Hennessy New Irish Writing: February 2018’s winning story
Vortex by Beth O’Halloran
It was an old floatplane. Sunflower yellow. The colour gave her a hopeful feeling. The battered insides did not. Living so far from things that a plane was needed for a grocery shop – this had seemed romantic to her newlywed self. As had the idea of needing sled dogs for her commute. At night, she would lie beside her solid man, her window filled with all those stars. She would hear nature’s scrapings far and near and might think grizzly, yet in the nook of her husband’s wide arm, she had welcomed the thought of danger which could not reach her.
He turned the engine and the plane’s floats sliced river water until they lifted, worrying geese along the bank. Their flutter called to mind the faces she saw in the clinic most nights. She enjoyed watching their features soften once her doctor husband fixed their stare. The plane soared above herringbone pine forests as he pointed them towards Fairbanks, Alaska. Snowcapped everything, despite it being late August.
She could see the nuclear warning lookout near their house. Long since “dismantled”, she liked to wander there on her days off, and would shake her head as she pictured the military men of old, staring towards Russia with knots in their necks. How much time and money goes on shoring ourselves against our own imaginations. That said, on her ambles, she was sure to smack two rocks together, lest a bear fancy dismantling her.
Her ears were getting used to the plane’s tuneless drone. She looked out at the wide sky. It was a whole different blue to the ones back east, which always seemed seen through scrim.
“Let’s push through to Anchorage,” her husband said, enjoying the clear blue. He flicked knowingly at switches, adjusted his headset. She liked this adventurous side of him. With his ponytail, he was a total Daniel Boone. Just weeks ago, she held a torch while he skinned a bear as though peeling an apple. “Let’s!” she said.
A little shopping would give her a lift. Her evenings were spent in a house they built themselves from felled trees. She remembered apologising as they cut, the whine of chainsaw like each trunk was given voice. “It looks like a crime scene,” she said. But they needed enough wood to put the whole place on stilts to keep a little distance from bears and snow. A hole in the floor was their fridge – stuffed with beaver stew, moose lasagna, reindeer steaks. A shower was an icy bucket, held high.
Every now and again, she would speak to herself in her school French.
Her work at the hospital could snuff the shine right out of her if she let it. A tiny town like Dacoma, on its bend of the Yukon, just miles below the Arctic Circle, left the 200 or so stranded locals in the dark most of the year, with nothing to do but drink and awfulise. They’d had everything taken from them, of course. And her husband, a white man, coming in to be their doctor. She understood why there were no muffins left on her porch. But when she saw what the sorriest of the locals did to his own kid, a part of her went cold and stayed like that even in the sliver of summer and its all-day bright.
This thought made her thankful for her husband and his compasses. She reached over and squeezed his warm thigh with a pulsing. Best get used to it. It’ll be a long four years otherwise – that’s how long they had to stay so her husband could pay the government back for bankrolling his college years in a Florida swamp. They met there – both training at the same hospital. The width of his back was the first thing she saw – and those hands, as big as ham-hocks. There’s a guy who could stop a girl’s fall, she’d thought.
But lately, she’d found herself checking the locks at night, even if he’d said he’d already done that, babe. She wondered if that was when her stomach first started to go staticky at the edges. She knew it had something to do with a phone-call she got from Gerry, the local sheriff. Some little reminder for her to give her husband a nudge to pay the fine for that speeding ticket. The way he lightly said that, like he knew she must’ve heard all about it, and probably even shared a little chuckle with her man about how much he liked to get places fast.
But why didn’t you just tell me, she’d asked him when he got home. And he’d said something about it being because she always made such a big deal out of little things. Then, in the thrum of her own head, she said, how did we get to always so fast?
The plane droned on and she studied a patch of cleared forest – all those spikes where soft green had been just days ago. Trees that had watched glacial shifts and towns spring up, had seen the breaking dawn of industry. She could see stripped trunks filling the whole width of the river. She thought of a moose with its wide-branched antlers and slow gait, who might have called that grove home. It might have wandered for a muzzle of riverbed grasses, but reaching water’s edge, puzzled at its lack of access and returned to a bare patch of forest. She knew how that moose might’ve felt. Last night, in the clinic, she saw her husband’s eye rest too long on a patient’s cleavage. Saw his hand slip too low on her hip as he helped her from a gurney. She felt like she’d missed the last step on a flight of stairs. She reached for a counter to steady herself, but dropped her pen, bent to pick it up, then dropped her clipboard right on her foot. Her husband said to the woman with the ample sallow cleavage, “Pardon her French.”
That’s when she said she wasn’t quite feeling herself so she might just clock out early. She drove the three-wheeler a little too fast. Home. She passed her barking dogs without waving, and lumbered into her house on stilts. It must’ve been after nine, yet every corner of the house was lit by an endless white glare. She tugged at a heavy drawer, her hand patting at shadows and paired socks. Finally, her fingers found her lipstick and twisted it just to look at its pearly pink.
The Yukon and its twists down below seemed tired to her. An image came of men of yore with their trousers rolled up, poking at the soft riverbed in a gold rush fever. The pawing, hungry greed of it. Delicate rivulets, logs caught in various bends, reminded her of clogged arteries. She turned her wedding band. Even after her training, she’d believed that she could feel the vein under the gold of her ring throb as it carried blood straight to her heart. She’d said this to her husband who said, “It’s just vasculature … every vein leads to the heart. The vena amoris … doesn’t exist. Nice idea, but there’s no science to it.”
“Mnnn hmm.” She’d told herself, then, that this was the way he anchored her, kept her from fretting about imaginary moose missing their imaginary homes.
The plane felt colder. She slid her hand back on to her own warm thigh, her shoulders curving in. Her husband righted a tangle of maps into a tidy stack. She tried to picture how bright Nordstrom’s sweater section always looked. She might just pick up something frilly to wear under her scrubs. She squinted at a cluster of moving grey flecks on a hillside and guessed wolves. They moved in time with each other, most likely startled by the thundering sound of their motor. Their pale pack shape-shifted across an earthy hillside and for a moment an image of her nursing school friends lit her. Grace always telling a filthy joke through a fog of cigarette smoke. Their heads lifted in a collective howl. “You two will be pioneers,” said Grace. “Wild everything. Y’know, him poking your hontus through those long nights.” Sweet Jesus, is all she’d said to that.
Her mother said she was marrying too young and that no good could come from taking on a retread. Not a fan of divorce and escape hatches, her mother.
Just then, the plane made a throat-clearing sound and began twisting left and right, even though her husband was holding the yoke firm. It sputtered, then dropped. Anything they hadn’t tied down rattled and rolled behind them. She roared, “What the … ?! What …. What’s happening. We’re going down. Fuuuuccckkk.” Her husband tapped and flicked wildly at flashing buttons, pulled the yoke towards him, yet the plane continued to twist and dive. She pressed her hands to her aching ears. Stomach in her throat. Her elbow banged against the window and its static blur.
“Shut your mouth,” he said.
His hands smacked the same buttons he’d already tried. A can of soda now a weapon. Its lettering strangely clear – “Tab. Calorie-free, caffeine-free, sugar-free, soft drink.”
Within seconds, the plane righted itself as mysteriously as it had dropped. She thought how aggressively bright the cabin had become.
He turned to her and said, “With all your cussing, I can never hear myself think.”
She opened her mouth and no words came out, her lips forming a gaping ‘o’ shape, elbows still chevrons.
He said, “I think it was a vortex.”
Still no sound from her. Her body rippling with shock. An unearthly whistling in her ears. A glance down to the patchy scrub that they had hurtled towards seconds ago. Such a lot of nothingness below.
“A wingtip vortex,” he said, louder. “There must’ve been a jet closer than the dial read. Never felt one before – that dumbass pilot. The drag did it. No way to see that coming. He must’ve lifted too fast.”
The soda tapped at her foot like a pet nudging her awake. The question – why had she wasted a minute of this precious life drinking a can full of nothings?
She looked up and back to where they had been, but there was just vast clear empty sky. Not even a hint of the troubled slipstream that had enough power to stop an engine and to smash their fragile husks. That feeling of falling, falling with the rush all around – familiar now.