We were somewhere over Ohio when the land changed to something familiar. I caught glimpses of hills flattening through broken clouds, of muddy lakes and square fields of green and yellow with houses in the corners. There was a smudge of red against the land. I nudged Mike. “Look,” I said, “I think I can see a person down there.”
“Can’t see anyone from thirty-thousand feet,” he said. He had a book opened over his thigh — A Brief History of Aviation Technology— and a half-empty cup of bourbon trembling on his tray table. Mike liked to say that he flew first-class for the complimentary alcohol, but I knew it was because the seats were closer to the screens and knobs and flashing lights of the cockpit, the whirring arcade brain of the jet. On our first date, he’d pulled out diagrams of 747 cockpits, his fingers resting on the instruments as he used words like mode control panels, heading indicators, centralized aircraft monitors. To me, flight was still a gamble. A more complicated slot machine. Four clicks— thrust, drag, weight, lift— and if they all lined up neatly, jackpot. The jet flew on.
“I don’t like the way this guy flies,” he said now. Mike couldn’t stand being a passenger. I noticed how his fingers twitched against the fabric of his jeans during takeoff, his lips pushing forward into an imaginary microphone as the jet reared into the sky. I didn’t point it out.
“My mom might give you a hard time about being a pilot,” I said.
Mike’s mouth twitched. “Another one of her phases?”
“She just doesn’t believe in air travel.”
I didn’t know if this was still true, but her “phases” had always been worse in the summers.
Something about the mugginess, the brilliant explosions of honeysuckle and blackberry brambles, the night breezes seemed to stir her into a frenzy. The summer of 1996 had been especially bad. I had just turned ten, and I spent the days watching the temperature climb higher, higher, higher on the butterfly thermometer tacked to our house’s siding. The mercury was hovering around 103 one Wednesday afternoon when she called me inside. A jet had exploded in mid-air off the coast of Long Island, its parts, metal and glass and wire, falling into the ocean with parts of its passengers. The news channel was running a continuous reenactment of the crash, and I watched the nose of the cartoon plane break off and plummet into the flat blue over and over again. My mother grabbed my face between her hands. “Never step foot in one of those things,” she said. I could see the whites all around her hazel eyes. “They’re trying to kill us, Mare. Even you. Even a precious little girl like you.” It’d almost been a relief when Mike told me all the things that actually caused plane crashes. Decompression, engines falling off, navigational errors, loss of electrical power, foggy weather. Gulls and raptors and geese, migrating north or south, flying into the engines. Landing gears bursting into flame.
The jet lurched before the wheels scraped against the strip of pavement. Northern Kentucky Airport. I hadn’t been here in years, but I remembered everything. The black and white cows dotting fields just off the runway. Barbed wire slicing through the bluegrass. My phone buzzed in my pocket, two jolts, but Mike didn’t hear it.
“So,” I said. My voice was high and fluttery. Weak. “You ready to meet the infamous Mrs. Perry?”
He threw back the last of his Jim Beam. “That was a really terrible landing,” he said.
* * *
My mother was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown while I was working as a secretary in Boston after my college graduation. She sent me letters. She learned to tell time from the way light slid and pooled around her room, from how quickly slabs of morning sunlight inched down her body like X-rays. She told me how nurses filled up her IV with cocktails of medications with five-syllable names and then drew blood, depositing it into vials with bright orange stickers marked “biohazard.” She was tired of them filling her up and then draining her, sending chemicals swimming and spawning through her bloodstream until they’d found the right balance and she couldn’t feel anything at all. “This is what health feels like,” they told her. She believed them at first.
I met Mike in an airport Starbucks after she’d been at St. Joseph’s for a few days. I was folding my boarding pass into a swan with triangular wings when he slid into the chair across from me. My mother had always told me that when I met the one, our auras would merge in an explosive, mystical moment, that I would feel folds of energy falling away from me like petals from a dying flower. When I looked up at him, I felt no such soul-splintering violence, but decided it was possible that his aura was trapped under his white button-up shirt and pilot’s cap. He bought me a Frappuccino, and I pretended I liked the taste of cold coffee as he told me about his flight to Detroit later that afternoon. His teeth were bleached white. Before he left, Mike gave me his number instead of asking for mine. I watched his hat bobbing along above the mass of travelers. When it disappeared, I unfolded my boarding pass and realized I’d missed my flight home to see my mother. I didn’t care.
We started meeting weekly at the bakery in town. It seemed like he knew everything. We sat at the metal table near the street on nice days, and I threw scone crumbs to the pigeons around my feet as he told me about cumulonimbus clouds that towered miles high, how the sunniest place on earth was actually the South Pole, that sky-watchers had just discovered a diamond-encrusted planet millions of light-years away. He told me how batteries worked and how pinecones’ scales closed when rain approached. I told him that sometimes, when people died, it was found that they weighed less than they had the moment before death.
“I think it’s because of the soul,” I said. “I think it goes somewhere else.”
“You really think a soul would have mass? Oh, Mare.” Mike leaned towards me and brushed his thumb against my cheek. “You can’t believe everything you read.”
* * *
The drive from the airport to my mother’s house was quick—a straight shot. We listened to gospel music on the rental car’s radio until we arrived at my hometown, Dover, a collection of buildings off the highway—population 375 at last year’s census. One grocery store, a small high school, and huge billboards with peeling paint flapping in the wind. “Well, isn’t this cute,” Mike said. He slowed down to cross the bridge cutting through the middle of town— a plaque set off to the side read Kentucky’s Oldest Covered Bridge— and the brown sheen of the Ohio flashed underneath us.
“It’s this yellow house on the left,” I said. My mother was standing there in the yard when we pulled up, her work boots— the ones she wore to clean out the chicken coop— sunk into the damp ground like she’d taken root there. She was wearing the patterned floral dress I’d sent her last Christmas, but it was too big, hanging down over her without even touching her hips. She raised her hand, and I saw in the dim porch light that she no longer shaved her armpits. “Does she not believe in showering, either?” Mike said.
We stopped behind her at the front door while she stamped the mud off her boots and tossed them to the side. “Come on in, come on in,” she said, her voice like a purr, flicking the light switch up and down two, three times before leaving it on. The kitchen was like it’d always been— shelves of powders and herbs in plastic baggies carefully labeled with Sharpie, forks and knives and spoons dangling from threads wrapped around the light fixture, a layer of dust on the countertops and farmhouse table. “Dust is natural,” she’d always said to me when I tried to wipe it off. “Let it be.”
“Mike, I sure hope you like garbanzo bean soup,” she said, spooning something green and fragrant into a shallow wooden bowl. She’d tried to look nice, I could tell. Her red waves were twisted and pinned against her scalp, and there was a sparkling broach— a horse— hanging from her dress.
Mike smiled halfheartedly. I kicked him under the table. “Yeah, thanks, it looks great,” he said. Billy, the mutt who had wandered up to our door during a snowstorm one winter, hobbled up and licked his hand.
“So, Mike,” my mother said, putting down her spoon and propping her elbows on the table. “I hear you’re a pilot. You must’ve seen a lot.”
“He’s been all over the country,” I said, “and flies to Berlin and London.”
Billy whined at my feet, his big wet dog eyes staring into mine. I ignored him. My mother put her own bowl on the floor.
“My,” she said, “I can’t imagine how exhausting that must be. But I suppose the traveling makes it worth it.”
Mike shrugged. “Every place looks pretty much the same from the air and from hotel rooms.” He ladled more soup into his bowl. “But it’s nice, I guess.”
“Well,” my mother said, winking at me conspiratorially from across the table. “Next time you go to London, make sure you take Mare with you. She was a model back in high school. Sweetheart of the town.”
“Mom,” I said.
“Mrs. Rosen still asks me if you ever made it big.”
My phone buzzed against the table. “Sorry, it’s probably work,” I said, pulling it down to my lap. You have two new admirers! You have three new messages! I shoved it back in my pocket.
Later that night, when Mike and I were laying in the darkness, he rolled over and laid his arm across me. It felt cold. “A model, huh?”
I pulled my mother’s flowered sheets up to my chin. “That was a long time ago.”
* * *
The next day, my mother had the idea of a hike. I think she translated Mike’s career into some kind of passion for exploration, even if we were only walking along a hillside. She packed up the basket she normally used to carry the chickens’ eggs in with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bottle of cheap white wine. “I keep forgetting you’re an adult now,” she said as she tucked washcloths around the glass bottle. I wondered if she remembered the first dinners after my father died, when we ran out of milk and the water had stopped running from the drain, and she poured wine into my cup instead. I didn’t ask.
The two-mile-long trail hugged the eastern side of a hill that rose up from the valley where the Ohio River runs When you reached the top, there was a clearing in the forest that offered a view of waving Goldenrod oceans and Kudzu crawling up fence posts. Summertime in Kentucky was almost tropical, and the colors so unnaturally bright that it hurt your eyes to take them in all at once. Mike wasn’t used to the stunning heat. There was already a sheen to his skin as we started walking up the trail, single file. My mother was in front, meandering back and forth, stopping to palm the plants sprouting up besides the path. She’d put the handles of the picnic basket over her neck, and I could hear it banging against her chest with each step.
I turned to look back at Mike. He had on his waterproof hiking pants, a shirt that wicked excess sweat from your body, and a half-filled Nalgene tucked into a day pack–a perfect catalogue photo for the newest outdoor technology. A branch scraped his arm, and he snapped it from the tree and threw it down the slope. He was drenched in sweat.
“This place,” he said, “is a fucking nightmare.”
“Hey, pilot man,” my mother called back, “how long till the sky opens up on us?”
He shaded his eyes to look at the dark clouds skimming over the trees. “An hour, at least. Time enough for lunch.”
We walked along in silence, Mike panting softly, until my mother stopped short at a bend in the trail. “Oh,” she said, her voice barely audible. “Oh, no.”
All I could see was a rumpled mass of chestnut fur and tendrils of black blood strung between the hairs. They quivered like violin strings in the breeze. My mother knelt by the carcass, and I could see that it was a coyote, the eyes clear and bright and staring off into the forest, its front paw nearly severed by a bear trap. She lifted its rigid leg and leaned in to inspect the damage. Maggots rained from the wound.
Mike tore an oak leaf off a tree and offered it to my mother. “You really shouldn’t touch that thing with your bare hands. They carry diseases, you know.” He had his pilot’s voice on now, the one that was deeper than his own, rhythmic and detached.
My mother ran her fingers over the rusted metal of the trap. “There should be a spring, right? Some kind of release?” Her whole body shook as she tried to pull apart the clamped jaws. I saw that the ends of her hair had dipped into the coyote’s pile of bloody sludge.
“You’re not going to be able to get it off,” Mike said. “These traps are designed to keep the kill stuck there. You need tools. Clamps. Prongs.”
“We have to try. Give me a hand.”
Mike didn’t move. “It’s dead,” he said. “There’s no point.”
A raindrop broke over my nose. “We should go,” I said. The wind had picked up, and it lifted patches of the coyote’s fur and the bloodied ends of my mother’s hair. She looked holy, in a way, kneeling next to the spoiled corpse, her head bent like a prayer.
“What a shame.” My mother’s voice was hard. She threaded her fingers through the thick cream fur under the coyote’s jaw. “Supposed to be so intelligent, too.”
The rain was falling steadily now, a warm rain that ran down the dirt trail in rivulets. I unwound my mother’s fingers from the fur, one by one, and helped her stand up. “I’ll take the basket,” I said. She nodded.
“Where I’m from,” Mike said, “we just shoot ‘em. Good for population control, good for people’s pets.” He started off down the trail, his hard steps splashing up puddles of muddy water. My mother followed as silently as a ghost.
“They’re mangy creatures, anyhow,” he said.
* * *
My mother had forgotten about dinner, so we ate the sandwiches she’d packed for the hike. The bread was damp and flattened because she refused to buy plastic bags. We couldn’t find a corkscrew, so Mike shoved the rental car key into the cork and twisted until it popped off. I was rummaging through the cupboards for glasses when I saw a bright yellow Post-it note stuck above the sink.
It read, Tuesday, 5:30 pm. Monty.
“Mom,” I said, peeling it off the wall. “What’s this?”
Her face flushed. “I don’t think I’ve told you, Mare,” she said, sitting up straighter in her chair. “I’ve found some work. Really rewarding stuff.”
Last I’d heard, she’d been working as a bagger at the grocery store, but she’d been fired for harassing the customers when they bought frozen meats.
“Now, keep an open mind,” she said. My stomach tightened. The words, and the way she delivered them, were too familiar.
“Who’s Monty?” I asked.
“Monty,” she said, “is Tim’s German Shepherd. You remember Tim. He lives just around the corner, by the train tracks.”
“Are you training dogs or something?”
She paused. “I’ve discovered I have a talent for communicating telepathically with animals.”
“Mom,” I said. “Please.”
“Mare, it’s real this time. People pay me, you know, to figure out why their pets are sad. But you wouldn’t believe the kind of things I learn about the people around here.” She pulled her bare feet onto the chair and wrapped her arms around her knees. “Affairs, drug problems, abuse. You wouldn’t believe it. It’s amazing, really. It’s like this sense you never knew you had. You just have to be open, and listen, and it just happens. You get these pictures in your mind, pictures the animal wants you to see.”
“Do you talk to your chickens, too?” Mike said.
“Sure I do. But they’re less trusting. Makes sense, you know?” She widened her eyes and dragged a finger across her throat.
“How much does Tim pay you?” I said.
“Thirty dollars an hour. Once a week sessions. It just takes a lot of energy, a lot of willpower, to connect.”
“Okay, then, let’s see it.” Mike tipped his white wooden chair back so it was balancing on two legs. “Talk to the dog. Tell it to come here, sit in front of me, and bark twice.”
My mother pulled her legs closer to her chest and blinked a few times. “That’s not how it works,” she said finally. “You can’t command. You can only receive.”
“It trusts you,” Mike said. “It’ll listen.”
She threw me a helpless glance and dropped to her knees on the floor. “It’s important to be on their level,” she said to no one.
Billy limped up to her, desperately licking her arms and face as she steadied him with her hands. Her eyes closed. A bit of foam rolled off his tongue and plopped onto the tile. For a few moments, they were perfectly, unnaturally still, and then a chicken clucked from the backyard. Billy tore himself from my mother’s grasp, hobbled to the screen door, and howled twice before dropping to the floor and falling asleep.
My mother sat there, so small in her dress, her palms turned upwards like a beggar’s.
* * *
Around five in the morning I woke up. I had been dreaming of a plane crash. The wings had torn off during the downward spiral, spinning up behind us into infinity, and the metal tube of the plane had plunged neatly into the earth. No disintegration, no fire. The ground had closed up over us, and through the windows was only dirt. Hundreds and hundreds of years later, when they finally found us, it was thought that the plane was a time capsule. People in special suits and heavy-duty gloves dropped down into the jet and sifted through our purses and carry-on bags. They found that almost every person had an iPod, a cell phone, wallets and tattered books, scarves and mittens and sunglasses and rings. Everyone, they said, appeared to be almost exactly the same.
Mike was still asleep next to me. He had an arm flung over his face and a bit of drool pooling onto the pillowcase. I watched his chest rise and fall through the sheet, keeping pace with the ticking of his watch on the bedside table. I swung my feet over the side of the bed and picked up my phone. Five new messages.
You’re so hot.
Down to fuck?
Let’s grab a drink.
I logged out. I’d only used pictures from high school, and only the good ones, too, modeling ones taken at just the right angle to elongate my legs and hide the bump in my nose. It didn’t matter. That wasn’t the point. It was just all I had.
The sun was starting to rise. I walked over to the window overlooking the backyard. My mother was out there already, squatting next to the chicken coop, a wide-brimmed straw hat shadowing her face. Her body stretched and distorted in the glass as she tossed feed around her in a circle. The chickens surrounded her, a squawking cloud of feathers and beaks and claws. When she reached out to touch them, her fingers stretched out like vines. It wasn’t real, but it was beautiful.
I drifted downstairs. The house was quiet and still in the faded early morning light. I opened the screen door leading to the backyard, and my mom turned and looked at me. Her cheeks were smudged with flecks of dirt, her hands buried in a sack of chicken feed. She smiled. I walked through the tall grass and felt the dew between my toes.
“Show me,” I said, sinking to my knees. “Show me how you talk to them.”
By Lauren Ward