Authors: Elizabeth Hand
“Will you miss me when it’s too cold for ice cream, Eva?” he asked mournfully. “When the three Kims are all drinking hot chocolate?”
She stared at him solemn-eyed for a moment as he gazed wistfully across the field. Then she slid from his lap, pursing her lips to kiss his chin, and pulled at Sam’s shoulder. “Show him what you can do, Sam,” she said imperiously. “That thing. Show Cass.”
Sam smiled and looked away.
“Show him!” She bounced against his side, pulling his union suit until he nodded and rose sighing, like a bear torn from his long sleep. Cass looked at me with mock alarm as Sam lumbered down the steps to the willow tree.
“Watch!” Eva shrilled, and Maidie turned to face us, her white face cold and impassive.
About the willow tree honeysuckle twined, wreathing it in gold and ivory trumpets. Sam reached and gently stripped the tiny blooms from a vine, disturbing the cicadas that sang there. In his hands the flowers glowed slightly in the dusk. I glanced up and marked where bats stitched the sky above him, and pointed for Eva to look.
“I see,” she said impatiently, pulling away from me. “
Sam wheeled to face us, inclined his head to Eva and smiled. Then he flung his arms upwards, sending a stream of flowers into the air.
“See them?” cried Eva, clinging to Cass’s hand.
I saw nothing. Beside me Cass squinted, adjusting his glasses. Sam tore more honeysuckle from the willow and flung another handful into the air.
A black shape broke from the sky, whipped towards Sam’s face and fell away so quickly it looked like it was moving backwards. Another flicker of darkness inches from Sam’s face, and another; and they were everywhere, chasing the blossoms he hurled into the night, flitting about his face like great black moths. A faint rush of air upon my cheek: I saw the bluish sheen of wings, the starpoint reflection of one tiny eye as a bat skimmed past. I shuddered and drew closer to Cass. Eva laughed and darted away from the porch, joining Sam and gathering the broken flowers from the grass. She stood with face tilted to where the tiny shadows whirled, striking at flowers and craneflies.
“Can you hear them, Cass?” she called. He stood, eyes and mouth wide as he looked from the two of them to me, and nodded.
“I do,” he murmured.
Beside him I gripped the porch rail and shrank from them, the soft rush of wings and their plaintive song: a high thin sound like wires snapping. “Cass,” I whispered. “Cass—let’s go.”
But he didn’t hear me; only stood and watched until Maidie called to Eva and her sharp voice sent the bats flurrying into the night. Her voice stirred Cass as well; he turned to me blinking, shaking his head.
“Let’s go,” I urged him, and he took my hand, nodding dazedly: Sam walked to the porch steps and looked up at us.
“You be by tomorrow,” he said, and for a moment he held my other hand. His fingers were cold and damp, and when he withdrew them I found a green tendril in my palm, its single frail blossom crushed against my skin. “To say goodbye.”
“We’ll be here,” Cass called back as I led him towards the truck.
When we drove up the following afternoon it was late, the sun already burning off the tops of the mountains. Cass had bought a case of True Blue back in Zion. We’d been drinking most of the day, mourning the end of summer, the first golden leaves on the tulip poplars. From the top of the rise Maidie’s house looked still, and as we coasted down the hill I saw no one on the porch. The chairs and empty beer bottles were gone. So was the broom that Cass had made into a hobby-horse for Eva, and the broken pots and dishes that had been her toys. Cass parked the truck on the grass and looked at me.
“What the hell is this?” he wondered, and opened another beer. For several minutes we sat, waiting for Sam or Eva to greet us. Finally he finished his beer and said lamely, “Guess we better go find out.”
On the porch Eva’s half-grown kitten mewled, scampering off when Cass bent to pick it up. “Jeez,” he muttered, pushing tentatively at the screen door. It gave gently, and we hesitated before entering. Inside there was nothing: not a chair, not a rag, not a glass. Cass stared in disbelief, but put on a nonchalant expression when Sam trudged in.
“Looks like you been doing your spring cleaning,” Cass said uneasily.
Sam nodded. “I got to go. this time of year…take the girl with me.” He smiled vacantly and crossed to the back door. Cass and I looked at each other, perplexed. Sam said nothing more and stepped outside. I followed him, peering into the single other room that had held a cot and mattress. Empty.
I found Cass outside, weaving slightly as he followed Sam to the porch’s crumbling edge. “Where’re you going?” he asked plaintively, but Sam only shook his head in silence, leaning on the splintered rail and gazing out at the field.
There was no sign of Maidie, but I could hear Eva chanting tunelessly to herself in the thicket of jewelweed at wood’s edge. Cass heard, too, and called her name thickly. The golden fronds, heavy with blossoms and bees, twitched and crackled; and then Eva raced out, breathless, her face damp with excitement.
“Cass!” she cried, and scrambled up the porch steps to hug him. “We got to go.”
“Where?” he asked again, resting his beer against her neck as he smoothed her tangled hair. “You going off to school?”
She shook her head. “No. Sam’s place.” Eva hugged his legs and looked up at him imploringly. “You come, too. Okay, Cass? Okay?”
Cass finished his beer and threw the bottle recklessly towards the field, to crash and shatter on stone. “I wish someone’d tell me where you all are going,” he insisted, turning to Sam.
The old man shrugged and eyed Little Eva. “You about ready?”
Eva shook her head fiercely. For the first time since I’d known her I saw her eyes blister with tears. “Sam—” she pleaded, yanking Cass’s hand at each word. “I want Cass, too.”
“You know that ain’t up to me,” Sam replied bluntly, and he turned and went back inside.
Cass grinned then, and winked at me. “Just like a girl,” he remarked, tousling her hair.
Faint high voices called from the woods. From the brush scrambled the three Kims, tearing twigs from their hair and yelling to us as they clambered over the fence. Beside me Little Eva stiffened, slipping her hand from Cass’s as she watched her friends waving. Suddenly she let out a yell and sprang to meet them with arms flung wide, her hair a blazing flag in the sunset. Cass called after her, amused.
“That kid,” he laughed, then stopped and cocked his head.
“What?” I glanced back at the sagging porch door, wondering where Maidie and Sam had gone.
“Hear that?” Cass murmured. He looked at me sharply. “You hear that?”
I shook my head, smoothing the hair from my ears. “No. The kids?” I pointed to the girls greeting Eva in the tall grass.
“Singing,” Cass said softly. “Someone’s singing.” He stared intently after Eva.
Above the field the sun candled the clouds to an ardent sea. A chill breeze rose from the west, lifting a shimmering net of bees from the jewelweed and rattling the willow leaves. In the grass the girls shrieked and giggled, and as we watched the other children joined them for their evening games of Gray Wolf and Shadow-Tag, small white shapes slipping from the darkening trees with their mongrels romping underfoot. Eva pelted her friends with golden-rod while the boys tussled in furrows, their long blue shadows dancing across the grass until they were swallowed by the willow’s roots. Cass watched them, entranced, his head tilted to catch some faint sound on the wind.
“What is it?” I asked, but he only shook his head.
“Can’t you hear?” He looked at me in wonder, then turned away and walked across the field towards the children.
“Cass!” I called after him; but he ignored me. For several minutes I waited, and finally stepped back to the door. And stopped.
singing. Perhaps I had already heard without realizing, or mistaken the refrain for the cry of the crickets or nightjars. I cocked my head as Cass had done and tried to trace the music; but it was gone again, drowned by the children’s voices. I caught the bellow of Cass’s laughter among their play, then faint music once more: a woman’s voice, but wordless or else too far off for me to understand her song. At the doorway I paused and looked out at the field. The sun scarcely brushed the horizon now above the cirrus archipelago. Lightning bugs sparked the air and the children spilled through their trails, Cass lumbering among them with first Kim and then Little Eva hugging his narrow shoulders. For a long while I watched them, until only Eva’s amber hair and Cass’s white shirt flashed in the dusk. Finally Cass looked up and, seeing me for the first time, beckoned me to join them. I smiled and waved, then bounded down the steps and across the field.
From the grass hundreds of leafhoppers flew up as I passed, the click of their wings a soft and constant burr. Last light silvered the willow bark and faded. The wind was stronger now, and with the children’s voices it carried that faint music once more, ringing clearly over the whir of insects. I halted, suddenly dizzy, and stared at my feet as I tried to steady myself.
When I glanced up the children had fallen still. They stood ranged across the field, their dogs beside them motionless, ears pricked. I turned to see what held them.
As though storm-riven the willow thrashed, branches raking the sky as if to hurl the first stars earthward. I swore and stepped back in disbelief. Beneath me the ground shuddered, buckling like rotten bark. Then with a steady grinding roar the earth heaved. A rich spume of dirt and clover sprayed me as the ground beneath the tree split like a windfall apple.
The roaring stopped. A second of utter silence; and then song poured from the rift like a flock of swans. I clapped my hands to my ears and fell to my knees.
The dogs heard first. I felt the heat of their flanks as they streamed past me, heard their panting and faint whimpers. I forced myself to look up, brushing dirt from my face.
Above a gaping mouth in the red earth the willow reared. In its shadow stood Maidie, arms outstretched. She was singing, and the dogs streamed past her, vaulting into the darkness at her feet. I stared amazed. Then from behind me I heard voices, the soft stir of footsteps. I glanced back.
The field lay in gray half-light. Abruptly the darkness itself shivered, broken where the children ran laughing across the field, in twos and threes, girls clutching hands to form a chain across the waving grass, the littlest clinging to the bigger boys shouting in excitement. I yelled to them, but my voice was drowned by their laughter. They did not see me as they raced past.
drew them, head thrown back as she sang on and on and on, her voice embracing stone and tree and hound and stars, until her song was the children and she sang them all into the earth. Her glasses fell from her face, the gaze she turned upon the children no longer blind but blinding: eyes like golden flowers, like sunrise, like autumn wheat. My hands were raw from kneading the clay as I stared, boys and girls rushing to her and laughing as they disappeared one by one into the rift at her feet. Her hands moved over and over again in a ceaseless welcoming wave, as though she gathered armfuls of bright blossoms to her breast. But I could not move: it was as if I had become that tree, and rooted to the earth.
Final footsteps pattered on the grass. Cass and Eva passed me, running hand in hand to join the rest, now gone beneath the willow. I screamed his name and they halted. Cass stared back dimly, shaking his head as though trying to recognize me. The woman I had known as Maidie raised her arms and fell silent. Then she called out a word, a name. Little Eva smiled at Cass, standing on tiptoe to kiss him. He smiled and kissed her forehead, then gathered her into his arms to carry her the last few steps to the willow. I watched as the woman waiting there took his hands; and lost him forever.
Another figure stepped from the tree’s shadow. He stooped to take the child from Cass’s arms. I saw Cass turn from Sam to the woman beside him, the woman whose wheat-gold eyes held a terrible sorrow. And suddenly I understood: knew the mother’s eternal anguish at losing the child again to him, that bleak consort, He Who Receives Many; knew why she gathered this bright harvest of playmates for a sunless garden, attendants for the girl no more a girl, the gentle maiden doomed to darkness the rest of the turning year.
One last moment they remained. The child raised her hand to me and opened it, once, in a tiny farewell. The ground trembled. A sound like rushing water rent the air. The willow tree crashed into darkness. A crack like granite shattering; a smell like ash and grinding stone. They were gone; all gone.
The night was silent. Before me stretched the empty field, an abandoned cottage. Then from the woods echoed a poorwill’s wail and its mate’s echoing lament. I stumbled to the fallen tree and, kneeling between its roots, wept among the anemones hiding children in the earth.
I wrote this on the typewriter in the office of a defense contractor where I was working in 1986, after I quit the Smithsonian. On weekends I was in the mountains around Charlottesville, Virginia, riding on the ice cream truck with the boy who was briefly my husband and his best friend, Eddie Dean. Eddie is now a D.C.-area journalist and a terrific writer; in the story he became Cass Tyrone.
That was a pretty spectacularly happy time for me: even though I spent my days as an office manager in the dreaded Military Industrial Complex, I was writing and had the exhilarating sense that I might actually make it work. Everything in “On the Town Route” is true; as I wrote when it was published, “anyone who’s spent much time in those mountains can tell you, some truly weird stuff happens there.” This was my first story to delve into the Greek mysteries, the boy in the tree notwithstanding.
What if in your dream you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if when you woke you had the flower in your hand?
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge