And the Air Was Filled with Flying Gold
Mrs. Albright rose from the subway where the air was as thick and
yellow as old varnish and flew up into blue October twilight.
She hovered for a moment over a valley between two hills, her tweed
coat flapping like a kite. To her right was the low hill where
she lived. It was solid and stony with buildings of brown
and red and tan brick, and in her present position she could see
their angular shadows spread like rugs over the walks and streets,
and late-day sunlight glinting on window glass and the stick-figures
of men and women hurrying uphill toward their homes. Mrs.
Albright extended her arms upward and climbed higher. She
looked down on chimney pots and the skinny storks of television
antennae and the ribbon of parkland next to the broad gray river.
Some of the trees in the park were still plumply green and next
to them, their near-leafless neighbors looked spindly and weak.
She turned, banking easily in the light breeze, and flew toward
the other hill. It was the highest point in the city and dense
with ancient trees, most still fully-leaved in deep green and gold
and touched here and there with burgundy. In the early evening
light, the hill was all curves and ripples of color and at the top
a stone tower rose, its arched windows and orange tile roof reminders
of an earlier time, another continent. Mrs. Albright soared
above the tower. She could now see graceful arches and columns
surrounding landscaped cloisters, and rolling gardens bright with
autumn flowers, and she could hear the chanting of ghostly monks
at prayer. The thin melody of their song floated up and she
felt herself drifting in the sound, and then falling.
I'm sorry. Lost in thought," Mrs. Albright said to the
woman she had jostled.
woman was looking at her with an amused expression on her calm face.
Mrs. Albright thought it one of the most peaceful faces she had
ever seen, a lined and papery face, at the near edge of old age,
a bit older than she herself, but oh, so serene. She touched
her own face and imagined it peaceful.
woman said, "You were standing stock still, staring at the
museum tower." Then she smiled. "Gets to me sometimes
too. It's not like the old country where people are used to living
with the past. Of course you know only bits and pieces of
the museum are from the middle ages. The tower itself is a
modern construction." Then she nodded firmly as if to
underscore her information and walked on, her head down.
Mrs. Albright smiled belatedly at the black-coated figure
now becoming a blur ahead of her on the sidewalk. What a nice
woman, thought Mrs. Albright, what a nice moment with a stranger.
What had she said about the Cloisters tower being modern?
Mrs. Albright thought about the woman's face. "I wonder
what her life is like," she said aloud and she stared hard
at the back of the black coat until she could feel it in her hands.
Mrs. Albright shuddered slightly. She shifted the strap
of her shoulder bag and started up the hill. She was very
tired. Her ankles hurt and her head felt too heavy for her
neck. It was when she was tired that Mrs. Albright thought
about things like the character of hills and imagined herself with
others' faces. She supposed it was part of growing old, this
slipping to the side of the specific, and she forced herself to
focus on the steep incline as if it and not she were the agent of
But she kept looking up. "My season, my time of
day," she said. A clear mid-October day between sunlight
and darkness, when the color is blue shot with gold and then, suddenly,
only blue. And the air is full of crystal, thought Mrs. Albright,
and she stopped to watch a leaf drift slowly from a sapling that
struggled to grow in a patch of earth wrested from the sidewalk.
The leaf looked like the gold brooch that her husband had given
to her just before he died. Mrs. Albright blinked rapidly
and continued walking. Occasionally, she turned and looked
back at the museum tower. She tried to remember to look at
it at least once a day, but sometimes she forgot until she was already
walking away and she had to turn to see it. She could not
remember when or why she had started her ritual glance at the tower,
but she decided it was akin to wishing on stars, a harmless compulsion
that brought her in touch in some way with the unexplainable.
Mrs. Albright turned left onto her street. On her right
was her home, a tan brick apartment building, with trees and shrubs
lining a wide entry court. She looked up at her second floor
windows and tried to imagine what people would think about the person
who lived behind them. Would they be able to tell anything
from the bright white curtains at the bedroom windows or the ball-fringed
muslin that draped those in the livingroom? Would anyone bother,
or be curious enough, to think about her at all?
She laughed and looked down the block with an embarrassed
shake of her head, as if an audience waited there, as if there were
a spotlight shining on her.
Her street stopped at the end of the block. Beyond
an untraveled, intersecting street, the park rose, hilly, thickly
wooded and wild. Just before the wild climb began stood a
semicircle of green benches. On pleasant days fathers and
mothers sat and rocked carriages or watched their children play
in the shelter of the semicircle, and old people chatted in the
shade of huge trees that backed and roofed the benches. Now,
in the early dusk, a young woman sat there, her only company the
baby on her lap. The young woman seemed to be looking at the
giant Black Willow tree that grew next to a building on the corner.
The tree was one of the most beautiful Mrs. Albright had ever seen,
and she had always watched its seasonal changes with great pleasure.
The rough trunk was both slender and sturdy and it arched over the
street, the branches heavy now with long golden leaves.
Mrs. Albright recognized the young woman as her neighbor
in the apartment facing hers across the entry court. They
had not spoken beyond friendly greetings in the hallways, but the
young woman reminded Mrs. Albright of her own daughter, who lived
too far away for frequent visits, and the older woman sometimes
spied discreetly on the younger between the curtains across the
court. She had watched the young woman and her husband move
through the bright rooms of their small home, comfortably, seemingly
without noticing the furniture, as if they had lived there always
instead of merely two years. She had watched them leave for
work in the morning, usually far earlier than she, and always together,
and she wondered where they went, what they did. She had seen
the young woman's body thicken with early pregnancy. She had
wanted to slip inside that body, and had placed her hands on her
own age-softened belly as if she might will it taut and swollen.
Mrs. Albright hesitated on the sidewalk for a moment and
then she decided that it was too early to be so tired, too early
to think about dinner and bed. She would spend a pleasant
moment or two before she went inside and she buttoned the collar
of her coat against the cooling air and walked toward the young
A sudden gust of wind blew down the street, nearly pushing
Mrs. Albright over. The furious gust shook the willow tree
so that the upper part of the trunk lashed from side to side, whipping
the branches into violent dance. Then, without warning, all
the leaves blew off the tree, all of them, all at once, and the
air was filled with flying gold.
Mrs. Albright stared in amazement. "Look at that!"
The young woman stood, as if she too had been picked up by
the wind, and she held the baby up. "Look! Look!"
she said to the baby, and she smiled at Mrs. Albright.
Mrs. Albright laughed in delight. Leaves soared and
sailed and tossed, back and forth, up and down, and then, as the
wind began to subside, fell slowly to the ground. For a time,
they danced and skated along the street. Lifted by erratic
little puffs, they rose and flipped and fell again like tiny golden
acrobats. Then the wind died as suddenly as it had risen and
the leaves lay still, one now and then sighing upward and falling
"Well," Mrs. Albright said. "That
was something, wasn't it!"
"Yes, it was beautiful! I've never seen anything
like it! I've loved watching that tree since we moved here,"the
young woman said. She shifted the baby to her hip. "You
live across from us, don't you? I'm Dana Percy, and this is
"It's very nice to meet you, to meet you both.
I'm Vivian Albright." And Mrs. Albright shook hands with
Dana Percy and touched the soft sweatered arm of the baby.
Mrs. Albright thought the child must be about four months old.
She looked like her mother--soft blond hair, with a hint of the
curl that was abundant on the mother's head. Wide, light blue
eyes, a sweet mouth. Exactly like the mother. Mrs. Albright
looked closely at Dana. She imagined her own skin tight and
smooth, the muscles firm, tried to hear the blood course more easily
through her veins, to feel herself become pink with youth.
But there was great pain in the effort and she felt vaguely that
she was committing a sin. Mrs. Albright realized she was looking
with great ferocity at Dana Percy’s small, well-formed hands.
"Forgive me," Mrs. Albright said. "I
was miles away. Did you say something?"
"Yes," Dana said. "I said I'm sorry
to see this day end. It's the last week of daylight saving.
I don't look forward to those dark afternoons. Will you sit
with me for a few minutes?"
"I'd love to sit with you," Mrs. Albright said.
They sat on the bench and smiled at one another, Dana’s
calm eyes seeming to search Mrs. Albright's face. The older
woman wondered what she sought, wondered if Dana also had a wild
wish to slip to the side of the specific and into other skins.
"May I hold the baby?" Mrs. Albright said.
"I'm about to become a grandmother. I need the practice."
"How wonderful! Of course you may."
Mrs. Albright took the little girl and cradled her in the
crook of her arm. "Aren't you lovely," Mrs. Albright
said, and she felt the remembered thrilling in her body that came
of the holding of so small a life.
"I've been holding all the babies I can," she said.
"My friends' children's babies. We're all--it seems very
sudden--becoming grandmothers. At first I thought I was too
young to be a grandmother, that I wasn't ready to be an old lady;
but it doesn't seem to matter whether I'm ready or not."
"Your husband? I've never seen him. Is he
. . .?"
husband died nearly six years ago. Heart attack in his sleep.
Too young. But a merciful way to die." Mrs. Albright
had recited those lines so often that they now uttered themselves,
and lately they did so without subject or verb.
"Oh," Dana said. "I'm so very sorry."
Dana spoke with directness and kindness that admitted no
insincerity, no sentimentality. Mrs. Albright was not sure
why she knew that was so; after all Dana had not said more or less
than was proper. It might have been the calm clear eyes that
looked right at her.
"I'll tell you the truth," Mrs. Albright said.
"I should have saved him."
"Oh no," Dana said. "Oh, please don't
do that to yourself. You must know how. . . how inappropriate
such feelings are."
"No, you don't understand. I don't feel guilty--or
only guilty; of course you're right about that dreadful feeling.
But I am angry. Not at myself, at fate. He died suddenly,
in his sleep. We were both asleep. I slept while he
died. If I'd been awake, I'd have administered CPR, called
911, and I'd have saved him. Not only would I still have my
husband with me, but also-- I missed
my chance for . . . ." Mrs. Albright stopped. She
settled the baby, who had fallen asleep, more firmly in her arms
and then looked up to see Dana looking hard at her.
"Yes?" Dana said. "Your chance for . . .?"
Mrs. Albright looked through the trees and down the street.
She could just see the tower. It rose above the chimneys and
the telephone lines in the distance, up into the sky, its stone
masked by clouds moving past like smoke. She said in a dreamy
voice, "I've walked up the hill to the Cloisters only once
in the five years I've lived here. I climbed those steps--they're
nearly vertical, you know--through the forest. It was at about
this time of the year, a chilly October Sunday. It was very
quiet. There was no one else going up or down. I wasn't
afraid. I should have been I suppose, but I wasn't.
I think I felt that I was back in a time when there were no muggers.
Or, was there ever such a time?"
Mrs. Albright laughed and then continued, "Did you know
that not many years ago, deep in the earth, down at the bottom of
the hill, they found mastodon bones? Perhaps right under us,
perhaps near those nearly vertical steps, there are more.
That day, as I walked up that hill, I heard those bones rattling
in the earth. It seemed that all those ancient trees shook,
although there was no wind. And then, when I reached the top,
there was a parking lot and cars, and green signs with white arrows
and neat notices of entrance fees. So I turned around and
walked back down as quickly as I could. I was so disappointed,
you see. I wanted, I wanted to... to touch the past, to make
it mine . . . . Anyway, now I prefer to look at the tower
Mrs. Albright turned to face Dana Percy and said, "I'm
sorry. I'm not explaining very well. You wanted to know
. . . . When my husband died . . . . It was my chance for a
. . . . Oh dear, now please don’t misunderstand me.
It was my chance for a larger life. My chance to do something,
oh dear, something . . . heroic." Mrs. Albright laughed
drily. "How utterly ludicrous that must seem to you."
Then she laughed again, merrily this time, and said, "You know
. . . Superwoman!"
"Ah," Dana said with an amused glint in her eyes.
"Oh well, you see me as I am." Mrs. Albright
smiled in amusement also. She looked down at the baby, who
had awakened and was looking at Mrs. Albright with her mother's
blue gaze. "Hello sweetheart," Mrs. Albright said.
"Did my silliness wake you up?" She rocked the
little girl and turned again to Dana. "You have the
dubious honor of hearing this confession. I have never told
anyone before. Do I seem ridiculous?"
"No, I don't think so. I can understand your
wanting to do something extraordinary. We all want to fly,
"Oh yes," Mrs. Albright laughed. "Oh
yes." Then she grew serious. "Some of us
more than others, though. For instance, my daughter is a
realist. She knows what she is capable of doing and she
does it, and does it well, by the way, but I don't think she wants
"Well, I'll bet she does. Her flight plan is
probably just a bit different from yours, or mine, for that matter.
Does she live nearby?"
"No, she lives on the west coast. She's a brunette,
brown-eyed version of you." Mrs. Albright paused. "I
seem to be admitting to something here. I just don't know
what it is. I hope you don't mind my comparing you to my
daughter--or the implication that I find you charming because
you remind me of her."
"Oh no," Dana said. "I'm honored.
I find you very charming too. By the way, what do you do?
For a living, I mean. We usually leave home very early--my
husband and I are both pediatricians; we've just begun to practice--but
sometimes I see you leave the building in the morning and you
seem to be filled with such energy and purpose and good humor.
I often think of your spirit and hope that I'll be like you when
I’m your age."
"What a surprise to hear that I seem good humored,"
Mrs. Albright said. "Thank you for the compliment.
. . . I manage a bookstore downtown—my husband was the original
owner and I've been an employee there of one sort or another for
over twenty years. These days . . . well, it's a job, isn't
it, and I'm glad to have it. And you're a doctor.
How marvelous! And difficult and demanding. But you're
suited to it, I can tell."
The two women sat quietly for a moment. The sun had
fallen over the hill behind them and the sky was lit by a glow
that caused the bits of mica in the sidewalk to sparkle and the
fallen yellow leaves to shine.
The baby began to make little fretful sounds. Mrs.
Albright talked softly to her and then said to Dana, "I think
it's become too chilly for her."
"And she's hungry as well. We'd better go indoors."
Dana took the baby from Mrs. Albright and stood up.
"You go ahead." Mrs. Albright said. "I
think I'll sit a bit longer and watch the sky."
"I enjoyed our talk very much," Dana said.
"Please, won't you come visit us? I know my husband
would like to meet you. He has often said how nice you seem
to be, and our families, like yours, live some distance away.
Will you come for dinner one night soon?"
"I'd like that very much. You must come to see
"Of course. Until then, we can wave at each
other across the courtyard."
As she walked away, Dana turned and smiled and gave a practice
wave, the baby bobbing at her shoulder.
"What a lovely person," Mrs. Albright said as
she stretched her arms out on the back of the bench and looked
at her October evening. Dana seemed so wise, so confident,
so like her, Mrs. Albright's, daughter. With a sigh, Mrs.
Albright looked around. The sky began to surrender what
remained of the day and soon became a deep, chilly blue.
The street lamps came on and flooded small scenes, of velvet green
foliage and white curbstone, golden leaves and black asphalt.
The very air sparkled and Mrs. Albright breathed deeply and felt
it move through her.
Suddenly a figure was in front of her. How had she
missed its approach? The figure was silhouetted against
the deepening twilight and Mrs. Albright could not tell whether
it was a man or a woman. It spoke to her.
"What?" Mrs. Albright said. "What
did you say?"
"Give me your money or I'll cut you," the figure
Mrs. Albright stood up quickly. "I will not!"
she said. "I most certainly will not." The words
flew from her mouth as if the wind had taken them from her, just
as it had taken the willow's golden leaves, and she thought happily,
Oh, this is what it feels like!
Then, something shiny flashed up and into Mrs. Albright's
chest. It flashed again and fell to the ground. Unconscious
of pain, Mrs. Albright looked hard at the figure before her.
Then the universe stopped whirling and became very still and quiet.
Mrs. Albright slipped inside the dark figure. She felt alien
skin wrapped about bone that was hers and not hers, and alien
bone shielding organs that were hers and not hers. And then
she wore the alien skin as if it had always been hers, and the
figure's bone was hers, its heart, eyes and mind hers. The
universe resumed its furious course and the wind moved through
her and around her and under her and lifted her into the air.
She flew up into the darkness and circled her home, where she
looked into her neighbors' windows and saw the lights come on.
She saw Dana Percy resting in a chair, the baby at her breast.
She peered into her own windows, past the white curtains, and
saw the black shapes of empty chairs and sofas, and tables and
chests cold and still and gleaming in the darkness. And
then she turned away and soared farther up into the black dome
of the sky, over the tower from which came, more and more faintly,
the thin melody of prayer.
H A M I L T O N S T O N E
E D I T I O N S
p.o. box 43, Maplewood, New Jersey 07040