Hidden sun kindled fires beneath a dark horizon. The moon floated like a pale reproach toward hills that gathered its fading substance. The wind was a deep current from those hills across the dark, swaying slumber of our fields, sweeping past me up the black spire to the rushing sails. A shadowy gleam like water under ice slid down the fluttering wings.
My hand closed around the coil of mylar line hung over my shoulder, and I slid my palm down the smooth strands.
Jason came up behind me and laid his hand on my shoulder as morning broke over the sharp tip of the highest arm and spilled fleeting gold down the sail. The wings rose, one after the other, to glisten against the purple dawn.
“Ready?” Jason shrugged his coiled climbing line onto the ground and felt in his pocket for the clips. He tightened the webbed straps of his safety harness, spun the spring-loaded takeup reel at his belt, and reached for the end of the line to thread it. He glanced over at me, his quick look taking in my braided and bound-up hair and the cloth tabs fastened snugly about the ankles of my coveralls.
“Almost.” I spun my takeup reel, then clicked it to a halt with a slap against the locking bar.
I looked up at the sails, feeling the shiver of a slight skip to the tremor, seeing Sam and a young Joshua start up the spire, Isaac standing beside me with his face lifted to the wind and his gaze far away, his silver hair blown back and his stance investing the patched coveralls with a spare dignity. He finally looked down at me, where I skipped excitedly on the packed dirt, urging him to hurry. “You’re got to still yourself first, child. No games up there. Really listen to what the wind’s telling you. That’s it. Slow, breathe deep of it. Let it come to you . . .”
“Ruth?” Jason touched my arm. “You’re sure you want to do this? It might not be what you’re expecting.”
“I know. But I need to do it.”
Behind him, a deep surge of wind moved currents of dark bronze through the wheat. The earth carried me forward on its cycle, its voices of air whispering secrets in my ears, its buried music beating through rock and soil. Its hum rose through me and suffused me with its living force.
I knelt and touched my palm to the earth, felt the tremor loop through me, hand to feet, and smiled.
“Let’s go, Jason.” I led the way up the climbing leg, stooping as I passed beneath the downsweep of the sail arms, bracing myself against the tug of the roaring air as I hooked both our line clips onto the ring of the lead line that ran in a loop to the pulley high on the extension bar and back.
I separated my gloves with a ripping sound as the raised plasmeld grips tore free of each other. The snug-fitting gloves held the wiry line easily as I began to hand-over-hand the lead loop and our lines paid out from our reels. As our springs tightened against the feedout, I had to lean back to let my weight compensate for the drag.
At last our lines were looped through the pulley and the clips reattached to our belts. I looked up and suddenly realized this was it, what I’d been waiting for all those days and nights wandering through the fields. I shivered in anticipation.
Jason leaned over me, flashing me a white grin. “Remember your locking bar if you get tired. You’re beautiful, Ruth!” He swooped down on me with a breathless kiss. “Here you go!”
I staggered as the force of the spring on the taut line hit me, and then I was flying. Up the nearly vertical, ribbed slope of the leg. My hands grabbed air and meters of line as it hissed into the reel, my toes barely touching and pushing off from the steadying metal.
My heart pounded against my ribs in the pulling, thrusting rhythm, the slight sway of the tight line, the wind whipping me up between the spire and the high thresh of the sails. For one dizzy moment I was plunging down the spinning vortex of a whirlpool and it was sucking me in. Then the pull of gravity localized down, and my lungs began to labor with the sweet agony of muscles straining in arms and legs.
The spring wasn’t pulling as hard now. Hand over hand, straight up, toes pushing hard against the grooved ribs, hands aching, clenched and unclenched on the thin line. Sweat breaking out on forehead and back, though the hot, descending line of sunlight was still above me. Hand over hand, reabsorbing the spider filament spun up that height, pulling the weight of my mortality on shaking arms, lungs burning now and a red mist clouding my eyes. I gasped my way into the sunlight dazzle. I slapped the locking bar, braced aching legs, and leaned out against the hold of the line.
The arms circled behind me, so close their passes seemed to push the air in and out of my lungs. I stretched and shook out my arms and sighted up the gleaming strand. I had made it past the midpoint.
The wheel shifted with a crack of sheet lightning in the sails. I clung to the line as a new current moved the sensitive balance of the gimballed pivot. It revolved around the shaft peak, its horizontal extension bearing the still-cycling wheel, spinner arms fluttering around each base arm in nervous realignment as the wheel steadied across the spire from me.
Now I could see, far below, the still-shadowed house slumbering among the dim, huddled shapes of the silos. Inside it, Helen and Sam and Aaron lay still in their separate cells of sleep. I could almost hear from the cellar cubicle a relentless tick, tick, counting down the seconds to our ruin.
I jerked my head away and put on a grin for Jason below me. I flicked open my locking bar and pulled myself in a steady crawl up the vertical leg, placing my feet carefully now as the land dwindled below a closer sky. The thick mass of the extension bar finally loomed overhead, and I reached up to heave myself onto the narrow platform running across its top.
Taking deep breaths. I looked out over the vast expanse of the plain and the towers striding away to the hills. My knees absorbed the shifts and eddies of wind. The tremor coursed through me now, singing with the humming air, returning like the memory of that separate balance a climber makes or finds on the towers. My blood sang with it.
Jason swung up beside me and detached our clips from the pulley loop. “I wish you’d use the hand grips. Don’t get overconfident, now.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then shrugged and let him lead the way across the extension, hunching over to keep his hand on the rail. I was sure if I hadn’t been there, he’d have just walked across.
In Jason’s wake a smaller figure took ghostly shape. Joshua’s blocky adolescent form marched deliberately across the bridge, feet placed squarely, defying a slight shift, scorning the rail, though his arm was held stiffly toward it. Isaac squatted beside me, chewing on the grass stem he’d held bobbing between his lips for the climb up. He plucked it out and let it drop lazily over the side, watched the sail’s gust whip it up and fling it out and down.
He tilted his head toward Joshua’s back and gave me a questioning look.
I spread my fingers over the bony knees pushing against grass stains on my too-short coveralls. “Josh’s a good climber, Isaac. He never makes mistakes.” My voice made it a question.
His eyes crinkled in the tanned-leather face. “Helen’s voice. You see it, though. Don’t mean a judgment on him, you recognizing it, Ruth. What do you see?”
I hesitated and took a deep savor of the wind, tasted the push of the eddies. “Well . . . he doesn’t feel it, does he? I mean, he should have known that gust was coming. He keeps ready, but it’s like he has his eyes closed . . .” I blurted it out.
“That’s right. You’ve got that sense of it he doesn’t know he’s missing. Long as you listen to yourself and the wind, you’re right as shine up here. You’ve got the love of it. But that’s no reason to give yourself airs over Joshua, it just fell out that way.”
I looked down and nodded, twisting at the loose fabric. “But it’s not fair!”
“I know, child.” His hand was on my head. “But I’ve put some thought in on it lately. There’s other kinds of balance. Maybe you and me, we’ve just got to feel them out.” He looked out over the far hills, and I knew he was thinking we’d both soon have to give up the high air. He shook his head. “Funny how things fall out. Take Aaron. He’s got a touch of it, you can see by the way he moves on the sails, but he won’t see it. He don’t want it. He’d rather rely on the dials and forcing things into the right place.”
“Don’t hate him, child. Come on.” He chuckled. “Let’s go do your air-dance . . .”
Isaac’s voice faded into the gusty exhalation of the sails. I rose and stretched arms over the waking stir of the fields below, moved into the accelerating shift of the wheel, and skipped across the extension to where Jason waited.
He gave me an alarmed look.
I shouted, “It’s okay! I’m all right up here!”
He sighed. “Okay. Pick an arm.”
The huge hub of the wheel turned behind him in a rumble of wind, raying outward the eight massive base arms. I started to reach past Jason for the handholds on the hub, then stopped. Again I felt the jagged little skip to the tremor.
“Jason, one of the sails is off.” I closed my eyes, felt out the source of the disruption. “There. That one.”
“But how can you—?” His voice was lost in the wind as I scrambled onto the hub. moving quickly up on the grips to be clear of the extension as the hub carried me around.
I blinked and emerged into the clarity of that transformed perspective, no longer crawling down—sideways—up—on a spinning surface, but stable, as the tower and sky and grain fields whirled around me. Taking a curved path across the rungs dotted over the surface of the hub, I moved out to the base arm of the imbalanced sail. It dropped through the bottom of the cycle and started climbing, and I walked up the rungs to where the spinner arm attached and stretched the widening wedge of sparkling sail.
I sat and hooked one knee around a rung as the arm crested and dropped again, whirling gleaming copper fields and blue sky around me. I raised my arms and let the wind sweep them around with the rush of the wheel. “Whoo-whee!”
I laughed and reached over to the slip rings, working them slowly into place as I closed my eyes and felt the little jar smooth out into a level hum. “There!” I opened my eyes and smiled at Jason, who’d climbed down beside me. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
I jumped up and turned to run down the arm, running straight for the gleaming end of the sail and the sky beyond it as the arm climbed. When it crested, I grabbed the next rung and used the downward momentum to swing out from the arm and over, landing tucked and rolling to grasp another rung. I swung out again, flying now in the accelerated whip near the outer rim of the wheel, as the dip pulled me downward, stretched and clinging, then rolled me up again, and I tumbled back toward the hub. I was humming now, singing the wordless song of the wind and the tremor and the threshing sails as earth and sky tumbled around me.
“Ruth!” Jason, crouched on the base arm, reached out to seize my wrist. “Are you crazy? You could get killed that way!”
I leaned over to speak against his ear. “You’re hurting my arm.” I flexed my wrist as he loosened his fingers. “Please, Jason. This is my last chance up here. Be happy with me?”
“But you’re so wild!”
I laughed and gave him a quick kiss. “Bet you can’t catch me!”
I scrambled up, timing my turn to the crest, then dropped away from him in swinging passes down the arm. As it neared the bottom, I grasped a rung with both hands and tried a handstand, kicking up and resting against the wind, then letting the drop sweep me out and down, stretched from my fingers to toes. I scissored my legs, walking over in the air to hook one moccasined foot into the next rung, kicking up with the other in an arched split, poised in extension and ready for a leap into free air.
I let the climb of the sail be my leap. Sweeping my arms out and around to the side, I rolled forward past the rung, grabbing the next one and twisting around to see Jason leaping after me, moving fast. He was good.
I scrambled to my feet, trapped out on the whipping end of the arm. He slowed, and a smile split his face as he reached out to grasp my arm.
But I could feel a wind eddy coming. If I could time it just right . . . It hit us just as we reached the dip, and I took an added spring from it as the sail swept up, transforming up to down as I leaped spread-eagled over Jason’s hunched grip on a rung. He cried out and whipped an arm after me, but I was past him, swinging down toward the hub.
I landed near it, laughing as tears streamed from my eyes in the wind. I dropped across a few meters of empty space, took a spring from the wide base, and reversed direction again with a backward spring into a tucked flip through the air, to land on the next arm over. I rolled, grasped a rung, and calculated my lead would give me time to—
A jolt of dead air behind me as Jason flew in a spinning arc across the wider gap of the arms, a daredevil leap without the use of the holding line. He was grinning, and I paused in surprise that he’d be so reckless. He grasped the rung next to me without even looking and reached out to snatch my ankle and drag me next to him.
“Jason! Man, you’re good!”
“You little demon, let’s see you get out of this!” He laughed, eyes narrowed below his hair tossed back as the arm began to crest again.
He yanked on the clip of his climbing line, whipping the line around to wrap us together. He snatched up my clip, too, and quickly hooked us down onto the rungs. The arm tipped past the top and began its steepening thrill of descent. We rolled together against the lines, and the windy cycle caught us up.
I pretended to fight, kicking against the tangled lines. We were both laughing now, the wild air whipping the sound away as we grappled like pard pups in the rushing tumult of earth and air. We fell and the wind took my breath as the sail dipped and then climbed. He was under me now and my weight pushed me against him. I could feel the hard lines of his body beneath the loose coveralls. We were borne to the crest again and the sun struck sparks from the taut, silver-blue mylar.
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