On the strange combination of privacy and exposure that comes with sleeping in a tent in the middle of night, the ritualistic night-time etiquette of being surrounded by strangers, cocooned and swaddled but separated from the sky by a thin skin of material. Scribbled in Ethiopia, at the summit of a peak in the Simien Mountains.
Stifled giggles in the thick velvet night, the walls stained midnight and painted with weird shadows. The walking poles up ended, arthritic fingers spiked to the roof, jumbles of clothes, smoke filled and stiff with cold and dirt. Boots clogged with red mud flood the air with an earthy pungency, damp bodies and soil and second-hand breath.
Paper-thin walls of material stretched taunt like synthetic skin, a cocoon of deceptive vulnerability where we whisper and laugh, little girls trading stories in the creeping evening.
The darkness leans across slow, languorous and soft. Encased like Russian dolls, zipped in, tucked up tight with faces up, white and open into the gloom. We are not asleep, the others are not asleep. We are all part of a strange dance, a pointedly polite ritual. We move, one leg, one arm. The noise makes us flinch in its abruptness, the outrageous volume in a place, at a time where whispers are an unspoken agreement. Someone turns, the audacity of the movement thunders and reverberates through the tent. Hushed, hushed: “Sorry, sorry.”
I can feel her as she slips in her sleep. She’s falling, slowly, slowly. Stretching herself across the floor. She commits the unspeakable as she inches her way across, marooned in impolite and unclaimed territory, out of hers and into mine. This is difficult. In the light we can cover our childish embarrassment, the bright chatter covering the time when we shed and slip from one skin to another, but in the embalmed space proximity is invasive, claustrophobic, inappropriate.
I can hear her breathing, soft, soft as I open my eyes to the thick murk of the tent. In the concentrated blackness I concentrate on facing away until morning. Eyes averted, danger averted. When morning breaks propriety will resume and we will laugh and I will shove her out of the way. She’ll slither back, retreat into her bright, pretend skin. Now it would be violent and disconnected, an arm in the night, brutal and strange. So I’ll wait, slowly, slowly and sleep comes slowly, languorous and soft.