Joan Newburger

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.
Oh, I'm sorry.  Lost in thought," Mrs. Albright said to the woman she had jostled.

          The 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.
           The 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 her progress.
            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 woman.
            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!" she cried.
            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 again.
            "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 Caroline."
            "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 . . .?"
            "My 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 from below."
            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, don't we?"
            "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 to fly."
            "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 me too."
            "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 whispered.
            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

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