Near the top of the track a shallow dale gave spartan shelter to a grove of ancient and distorted oaks. Little Frank struggled over the rise and, clutching his collar against the rain, watched as the light moved to the center of the grove and then stopped. As the boy followed, he noticed a slight alteration in its quality. Changing from the cooler, calming colors, the light now became resplendent with bright streaks of yellow and gold. Vibrant flashes of crimson amplified the sense of urgency. Then, within the briefest moment, the guide flared brilliantly and was gone, leaving only its ghost image imprinted on the boy's eyes. Little Frank waited a few seconds for his vision to clear and then walked to the spot in the grove where the flickering pillar had last stood. Bursts of lightning conveniently illuminated his way so that the path was well defined.
At the bottom of the path little Frank spotted a fallen tree, its great mass of roots exposed and waiting for death. Another flash of lightning and the boy sighted something else: a figure pinned under a lattice of heavy limbs and branches. The boy instantly recognized his mother reaching out and calmly calling his name.
Frank ran to her, gripped her hand, and began sputtering questions in their special dialect. Anselma quieted her son and said that she was unhurt, just trapped. The large limb lying across her back would have to be raised for her to slide free under her own power. The limb was sixteen inches broad and with the attendant branches, a considerable mass of wood for anyone to move.
Without thinking further, the boy attempted to raise the limb, but his little arms were no match for its girth. Then he remembered watching his father clear tree stumps from the pasture. He looked about until he found a stout broken limb. He wedged the hefty bough under the offending limb in such a manner that, should he have the strength to push the branch up over his head a short ways, his mother might pull herself free. But the weight of the limb precluded a four-year-old boy from doing anything of the kind.
A standard contention of the ages asserts that the bonds between mother and child may easily accommodate the insuperable. So, lacking all sense of the improbability of the task at hand, little Frank pushed up on his makeshift lever and moved forward.
He managed to push the branch up over his head. He repeated the exercise twice more, and before he knew it his mother was standing by his side saying that it was safe to release the limb.
The boy let go and smiled up at his mother. Anselma knelt to see to her son. They were both soaked to the bone, but once satisfied that her child was not injured in any way, Anselma shouldered her bag and shepherded Frank down the steep trail by the incessant flashes of blue-white lightning.
When they at last neared the house, Anselma saw her husband's storm lantern approaching from the direction of the road. Bill Post ran forward, gathered his little family in his arms for a moment, and then quickly ushered them toward the safety of the house. The relief in his eyes almost came to tears. Back under shelter, Bill quickly stoked the fire and went to fetch fresh towels from the cupboard. While Anselma saw to dry garments, Bill retrieved a bucket of rainwater from the overflowing butts on the porch. He hung a small cauldron from its iron hook over the fire and set the water to heat so Anselma might bathe the child and prevent further chill.
Bill Post at last spoke of his anxiety. When he returned to the house and found the front door wide open and little Frank gone, he had not known where to look. He had searched for two hours without a sign. Happily, Bill observed that his wife and child seemed hardly fazed by their wild adventure. So while he fed them honey and warm bread, he asked them to recount what had happened. There was never a note of reproach or recrimination in his voice. Bill Post was far too happy to have his loved ones safe at home for gratuitous displays of troubled indignation.
This is a complete short story from Down to a Soundless Sea by Thomas Steinbeck. Copyright 2002 by Thomas Steinbeck. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Angel of Losses
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