Peter had never been sick a day in his life. When all seven of his brothers lay in bed with the chicken pox (lined up by height and by severity of the rash: Tercin, shortest and most mildly afflicted, on one end and Thomas, tallest and oldest and most ill, on the other) Peter waited on them with their sisters, untouched even though Tercin spat on him every time he came near enough to hit. When Amy brought home the pearly botch and Kathryn and Louise and Anne got the oak gall on their knees, he was unaffected; and when the whole family got the yellow flux, he was the only one of them not jaundiced in the eyes and skin, though he'd snuck a second helping of Mr. Hollin's tainted bluefish. Lonely in his perfect health, Peter had rubbed his skin with hickory root, but his mother discovered the ruse (tenderly and weakly she had wiped his brow with a wet cloth as he slept). She beat him with the stick called Truth and exiled him to the barn for a week, because the only thing worse than telling a lie was to become one.
So when he woke that Lammas Eve, shivering despite the August heat and yet soaked with sweat, he did not understand what was happening to him. He wondered if Tercin had thrown a bucket of springwater on him again, but his only younger brother was sound asleep on the other side of their room, uttering the sobbing sighs he always made when he dreamed, and anyway it would be more like Tercin to soak him with horse piss. Peter lay quite still for a few minutes, watching the moon rise in his window. The room he shared with his brother had been the last to be glassed, and the window was only fifteen days old. He knew it was a waning gibbous moon, though the ripples in the pane twisted it into a shape as soft and irregular as a round of the cheese Mrs. Clark made from her goats' milk. The bubbles in the glass caught the light in such a way that they startled himit was his own birthday glass; he had cleaned and admired it incessantly for the previous two weeks, and yet all of a sudden it was more beautiful than ever, and he was struck by a tremendous sympathy for those bubbles. He felt suspended in the thick transparent air, floaty and full of moonlight. So this is a fever, he said to himself, recognizing the sensation his brothers and sisters had described. A little ache in his bones faded as quickly as it came. He turned over in his dampening bed and fell back asleep.
"I was sick last night," he told his mother at breakfast, careful to keep even the smallest measure of pride from his voice. Though he had grown to almost twice her size, she wouldn't hesitate to use the stick called Humility (and it was the second-largest of the seven that stood in a barrel on the back porch) on him if she thought his better parts would profit by it.
"A dream of sickness?"
"No, I had a fever and an aching in my bones. Now it's gone."
"A strange dream," she said. "Fevers don't come and go so quick. Lucky for us, dreams of sickness never come true in the summer." Still, she looked over her family at the table, everyone, even picky Tercin, eating heartily of the oatmeal and honey and eggs, and not a runny nose or a dull eye among them, and made a sign that Peter recognized as a ward against ill fortune: she scraped the edge of her finger down her nose. To anyone who didn't know her well, it would have looked like she was merely scratching.
He almost believed herafter all, she was always right about everything, whether the coming weather or a mathematics problem or the right name for a tunebut couldn't put away the memory of illness like he could that of a dream. "I have been sick," he declared to the radishes as he worked that morning in the salad garden. Yet after squatting for an hour along the rows of lettuce, there wasn't a trace of the ache in his bones, and by the time he had to leave for school he had nearly forgotten the whole thing, pleasantly distracted by his work and by the usual noises of the farm. His father was down at the forge, making nails; Peter could hear his mother and Elizabeth washing flax; he could hear Tercin quietly cursing where he sat near the house with Caryn and Genevieve making rick vanes. Even Tercin's cursing seemed a part of the lovely day. There is nothing wrong, Peter thought to himself, because just the previous week Reverend Wallop had scolded them all for not properly appreciating the absence of affliction.
But later that morning in school he got the curious, suspended feeling back. It was after Mrs. Clark finished telling them about her Saturday trip to Columbus to see the president's wife, Mrs. James Monroe, and before Sara Cooper started to recite a poem. Reuben Claflin had appeared at the window to watch. Reuben was Tercin's usual partner in truancy, but Peter's brother was nowhere to be seen. He thought Reuben's habit of daring the windowÐÐplacing himself just out of Mrs. Clark's viewwas stupid. "If you're going to skip, skip," he said. "There's relaxing to be done."
Reuben was uglysomething the whole town agreed upon. In fact, his ugliness was the standard by which the ugliness of other boys was measured, just as Tercin's was the true standard of naughtiness against which the others' was measured and judged. "Why, that tinker was at least half as ugly as Reuben Claflin!" Peter's mother had said just the previous Saturday. So it was how Peter knew the fever was backhe felt cold, not hot, and suddenly Reuben's face was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. The pits and scars and the eyes set as close together as a vole's added up to something so lovely he thought the pain in his chest was on account of it. And the floating feelingthis time it was like something as essential as his soul was flying out to cleave to that of the boy in the window. Sara was just starting her recitation:
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the moldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.
Peter stood up, knocking over his desk. He hadn't wanted to stand up, or knock over his desk, or throw his arms out in front of him, or speak, but he said a wordit sounded a little like "Reuben!" however was more of a moan, the way a tongueless idiot would pronounce the name. It occurred to him to be acutely embarrassed, and to be afraidnothing like this had ever happened to his brothers or his sisters when they had fevers. Mrs. Clark was striding toward him purposefully yet slowly, and every face in the class turned to his, every eye curious and many of the lips already curved in hard, mocking smiles. He was suddenly very aware of the breeze blowing faintly through the window. Mrs. Clark's feet were thunderous on the wooden floor, but there was no other sound, until with a pop like a coal jumping in fire a seam opened across his vision, across the walls of the classroom and across the blackboard and across Sara's arms and chest and hands. No matter how he turned his head it was there, transecting even Reuben's still achingly beautiful face. Another endless moment and the seam burst, and the day unraveled into another dayPeter stood utterly still and calm as the vision rushed over him. Then he was only his sighthe had no hands or feet or body at all. The room was gone, and the noise of Mrs. Clark walking and the other students laughing, and the pressure of the breeze. He beheld an empty blue sky and then a woman falling through it.
He thought at first that she was a man, because she was dressed in a black jacket and pants, but then he saw the bones in her face and the length and richness of the hair that coiled around her head as she twisted in the air. She fell toward him and caught him in her descentnever touching him yet tangling him up in her fall. He felt the lurch in his stomach, and the sting of the wind against his skin, and then he was close enough to see how frightened she was, to understand she was screaming though he could not hear her. They spun together in the airhe glimpsed a crowd standing in the middle of a stone causeway. They twisted again and he saw the two silver towers burning against the lovely blue sky.
Then he was in the classroom again, flat on his back on the floor. Mrs. Clark was kneeling next to him, her hand steadying a ruler stuck in his mouth. Sara was staring down at him, along with the rest of the students.
"Think of green fields!" Mrs. Clark said to him, speaking loud and slow. "Calm blue seas! Relaxing cloudless skies!" She explained to himand to all the class, because a sparrow dropping dead through their window or lightning striking the fields outside was a lesson of natural sciencethat his brain had been overcome by the intense sincerity of Sara's delivery, and so he had a fit.
"No ma'am," said Sara, putting her hand on his head. "I think it's more than just the poetry. He's burning up."
Eleanor Crowley will not stop sending me letters. Every morning Sally brings in another one with breakfast. "Dear Friend," they always begin, "it seems like ages since last we corresponded!" And yet it has hardly been twelve hours. She has her little sister deliver the smoky envelopes (her father holds them over the kitchen fire to burn away infectious humors and make them safe for the little one to handle). Yesterday at last a caesuralittle sister was tired of making the errand, and no one else would help, and so she attached the note to Mophead, the little spaniel who you may remember chased Mrs. Fahey up and down the aisles at last year's Lammas, trying to mate with her. Eleanor sent him out the door with specific instructions, but no one's seen him since. "A brilliant pup!" she writes. "Where could he have gone?" Probably to Cleveland to open an intellectual salon.
I wish you would not separate yourself from mefrom all of us. And I hope I do not oppress you with these notes.
I mention her anyhow only because she says every other day how the visions are so much like a dream, and she compares them to the usual dreams of mere sleep. "I see the towers falling and it is just like when I dreamed that our barn was burning. How grateful I am to wake away from the smoke and the ash, to find the white smoke has become white sheets! Even as it happens I bear myself up bravely because I know it is a dream. I hold on to my Molly McBride" (her ancient and decayed corn-dollit could never have been pretty but now looks like an Indian fetish) "when I feel a fit coming on, and there it is in the vision, and it reminds me. You should try it. Do you have a Molly McBride of your own to hold?"
But for me it is more real than real, and could not be any less like a dream. My first thought, the first time they came, wasFinally, something is real! Isn't it curious, that I should feel like I have been waiting my whole life for this? And how strangebut wonderfully strange, not Eleanor's ordinary strangethat when the towers fall I should feel that an equal and opposing force has flung me up into a realm of pure significance!
"It might be the orange glanders," his mother said. "Or the willow fever. Or the early early dropsy." For each malady she had a separate poultice, and so all afternoon Peter sat restless and bored under strict directions not to disturb the plasters on his back and chest and belly while the rest of the family kept busy with the Lammas preparations. He wanted to be heaping up the ricks or laying the bowers or cooking, anything to distract him from thoughts of the falling woman. He hadn't told his mother or anybody else about what he had seen. People see things when they get fevershe knew that from the stories his brothers and sisters told. Caryn had dreamed that she saw their mother come into the room with a dripping bloody mallet, and as she held it over her daughter in a way that was more blessing than threat, the drops became dark insects in the moonlight and took wing to fly around the house. Horace had seen fiddling rabbits, and George a strange lady made all of fruits and vegetables. Peter wanted to tell them what he'd seen, because his vision was grander and stranger than any of theirs, but when he considered it he felt a drop in his stomach, like he was falling again, and found himself sweating once more. "Nothing scary about a lady," he told himself, sitting in the kitchen while his mother chopped carrots, "even when she's falling through the sky."
"What's that?" his mother asked.
"I'm well," he said. "I'm perfectly well. Can I take off the plasters and go help with the chores?"
"Tomorrow," she said, but relented two hours later, with just enough time before dinner for Peter to help Caryn finish her vanes. Then, except for the excitement and anticipation of Lammas, it should have been an ordinary evening. There wasn't a touch of fever on him, and when he held his hand out before him there wasn't a tremble in it; still, the lady stuck in his mind. When he closed his eyes he could see her, arrested in her fall: her legs up above her head and her face obscured by a dark curtain of hair. Caryn's blue dress, the same one she'd been wearing all week, was suddenly the color of that sky; and when Tercin stuck his sausages in his potatoes, trying to sculpt a goat with horns, all Peter saw were the two burning towers. He reached over with his fork and knocked the sausages down.
"What'd you do that for?" Tercin asked, and Peter said one shouldn't play with one's food. He thought he hid his discomfort well: he talked excitedly about the maze George was building for the coming feast; and though his mother regarded him with an appraising eye, and his father frowned in the middle of the blessing, nobody mentioned his fit again until Tercin started in, and his mother put only a single plaster on his chest before she said good night.
"You got the creaky doom," Tercin said, after their mother took away the light. "Everybody dies from that."
"Go to sleep," Peter said.
"I'll go to sleep," Tercin said. "But not like you. You will sleep the sleep of death. Nobody wakes up from that. Not until the last trump is blown. Good night, brother. Good night and good-bye!"
"I'm not even listening," Peter said. "None of your dumb talk matters."
"Yes, that's a sign. The deafness and then the spots and then the feeling in your skin like you're being flayed. Oh yes, I heard about another case down in Homer. A girl who took a month to die, but she was suffering the whole time. Suffering!"
"Can't you just be good to me for once?" Peter asked, and then he turned on his side and put a pillow over his head, not waiting for Tercin's answer. His brother was quiet after that. Unwilling to close his eyes, Peter took a long time to fall asleep. He feared the woman would be there, painted on the backs of his eyelids, suspended in the blue air. Yet when he slept he dreamed not of her but of Sara. He was sugaring corn for her at the feast, sprinkling grains from a jar and asking her, "Is it enough, my love?" and always she said, "Just a little more, my darling!" He would have been content to sugar her corn all night long, and then he was wakened by a gentle tickling on his face. Tercin was standing above him in a square of moonlight, a brush in one hand and a pot of ink in the other.
"Aw shit," his brother said, throwing down the brush in Peter's bed and slamming the ink pot to the floor. He stormed out of the room. Peter washed his face in the bowl on their dresser. When he slept again he dreamed of nothing at all, and when he woke the next morning he felt entirely restored, no hint of fever and no ache in his bones, and even when he tried he could scarcely recall the color of the falling lady's hair.
His mother pronounced him well at the breakfast table, and no one tried to keep him from assisting with the final preparations for the Lammas feast. After lunch he helped George lay down the maze, placing the sheaves as his brother directed, pretending not to study the arrangement too much, because he would run the race later that evening with all the other children.
At the start of the feast, as Reverend Wallop blessed the corn and the meat, and during the marionette dance a few people, Sara's mother and Mr. Hollin and some others, gave Peter wary stares. It's not a light thing, to have a fit, no matter Mrs. Clark's airy theories of the cause. Everybody knew it was bad luck to have one, or to keep company with someone who had; Sara's mother had suggested they delay the Lammas feast a week, so as not to spoil it with the bad omen. And Peter saw Tercin whispering here and there, spreading fantastic lies, no doubtPeter had had twelve more fits since coming home from school, one every two hours, yes, with each even set of chimes from the kitchen clock. But his mother turned away the suspicious looks with her own glare, and his father interrupted Tercin's tales by slapping the boy on the head so hard he fell off a bench. Then everyone laughed, and someone declared that it wouldn't be a proper Lammas if Tercin Damien didn't suffer for his mischief. Tercin spat and slouched off with a chicken leg in either hand to find Reuben in the darkness just beyond the reach of the bonfires.
Peter spared a thought for the fires and how they had a thing or two in common with the burning towers in his dreams, but the vision seemed a hundred years away by then. And when Sara sought him out and lay down beside him she took up all his attention.
"Peter," she said. "Do you know what I am thinking?"
"You wanted more sugar on your corn."
"What? Who puts sugar on their corn?"
"You smelled something foul when you passed by Mr. Hollin."
"No. You're awful at this game."
"Reverend Wallop says that only Satan knows the secret thoughts of girls."
"If you ever listened to that overblowing fool you'd know he says, ÔOnly the dark one knows the darkest thoughts of man.' It's phrase number seventy-two of the hundred he learned in Bible school. I'll give you one more try before you lose."
"And what's the consequence?"
"Something gruesome and surprising. Once more . . ."
"Well," he said, folding his arms over his chest. "Maybe it's that . . ." He didn't know what to guess, he hated games; but he thought maybe she was enjoying herself. Before he could finish, George blew the Lammas horn, summoning boy and girl under the age of sixteen to run the bower. Sara was on her feet and halfway there before Peter reached his knees. "Maybe you're thinking that this is going to be a perfect evening," he said, and chased after her.
A single torch burned at the center of the bower maze, not luminous enough to make more than shadows of the children who were hurriedly picking their ways toward it. The first one would get a prize. Peter passed Sara where she was stopped in a blind end. "You should have stuck with me," he said, and she frowned at him.
He noticed the brightness before anything else. Just as he was ready to runhe and Edgar Minton had discovered the right path at the same timePeter realized he could see Edgar's face very clearly, down to the pattern of freckles that broke over his nose in a shape like the Big Dipper. It was as if Edgar's face had turned into a sun, except it was ten o'clock at night. "Edgar," Peter said, "what's the matter with your face?"
"I know what's the matter with yours," Edgar said. "It's ass-ugly!" And he ran off toward the center and the prize, while the patch of sunlight he abandoned spread over the bower and the field, and blue sky washed out the night.
"Oh no," Peter murmured, and turned when he heard a hard thump to his left. A lady lay broken there on the ground. A thud to his right, a man this timePeter collapsed, sure he was felled by the rushing flight of something escaping the man's body. He had never seen a body twisted and ruptured like this; he wondered if anyone ever had seen such a thing. "Help!" Peter said. "Help him!"
He was not alone in this day, however no one in the surrounding crowd heard him; they only stared at the towers. The maze had grown by a mile across and the towers stood where the torch had, both shining in the bright sun but only one aflame. Here and there Peter saw other boys, Samuel Finch and Caleb Borley and John Sterling, arrested in the maze, hands shading their eyes as they watched the tower burn.
People were still raining out of the sky, but none fell so close to Peter as the first two had; and from a distance he couldn't tell if any of them was his lady. He'd run toward one, leaping over the sheaves or just cutting right through them, violating the law of the maze, yet before he got a few yards another would fall a little closer, and so he would turn to that one, shouting "Help them!" all the while. He didn't know how long he continued like that, running all over and everyone else just standing and watching, until the noise came, broke in on the quiet burning, a roar and a scream that seemed the perfect sound to match the singular vision.
A voice familiar to him cried, "Beware the angel!" and he turned to see Sara standing not twenty feet from him, pointing south, where something enormous was rushing through the sky. It passed over in an instant, the noise and presence of it pressing him to the ground. With his chest against the bloody grass he lifted his head and saw the thing collide with the unburnt towerquietly its huge noise disappeared into the fire it made. Then there was only Sara's screaming.
The night came back in a snap, the torch and the bonfires still burning, illuminating a different chaostwelve children caught in the maze, kneeling and weeping or screaming, having fits, their parents holding them or hopping and shouting at their sides. Someone was saying his name, not Sara but his mother, standing next to him. He became aware that her hand was on his shoulder, and he pushed it away. "That hurts," he said, because suddenly a wild aching was there.
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