I imagined what the world might look like from so high. I thought the pilot would have seen three concentric circles. First, the brown, churning water - the circle of our river around us; inside that, the quilt squares of our fields, which were turned dirt, newly planted seeds, the bright green carpet of a field just beginning to come to life, fences mended or falling down into the soft new grass, humped haystacks, our cattle herd, our sheep herd, our goats, bare birch trees pointing straight into the heavens; and in the center, in the heart, our cobbled and dirt streets, our red-tiled and gray-shingled roofs radiating out from the town square with its statue of a long-dead war hero in the middle. In each storefront, promises were being made - the butcher's window with a freshly killed lamb hanging on a hook, the greengrocer's with a basket of a deep red beets and a tub of onions, the barber's empty chair and glinting scissors, the healer's pharmacy full of brown glass bottles with hand-written labels, the jeweler's gold chains strung around a black velvet neck.
We watched the airplane fly away into the gray and come back again, the approach rattling our veins. I followed with my eyes as it turned over the mountains on the other side of the river. Then my ears were punched out with a thundering, time-stopping boom and the crackling silence afterward. The memory of that sound circled us while the airplane glinted and disappeared into the clouds.
We waited, itchy, for everything around us to erupt in flames. For the surface of the earth to shatter. For the airplane to come back and drop an ending on our peninsula. The sky did not clear to let us see whether smoke was rising from the other side of the mountains. The rain put out any fires. Silence, that fat hand, slapped away all my questions.
People started to shout. The banker's eleven children yelled questions at each other, at their mother, who was awake but did not stand up from her chair. The word war popped like bubbles on my father's tongue. The word death came after. Forgiveness was begged for. The sky was pummeled with apologies and the ground was pummeled with rain. I thought about every-thing a person could drop from up high: pigs, logs, bricks. A letter stating you are dead. I knew the word bomb, but I had never seen one go off. My mother was silent, except for the grip of her fingers around mine. My hand fit completely, like a seed, inside hers. It must have been the very same sky as before, but it looked emptied out, lightless.
The barrier between the kitchen and sitting room fell. Men and women mixed, husbands and wives held each other. Children tried to insert themselves into the embrace.
The river rose, rain crashed down, and the sound of all that water jumbled our words. We heard glove when someone said love. We heard yarn for harm and bread for God. We were like a windstorm, whipping ourselves dizzy, going nowhere.
There was no point in guessing how many minutes or days before another propeller cut our sky into billowing blue shreds. We began, first in our feet, then in our legs - those rootless stumps - in our sloshing guts and our clamoring hearts, to feel we were being abandoned on this island. The sinking island. Why were we not running downstream with all the rainwater? Why were we standing here, dumb as flags stuck into the earth, when everything that could escape was escaping?
The healer sat down on the floor. He opened the book and began again, his voice loud and sure.
And God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." And God said: "Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years."
The healer's voice turned scratchy and he started to cough. I could not tell the meaning of the tears that streamed down his face. My father handed him a worn handkerchief, and the healer wiped his face.
Excerpted from No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Ramona Ausubel.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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