By Robert Earle
The gathering darkness fell like a soft rain joining the earth and the sky. You might think you could scoop up the summer evening with your hands and drink it. By straining his eyes, Jay saw swooping bats. Along came the fireflies. Chittering crickets drowned the sound of the plashing stream where he’d caught two trout that morning. They stopped biting when Eleanor joined him. He knew her orange sweater would spook the trout. He waded out of the stream because she’d brought him coffee. Fishing over.
“Lorrie still asleep?” she had asked.
“She sleeps until eight.”
“I couldn’t ever do that.” She looked as though she hadn’t slept in years, her face a sculptor’s clay mock-up of crevasses and life-bruises and mud-slide flesh.
It was one of the first straightforward things she’d ever said to him about herself. Most of her remarks were ironic distractions and unintelligible grumbles. When she said “Oh, cherry pie! I love cherry pie!” it meant she hated cherry pie. When she said, “Yes, let’s go to the store down the road and see what they have,” it meant she hated the country store with its tin-patched wood floor and racks of bandanas and cans of beans and tins of chewing tobacco and stacks of stale peanut butter crackers. But the fact that she couldn’t sleep was really her.
She pretended to be interested in his two trout. “What are you going to do with them?”
“Fry them for breakfast.”
“I’ll bet Steve would eat one. On vacation he does all this stuff he’d never do.”
“But you wouldn’t?”
Her smile furrowed her well-plowed cheeks and made the wrinkled skin on her forehead tighten up to her red hairline. “I like my trout raw. Chewier that way.”
“Why couldn’t you sleep?”
“Too many visions of snakes under the bed. Ugh, Vermont. Shouldn’t you be hiking through brambles and risking your life on some muddy river bank to get your fish?”
“Not if you pay three thousand dollars rent a week. Then you fish out your back door.”
“God a‘mighty it’s boring out here.”
“Steve like it?”
“When Steve spends money doing something, he likes it whether he likes it or not. He’ll eat one of those trout and hate every bite of it and smile as he swallows.”
“What do you like?”
“Lorrie and I are going antiquing if she ever gets up.”
He had lain awake in the darkness between three and four-thirty himself. He had wanted to get so tired the day before that he would sleep well, but the bike ride with Steve had failed. Steve couldn’t peddle up the endless Vermont hills.
“I’m too old for this. Isn’t there a bar anywhere around here?”
He helped her off her boulder and went to the $3,000 per week house where he lay his fish on the back stoop and gutted them. Inside she gave him more coffee and said, “I’m keeping my distance,” as he fried the fish and some potatoes and onions in a large cast iron skillet.
Steve came in wearing the sheep head’s costume that had become his white hair and beard. “Hey, fish!”
“You hate fish,” Eleanor said.
“What do you mean I hate fish? I do out of the supermarket, not the water.” He groaned, stretching. “No biking for me today.”
“Want to walk some instead?” Jay asked.
“What a novel idea,” Eleanor said.
“Maybe I’ll follow the girls around antiquing,” Steve said, always eager to spend time in Lorrie’s company.
“Not if you value your life,” Eleanor said.
Jay sat on the porch in the evening, reflecting on how the day had unfolded after that. He’d lain on a very soft, velour-covered sofa in the library reading an ancient volume of ‘The World as Will and Idea’ by Schopenhauer, one of those inexplicable books cached on the shelves of high-priced vacation rentals all over America. Steve brought in two glasses of wine. 10am. The aging men toasted one another. Jay tried to return to his book, but Steve wanted to talk real estate. Jay asked who needed more money.
Steve brushed him off. “Come on, man, it’s a game. What could we buy around here that would make money? Don’t think this house makes money?”
Jay felt like a trout trapped between two rocks, the wine he didn’t want and Steve’s company. He didn’t answer. He had no idea what they could buy in Vermont that would make money.
“All right, you understand stuff like that?” Steve asked, meaning Schopenhauer.
“Barely. Forty years since I read him in college. The great pessimist, all of us driven by a Will we can’t affect or understand.”
They’d been freshmen roommates, Jay feeling he was finished with life, Steve eager to get started.
“I have to make some calls,” Steve said. “Okay if I do it here?”
Jay said, “Sure, I’ll listen.”
“That wasn’t what I meant. Keep reading, professor.”
Jay listened, though. Steve spoke to his lawyer, stock broker, and a guy selling a vintage Mustang. He made deals in each case, though unable to to persuade Jay to go in halves on the Mustang, which they could share, six months on the east coast, six on the west, a great delivery drive in between. Steve opened another bottle of wine.
“What ’s kept us friends so long?” he asked, giving Jay no chance to answer. “I think it’s never crossing wires. We’re complementary. I’m high, you’re low. You don’t care and I never stop caring. Tell Schopenhauer there’s willpower for you.”
“I will next time I see him.”
Steve liked it when Jay sounded like Eleanor. Acerbic. Sharing a house in Vermont had been his idea. Eleanor had done summer stock in Vermont years ago. Steve was a stagehand. He began to talk about how empty he’d feel without her. Jay asked if something was wrong.
Steve said, “No, but we’re getting old.”
Jay put the Schopenhauer on the table and swung his legs off the sofa. “There’s a place where we can fly falcons. Let’s go.”
“We don’t have the car.”
Steve said, “I’m sixty-eight! I’m loaded! I’m going to take a nap.”
Jay clumped down the wide-planked wooden hallway across the porch to the spider-infested garage where the bikes rested. In a few miles he came to the sign: Fly falcons every day.
The proprietor kept three peregrine falcons in a cage on the side of a stone barn. They had yellow talons and beaks, dun-patterned pantaloons, orangish brown chests, slate blue wings and heads and huge all-seeing eyes.
“Fastest animal on earth,” the man said. “Dives at 200 miles an hour. Ever fly one?”
Jay said, “Never.”
Jay felt as though he were contemplating Schopenhauer; the birds were the philosopher’s meaning. “Would one prey on a trout?”
“See him under water among the rocks?”
“They see everything.” The man was tall and thin-headed. He wore jeans and a calico shirt and was already pulling on his falconry gloves prior to reaching into the cage for the falcon he called, “Orestes,” for vengefulness, the son who had killed his mother and her lover Aegisthus after they’d killed his father, Agamemnon, when he returned from the Trojan war.
The literacy of a Vermont falconer surprised Jay. “What about dive-bombing a white haired man walking across a lawn with a glass of wine in his hand?”
“You have someone in mind?”
Jay imagined fluffs of Steve’s white hair floating in the air as Orestes flew him away and wondered why he had put up with Steve lusting after Lorrie all these years. “I could think of one, but let’s stick to your program.”
The man mounted Orestes on his glove, unleashed his chained leg, and raised his arm. Orestes streaked into the air and began circling the countryside searching for prey. When he spotted a groundhog, he fell out of the sky like a stone. Jay watched this with binoculars. The groundhog thrashed in a spasm of death. Orestes stood on him and tore at his flesh with his beak—as much as he wanted, for the groundhog was bigger than Orestes’s appetite. At that point, the man whistled. Orestes sliced through the air to the falconer’s glove.
“Now we glove you and you take Agamemnon, his father,” he said to Jay.
A peregrine falcon is not heavy as it looks, but its eyes and beak and talons at arm’s length had the effect of a gun barrel pointed at Jay’s face. The falconer unleashed Agamemnon. His departure was as effortless as it was swift. He lanced upward and then committed the same stone-drop plummet. Apparently the trout stream meandered through the high-grassed meadow. After a splash, he rose up with a snake in this talons. He then landed in the barnyard. Jay and the falconer watched him consume the snake in its entirety. Finally came the whistle and the return, this time to Jay’s gloved hand. The falconer chained Agamemnon’s right leg and encouraged him to resume his perch beside, Jay had no doubt, Clytemnestra.
“Can we fly her?” he asked.
“I don’t fly her, I breed her,” the man said. “It’s her punishment. She’d mate with any falcon she met. To her they’re all Aegisthus. ” Now the man had his own falcon look in his eye, predatory, all seeing, remorseless. “I taught classics in high school before I did this.”
“Live here by yourself?”
“Live here by myself.” In the manner of a New Englander, he summed up his story in one word: “Divorced.”
He went out onto the porch and sat there contemplating the swelling nightfall. He recalled the Maltese Falcon and tried to remember if there was a falconry scene in Lawrence of Arabia. He supposed there must be or should be. In everything, Schopenhauer argued, there was will, not Darwinian will, nothing so simple—will represented by a man and his falcons, or two couples fumbling along on vacation or this darkness, black and all-consuming as a falcon’s eye, alive and yet a masterwork of impenetrable stillness. Jay didn’t want to die but death hurtled at him faster than a falcon fell from the sky.