Cadets No More
The orange glow of a burning forest drifts toward them from the distance, as they fall through the clouds to a frozen frontier. Just weeks ago they were only boys throwing their hats up in a rejoicing crowd, planes and fireworks shooting above them, bursting through the air like phoenixes freed from books. But the hats have long since fallen to the ground. The sky is empty and the men are alone. They pull their levers and adjust their helmets, a ballet of machines swan-diving without object. Somewhere below is a crumbling palace, a frozen tower, a town flooded with gold. A man must forget all that stirs around him—the songs from car windows, the anxiety of Greek tycoons, the novelty of touching a young girl’s hand—or, lie dizzy in a field of black and white headlines screaming from pages that will never go blank. The planes fall further. A planet in transit crosses the sun, on a day of rain when no one can see. On the ground, people under umbrellas stand before graves, holding scraps of cardboard against the muted light. The pilot fighters land in droves on the shore like mosquitoes carrying expensive diseases. They scatter blindly onwards, too frightened to see what lies on the beach. “In the beginning we had no idea what was happening,” says the youngest pilot into the microphone, describing his first flight. He couldn’t know what went on in the houses below them or what animals wandered the diminishing woods, the gazelle lying tangled in her own long legs, the Sasquatch weeping for the graying fur of his legend. Nor could he imagine the woman they found lying dead on the bank, dress deflated on the ground beside her, underwear dangling from a low hanging branch. There will be no remembrance of her, no posthumous life as an image in a frame, no anonymous death mask strewn mysteriously on an altar. Pictures come and go from walls. The sounds of existence fade to specks on the wind, ringing distantly through the shells of dead mollusks. At night, the beach is aglow with phosphorescences. They light up patches of the water and sand, blinking through the landscape like migrating birds. The woman’s body is a lump in that terrain, stirring gently in the rising tide as water from the lost horizon washes over her, spreading her hair out on the surface to float with the weeds. For a moment the planet in transit can be seen passing through the clouds. It illuminates the footsteps that have come and gone around her, a massacre of light leading back into the sea.
The encounter is always breathtakingly brief. Young and alone, they ride to the border on the roofs of freight trains or the backs of buses. They cross the river on inner tubes, or hike for days through extremes of heat and chill in the deserts. Death comes as a surprise to many. To quiet men with the hearts of engineers. To doctors with secrets of the world’s demise. To the unexpected surge of children who travel here without parents, as if hoping to arrive at the Sea of Tranquility. A storm threatens the last stretch of railroad, winding through mountains of hazardous waste, as it approaches the damsel tied to the tracks. There she lies, having survived a summer of flitting through narrow corridors, waiting limp-wristed in greenhouses for the thrill of a billionaire or lunar eclipse. Her thoughts are an index of topics memorized for conversational luncheons, notes on the atmosphere and the end of a tumultuous and consequential decade. These things wander her mind out of place, like non native birds drifting in from the sea. “We still have time to tell the story of the last…” she begins, but is interrupted by the immeasurable speed at which love can strike. It flies over town like a passing comet, bystanders falling to their knees on the sidewalk below. Cries of awe echo through the streets, ricocheting between buildings as if the shards of a fallen meteor. But there are still those who avert their eyes. “We have lost our ability to capture information,” says the billionaire, peering through the blinds as a love sick eagle falls past his window. The train approaches, a child or two hanging tight to its roof. The last thought to race through the damsel’s head is of the first human to set foot on the moon, bounding like a kangaroo through the low lunar gravity. His shadow falls over craters still seen with the naked eye, a single flag fluttering in the celestial wind around him. The train turns the bend and continues on in blind orbit, jolting over whatever it must. The billionaire’s window glows blue in the distance, all lights but the television gone from the room.
The Last Days of Winter
The difference is a gap not a chasm. The mountain climber hangs from a rope along the face of the escarpment, halfway up the peak. He looks towards the top of the crest, an unnamable distance through drifts of treacherous snow, still less daunting than the life he has left on the ground. Strides away from his place in the ice, bears sleep in caves, dreaming of trout, clinging to their young to keep warm against the cold. The mountain climber counts their tracks as fortuitous footholds. He regards everything with a scientific eye, unable to look at a particle of snow without analyzing its makeup. With so many days on the mountain, one imagines his mind to be a memorandum of blank pages, swelling with nothing but miles of white. But today, there is a rush of rotting colors, thoughts of deflated circus tents and lame donkeys, of colonies of butterflies gone until spring. He gazes at the photograph of his ex-wife fixed to his ice axe and is reminded of the last day he saw her in the window. It was his afternoon to take their son to karate class, and later deposit him back at her house. Upstairs, they’d exchanged pleasantries and smiled for the camera, but in all reality, failed at each other once more. Locked out on the ground again, he wandered the sculpture garden below, watching her frantically move candles around the room, a piece of ornate fabric hanging on the wall behind her, dizzying her aura as she prepared the house they once both inhabited for a visit from a lover. The suitors that came after him were all sorts he could never keep up with: a pilot, an executive, a woman, types who could charm his son by juggling items from the fruit bowl. “I think you’re terrific,” he said to her in the dark on their first day walking around the city, both dripping silhouettes as they stepped into the museum to take refuge from the rain. Now, in the post-apocalypse of knowing each other, words leave their mouths like sets of false teeth. Lighting the candles on the table for someone else that last day, she stopped to gaze out the window and looked down at him for a moment, barely making out his figure among the giant shapes of metal and Midwest, stretching behind him as far as either of them could imagine. Worst years, best years, whatever was given up or not delivered had never been intended. These days, avalanches are less of a worry, irregularities becoming more regular, limits stretched in all directions. People pass their days. They seek adventure. They escape. Now, the man who returns from the mountain is greater than the one who reaches every peak. The climber looks at the picture of his ex-wife again mounted on his axe. He changes his mind. He will go home. He prepares his sack to make his way down the mountain. As he takes his first step to begin the descent, the claws of the bear sink into his flesh, flooding the snow with the darkest human color.
Swept up in the Wave
The day begins with prayers chanted in Latin and ends with the unveiling of the supreme pontiff. He is immediately sent on a world tour, visiting corners of the earth that will never again hear from him. On the outskirts of an eastern city, a young man stands before two mounds of dirt with nothing adorning them. They are the graves of his sisters, who have killed themselves, a tragedy of miscalculation, an argument that has ended with two bodies beside each other in the ground. It was another case of falling in love with men outside the village, of trying to eat a bit of poison from father’s grain closet to save oneself from shame. The young man would like to fly banners from airplanes over the region, plaster the train stations with news of his sisters’ deaths, but there is never much in the budget for that. There are rows of these mounds for almost a mile into the distance, all pony-sized hillocks covering dead teenage girls in a city marked by an increasing despair of its women. Other people walk among the graves, all of them blurred and out of focus in the background. From above, this patch of land looks like diseased skin, pock marked and bitten. The mounds protrude from the side of the planet like scales along the back of a prehistoric creature. “Men are more likely to get hit by lightning,” the youngest and most capricious of the girls once said. “And they die more often from drowning.” Standing before their graves, the man thinks of his sisters as they were as children, examining each memory as though through a Victorian stereograph in his mind: double images wavering beside each other, of two dark-haired girls in simple dresses, one pink, the other blue, collecting cactus flowers on a desert plain. The younger one pricks herself on a clump of needles and the older one brings her a handkerchief to wipe away the blood. One day, their spirits will wash up to another coast, headed there to be liberated women, to wear jeans and makeup and sleep on piles of money—or, to wear nothing at all, and ride naked on the beach on white Arabian horses, dance with passing men in the crumbling ballroom of a palace. Up on the bluff overlooking the beach, the new pontiff rides past, being pulled along by a boy in a rickshaw. “Stop,” he says, as he looks down at the sea and sees the two naked women. After spending years soaring happily beyond, he has never seen such a beautiful sight.