John carries more history on his back than he's willing to share.
Sharp and Sided Hail
by Brat Farrar
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
Gerard Manly Hopkins, Heaven-Haven
I. A set of invisible tattoos running the length of his spine
The kitchen table glows in the afternoon light, like it’s made of gold or fire rather than wood, burnishing away the countless marks in the finish. It’s warm under John’s silently drumming fingers, and more familiar to him than the back of his hand. He’s grown up at this table, meal by meal through the years, and can map its imperfections from memory.
“Are you sure you want to do this, John? Once it’s done, there won’t be any undoing it.” The table creaks as John’s grandfather leans his weight on it, heavy with exhaustion from a long day’s work done.
John loves his grandfather dearly, loves him more (although he’d never admit it, to himself or anyone else) than John’s own father. And he knows that his grandfather loves him in return, and that this love is what prompts the question—love, and not doubt. But it still rankles, and he has to take a moment to make sure he doesn’t say more than he intends.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is fly—you know that. If the military ever finds out what I am, they’d keep me grounded, turn me into nothing more than a, a fancy sniffer-dog. Earning my wings means giving up this piece of me. I know that, Grandda. I know. I just—”
He rests his head back against the kitchen wall, pressing his hands against the chipped and finger-printed paint. When he pays attention, he can feel/hear/taste the love that has seeped into it over the years, and should he close his eyes, he could walk through the house with confidence, just from the way all the antique furniture resonates at him. This has been a part of him as far back as he can remember, this sense of age and use and quality of manufacture. To go without it would be like going blind.
But one bright blue day when John was eight (the day his uncle died), his father took him up in an old wood-and-cloth biplane, and John had almost touched the sky. And after that, he couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his life stuck on the ground, able only to look up and wish.
“I can’t not fly,” he says at last, unable to find the words for what he feels whenever he sees a plane go by overhead, the aching need he sometimes has to feel nothing but thin air beneath his feet. “If I have to choose between the two, there’s no choice.”
His grandfather is silent for a long time, and John half-listens to the crickets outside, absent-mindedly notes how the shadows in the room shift as the sun goes down. “I imagine it’s how I’d feel if I had to choose between the farm and something else,” his grandfather says at last. “Unless that something else were your grandmother—or you—I wouldn’t have to think twice about it.”
They don’t speak about John’s father, haven’t ever since John came to spend his last year of high school with them. But there’s something his father said, many years ago, that seems important, and he can’t spend the rest of his life pretending the man doesn’t exist. No matter how much easier it would be to do so.
“‘Being in the air is worth anything they put you through, no matter what,’” John quotes, remembering a birthday spent high above the ground, and bites the inside of his cheek because he can’t cry, not matter how his eyes prickle with the need for tears. “Dad said that to me once, a long time ago.”
“He would understand,” his grandda says, voice gravelly like maybe he wants to cry too, although his eyes are clear and untroubled. “His sacrifices weren’t the ones yours will be, but he made them all the same. Gave up the farm, something I never thought he’d do, and never regretted it for a moment.” He sighs, and John can now see the signs of old griefs that he’d missed at first. One son dead and the other might as well as be—it’s no wonder John’s been loved so fiercely.
The next day, after all the chores are done for the morning, John goes to sleep in someone else’s basement. It’s almost four when he wakes up again, back aching like an old burn, and he can’t feel the walls anymore or the ancient table he’s lying on. His grandfather drives him home, and John spends the entire trip unconsciously rubbing his fingers against the inside of the truck door, as if that will bring the world back into age and history.
The house feels empty and insubstantial when he enters it, a mirage, and he stubs his toes a half dozen times in the walk back to the kitchen. It’s like the whole world’s been changed to paper cut-outs while he was dreaming, and he wants to weep over the loss. But he chose this, chose with his eyes open to blind himself like this, and there’s no use crying now.
His grandmother makes him hot chocolate, even though the day has burnt through ‘steamy’ straight into ‘scorching’, and he gratefully wraps his fingers around the mug, as if the intensity of one sensation can make up for the loss of another. He half expects it to fall through the table when he finally puts it down, empty except for the last faint swirl of chocolate powder, but it doesn’t.
There’s a cricket singing somewhere in the kitchen, its solo voice shrill and insistent, a steady marking off of moments as another afternoon creeps off into evening. John’s grandparents settle back into their routines, leaving John alone to come to terms with what he’s just done.
After a while he drags himself out to the back porch, keeping one hand on the wall as he goes, as if the house might fall away without him keeping it there. He sits on the steps until it’s time to eat, elbows planted on knees, watching the clouds slide across the sky and imagining himself up there with them, his only anchor the wooden post at his shoulder.
II. A thin white line running just under his shoulder blade
“All I want to do is fly,” John says, voice slightly muffled because he’s got his face mashed up against the wall. It’s a nice wall, very hard and solid. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.” Which is a lie, but John’s world has gone kind of loopy, so he feels entitled to fib a little if he feels like it.
“Then why are you here at all?” Here, in this case, meaning any number of places: John’s current location several floors underground, the sky where he currently isn’t, his post at McMurdo. Here at Antarctica, where he’s been living in quiet exile.
The burn under John’s left shoulder blade still aches a little, despite having healed long ago, and he hunches his shoulders as if that will change something. “You know why,” he tells the wall, and leaves it at that. He has other wounds that aren’t yet done scabbing over, and this is one of them. If he picks at it too soon, it might start to bleed.
“Black mark. Disobeyed orders. Ran out to rescue a buddy and came back with everyone dead.” There is no mockery in the recital, no derision. There doesn’t need to be for it to sting. “Came back without a scratch on you.” Not a scratch, just a long red welt from where a bullet had slid along his back. The irony of that is biting, especially when spoken in the accents of John’s childhood.
“All I want to do is fly,” John says again, but he isn’t sure what he means by ‘fly’ anymore, just as he isn’t sure what—or who—he is. And everyone who might be able to tell him is either dead or never really knew in the first place.
“Is that really what you want?” John’s never felt this strong an urge to turn and look behind him, but he’s had his share of bad luck—no need to add to it voluntarily. So he closes his eyes, and tries to remember the answer to the question.
He lost himself for a bit, out there in the desert with nothing and no one to anchor him, and while he’s found most of the pieces again, there are still holes. And he’s beginning to think that flying isn’t enough to fill them all.
It’s been a while since anyone’s wanted him, wanted John, since he’s had any real companion besides the one standing at his back. If he looks hard enough at the back of his eyelids, he can see the face of the woman who tried to recruit him, see the desperate need she thought she was hiding. Almost as desperate a need as the one he still feels for the sky.
And he can feel the memory of that freaky chair, the way it sang to him as nothing besides flight has for years and years. His world is still wavering around him in the aftershock of it, and it feels like something inside him might have been shaken loose, a piece of himself he once locked away. It’s like seeing in color again, and he’s not sure he can just walk away from it and willingly return to a world of black and white.
“Is that really what you want?” his doppelganger repeats patiently, as it has for years now, and John can’t ignore the question any longer, can’t continue to pretend that the earth doesn’t matter. He’s not an albatross, able to go the rest of his life without touching ground, alone with nothing but sea and sky. “Is that really allyou want?”
“No,” John says, and opens his eyes.
III. Three and a half parallel seams, running diagonally from shoulder to rib cage.
John’s sitting with his back to a tree when he hears it, the snap of twigs being stepped on loud against the blanket of nighttime noises. But there are no pale beams of light, no calls of ‘John’ or ‘Sheppard’, so he knows it’s nobody from camp—unless it’s the kids again, trying to scare him.
If so, they’re a bit late. Nothing they could think up would be any worse than realizing he’d been abandoned in a strange forest, and he’d coped with that just fine. Though it took him longer to get moving than his father would’ve liked—John can almost hear his disapproval over the time wasted in hoping someone would come for him.
But no one had, and the trees around him had looked like some giant cat’s scratch-posts, so John had figured that ‘stay where you are and wait for someone to find you’ was a bad plan. That left him with the ‘wander around the woods looking for signs of civilization’ plan, since he had no idea where he was. Still doesn’t, but at least he can now blame that on his current inability to see anything.
More twigs snap, and from the amount of noise that’s being made, there’s either something really big coming or there’s a lot more than one of them, so hanging around probably isn’t a good idea. The night’s dark enough that he can’t really tell what’s tree and what’s mostly-empty space, but he goes anyway, arms stretched out so he doesn’t run face-first into anything, feet feeling for the ground with each stride.
There are no stars for him to follow, no lights to guide him and he might be going in circles but he keeps going anyway. Whatever the thing is, it’s definitely chasing him now, crashing through the brush as if it doesn’t matter that John can hear it.
It probably doesn’t.
John runs faster, heedless of the branches whipping him in the face and scratching his bare arms and legs. Around him the forest stretches away, featureless and unaffected by man, and no matter how John reaches with that odd sense he has, he can find nothing that might be camp or any other human habitation. There’s just him, and whatever’s chasing him, and he can’t stop, no matter how his body wants to. This isn’t anything like a nightmare, because even in bad dreams John can feel the walls and bed surrounding him, and there’s nothing here.
If he were to cry, it would be from frustration at having his summer ruined, not from fear of dying. Everyone dies—he’s known this since he was eight. But it doesn’t seem fair for him to die in this place, in this way, when it’s not even his fault that he’s out here. He won’t cry though, isn’t crying, can’t spare the time to cry, because just over there—so faint he might be imagining it—there’s the flicker of something man-made. The thing behind him is getting closer, moving faster than he can churn his too-short legs, but he’s not alone in the dark anymore.
“Help!” he screams, not caring if his voice breaks—his father was right, the many times he said that staying alive is the only thing that matters. So John screams again, and forces his legs to keep moving.
There is an answering shout and far-off shadows of light that aren’t his eyes fooling him. The thing is on his heels now, close enough for John to almost feel its breath against his neck, and if it weren’t for the hard ground beneath him, he might be flying.
And suddenly the lights are close enough that he can see the men holding them and feel the echoes of the well-used guns in their hands. Someone yells Duck, so John drops, careless of the twigs and stones that bite into his already torn hands and knees. Then there is searing fire down his back and thunder in his ears, and when he looks up, two of the men are lowering rifles.
“Hey, kid—you okay?” One of them asks, and John would say yes, except the blackness surrounding him seems to be pouring in through his back and everything’s fading away and falling apart and all John wants is to be home—
When the world slides back into focus his back has four new seams and he’s still not home—not at the farm, which shouldn’t be home, but is—but his grandmother’s there, knitting something practical in gray wool, and that’s close enough.
She takes him back to the camp to collect his things, and while the camp director’s trying to convince her to let John finish out the session, one of the counselors takes John aside and asks him who did it. John considers asking in return where the counselor had been while the bag was being dragged over John’s head, how the other boys had managed to disappear for so long without anyone noticing, but the counselor is only a few years older than John, and has sweat-stains around his collar, and circles under his eyes.
John’s grandmother comes out of the director’s office then, and rescues John from having to lie. He does know who did it, but he’d rather pretend that it was just a prank gone wrong, rather ignore the flat not-quite-rightness he’d seen in the boys’ eyes before they jumped him. He had thought they were his friends—they had said they were his friends—and so now he wants to just forget he ever met them.
His grandmother asks no questions during the long drive home, and John is glad to sit in silence—a little stiffly, because of the stitches in his back—and watch the trees roll past. If anything, the forest is larger in daylight than it had been in the dark.
The farm looks the same as it always has, scraggly flowerbed behind the kitchen, cats wandering across the driveway, John’s grandfather stretched out under the tractor, trying to coax it into working through another summer.
If John closes his eyes, he can feel the claws ripping him open, can remember the shadowy, worried looks on the hunters’ faces, and how he had touched the darkness for an instant. Can remember being led by unkind hands, stumbling, through brush and briar—but he doesn’t, because he’s carrying bags out of the truck and into the house, and his hands are full. There’s no room for such thoughts here.
After dinner he goes out on the porch and watches the day dissolve into starlight, and that night he dreams of fields and open skies.