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Authors: Maria Mutch

Know the Night


Copyright © 2014 Maria Mutch

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in 2014 by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, a Penguin Random House Company, and simultaneously in the United States of America by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited.

Knopf Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Mutch, Maria, author
    Know the night : a memoir of survival in the small hours / by Maria Mutch

ISBN 978-0-307-36337-4
eBook 978-0-307-36339-8

    1. Mutch, Maria. 2. Mothers and sons—Biography. 3. Down syndrome—Biography. 4. Insomnia. 5. Books and reading—Psychological aspects. 6. Byrd, Richard Evelyn, 1888–1957. I. Title.

PS8626.U885 K56 2014         C814’.6         C2013-900763-6

Jacket design by Five Seventeen

Image credits: (woman in snow) © Nancy Falso; (stars) pia12067, courtesy NASA/JPL/MPS/DLR/IDA; (map) David Rumsey Map Collection,


For R, G & S

ight is only one-half of something and yet it contains all things, even light, even a boy who doesn’t speak.
There is no sun without shadow and it is essential to know the night
, according to Camus. It seems that knowing has a cost, and we are changed by paying it, though the result is rarely regret. I’m grateful for a truth amid what I’ve learned: commiseration is a kind of rescue.

Gabriel is vastly different now. He slept little for a period of about two years, and I can say this about it: I slept little also, it was terrible (as Byrd would say,
 … in the way that things which are also terrible can be beautiful
), and magic happened. This is the story of that period, of the characters who came to call, the ones who helped us through the night, and a number of incidents that seemed to express a parallel, even sympathetic, mysticism; they are as central to the passing of the small hours, and what the small hours had to teach, as the boy himself.

If there’s one thing to be said about the night, it’s that companions are beneficial. No one should be alone.

The cell of the secret is white.

—Gaston Bachelard,
The Poetics of Space

It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.

—Annie Dillard,
Total Eclipse

provisions for Byrd expedition, Antarctica, 1933–35:

6 straitjackets

[the first crossing] a prologue

night in late July and the ferry that took us to Newfoundland departed North Sydney at midnight. R and I sailed the Cabot Strait, through the wet air of a black night. It was supposed to be a pleasure trip, but we were vagrants crossing the sea in a tangle of bald lighting, children’s cries, and the salt-tinged smell of fuel. People slept on coats under stairwells and in nooks, on patches of floor tile, while others claimed vinyl seats with the ferocity of dogs with bones. After R and I settled into our reserved bunks, I shut my eyes and hoped for sleep.

I tumbled briefly into dreams, and an old man met me there. He drove a crooked finger into my abdomen and stirred. When I gasped awake, there was the static of people whispering, the shifting of the boat. I watched a moth exhaust itself on a bulb. I was two months’ pregnant.

At 5 a.m., the great heap of Newfoundland swelled in the dark, and the ferry stopped at Port aux Basques, the cars exiting one by one. Elated to see the first light of morning, I nearly forgot the dream. The sun was pressing and by afternoon, we reached the lake in Gros Morne National Park where we set up camp.

After pitching our tent, we sat on a pebble shore and marveled at the view of a crystalline lake against an emerald hill. We were not alone on this slip of beach. Two French children came along,
a beautiful brother and sister. They wanted to play with us, tell us their stories, their words streaming as they tumbled over each other. They were the age when their play unconsciously implied the sexual and they would soon understand they couldn’t play in this exact way, the brother pinning his sister, but for the moment they were safe and oblivious. I thought how I would love to have children just like them. Their heavily accented English floated and darted around us as they stood together on the pebbles, panting, to tell us how they came up the St. Lawrence in a great ship, and saw porpoises and enormous birds.

But I was unable to relax, to unclench my fingers from the thermos of tea. Fat cumulus clouds coalesced into the shape of a shark. We sat on the lip of a dazzling lake, and a few moments later, I would start to bleed.

R drove me to the closest hospital, which was two hours from our campsite, in the town of Cornerbrook. The maternity ward was full, so the nurse placed me in a room with three other women and instructed me to remain lying down as she drew a beige curtain around my bed. I felt like a full bowl about to tip.

When visiting hours were over, R was forced to retreat, checking into a motel. The darkness and silence of the ward were cut with pools of light and the wails of an elderly woman in the bed next to mine. She cried out for her left leg, now a phantom, and begged for another hit of morphine. Irritated by her suffering, I wondered what was wrong with me, where was my fucking compassion? I shivered, wanting her to be quiet.

I waited three days for the ultrasound machine that would assess whether I was still pregnant. By the time it pressed its leaking eye to my skin and I had bled seas, it found no life at all.

Turn back to the lake, its hard beauty. Our tent somewhere behind us and in front of us silvery water and a green mountain. Two French children sidle up and tell us how they traveled the St. Lawrence on a great ship.


ause for a moment on the dark sea and call to mind Robert Falcon Scott’s ship,
Terra Nova
, in 1910 making its way to Antarctica from New Zealand, where he had collected nineteen unfortunate ponies, two of which would die before ever reaching the Ice. Water soaked from the top deck into the sleeping berths where the men had rigged chutes to channel the water away from their heads. They flew lines of cobbler’s thread off the stern where albatrosses gathered to collect food scraps thrown from the ship. If a wing happened to brush the line just so, the bird would flip and ensnare itself in a sudden loop of the twine, find itself being hauled in for photographing, a dose of ether, skinning, and transformation into a museum specimen. One of the caught birds, a beautiful black albatross, walked the deck and regarded the admiring men with contempt. Perhaps he knew his power as a mistreated omen, knew that some of them would never make it home.


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