Writing Exercise, December 22, 2004

Not Enough Sorry in the World

Perfect silence disgraced by distant machinery aloft, jackhammering against the air. Endeavor of the insignificant. Trifling of the dust to defy the hand who fuses rock to fashion worlds.

A voice bursts from the inert black box on her chest. "Five minutes..."

She kneels next to him and says, "Five minutes," as if he couldn't hear it himself. As if he hasn't been listening to her breathing all morning, trying to shut out the cacophony of pain that overtakes him every time he loses focus. Then the helo woodpeckering the sky.

He thinks: futile attempt to get to the grubs living in heaven. Imagines the thunderbird crashing through and the seamless blue shattering in jagged black tendrils. And then rain of broken sky, covering the glaciers in shards like starlight. Sparkling gray all around.

We'll invent a legend. Right now. Legend of the flying man.

Man can't. Man hits.

Light blares when he opens his eyes. She asks him if he can hang on, and because he has no time for the obvious, he doesn't answer. Right now there's only time for life support, he thinks. Keep focused. Stay here.

Through some motivation that comes directly from Satan's imagination, she starts pushing at him. Pulling. Tugging.

And where she touches, electricity. Explosions of blue-white blister at his cortex and the soft flesh behind his eyes.

He hears the screaming he knows is his, and yet he floats within it, enveloped in pain, a new womb from which he will never emerge.

"We're all out. I'm all out," she says to him, but doesn't stop pulling him. The ground moves underneath, sliding away as if he's slipping across the rock-strewn plain. He's been trying so hard not to fall again, and now she's become his personal gravity.

"Stop. Oh God, stop," he says. He'd get on his knees if he knew he had any.

"No more morphine," she says, grunts. Fistfulls of his parka and windpants. "And you're going."

He hears a high-pitched whistle. Someone's let the air out of reality. Everything around him begins to dissolve in fuzzy gray sparkles.

Except the thudding. They're machine-gunning the valley. Bouncing the rubble. Spraying for loathsome terrorist penguins. You think those mummified seals got that way by themselves? Where do you think all those holes came from?


"What did you say?" she says. She's still here, bathed in de-ozonized sunlight. He'd forgotten for a minute about the pain. If it could only stay forgotten.

He tries to move his mouth. Realizes his lips are cracked. Mouth desscated. Grains of sand against his gums. He thinks to say, "I'm sorry, don't leave me," but he's not sure that's what comes out, and feels the ground press hard against the back of his head.

"Yeah, I should leave you, alright," she says, watching him. The weight of her gaze hurts him.

She says, "I don't know what I was thinking bringing you out here. That's the problem I have with you. I guess I was thinking—you know--when I tell someone I love them, I don't have something else on my mind. It means something to me it obviously doesn't mean to you. I'm done now. This is it. I have no idea what you think of us, of me. This is not a movie. This is real..."

He watched her lips move but the sound of her was swallowed by the dusty blast from the landing helo.

And then Paul the pilot was next to her, his white helmet against her hood as he touched his lips to her ear. Was that a kiss?

She nods. Moves to his head. Paul to his feet.

They lift the stretcher and it hurts and he's flying again. Body tightens instinctively, remembering. Last time it flew above the ground there was the impact at the end. The whirring lake ice coming up fast, the flash of green as the ATV above, wheels to the sky, rubbery wheels to the blue sky. How silly. You can't drive on the sky. The silent blue sky. It must hurt the sky because it bursts open, screaming.

The sky fades to rotor blades and then a ceiling of off-white and dangling wires when they push the stretcher inside. He's screaming. He knows he's doing it because he can feel it against his throat but all he can hear is the world coming apart. There's a bright beam of pain he can't get used to when they buckle him in. The noise. Turbine scream. Rotors forcing dollops of wind through space. He's nothing. Nothing has no name.

Then why are they calling him Andrew?

He sees it's Paul talking. He sees it's Paul shouting, "Stay with me buddy. Andy. Andy. Don't go to sleep. Stay awake. Stick with me. We'll be back in town soon."

The pat on the shoulder is good natured, but Andy feels like he's been shot.

He follows Paul with his eyes. Out of the back of the 212. Paul standing next to Jen, she's not taking her eyes off him while Paul talks, his mouth to her ear. She nods, swiping at tears on her cheeks with the back of a glove.

"Don't cry," he says, putting the words in the air to be beaten to phonemes by the rotor blades. What had she said before he stormed out? Hopped the ATV. Where did he think he was going? Was there any other good idea he could turn sour before this tour was over? There was that kid--the one they saw when they were in the park outside the condo in Denver. The one who cried and stamped his feet. Threw the ice cream his mother gave him. Fell to the ground kicking and screaming until he couldn't remember what he was angry about. Till angry was all he was, and there was no more kid.

Helo engine noise crashed into his ears on a wave of crushing hurt. He wanted to sit upright. To let her know he'd figured it out. He couldn't and he said, "I'm sorry," then screamed it when it hurt again, "I'm sorry."

But they were already somewhere in the sky. And Jen was far below.

Here are the comments from writer's group on your story:

first off, we all agreed it seemed you were going for something very Hemmingwayish and it reminded Bill strongly of Snows of Kilamanjaro.

Bill mentioned that you do a good job at sensory input, which is effective for screenplays. But even though the sensory input in the first lines was good, it wasn't where we wanted to start. We wanted to jump in with the people, with her kneeling next to him, telling him the helicopter would be there in 5 minutes, and him hurt.

And we think the writing needs to be less staccato, more full sentences. Though Hemmingway's writing is spare, it uses full sentences. And he tends toward understatement. Your piece began to feel overstated at times and it seemed that a little less dramatization might actually make the reader feel it more.

It's interesting hearing the story from the perspective of a character going in and out of lucidity, which is what you were doing narrating this from the man's perspective. But we thought as an exercise that it would be even more interesting for you to try writing this passage from the perspective of the woman. So that's your assignment this week. Same passage, but with her narrating. We thought it would be a good challenge for you.

Writing exercise January 2, 2005. Same thing as December 22, 2004, but from the girl's POV.


And ride with us young bonny lass,
with the angels of the night.
Crack wind clatter,
flesh rein bite
on an out-size unicorn.

Rough-shod winging sky blue flight
on a cold wind to Valhalla.

And join with us please,
Valkyrie maidens cry.

Above the cold wind to Valhalla.

"Cold Wind to Valhalla"
-Jethro Tull-

Every time she thought it was over, something happened. It got so she stopped trusting those minutes of peace that occurred between stretches of daily chaos. It got so she was afraid to go to sleep, and so she hadn't been. That's how the argument started. A tiny flame that she'd been hiding had been allowed out in a moment of weakness and set him ablaze.

There was a gold chain around her ankle. Thin and delicate. She only felt it when her field socks were off and a breeze turned it cold before her skin, or when a tiny link got caught in a woolen strand. In those brief moments she felt it, she remembered the one perfect thing he'd done. The night he agreed to come with her he'd given her the chain with a kiss. It became a dream for her, to be on quad in the snow, bathed in the cold yet to be bitter, and the yellow golden light cast from the windows of the houses on the square.

"I'll go," he said. Then, because she'd know what it meant, "Yes. Yes I will, yes."

The sound of the ATV engine lured her out of her reverie. How far she had come from that place. The blasphemous roar in the Antarctic silence infuriated her. Again. He was doing it again, retreating to his machines, racing across the lake faster than she allowed, close enough so she’d hear.

She tore down her sock and yanked the chain off. Dropped it into the yellow funnel atop the 55-gallon drum of gray water wishing with every fiber of her being that she'd find a way, or that the world would turn just so to make him regret every thing he'd said. Why hadn't she seen it before? It reminded her of a song her mother sang while washing the dishes. In her mind there was steam and bright pink gloves that reached almost to her mother's elbows. When she wiped at the breakfast dishes, the entire top of her body swayed in rhythm with the circles she made. Her weight shifted to her toes as if she expected to be spun by a dance partner.

"When he was good, he was very very good, but when he was bad he was horrid."

“This is your Valhalla,” Andy had said when he walked out. “You think you’re immortal here and you don’t give a shit about anything but your goddamned ice. You sure as shit don’t care about me anymore.”

She was going to have to do something.

While she wished him away the engine sound suddenly rose in pitch like a lion startled by a hunter, then it sputtered, then purred. From the window in the jamesway she saw nothing at first. Then incongruous shapes on the ice. Something that shouldn't be, and had never been before.

Through the binoculars it took a second for her to understand that what she was seeing was the ATV inverted and running atop him, and then another second for the dread to take over that yet again, something tragic had managed to fill one of her few sparsely tasked moments. In another second came guilt, that perhaps seeing him pinned under the vehicle was what she'd wished for.

Another second to make everything move. To the radio--MacOps notified HeloOps, who got to Paul down at Lake Hoare, only five minutes away. Five minutes.

To the gen shed--she dragged out the stretcher and the med kit. Then to the moat. Another moment, on with the stabilicers and down to him.

He was unconscious when she got there. One arm twisted behind his head too far for his shoulder to be intact. The blood on the ice was red and not purple and thought that was good. The ATV was on his chest and she couldn't tell if he was breathing so she crouched as low as she could get, feet underneath, and she grabbed the handlebars and tried to lift it.

Instead of raising it, she shifted its mass across him so that she heard something snap and watched his body jump. Bloody foam emerged from his mouth as if the weight of the machine crushing his chest had pushed it out.

Something familiar flooded her from within, and she couldn’t wish it away. It made her eyes tear and pressed against her lungs so she could only breathe in gasps.

“No time for this,” she said to herself. “Goddamnit.”

Andy shuddered and the sound that came out of him was high-pitched and hollow, nothing she’d ever heard from a human being. She emptied the med kit on the ice, found the self-injecting morphine syringes and jammed one into his thigh telling him, “You’re right. This is Valhalla. We don’t die here. We don’t die.”

She crouched beside the ATV again, the tears rolling down her cheeks froze to snow in the bitter wind as she tried to recall—tried to call back how she felt when she was young and all her brothers laughed when she told them she could run as fast and throw as far. There was a feeling then, like her father had said about the woman who lifted a crashed automobile off her children. Nothing is as big or heavy as it looks. If you don’t think about it, it just happens.

The handle bars rose and she rotated the ATV off him, and then managed to push it aside. His legs were splayed at a strange angle, and on first glance she though that maybe there was no damage. Then she saw that the oblique bend in his right leg occurred above his knee, and the glistening wetness on his black wind pants was not from the ATV fuel or melting ice, but from a dark reddish blue piece of bone protruding from the fabric.

Andy gasped like a diver emerging from a long underwater swim. His eyelids parted and she told him, “Five minutes. He’s just down valley,” but the light coming from his eyes was dull and muted. His mouth opened, then his jaw shuddered. It was not what she expected. The pain he deserved, but this was different. He was scared and she knew in her heart she’d wished it upon him and begged for forgiveness no one would understand.

Andy’s lips moved. She put her hear to his mouth, saying, “What. Honey, what?” Then whispering. “Tell me.” But there was nothing and she wanted to drown herself upon that nothing.

She stopped. Shook her head. Keep busy. Don’t daydream.

She examined him for bleeding without moving him, but there didn’t seem to be any blood pooling. And now the choice was hers, came the voice on the radio. Paul didn’t have a med tech with him. They could either wait another forty minutes for one to fly up from McMurdo, or move Andy now and get him back. What did she think? How bad did he look?

How could she tell them? He was unconscious with his eyes slightly open. His chest barely moving. “He looks – he’s dying.”

She swallowed something that rose from her chest. The burning inside wanted to take her out of the world but she wouldn’t stop. Years ago she’d mastered this. She had to stay busy or it would consume her.

“He’s dying,” she said. “Tell Paul to hurry the fuck up.” And then to herself, “my fucking idiot husband just killed himself,” and she wanted to die in those words.

Her mind woke again. Dragged her to reality. Don’t stop. Keep moving.

With the helo thudding in the distance she started pulling, tugging, dragging Andy onto the stretcher. Every inch made him wince, or gasp, cough, cry out. And she imagined broken bones inside tearing at his soft organs. The spinal cord that would never repair.

“I take it back. This is not Valhalla,” she said to him. Shouting to him when he screamed in agony, “You fucking asshole. I should just let you fucking die.” Pulling and shouting. “Why did you do this? Why couldn’t we just be in regular love? Conditions. There are no goddamned conditions on goddamned love you bastard.”

When he was on the stretcher he said, “Please. Don’t leave me,” in a voice that took her back to cold placid breeze of Christmas Eve in Stowe. The same voice she’d heard night after night in their own bed. The same voice from the satellite phone.

-- Love you, honey.—

“Aw God,” she heard herself say, and almost succumbed when Paul came up beside her. Saw what she’d done and said, “I’ll take the head. You get the feet.”

When they loaded Andy in the helicopter Paul jumped out.

“Get in. You come,” he said.

And when she hesitated long enough he leaned into her and shouted over the rotor noise, “I don’t know what this is, but it can’t possibly be your fault.”

“Go,” she said, the last word she knew she’d get out.

“You hear me? He did it to himself. Everyone knows what’s going on out here. You’re not alone.”

She wanted to tell him he couldn’t know what happened and there were different kinds of lonely. She wanted to tell him she’d been wrong all along. It was five years of being wrong and no amount of feeling bad or stupid was going to change any of it.

Jennifer walked back to the jamesway and only when the helo took off and was in the air behind her did she abandon herself to the uncomfortable warmth and cried, leaving the helo and Andy and the ice in a world she had no need for at the moment.

I just wanted to write to tell you, you almost got it right.
Except she would have never let that helo take off without her.
Everything else works.