A friend of mine told me about a mouse who lives in the Sonoran desert and, of all its strange characteristics, howls.
For some reason, this replayed itself as I walked this evening in the moonlight. I wondered why it howls? Why do nocturnal creatures howl?
Scientists will come up with reasons like these night creatures are warning off predators or trying to find each other in the dark.
Our myths have long coupled howling and the moon together. Greek Artemis or Roman Diana, goddess of the moon and the hunt, kept a pack of wild dogs to accompany her. Norse myths and Native American legends tell us wolves howl the moon into existence. Scary stories of werewolves howling at the moon will still send shivers down our spines, even in today’s world of mundane disbelief.
Notice a third commonality? Howling. Moon. And blood.
Turns out, the southern grasshopper mouse is a terribly vicious carnivore, tearing into anything it can sink its rodent teeth into (even its own kind). My friend described this mouse, howling its mouse-sized howl into the emptiness of the desert just before it broke the back of a scorpion.
Here in the high desert, on summer evenings, the howling of the coyotes fill the air as they hunt. They seem to say: There will be blood tonight.
Gardner’s Grendel spends most of his time attacking the halls at night and howling with rage at the pointlessness of it all (while longing for there to be meaning). But it ends in bloodshed.
Sydney Carton, the Jackal of A Tale of Two Cities, which I’m reading to my family in the evenings, tends to keep odd hours and howls at the world for his terrible luck and his blighted existence and (spoiler alert) he is lost to the guillotine. More blood. Yet, strangely, Dickens’ metaphor kind of fizzles here. This death is not carnivorous and opportunistic, like jackals are, but a sacrifice.
Still, howling, moon, and blood. Let’s add exile. Or desert.
It seems like creatures of the desert have, in a way, been banished by the creatures who manage to survive where there is more food and water. I can’t imagine life spreading from the desert. It spread to it, when the more lush places of the world filled up.
Grendel wanders on the outskirts of the halls of Hrothgar, creeping in to listen to the Shaper, but feared and attacked by the people.
Sydney is exiled by London society to a social desert where he must make make due with the scraps from Stryver.
There is Kipling’s camel, a howler himself, who fritters away his time in the desert humphing at everything and everyone and causing everyone else to work more. And he is forever banished to the desert because he becomes uniquely suited to it when the Djinn curses him with a hump.
And there are the desert fathers — the men who shunned a political Christianity to find truth and real spirituality.
Their vigils and watches caused them to spend much more time with the moon. Their vows of poverty, chastity, and silence were their sacrifices, their bloodshed.
And desert or exile. Well, that is a strange point. To all appearances, they seemed exiled. Yet, Thomas Merton describes them as seeing pagan society as a shipwreck from which each individual soul had to swim for his life. The desert was, not an exile, but a refuge.
Still, were they howlers? I think they were. In their own way.
A brother asked one of the elders: What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby? The old man replied: God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: What good work shall I do? And that he replied: Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. Elias loved solitary prayer, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.