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Arilla Sun Down
By Virginia Hamilton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Virginia Hamilton
All rights reserved.
Late in the big night and snow has no end. Taking me a long kind of time going to the hill. Would be afraid if not for the moon and knowing Sun-Stone Father is sledding. Way off, hear him go, "Whoop-eeeee!" Real thin sound, go, "Whoopeeeee!"
If Mother could see me, she would say, What you doing up? Get back under the covers. Catching your death. But Mama sleeping on. I can slip on out to the moondust snow. She not seeing everything I do, like she say.
Now hurry to follow all of the tracks going deep in the snow. Knowing there is some big hill where all tracks of children go. Downhill is deep in a moonshade and ends at a cliff. Only Stone Father can stop a sled in time. I can't stop it. Jack Sun Run wouldn't care to try. I am smallest, knowing nothing for sure. But I think my brother, Jack, is a horse.
Jack Sun Run still sleeping. He is bigger. But I'm who slipping away.
Sun Run nearly always high above me. Legs stamping. Up he is with the sun in a sky behind his head. Can't seeing his face, brown shade. No eyes, nose and no mouth. Brother mine can be running whinnying or throwing rope circle of his. Up so high, flinging his mane and stamping. Never go so near him when he sleeps. For fear his long nose snorting.
Going a long time in a moonlight dark. Calling out—"Father! Sun-Stone Father!"
I answer back all around the moonlight. Scares me so. But I go on and find the hill so long kind of time. There he is! Him just climbing back up and with a sled coming up behind him.
"What—you! Out of bed and not even a hat—!" Staring eyes don't send me away. Sun Father always so glad to see me.
"Heard you," I tell him. "Coming to ride with you."
"You sled out here and your mother will make it worse for me."
"She is under the pillow. Jack-Run is sleeping, too."
"Little one, aren't you cold?" he says.
I do not feel my ears as his hands cover them. "They have fallen off," I tell him.
"I will pick them up on a way back after we ride." Knowing probably they have not fallen off.
Father laughs, eyes in the moonlight. "Well, just once, since you've come so far.
But you have to be quiet. And you have to go home right after."
"Twice," I tell him.
"Twice to be riding down a hill," I say, "or I will tell Mother and Jack-Run, too."
"Arilla, you are too hard on me. But all right. You must not yell, you hear?"
"I hear you. But you yelling," I tell him.
He laughs again. "I can't help it. It just comes over me. Now. I'll try to be still," he says. "And you try not to be scared. And don't ever tell Mother."
"I'm not scared with you, and I won't tell Mother. I won't tell Jack-Run."
"Sun Run always wakes up early, anyway, before I'm through," Father says.
Brother is nothing but a horse.
"Arilla, now hear me," Stone Father says. "If the creeps come over you, don't let loose, or I'll never catch you in the present time."
"Knowing that for sure," I saying. Downhill ends at a cliff. Over the cliff is another time. Having seen no one go over or coming back. They say three people have gone. Two boys and an uncle, so they say.
Once Mother saying to Father, Why in heaven's name won't they make it safe for children! Don't they know there ought to be a fence at the bottom of that hill?
She to Sun Run, Arilla is not to go to the hill by herself.
Jack Sun Run saying back, Only fools go there. Arilla should never go there.
Now. Father sits him easy on a sled. Gets him all ready with feet to push steering. Looking to me. "Ready," he says. "You get on in back."
Once Mother saying to Sun Run, Arilla will follow the other children. She will slip away.
Then tie her to the sumac, Jack Sun saying back.
Is she your pony to be tied up? Mother. You are to watch her.
My business is the pony. Sun Run. Not somebody's baby.
Now. I get on a sled behind Stone Father. Easy. And so careful.
Once Mother to Sun Run, Not somebody's baby! She's your sister—you know she can slip away. You know what happened last time.
Sun Run saying back, I got my own business to care for. You watch her. You wanted her.
Now. Hold tight to Stone Father, hugging his jacket. Never watch us pushing off. Runners go skud-skud and long skuuuuuuuuuuuuud. Looking around just once to see a town way back there sinking behind a hill. And closing eyes tight.
We sled on down the moonlight. Turned to the front again with a jerk. Feeling we go fast enough to take the air. We will fly away!
"Be-utiful!" Stone Father shouting. "Whoop-eeeee!"
Bumping, we slide sideways. Father's back straining to put us straight. He will hold us safe in the present time. We straighten. We fly on down the moonlight.
Never thought to be here sledding. Jack Sun Run has never done it.
Now Stone Father getting us ready. Coming to the end of a present time. Break and turn a sled somehow. The way I have heard him and James False Face talk about doing it.
"Arilla, hold tight!"
Father is best of anyone. Better than a brother, Run.
We must stop at a flat place. Downhill, we must stop at the end of a present time. Father jerking a sled sideways. We do not slow. He sticking his legs out to brake. Big snow feet pushing against the blue powder. I find me peeking through eyelashes. The ground is in a hurry.
"Hold on! Arilla, hold tight!"
"We will be safe."
Sled tipping over. We falling on a side and sliding along the bumps. Father catching hold on my ankle. Slide. Stopping and hurting my side.
My arm stretched out. Hand catches nothing. Out there, seeing the great darkness. The moon going away over another time. They say there is a way of walking down a cliff. You walk down, there is not another time, so they say.
Wind comes downhill, cold and burning. Father lifts me on my feet. Brushing me off from snow. And hurry us up the hill. Taking us some kind of time going up. We keep sliding and falling. His feet crunching loud. I can walking right on top of snow when I can stand up. Toes of mine are feeling numb.
Hilltop, we stand with wind at our backs. Stone Father's arm around my shoulder. Trembling, nothing he has but skin under his jacket. Holding me to his side maybe thinking I will slip away. He holding sled, leaning it on his other side.
"Sledding is faster than a horse," I tell him. He saying nothing.
Father's cap pulled flap-down over his ears. His breath steaming around his face. Hair blowing long fur, thick and black. Eyes gaze far out to the moon. They go off-on, red-dark, off-on, red-dark. I see fading moonlight in them. Stone Father is a black wolf with fading moonshine in his eyes.
So James False Face has said it. You, Father Sun, are a great wolf, hungered and wounded too many seasons.
What great wolf there was has long since fled these sorry bones, Father said.
Sound not so down in front of the child, said James False Face, looking sad.
I am the child. James-Face always speaking good things to me. I am with him most often. Father is with Jack Sun Run most often. Father likes horses. James-Face likes me and teaches me. He is old and holds many stories.
One day you will keep my stories, he tells me, and you will truly be the name I have given you.
They say I do not speak like a child of today. I speak like an old one, like James False Face, so they say. Mother says we have got to get away from here.
Now. Father turning me and a sled toward the town. We see that there is faint light behind a town, where the sun will come up. I pulling back. He begins walking away from the hill.
I tell him, "That was only once on a sled. We have to sled again."
"It is too cold," Father says. "The wind has made ice."
"I don't mind the ice."
"The ice is a danger," he says. "The sled cannot grip it."
"A promise is a promise," I tell him, walking back to the starting place.
He says, "For one so little, you know many words."
"That is who I am," I say, "The One With Many Words." But that is not it. Even to him I never say the name old James has given for me alone.
"You are too cold," Father is saying. "You are about to freeze, and I have to get you home." But he comes up to stand beside me. The moon is there above another time.
I tell Father what James False Face says: "A promise is a moss agate too large to slip through fingers."
Father sighs. "Take my hat, then," he says. "Maybe if we do it fast and get it over with—"
He takes off his hat. Now wind blows his hair around his ears. Stone Father has hair so black like James-Face but not so straight. He smiles all a sudden, happy to sled again I know.
I smile as he ties the hat strap around my neck. Hat so warm still from his head.
I do not tell him about my hands. I put them in my pockets and cannot feel them there.
Father says, "I think you will sit in front this time. I think that way my weight will slow us down."
Father sits first at the back of the sled and holding the sled cord in a hand. The cord part of Mother's clothesline cut to fit just so. Ends of cord knotted through holes of steering on each side of a sled in front. Stone Father holds the cord like a reins at his waist. His feet press against the steering. He can work a sled with his feet or with the reins, or both.
I climbing on a sled between his feet. Scooting back until I am snug. Father holding me tight around a middle with free arm of his. All this done fast, wind to our backs.
We coast so quickly, it takes my breath. The wind pushing, pushing us. We sail. We sail faster than my thinking. No time to close my eyes. Father does not holler. We bump hard and we fly. I jolt forward on the sled. Arm of Father pulls me back and pulls back hard on the reins in another hand. We are not sledding. We are sliding this way and that way on the ice. We take a long skuuuuuuuud when Stone Father says in a sound of far-off humming:
"Oh-my-god, my-god, oh-god."
To the flat place at the end of the present time we have come. My mouth stretched open full of air. Screaming and screaming I hear. Sled leaping forward. I see the moon. The moon is coming back. Nothing to feel under us. Stone Father howls the wolf sharp and lonely. I see into another time where fear of mine is screaming.
A great circle of pain. Growing tighter, it binds my chest. Father and I are bound together in a great pain. The sled hangs in the air. The pain pulls tight arms and takes my breath. We are pulled. We are pulled back. One long moment, Father's legs kick the darkness away. We hit the cliff edge. The sled hits us. On our sides we scrape along the edge. Pain cuts into my shoulders. I cannot. I cannot. Breathe. Scream. We are scraping along inch by inch in the present time. We are saved.
What has saved us? The pain. I cannot. Think. Breathe. Until Stone Father forces his arm between me and the pain. His both hands slip under the pain. I see he still clutches the sled cord.
We inch on up the icing. Lying on a my side. Stone Father is to my back. We are both lying down, running with our legs.
Sun-Stone Father does not howl. There is quiet. There is Father's hard breath and straining. My shoulder pain makes me weak. Sleepy me, I want my bed. Legs cease to kick. Father hammering his heels into the icing. Pushing heels, helping pain back up the hill.
I hear stamping. I hear a snorting. Slowly, head lifting, I see toward the sleepy hilltop.
There it is, the light of sun coming behind the hill. There he is, pressed against the light. Brother. Run. Jack Sun Run has his line out all the way to us. Sun Run pulling on the line, reeling us in hand over hand. He bucks and pulls back, head down, feet stamping. My brother Sun such a horse.
Hand over hand, Father inches up the line. The line is shortened. I am so sleepy. Are we fishes? Sun Run reeling and howling, not to the moon, not to Father. Howling to wake the town, I think. I am numbing up. The pain where he has roped us does not hurt much now. No longer thinking of sleep. I see. I see.
There he is, almost running. Old James False Face coming to save me. He moving around the horse my brother until he has a rope line and begins to pull. Watch out for Jack-Run's hooves.
Here they come, men from a town and other men, shouting and running. Stone Father and I are halfway up the hill. We move so slowly up to the men, who cannot stand on the icing. They fall and the long line is slacking. We slide back down. Father hands hold tight the line. Father hands turning the line red, and dotted red drops on the bluing ice.
Now James-Face speaks in the old way. Men slipping and sliding do not understand. I understand. He says: "Try crouching. Feet inward. Feet inward."
The men do not understand. They come to crouching anyway. And soon we move on up the hill. Soon to be over.
There she is. There's my pretty mother. Holding on to Father's robe over a long puffy nightgown. She with one black boot and one brown boot same size, that Sun Run find in a rummaging shop. One minute there are only men. Next minute she pretty is there. Leaning back, bending forward, holding tight the robe of Father. Hands knotted. She yelling something higher than men's voices: "My god, she's frozen—how could you, you-crazy-fool!"
We had a good time, my Stone Father and me. Mother, I'm not frozen or feeling anything. We go down the hill twice and seeing how dark and alone place is another time.
Here we are. At the top of the hill so many people leaning around. Jack Sun Run loosens a rope. He never was a horse. I think I knew that. A horse will stand still by the tall tree. I think I have seen that.
"Arilla," Run says, and everyone is quiet. I listen. Jack-Run's voice like a summer rustling in a tall grass. "Arilla, do you hear me?"
I hear you.
"Don't waste time. She may be hurt. We get her inside," James-Face says in the old way, but they don't understand. "Take her up," he says so that Run can understand. He leaps for the big horse of Jack-Run. I see long hair of his tied down his neck. He has leaped as if he were not old James, and Sun Run lifts me up.
"Give her to me—What do you think you're doing!" Mother spits a words. "Let me go!" Someone holding her off. It is Stone Father.
Sun Run lifting me in his arms, but I feel no arms. It is like riding on the air. Then he has me in one arm.
"Treat her like a sack of coal?" Mother yelling at him. Sun Run is up high with me in front of him. Holding me tight with one hand, just the way Stone Father did it. He holds the reins with the other hand, just like sledding. I have never been on a horse—have I? Now I have been on a horse and a sled all in one night.
"Wait," Sun-Father says.
"No time," James False Face says. But Father barely understands.
Sun Run waits. Father comes up. He takes off his jacket and covers me with it. His skin is brown and glistens in the sun-up. "To the Doc, in town," Father says. "Take her."
Run wraps his arm across the jacket, holding me inside it. Father is standing in his skin and sun-up to the waist. I want to say, Father, Father, you will catch your death. Mother is crying.
"Hurry with her!" Mother tells Run.
"Hur'm up, Strider!" Jack-Run says.
Horse's ears flicking up. Horse a-walking. We move. Me and Jack and James-Face up in back of my brother.
"Hur'm up, Strider!" Softly Run. Run making a squeaking with his mouth. Strider rushing into the wind. The town I see come quickly. Town spilling along crease of hills like scattering rocks. James-Face saying something as hooves pounding fast. We soon slow down and do not go into a town. Edge of crease, I see our house. Sun-up has not reached it. House always in shade. Is dark, as if we do not live there. Darkly hides among tall trees. Is James-Face a tall tree the first time I'm seeing him? Now I see our sumac as we pass into the yard. I see old tire swing swaying and sweeping in a wind. I see a pony corral, clean and empty with just a trough and icing. I see a meadow and a sluice coming down from hills. I see trampled and dirty snow all covered with icing.
Excerpted from Arilla Sun Down by Virginia Hamilton. Copyright © 1976 Virginia Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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