North of Neva, Montana
They were gauchos of the Argentine, horsemen to their bones. Wanderers, survivors, riders and lovers, their life the life of cattle and horses and stars. Broad grasslands, hum of the stars, meat on a spit. The boleadoras, ahiss through the air. Long rawhide, three stones, the horseman’s long snare. Child of God, child of the pampas, child of himself. Lover of the long ride.
Straight and steady lover of the long ride. Hard luck and death itself? The gaucho shrugs. Qué lástima. Fear cannot touch him. Governments fester and connive and cannot touch him, this child of himself. Judges, merchants, officers, priests, the ruthless leather merchants, they cannot touch him. Lover of the long ride. His soul before him like the bell mare.
It was an easy dream and they fell into it together. Don Fiero and Don Sombra. Sir Fierce and Sir Shadow. Neil and Aidan Tierney. And their faithful mounts, Mancha and Gato. A man in the news was riding from Buenos Aires to the Washington White House on horses with those names, and so they renamed their own fresh-broke sorrels to send luck to the man and his ten thousand miles. A year and a half out, the newspapers had the rider in Mexico.
Don Fiero, Neil, was nine; Don Sombra, Aidan, thirteen. And if the older boy was beginning to see girls and his friends in place of the gaucho life, he didn’t tell that to his brother because there was no point. Riding north on the plains to the Sweet Grass Hills, they never encountered a fence. Hunting knives on their belts. Coiled lariats. Big lunches from their mother in their saddlebags. Shotguns to hunt birds to roast on a spit. Saddles their only beds, beneath the starry vault.
They were a pair. Neil, wiry and gap-toothed and quick. Aidan, darker and solid, well into his growth.
Yes, it was September and, yes, there was school. But his Spanish teacher had so praised Sombra’s paper on the Argentine and its dazzling, incorruptible gauchos that the writer’s parents had set him loose on a long ride with the other horse lover in the family. They’d done it before, on their own, the hundred-mile circle. See you in a few days, the parents said. Adios. Keep your powder dry.
And there was another reason to make the ride now. Lindbergh’s triumphant tour would carry him, the next day, from the mountains of Glacier Park onto the Montana plains, straight over their heads, before he dipped southward to the mining city, Butte. They would see the plane up close. They might see the man himself, squinting into the blue. He might wave down at them and tip his wings.
All quiet but for the barking of a dog and the grass-rustle of the low wind. All dark but for the light of the depot, the light of a mother up with a sick child. Their horses, picketed in the field behind the Tierney house, were warm and grassy breathed, and they snorted and stamped a little when the stiff saddles went on. A last gear check, a piss in the weeds, and they were mounted and off, the hooves tocking on the hardpan street, the leather squeaking, their breath and the breath of the animals visible, but barely, in the near dark.
And as the sky began to lighten into the lilacs and the pinks, they snapped into a dreamy, valorous state, and the bony prairie, dotted here and there with an oil well, scraped and frank, became something undulating and out of time.
“The stars fell toward the other end of the world,” Aidan said. It was one of the dozens of lines he’d marked in Don Segundo Sombra, the novel he’d used for his translation project. Sombra, gaucho extraordinaire. This, said the teacher, holding up the book, is Huckleberry Finn with horses. With grasslands like Montana’s. And with a comrade for the poor orphan who is the embodiment of competence, style, fortitude and calmness in the face of any fate. The utterly unflappable Don Sombra.
Sombra kicked his horse into a single-foot and reeled off more. “The immense night frightened me as if it were full of my secret.”
“The stars,” he repeated, “fell toward the other end of the world.”
He said it again in Spanish. “Las estrellas se cayeron hacia el otro lado del mundo.”
The younger boy, Neil, laughed at the oddness of the sounds, and made up his own Spanish on the spot. “Dee ah dee dah, kee air lee ho vo, pecker dee lah dah!” And laughed so boisterously at his fine, brash ear that his horse, the just-broke three-year-old, did a little crow hop and a fast dance sideways, as if a newspaper sheet had blown up from the ditch in all its rustling horror, which made both horsemen laugh and they turned onto the grass then, gave the animals their heads, and took off in the new light at a lope.
It was good to leave the road, graveled and straight as it was, because it would, when full light came, interrupt the feel of the pampas. There would be farmers on it in their wagons and the occasional flivvers, and the oil boys too, heading for the fields. Not many, but some. Enough to matter. Enough to break the spell.
All those miles ahead, the three low mountains stood above the grass, full of birds and waiting. The brothers would camp there, roasting their kill on a spit.
But first, miles and miles of prairie. Where you squinted against the wind and the sheeting, unmediated light, the gaze stretching long before it met something that stopped it.
There was the sense of being seen. Of yourself through a high hawk’s eye, one that noticed you but didn’t care. Still, it produced a small quiver of self-consciousness. As you moved, two flies across a table, you were watched.
From a distance the Hills floated above the plains like an idea that was easy to understand. Up close—among them and on them and up them—they would be different. The light there became dappled, variegated. The summer’s last leaves, very thin leaves, maroon and apricot, flickered on the chokecherries. There was shelter: hollows and coulees and lees. So the wind became an unsteady thing, stopping and starting, dying and rising. In the suspensions, there was the sound of birds at rest, adjusting, talking. You gained cover. You became unwatched. You moved into and out of the dappling and the pinewater smell of leaves. Sweetgrass. Kinnikinnick, snowberry, Oregon grape, cinquefoil, creeping juniper, lodgepole pine. And if you climbed high enough to survey the scraped plains, you became the hawk.
They would camp at the base of the Tower, the perfect cone. The one that seemed always very still.
To the Tower, they said to themselves. Childe Roland to the dark tower came, thought Neil, who was, like Aidan, a memorizer.
At its base, he, Neil, wanted to separate for hunting advantage and meet in a couple of hours at the camp spot they knew. It was midafternoon and they had hours of light and he wanted very badly to do this, though it was against the single rule from home. Stick together.
He made his case in his fake Spanish, lifting the palms of his hands to the still-summery sky. Aidan had to laugh. He was charmed. What, really, was the harm. The kid, Neil, sat his horse like a burr. He knew what he was doing. They both knew where they were, and where they would meet later, when the sun was three inches above the far-off line that separated the light blue from the tawny. The crease that opened upon the other end of the world.
The boy could handle himself and he needed this. He needed this knowledge that he could handle himself on his own. And the horse, Mancha, was all right. Quite the self-spooker, quite the dramatist, but surefooted and strong.
“Sí, sí, hermano,” Aidan said.
“I will sí sí you at the camp,” Neil said, and he was off with a clatter.
He had his shotgun in a scabbard on his saddle. He had his hat pulled low over his eyes. He followed a game trail through the creeping juniper and the kinnikinnick, across an expanse of yellow grass, through more brush. He got to a copse of quaking aspen—animal tracks here—and he had a drink of water and the last of the sandwich his mother had wrapped in waxed paper. He thought about birds. Pheasants and grouse. Where they were hiding. He’d have to picket Mancha and set off on foot, to sneak up on a pheasant. He thought of a low place with cattails, maybe a mile ahead. He remembered it now. He seemed to see the very tree where he’d tie his horse, and he seemed to see many bird wings fluttering in the late-afternoon light. The wizard green of the pheasant’s neck.
He knew exactly where he was going. He urged Mancha into a trot, then a lope. He ducked when the trail took them through a thicket of chokecherries and was glad he wore his chaps. Mancha seemed to know where they were headed. He stepped up the pace. Neil gathered himself low on the big red back.
He heard a gunshot, somewhere off to his right. He stood a little and turned in his stirrups to see.
And then he fell out of time.
And when he returned, he was on his back and felt that he had perhaps been on his back for many hours, many days. His hand covered an eye and his head felt axed in two. A fly crawled along the top of his hand, and his hand didn’t seem to listen to the signal he was sending it to move. Finally, the fingers curled. Finally, he could lift them off his face. He felt hated by some large force, some borderless fist that had knocked him to the earth to be broken. He brought his fingers back to his head and felt the sticky blood and the shocking lump. His face felt bathed in blood.
There was a red horse standing in willowlight. Its head was lowered but it didn’t eat. It seemed simply to think. One stirrup had flung itself over the saddle. Reins fell to the ground. Horse, he thought. Come here, horse. Tell me your name if you have a name.
The red horse walked toward him out of the green. It had a long scratch on its wither. It walked with a slight limp. It huffed, disgusted at something that had happened; something the boy had missed.
Horse, he said. Come here. And he thought about the process of getting to his feet. He sat up. His head lolled to the side and he puked a little. Horse. Come here. To me. He couldn’t recall his name. He knew that he had a name but he couldn’t, at the moment, know what it might be.
He stood still until he felt his weight become evenly distributed between his wobbly legs and he gathered the reins of the red horse and led him under the big branch that must have knocked him off. What the horse had experienced, he couldn’t know. Had the animal’s head been pulled around so fast and hard that he’d fallen? Who could tell? What was the horse’s name? What was the name of the person trying to retrieve the horse’s name? It made him want to cry, the effort of it and the fact of the big hand that had thrown him onto the ground, so unfairly, so without warning.
He led the horse and watched its careful steps, then hauled himself into the saddle. He would go home. He looked at the sun and started to remember something about it, where it appeared and disappeared. He looked at the conical mountain, got his bearings, and turned in the opposite direction. This way is home and I will now go home. And so he rode, his horse’s long shadow stretching to the east and the meadowlarks curling and piercing the air. As he left the mountain behind, a stiff little wind picked up. An owl, somewhere, began to hoot him onto the huge landmarkless plain.
If he had possessed his faculties entire he would have remembered that he had ridden away from town with his older brother, Aidan. And he might have remembered, too, that Aidan had, on their long rides, told him not to worry if he became unsure about where exactly they were. The horse will know the way back. Neil said it out loud, trying to impose an interior calm, and brushed his fingertips across his face and tasted them. Blood, dirt, the tears he couldn’t seem to stop. His mother was waiting for him in a bright kitchen, pouring their little brother, Mike, a glass of milk.
The sun drifted off the far edge of the prairie, leaving a red line, then a deep blue one. Stars began to sharpen themselves, a few and then more, and a moon came up that looked like a dead eye. Clouds floated across it from time to time.
Neil moved over the silver-tipped prairie utterly alone with his softly breathing horse. There were no lights to aim for, but there was the feel beneath him of an animal that had an idea about where it was going. There was the feel behind him of the mountain. There was also the growing sense of himself in some afterlife. He wondered if he had perhaps died.
The tumbleweeds began to look bony and phosphorescent. Coyotes yipped and chattered behind him and were answered by something low and harrowing, a long, long way away. A wolf.
They traveled carefully, he and the horse whose name he didn’t know.
Something large flew by him, by his face. He saw nothing, but he heard it. He felt its slipstream, felt its tug. He could have reached out and touched it with his hand. The horse felt it too. It skittered sideways and Neil had to grab the horn to stay on, and when he did, all the ribs on his left side cried out. He kicked the horse forward and yelled at it—go!—because they were traveling too slowly and his mother wasn’t going to wait for him in the kitchen forever. They loped now in the dark. He had tied the reins together and let them flop on the horse’s neck and held with both hands to the horn. The sage grass, the tumbleweeds, had taken on an evil light. Bones of the dead, trying to lure him to a buffalo jump, where he and the horse would sail into the air like the hundreds of buffalo roaring down to their deaths.
He wouldn’t let that happen. He would keep his head. He would stop running and start to wait, as Aidan would have waited, for daybreak.
There it was, his brother’s name. He remembered it before he could remember his own.
Clouds moved off the moon and he noticed a curving line on the grass, which turned out to be a dry creek bed. A shallow indentation. The suggestion of a cut bank. He could huddle against it and think about what to do next. There was nothing he could build a fire with, but there was his saddle for a bed, his saddle blankets for cover. He made his bed. He had his rope but there was nothing to tie it to, so he worked off one of the saddle cinches and fashioned crude hobbles for his horse, who stood quiet while he knotted them, then crow hopped gently to a better patch of grass and began to eat. The boy remembered water and gave the horse half of what was in his canteen, pouring it into the tin pie plate he’d brought along for a reason he couldn’t remember now.
The idea of his brother came to him. Aidan. A chance taker, an adventurer, but also reassuring, solid, wry. Keep your head, Aidan said in his new, deepening voice. Hang on. Keep your head.
So Neil did. He lay down and closed his eyes. He could feel the ground move gently beneath him, a low, syncopated sway beneath the tiny clatter of the stars. He listened to his calmly breathing, calmly chewing horse.
Mancha. There it was, the name.
Mancha! he called. His voice, because he was only nine, sounded very high and thin. The tearing sound of grass stopped for a few moments, then started again. It occurred to him, once more, that he might be dead, that this was the aftermath. And for that reason, he didn’t fire back when the wind switched direction and brought him the sound of gun shots, up near the Hills. His gaze fell on his own gun, but he did nothing, because what he heard seemed to come from someplace that was not, in this new life, a possibility for him.
Sometimes, on their trips, they were Meriwether Lewis and his horsemen, riding this very prairie, just twenty, thirty miles to the west. They liked the ominous and fateful nature of the side trip Lewis took with his three best men on the way home, a loop straight into the heart of Blackfeet country. They passed twelve unbroken miles of buffalo, a river of them, the wolves haunting the borders of the animals, lolling and howling. They camped with some nervous Blackfeet teenagers they met, and then bad things happened. One of the boys tried to take guns and horses in the night, and there was a melee and they shot the boy dead. Another too. And then the explorers ran from the specter of avengers, of howling and brilliant warriors bearing down on them. But not before Lewis put a peace-and-friendship medal with George Washington’s profile around the neck of the first teenager who had been shot and left him there for the crows or his comrades. Neil and Aidan didn’t like that part of the story much. There was bluster and unease in it, a preening they didn’t much care for.
The Lewis party ran all day and night across the prairie, this prairie, to arrive stupefied and sore and panting at the Missouri at the very moment that their comrades fired a gun to announce that they were there in their boats. Aidan and Neil liked that, the idea of high adventure culminating in such a neat and fateful way.
Neil sometimes got the moonlit ride away from the young dead Indians conflated with a story he’d heard from an old cowboy in town, a rummy who’d wrecked his leg in a horseback accident years earlier and gimped around the horse sales, ready to tell stories to the kids. He’d been riding one night, drunk, yelping and howling, heading in a direction he thought was the ranch where he worked. Alone and on fire with the booze and riding across the world, breakneck, barely able to stay in the saddle. His horse, out of sheer disgust with him, he said, threw him off and thrummed away into the night. When he woke in the pink and frosty dawn, his entire body an ache, he found himself . . .
At this point, for the benefit of his young listeners, who couldn’t hear it enough, he slowed the story way down.
The cowboy felt his moving fingers scout the terrain, any question of opening his eyes still ludicrous. His fingertips felt his face, his head, and moved down his neck. There. There. Everything in its place, it seemed. He felt, then, a twig, a stick, on his chest. An arrangement of sticks. Sticks with nodules. With knuckles. He flattened his hand and lowered it very slowly onto the sticks. He lifted his unbroken neck, sweat bursting from every pore, and opened his eyes upon his hand atop a hand of bones. He lay in a shallow, open grave. His own ear, the cowboy’s whirled and gristled ear, rested a scant inch from the hole in the skull that had once held the ear of his new friend.
Details of that story came to the boy now. He had the terrible sense that if he moved his hand in any direction, he would feel bones. Neck bones hung with a government medal. He heard what might have been another shot, fired from a distance impossible to calculate. They shot me, he heard someone say. I lie here shot.
Hang on, Neil, he thought.
Neil! The name came to him in a burst of insight. And now he knew he might be able to lie down and sleep, because he finally knew the name of the person who was going to go unconscious.
He woke to two short whistles and a long swooping one. His horse’s ears flew forward. And out of the dawn there grew a horse and a rider, small and then not small, and a call.
Aidan had his hat pulled low over his eyes. He rode his horse at a single-foot, that go-forever step between walk and trot, and he posted easily. He looked as if he could have ridden a day like that, or two.
He dismounted in no hurry and pushed back his hat. He looked pale, exhilarated and exhausted. He blinked rapidly and touched Neil lightly on the shoulder.
“Hey, Neil,” he said. “How’re you doing out here?”
Neil drank in his brother’s face. “Fine,” he said, hating the crack of grief in his voice. Aidan touched his fingertips to the head bump and Neil’s ribs, both sides. He looked as if he was listening. Neil sneezed hard, and said, yes, it made his ribs hurt but not a lot. Aidan grinned and rumpled the boy’s dirty hair. He examined Mancha’s hobbles approvingly and removed them and reattached them to the saddle.
They’d head for Portugal, he told his brother. It was a little rail stop, and not far. Their mother’s brother, a doctor, had a little egg-colored hospital there, and he could check Neil over and they could stay the night to break up the trip back home.
“What about Lindbergh?” Neil said, everything coming back to him now.
“We’ll see him,” Aidan said. “He’ll pass over. And you know what? You’ve been riding this nag long enough. Sorry, Mancha. Your rider is done for awhile.” The horse whickered contentedly, as if it were going along with a bad joke. “You lost your hat when you got knocked off by that big branch,” Aidan said. “I found it just when it was getting really dark. You were nowhere. I fired some shots.”
He touched the boy’s forehead, where the big egg was. Tears started, but the boy stopped them by thinking about Lindbergh. Lindbergh all by himself in the night over the endless water. Feeling lucky.
Aidan saddled Neil’s horse and mounted his own, offering an arm to his brother to pull him up. Neil put his arms around his brother’s hard waist. They moved off, Aidan leading Mancha. Neil rested the side of his head against his brother’s warm back. He could feel the muscles moving neatly. They traveled quietly for a few hours, saying nothing. Once, Aidan sighed deeply. Sometimes Neil slept a little. Waking, he breathed in the smell of the strong back, then dozed again.
Finally, there was a scrabble of a town ahead. It glinted in the morning light. When they moved into it, down the dirt street, people milled around them excitedly, as if they’d been eager for the boys’ return. But they were watching the sky. Dogs and children ducked among the taller, watching ones. A murmur grew. The sky returned a high, thrilling drone. And out of the west, lit by the climbing sun, came a bright little monoplane. Neil couldn’t sit still. Hands on Aidan’s shoulder, he pulled himself to his feet atop the steady horse. He watched the growing plane, the high metal bird in the morning light, hands on his brother’s hat.
He cheered with the rest, with Aidan, and waved an arm to make Lindy tip his wings. On the sidewalk, a sour-faced woman in a nurse’s cap called to him and shook her finger at him. The horse was stepping in place, nervous now, so Neil sat back down. The little plane inclined a wing and the crowd cheered. Neil yipped like a coyote, and then he turned to the woman in the nurse’s hat and shouted a string of fake and bawdy Spanish at her, laughing as he yelled, laughing so hard he could scarcely make the words.
Two nights before his first time out, Neil Tierney had the dream that had scared him so badly when he’d had it as a child, a recurring one in which a series of faces passed slowly down a mirror, silent as snow, none of them anyone he knew or could remember. Just that, but there was terror in it. He woke to an air raid, everyone grabbing clothes and gas masks and running for the door, then falling facedown as a plane roared over, guns rattling.
Some broke for the ditches and shelters. Neil rolled himself under the metal table where they played poker at night. Another whine, becoming a deadly roar, and the rain of bullets again, and then a few seconds later a deep explosion up on the plateau where the big bombers were. That was a fuel tank going. A long pause, and then another, different, boom. That was probably the Zeke.
He closed his eyes and watched himself fall asleep for a minute or two, his good trick.
When it was quiet, a column of smoke climbed a thousand or more feet from a B-29 burning on its hardstand. The others, a hundred of them up there, stood silhouetted in the moonlight. They were beautiful huge things with their long tapered wings and sleek bodies, silver thoroughbreds that made other bombers seem like burros.
They waited up there in their long rows like patient animals as the men down on the flat milled around in skivvies and bare feet, smoking, swearing, shaking their heads, watching the long white pincers of the searchlights. A thin wire of siren reached them from somewhere up on the far bluff where the colored gunners lived.
Neil’s bombardier, a thin, dark-haired kid they called Dante for his poetic ways, ran up to tell him about the Zeke that the gunners on the bluff had shot down. There were parts of the pilot all over the runway, he said, white-faced. They looked like seared roasts. They were, those parts, the first dead person he’d ever seen.
All the B-29 crews had arrived on the island during the previous couple of weeks, ready to commence long-distance air war against the Empire. Already, Neil had learned to stay away from Dante as much as he could, because the man thought too hard about everything and seemed compelled to register his reactions to each and all. He was the one who’d told the rest of the crew every detail he knew about the suicides of the island’s Japanese civilians, thousands of them leaping from Marpi Point after the invasion. And he was the one who knew about the Marine who’d been swimming in the lagoon and come face-to-face with a dead woman in a polka-dotted blouse, her bootblack hair snaking behind.
The rest of them had to shut him up on a regular basis, and then he’d grab his notebook and start writing, or fall silent with his feelings all over his face. He made you nervous because he seemed so alert that he lit up like an electric bulb, a beacon for trouble to find.
Neil told him he didn’t want to hear the details of the dead Jap. He said he was glad the bastard got it, sounding more curt than he’d intended. Dante went inside to his cot where he sat tailor style, a shock of black hair falling over his beaky nose, and scribbled in his notebook. Then he left the Quonset, ambling into the full-moon night, while Neil pretended to write a letter and watched him go.
The next day, retrieving cigarettes from his trunk, Neil found the Quonset empty. A corner of Dante’s notebook edged from his pillow. Surprising himself, he pulled it out and read the last entry.
After the racket and roar, waterfalling moonlight upon Milton’s “smoke and stir of this dim spot which men call Earth.”
The silent stars go by.
“When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.” (Thank you, Wide-Winged Crane.)
But . . . Interpreters? How, please, do I interpret this?
The question gave Neil a small, cold feeling, and he quickly replaced the notebook.
The next morning they were rousted early to dress, eat, and board the trucks that took them to the line. Time to fly. Neil carried in a slim wallet in his jacket a photo of his older brother. It was taken about the time that Aidan requested hazardous duty with the FBI, and got sent undercover to Argentina. Red Rover, Red Rover, send Aidan on over, Neil sometimes thought as he studied the photograph. Aidan wore an expression that was both somber and wry, and that Neil recognized as well as he did his own face. There was a certain gravitas in it—reinforced by Aidan’s intelligent eyes, his unperturbable good looks—but also something buoyantly alive, connected and curious. An intense alertness. Like Dante, Neil sometimes thought, but without the wavery emotional edge.
Aidan had signed the photo in his distinct, up-and-down hand. Ten-tenths to you, hermano.
One by one, the engines roared thunderously to life. Ten-tenths, Neil thought, as he taxied Z Square 7 into the lineup. He pulled into position for takeoff, stopped and pushed hard on the brake pedals. The starter signaled them to increase the rpms. Lewis, his copilot, set the wing flaps. Bond, the engineer, increased the fuel-to-air mix ratio to auto-rich and placed the engine’s cowl flaps at trail. Neil and Lewis both pushed the throttles forward slowly, and as the rpms and manifold pressures reached military power, the plane began to vibrate and shake. Neil watched the starter and the tower. Lewis monitored the instruments. The starter gave the forward wave and the tower flashed the green light. He released the brakes and began the heavy roll. Ninety-nine feet of plane, eleven men, seventy tons. Fuel enough for the trip, but just, and the bomb-load adding ten tons to the plane’s theoretical capacity.
Lewis called out air speeds. Neil gently fed in enough left rudder to compensate for the torque in that direction. There was something in it of the headstrong racehorse wanting to turn a circle before moving into the gate, and you had to pull her to the right to line her out, to really run.
Now they were pulling takeoff power and the plane thirty seconds ahead of them was staggering into the air. The tower flashed by. Lewis called out numbers. 135. Go, Neil whispered, full throttle, and Go! he whispered again as Lewis called 145 and the edge of the island charged toward them. He eased back on the stick, but not before they knocked out a couple of lights at the end of the concrete.
The last figure on land was the priest in the flapping cassock who made a big cross in the air as each plane roared and wobbled into the sky.
Gear up, flaps up, five-hundred-feet-per-minute rate of climb, and they had begun the fifteen-hundred-mile trip to Tokyo.
The water became a metal, white-flecked floor, far below. Talc on steel. They pressurized the cabin to climb into the icy skies and then the crew played cards and ate canned turkey sandwiches in shirtsleeves in their luxury liner. The formation was loose. They could see Z Square 8 off in the distance, and the glints of several others below. Neil checked the bearings and Lewis took over while he unwrapped his sandwich. He chewed slowly, studying the sky through the latticed cockpit. He could see in every direction. And be so seen. They were so large and available to the enemy. So silver and long and heavy, with their little heads up in the glass, the brains of the thing.
He closed his eyes, trying to rest them before whatever awaited them. He adamantly did not consider in detail what might lie ahead. They churned on, five miles above the water now.
He ate, he flew, he catnapped. Seven hours passed. When he opened his eyes, there ahead on the horizon was the snow-topped cone of Mt. Fuji.
He blinked. It was perfectly symmetrical, perfectly beautiful with its cape of white. The clouds around its base unlinked it from the earth and it floated like some vision of ultimate order and light. Neil felt a twang of dissonance. How could something that looked like that—so ancient and serene—be the initial point of a bombing run? The mountain was out of time and unto its blue and snowy self. They were boys playing war in her sky.
Lewis swore at it. There it was, the signal to go in together, and they were straggling way behind the formation, not ready at all. They all scrambled into their flak vests, and Neil pulled takeoff power to try to catch the big birds that were moving in a slow dream, a glide, around the west side of Fuji. He cut to the right of the mountain to catch them. And now there were bursts of flak—black flowers blooming in the air—as they moved in with the other planes, in formation now and halfway from Fuji to the target.
Through a bank of thick clouds they flew, so tightly that Neil could feel the slipstream from his wing plane, that little tug. And then—as if the enemy had simply been waiting for them to arrange themselves as targets—the clouds evaporated and screaming Zekes flew out of the sun through the long silver ships, guns blazing. Sixty, seventy of them, all over the sky, flying at every angle but right side up. One of them barreled past in a vertical bank, two wing lengths away.
Everyone was on the interphone at once, shouting positions and hits and incoming. Lewis pushed the toggle switch to drop the bombs. When the bombs didn’t drop, Dante hit the salvo. Nothing.
The tail gunner’s squeaky yell came over the phone then, sounding panicky. “Tail’s out! Tail’s out!” and then the steady clanking of the landing gear going down and the sound of hard rocks thrown at them, the wild clatter of them.
Neil yelled at Lewis to flick the up switch. Ahead of them, the lead ship with two colonels aboard streamed smoke from both engines on its right side. Fighters fell upon it and it hesitated, then dropped, like a toy from a sleepy child’s hand.
A Betty flew straight at them. The gunner hit him and the plane exploded in front of their left wing. Its engine flew under the wing. The fuselage with its goggled pilot flew over, so close they could have touched the boy’s face.
And it was over.
The fighters went away, as suddenly as they’d come, and Z Square 7 headed out to sea, the cone of Fuji on the horizon behind them, into the quick, amazing silence. The huge sun was beginning to drift down. They flew alone as the sky dimmed. They took stock. Tail turret out, trim tab cables gone, C-1 partially out, gear nacelle doors down. They managed to release the bombs, dropped them in the drink, and tried to take up a course for home.
The plane was full of holes. Radar was picking up nothing. One engine’s rpms were stuck at a screaming 2300. The jammed bomb doors produced drag. But they were out over the long water. Seaver, the navigator, reported that the best-known ETA and the end of the fuel were the same. Too close to call.
They flew on an assumed course. They talked about how they’d ditch. They flew.
After a few hours, the radio operator got a faint signal that told him they were on course for Saipan. It disappeared. An hour later, he got another.
Lining up star shots with his sextant, Seaver looked like a mythical sailor, though his face was a baby’s. A baby-faced nineteen-year-old, but he had a crisp, assured way of reporting the data. The shots didn’t line up. Then they began to.
Saipan began to come in very faintly on command radio. The fuel gauges hovered near empty. Neil set 2130, a half hour away, as the time to prepare to ditch.
They flew in the noisy darkness, all attention on the fuel and the clock and the frantic calculations.
Time and fuel. A huge damaged plane, alone and star dazzled, its half-wrecked instruments aglow. The shrieking, stuck engine. The thump of blood in the ears.
At 2130 he had the crew throw all the loose equipment in the bomb bay and reminded himself of the rules: approach upwind across the waves if the winds are strong, along the top of the swell if they aren’t. Don’t glide in. Stall in, to reduce the impact. He’d need to control the descent, if it happened, and he needed the last fuel for that, or they would just fall out of the sky to be broken on the water.
The Saipan signal got louder.
Seaver estimated on the basis of his star fixes that they’d reach land in forty minutes.
Bond, the engineer, estimated that they’d run out of fuel in twenty minutes.
Neil thought about the gauges, which were not absolutely reliable at low readings. He thought about ditching, and how he helped search once for a ditched plane, how the Pacific grew immeasurably large when you were looking for something on its surface. It flashed its millions of mirrors and stretched itself out with a glittery malevolence.
Keep your head, he thought. Adrenaline skittered down the surface of his arms. He felt for the wallet inside his flak vest, touched it to feel his brother Aidan’s face.
You didn’t just set her down the best you could and wait for a friendly sub to come bubbling up. You might crack up on impact, and die, and sink. Or be out there in rafts, flashing pathetic signal mirrors, their light lost among the ocean’s own light. You might set off flares, and try to get a weak balloon to lift two hundred feet of transmitter antenna into the air. You might have lost the handle of your generator in the crash. You might be listening to the searchers, droning through the blue, peering down at you with blind eyes.
A twenty-minute gap. More fuel or fewer miles and the gap would shut. But how would they know it was happening?
Split the difference. The distress signal would go out in ten minutes, at 2200. They’d get as close to the island as they could before they went down.
And then, at 2150, the miracle of lights. A prickle of ground lights and poking up through them the skinny fingers of the searchlights.
There she is! they all shouted, and Dante pressed forward in his bombardier’s bubble, as if he was pulling the big ship himself.
Down, down, down. Neil pushed the right rudder and dropped the left wing, so they side-slipped down the long sky, fast, to the tiny island below. They roared over the field and called the tower. The operator told them to land on the emergency runway. Neil threw down the gear and felt a lurch run through him as the board showed only the right wheel green-lighted and locked. The left wheel and nose showed red lights. That meant they were either not down or not locked. But the wiring was half shot up, so who knew if the lights were right?
He shouted through the interphone at the gunners, and they said the left wheel seemed to be in place. He yelled at them all to prepare for a crash landing and he took one more circle of the field, the huge plane light and wieldy without gas or bombs, and he landed it on the right wheel. They ran like that, a one-legged skate, and he slowly tipped down on the left. Which held. As they lost speed, the nose gradually descended.
“Come on, baby,” Dante murmured. He was sitting now behind the pilots with the radio operator. The wheel hit and collapsed, pulling the nose down to the ground. Dante shrieked as the gun turret started pushing up through the floor where he sat. He scrambled toward the nose, but the cone started to collapse so he scrambled back, shoving himself into a niche behind Lewis with the radioman. The plane had stopped. The tail was high in the air, the nose crushed.
“Out!” Neil shouted. “Out, out, out.” And they scrambled. They watched the tail gunner perch for a moment before the thirty-foot jump, and roll when he hit. Two of them lifted him up and hopped him away from the plane, and it was done.
The next night, the whole crew sat on damp sandbags watching Laura, the new movie, on the outdoor screen. They smoked, and the smoke mingled with light island rain, a mist you barely noticed except that it softened everything, including the young stripped faces of the men as they let the movie take them away from a patch of coral with its wild bright birds deep in the leaves, its encircling lagoon and all its fresh ghosts.
And so you go back to your cot after a movie with carpets and martinis and Gene Tierney; you go back under a huge moon, walking the patch of coral, and outside the Quonset is a big Thor washing machine and a clothesline with socks and shorts and shirts floating in the moonlight, a clothesline like your mom’s, and near it the scratchings of a little garden put in by Dante, who tended it daily, and there was his half-finished attempt, also, to make a chair out of a packing crate.
That was the first part of the air war, when they flew in at five miles of altitude, aimed for a military target and hoped they didn’t encounter the huge terrifying winds up there that could skate a ninety-nine-foot plane sideways like a skipped stone. Hoped, too, that the fighters that came after them like harpies were at the limit of their altitude, that they wouldn’t find a way to come at them from above.
That was the first phase, and not so successful in military terms. There were bugs in the big sleek planes, a lot of missed targets, trouble with formations. No one had ever done this before: made three-thousand-mile day trips to run through hell for a half hour or an hour, and if you were very lucky, crawl into your own cot that night, an ocean away from the trouble. Away from the Black Corridor, as Dante called it.
By Christmas, one plane out of four was gone—shot down, mechanical trouble, ditched. Gone. The number men had the odds: six or seven missions and you could expect not to make the next. And the allowable maximum per man was thirty-five.
As the losses mounted, the men felt their individual visions of a future apart from war grow vague and naïve, all their attention now on the next mission and how they might endure the days and hours before it. Dante stopped tending his little garden. He wrote less and less. He played as much baseball as he could, standing out there in the sun for three and four hours at a stretch to bat, run and throw until he could feel himself to be exhausted.
They stopped building chairs out of crates. They stopped reading books, most of them, preferring magazines, which don’t await your return. Some of them wrote letters to everyone they could think of, and some wrote none at all.
And then the new general came in and lowered their bombing altitude by a mile, and it felt like the last margin of safety had been taken from them on the bet that they would hit targets more accurately, though even more of them wouldn’t live to tell about it.
Two weeks later, he ordered everyone way down, to five thousand feet, and the B-29s were going in without gunners to firebomb the country to cinders. Now it was napalm. Rivers of fire. A program of annihilation, soldiers and civilians alike. The roar of burning paper houses, sending updrafts so powerful they shot the bombers hundreds of feet straight up. A war that did not bear thinking about.
Dante abandoned his journal and began to write a letter which he never tried to finish. For his mother, he said. But he never signed off or mailed it.
“I’m not afraid now,” he told Seaver one night in the officers’ club. “It’s just that it’s so hellishly stupid. All of it. Wouldn’t you say?”
A week or so later, the skin on Neil’s face erupted in an infection, a nasty one, probably from the oxygen mask. He was hospitalized and his crew was broken up.
Dante went to Z Square 19 and flew three missions. On one, the co-pilot was shot and bled to death halfway back to Saipan.
Neil’s old engineer, Bond, came to his hospital room one day to give him the next news. He stood at the foot of the iron bed, and the island light through the moving window shades made his face seem to fold and unfold.
Bond’s new plane and crew were flying wing with Dante’s, so close he could see the poet’s young hawky face in the bubble. Suddenly, the right wing of Dante’s plane was on fire, the engines belching smoke, and it began to drop. Bond’s plane tried to stay with them, shielding. But the other fell faster.
Dante looked at him, he said. Straight at him. And he raised his hand in a wave and held it there. An almost jaunty wave, Bond said. And then Dante was down and gone.
To Missoula, Montana
The automobile, a humped Studebaker, crawled out of Neva onto the highway going south. It was morning, bright winter, and the plains stretched frozen and shining around them. The moving air, the ever-moving air, pushed dry snow across the concrete so that the road seemed to smoke.
The travelers looked, each of them, as if they had been hit in the face by a stranger. They were four: a middle-aged couple and their grown sons.
It was a week before Christmas. There was still in the car something from a holiday party the night before: a length of curly ribbon that Neil Tierney had tied to the gearshift. A pretty girl had put it around her neck so he would want to take it off, and there it hung, silver and insouciant, a meadowlark on the moon. It caught Neil’s eye now and he stared at it, amazed at the way it had slipped the border of the old life.
He closed his eyes against the ribbon. He grabbed his knees with his hands. He and his younger brother, Mike, were crammed in their big military overcoats into the backseat. Their father piloted the car. He wore large leather mittens, a woolen overcoat, a Scotch-plaid driving cap with ear flaps. His face had a kind of stiff, unblinking awareness, something alive behind the stone. Next to him, their mother sat with her arms around herself, rocking almost imperceptibly.
They were virtually alone on the road. It was well below zero. The car cut a clean line across the plains, then turned west toward the mountains, the ancient faces. And as the faces grew, the sky thickened and pulled in close. Snow began to fall. A big gust shook the falling snow and the snow on the ground like flour in a paper bag and they were blindered for a few moments.
The ground tipped up and arranged itself in layers. The Studebaker chugged upward, pushing through the places where the wind had created shallow drifts across the pavement. No traffic at all now. The sky fell below the tops of the pines and stayed there. The wind rattled the car. They had been traveling for five hours, stopping once only, for gas.
Neil and Mike sat unmoving in the backseat in their big coats. Mike caught Neil’s eye and cut to their father, the driver, and to the thickening white outside the windows. Neil shrugged curtly. Their father wanted to drive. Let the man drive.
Rebuffed, Mike hated for a moment the pilot next to him, the curt hero. He hated, too, what waited for them all at the other end of this interminable journey. The undiluted travesty of it. I will never leave home now, he thought. It will become an impossible thing.
His feet were frigid from his damp shoes inside galoshes, damp because he’d left them outside the door when he returned from the Christmas party, so he wouldn’t wake the baby and the wife that he hadn’t taken to the party because she was screaming at him.
That curt shrug from Neil, and here came the high, familiar whistling in Mike’s ears. The eyes of everyone in the family were always somewhere else, the voice of pride always attached to someone else. He, the youngest, was the burr, the irritation always, no matter that he had his own respectable service record and was the planted one now. The child, the ring, the job, the wife.
He tried to think of something to say. In ordinary circumstances, he had a canny impetuosity, a litheness, physical quickness certainly—track star and jitterbug king that he was—but also the ability to see swiftly what a complicated situation might contain at its core. What its real nature might be. And fearlessness about saying what it was, even a degree of perversity and impatience in the saying. He could trick the truth out of its corner sometimes, simply by naming it. He badly wanted that quality available to him now.
What came to him to say was a surprise to him. While we were at the party, is what he thought to say. While most of Neva, our little town, was at the party and we danced and sang and toasted and flirted, a disaster had happened and we didn’t know. While a tipsy neighbor pranced about with a sprig of mistletoe brandished like a sword. While someone else lifted a glass to the Tierney brothers—Neil the pilot, Mike the dancer, Aidan the agent, the spy—all of them home in one piece, these sons of a well-liked family, a family you could count on during the worst of things and the best.
But only briefly did the glasses go up because there were those in the room who hadn’t been so lucky. There were the O’Briens, whose son survived twenty-one bombing runs over Germany, only to die later in the crash of the commercial airliner he was piloting. There was a specter named Buck Blankenship, high school valedictorian, who had spent eleven months of the war crouched in a cage. Everyone, spared and unspared, felt the danger of indulging a sense of reprieve. That’s when you got zapped. That was the noiseless count before the buzz bomb’s exploding light.
Small groups left on a regular basis to stand outside in the icy night and pass a flask. It was uncustomarily still—not even much of a breeze—so you heard the thin wail of the train when it was miles and miles away, and something in the upward sound of it made you notice how the stars had arranged themselves perpendicularly, in vaults, as they sometimes do.
A very small town, out there on the night plain, is its own campfire. And the conversations at winter gatherings are campfires too, each group warming its hands on a single story. The time Blankenship sank the last-second basket that won the tournament. The day a gale blew the littlest Williamson girl down the hill. The summer Aidan Tierney—gallant, civil Aidan, all of seventeen years old—calmly punched out a two-hundred-pound truck driver. Summer of ’31, up in the oil fields. Both of them hauling gravel. The big guy a Bohunk bully who slowed way down on the narrow washboard road and kicked up dust and rocks at Aidan for twenty miles.
“ ‘Say, you,’ ” says the man who saw it happen. “ ‘Could I have a word with you?’ ” The others in the circle shake their heads at the ground.
“Boom,” says another, “and Aidan’s knocked him to the ground.” He passes his gaze around the circle and they take the cue. Three men in one voice: “ ‘I’d ask you not to do that again.’ ”
“ ‘I’d ask you!’ ” says the man who saw it. They’re laughing now, the way they did the first time, but harder. Because the years have been fierce and they need the story more.
Aidan Tierney was not at the party, because he lived over on the western side of the state where the mountains and the trees were, lived in Missoula, the university town, and practiced law there and tried to recover from whatever illness he had caught, whatever had caught him, down there in Argentina on his secret work. He was tired. He’d lost a lot of weight. Thin Man, he called himself.
He had telephoned his brother Mike a few weeks ago to congratulate him on the birth of his child, his son. A special thing—a phone call instead of a letter—because this oldest son, over in the mountains, had a certain flare, a sense of the right thing to do when it counted. He had called to offer his congratulations, but what he was really doing, and they both knew it, was consoling Mike for the end of his fast-footed days. Yes, it had to be done. Yes, the girl, his high school girlfriend, had wanted the pregnancy so a marriage would happen. And it would all work out, most likely, and there was nothing like a tragedy involved. But he knew, Aidan did, that there was grief in it—in all of it—for Mike. A sense of stoppage, of heaviness, for this one who was so fleet. Who was also the loose cannon, the troublemaker, the jitterbugger, the flirt. That one is out of here fast, the people in Neva said when he was a teenager. He is too impatient. He will want the cities, the lights, the electric life. He was born to it.
So the message from Aidan, over in the mountains, was this: I know how you feel, but you are not stopped. This is a development, a turn. Have faith, young Mike, he’d said. In those very words.
And don’t you have to have your own faith, if you’re to urge it on another?
He was generous and grave, Aidan was, and equipped with such frank curiosity about himself and how his life might unfold that he heartened those who knew him, made their own lives seem capable of extravagant fanning trajectories. He helped his parents and their friends remember their curious selves in the first decade of the century, flinging themselves west to begin their new lives, guessing never in their wildest dreams how knocked down they’d be, most of them, when the drought years came around and that big table of land turned to dust and grasshoppers, and the adventurers themselves turned, chastened, into citizens.
He was the firstborn. The dear first boy. Born just before the drought years, when life felt lucky. Born the spring of what would turn out to be the first dry year, to be precise. But trouble isn’t trouble until it won’t leave. Life that year still felt lucky and so this dark-eyed, handsome, helpful, serious, hoping boy was the emblem always of the parents’ highest imaginings. How could he not be?
The brothers in the backseat strained forward now, as if to pull the car. They were intent and pale, lanky, thick haired. Neil put a hand on his mother’s minutely rocking shoulder. He studied his hand and thought about how he had sometimes noticed it during a mission and wondered, trying not to, whether it would soon be forever still. And here he was, odds beaten, the one alive.
The car pulled slowly up the highway into swirling snow beneath pointed black pines. The side of the road began to drop off steeply and before long it seemed they crept along a sidewalk, a runway, that hugged the mountain on one side and ended in air on the other. A huge gust and the mountain vanished. Now they were utterly lost in snow so directionless and whimsical and blinding that they could have been traveling sideways through it, upside down. They could have been lifted off the earth.
Neil raked his eyes unthinkingly across the seatback, searching for the tipped horizon, the altimeter.
The father nervously tapped the brakes—there had been smears of ice on the concrete—and the car seemed to stop, though the snow tornadoed around them in a way that destroyed all relationships between moving and unmoving, and so he held the brake down hard and steady to try to be sure. They were stopped. Engulfed and stopped on a high mountain road with more than a hundred miles to go. They took shallow breaths. The mother closed her eyes and kept them closed.
Mike thought of a thing to say. “We’ll walk it over,” he said to Neil.
They pulled up their collars, pulled down their hats, stepped out into the howling cold. One on each side, they rested their gloved hands on the car and they walked. They could see their feet and short distances beyond and beside their feet, which was enough. They motioned sometimes to the driver, who kept the car moving at the pace of a walk. For a quarter of an hour, arms out for ballast, the brothers made their way through the stinging white, their parents in a litter, carried by their sons to the very top of the mountain pass. Slowly they descended then, until the sons walked fast, broke into slow runs. The wind, blocked by the mountain behind them, died away. The road cleared and what was beyond the road. The car stopped and the sons got in. Their gloved fingers, their faces, were numb, their eyelashes crystallized.
Here the world was textured, vertical and full of the feel of rooms. The silvery sheet of the plains had receded in space and time to become a fantasy of clarity. Here the trees were swaddled in the kind of snow that sticks. Clotted snow, corners and walls, a sky of steel. They’d entered the land of no wind. A little city sat on a valley floor, ahead of them, waiting.
Emboldened by the way he and Neil had almost carried the car across the mountains, or so it felt to him, Mike remembered his own incisiveness. The quickness that could come to him. The freedom from cant.
“We’ll never know,” he said. “There will be this story and that story. But all we will ever know is that there was a freak moment. A moment when everything that could go wrong did.” His frozen mouth was slow with the words.
The car seemed to drift to the side of the road. Their father pulled on the parking brake, left it rumbling. He got out, stepped away and bent toward a snow bank, back heaving. They waited for him. When he returned, he didn’t so much as glance at his wife or sons. Then they drove again, through the still trees. It was three o’clock and almost dusk.
She waited for them. Opal Mix waited in her office. She had just finished speaking to a desk man at the newspaper who was filling in for Wendell Whitcomb, the police reporter whose mother had just died. She had also spoken briefly to Agent Roland Taliaferro, the FBI man from Butte. Now there was just the family, the Tierneys. She turned on a second light.
A hard knock on her door and when she opened it, they stood there in their winter overcoats and their boots and mufflers, red-eyed, sucker punched.
She invited them in and asked about their coats, which they kept on. They took chairs and moved them forward. The men lit cigarettes and leaned toward her, and the older son, Neil, asked her the facts.
She sat in a pool of yellow light and straightened the skirt of her woolen dress. She touched her fingertips to her white hair, and leaned over the file that was the only item on her shiny desk. She had a jowled, adamant face and scribbled eyes behind rimless glasses.
She had, she said, been about to complete the paperwork. She would work from her notes, she said, as she opened the file.
No, she said, it would not be wise to view the body. The body was in no state to be viewed. It was at her mortuary, the coroner’s mortuary, the mortuary she had run with her husband until his untimely death in ’39. She looked up. Septicemia, she volunteered. A ruptured appendix. A terrible shock.
Neil Tierney made an odd sound in his throat, and she bent back to the file.
A week, she said. Or thereabouts.
In a chair, she said. In a chair before the grate.
Beside the chair. On the floor.
In the mouth, she said, touching her long white fingers to her lower lip. She leaned back from the new sounds in the room.
Oh yes, no question. In the mouth.
So you see, she said. The reason. The mess. The time. The mouth. She felt the need, she said, to be perfectly clear.
Neil grabbed the coroner’s file and he flung it at the wall. They left, then, in a clatter, arms around the mother and her terrible low moan. Papers flew through the yellow light. Opal Mix folded her hands and stood, and studied the papers falling to the floor.
There were a number of them. Her coroner’s report. The official death certificate for the courthouse vaults. Notes to herself after viewing the body. She always made many notes. Many notes she made, these days.
The death certificate—the document she’d just typed—lay at her feet. The steps of the family receded and a door slammed heavily.
She picked up the certificate and read the key lines again, for typographical errors. Full name: Aidan Franklin Tierney. Age: 32 years, 8 months, 15 days. Usual occupation: Attorney. Date of death: About Dec. 12, 1946. Due to: Shotgun Wound in Chest. Probable accident.
It was all in order. She signed her name in India ink, and blotted it, and blew on it carefully until it was dry.
Deirdre McNamer grew up in several small towns in northern Montana. She is the author of three previous novels, Rima in the Weeds, One Sweet Quarrel, and My Russian. She now lives in Missoula, and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Montana.