Artwork by Catherine Dapra Zawierka
It was summer, the middle of July, the middle of this century, and in the city of Toronto one hundred people were boarding an airplane.
“Right this way,” the lipsticked stewardess cried. “Can I get you a pillow? A blanket?”
It was a fine evening, and they climbed aboard with a lightsome step, even those who were no longer young. The plane was on its way to London, England, and since this was before the era of jet aircraft, a transatlantic flight meant twelve hours in the air. Ed Dover, a man in his mid-fifties who worked for the Post Office, had cashed in his war bonds so that he and his wife, Barbara, could go back to England for a twenty-one day visit. It was for Barbara’s sake they were going; the doctor had advised it. For two years she had suffered from depression, forever talking about England and the village near Braintree where she had grown up and where her parents still lived. At home in Toronto she sat all day in dark corners of the house, helplessly weeping; there was dust everywhere, and the little back garden where rhubarb and raspberries had thrived was overtaken by weeds.
Ed had tried to cheer her first with optimism, then with presents—a television set, a Singer sewing machine, boxes of candy. But she talked only about the long, pale Essex twilight, or a remembered bakeshop in the High Street, or sardines on toast around the fire, or the spiky multicoloured lupins that blossomed by the back door. If only she could get lupins to grow in Toronto, things might be better.
Ed and Barbara now sat side by side over a wing, watching the propellers warm up. She looked out the window and dozed. It seemed to her that the sky they travelled through was sliding around the earth with them, given thrust by the fading of the sun’s colour. She thought of the doorway of her parents’ house, the green painted gate and the stone gateposts that her father polished on Saturday mornings.
Then, at the same moment, and for no reason, the thought of this English house fused perfectly with the image of her own house, hers and Ed’s, off Keele Street in Toronto, how snug it was in winter with the new fitted carpet and the work Ed had done in the kitchen, and she wondered suddenly why she’d been so unhappy there. She felt something like a vein reopening in her body, a flood of balance restored, and when the stewardess came around with the supper tray, Barbara smiled up at her and said, “Why, that looks fit for a king.”
Ed plunged into his dinner with a good appetite. There was duckling with orange sauce and, though he wasn’t one for fancy food, he always was willing to try something new. He took one bite and then another. It had a sweet, burned taste, not unpleasant, which for some reason reminded him of the sharpness and strangeness of sexual desire, the way it came uninvited at queer moments—when he was standing in the bathroom shaving his cheeks, or when he hurried across Eglinton Avenue in the morning to catch his bus. It rose bewilderingly like a spray of fireworks, a fountain that was always brighter than he remembered, going on from minute to minute, throwing sparks into the air and out onto the coolness of grass. He remembered, too, something almost forgotten: the smell of Barbara’s skin when she stepped out of the bath and, remembering, felt the last two years collapse softly into a clock tick, their long anguish becoming something he soon would be looking back upon. His limbs seemed light as a boy’s. The war bonds, their value badly nibbled away by inflation, had been well exchanged for this moment of bodily lightness. Let it come, let it come, he said to himself, meaning the rest of his life.
Across from Ed and Barbara, a retired farmer from Rivers, Manitoba sat chewing his braised duckling. He poked his wife in the knees and said, “For God’s sake, for God’s sake,” referring, in his withered tenor voice, to the exotic meal and also to the surpassing pleasure of floating in the sky at nine o’clock on a fine summer evening with first Quebec, then the wide ocean skimming beneath him.
His wife was not a woman who appreciated being poked in the knees, but she was too busy thinking about God and Jesus and loving mercy and the colour of the northern sky, which was salmon shading into violet, to take offence. She sent the old man, her husband for forty years, a girlish, new-minded smile, then brought her knuckles together and marvelled at the sliding terraces of grained skin covering the backs of her hands. Sweet Jesus our Saviour—the words went off inside her ferny head like popcorn.
Not far from her sat a journalist, a mole-faced man with a rounded back, who specialized in writing profiles of the famous. He went around the world phoning them, writing to them, setting up appointments with them, meeting them in hotels or in their private quarters to spy out their inadequacies, their tragedies, their blurred fears, so that he could then treat them—and himself—to lavish bouts of pity. It was hard work, for the personalities of the famous vanish into their works, but always, after one of his interviews, he was able to persuade himself that it was better, when all was said and done, to be a nobody. In Canada he had interviewed the premier of a large eastern province, a man who had a grey front tooth, a nervous tremor high on one cheek and a son-in-law who was about to go to jail for a narcotics offence. Now the journalist was going home to his flat in Notting Hill Gate; in twenty-four hours he would be fingering his collection of tiny glass animals and thinking that, despite his relative anonymity, his relative loneliness, his relatively small income and the relatively scanty degree of recognition that had come his way—despite this, his prized core of neutrality was safe from invaders. And what did that mean?—he asked himself this with the same winning interrogation he had practised on the famous. It meant happiness, or something akin to happiness.
Next to him sat a high-school English teacher, a woman of forty-odd years, padded with soft fat and dressed in a stiff shantung travel suit. Once in England, she intended to take a train to the Lake District and make her way to Dove Cottage where she would sign her name in the visitors’ book as countless other high-school teachers had done. When she returned to Toronto, a city in which she had never felt at home, though she’d been born there, and when she went back to her class in September to face unmannerly adolescents who would never understand what The Prelude was about, it would be a comfort to her to think of her name inscribed in a large book on a heavy oak table—as she imagined it—in the house where William Wordsworth had actually lived. The world, she suddenly saw, was accessible; oceans and continents and centuries could be spryly overleapt. From infancy she’d been drawn towards those things that were transparent—glass, air, rain, even the swimmy underwaterness of poetry. The atmosphere on the plane, its clear chiming ozone, seemed her true element, rarified, tender, discovered. Thinking this, she put back her head and heard the pleasurable crinkle of her new perm, a crinkle that promised her safe passage—or anything else she desired or could imagine.
They all were happy, Ed and Barbara Dover, the lip-smacking farmer and his prayerful wife, the English journalist, and the Toronto teacher—but they were far from being the only ones. By some extraordinary coincidence (or cosmic dispensation or whatever), each person on the London-bound flight that night was, for a moment, filled with the steam of perfect happiness. Whether it was the oxygen-enriched air of the fusiform cabin, or the duckling with orange sauce, or the soufflé-soft buttocks of the stewardess sashaying to and fro with her coffeepot, or the uncharitable currents of air bouncing against the sides of the vessel, or some random thought dredged out of the darkness of the aircraft and fuelled by the proximity of strangers—whatever it was, each of the one hundred passengers—one after another, from rows one to twenty-five, like little lights going on—experienced an intense, simultaneous sensation of joy. They were for that moment swimmers riding a single wave, tossed upwards by infection or clairvoyance or a slant of perception uniquely heightened by an accident of altitude.
Even the pilot, a Captain Walter Woodlock, a man plagued by the most painful and chronic variety of stomach ulcers, closed his eyes for the briefest of moments over Greenland and drifted straight into a fragment of dream. It couldn’t have lasted more than thirty seconds, but in that short time he felt himself falling into a shrug of relaxation he’d almost forgotten. Afloat in his airy dimension, he became a large wet rose nodding in a garden, a gleaming fish smiling on a platter, a thick slice of Arctic moon reaching down and tenderly touching the small uplifted salty waves. He felt he could go on drifting forever in this false loop of time, so big and so blue was the world at that moment.
It must have been that the intensity and heat of this gathered happiness produced a sort of gas or ether or alchemic reaction—it’s difficult to be precise—but for a moment, perhaps two, the walls of the aircraft, the entire fuselage and wings and tail section became translucent. The layers of steel, the rivets and bracing and ribwork turned first purple, then a pearly pink, and finally metamorphosed to the incandescence of pure light.
This luminous transformation, needless to say, went unnoticed by those in the aircraft, so busy was each of them with his or her private vision of transcendence.
But there was, it turned out, one witness: a twelve-year-old boy who happened to be standing on a stony Greenland beach that midsummer night. His name was Piers and he was the son of a Danish Lutheran clergyman who had come to the tiny Greenland village for a two-year stint. The boy’s mother had remained behind in Copenhagen, having fallen in love with a manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, and none of this had been adequately explained to the boy—which may have been why he was standing, lonely and desperately confused, on the barren beach so late at night.
It was not very dark, of course. In Greenland, in the middle of the summer, the sky keeps some of its colour until eleven o’clock, and even after that there are traces of brightness, much like the light that adheres to small impurities suspended in wine. The boy heard the noise of the motors first, looked up frowningly and saw the plane, shiningly present with its chambered belly and elegant glassy wings and the propellers spinning their milky webs. He was too dazzled to wave, which was what he normally did when a plane passed overhead. What could it be? He asked himself. He knew almost nothing of science fiction, a genre scorned by his father, and the church in which he had been reared strictly eschewed angelic hosts or other forms of bodily revelation. A trick of the atmosphere?—he had already seen the aurora borealis and knew this was different. The word phenomenon had not yet entered his vocabulary, but when it did, a few years later, dropping like a ripe piece of fruit into his consciousness, he found that it could usefully contain something of the spectacle of that night.
Such moment of intoxication, of course, quickly become guilty secrets—this is especially true of children—so it is not surprising that he never told anyone about what he had seen.
Like his father, he grew up to become a man of God, though like others of his generation he wore the label with irony. He went first to Leiden to study, and there lost his belief in the Trinity. After that he received a fellowship to the Union Theological Seminary in New York where his disbelief grew, as did his reputation for being a promising young theologian. Before long he was invited to join to faculty; he became, in a few short years, the author of a textbook and a sought-after lecturer, and in his late thirties he fell in love with a nervous, intelligent woman who was a scholar of mediaeval history.
One night, when wrapped in each other’s arms, she told him how women in the Middle Ages had pulled their silk gowns through a golden ring to test the fineness of the cloth. It seemed to him that this was the way in which he tested his belief in God, except that instead of determining the fineness of faith, he charted its reluctance, its lumpiness, its ultimate absurdity. Nevertheless, against all odds, there were days when he was able to pull what little he possessed through the ring; it came out with a ripply whoosh or surprise, making him feel faint and bringing instantly to mind the image of the transparent airplane suspended in the sky of his childhood. All his life seemed to him to have been a centrifugal voyage around that remembered vision—the only sign of mystery he had ever received.
One day, his limbs around his beloved and his brain burning with pleasure, he told her what he had once been privileged to see. She pulled away from him then—she was a woman with cool eyes and a listening mouth—and suggested he see a psychiatrist.
Thereafter, he saw less and less of her, and finally, a year later, a friend told him she had married someone else. The same friend suggested he should take a holiday.
It was summertime, the city was sweltering, and it had been some time since he had been able to pull anything at all through his gold ring. He considered returning to Greenland for a visit, but the flight schedule was unbelievably complicated and the cost prohibitive; only wealthy birdwatchers working on their life lists could afford to go there now. He found himself one afternoon in a travel agent’s office next to a pretty girl who was booking a flight to Acapulco.
“Fabulous place,” she said. Glorious sun. Great Beaches. And grass by the bushel.
Always before, when the frivolous, leisured world beckoned, he had solemnly refused. But now he bought himself a ticket, and by the next morning he was on his way.
At the airport in Acapulco, a raw duplicity hangs in the blossom-sweet air—or so thinks Josephe, a young woman who works as a baggage checker behind the customs desk. All day long fresh streams of tourists arrive. From her station she can see them stepping off their aircraft and pressing forward through the wide glass doors, carrying with them the conspiratorial heft of vacationers-on-the-move. Their soft-sided luggage, their tennis rackets, their New York pallor and anxious brows expose in Josephe a buried vein of sadness, and one day she notices something frightening; 109 passengers step off the New York plane, and each of them—without exception—is wearing blue jeans.
She’s used to the sight of blue jeans, but such statistical unanimity is unnerving, as though a comic army had grotesquely intruded. Even the last passenger to disembark and step onto the tarmac, a man who walks with the hesitant gait of someone in love with his own thoughts, is wearing the ubiquitous blue jeans.
She wishes there had been a single exception—a woman in a bright flowered dress or a man archaic enough to believe that resort apparel meant white duck trousers. She feels oddly assaulted by such totality, but the feeling quickly gives way to a head-shaking thrill of disbelief, then amusement, then satisfaction and, finally, awe.
She tries hard to get a good look at the last passenger’s face, the one who sealed the effect of unreality, but the other passengers crowd around her desk, momentarily threatened by her small discoveries and queries, her transitory power.
In no time it’s over; the tourists, duly processed, hurry out into the sun. They feel lighter than air, they claim, freer than birds, drifting off into their various inventions of paradise as though oblivious to the million invisible filaments of connection, trivial or profound, which bind them one to the other and to the small green planet they call home.
Carol Shields is an internationally known author who won many awards for her novels and short stories. Larry's Party won the Orange Prize and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize, the Governor General’s Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Ms. Shields also wrote twelve other novels and short-story collections, three books of poetry, numerous plays and a biography of Jane Austen. Her last novel, Unless, reawakened the voice of Reta winters, from her story “The Scarf,” included in Dressing Up for the Carnival.
Excerpted from Various Miracles. Copyright © 1985 Carol Shields Literary Trust. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.