder and switched it on, the alarm calls continued. After eight such calls, convinced that all the other denizens of the forest have been adequately warned, the Chital fell silent. The entire forest seemed to be on alert, listening and watching for the events that might unfold. (Click here for an audio recording: Sounds in the Tholpetty Forest by the author.)

We saw our host, the owner of the cottage where we stayed, tiptoeing away into the night. On seeing us, he told us excitedly it was an alarm call for the King of the Jungle – Tiger. We joined him in the silent expedition to the edge of his farm, bordering the forest. Once again we heard the alarm call of a Chital; this time it was much closer and was a single call followed by an unmistakable grunt.

The tiger must have been very close when it was discovered; that explains the single call before the Chital sprinted away from imminent danger and tiger’s grunt of disappointment for having his cover blown yet again.

Few minutes later, a twig snapped perhaps a hundred meters from where we stood. “Did you hear it? Tiger is now less cautious and is no longer stalking, as he knows his presence has been discovered. If it was wet season, we could have tracked the pug marks in the morning, but now there won’t be any clues left on the fallen leaves and dry grass”. Our wildlife enthusiast host was every bit familiar with this landscape. Though we could hardly see our own feet in the dark, we could clearly ‘see’ what was happening around us by listening to the language of the forest. We felt truly connected to Nature through a common language that is beyond words and is far more impressive.

Especially the sounds in the dark seem to have a mysterious quality to them, which I came to relish as a child living in a farm house. Decades ago, on an eventful night, the sound of flapping wings outside my window woke me up. I remember lying awake in my bed, listening and wondering what might be the big bird outside my window and why does it seem to be flying around in circles.

The sounds that followed bewildered me even more. There was a ‘thud’ on my closed window, followed by ‘scratching’! It didn’t take me long to realize that something had squeezed through the gap in the iron window and is now scratching away at the nylon mesh. Before I could react, there was a soft thump on my bed; impact of some creature landing right where I was sleeping!

I jumped off my bed and flicked on the lights…click…click…nothing happened! There was no electricity! It was pitch-dark. There were no more wing flaps or the scratching and the only sound I could hear was the crazy thumping of my own heart. Just wanting to get out of there, I found my way out of the room and closed the door behind me. However fearful thoughts kept nagging me: “What if that creature had also crept out of the room along with me and is behind me right now?”

I stumbled across to kitchen and managed to find a matchbox and a candle. As I lighted it, the little flame flickered and bravely fought back the engulfing darkness. I sat in the drawing room and contemplated my next move. Courage and logical thinking were the highly praised virtues in my family and the last thing I wanted to do was run into my parents’ bed room like a scaredy-cat, screaming “A demon got into my room”!

Even at the age of nine, I was sure that there was a perfectly logical explanation for all this. I kept asking myself “What type of creature has big wings that make flapping sound as it flies in circles during the night? How could it suddenly shrink itself and squeeze through a small gap in my window? Why would it target me?” My mind drew a blank on these questions. I continued to listen attentively for a long time and all I could hear was the big wall clock ticking away and few mosquitoes that were delighted to find unexpected company in the middle of the night.

I must have drifted off to sleep on the sofa, when I woke up the light was streaming through the windows and birds were singing. My parents were surprised to find me dozing in the drawing room. I put forth the last night’s puzzle before them and my father was convinced that the wing flaps were from a fruit bat which perhaps flew around the cherry tree, eating those fruits. That didn’t answer the question of who jumped on my bed after squeezing through the window and scratching through the nylon mesh. When we examined the mesh, we saw a small hole and my mother was aggrieved that a mouse had got into the house yet again! Perhaps the ‘thud’ I heard came from an owl that pursued the mouse, forcing its prey to escape into my bed room. On seeing the owl the bat might have fled the scene, which explains why the wing flaps stopped soon after. That night the creature that had struck terror into my heart was caught – a little mouse! It was three different creatures of the night that had caused the sounds that frightened me and I could not find the answer because I was trying to link all the sounds to a single one! I knew then to appreciate the mystery of sounds in the dark and found a new perspective on listening to the sounds of nature.

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