April 1, 1943
When John Easley opens his eyes to the midday sky his life does not pass before him. He sees instead a seamless sheet of sky gone gray from far too many washings. He blinks twice, then focuses on the tiny black specks drifting across the clouds. They pass through his field of vision wherever he turns to look. Last winter, the doctor pronounced them floaters. Said that by Easley's age, thirty-eight, plenty of people had them. Little bits of the eyeball's interior lining had come free and were swimming inside the jelly. What Easley actually sees are not the specks themselves, but the shadows they cast as they pass over his retina. To avoid their distraction, the doctor advised him to refrain from staring at a blank page, the sky, or snow. These are his first conscious thoughts on the island of Attu.
He sits up straight. When he does, it feels as if his head has a momentum all its own, as if it wants to continue its upward trajectory. A dull pain jabs his ribs. He places bare hands in the snow to keep from keeling over. The parachute luffs out behind hima jaundiced violation against the otherwise perfect white. Fog so thick he can't see the end of the silk. For a moment, he is anxious it might catch a breeze and drag him farther upslope.
Planes whine and circle overhead, unseen.
Easley flexes his hands. The gloves were ripped away by the velocity of the fall. He gazes down his long legs and moves his boots from side to side. He slides the flight cap from his head, runs fingers through his hair, checks for signs of blood. Finding none, he unclips the harness, rolls over on his stomach, pushes himself up. He is, unaccountably, alive and whole. And so it begins.
The fog is better than an ally; it is a close, personal friend. It covers his mistakes and spreads its protective wing over him, allowing him to escape detection. But it also separates him from the crew, if indeed anyone else has survived. Then a red flash of memory: an airman's lapel suddenly blooms like a boutonnière before the man's head slumps forward and lolls.
Not far downslope, the snow gives way to an empty field that spreads off into the mist. Yard-long blades of last year's ryegrass are brown, laid flat from the full weight of winter. Easley returns to the parachute, gathers it up, hastily shoves it back into its pack. It does not go willingly. He hoists the pack onto his shoulders, winces at the pain in his side, then stands defiantly erect, wondering what to do.
The occasional report of Japanese antiaircraft fire begins to define space. Between distant burstsfive, ten miles?is the nearby cascade of breakers. But like staring into deep water, the fog misdirects, distorts. Within the hundred-yard range of visibility, there is no cover. He is fully, completely exposed. He unshoulders the pack and uses it as a seat.
He stares at the backs of his hands, which have gone pink with the cold. Lately they have been putting him in mind of his father. They are no longer the hands of a young man, clear and smooth. Suddenly it seems as if every pore and vein reveal themselves. A topography of thin lines and faded scars.
John Easley was all of seven years old when he let go of his brother's sticky hand in London's Victoria Station. They had arrived from Vancouver, by way of Montreal, only the day before, destined to spend the next eight months in a tiny flat as their father advanced his engineering credentials. John would have responsibilities. For the moment, however, while their mother was off searching for a job and their father stood in line for tickets to the Underground, John's only task was to remain on the bench and watch over three-year-old Warren. But those magnificent trains easing into and out of the station drew him like a spell. He is sure he had hi brother's hand when he first wandered down the concourse, just as he knows that he was the one who let go.
Excerpted from The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Payton. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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