“This is Earl Sandt”
        by Robert Olen Butler
       
“This is Earl Sandt of Erie Pa in his Aeroplane just before it fell”
--inscription on a 1913 photo postcard of a biplane in flight with a torn wing
       
       
        I’ve seen a man die, but not like this. There was silence suddenly around us when he disappeared beyond the trees, silence after terrible sounds, that hammering of his engine, the engine of his aeroplane, and the other sound, after.
        He had climbed miraculously up and he had circled the field and we all took off our hats as one, the men among us. Mine as well. Hooray, we cried. My son cried out, too. Hooray. This was why we’d come to this meadow. We would peek into the future and cheer it on.
        And Earl Sandt hammered overhead and down to the far edge of the pasture, defying the trees, defying the earth. The propeller of his engine spun behind him and he sat in a rattan chair, as if he was on his front porch smoking a cigar. Then he came back from the tree line, heading our way.
        I reached down and touched my son on the shoulder. I had never seen an aeroplane and something was changing in me as it approached. I suppose it scared me some. I had no premonition, but I needed to touch my son at that moment. The plane came toward us and there was a stiff wind blowing—the plane bucked a little, like a nervous horse, but Earl Sandt kept him steady, kept him coming forward, and I felt us all ready to cheer again.
        Then there was a movement on the wing. With no particular sound. Still the engine. But there was a tearing away. If I had been Earl Sandt, if I had been sitting in that rattan chair and flying above these bared heads, I might have heard the sound and been afraid.
        I lifted my camera. This had nothing to do with the thing happening on the wing. I was only vaguely aware of it in that moment. I lifted my camera and I tripped the shutter, and here was another amazing thing, it seemed to me. One man was flying above the earth, and with a tiny movement of a hand, another man had captured him.
        Earl Sandt was about to die, but he was forever caught there in that box in my hand. I lowered my Kodak and for a moment the plane was before me against the sky and all I felt was a thing that I sometimes had felt as a younger man, riding up into the Alleghenys alone and there would be a turning in the path and suddenly the trees broke apart and there was a great falling away of the land.
        A falling. He fell, Earl Sandt. The aeroplane suddenly lifted up from its left side and for a moment it seemed to flatten itself against the sky, but the engine hammered on and then it skidded to the right and pitched forward and it fell, disappearing behind a stand of pine.
        There was a heavy thump beyond the trees, and I have nothing in my head to compare it to. Not a barn collapsing, not a horse going down, not the dead sugar maple, forty foot high, I had felled only yesterday in our yard. This sound was new.
        And our silence followed. We all of us could not take this in. He had flown, this Earl Sandt, he had raised his goggles to his eyes and stepped into his machine and he had run along the meadow and had lifted into the air, and now I looked into the empty place where he had been, only a moment before. In my head I could see once again the two great wings and the spinning of the propeller and then he was gone.
        “Papa?” It was my son’s voice drifting up to me from the silence.
        I looked into his face.
        “It’s all right,” I said, though I knew it was not. I could feel Matthew’s bones beneath my hand, which still lay on his shoulder.
        “He’s gone,” my son said.
        I looked to the others. There was a stirring. Some of the women began to cry.
        “Mother of God,” one man said and he moved in the direction of the pines. He was right. We had to do something now.
        I let go of my son and put the camera in his hand. I turned to the place where Earl Sandt had vanished. “Stay here,” I said.
        We ran, perhaps a dozen of us, across the meadow grass and into the pines and I could smell burning and there was smoke up ahead and I could smell a newly familiar thing, a smell of the automobiles that had come to our town, their fuel. Then we broke into a clearing and the aeroplane was crumpled up ahead and beginning to burn.
        I was behind several of the men and we were in our Sunday clothes, we had left our churches this morning and had come to see the exhibition of this wonderful thing, and now we were stripping off our coats and winding them around our hands and arms to allow us to reach into the flames, to bring Earl Sandt out. Two men were ahead of me, already bending to the tangle of canvas and wood and metal and smoke. I felt myself slow and stop.
        I did not know this man. I had seen him only from afar, only briefly. He had raised his goggles and hidden his eyes and he’d had some intent in his head—to fly, of course, and he did. But he was a man, flesh and blood, and he was lying broken now, ahead of me. There were others to help him. The ones ahead, and still others now, rushing past me. I continued to hesitate, and then I turned away.
        Matthew had followed me. He was standing a few yards behind, in the trees. I lifted my hand to acknowledge him, and I found it swathed in my suit coat, expecting the fire.
        I moved to my son, unwrapping my arm.
        “The others are helping,” I said to him, so he would understand why I had turned away.
        “I want to see,” he said.
        “No.”
        “Pa.”
        “No,” I said, firm. I turned him around and we stepped out of the trees. I looked once more into the sky where Earl Sandt had been.
        *
        Matthew and I walked from the meadow and through the center of town, passing the Merchants Bank, where I had an office, where I was vice-president, and we moved beneath the maples of our street, old trees, dense above us, and we were quiet, my son and I. The meadow, the open sky, all of that, was left behind. Then we reached the place along the road where I could see my house ahead.
        The maple was gone from the front edge of my property, dead from blight and felled by my own hand. I looked away, not wanting to, but I felt suddenly bereft of this tree. I was sorry for its passing, this tree. Matthew broke away from me now, began to run. I looked.
        His mother was coming down the porch steps. My son ran hard to her, not calling out. She turned her face toward us, saw him approaching, sensing, I think, that something had happened.
        I stopped, still separate from them. My daughter, a tall gangly girl, my sweet Naomi, emerged from the house, and for a moment they all three were before me, and the house itself, a fine house, a house we’d lived in for four years now, a solid house with its hipped roof and double-windowed dormer and its clapboard siding the color of sunlight in the brightness of noon.
        My wife went down on one knee, and Matthew reached her and he threw his arms around her neck. I knew I should move forward, to explain. But what would I say? Naomi came to the two of them, put her hand on her crouching mother’s shoulder. There was a seizing in my chest. I wanted to take them all three up into my arms, but instead, I stood dumbly there, watching.
        Finally, Rachel’s face lifted to look at me over Matthew’s shoulder. I felt heavy now, rooted to this earth, as if I’d decided to take the place of the dead maple. But I made myself move. I took a step and another and there was a loosening inside me as I moved toward my family. My wife tilted her head slightly, a questioning gesture, I think. Naomi looked at me too, came around her mother, and I was glad she was drawing near, and she put her arms about me, I felt the bones in her arms pressing at my back. I held her tight.
        “What was it, Daddy?”
        “An accident,” I said. “It was just an accident.”
        “Matty said he was dead, the man.”
        “We don’t know that for sure.”
        “He fell?”
        “Yes.”
        She said no more, but she needed me to hold her closer and I did. “It’s all right,” I said. “We’re all right.”
        *
        Matthew could not sleep. The house was dark and my wife and I had just extinguished the lamp, alone and undistracted at last. Then we heard his cry, wordless, and Rachel rose. I knew what it was about. As she disappeared, I looked toward the dark gape of the bedroom doorway and I gripped the sheet as if to put it aside and to rise. But I hesitated. I should not have hesitated to go to my son, but I did. For one moment and then another.
        I forced myself to throw back the sheet and put my feet on the floor. I stood. I made my way across the room and down the hall, and my son’s tears were fading as I approached. I stood in his doorway and his mother said to him, “It’s okay, Matty. God decided he wanted an aeroplane pilot in heaven.”
        “Like he wanted Henry for an angel,” my son said.
        I turned away. I moved back down the hall and then stopped, neither here nor there. Matthew’s first cousin Henry, my brother’s son, had died of smallpox. My son had already encountered death. Of course he had, we had all encountered death, it was a part of our daily lives. Always, we waited for the first sneeze, the first cough, the first spot on our skin, we waited to be carried away, if not from smallpox then from influenza or from scarlet fever or from diptheria or from pneumonia or from tuberculosis. It was the way of the world. I believed in God, that he managed our lives, that he would call us when he chose to. And I was glad my son could picture his blood kin, a child of his own age, as an angel and not as a corpse in the ground.
        But I stood in the middle of the hallway and I dragged my forearm across my brow and I was having trouble drawing a breath.
        *
        I waited in bed, sitting propped up in the dark, sweating still.
        Finally Rachel appeared in the door, quietly, pausing there in the dim light, her white nightgown glowing faintly, as if she were a ghost. I spoke to her at once, to drive that image from my mind. “Is he all right?”
        “I don’t know,” she said, and she floated this way.
        “Rachel,” I said.
        “Yes?”
        She was beside the bed now. I had spoken her name without anything more to say. I just needed to say her name.
        “Nothing,” I said.
        “What happened out there?”
        “The plane crashed,” I said. “These machines aren’t safe.”
        Rachel drew back the sheet and sat beside me. “Paul.”
        I looked toward her.
        Her face was there, turned to me, featureless in the dark. She touched my hand and repeated, almost in a whisper, “What happened?”
        “ I don’t know.”
        *
        I was Earl Sandt. Sitting in my rattan chair. I looked down and the faces all turned upward and the mouths all opened to cry out but the only sound I could hear was the rush of air about me as I flew, I flew and the lift was not in my wings it was in my chest my very chest I was buoyed up and moving quickly and there was nothing around me now, not the aeroplane, not the rattan chair, only the wide bright air. I looked down again and there was only one face below and it was my own.
        Mine. I woke. I sat up quickly, expecting to rise from the bed and up through the ceiling and out into the night sky. But I was awake. I was sitting on my bed. Nevertheless, I lifted my eyes, and I saw the aeroplane, its broad wings, the fragile bones holding them in place, the bones stretching behind to the smaller back wings, the tail. And then suddenly the beast veered and showed me its dark underside and it dashed down.
        And then the sound.
        I jumped up from the bed, knocking into the bedstand.
        “What is it?” Rachel cried.
        “I’m all right,” I said.
        “Was it Matty?”
        “It was a dream,” I said.
        *
        I do not require silence at the breakfast table. We eat together each day, my wife and my son and my daughter and I. Even when my children have one leg skewed out from under the table, ready to run into the summer morning. They have their duties in this house, but the mornings are theirs. It is best to let a child feel his freedom in the morning. And they are free to speak, as well. I like to listen to the movement of my chidren’s minds.
        But this morning there was silence. A long period of silence. And their legs were under the table, in spite of it being early summer. And without urging, Matthew was eating his eggs, studiously sopping up the last bits of yolk with a piece of bread.
        I had not picked up the newspaper that lay folded beside my plate. I could see, in large bold type, in the upturned quarter, the words Aviator Killed. It was not uncommon for me to read the newspaper at the breakfast table, but only after we’d all had a chance to speak of the day to come.
        I looked at Rachel. She was lifting her coffee cup to her lips and I could see that her eyes were on Matthew. He was intent on the bread, running it around and around the plate. Naomi was looking out the kitchen door. I followed her gaze. The sun was bright. The trees quaked. A scrap of paper blew across the yard—lifting briefly into the air—and then it fell and tumbled along.
        I placed my hand on the newspaper but I did not open it. I looked at my hand. It covered the words in the headline.
        Finally I said, “It looks like a fine day.”
        Matthew lifted his face at this. “May I be excused?” he said.
        “Yes.”
        He pushed back his chair and he rose and only now was I hearing the flatness of his voice. He was a boy. This was the moment of the day that should have been relished above all others.
        “Matty,” my wife said. “Are you all right?”
        My son had moved toward the door. He stopped now and turned to us. His two shoulders lifted slightly and fell. It was a very small gesture, really, this shrug, but it made my eyes close so as not to see it, this gesture in my son that was not the gesture of a child at all. Too late.
        I opened my eyes. He was pushing through the screen door, not having spoken a word.
        *
        A Monday morning in the year of our Lord 1913. A desk in a bank. A newspaper tucked under my arm and then put away in a drawer. I sat and my hands were flat and unmoving on the top of my desk, my mahogany desk, and above me was a high window, and I have always liked the column of sky looking over me and I have liked the hush of the bank. It is not blasphemy to say that the hush was like that of a church. We protected the money of the people of this town, and their money was a measure of their hard work, and their hard work rightly gave them the things of this world, the things of a world changing rapidly now. The hush of the bank, and there were low voices murmuring, and I knew their words, I could hear terrible and I could hear aeroplane and I could hear fire and I could hear dead. I wanted to stand up and cry out to my tellers and my customers, Go about your business, all of you. Just go about your business.
        But I did not stand. I swiveled in my chair and raised my eyes to the window, to the empty morning sky. I had myself gone up into that sky. Higher even than Earl Sandt. I had stood in the air.
        I had stood and looked out on a great city, on a world of business and banking, a world of making goods and buying and selling and building houses and factories and I looked out on steamships and trains and bridges and, far off, a vast sea, and I was standing within a thing as great as all of that. The Singer Building. The highest building in the world at that moment in the summer of 1909 when my host, a fellow banker, lifted his office window on the thirty-eighth floor, and I trembled like a horse before a fire. I crept forward and I felt my chest swell, I grew large with fear and happiness to look at this city, vast and multiform in its stone and marble and terracotta, the work of human hands.
        I stepped closer still. I grew bold. The air moved on my face. An air only the clouds knew. But I was part of a race of creatures of the earth who were remaking themselves into something new. I took the last step a man could take and not fall. I pressed against the sill and I bent forward at the waist and looked across the rooftops below—rooftops that themselves were higher than any tree on earth, but far below me now—and I looked beyond the docks and masts and smokestacks, I followed the bright thread of the Hudson River to Ellis Island and the statue of Madame Liberty, her arm lifted high.
        Earl Sandt, I lift my arm to you. I stand in the meadow beside my son, a blazing torch in my hand. Come here to me, guide your plane this way, fly down to this flame and land safely beside me. I look from where I sit in the rattan chair, my hands on the steering handle, I see the flame below, and my wing has not yet torn. I nudge my aeroplane gently downward, down toward the man and the boy. I will be safe.
        But I am not Earl Sandt. He is dead.
        I have seen men die before. My father, long ago, his lungs bricked up solid with pneumonia. A man in the Alleghenys, broken beneath a felled tree, when I was young and working in timber. And another in New York City on that day in 1909 when I went out of the Singer Building and into the streets that were dim even near noon, streets narrow and full of rushing men and the hammering of metal and the whine of wheels and the mutter of automobile engines and the clatter of a distant Elevated Train, and I turned to look up at the place where I’d stood, in the middle of the air, and my eyes went up and up, impossibly high, up the great bluestone and red-brick column, up to its great mansard roof and cupola and the bright sky beyond. “Step lively,” a voice said, and I looked and I could not pick the speaker out of a hundred bowlered men moving all about me.
        I stepped away, up the street, which was cloaked in the shadows of skyscrapers as far as I could see. I moved, and suddenly before me there was a gathering of men and some bowlers were coming off and I came up.
        He was in a greatcoat in spite of the heat. He was sprawled face down, his arms outstretched, his legs spread wide. The men about him were quiet. I thought to look up. A gray stone building loomed over us, perhaps two hundred feet high. I looked back down to the dead man. A policeman pushed past me and bent to the body.
        I found myself standing beside my desk in the bank on the morning after Earl Sandt died. I could not recall the act of rising from this chair. I extended my arm, touched my hand to the corner of my desk, stiffened my fingertips, held myself up. I had to go out, I realized.
        I moved to the coat rack and took my hat and I put it on my head and I stepped from my office and my secretary looked up and I said to her, “I’ll be back shortly.” She lifted her eyebrows ever so slightly. This was unlike me, of course. But I did not pause to explain. There was no explanation.
        I stepped into the sunlight before the bank and turned toward the woods where he had gone down.
        *
        A wagon was moving toward me from the tree line as I approached. I stopped. The horse had its head lowered as if the load were heavy, but the wagon moved easily, quickly. I stepped away from it. The driver turned his face to me. A man I knew, a collector of scrap goods. He nodded, but I could not return the nod. I was leaden now in my limbs. The wagon slipped past and I glanced into the bed of it: twisted metal, charred wood, a panel of canvas. I looked sharply to the side. This whole thing was a mistake, to come here again. I thought to back away, to face toward the town, the square, the bank, the maple trees, face toward my house where I would surely live the rest of my life.
        I could not. I had to press on, into the stand of pine. But I had to catch my breath first. I felt as if I’d been running a long way. I bent forward and put my hands on my knees.
        Above me was the sky where Earl Sandt had spent his last moments of life. I did not look. I leaned hard onto my knees. I closed my eyes. I held tight to the steering handle and there was something terribly wrong. These wings that felt like my own limbs—I sensed them stretching out from me and lifting me up—these wings went weak and so did my limbs of flesh, I was instantly aware of the very surface of my skin, the beating of my heart. And I felt a question rise like a gasp into my throat: what was it I believed? Did I sense a God all about me in the sky? Was it he who lifted me and would take me now into his arms?
        Forgive me, no.
        This thing I had expected to be familiar—my own death—was all new. I fell. I fell from him. His hands receded and the trees reached up and I fell.
        I could not breathe at all. I rose up from where I’d been bending and I stood straight and dragged the air into my lungs and I opened my eyes, and before me was the tree line, the pines, and beyond them was the clearing where he fell and burned, Earl Sandt. And he knew something now. Right this moment. Something that I desperately wished to know. He had been alive above me, in the sunlit air, just yesterday, and now he knew the great truth of it all.
        I stepped forward, moved toward the trees. My breath had returned. Fragile. Easily taken away. But I breathed deep once, and again, and I walked into the darkness of the trees and I was filled with the smell of pine all about me and the smell of the duff beneath my feet and with other smells, not of the forest, faintly still of smoke in the air and the fuel of the aeroplane.
        I pressed on, my face lowered, feeling the trees on the back of my neck, in my shoulders, in a faint wrenching upward in my chest. I’ve been around trees often in my life, I made a life from the forests before I became who I am, a man with a desk in a bank and a Georgian revival home and a wife and a son and a daughter and a special pew in a church where the deacons sit, and I know nothing about anything, I know only that I must press past these last few trees and into this clearing, which I do.
        It is empty. It is empty. Earl Sandt’s aeroplane was here and now it is gone. I move out to the center, I am surrounded by high pine, and there is something. A shapeless patch of burnt earth. I slow and stop before it. He burned here. He vanished from this life here.
        I take another step. I stand precisely where he fell. For a moment I stretch out my arms, as if to fly, and they are contained within this black bareness. I hold fast to the steering column and my wings are still whole and I am racing toward those distant pines, and a thought occurs to me. I sit on the back of a horse. I am high up, above the tree line, on a slender thread of a path. Not even the smell of the pines has risen this high. I pause and I look below me. Faces turn up, their hats raised high in the air. Tree tops point up to me and I have nothing inside but an enormous quiet. I find myself separated from all that I’ve known, from every touch every word every face, I have lifted up into the air, high on this mountain with nothing around me but the empty sky, high in the air above this meadow. And I think: This is how it feels. To be free. To be utterly alone. And my hands clench on the reins. There is only one more thing to feel, to know. My hands clench harder, wanting to slip hard to the right, to leap into that empty sky beneath me. Earl and I.
        “Papa.”
        For a moment I do not recognize the voice.
        “Papa.”
        It has drawn near. I look.
        It is Matthew.
        He stands before me. His face is smudged. His hair is tousled. His eyes are fixed hard on mine.
        I want him to go away from this place, quickly. I lift my hand to him, a vague gesture, and I cannot find words. “Matty,” I say, just that. I am within the circle of Earl’s fire and my son is outside. I try to step to him, but I am rooted here. I look up at the trees all around. And then back to my son. His face is turned up to me, waiting.
        I know too much. I want him to run away now, not just from this place but from me.
        “Go on home,” I say.
        His brow furrows very slightly.
        I step from the circle, I reach out, my hand goes to him, my thumb lands gently on his brow, tries to smooth the furrow away.
        He backs off.
        I didn’t mean to frighten him. I carry too much in these fingertips now.
        But suddenly he smiles.
        “Papa,” he says. “Look.”
        His hand comes from behind his back. I don’t recognize the object at first, hanging limply over his fingers.
        “It’s his,” Matthew says.
        And now I can see. Earl Sandt’s goggles.
        “I found it,” he says.
        I struggle once again to draw a breath. The moments I have yearned to share with Earl Sandt: he entered them looking through this thing in my son’s hand.
        But before I can think of what to do, Matthew grasps the goggles at each end and he lifts them high and the strap goes quickly over his head and the goggles slide down and are on his face and I can see his eyes for a moment, his child’s eyes, the eyes of my boy, faint there and distant, and his face angles and his eyes vanish, the panes of glass go blank from the light.
        And my son lifts his arms. He lifts them like wings, and he turns to his left and he begins to run, he runs swooping and lifting and falling. “Look, Papa,” he cries. “Look. I’m Earl Sandt.”