When I was small my parents would host a lot of parties. I don’t know if they had more friends then or were just, as people say, “at a more social place in their lives,” but at least once a month there would be a bunch of adults in our apartment, drinking crappy wine and trying to play our untunable piano. There is something powerful for a child about your parents having people over. It’s not anything that happens at the parties but the evidence they give you that people feel safe where you live. That must go back to the savanna. Sometimes things happened at the parties that I was probably too young to see, but nothing scarring, just grown-up scenes. The air was bluish with different kinds of smoke. I have a memory of my father giving me a sip of wine on a sofa shortly after I turned four. Or one of the guests might say something inappropriate—for me cryptically so—and then at a look from my mother turn red and apologize. They had accidentally given me a glimpse of the darker and more serious world that otherwise lay unthinkable miles ahead. Guests would start to show up at around eight, meaning that I was allowed up for only the first hour or so. In reality I would lie awake much longer than that, listening to the chatter through the walls. My mother used to sit beside me for a few seconds. She was a high school chemistry teacher, always bone thin. She would pat my head, and ask if I was okay. Like that, “You okay, kid?” Her own carefully shaped and hair-sprayed hair ... I knew better than to try to make her read to me like on other nights. She’d say, “You know I want to, honey, but I can’t be rude to our guests,” and then she would leave, closing the door very softly, and I would lie there listening—for hours, it seemed to me, but given how kids’ brains are with time it may have been minutes. Things went differently one night. I don’t know why this happened—that is, I can’t grope my way back into a conscious motive—but as nine approached with the first little wooze of drowsiness, I got up and left the party without needing to be told. Instead of going to my bedroom, I walked to my father’s office, which when parties started everybody suddenly called the “coatroom.” There was a chair in there, where all of the guests threw their coats. It was a big round chair like a bowl or a bird’s nest, called a papasan chair. People used to have them. I don’t really see them anymore. The room was dark. The only light came from an orange streetlamp outside the window. I pulled the door behind me until it was almost shut but not quite and approached the chair. There weren’t a ton of coats, maybe seven. It wasn’t nine yet, and a lot of the guests tended to arrive later, tenish. The few that were visible (strange how well I remember) were a khaki overcoat, a fuzzy orange one with large buttons, and a fur, which had an unfamiliar cool, animal slickness to it. Without thinking, possibly worried that someone would walk in behind me, I dove into them, burrowing my way down to the bottom of the bowl. I curled into a ball and lay there on my side. At first I had no breathing hole, and my breath was making the air warm. It smelled like my breath, which didn’t smell bad and was even enjoyable in the way of secret gross pleasures, but eventually I had to reach through and open a little airway. The cooler air from the room hit my face. The radiator in the corner made hammersounds that were always mysteriously cavernous. The pipes did not seem large enough to have produced them. The only sounds I’ve heard since that reminded me of those were inside of an MRI machine. Under the coats it grew warm and slightly moist. It had started raining. The most recently added coats were wet. I felt sleep coming, the first stage, when your thoughts start to fray. I opened my eyes and mouth as wide as they would go and resisted. The door creaked, and someone walked in—a man, by the weight and hard flat sound of his steps on the wood. He threw a coat onto the pile. He may have thrown two—the added weight seemed too much for one. He left without saying anything. I don’t know why I include that—why would he have spoken?—but he didn’t mutter or anything. This kept happening: a person would walk in, or sometimes two or three, and another coat or more coats would be thrown on top of me. Then the person would leave the room, and a few seconds later the party would get a tick louder. That went on for a while. I did not sleep but lay there in a purely physical state of anxiety. No dread, in other words, but alert to the danger of being discovered. Once a woman came in. I heard her humming to herself. At first I thought she was neatening the coats. They moved and kept moving . . . no, she was rummaging for her own. Leaving early. I froze in expectation that she would feel the lump, but she didn’t. Her coat must have been in the middle. She had not stayed long at all. I heard her walk out of the room, and then the higher pitch of the goodbyes. I heard tentative music, and something made of glass broke, followed by groaning and laughter. I never moved except to squirm my limbs every so often. I tried to move so gradu-ally as to be imperceptible, like a tree sloth, in case someone walked in. And then two people did. I heard the door close all the way until it clicked, the first time it had done that. There were muffled sounds I didn’t recognize. I heard mouth noises and a sort of panting. They were kissing. The woman’s voice said, “But if he already knows . . . ” The man sighed. “Please, one time, can we not do this?” Then more mouth noises and a rustling of fabrics. They said other things. I have been remembering what they said my whole life. After a minute they left. I was at the bottom of the nest, breathing through my air hole, with easily twenty coats on top of me, and finally I drifted off. To this day, if someone brings up the subject of sleep—if a person is having trouble sleeping, for instance, and talks to me about it—my mind goes back to the chair. I can’t say how long I spent there. Three hours? At a certain point my eyes snapped open in the dark. A deep laughing voice said, “Hey, there’s a kid in here!” Then a female voice, whispering: “What?” Then the first voice, even more loudly this time: “Ron, I think your kid’s in here!” My father from out in the hallway said, “What?” I clawed my way up out of the coats and chair as if from the grave and walked straight to my bedroom, not looking at any of them, and fell instantly back asleep. My parents never said anything about it, not the next morning or ever. They may not even have remembered that part of the night.
Only in the eighties was it discovered that bees sleep. A scientist studied them with a thermographic camera and observed that the bees would sort of go down onto their faces and stop moving, and that while they slept “some of them held each other’s legs.” There are people, learned people, who argue that bullfrogs never sleep. Whether this means that they are always awake is a different matter. They are always, perhaps, in a state between sleep and waking. Torpor. This is how they seem, when you look at their eyes. Dolphins go to sleep on one side of their brains, but keep the other side awake, so they can keep swimming and breathing. They often swim in circles when they sleep in this fashion. Bats sleep hanging upside down, as is widely known, and so do some species of whale. Both share an ancestor, a four-footed furry mammal that walked on the ground. One line of that creature’s descendants took to the seas, one to the sky. Now they both sleep upside down and would never dream of each other. The bat sleeps hanging that way because it cannot take off, only let go. Honduran white bats sleep bunched up in little green tents made of folded jungle leaves. They tumble out of them to fly. Whales dive far down to perform their sleep. Divers have come upon them hanging there motionless, as if bewitched. The beautiful red-throated frigate bird sleeps while it flies. It can stay in the air for two months at a time. It flies hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles over the ocean, despite the fact that it cannot swim. Its mind sleeps for ten seconds at a time, but over and over. The seconds add up. Sea otters sleep on their backs in the ocean and often sleep holding hands, or forefeet, perhaps to ensure they don’t drift away from one another. They like to lie in beds of kelp and let their bodies get wrapped up in the fronds and float along with it. Tigers sleep for twenty hours a day. Their work is a ferocious blaze between long stretches of dream. Zebras lock their necks together and sleep on each other’s shoulders. Many fish will simply let themselves settle to the bottom of a stream. I do not think that they close their eyes. Orangutans make themselves new beds almost every night, weaving together leaves and branches into a bowl-shaped nest. Scientists say that orangutan beds are harder at the edges, for structure, and softer in the middle, for comfort. They like to make their beds high, sometimes as high as 120 feet above the ground. One theory about the hypnic jerk, the shudder we sometimes feel just at the instant of succumbing to sleep, is that our genes remember those days when there was constant danger of dozing off on a limb. The Greenland shark has a Latin name, Somniosus microcephalus, that means “sleepy small-head,” because they seem sluggish and do possess, proportionately, small heads. They can live for five hundred years. Despite the name, scientists are unsure if the animal ever really sleeps. If not, it would mean that some Greenland sharks have been awake for half a millennium. Little raccoon-faced African meerkats sleep in huge groups, down in their burrows. They cluster up into “mobs” to keep warm and protect one another. Sometimes as many as fifty will sleep in one mob. They build rooms in their burrows for sleeping and do nothing else there. They get up every morning and go about their work. Not hibernators, in other words. Hibernation, from the Latin hiberna: winter quarters. We know about bears, but turtles and even some birds do it. One might assume that cicadas hibernate, during their famous cycles of seventeen years in the ground, but it turns out that they are awake the whole time, digging and eating and fleeing moles, before they emerge screaming. A recent anthropological study suggests that our own ancestors, Homo heidelbergensis, went through a period when they hibernated, to survive the most hideously cold millennia of the ice ages. Apparently they were not very good at it and tended to sicken soon after. The greatest hibernator of all is the snail. When the weather gets cold or dry, snails first go in search of places where they feel safe, among rocks or leaf litter. There they close themselves up. The snail moves in a shell that is its dwelling, and when it wants to hibernate, it makes a covering over the entrance. This is called an epiphragm, Greek for “lid.” The snail concocts it of mucus and calcium. The lid seals in moisture and keeps the snail from drying out. Inside its damp chamber the snail sleeps and waits for rain. Sometimes it sleeps for years. No one knows if snails dream. Someone may know. Evidence suggests that certain birds dream and that in their dreams they are singing.
Please excuse this paper as the trenches are very muddy and my skin is parched with the fever that accompanies lack of sleep. Your boy has been tramping half over Europe, sleeping in trenches, doing without home comforts for months. He deserves, and you want to give him, just a little more comfort. Here and there as one moves shadows loom out of the mist—the close-standing sentries, singular figures, hidden in vapor to the waist, all wearing heavy cloaks of different types. You can see the men asleep on their horses, chins sunk on their chests. Sleep, next to hunger and thirst, is the greatest and most persistent appetite of the battlefield. There is a story about an infantryman who fell asleep over his bayonet, received the point in his neck and died. Shells which fell into an Austrian camp killed sleepers. Some of the sleepers did not hear the shells; others opened their eyes, stared, and went to sleep again. German troops in Flanders are so exhausted by British raids, many have fallen asleep at their posts, not caring if they are killed or captured. It is in a semi-unconscious state that most of the acts of heroism are performed, so men become heroes without their knowing. While making a tour of the line this morning I came across complete sections fast asleep in spite of its being dawn. Three sections had removed their equipment. A condition of affairs which up to this time would have been thought unbelievable in an army notorious for its discipline. One section had got in about a foot, and then, being so utterly fagged out—for they’d had no sleep for nights—simply lay down. Many of them are young and their bronzed faces look quite boyish while they sleep. It is heartbreaking work to be obliged to go about kicking the poor fellows up. Two of them, in order to be warmer, had cuddled up together. Men take corpses for pillows and if permitted doze through the day. You are walked on all the time but you are much too tired to mind. Shooing off rats is one of the industries. If a fellow went to sleep in a trench with a piece of chocolate on his person, he would soon have a dozen rats fighting to get the sweetmeat. Boys sleep with their cheeks to the stocks of their rifles. I slept wrapped in a Dutchman’s blanket that smelled and was closely inhabited by the shirt-squirrels that play all over you. I have slept with only an oil cape over me, and I have been without a blanket entirely. On the firing line the men sleep in dugouts hollowed out under the sides of the trenches, constructing cells according to their ingenuity. All outside is a waste of mud. As a surgeon in charge of a field hospitaltwo miles behind the battlefront I noticed about three months ago that the wounded in many cases suffered more from nightmares than from wounds. I learned from those who had patiently endured sickness, mutilation, privation, and endless strain that the worst terrors of the trenches were the visitations of sleep which dominate even the waking mind with a violence impossible to shake off. I watched one man, a nightmare victim, crouch beside his cot, trembling with eyes wild and staring. “I am so tired,” he said, “but I will not sleep again. Such a dream!” It is no uncommon sight to see sleeping men walking behind the lines with arms outstretched and terror depicted on their faces, seeking regiments that, in their dreams, they had lost. The following is a description by Private M. (British):
Once it came six nights in succession. Sleep in the trenches claps itself on you like a shock. You are so worn out that the moment you sink into a sitting position you are asleep, but there is no rest. You dream. You are lost in a tangled doubling line of trenches. You are all alone—except that you walk among the bodies of the dead. The dream trenches, some hewn seemingly from solid rock, others dug out of the turf, are the exact duplicate of the trench in which you are sleeping, except for their winding course, and except for the fact that the men who lie in them as close as they lie in the trenches of the living do not answer when you speak to them.
Abraham S. Sromwasser made a novel plea for exemption. Piano teacher of Brooklyn, Russian, Jewish, twenty-eight, he claimed to be a somnambulist and expressed a dread of walking into a German trench in his pajamas one night. On the other hand he may walk safely out of a German prison camp one night. Here not even the dead find rest. I realized with a shudder that the men are plagued by their own dead. Mine explosions unearth them at every moment. In April I saw bodies of men who fell in October. Some of our men were so exhausted that they lay down, and could go no further. They said, “We must have sleep,” and they lay down right there and slept, with the Germans close to them. One of our younger officers, seeing this and knowing it could not be, remembered he’d seen in the village shop toy drums and pennywhistles. He went into that shop and bought all those toys and came out and gave them to his sergeants. “Play something,” he said. The sergeants played that old tune “The British Grenadiers.” When these tired men heard that music they staggered up on their feet again and marched again and they turned again and they fought again. (Loud applause.) All sentences but the one you are reading are drawn more or less verbatim from articles that appeared in small-town American newspapers between 1915 and 1918, at which time the subject of sleep became of great interest to scientists, owing in large part to the horrific experiences of radical sleeplessness undergone by the soldiers who fought in the trenches. Meanwhile as day wore on panic grew. Sleeplessness began to tell. Three men had gone mad entirely. Two had to be shot. Others began to dig deeper to escape the horror of it all. During the uproar of shells I noticed a ground mole digging in as fast as his entrenching tools could work. As I watched him it occurred to me that Mr. Mole was a very wise animal, and I wished I was a mole. When I got back to the base I was so dead beat that I could not eat. I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I had a bath without knowing what I was doing. Dead letter, July 29, 1915, Berlin, sender since killed in battle near Ypres, rec’d this office torn to shreds, never delivered, made out to a girl in Shreveport, came back No Such Person Here, repeated attempts at tracing failed, recoverable text as follows: “Sleep has almost overcome me and I can scarcely . . . There is no safe place here . . . [bodies?] that have lain out there ... pressed raisins, cube sugar, nuts, safety razors, bouillon cubes, insect [powder?] . . . soggy excavations . . . please to call them ‘citizens’ or my personal favorite ‘galloping freck[les]’ ... hard, gray faces with deep lines running around their deep-set eyes and hard pressed lips . . . Some lonesome . . . do so love . . . ” Please excuse this paper as the trenches are very muddy and my skin is parched with the fever that accompanies lack of sleep. Permit me to crave a small space in your Everybody’s Corner for the following: “Far from the starlights I’d love to be./Lights of old London I’d rather see.” Starlights, commonly known as Verys (after Edward Very, the American naval officer who invented them), were a kind of greenish-white flare sent up to illuminate no-man’s-land. From time to time starlights (starlight bombs) gave off their steady brilliancy. They, from this distance, look like a trolley headlight coming toward you, but behind a slight hill. Their illuminating properties carry for miles, and the greenish-blue light seems so nonchalant in its passage to earth. It gives one the feeling that it is bored by the ghastly business. The enemy’s starlights are wonderful things. Their light is very white. Later the moon came out very bright. The curious case of a Soldier, aged 31 years, who has been in a state of lethargy for 27 months, has been described to the Surgical Society. Patient was among the troops mobilized for the Marne. He disappeared but was afterward found in Brittany. Since which time he has been sleeping, eyelids closed, respiration regular, but pulse rapid. He is sensitive to excitement, stimulation provoking a weak defense, without, however, interrupting his sleep. It is possible to administer liquid food. The case is one of historical lethargy, and it is likely he will awake in time and resume his normal occupation.