Like hopeful penitents or sojourners making the pilgrimage to a holy land filled with story and sorrow, they arrived with gifts. Most offerings were cradled by careful hands, and delivered with the sort of ceremony and circumstance usually reserved for sacraments. Even the serving plates were chosen with intention, exquisite and rarely used pieces that had obviously been rescued from corner curios and china cabinets. Rescued and washed clean, soap and water removing the accumulated dust of weeks or months. Sometimes years.
Dani accepted an oblong, curved platter adorned with impossibly tiny, hand-painted flowers. The artful, black-hearted pansies were dwarfed by still-warm squares of generous walnut brownies, stacked like soft bricks in a fragrant monument to her grief. And there was a stew in a fat soup tureen, a lidded, porcelain rarity that seemed to glow with the almost heady scent of beef roast and caramelized onions. It was thick and unnatural for a warm May day, and Dani held her breath when she placed it on the counter next to the small army of dinnerware that had begun to amass beneath her painted cabinets. Casseroles and baskets of store-bought fruit and cookies, cups of café au lait with heavy cream and raw sugar, just the way she liked it. If she was really lucky, or if her mom came, the caffeine fix was laced with a shot or two of something stronger. But even the Irish coffee was a waste.
People brought things because they didn’t know what else to do. Somewhere, below the tingling numbness that trembled against her skin, Dani knew they were trying, and she returned the favor with a reluctant grace, welcoming each well-meaning act of charity with heavy, outstretched arms. She assured every visitor that their gift was perfect. Just what she needed. The only thing she could bring herself to taste. How did you know?
The truth was, she didn’t want their food or their condolences. After they left, she upended the brownies into the garbage can, abandoning the stack of fudgy sweets to the cupboard under the sink, where they made her entire kitchen smell like a confectionary. With a long-handled spoon, she ladled the hot stew into the garbage disposal. Chunks of potatoes and whole baby carrots and bits of barley floated in the sink like putrid, autumn confetti until she flipped the wall switch and ground it into a sludgy paste that oozed down the drain. It was all she could do not to vomit.
They were an insult, all those filled plates, those ridiculous portions of food and drink. As if she could eat. As if a chicken-broccoli casserole could fill the space where he was supposed to be.
Nothing could touch it.
No amount of filling could ease the echoing ache of the fissure that had split open her heart, her very life, ripped it straight down the middle so that she knew what it was like to fall to pieces. You didn’t fall, not really. It wasn’t nearly so dramatic or drawn out. One word or two, just a few, and when the paralysis passed you looked down and realized that you were bleeding from a wound that would surely never heal. It didn’t hurt until you saw the blood, until you realized that you had been torn and what was taken from you could not be put back. Not without leaving a scar. Worse. There would be much more than a scar. She felt deformed. She knew she always would be.
Dani didn’t want another batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies. Or her friends, her sisters, her mother. Not even a funeral could give her closure. And in many ways she longed for exactly that. For the known.
Etsell wasn’t dead; he was gone.
That, Dani decided, was infinitely worse.
They brought small sacrifices to the altar of her mourning, but the only oblation Dani accepted was the one that Benjamin offered.
He knocked on her door the day after she got the call, almost exactly forty-eight hours after Etsell’s plane went missing from the tiny airport in Seward, Alaska. Dani was furious at first because her reclusive neighbor was knocking on her back door, the whitewashed, creaking screen that opened on a little kitchen garden where nothing much deigned to grow. It was her private entrance and her secret escape, the passage through which she quietly ducked when the front doorbell rang with the insistent sound of sympathy that she longed to ignore. But her rage was rash and unfounded, it fizzled out as quickly as it flared, and Dani was left feeling bereft of emotion, of even the will to stand up and answer the door.
At first she tried to pretend that she wasn’t at home. She was sitting at the small breakfast table in the kitchen, a round-topped relic that she had refinished in black lacquer with a rubbed metallic glaze. Her hands were on the soft-ridged surface, her fingers following the almost imperceptible dips and whorls that traced the path of the rag she had used to polish the dark wood after she had sanded the corners and blown away the sawdust with her own pursed lips. Etsell had laughed as she labored over the table. He didn’t understand the almost sensual way she swept circles over the new, glossy paint or why her eyes narrowed to focus on every detail in the old tabletop.
“It’s nothing special,” he told her for the hundredth time. “It was cheap when your grandma bought it, and it’s no heirloom now.”
“I love the shape,” Dani muttered, barely registering that he was trying to provoke her. It was good-natured, it always was, and she wasn’t in the mood. The table was finally dry and she was lost in the art of unearthing hints of the original wood grain beneath.
“Oh, I know.” Etsell moved behind her, formed himself to her body as she bent over the smooth surface with a sheet of three-hundred-grit sandpaper clutched in her hand. “You like the legs,” he murmured against her neck. “The twisting lines. The old-world carved details and . . .”
“Ball feet,” she supplied in a whisper. The sandpaper was already slipping from her fingers.
“Ball feet,” he echoed. “And you’re finishing it . . . Art Deco?”
“With a French Provincial slant,” Dani agreed, shrugging a little so that the warm skin at the curve between her shoulder and neck rose to meet his lips. His breath was hot, and she stifled a shiver as he parted the curtain of her hair and spilled kisses against the hidden places beneath.
“I love it when you talk furniture to me.” Etsell’s voice was low and husky, and Dani couldn’t help but giggle.
She spun in his arms, ready to push him away and get back to the task at hand, but he caught her around the waist and lifted her onto the table. “I have work to do,” Dani protested, but Etsell was already lowering her, laying her back so that the strawberry spill of her long hair shone like burnished gold against the obsidian wood. She didn’t fight him. Didn’t want to.
When Benjamin knocked, and an instant later when he unnecessarily announced his presence through the open screen, Dani was remembering the afternoon that Etsell proved he listened to every word she said. As he slid her T-shirt over her head, he whispered about the expeditionary decor of the corner bedroom that she had turned into an exotic library retreat with splashes of wicker, bamboo, and an oversized leather chair accented by tarnished brass rivets. And the way she married a more masculine Mission style with shabby chic touches in their tiny master bedroom. The vertical slats of the well-balanced bed were softened by chenille pillows done in snowfall whites and subtle, minty greens that gave off such an impression of newness that the room felt cool and fresh even in the middle of a Midwestern July.
As his hands spanned her waist, Dani realized for the first time that Etsell listened. He knew her, even though he teased her about furniture restorations and groaned when she insisted on hemming curtains while he watched Monday Night Football. Of course she knew her husband loved her, but the understanding that he heard every word she said nearly choked her as she sat at the very table where he covered her body with his own. The words he whispered were more intimate even than the way he moved above her.
And Benjamin’s interruption of her solitary reverie was anything but welcome.
So she sat at the table and held her breath, hoping her backyard neighbor would go away. But he knocked again, and called again, using her given name and then one that made her face flush with heat as if the sun suddenly beat down on her cheeks.
“Danica? Mrs. Greene? Are you home?”
She pushed herself up from the table and crossed the kitchen in a few short strides. Though the door was hidden by the half wall where her refrigerator stood sentinel, Dani could see Benjamin nearly as soon as she stood. He filled the narrow doorway, his frame as long and gangly as the narrow pieces of white molding that encased the door. Though he wasn’t obscenely tall—all legs and arms and joints that seemed to turn in unusual directions—he did have to bend a little to peer inside the sagging screen of her door. He could have poked his nose through a tiny hole in the screen, Dani realized. It looked like he was about to.
“I’m home,” she told him unnecessarily. Her voice was gravelly and unused, and she cleared her throat quietly, ashamed of the evidence that she was alone. “Call me Dani. How many times have I told you to call me Dani?”
“Sorry. May I?” But he was already letting himself in.
She backed away, giving him space to enter her kitchen uninvited, and took stock of the man before her. In many ways, he was the antithesis of her Etsell. It was strange to be looking at Benjamin in the flesh while Etsell already seemed consigned to the mist and magic of her memory. The two men were night and day, light and dark, and seeing her neighbor’s wiry frame only made Dani long for the sturdy breadth of her husband’s arms.
Benjamin gave his head a little tilt to let his dark hair fall back from his forehead, and offered Dani a slow, measured smile. It surprised her because it didn’t seem to Dani that he smiled often, and when he did his straight, white teeth were overshadowed by a neat goatee. It was the sort of carefully groomed mustache and small, pointed beard that were so carefully maintained they looked more like accessories than a part of his facial structure. Much about Benjamin seemed deliberate, and he gave off a faint, esoteric vibe as if he was a brooding poet or maybe a tortured artist. He made Dani feel a bit nervous, he always had. At least, she realized as she studied his charcoal pants and long-sleeved dress shirt, he wasn’t wearing his clerical collar. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone and the only thing that adorned his bare neck was the exaggerated line of his collarbone.
They stood there for a moment, just staring at each other. Dani always expected Benjamin to be smooth, the sort of confident, easy-talking pastor who had populated the darkened spiritual corridors of her youth. But the man who lived in the blue bungalow across her backyard didn’t fit any stereotypes. In fact, whenever she saw him in his starched, white collar, it seemed mildly offensive to her, as if he were wearing a Halloween costume out of season.
Benjamin shuffled his feet against the stained linoleum of her kitchen floor, and all at once Dani dredged up manners from somewhere deep in her wounded mind. She opened her mouth to offer him something to drink, but before she could utter a word he took a step toward her and thrust out his hands. Her eyes fell to the span of his long fingers, surprised that she hadn’t even noticed that he was carrying something.
“I didn’t know what to bring,” Benjamin said in the same slow, calculated way he said everything. “So I brought asparagus.”
It was true. He cradled a thick bundle of fresh-picked spears, the grape clusters of their smooth heads so plump and tight, Dani was sure that she could catch the faintest whiff of the ground from which they came. The stalks were slender and even, the color a crisp balance between olive and moss.
“Where did you find them?”
The corner of Benjamin’s lip pulled up conspiratorially when he said, “I have a spot.”
Nearly everyone in the small Iowa town of Blackhawk had a spot, and each one was a secret that was carefully guarded and maintained. When the asparagus grew wild in the ditches every spring, people took to the roads and combed the deep grasses for the treasures that lay hidden beneath. Sometimes a lucky hunter would stumble across a trove, but usually finding the sweet spots took patience and planning. Of course, later in the summer, when the plants had gone to seed it was easy to spot where asparagus had grown. Soft-tufted bushes blew like banners in the breeze announcing every missed opportunity. But finding them back in the spring was a challenge, the sort of undertaking that required forethought and planning, surreptitious groundwork that would not come to fruition for many long months while northwest Iowa lay blanketed in snow.
Benjamin’s stoic forbearance had obviously paid off because this was the first of the asparagus that Dani had seen. It made her mouth water.
“There was a gentleman in my church who paid his hired hands to dig up the asparagus plants on his property,” Benjamin said when her silence stretched on uninterrupted. He seemed nervous, anxious to fill the space between them with words, even if they were meaningless. Dani forced herself to look at her earnest neighbor. “Why would he do that?”
“He was sick of people harvesting in his ditch.”
“My grandfather once chopped down an apple tree because kids kept taking the fruit it cast off,” Dani responded without thinking.
Benjamin’s eyebrows lifted in wonder. “Imagine that.”
“Is that where you got these?” Dani made herself reach for the asparagus.
“What do you mean?”
“From the guy in your church who dug up the plants.”
“No,” Benjamin turned over his hands and emptied the cool stalks into Dani’s palms. “These were a surprise. A gift.”
She turned her gaze to the long lines of the vegetables in her palms, and felt a prickle of wonder at the heft of the bundle, the weight of the spears that seemed too willowy to weigh much more than air. “Thank you,” she muttered. And for the first time since people began showing up at her door, she meant it.
Benjamin didn’t say anything, but Dani looked up in time to see him nod his acknowledgment. He was already leaving, his hand on the door, and though she was grateful to see him go, Dani felt a pang of loneliness stab through her like a subtle knife. Of course, Etsell wouldn’t have been coming home tonight anyway, but just knowing that he couldn’t, that he was somewhere off the known map, made her feel like she was the last person living in a hollow, futile world.
“Thank you,” she said again.
Benjamin responded by closing the screen door with a gentle click.
It was enough. The sound of the latch falling home, the unexpected kindness of a relative stranger, the evidence of life in her hands. When the first sob wracked Dani, she went weak in the knees and sank to the kitchen floor. Gone, her low moans seemed to whisper. Gone. But that wasn’t true, it wasn’t for sure. Not yet.
The Civil Air Patrol had told her that Etsell could very well be making his way back to Seward even as they sent out helicopters to search for him. Planes went down slowly sometimes, they landed in meadows or on the sides of mountains that seemed too craggy for even sure-footed goats. And his emergency transmitter could have been low on batteries or disabled during a bumpy touchdown. There was hope. There was always hope.
Dani didn’t feel very hopeful.
But when her tears stopped, when the heaving of her chest became nothing more than the slow shudder of her spent fears, she saw the detritus of green around her and felt a longing so deep it made her shiver. She had dropped the asparagus when she fell, and the stalks lay in geometric designs in her lap and over the cold, gray linoleum of her floor. They made a strange puzzle of discarded produce, clean and new and freshly plucked from the unknowing ground, waiting to be devoured like little promises.
Dani picked one from the pile on her thigh and snapped off the woody end. The spear was delicate, impossibly thin, and she put it to her lips. It was cool and firm, it crunched beneath her teeth with an unexpected juicy pop. She ate it quickly, grabbing the next before she had swallowed the first. It soothed her somehow, Benjamin’s gift, and she feasted on his offering until her stomach hurt.
In the absence of all that mattered, it felt good to be filled with something.
Hazel told me that Etsell wanted to be a pilot from almost the moment he heard that his mother had died.
“Have you heard of the song ‘I’ll Fly Away’?”
Of course I had. But instead of justifying her question with a response, I blew a bubble with the watermelon gum I was chewing. It popped against my lips and I had to pick the sticky, pink mess off with my fingertips. I was nineteen. Engaged to the man she considered her son.
“I think that’s what he wanted to do,” Hazel continued, seemingly unperturbed by my obvious disinterest. “To just fly away, far from here, from every reminder of her.”
“He had his dad,” I reminded her. “It’s not like he was completely alone.”
Hazel pursed her lips and slid me a reproving look. “Dani, honey, you’re young, but you’re not stupid. At least, I didn’t take you for stupid. Owen Greene was a sorry drunk. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body, but he loved the bottle more than he loved his son, and that’s a fact. Etsell lost everything when he lost his mom.”
Except me, I thought, remembering the first time that he looked my way with eyes so full of intent I didn’t have to wonder if he wanted me or not. Love would come later, I reasoned, giving in to daydreams as my naive idealism painted pictures of our future together. They were watercolor soft, an impressionist fantasy. How could they not be? Etsell was beautiful. A dark, tortured soul hidden beneath the guise of a handsome, small-town co-ed—the very epitome of every romantic stereotype and cliché.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he has you,” Hazel said. Her words startled me. Had I spoken aloud?
I nodded, assured of my own value in Etsell’s world.
“It’s just a tough situation all around. I think Ell reminds Owen of her too much. Or maybe not enough.”
Etsell’s father might have been a raging alcoholic, but his illness was a sort of slow suicide. He tried to make sure that he was the only one affected by his addiction, but no action can exist in a vacuum, and Ell grew up in a home that reeked of sorrow and booze. I should have been furious with the man who failed at raising my soon-to-be husband, but it was almost impossible to hate someone as broken as Owen. He was the sort of simple soul that was afforded but one love in life, and his heart belonged exclusively to his dead wife.
I never met Miss Melanie, but she was ubiquitous in Blackhawk, a part of local legend and lore. Everyone called her Miss Melanie because she taught a generation of second graders at the elementary school before she was miraculously blessed with a child of her own. I’m told Etsell was born a charmer, a prince who stole his mother’s heart the very moment she first caught a glimpse of his sweet baby fist. But the tiny curl of his chubby hand was the only thing she saw for quite a while, because immediately after delivery Miss Melanie had an eclampsia-induced seizure and slipped into a coma for almost three days.
Owen didn’t blame Etsell, not exactly, but apparently he wasn’t much of a father even after Miss Melanie recovered. He was too old, too set in his ways, too comfortable in the life that he had spent a quarter of a century perfecting with his wife. When she was killed, they might as well have buried him with her. He would have preferred it that way.
Hazel sighed heavily and put her hands on her hips with a sort of finality. “I’m glad he has you,” she repeated. “But as much as you hate to hear it, you’re just a little girl.”
I nearly swallowed my gum in a gasp of indignation. Little girl? Etsell and I had been together for three years—a lifetime—and we had weathered much as one. I considered myself his bride, body and spirit, even then. But before I could assure my fiancé’s surrogate mom that I was a woman, she gave my shoulder a hard squeeze and walked with purpose out of the hangar. It was only then I realized that Etsell was coming in for a landing, the wings of his aircraft mimicking the perfect plane of the horizon beneath him.
Owen Greene was undeniably lost in a world of his own wretched design, but he had the sense to buy his only son an airplane for his fifteenth birthday. Of course, it was a rusted hunk of junk, and of course, Etsell couldn’t fly it alone. But he loved it with the sort of passion some boys reserve for cars or sports or girls. By the time he celebrated fifteen years of life, he had already logged thirty hours with a flight instructor and was well on his way to receiving his student certificate. In just one more year he officially claimed the status of student pilot, and when he turned seventeen he held his very own pilot’s license.
I met Etsell the week after he took his pilot’s exam and passed the medical evaluation, the final check ride, and the FAA written test without a single definable mistake or insufficiency. He wanted to take me up in his plane. I refused, but he asked me out anyway.
One Friday night in early fall, we went to Pizza Hut and devoured a medium pan-crust supreme. Afterward, when Etsell took me to Blackhawk’s tiny airport under the cloak of a deepening night, I let him hold me against the corrugated metal side of the hangar and kiss me until I didn’t know where he stopped and I started.
It was the beginning of everything. The moment when we breathed into each other and the rest of our lives sprang forth like a new bud, filled with the potential of all that we could be. At the very genesis of our relationship, we made an unspoken covenant, the sort of binding commitment that lashed his broken heart to mine as if pressing the hurt against my wholeness could only result in healing. He leaned into me and I let him come, wounded child, lover of air and sky, things above.
I was his ground.
“I want to be a bush pilot,” Etsell told me after I had officially accepted his proposal. It seemed a difficult admission for him, the sort of confession that ranked up there with a full disclosure of infidelity. He was studying the way our hands twined together, the interlocking weave of his thick fingers twisted through mine. But when I didn’t answer immediately he looked up, eyes the color of slate-rimmed sky hidden beneath dark lashes, and gave me a crooked, hopeful smile.
“I know,” I said.
His brow wrinkled in confusion.
“Hazel.” Her name was clarification enough.
“And you’re not mad?”
“Would you . . . ? Could you see yourself living in Alaska?”
No. Land of the Midnight Sun, of glacier fields and boundless, uncharted territories. Bears. Moose chewed on geraniums in suburban backyards. I had seen the pictures. And I had read the employment guide that Etsell had downloaded from the Alaska Pilot Exchange and conveniently left on the table in his father’s immaculate galley kitchen.
The front page of the hefty booklet declared ALASKA BUSH PILOT in bold capitals and featured an uninspired photograph of a float plane in front of a dreary hangar. It made me depressed just to look at it. But I read it anyway because he left it for me to find, and because I wanted to know what I would face as his bride.
It was a terrifying document. After a brief introduction in which the authors explained that some people believed the dangerous days of the bush pilot were relegated to history, they went on to disprove such comforting notions. Modern technology aside, they cited extremely adverse weather conditions, unpredictable hazards, and the need for dead reckoning when equipment failed. I knew that Etsell often flew by wind triangle when he had a route memorized by heart, but the thought of blind navigation over thousands of square miles of mountains and water and tundra filled me with a quiet dread like thick sediment seeping into the spaces between my bones. It was a helpless feeling, the sort of realization that made me certain my future would be shadowy and unpredictable.
I pictured myself a frontier wife, a woman lined with years and worry, clad in steel-toed boots and red flannel. She was almost unrecognizable, the woman I had become, and her eyes were bleak and haunted as she searched the blackened sky for a flight that would never make it home.
But I couldn’t say any of that to Etsell. He was looking at me with his lips slightly parted, his gaze hesitant and hopeful, as if I held the key to his happiness in the palm of my hand. He was a child to me, unruly and impetuous, but desperate for my approval all the same. For the soft touch of my validation.
“Why Alaska?” I asked.
Etsell opened his mouth and closed it. Let a stunned breath escape from between his lips. “Because,” he murmured. He seemed confused, distracted, like he didn’t know how to explain the feel of the wind on his skin to a fish. I was the fish.
“Because it’s Alaska, Dani,” he finally managed. “Because it’s vast and gorgeous and savage.”
I cringed a little, but he was too enamored with his subject matter to notice.
“It’s where pioneers belong, and entrepreneurs. And thrill-seekers, wanderers, adventurers . . .”
And little boys, I thought. Grown-up little boys with broken hearts.
“We’ve got nothing tying us here,” Etsell whispered, unraveling his fingers from mine so that he could cup my face.
“My mother,” I reminded him. “Hazel. My sisters.”
“They’ll visit. We’ll take them salmon fishing.”
I could see him for just a moment, a man on the bank of one of the rivers I had read about online. The Kenai, the Yukon, the Koyukuk. The water was bottle-green and ice cold, and we were all lined up on either side of him like wings. Wings of women who would hold him up. Help him rise when he fell.
“Yes,” I whispered. But I wasn’t saying yes to Alaska, I was saying yes to him. I couldn’t cross my fingers as I stretched the meaning of my ambiguous answer, but I considered the long plait of my braided hair, the way my legs intersected at the ankle, the line of one wrist over the other.
I let him kiss me, and as his lips met mine I imagined the dross of every splintered vow anointing our heads like Arctic snow. They were white lies, inconsequential, nothing. But necessary all the same. It was part of the process of coming together, the way we dulled our sharp edges on each other, made promises we had no intent to keep.
We had done it before. Pretended we fit like the hollow of earth beneath a rock that had rested against the same dirt for centuries. Millennia. And when the raw truth of our differences felt harsh and uncompromising, we shifted positions, tried again. It wasn’t deceptive, not really. It was who we were.