Anything high might have taken his son. Transmission lines, a radio tower, trees. Crows even, migrating geese, though it had been late in the year for geese. Ordinary phone lines for that matter. A church steeple, a bullet sent skyward by a disappointed hunter or bored kid. Something high had taken him, and so over the course of the year Anderson had become adept at driving with his eyes near the ground. Pavement, shoulders, roadside grass. This was the flat, expansive safety his son never found, and it seemed that if he concentrated on it steadily enough, kept himself from glancing higher, things might be reversed.
It was harder in these hills. Almost certainly it had been a hill that had done the killing. They rose above the road, pinching in the highway, waiting every time his eyes moved toward the shaded part of the windshield with its matching crescents of frost. Two days before Christmas, this early in the morning, there weren’t many cars, and yet negotiating the curves required him to look up and look up often, his own safety at stake. Safety? It made him smile, thinking in those terms. Mission was the better word. He had one last mission left to perform and then he would be done with safety as a notion that ever need concern him again.
The hills became higher and whiter once he turned north onto the secondary road marked on the directions. He remembers 20 years before bringing Tom up to camp through similar hills, and how they had played the game of trying to make each mountain into a familiar shape. A llama, a roller coaster, an elephant. He remembered—and felt, not the sadness he might have expected, but a weary kind of disgust. Good times to mock the bad ones, life’s easy and bitter trick. The hills that confronted him out the windshield refused to be anything but stark white hills, and the deeper he drove into them, the more their literalness seemed to matter, matter hard.
The search had come west, but not this far. Those in charge had drawn compass lines every direction from the airport a distance of 60 miles; where those lines intersected hills above 2,500 feet the lines had stopped. The hills on his right were that high and more—an insurmountable barrier, according to the experts. No one, flying in the fog they had experienced last Christmas Eve, could hope to get past them. The search had been inside the tighter circle, but the search found nothing, the leaves had come back on the trees and then dropped again, hunting season had gone by without anyone spotting anything, and the snow had the woods for a second winter, blotting out with its whiteness the whiteness of the plane.
And now this man, this Mr. Ayers, with his telephone message and letter, the carefully pencilled directions to his store. A woman he knew had heard a plane Christmas Eve low in the hills. Another person in town, an ice fisherman, had seen a flash in the trees, and if you drew a line west from the airport into Vermont there was a gap through the hills it might just be possible for a plane to have entered before the hills joined ridges and closed back in.
Anderson knew it was a slim hope at best, but this was what he was down to as the anniversary date drew near—following through on every sighting, every rumor, every vague impulse his son’s plane had left in people’s wondering. If he worried about Mr. Ayers, it wasn’t about his being wrong, but about his being a crank. So far he had managed to avoid these, the ones who divined Tom’s whereabouts through astrology or dowsing rods or home computers. It would have been intolerable, meeting one of these, listening to them babble on.
Mr. Ayers, from their brief conversation, did not seem like a crank. So it was worth the long drive north, meeting him, listening to his theory, trying once again to find closure. It was the word everyone used in justifying the time and expense that had gone into the search. . . . We need a finish to this, the state police said, the fish and game people, the aviation experts sent by the government. We need closure . . . and he’d heard the word so many times, pronounced it so often in various appeals of his own, it seemed to have become part of him, a stencil over his heart. When he imagined his son’s final seconds, it was always the rushing vertigo, the blinding forwardness, the shoulder straps tightening, straining, snapping—but try as he would, summon up all of his courage, he could never get past that moment, imagine impact, not unless he knew for certain where that impact happened.
At first the country had been familiar to him from fishing trips, foliage drives when Alice was alive and they had gone north for long weekends, but this changed at the next turn in the directions, and he drove through a leaner, sparer kind of land, the hills leaving only a narrow strip into which were pressed a river, the road, the few-scattered farms. All were abandoned, their yards empty and scraped clean—survivors of everything the century had thrown at them, only to succumb here in its last few seconds to forces he could only guess at. The houses came a little thicker as he neared the village. Fifties style most of them, erected back in the days when everyone dreamed of the suburban life, weathering horribly now, beyond rescue by paint or carpentry or TLC.Most had some attempts at decoration—a plastic wreath, a string of lights—but they looked like neglected leftovers from previous years, and it made it seem as though Christmas were a much darker kind of celebration here, something that spoke of sternness and not joy. But it suited him. The grayness, the flinty farms, the sagging lights. Suited him and cradled him in.
The last turn mentioned in the directions came at a rectangular green sign, Ayers Store 3 Miles. Almost immediately he passed an obstacle he hadn’t thought about before, a rusty steel windmill poking well above the ridgeline, dark vines twisted all the way to the top. He winced, brought his head down, felt again the rushing sensation in his chest. The village, when he arrived, was a grouping of six or seven old houses around the white patch of a common that sloped downhill, with the store and its gas pumps set against the higher end, a small yellow church against the lower.
The store itself was as old as any of the houses; asphalt shingles covered the sides, but the pumps and sign looked new, suggesting a recent infusion of energy and cash. Anderson had no illusions about the current state of country stores, and so the inside was pretty much as he expected. The salt things in one row, the sugary things in the other; the beer in a cooler along the back wall, pornography in a rack to the other side; the lottery tickets there by the register with the nicotine. A stout man wearing an apron was ringing up a customer, and so Anderson waited his turn, standing by the shelf with the candy kisses and M&M’s, all done up in holiday packaging, so it was by far the brightest corner in the store.
“Mr. Ayers?” he said, when the customer had gone. “I’m Tom Anderson. Tom senior.”
There was a pause long and surprised enough for Anderson to worry he had made a mistake, and then the man smiled, nodded, rubbed his hands down his apron and stuck one out.
“An honor sir. A real honor and pleasure.”
He was a man in his early 50’s, with the kind of stocky good health that made Anderson think of a butcher from the old neighborhood, with the same square and delicate hands. His first surprise mastered, he pulled his apron off, went over to the door, put the Closed sign up, then came back, the eagerness having burst from his eyes over the rest of his face, making it shine.
“Coffee? Yeah, me too. Didn’t think you’d come, you know, when we talked and all. But it’s like you said there on TV.You were willing to follow the slightest lead and so that’s why I wrote that letter, got in touch.”
There was a lot of New York in his voice, the inflection and speed. “The city?” he said, when Anderson asked him about it. “Oh yeah, way back whensome. Up here they thought I was a rapist or something when we first moved in. Now? Vermont all the way. Snowmobiles, ATV’s, skiing. Hey, this is kid stuff. Lived in Alaska for a winter, worked on the pipeline saving up money for a place like this. But that’s what got me when I saw you talking about how your son wanted to be a bush pilot in Alaska someday, how that’s what he was working toward. I could relate to that right off the bat.”
Anderson was used to this now, the eager way people approached the puzzle of his son’s loss. There was a time when it seemed everyone was looking for the plane, then a time when no one was, and now a small hard-core group had taken over, the police scanner boys, the ones who always kept rescue gear loaded in the back of their trucks. It was another reason he had come north again—to head them off, throw a solution at them before things got out of hand. He didn’t want Tom’s disappearance to go into the next stage, become an unsolved mystery, written up in anniversary articles when the rest of the news was thin, the fodder for hacks. Literalness was what he wanted, answers. Hills like white hills. Death like sudden death.
Ayers kept talking as they walked out to his pickup. Ice coated the windshield, and by the time the defroster got going they were already pulling over to the side of the road. It was an overlook, a wide one. Below them the river wound like a flat shoelace between dark pockets of pine, but in every other direction the terrain was high and blocky looking, the hills so tightly merged it was as if they’d been towed there and dumped.
Ayers slapped his hand on the dashboard, then turned sideways in the seat. “Just want to get my facts straight, follow my train of reasoning. Sound good?”
“Sounds good,” Anderson said.
“Your son was in a hurry, right? I mean no offense, but he was in a hurry. Rented a car to drive to New Hampshire where he was assigned to take a Learjet home for this rich guy, right? A ferry job, straight and simple. But it’s Christmas Eve, right? A foggy day, not so hot for flying, but he’s young, he’s just started on the job, and he’s crazy about Lears.” He hesitated, reached over for the coffee. “A girlfriend, right?”
“Fiance. Her name is Jennifer.”
“Right. So he’s in a hurry on account of that, too. He doesn’t fly any way like all those morons from the FAA think. Doesn’t follow the river or the interstate or anything obvious. He’s really sure of himself, a pilot who knows he’s good. So he takes a shortcut across the hills. . . . Okay, that’s nearly impossible it was so foggy, even flying on instruments. But there’s a gap, you look at the map and there’s a gap. Maybe he knows about it and maybe he doesn’t, but that gap is five miles east of here, and it leads to only one place.” He tapped his knuckles against the windshield. “There. Those mountains out there. They go a thousand feet up in the course of two ridges. Looming up at him like a wall, a complete dead-end.”
Anderson listened carefully, keeping his hands around his own coffee, very aware of how prim and weak they must look there, cup and hands, motionless on his knee.
“You said on the phone a man had seen something,” he said, with less impatience in his tone than he actually felt.
Ayers turned back from the window and nodded. “Bernie Beliveau. He was out ice fishing on Sanderson Pond. Right about. . . .” He leaned forward. “Down there. A little deaf, Bernie is, but there’s nothing wrong with his seeing. He noticed a flash, something bright enough to make his eyes blink. This would have been two-thirty or so—he didn’t have a watch. But it squares with the flight time and all.”
“Has anyone checked it out?”
“Sure. Snowmobile club. They haven’t found anything, not yet. The ice was pretty thin in some spots. Could have gone right through down to the bottom.”
“Can I talk to him?”
“He’s out of town. Quebec, his wife’s family for Christmas. Jesus, wouldn’t you know it. Just when you arrive.”
“There’s also this woman you spoke of. The one who heard something.”
Ayers nodded, vigorously this time. “Sarah Hall. Yeah, that’s what I was going to do actually. Drive us out there so you can hear for yourself.”
He backed them up, skidded on the snow, then turned down a dirt road that sloped toward the river. It was a short drive—just long enough for Ayers to go over the basics. Sarah was a great old gal, he said. Almost 86 now and sharp as a tack. A tough life of course. Born when the hills were emptying out, little money around, meagre prospects, not much hope. Lived with her parents long past being a girl, having the care of them when they got sick, running the farm alone. Parent dying just after VJ Day, then she got polio, so she wasn’t any freer than before. One brother, a bum. Niece she loved, took care of, but then the niece went bad, too, moved west with a slick handsome liar, broke Sarah’s heart. Lives alone now, helped by a friend or two from the church. The last of her kind really. Last one wedded so tightly to the hills.
“My wife Janet’s gotten to know her better than me,” Ayers said, both hands on the wheel now, the road turning bumpy. “She’s visiting nurse, so she comes out here once a week minimum. She’s the one heard the story about what happened Christmas Eve. It’s a little vague, but I think there’s something to it. She’s not crazy or anything, even living alone for so long. She never makes anything up.”
Was this meant to reassure him? Anderson nodded, trying not to let his scepticism show. He had learned a long time ago that hope had nothing to do with his mission, which was to follow every thread, every possible lead, until it gave out. And that’s what he pictured strung along the road ahead of them—a gray, all but invisible thread, in tatters, separating, so when they bounced over a narrow log bridge, turned left on a one-lane road under a hoop of bare trees, it was as if they were following the whispiest corner of the whispiest end of the whispiest strand hope every spun.
They stopped and got out beside an old Cape farmhouse that was easily 200 years old. It had no charm, no quaintness. Adjoining it, connected, was a barn that had collapsed long enough ago that a large maple grew out of the wreckage. The house seemed on its way to collapsing as well—the roof was moss-covered, hardly distinct from the grassy bluff its eaves almost touched, and where the peak should be was a mushy sag of rotted shingles.
Ayers tried the door, peered into its window. Behind the house was a large field, the uncut hay sticking up through the snow in slender, flesh-colored bristles. It was flat enough to land a plane on— Anderson recognized this immediately. But the pilot would have had to be extraordinarily lucky or extraordinarily skilled, because where the field ended, with no intermission, rose a hill, high and abrupt enough it blotted out the sun.
“Don’t hear anyone,” Ayers said, waving him over. “Let’s just go in.”
It took a few minutes for Anderson’s eyes to grow used to the dark. Inside the door was a hall decorated with sentimental old paintings in rough-hewn frames, the kind itinerant painters had once turned out for a night’s room and board. Adjoining this was a neatly furnished parlor, dominated by a woodstove so ornate it looked Arabian, and past this a kind of enclosed porch, which by some magic of positioning had gathered unto itself, like a prism, what sunlight managed to filter down from the clouds. The furniture was plainer here, a deacon’s bench and maple rocker, and there was a regular gallery of snapshots taped to the wall, pictures of animals, farms, and fairs, the most recent of which seemed to have been taken 50 years before.
It was what was in the center of the room that surprised him most: a Christmas tree, and not a small one, reaching all the way to the ceiling, decorated with paper chains and heavy-looking tinsel. It was fresh enough that the spruce smell was strong and bracing, and yet not so overpowering it could hide another smell he had caught when he first came in. Almond or almond extract, a warm smell, the kind that came with baking.
Ayers tiptoed and peered like he expected to find her dead. “Miss Hall? It’s Don Ayers. Janet’s husband? You know, from the store?”
No one answered. Ayers had turned to go back into the parlor when Anderson put his hand on his arm and tilted his head toward the one corner the tree did not completely hide. Sitting there in an old wicker wheelchair was a woman who seemed, in that first glance, little more than a forgotten gathering of wrinkles, with eyes that floated above the collection and calmly regarded it, brought it to life.
Ayers put his hand over his heart. “There you are!”
He went over to the window, pushed the shades up, let in more light. Anderson could see her quite plainly now. Her legs were covered by a plaid wool throw, and her chest was hidden by pillows she clutched as a child would stuffed animals, and yet somehow he got the impression of great strength, or at least strength’s shadow. Again, this came mostly from her eyes, which regarded them both the same calm, even way they regarded her own frailty. She moved them from Ayers’ face onto Anderson’s, lingered there, then brought her hand up to locate her forehead, take a girlish swipe at a last trace of white hair.
“Yes come in,” she said, or something like that.
Anderson, wondering how to approach her, took his cue from the house itself, the air of quiet that had been bundled up and secreted away, but Ayers didn’t sense this and squatted down beside her wheelchair talking far too loud.
“This is Mr. Anderson come up here all the way from the city just to talk to you. He’s lost his son, in an accident. I want you to tell him what you told Janet, just the same way.”
“Crows,” she said, or something like that. “Watching them, looking for corn out on the meadow before you came. No corn there in 30 years. Joke on them.”
“Last Christmas Eve,” Ayers said, obviously not understanding a word. “You know, the story you told Janet about what happened Christmas Eve.”
She smiled, like she had him. “Christmas Eve is tomorrow.”
“Last Christmas Eve. What happened then.”
Too abrupt of him, not the way it was done, a story on demand for visitors who had likely not eaten. Her reaction was plain enough. She tried to get up, move toward the almond smell, but the blanket was too heavy, and she settled back into the chair with a disdainful, impotent wave of her hand. When she started her story, it seemed out of frustration more than anything—that being so weak there was no power open to her other than what she could generate with words.
It was hard understanding her, the odd cadence of her voice. It wasn’t just the old hill country accent, the dividing up of syllables, but the way she blended the end of one word into the beginning of the next—musically, but a music that had been played so often, for so many years, it had lost all variation in pitch, came out as the kind of hoarse, undifferentiated sound a piano would make if all the keys were pressed at once. The deeper she got into her story the harder Anderson stared trying to concentrate, catching up with her only in the pauses, translating to himself before looking over toward Ayers and translating out loud.
It had been a miserable Christmas Eve. Snow fog, ground wet, the air too warm for December. Remembered feeling blue herself. The field behind the barn, going out to let the cows in from the river. Dumb old cows. Good for nothing old cows. She’d taken to hating them, only creatures she saw most days, no one coming anymore to visit. Leaving the radio back on in the house, loud as possible, gave her some company. Laying awake at night listening to the trains heading south, wishing she were going that way herself. That lonely rumble it put in the air. Nice sound. Thing of the past. Billy Sykes worked on the railroad. His mother was cousin to her mother, though they never saw either one of them after the fire.
Anderson listened, managed to stay with her even in the tangents, but only with great effort. He stared at the firm line of her lips, the one place the wrinkles successfully fought back, trying to get help from the way they shaped and decorated each word. Old age had always been something remote to him, a land glimpsed from a safe distance, but he was close enough now it concerned him intensely, the hoarse croaking it put into a voice, the way even simple stores had to flutter back and forth before emerging. He must learn all this, prepare himself, before he was tossed beat and ragged on the same hard shore.
“Fast for you?” she asked, aware now of his attention, anxious to keep it. He shook his head, waited for her to go on.
It was about two or so, past lunchtime, when she stopped and looked up. It wasn’t a sound, not at first, so much as a slight wavery pressure on the back of her neck. What’s this? she wondered, turning around. Still nothing. But then up way back of Job’s Hill there was a raspy coughing sound like the generator made just before conking out. She bent her head back, shaded her eyes to peer. It didn’t bore in or race away like most sounds did that reached the farm, but looped around in a tight circle, echoing, like the hills were playing a game with whatever the sound came from, tossing it back and forth just for fun.
She knew right exactly what it was. Airplane. She’d heard airplanes before. At the fairs and then once in the city where she’d taken her mother when she first got sick. Knew it was in trouble, too. She couldn’t see anything because of the fog, but she could hear real clear. Kind of a snapping sputtering sound, but weak and troubled, so she wanted to put her hands under it somehow, boost it back up over the hills to where it belonged.
Anderson was so engrossed in isolating the words that he didn’t pay much attention to the thrust of what she was saying, not at first. He trusted Ayers to pay attention for both of them, but Ayers was shaking his head now, frowning in confusion.
“What year was this, Miss Hall?”
She pulled down on the corner of her mouth, stared off toward the Christmas tree, widened her eyes.
“Cows,” Ayers said, glancing over at him. “Come on. When was the last time they had cows here?”
“My parents were away,” Sarah said, with a look that managed to be coy and beseeching at the same time, as if she knew a secret and wanted help getting it out.
“What year Miss Hall?”
“Whipped Hoover. Whipped him good. Father cried.”
Ayers put his hand against his forehead. “Oh tm sweet Jesus.” In-whispered. “Nineteen goddam thirty-two.”
Anderson had seen that look too many times not to recognize it instantly. On state police captains putting down the telephone with a grimace of disappointment, pilots getting out from their search planes, shrugging, turning their thumbs down, volunteers slogging back out of the woods exhausted after another long day with no trace. The look of hope hitting a wall. He was surprised at how disappointed he felt himself, having been so careful. Grasping at threads and here he was grasping one all right, the withered rotten end.
Ayers, not daring to meet Anderson’s eyes, went over to the wheelchair and knelt down. “Thank you for your time. Miss Hall. Janet will look in on you tonight, that’s what she told me. You want anything from the store you call and I’ll see she brings it. You have yourself a nice Christmas, okay?”
Sarah fussed the blanket closer up her chin, looked over at Anderson with a peculiar kind of curiosity—making an appeal, though he had no idea what it could be for. Mumbling his own thanks, doing his best to smile for her, he followed Ayers back outside to the truck.
Neither one said anything at first. The truck bounced off the dirt onto pavement, and it was only the heavy jolt of it that made talk possible.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Anderson,” Ayers said. “I should have gone out and checked on the story myself. Hey, it sounded good, what I heard from my wife. She’s pretty sharp, you’ll agree on that.”
And Anderson was used to this, too, comforting people who had tried comforting him. “That’s all right. No, I enjoyed meeting her. It wasn’t your fault.”
He knew them too well, what words he should mumble. Always before they had been sincere, but whether because of being tired after the long drive, the anniversary rolling around in another day, he felt irritated with Ayers, anxious to be done with him, and it took a real effort to keep this from infecting his tone.
He came into the store before leaving. Ayers was off on a new tack, promising to have Beliveau call him when he got back, talking about organizing a search party once the holidays were over. He pressed a list of telephone numbers into Anderson’s coat pocket, insisted they stay in touch. Anderson bought a coffee for the drive, hesitated, then went to the shelf with candy and bought a box of marzipan fruit, the most elaborately decorated box in the store.
He’d been daydreaming earlier, not paying attention, but the tread marks left by Ayers’ truck were still easy to make out in the snow. He parked by the collapsed barn, followed their footprints, knocked on the door and went in. As before, he was struck by the almond scent, the warmth of baking, and this time he investigated, searching the small box of a kitchen for its source. There was a blackened teapot on the stove, a saucepan of water, but the oven below it was cold and lifeless. Even the counter, the old maple cutting boards—they were smooth and clean, with no dusting of flour. Whatever was wafting to him had its origin in the past, a memory of Christmas so remote he couldn’t locate it for certain, and it amazed him, to think something so forgotten could still be so strong.
He went in toward the parlor, expecting to find her still in her wheelchair. She must have heard his car, because she was up now, walking in from the sunroom, her right leg dragging behind her in a separate, jerkier rhythm, but otherwise moving with surprising litheness and strength. She nodded, seeing him. “Knew it,” she mumbled, or something like that, then waved him with a little curtseying motion over toward the couch.
“This is for you,” he said.
She took the package, smiled politely, then smiled for real, her hands going down to fumble with the wrapping until she had it apart. A greedy child—that’s what he thought of—or maybe a child who wasn’t used to presents, and so couldn’t help herself from tearing right in. She unhinged the box, held it up to her face to peek inside, put two fingers in, pulled out a marzipan cherry, held it up to the light.
“For you,” he said, again. She shook her head, held the candy up to her mouth, made a gumming kind of motion. Not without teeth— she pantomimed this perfectly. It was his turn to smile now, but she must have been concerned about hurting his feelings, because she very daintily took each candy out from its compartment and lined them up on the window sill—pink apple, yellow peach, pink banana, their color brightening the entire room.
When she came back, she sat beside him on the sofa, sank in just far enough that her shoulder came against his and nestled to a stop. On the end table were some religious pamphlets and she handed him one—whether as a gift of her own or because of his loss, he wasn’t sure. He regarded it for a decent few minutes, turned a few pages, closed it again, then pointed behind them toward the window.
“What happened next?”
He was sure no one had ever asked her that before, to finish a story. She smiled like he’d given her another gift, one she could take her time with. Oh that’s a wonderful story she said, in the same blur of syllables. Whether it was because he was alone with her now or because he’d grown used to their rhythm, the words seemed much clearer this time and he had no trouble keeping up. For a while she had thought the sound was gone, and she felt sad about that, without knowing why. But it came back again, just as she was turning toward the house to finish her chores. This time it was so loud she covered up here ears, like a motorcycle was racing toward her from the sky. It’s going to crash—she was sure of this—but then the air suddenly went softer, and she spun around and around trying to locate the feathery little whisper that had taken the roar’s place.
She saw it now, back on the far side of the field and maybe a hundred feet above it, dropping as smoothly and uniformly as could be imagined, so it was less like an airplane landing on the meadow than it was the meadow going up to meet the airplane. There’s too much snow, she decided, suddenly alarmed, but then the wheels were kicking through the crust, sending up a wake that crested over the wings and dusted them in powder. . .the motor came on again and deepened, the black propeller spun madly and slowed . . .and then the plane was landing on the far end of the field near the apple trees, skidding around and starting back, coming to a stop not ten yards from where she stood watching, clutching her hat.
A little two-seater, smaller even than the planes she had seen at fairs. The fabric on the wings was painted yellow, stretched so tight it glistened even in the grayness, and there was a big number seven painted on the tail in scarlet-colored dope that still looked wet. The nose rose much higher than the tail, so it was hard to see anything more than this, but then from the rear seat there was a smooth kind of lifting motion, a leather cap emerging, then a leather jacket, then an actual shape, boosting itself free of the seat’s skirted rim, jumping out onto the wing, vaulting down.
“Whew!” the pilot said, wiping his hand in an exaggerated gesture across his forehead. He pointed toward the steep hill at the end of the field, tugged his cap off and laughed.
She knew at once he was the handsomest man she had ever seen, or handsomest boy. He was her age—she knew that, too, right down to the year and season, or how else to explain the instinctive sympathy she felt at once? Between the blonde hair that blew down from his cap, the easy good humor of his expression, his flawless, suntanned skin, he was exactly what you would expect to emerge from such a machine. What’s more, he seemed to know this, seemed to take an active, innocent pleasure in being so perfectly wedded to the power and grace he controlled.
“What’s your name?” he asked, tilting his head as if to see right past her shyness, put all that aside.
She told him and he nodded. “Well Sarah, that little mountain of yours almost did it for me. A close shave! Great fun, did you hear me gunning it?” He followed her eyes. “Curtis Scout, a beauty. An old one, war surplus, but I fixed it up brand-new. Flying the mail, started yesterday. Burlington to Boston and I thought I knew the shortcuts, but looks like I thought wrong. . . . You’re an awfully pretty girl, know that? No I guess you don’t. Not living out here you wouldn’t. I guess I’ve got to be going, what a shame.”
Her face burned with this, what he was telling her, but she met his look without turning away, feeling as if something very important rested on doing this. The pilot pulled his cap on, pushed his cowlick to tuck it under, started toward the wing, then suddenly turned back to her and smiled.
“Ever been up?”
She shook her head.
She shook her head again.
“Aw come on. It doesn’t hurt. It’s clearing up now, you’ll be amazed at what it’s like.”
She didn’t know which meant more to her, staring at the plane or staring at him, but that didn’t matter because it was all the same, pilot and airplane, and he must have sensed this in her, knew all along what she was going to say. His words caused a lifting sensation through her entire body, a warmth surging up from her toes toward her waist, and it was no use struggling, though she did one last time.
“Too many hills,” she said softly, teasing him, marvelling at being able to tease.
The pilot glanced over the field and squinted. “That puny little thing? Hills thrills! Here, I’ve got some extra duds in the cockpit. You can sit in front. Up ten minutes, some quick sightseeing, then I’ll bring you down again, I promise.”
He cupped his hands together, boosted her up onto the wing. Inside the cockpit was a leather flying jacket like the one he wore, only newer, and he held it for her while she put it on, then handed her some goggles that turned everything amber. The cockpit itself was small and tight as a glove, though open on top. He showed her how to fasten the shoulder belts, told her to make sure to grab hold of the bar on the side if he did any fancy stuff, then—after looking at her carefully, breaking into his widest grin yet—scooted around behind her and lowered himself down into the pilot’s seat a foot or so behind hers.
“Let me know if you get scared!” he shouted, and then everything became lost in the sudden roar of the engine, the propeller’s kick, reversal and whirr, the clean, light smell of camphor that streamed back from the pistons and made her dizzy.
He bumped the plane out to the middle of the field, gunned the engine, started out. She had never gone this fast on land before, let alone the sky, and the speed pressed against her breasts, making her even giddier than the camphor, even more than the rush of stone walls and hemlocks that seemed suddenly to have become liquid. Too fast, she decided, wanting to scream and laugh both, and then the motion slowed and vanished, the pressure moved off her breasts towards her shoulders and she realized with an overpowering sensation of delight that what she had heard about, read about, seen in the distance was actually true—that they were airborne, in the air, flying.
She didn’t have time to be scared, though she should have been. He’d taken off away from the steepest hill, but there were plenty of hills in this direction, too. She couldn’t see any, not with the haze, but he must have—either that or maybe he didn’t care a fig for things like mountains and ridges, thumbed his nose at them, trusted to luck. They banked around and around and ever upwards until between one moment and the next they were at the top edge of the mist, the last wet tatters streaming against the fuselage, the propellor whirring free of it into sunshine, into a world that had been above her every livelong day of her life, but which she had no conception of, not until now.
They were above the clouds, above every hill and mountain, so there was nothing to be seen except endless white beneath them, endless blue straight above. Never had she dreamed of such flatness and expanse. She knew the word horizontal, had learned it in school, but she realized now there had been nothing in her world to demonstrate that property, not when compared to this. Endless— every which way was endless, without walls. As they turned into the sun she had to shut her eyes, even under the goggles, the gold flaring out the white and blue, shredding them into ribbons. Behind her the pilot was banging on the fuselage, shouting something she couldn’t hear. Hold on? She was already holding on, she couldn’t hold on tighter, never in her life had she held anything so tight, the pressure moving back on her chest again as he gunned the plane straight up toward the sun.
Just when it seemed the wings must break off from their throbbing, the plane leveled off—leveled off just long enough for her to feel on the back of her neck above the flying jacket a sensation that was cool and warm both, as if someone had kissed her. A second later she heard a happy laugh, even above the motor—a laugh and so she knew it had been a lass after all. The plane tipped over into a dive, powering right back toward the clouds it had with such effort escaped, touching the grayness, dipping into it like a kingfisher dipping into a pond, boring the happiness deep inside where no one could ever steal it out, then looping back up again to start the whole process over—the momentary leveling, the tender kiss on the back of her neck, the laugh, and then the diving back to the soft edge of clouds.
Four times he did this, five and then six. Forever! is what she wanted to shout, but on the seventh dive he kept the plane plunging down into the dampness. The motor began sputtering, they banked steeply to avoid something she couldn’t see, banked a second time, then broke free into the transparent gray below the opaque layer . . . came level over the field . . . coasted, skipped once, set down.
She was shy again, being down. The pilot jumped out of his seat and stripped off his goggles, then balanced his way over to help her onto the wing.
“That high enough for you? That’s flying, Miss Sarah Hall. That’s flying and you did fine.”
It was strange, those next few minutes. He had been so dashing and confident before, but now he seemed sadder, being on the ground, standing next to her, neither one of them knowing what to say. He looked over toward the house, up toward the sky, then directly at her—seemed trying to connect them all somehow, not sure how to go about it.
“I suppose you have lots of company, it being Christmas.”
No, she told him. She wanted to laugh at his thinking that. Her mother and father were in town and she was alone.
The pilot stared at her, seemed trying to reach a decision. “Alone, huh? Oh boy. Nice warm fireplace too I’ll bet.” He looked up and winced. “Won’t have much time, real clouds now, not that flimsy stuff. Mail to deliver, all these Christmas letters people are waiting for. . . . Look, I’ve got to go before I get socked in solid. But I’ll come back, understand that? No matter what happens, maybe sometime when you least expect it, I’ll come back.”
She wanted him to kiss her and not on the neck this time, but shyness still troubled them, and it wasn’t until he was back in the cockpit that he seemed his laughing, exuberant self. “Thank you!” she yelled, over the motor, but she wasn’t sure he heard. He taxied around to the edge of the field, following the tracks they had made in landing, then gave her a little wave before starting off, even faster and more abruptly than he had the first time, making her think of an arrow pulled back and back and back and suddenly released, to fly free through the air God knows where.
Nothing left but sound after that, the same lost echo as before. Hills had it, played with it, tossed it back and forth, let it go. Then? The snowy field at her feet with two long grooves. A bolt that had shaken loose off the plane, sharp end struck in the crust. Standing there staring. Chores to do. Cows waiting. Dumb old stupid cows. Water to haul. Supper. Radio. Bed.
The entire time she talked the pressure of her shoulder had been against Anderson’s, but now, finishing, she sat more erect and the couch separated them into a formal, stiff position it was difficult to maintain. When he got up, he got up gingerly, not wanting to do anything that would cause her to tip back toward the empty half. She had her eyes closed. He walked quietly toward the door, leaving his coat on the chair as a kind of pledge. I’ll come back soon.
Outside, the gray wore a purple undertone, the preliminary to blackness, and the ground was far lighter than the sky. His shoes squeaked so loud on the snow it scared up a ring of crows pecking at brown apples near the barn. Past it he came out onto the field, or at least its near edge. It was long and rectangular and it wasn’t hard to picture a plane landing, even with the saplings and birch that had possession now of its center.
He took several steps more, then turned to face the steep hill on the north side, the hill her pilot had somehow avoided. It rose much blacker than any other part of the sky, though he could still see the scraggly outline of its trees, notice how they seemed like sutures holding the steepness together. Sutures, like sutures. He stood there a long time, enough for his feet to turn cold, his shoulders to start shaking. He felt the same rushing sensation he had felt all year, the hurtling through space, and he was flying in the center of it, everything falling past him, the sky down his throat, and this time he tried closing his eyes to it, closed them until they matted together in wetness, the shudder deepened, the cold and hardness entered him, turned him over, split him apart in an explosion of tree limbs, shattered him senseless on the rocks.
He opened his eyes. He ran his hands down his sides, blinked to find himself in the blackness, whatever puny stuff the rocks hadn’t bothered smashing. He saw Sarah Hall coming toward him across the snow, backlit by what light streamed from the house, limping; horribly, punishing herself, but moving steadily on, a wool coat around her shoulders, his own coat borne on her outstretched arms like a king’s precious robe. And it wasn’t her weakness that he fixed on, not the whole of her, but what she was wearing on her feet—the heavy galoshes, the kind with buckles, the boots he had worn himself as a boy.
She came up to him, let the coat slide back toward her chest, reached toward his arm with a blindness he hadn’t noticed indoors, the wrinkles in her cheeks tensing and puckering as if to take the place of eyes. She found his wrist first, then his sweater, the material by the elbow, bunching it, going higher, finally tightening on the old useless muscle of his arm.
Poor man! she said—not out loud, not even in a whisper, but by direct transmission through her hand.
They turned toward the only light visible. In its decay, in its sturdiness, the house looked like at ark set on a cradle of yellow slats. Tugging him after her, helping each other over the tricky spots, they followed the openings her boots had plowed through the snow.