On this still, windless night the forest is silent. The trees watch, like inscrutable sentries. Moths flutter past silently, gossamer scraps pale against the darkness. Bats swoop soundlessly, dusky shadows whose voices are beyond our hearing. It seems that the creatures that stalk the night woods are mostly unseen and unheard. But the forest isn’t quite silent. There is a whirring in the air, something that you wouldn’t really notice unless your attention is drawn to it. Something that sounds alien and a little eerie. It seems to be coming from the trees – all of the trees, as though the air itself is singing. Listen, and you’ll hear it too…
This is the sound of the dreaded goatsucker, the corpse fowl. It is said that this creature steals milk from the udders of goats. That it sheathes the souls of unbaptized children, haunting eternity. And kills calves by giving them puckeridge disease. It flies only by night, resting on the ground in daylight, protected by its camouflage. Each year, it makes the long journey from Africa to sojourn here, a nocturnal shadow to the day-time swallow. It is a creature of myth and witchery, yet in reality it is only a bird: the enigmatic Nightjar.
The Nightjar’s reputation is beguiling but untrue. It feeds on moths and insects and it is thought that its notoriety as a milk snatcher originates from its habit of nesting on the ground around livestock. Puckeridge disease is caused, not by the Nightjar, but by an insect. But the Nightjar is rarely seen, due to its nocturnal nature and don’t all creatures of the night deserve their own myths?
On this night, we walk darkened paths, the pines looming in front of us darker still. We have night vision telescopes, which illuminate the darkness in a square of sickly yellow light. So much light soaking the eyes makes it difficult to see once you look away from the telescope and my vision is blurred by the end of the walk. We can see in the dark, but we don’t see the Nightjar. Despite all our technology, perhaps we aren’t meant to see what lurks in the night.
But there, in the hedgerow, is another kind of light. Cold, green pinpricks, so bright they shouldn’t be natural. As bright as fairy lights and indeed, these are the creatures that the fey carried as lanterns, so that they could dance through the night. But the light of the glow worm isn’t meant for the fairies or for us. It is the lure of the female, who will glow for just a week or two until she has attracted a mate and laid her eggs. Once this is done, she will put out her light and die.
Perhaps some things aren’t meant to be witnessed by human eyes. We conjure myths from half-seen things and unexplained sounds in the darkness. And this is part of the magic of the world. That they exist, but we can know only a fraction of their mystery. That we can create stories to comfort us in our lack of knowing. I’m glad I heard the call of the Nightjar, but in a way, I’m happy I didn’t see it. Instead, the mystery is intact, sailing on into the darkness.