Art by Mark Evan Walker
by Jerome Charyn
I liked the waterfall. I could see it from my office window, its fullness, its graceful flow—a melody that rebounded in my bones. We had very mild winters, and I could hear the lulling whish of water most of the year. It salvaged my soul. Ice came in January and left in January. I was the only lawyer in town, and so I represented every damn person who was up to mischief. But I couldn’t bear wife-beaters, and I left them to dangle on their own. It was amazing how busy I got. I trekked to the courthouse twice a day. Our prosecutor was inept and couldn’t deal with my strategies or my eloquence. I never lost a case. The mayor had to import prosecutors from other parts of the county. And they still lost. I had what our preacher called the gift of tongues. It was more than that. I cared about my clients; I really cared. And to the mayor’s small army of desperado prosecutors it meant just another afternoon in court.
So I was pissed off when Cousin Fred called. The town was rampant with cousins. It was like one big incestuous family tree.
“Mother stole the child,” he said.
“Elmer”—that was his name. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“She stole Lucy’s child right out of the clinic crib.”
“Elmer,” I said, “start making sense. Mother wouldn’t steal her own child’s child.”
“Well, she did.”
We didn’t have a real hospital, just a clinic, and doctors were on loan to us. According to Elmer, Mother fell in love with the baby, like a fellow human might fall in love with a cat, and took the little boy, her own grandson, from the nursery despite the clinic’s outcry, and drove him back to the farm in her Cherokee. The sheriff was called in—he was also a cousin of mine. But he wouldn’t drive out to the farm, even if he had half a dozen deputies. He might not have returned with a paycheck in his pocket, and he knew it. The town may have elected him, but Mother took care of all the bills. Mother Smyth owned the town. The waterfall sat on her property. I paid my rent to her, and she was my own mama. But tribal relations meant little to Mother. Her Christian name was June. I had seven sisters and brothers, and this little boy, Josephus, was her sixth grandchild. He hadn’t been christened yet, hadn’t had water sprinkled on his little bald pate. Mother snatched him right out of the crib. She was known for her craziness, but you couldn’t call it that. She was master and mistress of a town she herself had dubbed Smyth Falls. We were just an appendage to another town until Mother appeared and seized the landscape for herself.
I went to see Sissy first. None of the tribe was close. That’s how Mother raised us. Our father had been a brutal man who couldn’t match wits with Mother. He copulated with her, and she had him sit in jail after his drunken fits. She walloped him with a frying pan during his rages. He didn’t live past forty. She’d sucked all the vitals out of Papa Jed. He should have run into another county, but none of us did. I managed to get four years out of the Baptist college across the wooden bridge. I had to work like a dog to pay my tuition. And I found an online law school that took me in. I studied with Harvard professors in a festival of classes on video and passed the state bar. The professors were like ghosts visiting us from another planet.
So I went to see Sissy. She kept staring at the empty crib. “I can’t believe my eyes, Wash.” That’s my name. It’s short for Washington Smyth. “Do you think she wants ransom money?”
“No,” I said. “It’s sheer perversity, Sis. She’s too old to have another child. She must have looked into little Joe’s blue eyes and decided that she had to have him for herself.”
“That’s mighty selfish. Don’t I have any recourse?” Sissy asked. It’s not as if she had a husband or a boyfriend to protect her. Sis must have slept with every stray rattlesnake in the county.
“Couldn’t I hire you, Wash? Couldn’t I take her to court? You are my brother.”
“Sister Lucy, we have to make an appeal. No frontal attack would work.”
“Well,” she asked, “will you appeal to her for me?”
Sis was thirty-five. She’s managed the affairs at Mother’s hardware store on North Main since she was sixteen. That’s the only occupation she’s ever had. Her salary and all her other resources came out of Mother’s purse. She was beholden to the Smyth clan. All my brothers and sisters and cousins were, except for me. The online law school made all the difference. I could throw dust in Mother’s face, defy her, without ever leaving town.
* * *
I drove to the farm in my Cherokee. Mother had a kingdom of cows. She had eleven barns, a plant with electric milkers, and a creamery that produced the best ice cream on the planet. Mother Smyth’s was celebrated in the Southwest for one of its unusual flavors—Clotted White Chocolate. It amused me that white-chocolate ice cream had also been a preferred flavor of the Russian royal family. READ MORE
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
by William Burton McCormick
At this altitude, the sky turned violet and daytime starlight pierced the atmosphere from outer space. Cosmic wonders that Soviet test pilot Elita Priedite found enthralling, if not unexpected, as her experimental plane accelerated toward the speed of sound. Beneath her jet’s small triangular wings stretched an endless blanket of gray clouds, and kilometers below these, the cold Arctic Ocean with its crushing ice floes, abyssal trenches, and locked secrets. A hostile environment at all levels, yet she traversed it with ease, hurtling with her Savior towards destiny.
“Mach zero-point-eight,” reported Elita into her headset, her words steady even as the cockpit shuddered around her. “All normal.”
This last remark was in truth a lie. A woman—a Soviet woman, a Latvian woman—going this fast was far from normal. In fact, it had never been done before. The sound barrier within reach, she’d be the first Soviet pilot of either gender to break it outside the USSR’s borders, a Politburo-calculated event in international airspace for the world to see. An act of blunt intimidation for real and imagined enemies of the Soviet people. Elita herself cared nothing for war games or national posturing. Let the political chatterboxes talk of messages to America and NATO; she only wished to fly.
“Begin your acceleration dive in fifteen seconds, Captain Priedite,” in-structed a firm Russian voice through her helmet speakers. Colonel Anton Baranov sat in safety forty kilometers away on a Soviet destroyer, yet thought himself master of this experiment.
Elita knew who was in control. And if not she, then the Lord himself guided her hand.
“Beginning acceleration dive in fifteen seconds,” she answered as if a formality.
Elita took another long breath of oxygen, watched the observation plane on her right fall away, unable to keep pace. For the first time since her girlhood, when the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again invaded her Latvian homeland, she was untethered to an occupying government.
Unseen. Unobservable. Free.
Taking one hand from her control stick, Elita dug into the collar of her flight suit, pulled a simple Lutheran cross up through the sliver of exposed flesh at her neck beneath the helmet. She let it hang freely across her chest, the crucifix swinging with the vibrations of the cockpit.
The Communists had driven religion literally underground in Soviet Latvia, but the devout continued their worship clandestinely. Elita baptized her children in secret fruit-cellar services, sang hymns and exchanged homemade gifts before glowing Christmas trees in a Riga basement, lookouts at the top of the stairs to watch for KGB spies. Now, flying along the belly of Heaven, Elita was free to display her allegiance to the Lord. Let Him see whom she honored when they made history. A silent prayer from Psalm 40 as Elita returned both hands to the control stick and began her acceleration dive.
Steidzies, ak Kungs, man paliga!
Make haste, O Lord, to help me!
“Report,” interrupted Colonel Baranov, a man far from Heaven.
The airspeed climbed as fast as the altitude dropped. “Mach zero-point-nine-four,” Elita replied, wondering at Baranov’s reaction if she left the cross exposed when returning to the Soviet Union a hero. All the Pravda photographers would be horrified. Would they ban the photos or touch them up to hide the truth? So tempting to make a display of piety.
But Lord forgive her, she was not as strong as Job. She could not pay the high price for honesty. Not for her sons’ sakes.
“You’ve deviated from the flight plan,” Colonel Baranov admonished. “Correct it.”
Elita’s eyes flicked over to her instruments. Baranov was right. So intently was she focused on speed and altitude, she’d let the directional vector drift well off route. How long had she flown this path? At near supersonic speeds the plane could be kilometers off course.
“Correcting.” Elita adjusted her rudder until the directional dials realigned. Her eyes returned to the airspeed indicator: “Zero-point-nine-nine.”
So close to history . . .
Elita’s eyes never left the indicator as it crawled higher. She knew the future. There would be no jolt, no sudden turbulence that threatened to tear the plane apart when she broke through into the supersonic. Those who’d gone through before—men like Yeager and Fyodorov, women like Cochran and Auriol—said nothing unusual happened the moment the plane crossed over. There was no barrier felt inside the cockpit. Not from the pilot’s point of view. Everything dramatic happened outside. . . .
“Captain Priedite, what is your intended destination?”
She barely heard Baranov, Elita’s attention fixed on her instruments. The airspeed indicator’s last digit turned smoothly, like a simple wooden gear in some quaint old-time Cesis clock shop. The display was clear. Mach one-point-oh-one. Mach one-point-oh-two . . .
With the Lord’s assistance, Elita traveled faster than sound. READ MORE