The shattering tempest grew in intensity, and it was about midnight when Frank heard his father rise, dress, and depart to check the barn and the frightened stock. It was then that a feeling of apprehension and barren anxiety settled on the boy's soul like a wet hide. It made him shiver. Something was wrong, and little Frank was at a loss to know why he felt so distraught. Sitting up, he looked out the rain-streaked window. In the distance, he could see the light of his father's storm lantern moving about inside the barn, so he knew that his father was fine. But he worried sorrowfully about his mother. He was almost sick wondering where she was on such a raging night. The boy closed his eyes tight to drive away the unwelcome images, but he became aware of an even stronger light trying to edge its way past his closed lids to gain his attention.
At first the child thought it was his father's lantern, but when he opened his eyes he realized the light came from a different source altogether. This light shimmered in the corner of his room, shimmered with a gentle luminescence unlike anything the child had ever seen before. He had noticed the wakes of passing ships glow with the same quality in the moonlight, and this pale glow, akin to the water's strange radiance, shed little of itself on the immediate surroundings.
The glow took the form of a tapered pillar at first, but when his eyes became accustomed to the subtle and wonderful color variations emanating from the luminescence, he became convinced that the light was a who and not a what. This realization infused him with a warmth and confidence that seemed totally natural and admissible. It was as if he had always known about this phenomenon even though he had never experienced it before.
The glowing pillar moved slowly toward the door to Frank's room, and there it waited shimmering with green, blue, and violet pulses of brilliance. The boy nodded with instant comprehension, jumped from his cot, and quickly dressed. A lightning flash suddenly raced across the sky. The crash of its thunder followed almost immediately. Alert to the storm once more, the boy pulled on his boots. Little Frank was not fond of wearing shoes of any description. He was happiest with the soft dirt between his toes, but he obeyed the thought as it came to him.
The glowing pillar floated through the cabin to the front door and waited. Grabbing his jacket and rabbit-skin cap, Frank followed the light out into the storm. There was no sign of his father anywhere, so the boy followed the radiance without further pause. The brilliance guided the boy precisely over well-used paths through the eastern pastures until it reached the mountain. There the guide waited for the boy before slowly ascending a craggy trail that led to the high ridges. Frank had followed his mother over many of those same paths gathering medicinal plants.
As the boy began to climb the trail, the storm, which had been furious for the past six hours, turned dangerous in the extreme. Lightning fingered across the sky in every direction at once. The explosions of thunder made the earth tremble beneath the child's feet, and the rain pelted down like hail to the point of pain. Faithfully, the illumination never distorted or wavered from the path, so Frank followed without fear. The winds rose to the tenor of plaintive screams, so that every limb and leaf, every blade and bush was helplessly torn and wrenched in obedience to its whims.
As he climbed, Frank witnessed ancient trees cleaved down the center by the stress of contrary winds first raging from the west and then rounding the compass. Sometimes the gusts appeared to sweep from all directions at once. Downed tree limbs and torn vegetation became more dense the higher he climbed, but still the glowing guide remained constant and reassuring, never deviating a degree from the center of the trail, never disordered by wind or the cutting sheets of rain.
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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