At 5AM the air echoes with liquid-sounding warbles -- a frog, perhaps, or a strange bird or cricket; we don't know what. But it is a pleasing sound, a call and response surrounding us as we listen on the front porch and the simple act of standing still fills my hair with dew....
I can barely see down the block. "It's froggy outside," I say. An old family pun.
Harry's 2 Little Bakers is already open for business. We have breakfasted there when the mornings have been bright and hot and the streets filled with as much bustle as this town gets. This morning we walk through dark, cool mist. The glow from yard lamps dissipates. The warbles follow us across a black, velvety landscape.
Decades ago I had ridden the Staten Island Ferry on foggy nights, on old boats whose outdoor seating along the sides had let me commune with the choppy Verrazzano Narrows slapping against the wood. Normally I had traveled in a bowl ringed with lights from Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and then Staten Island as we neared shore.
Fog changed all that. On those nights Manhattan dwindled briefly before it fell off the edge of the world; and until we were close enough to Brooklyn the ferry's dull yellow lamps made us the only creatures in existence. We became a ghost ship floating through starless space. Everything around us was pitch; only a fog horn and the disembodied slap of waves against the hull defined our earthly existence. Brooklyn shone briefly off the port bow, then sank into nothingness until Staten Island hove into view and stayed.
Mary and I speak in whispers as we cut through the mist. The sky glows an eerie orange toward the northwest. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning, I think -- but the light comes from sodium lamps in the strip mall's parking lot. Nothing to worry about.
"Check the pond?" Mary asks. I nod. Recent rains have filled up again what for days had been little more than a mud slurry.
The dark streets have been ours until we reach the main road, where we hear engines long before rare headlamps appear. I look up at the streetlamp and at first wonder if I see a tattered rag someone has thrown on the wires. Then I gasp in amazement and whisper, "Is that a web?"
A few steps further forward, we know for certain.
"It's as big as the stop sign," Mary whispers back. We spend a minute staring. The web has lost great round chunks, surviving what seems an epic battle.
Once, when I had hiked in Massachusetts' Blue Hills Reservation, I came upon a spiderweb the size of a doorway. I had knelt before it, gazing upon it and its maker with tears in my eyes.
"I've noticed that about the Blue Hills," Mary says. "They like to build their webs near the trails."
The odd warbling grows louder as we near the retention pond, followed by a single, explosive grunt. We make out four different kinds of calls, assume four species of frogs, before mosquitos drive us across the street and back toward the bakery. When I rake my fingers through my hair, my hand comes away wet.
Smells of warm dough and confectioner's sugar reach us through the fog. We blink in 2 Bakers' soft light as we step into "The Coolest Place in Town," where we listen to a spirited discussion about the Chicago White Sox and the playoffs.
In the days following Hurricane Frances this place had been packed and running on its own generator. Customers included people who had lost not only power (as we had) but also water and phone service. They'd crowded amiably around a counter where hot coffee flowed and donuts vanished fresh out of the oven. The tip jar, a ceramic log cabin with snowmen and a Christmas tree, had filled to overflowing.
We'd learned then that school closings from hurricanes and tropical storms are called "snow days."
The bakery is decked out in snowpeople: store-bought and homemade, plush and ceramic, wood, plastic. Snowflake cutouts sparkle as they dangle from the ceiling, creating an oasis of December through the power of suggestion. The denizens form a fantasy community, looking at once like a collector's workshop and a village populated by strikingly individual personalities.
I get the proprietor's permission to photograph. My camera "tells" me I am focused, but I have opted out of using flash and suspect a slightly longer shutter speed blurs some of the shots. Between sips of coffee and minutes before the morning rush I hang out with the decor. Now a CD of pictures sits on my desk, ready for delivery to the bakery in case anything proves useful.
Asking permission to practice my photography had gotten me out of my comfort zone, obeying the pleas of my inner extravert. The camera teaches me.
On our way home Mary and I stop again at the web, which I had not photographed before breakfast. It is still dark and I have no tripod; any exposure would be several seconds in length.
"You know you've got to try it," she says. I nod.
For two shots I listen to the slow whirr in my hands; then I pop up the flash. I doubt it will reach far enough to illuminate the web, but perhaps it will quicken my shutter speed.
The fog has thinned. Clouds emerge slowly in predawn light. As we walk home the sun begins to rise, brightening the sky almost urgently. The yard lamps give mixed opinions; some have turned off while others stay on. The air fills with bird song; engines rev.
At home, after the bakery shots, the thumbnails of my downloaded files show blurred strands and then a field of uninterrupted black.
Or so it seems. Viewing the field full-size reveals a hint of contrast that I sharpen and brighten in successive steps. Slowly, miraculously, the web appears.