Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.303] By March the structural repairs to the house were completed, and Emily had appointed a day when all her friends would come to paint and clean up the barnyard. A front had preceded Allison and Howard southward, and as they drove their rental car toward Rockwood, the desert was white with a half a foot of snow and another storm was coming, darkening the north sky behind them.
While Howard gathered their luggage, Allison ran inside. She found Emily, Belinda, Bishop and Susan Hansen all taping the windows and varnished hand rails. The walls were already sheet rocked and perfataped. “Someone is coming today to spackle it,” Emily said. “They wanted us to lower the ceilings and put in smaller windows, but I refused. We want space in this house.”
“Then we’ll paint it,” said Belinda. She shook Allison’s hand and gave Howard a hug, which made his face flush red.
“I’ve rented a painting machine,” said Emily.
“It’s going to be like a new house,” said Susan, the bishop’s wife. She looked at him and smiled.
“Oh, no,” he said. “We’d have to sell the farm to afford repairs like these.”
“Now that’s an idea,” said Susan.
[p.304] Allison glanced at Howard. He shrugged his shoulders and grinned, but she could tell the topic was still tender.
Bishop Hansen walked across the room and shook Allison’s hand. “I’ve always wanted to hunt in Alaska,” he said.
“You should come and stay with us,” said Allison. “We could arrange a guide for you.”
He shook his head. “Well, I’ll have to think about it.” But he beamed and glanced slyly at his wife.
“There goes the farm,” she said and everyone laughed.
“The bishop has asked me to keep track of membership records in the ward,” Emily said to Allison. “You’re going to have to teach me how to use a computer.”
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as bishop—find a safe calling for you.”
Allison looked at Emily. Should she jump to the defense? Emily just laughed. “Giving me first crack at every new family in town,” she said. “You think that’s safe?”
“Luckily there are few new people in town,” he said.
So Allison spent the day taping newspapers to windows and hauling junk to the dump. Howard worked at cleaning out the tool shed, sorting junk from what could be used by his mother or Brother Jenkins. Allison went out once to talk with him. “I grew up in that house,” he said. “They’re changing it. For the better I know, but a part of what created me is lost.”
“Not lost,” said Allison. “Reconstructed. Made useful.”
That afternoon Emily, Howard, and Allison walked up to the cemetery, while a man from Hamblin spackled. They climbed through the fence which kept cattle and horses out. Snow covered the mounds and gravestones, the juniper trees and prickly pear. They found the mound, with the small marble stone Emily had ordered. Snow-covered flowers stood in a jar. Emily swiped snow from the small plaque, level with the ground, and read the inscription: “Emily Lois Warren Rockwood daughter of Allison and Howard.”
“It was a nice ceremony,” said Emily. “Bishop Hansen spoke.”
Allison looked down at the mound and pictured the child lying in [p.305] her crib, strong arms reaching for the faces floating above, sturdy legs kicking the air. Then she was a small girl, running up and down the stairs in the cabin in Alaska, in the new Rockwood house. She turned away from the grave. In another, better universe, it had happened. But nothing Howard did, no ceremony or profession of faith, could transform this part of their history.
The three of them talked late into the night. Emily told them that another girl had finally come forth with the same story about Samuel Fitch. She had been in the same Sunday school class. In March, just as the state people were preparing to act, Brother Fitch put his house up for sale and moved away. “They’re still going to go after him,” she said. “But they don’t have much confidence.” Then she talked about what she would do with the women: camping with them, working on the farm under Brother Jenkins’s direction. Belinda would teach them art and music.
That night they slept on mattresses on the floor, the smell of new walls around them. Allison saw Howard leave the room in his white garments, heard him creaking down the stairs, wandering the house as if he were already a ghost.
The next morning Bishop Hansen, wearing a surgical mask, walked through the rooms, spraying the walls and ceilings with paint. Emily and the other two women went shopping for furniture in Salt Lake. Allison wanted to go with them, but Howard insisted that they drive west in the old truck to see the cattle. Crossing the pass, snow beat into the windshield. “Looks like the tail of a fox,” Howard said. “At least, that’s what my father said.” Allison drove slowly so that they wouldn’t slip off the road.
At the farm Howard disappeared into the swirling snow, and Allison took the car down to the pool. Leaving the engine running, she climbed out and stood at the water’s edge, white snow, crust of alkali on gray mud. A wraith of steam hovered above the water. She bent and touched her palm flat to the hot surface. Flakes whirled above her like flocks of tiny birds. The wind shrieked through the squat brush. She almost heard the voice of her lost child, wailing. Teetering on the edge, [p.306] she lifted her face to the cold flakes. She remembered Walter looking down into the water before he died. Had he seen his own future? It would be easy to follow. Life had become misery, death held no fear. She had stopped weeping every night, but she still occasionally broke down at work or in the cabin, and the pain grew deeper and blacker with time. Her mother had told her that eventually the pain would subside, but she had only hope, not belief, that it would happen.
She imagined those floaters, ankles bound, sunk upright in the deep water, waiting for passage back into the sun. Emily Lois lay in a casket on a dry hill. She, Allison, could leave the pool anytime she wanted, didn’t have to remain as they had for year on year, century on century. She hadn’t been compelled to follow. The steam was warm on her face, and she thought of the Goshute woman rising from the water, a child in her arms. Emily Lois in her arms. She would hand Allison the baby.
If only it wasn’t a lie.
In September, two years after she and Howard first arrived in Anchorage, Mark announced that he was returning to Alberta. “I’ve listened to Lisa give one too many carrion-eater lectures,” he said to Allison. “I want to go some place where the economy is vital.”
“Calgary?” said Allison. “Might as well be Utah. Second Silicon Valley. You might find some new-wave Mormon woman, who’s into pyramids, children in bakers’ dozens, and bee pollen.”
“After you, they’d all run second.”
He wasn’t joking. “You’re a good friend, Mark,” she said. “You like me even after I harmed you.”
“No harm,” he said, but she saw her own unsteadiness reflected in his face.
Lisa, who lived on the Hillside, threw a party. Everyone from the office and their partners stood on white carpet high above the dark city. Far out lay the inlet. Allison felt disconnected from the conversation.
“The entire program was junk,” Nicole said. “He’d been working on it for six months.”
“Must have been distracted by the ax at his back.”
“I hit delete and started over.”
[p.307] A zydeco CD started on the player. Allison stood near the window, listening.
“We saw them running,” said Howard. “It was cool.”
“Three years ago,” Mark said, “I made it over the Alaska Range. Then my dogs got sick.”
“Poor babies,” said Lisa.
“Alberta will be too tame after this,” said Lisa. “You’ll get bored as hell.”
“What did you say it was,” asked Nicole, “dairy farming?”
“A dairy co-op,” said Mark. “They want to modernize. We’ll computerize all the machinery as well as putting all the records into a program I’ve designed.”
“I didn’t know you wrote code,” said Francine.
“I’m not just a pretty face,” said Mark. “I have more talents than Lisa ever guessed. But I wouldn’t be just writing code. I’d be assembling the team. Giving them the vision.”
“I’m losing you to cattle?” said Lisa. “Damn.”
“Call of the wild,” said Nicole.
“Just like a Gary Larsen cartoon.”
Allison faced the window; the city and the inlet spread below her. Howard, Lisa, Mark, and the others laughed out loud, the reflection of white carpet beneath their feet. The lights of the city shone through their bodies, stars grafted to their flesh. At the shore line, the lights stopped, as if past that limit lay the vacuum of space. During the earthquake, houses had slid toward the water, a whole neighborhood swallowed by mud. She wondered if the houses had been full of people, sliding toward drowning or suffocation, and she started to weep. She must have made some sound, because the room was suddenly silent.
“I want to go home,” she said. She turned to Mark. “Sorry.”
“You’ll pull out of it,” he said.
“No. Everyone talks about grief as if it’s a stage to grow out of. It’s not. I’m stuck forever.”
Back at their cabin, Howard opened the flue and added more wood. He twisted the air vents open because he liked the crackle of [p.308] burning wood. When she wept, as she did often, he didn’t know what to say. In part, her easy expression of sorrow made him jealous. Sometimes she wouldn’t even let him hold her, wouldn’t let him close to her sadness.
“I can’t think my way through this,” she said. “I keep working it over like a problem with code, but it’s not like that.” He cranked the air vents back down and sat next to her on the couch. “She existed. I felt her kicking inside me. And now she’s not. Sometimes I think about your idea that she still exists, and I get so angry with you I want to leave this house and you and anything that reminds me of her. You think that all this sorrow is useless. You admit none of it.”
Howard took his heavy coat out of the closet and put it on, pulled on his ski pants and boots. The lights of Eagle River were scattered below him. He slid fast along the side of the road and then turned west, dropping ridge by ridge toward the river. When he came to the ice, he turned back and pushed himself up the hill, stretching his legs, feeling the burn. He smelled the sharp, evergreen odor; the air was so cold he could feel it. Soon the bitter air made his throat raw, and his nose and eyes run. He paused below the house, scent of wood smoke. He went inside, finding only darkness.
“Howard,” she said from the loft. Soon his eyes adjusted to the scant, red light from the glass in the stove door.
“You’re wrong about my feelings,” he said. “You’re wrong to think I didn’t, I don’t, feel sorrow. I read a story about a couple in New York whose child was killed at an amusement park. A year or two later, even before their suit against the park was settled, they divorced. Then they had a long court battle over who had sorrowed the most, because the one who sorrowed the most would get the biggest part of the settlement.”
Her head, dark, appeared over the balcony, and he wanted to hold her. “Howard?”
He stood near the stove, held his hands to the heat. “I bury everything, but I still mourn. I imagine her with us in this cabin. We’d have to be careful of the stairs.”
She walked down, wrapped in a blanket, and sat on the couch.
[p.309] “You have no idea what I think or feel about Emily Lois,” he said. “You remember when I prayed before we went to the hospital? Well, God spoke to my soul that everything would be all right. It was a lie. God stood by and let this happen.”
“It was an accident,” she said. “That’s all.”
“She turned a little bit and the cord looped beneath her head. If the cord had been an inch higher when she dropped, she would have been fine. All through the winter, whenever you had trouble, I prayed and she came back from the death, again and again. Why not this last time? A centimeter of pressure against a thin cord killed her. What if she hadn’t turned? What if she had dropped slower? In the hospital I told God that if she was alive, I would turn over all my will to him. I would be totally his creature. He ignored me. I would give my life to have her back.”
“Random chaos,” she said, her voice thick with weeping. “An accident.”
“What if you’re right?” he said. “What if we will never have her again.”
He moved to the couch, and she wrapped her arms around him. They rocked and held each other.
“Deja vu,” he said. “Here we are again, dragging subterranean masses into speech.” She snorted, and he couldn’t be sure if she was laughing or crying, but, he decided, it didn’t matter because both felt like communion. “We talk, don’t we. All we can do. Like fish floundering on the bottom of a boat.”
“Floundering sometimes helps,” she said. “Sometimes it’s all we can do.”
“The bottom of God’s boat, and he’s grinning because he’s got us on the line.”
“That’s not a healthy vision of your God,” she said.
“Don’t I know it,” he said. “I return to that fearful image like a dog to his vomit.”
“I could easily die,” she said. “It would take no effort.”
“When I’m sitting quietly and I let the knot of my thoughts untangle themselves, I know God is not grinning. Tonight skiing out [p.310] there or whenever I pray, I feel that God is surprised and saddened by my sorrow. Then I receive a gift as clear as touching. It feels like the same comfort I felt when she was dead inside you, and we didn’t know. The gods, mother and father, knew, but we didn’t. They were helping me get ready for the sorrow. Telling me they loved me before the sorrow set in.”
Allison looked at the crib they still hadn’t hauled to the Salvation Army. “She would have been lying on a blanket in front of this fire. She’d kick her legs.”
“I want her back. At the Judgment I’ll face God and demand her back.”
“You know I’ll never really understand. It will always sound fantastic to me—this quick-and-easy transcendence.”
“I thought you were dead,” he said. “They let me stand in the door and watch. I knew that you couldn’t survive what they did to you.”
“You watched? I didn’t know that. Why?”
“I thought everything would be all right if I was there. The baby was blue, and then she was pink. It goes over and over in my head, and I think that every second something different could have happened and she’d be here now. We could hold her.”
Allison touched his shoulder. “I was wrong to say you didn’t care.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ve felt like I couldn’t say anything. I mean, she wasn’t a part of me. I didn’t have to suffer what you did.” He told her again how they would have taken turns watching her. He would have shifted to evening school and would have found someone in the ward to take care of her during Allison’s stints at the North Slope. Allison stood and moved to the crib. She lifted the clothing they had bought for the child.
“I’ll mail these to Nan,” she said.
“Nan’s is a boy,” said Howard.
“I’ll mail them to Sherrie then. She’ll never stop having babies. She’s not superstitious about these things, is she?”
“She had a miscarriage once,” Howard said. “She sorrowed forever over that.”
“I want to feel finished with it,” she said.
[p.311] “Unless we forget her, it will never be over.”
She looked at him.
“I hope,” he said. “I don’t know.”
He opened the stove door and a puff of smoke came out.
“You always do that,” she said. “Fills the house with smoke.”
He shut the door and opened the flue another notch. Then he opened the door again. Firelight flickered in the dark room.
“I could be ready to move,” she said.
He stared at her. “Now that we have a nice place?”
“Mark’s smart. Not even Lisa can scrabble for work if all of it is gone.”
“First, I finish my degree. Then I’d like to go to graduate school in marine biology. That means California.”
“After that,” she said, “the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia.”
“As long as it has a shore,” he said. “And a university where I can study.”
“Yes,” she said. “Plenty of places like that.”
“We could have another child,” he said and her body stiffened.
“Not yet,” she said. “Not for at least fifty years.”
“You’d be too old. You’d giggle behind your hand when I try to get you with child. My great-grandfather—”
“Stop! Not another word,” she said.
“No,” he said. “I won’t stop talking. Only in hell can people avoid talk. Hell is when nothing moves anymore.”
She knelt next to him.
“Fifty years is nothing to wait,” he said. “You’ll see. We’re in it for a million. A million years of intense conversation, verbal and physical.”
“My mind can’t stretch that far.”
“By then we’ll manage ten or twenty planets,” he said. “Make sure the oxygen nitrogen balance is right. Make sure the water cycle works smooth.”
“The big ranch in the sky.”
“Ten trillion spirit children. Ten trillion years of making love.”
“Oh, Howard,” she said, “a million years and I still won’t be used to you.”
[p.312] He laid his head on her shoulder; she curled her arm around him and placed her palm on his cheek. She imagined leaving Anchorage on a jet, bound for Salt Lake or Indonesia or Kuwait. They would rise until the atmosphere was too thin to breathe. There would be limitless space above them and the solid earth below. Floating in a rare pool of air.