At thirty thousand feet the air is so cold that the least particle of dust sends feather ice tessellating in untraceable series of rachis and barbule over the windscreen, and the men in the jump seats behind the cockpit cross their arms and lean forward, drawing their shearling jackets tighter over their bodies, like skiers stuck momentarily on a stalled chairlift. For hours they’ve seen nothing from the windows but blue sea and blue sky, the sky whitening at the horizon where it joins the deeper blue of the water. Now there are the hills like folds of cloth, and Tokyo seems so small, only a notch in the coastline where the color of the water turns a greener blue from the nearness of its sandy bottom to its surface, and a geometrical order to the land barely perceptible from this altitude and dissolving at its edges into forest. Sound travels poorly in such thin air, and the noise of the engine obliterates everything. When the anti-aircraft shells burst below them, always below them, the sound they make is like the popping of corn kernels beneath the lid of a cast-iron pot, and the unfolding clouds of black smoke hang soft in the undisturbed air. The men begin to sing an old sailor’s song about a love left behind on shore, and though their voices are not perfect, and some are off-key, the drone of the engine holds them all and works them into inexplicable and gratuitous harmony. The bombs have miles to fall, singing, to their targets. They reach the earth tiny as flower seeds and rise in instantaneous blossom, the color of marigolds.
When Ansel Morrison wakes in the middle of the night from dreams of the airships, this is always the way he remembers them, though he knows that when the day comes the planes will fly so low as to barely miss the flames from their own bombs.
He lives at the end of a long gravel drive, in a saltbox house set down among pine trees half a mile from the shore of Long Island Sound. The war is a long way off across the water, and the part that most involves him is more distant still. The beach is rocky where he lives. Even half a mile off, when the house is quiet he can hear the tide dragging stone over stone. When the men fighting the distant war want his input, they reach him by telegraph wire. The machine sits on a shelf in his study, still and silent nearly all the time. Sometimes late at night he hears it muttering to itself like a ghost in the empty room.
He shares the house with his wife and two young children, one of whom is his own. They’ll be home from school in an hour or so, walking together up the driveway from the bus stop, and he’ll hear their voices before he sees them. Claire is the eldest, almost ten, and she cares for her half-brother, Richie, like a second mother. He follows her everywhere, or she leads him, which amounts to the same thing. She takes him with her wherever she goes. She reads to him and when they’re away from their little library, she spins him stories out of the books they’ve read together. The stories she invents are static, but they’re happy. They take place in a universe in which all the bonds of the printed page have been broken. Characters from different books can meet in one another’s worlds and wander together across those porous borders, all their enemies vanquished and their conflicts resolved, nothing to do now but go visiting.
His wife is lifting tall stacks of paper from the dining room table and dropping them on the floor one by one, meanwhile singing “Pennies From Heaven” to herself in a low, quiet voice, as she’s been doing all afternoon. The dull thud the papers make when they hit the floor is the only sign of her irritation. “You have a desk,” she means to say. “Can’t there be some part of the house that’s for living in, and not for working?”
Caroline Morrison is her name now, which has, Ansel thinks, a pleasant ring to it. Before that it was Caroline Clark and, before that, before she had ever been married, Caroline Richards. Back then people called her Callie, but he didn’t know her then.
“The children will be home any minute,” she says now. “It’s the weekend.”
Put the work away, is what she means, and he really will try. The papers are his students’ midterms, and though his teaching assistants have already graded them, he’ll have to look them over to make sure the grades make sense. It’s not much work, and yet he dreads it. It’s a prestigious university, and the students are all expert takers of notes and exams. The grades will be almost uniformly excellent, and well deserved. Still, the yawning chasm between what he’s believed he was teaching them and what they’ve understood will be made visible.
Then there’s the telegraph machine in the study, remote and inanimate now as a Giacometti sculpture—the palace at 4 a.m. is the one he’s thinking of—capable of springing to urgent, chattering life at any moment.
He won’t be able to put any of it out of his mind until after dinner, when he can take his leave and walk the half mile to the shore for his run. He never begins to run until he reaches the edge of the sand, and then he runs as long as he can, turning away from the water when he reaches the lighthouse and returning along the roads if it’s dark already, or along the path through the woods if the sun is still up. When he runs he can think as at no other time, rid of all distraction and able to see as clearly as possible all foreseeable events with their likelihoods, all available courses of action with their uncertain consequences. The water is flat calm, the sky pale and clear, dimming toward evening. Cirrostratus clouds rest in thin, striated bands in the upper atmosphere. Somewhere out at sea a mass of warm air has collided with the cold air on shore and is climbing over it, vaulting skyward, cooling as it rises. In a day or two there will be rain. However far he runs, he holds the image of the house with its windows lit in the back of his mind. When his strength begins to flag, it keeps him going.
A firestorm is the most awful destructive force in the natural world, and one of the rarest. It requires a highly specific set of conditions: in addition to the presence of fire, there must be an abundance of fuel, extraordinarily hot and dry air, and a strong and steady wind. When all these conditions are met, the fire may grow so large and so hot that it generates its own wind, drawing air inward at hurricane force from all directions.
At this point the fire’s growth is exponential and uncontrollable. Imagine a wall of flame five miles wide and a mile high, sweeping over the landscape at thirty miles per hour. Enough time maybe to sprint down to the water if there’s any in sight. Otherwise, fold your hands together in prayer and hunker down. Bodies combust in the superheated air before the fire even arrives. When the flames do come, the heat is enough to fuse the wheels of trains to their tracks, to transform forests into fields of ash and whole sandy beaches into shimmering glass.
On October 8, 1871, a firestorm in Peshtigo, Wisconsin burned two million acres of forest and field and took the lives of at least 1,500 of the 2,000 or so people who lived there. Bodies were buried in unmarked graves because there was no one left alive to identify them. No one remembers this now, because it happened on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, and Chicago is a big town and Peshtigo is a little one. But Ansel Morrison has studied the case history. He knows exactly how hot the fire had to get before it began to inhale the world around it like a great lung. From the handful of contemporaneous accounts, he can calculate the speed and direction of the wind that day, the temperature and the relative humidity of the air. He can put all this information to use for the greater good. He is the kind of man who, without placing his own body in the way of harm for an instant, may inflict more damage on the enemy than a whole battalion.
“I’m not going in the water,” Richie says. “I’m not I’m not I’m not.”
The water is far too cold for swimming anyway—it has been for months—and still whenever his father takes him down to the beach, Richie reiterates his refusal as though he can’t help it, as though some nervous impulse draws the words from his mouth.
He likes the edge of the water when the surf is calm. He rolls the bottoms of his trousers as his father does, and stands with his feet in the wet sand waiting for the sea to surge over them, icy and wild, dragging the ground out from under him as it retreats, slowly burying him. He likes to hunt among the pebbles for the shells of living creatures, crouching at the edge of the surf and knitting his fingers together so that the receding waves draw the stones back over the net of his hands.
Already this morning he’s found a hermit crab alive inside the blue-spangled shell of what was once a sea snail. He carried it gently in the palm of his hand to show his father, then ran to set it down in a tide pool.
“Will he be all right?” he said. “There’s seagulls over there.”
“I think he’ll be all right,” Ansel said. “I think hermit crabs are good at hiding from seagulls. I think it’s what they like to do best.”
“When I die,” the boy says now, “I want to come back as a hermit crab.”
He doesn’t elaborate, but Ansel can imagine how that small and silent life might appeal to him—the whole day’s work just climbing on his slow, sure feet over some mossy rock, waiting for the tide to fill the pools and bring his dinner to him, watching as the sky darkens and the sea falls away slowly from the crevice where he hides himself. Richie thinks a lot about dying. More than Ansel thinks is normal for a boy his age, though what does he know? Lately the thought that consoles him is that after he dies he’ll get to return to the world as something else, something utterly unlike his human self. It isn’t much consolation. When he’s a hermit crab or a harbor seal or some patch of dark, wet moss on the side of a salt-crusted rock, he’s sure he won’t remember who he was before, which means he’ll be no less gone, really, than he would be if he had passed out of existence into simple oblivion.
He’s run a long way up the beach now, his father lagging far behind him. There’s no one else around—just seaweed and driftwood and gulls, the cold water the color of wet stone, the low ceiling of dark gray clouds and the long, curving line of the shore. With so little to place his tiny body in its proper scale, he looks to Ansel like a deranged old man, stooped with arthritis, thrusting his hands again and again into the water as if to wash away some invisible stain.
“Richie!” he calls. “Don’t go too far!”
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He wishes he could let him stay out here forever—happy and safe, alone when he wants to be, the whole of the natural world his to discover. Tomorrow is another school day. He has a wild imagination and a trusting nature, and at his age these qualities make him a target. He rides the bus to school with children much older than he is, and they make a sport of trying to frighten him. They hold hands and chant gibberish in menacing voices, telling him they’ve all pledged their souls to the devil and they want him to join them. Or they feign fright and tell him that the car just behind is following them, has been following them for miles, that they just saw the driver hold a child’s severed head up to the windshield. When he’s shaking and crying they confess, full of apology. Then the next day they do it all over again, and again he believes them.
Ansel is thinking of the cable he received this morning from the allied command in Saipan. The news is not good. The weather in Tokyo is unseasonably cool and wet, and rain is expected intermittently for the next two weeks at least.
A drop of rain lands just then on the back of his neck, as if in passing from the telegraph paper to his mind the word had slipped into the world and become the thing it signified. The rain is light but nearly frozen, and growing heavier, so he calls Richie back and together, cold and wet and momentarily happy, they begin the long walk back to the house.
People in Peshtigo must have believed that the town, by its wickedness, had brought down on itself the wrath of God, though there is no reason to think that the people there were any wickeder than the people of any other Great Lakes town. Anyway, Ansel knows, the God of this world punishes ignorance, not wickedness.
The summer of 1871 was the driest in living memory. People in those days used fire with less care than they do now. Farmers cut their fields from the forest by hand and set fires to clear the remains of fallen trees and to ready the land for planting. Hunters slept beside their campfires and in the morning rose and walked away from the still-burning embers. All through the end of that summer and into the fall there were warning signs. People walking in the woods heard the crackling of dry leaves beneath their feet and looked down to see tongues of flame licking across open ground and along the roots of trees like electrical signals in telephone wires. Less than two weeks before the night of the catastrophe, fire broke out in the crown of the forest, yards from the factory that was the reason for the town’s existence. It took all the men who worked in the factory to keep the building from burning. For several weeks by then the air had been so thick with the smoke of all these fires that the Green Bay light was kept burning day and night to warn ships away from a shore they couldn’t see.
And still life went on as normal.
When the wind rose and turned to the west on the night of October 8, it drew the dozens of minor fires together into a holocaust that devoured the forest and rose over the town as it slept. Those who survived did so by wading in the Peshtigo River, up to their necks, while a ceiling of wind-borne flame roared above them. They had to splash water continually over their heads to keep their hair from catching fire. By the time the fire began to die, having nothing left to burn, these hundreds had been in the water for five hours or more. Some had drowned. Others had died of hypothermia, their bodies freezing while their heads burned. A priest who survived in this way wrote of what he saw when he returned to shore: families huddled together in corners, their bodies turned the same featureless black as the beams of their houses; a father and his two children, untouched by the flames, lying with their throats cut a few feet from where their wife and mother had burned to death; bodies utterly unburned but no less dead, their watches and coins melted in their pockets; another father, searching for his sons and daughters, saying, “If at least I could find their bones, but the wind has swept away what the fire has spared.”
The quantity of suffering in this world is a constant, as is the quantity of ignorance. Knowledge does not mean the ability to end suffering, but only to displace it—to send it elsewhere.
A warm front is sweeping over the Pacific toward the east coast of Japan, bringing wind and dryer weather. The latest cable from Saipan promises that everything will be ready within the week.
Last year was a leap year. Now the shortness of the month has caught Ansel by surprise, and he can’t make himself believe that tomorrow it will be March already. He feels the presence of the missing day like a phantom limb.
Lately he hasn’t been sleeping well. He dreams soft, comfortable dreams and feels ashamed of them afterward, or he dreams terrible dreams in which he can’t tell the earth from the air, in which silent and emaciated children stare out at him through greasy windowpanes from lightless rooms.
The house at night rings with the faintly audible edges of sounds—the radio tubes, the refrigerator’s humming coils—that he knows must rise or descend jaggedly into spectra beyond the reach of human ears. It may as well be in such voices that the dead speak.
Not that his insomnia rates a mention in the 1945 edition of the catalogue of earthly suffering. He tells himself to think of all the good he’s doing—an end to the war, all the American soldiers whose lives and so on—but he has to tell himself, and the telling ruins the effect, like explaining a joke.
Caroline turns toward him half-awake, mutters his name, then turns away again, body and mind tumbling together into the void. There are hours to go until the sun comes up. Nightjars call to each other from their nests in the damp ground, their voices so nearly human, or better, like formerly human voices transformed and purified, fitted now solely to the task of mourning. Ansel closes his eyes and sees the bodies of young men falling from the open doors of the bombers, the bodies of children falling from the windows of their burning houses into the burning street.
Tonight he’s run three times up the beach as far as the lighthouse and back along the Post Road, while the cottages lit one by one their lower rooms against the dark. He’s always wondered how he looks to his neighbors, running in bad weather. Like an insane person, probably. Lately he thinks he must really be as crazy as he looks to them. In the deepest miles of his run, when he’s already gone past the point of exhaustion and is still far from home, he begins to hear voices. Hear is the wrong word. He hears nothing, and yet he is conscious of the presence of voices that are not his, speaking in a language he has never heard, and though he understands nothing he has, uncannily, the sensation of understanding. Once as an undergraduate he spent a month in Germany. He understood barely a word of German, and still by the end of the month he could stand in a crowded train car and listen to the conversations taking place around him and feel as though he were hearing his native tongue. He felt as though he were standing beside himself—beside the self he might have been had he been born in Germany. If only he could speak to this other self. This is a little like that. As if on some hidden level of being there is a version of himself who understands these other voices, who must listen, and absorb what is said, and be in whatever way moved to laughter or pity or fear. How this might be affecting him, the self he knows and recognizes, he doesn’t want to guess.
Tonight when he came in from his run, wild-eyed and half-frozen, he encountered a familiar scene. Richie was having some kind of episode. About what, is a question no one can answer. Caroline tried to explain it, but her words made no sense. “He didn’t want the noodles in his soup to be shaped like that,” she said. The noodles had been made in the shape of wagon wheels, but this seemed to be only the misleading surface of the problem. He had locked himself in the bathroom, from whence now came the sounds of probably toxic things in glass jars falling from the shelves of the medicine cabinet.
“Richie,” Caroline called through the door, “you like the wagon wheels.”
“I DON’T LIKE THE PURPLE!!” he said, which meant who knows what, but his voice was tight with fear.
In the end, as always, it was his sister who knew how to reach him. She stood with her face pressed against the door and spoke softly. Ansel turned away out of fatherly shame and only half-listened. She said something about how he could come with her down to the barn to see the horses. How the horses had missed him, and if he would only be quiet and calm she would lift him up so that he could sit on each of their shoulders and feel with his hands the softness of their manes. There are no horses anywhere within walking distance of the Morrison household. Still somehow, by the operation of some secret between them, Richie was placated, and stopped screaming, and opened the door and came out to sit sobbing on the floor in the living room. Caroline got a broom and began to sweep the shards of broken glass from the floor, while Claire sat down beside her brother and read to him.
“I will be a tightrope walker,” she said, “and I will walk across the air to you.”
The Superfortresses left Saipan and Tinian at 5:34 p.m. on March 9 and reached Tokyo some seven hours later. There were 334 of them. To make more room for bombs, they carried no guns. To maximize accuracy, they flew just five hundred feet above the ground.
Everything exceeded expectations. The first planes to arrive sewed the ground with fire in the shape of an X. People on the ground would have seen only leaping walls of flame, but from above, the walls formed a target over the suburb of Shitamachi, chosen for its concentration of wood and paper houses. The planes that followed simply aimed for the target. The wind was blowing to the southwest at thirty knots, enough to drive the fire like a tide into the rest of the city. The Allied forces lost 243 men, remarkably few considering how low the planes had to fly, and without any defensive weapons. The raid itself lasted a little more than three hours, but the fires burned all night and into the morning. The total estimated death toll stands, conservatively, at 100,000. Some sixteen square miles of the city, enough space to fit all of Manhattan four times over, were destroyed.
Richie has inherited his father’s fitful sleep, his father’s vividly remembered dreams, but he isn’t practiced, as his father is, at knowing what’s real and what isn’t. The borders elude him. He wakes from nightmares with the monsters in his room, still stalking him. Or he wakes from happy dreams with his hands still grasping at whatever bright toy he’s just been playing with, unable to understand why it isn’t there.
Last night he woke up screaming, hours after midnight. He ran out into the hallway shouting that his room was full of bees. Giant hornets. One had landed right on his pillow, he said, and he’d smothered it before it had been able to sting him. If it had stung him, he would have died. These are giant hornets, not your regular ordinary bees. They don’t mess around. He wouldn’t go back into his room. He had shut the door to keep the bees in. He wouldn’t let anyone go in there.
“We have to call the police!” he said. “We have to call the fire department!”
There was nothing there, of course, but it took him a long time to understand that he’d been dreaming, and by then his sister was furious. She had an important exam in the morning and had been studying all afternoon and needed her sleep.
“Why does he always get to do this?” she said. She was standing in the open doorway to her bedroom, her hair sticking out from the side of her head where she’d been sleeping on it. Her parents hadn’t even seen her standing there, absorbed as they were in Richie’s distress. “He freaks out about nothing! It doesn’t even make any sense! And we all just drop whatever we’re doing like he’s the only person in the whole world!”
“Claire, honey,” her mother said softly, “go back to bed.”
“No!” Claire said. “How am I supposed to go back to bed now? I’m up. It’ll be time to get ready for school in two hours. The house is full of bees.”
She was right about all of this. But what was Ansel supposed to do? His son was quivering in his arms, practically catatonic with terror. A moment ago he’d been facing the near certainty of an agonizing death. Claire turned and went back into her room and slammed the door. Caroline opened it again and went in after her.
He’s been a lousy father—for how long now? He’s been pacing the halls in the late hours like a ghost haunting his own house, seeing everything that happens but understanding nothing.
In the morning Claire got on the bus to school in a cloud of fierce silence, and after she was gone Ansel took his son for a walk down to the beach again. He’s there with him now. It doesn’t hurt Richie to miss a day of kindergarten. Already he seems happier, more himself—or more like the self he would be if he weren’t weighed down all the time by fear.
It’s a mild day, nearly cloudless, and the beach is not deserted as it usually is this time of year. A hundred yards away a boy is building a sandcastle, his mother watching him from up the beach where the sand is dry. Farther still, a man throws a stick into the waves and his dog plunges in after it, again and then again.
“Papa!” Richie says. “I’m a seagull!” and spreads his arms and takes off running.
The war isn’t over yet, Ansel knows, but it will be soon. Smarter men are working on bigger bombs.
On the way down to the beach they passed the statue of the minuteman, striding forward in a feline crouch in his ragged clothes, his bayonet searching the air. They passed the sea wall lined with inert bronze replicas of the cannons that had been placed there one terrifying night a century and a half ago, in an impossible bid to hold King George’s ships offshore. How many dead men was that one bronze figure in the parking lot meant to stand for? Why? Because they didn’t want to pay a tax on stamps?
What is the use of all this history?
Richie is far away now, still flapping. The distance is great enough that if Ansel called him he might not hear. There’s no one around to kidnap him, and there’s nothing dangerous about the situation at all, and still—if he were to veer inexplicably toward the water, if he were to get knocked down by some rogue wave sweeping up the beach, the current might drag him out to sea before his father, running, could reach the spot where he’d gone in. Stranger things have happened.
What is the ontological principle that says that what was there before you closed your eyes will still be there after you’ve opened them? Children learn it around the time they begin to speak. Now, Ansel wonders why he ever believed it. Richie has always known better. At any moment, he might step through a door in the empty air and be gone. He might come back as a hummingbird, or as the flower whose nectar the bird holds its body still in midair to drink, the caloric intake just barely staying ahead of the expenditure from those ceaselessly gyrating wings. His father wouldn’t recognize him. Some everlasting day, we’ll all know each other. Somewhere is the beach where we’ll all wash ashore at last together, all our troubles ended, the stories of our lives wrapped up in bright cloth and slung over our shoulders, dry after all that time in the water and light as air, but it isn’t here.