The Red Parachute

Leah Browning

Emily, kneeling in the garden, looked up and saw a spot of blood against the summer sky.  It unfurled slowly toward her, and though it was still so far in the distance, she knew at once that it was the parachute, that he had finally returned for her.  Emily rose, and as she did, the beans that she had gathered fell from her apron, forgotten; she strode toward the house to find Clare, who was in the kitchen.  She looked back, for a second, to see the parachute again, to make sure that she had not imagined or dreamed it, and it was still there, but she was weak and sank again to her knees; she could not stay upright; she had to lie down for a moment among the soil and plants, though she was still so far from the house.

The parachute landed in the garden, deflating softly among the green stalks, and the man, who was fastened to it with fine white threads, lay still for so long that Emily thought he might have died.

She had lived her entire life on the farm, and she and Clare had found their parents after the accident; they were not afraid of death.  So Emily lifted the parachute silk away from his face and felt for a pulse at his neck and temples.  He was unconscious, perhaps, or stunned, but he was alive.

She ran to the house and returned with Clare, who hung back shyly, her hands still damp from dishwater.  He opened his eyes and saw her first—Emily—and she felt the shift even then, as the earth might sense a sudden, unexpected rain, floating down over the garden and changing an entire landscape.

The sisters were still young, then, and strong.  Together, they rolled him onto a quilt and carried him back to the house.  Emily set the broken bones and secured them with torn strips of cloth, and Clare boiled water for tea.  The man’s face was tight with pain, and Emily wanted to smooth his brow with her fingertips.

He stayed with them all winter, in one of the back bedrooms, and Emily took care of him while he recovered.  One night, after Clare had fallen asleep, Emily walked back to his room and slipped under the quilts, and let him lift her nightgown up to her waist.

When the weather shifted, he wanted to travel south.  When he had a proper house, he said, he would send for her.  Later, Emily thought of these words so many times.  It was one of the nights they had been lying, flushed, in his bed.

In the spring, he left the house on foot.  Emily, dry-eyed, watched him from the porch.  His back was a narrow blade growing smaller and smaller in the distance.

Every day, she waited.  In the yard scattering feed to the chickens, in the barn milking the cows, and in the garden gathering the vegetables for supper, every day, she was tense, waiting for an envelope, for words, for his footsteps on the porch or the pressure of his hand on the small of her back.

She was so preoccupied that she didn’t notice the pregnancy at first.  She waited until there were too many signs to ignore.  There had never been any secrets between the two sisters, and she had trouble broaching the topic.  But Clare was practical about things, Emily could always count on that, and this was no exception.

That winter, Thomas was born, a stout little baby with round red cheeks and round little hands and feet.  He was walking before they knew it, following Clare around the kitchen and tugging on the ends of her apron strings, reaching for the cat with his own grasping little paws.  They taught him his numbers and letters, and when he was too big to sleep in the same room with Emily, she let him take the room that had been his father’s, once.

Thomas grew old enough to walk to the little schoolhouse up the road, swinging his lunch pail beside him, and then to work outdoors with Emily, not the way he had as a little boy but at her side, as an equal; he grew tanned and muscular; and when he was twenty-two, he fell in love with a girl from town and moved away.

Once again, Emily and Clare lived in the farmhouse alone.  That winter, in the late evening, Clare began reading to Emily by lamplight.  It was a peculiarly lonely time, with the snow piled up outside and the dark coming so early, and they often read Tolstoy and other Russian writers and took comfort in their own warm hearth.

In town, Thomas and his wife had a son, then a daughter, then another daughter.  Thomas had gotten work with his wife’s father; he and his wife both had fine business sense, and by the time they were expecting their fourth child, they had saved enough for a house with a wide wraparound porch and six spacious bedrooms.

Every few months, Emily and Clare traveled to their house to see all six, then seven, then eight of them.  Though they looked forward to the visits, the sisters had to admit (privately, of course, when they had returned home) that the noise of the house had begun to seem oppressive to them after living so long in their quiet countryside.

In her seventies, Clare developed heart problems, and the doctor told her to avoid any sort of strain, but she remained, in her usual fashion, unflustered.  She kept house and read to Emily and wrote to her grand-nieces and -nephews, some of whom were now in their thirties and had families of their own.

Mornings, Emily gathered eggs from the henhouse, and in the afternoons, in summer, she picked berries or beans for supper.  She couldn’t have said why she kissed Clare, that afternoon as she left the house, or why she tied an apron around her waist, as if she were a young woman again, with her hair in a long braid down her back.  It was a mild summer afternoon, with a light breeze and a few distant white clouds.

Emily, kneeling in the garden, looked up and saw a spot of blood against the blue of the sky.  It unfurled slowly toward her, and though it was still so far in the distance, she knew at once that it was the parachute.  Emily rose, and as she did, the beans that she had gathered fell from her apron, forgotten; she could see the house, in the distance, and she tried to call out to Clare, who was at home in the kitchen, but she was too weak and sank again to her knees; she could not stay upright; she had to lie down for a moment among the soil and plants.  Clare, she was trying to say.  He’s come back to us, Clare.

The parachute landed in the garden.  Emily had closed her eyes, but she could feel it, even at a distance, deflating softly among the green stalks; the sun shone; and there were his footsteps, running toward her from the house, and then the gentle pressure of his hand, which she had so long awaited, on her shoulder, and the small of her back.

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