LIGHT YEARSBy: James Salter
We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with the cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. There are houses of stone along the banks, no longer fashionable, and wooden houses, drafty and bare. There are still estates that exist, remnants of the great land parcels of the past.
A car comes up the driveway, back from the city. The driver is named Viri goes inside, only for a moment until he is heard the news: the pony has gotten loose. He is furious and asked where the pony was. He called the pony’s name: Ursula. He cried and goes around finding her. Suddenly, his wife is named Nedra said to him that Ursula was near the kitchen door, tranquil, dark, eating an apple. Then, he leaded her to the shed. Outside the kitchen he stamped dirt from his shoes.
His daughters called through the door, they asked where Ursula was. He asked that she went out for a walk. They wait for something further. He is a storyteller, a man of wonders. They listen for sound, expecting the door open. They said that her legs were wet, she was trying to get the onions on the bottom and their father said that he think she was swimming, there are no onions there. They explain it to each other outside the door. They wait for him, to little girls squatting like beggars. The pony fascinated them. It frightened them. They are ready to run if it makes an unexpected sound. They often watched her; they listened to her jaws. This mythical beast, fragrant in the darkness, is greater than they are, stronger, cleverer. They long to approach her, to win her love.
It was the autumn of 1958; their children were seven and five. Franca was seven and Danny was five. Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside. She was tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. She is dressed in her oat-colored sweater, slim as a pike, her long hair fastened. People were coming for dinner. She is twenty eight. Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her; she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminant, abandoned saints. She is careful, hard to approach. Her life is concealed. It is through the smoke and conversation of many dinners that one sees her: country dinners, dinners at the Russian tea Room, the Café Chauveron with Viri’s clients, the St. Regis, the Minotaur. Guests were driving from the city, Peter Daro and his wife; Catherine. The Daro arrived in darkness. The doors of their car slammed faintly. A few moments later they appeared at the entrance, their faces bright. Peter brought the wine. They go to begin the conversation. Peter told them about his experience fished for trout. Then, Peter asked Viri where he got the wine. The wine is marvelous. He said that he got it in the small shop, Fifty-Sixth Street, next to Carnegie Hall.
Nedra played the record, she said that a song is about a girl whose father wants her to marry one of her nice suitors but she does not want to she wants to marry the town drunk because he will make marvelous love to her every night. Peter watched her. There were moments when it seemed she revealed everything. She was carrying on a separate conversation with Peter, as if the two of them were closest,as if she understood him utterly. When she said good night her face seemed already washed, as if in preparation. The wine had made her sleepy.
Catherine said as she drove home with her husband that Peter should matty someone like Nedra. Peter did not understand what she means. Catherine said that she just mean it was obvious he would like to go through all that and she thought he should; Nedra is a very generous woman. But, Peter said that Nedra is the most selfish woman on earth.
Someday, Viri went to meet Mr. Conrad who was Peter gave his name. He wanted him to make him a shirt. They talked about how was Peter now before he already to ask about how shirt he wants. Viri wanted him to give a pocket on his shirt because he needed to carry a pencil. Mr. Conrad asked him how many shirts he should make. Viri answered three shirts and he said that he was going to send him many customers; he gave the name of one that is Arnaud Roth.
In a phone booth he composed a familiar number. He talked to Arnaud that he must meet someone named Mr. Conrad. He also said that Arnaud would thank to him until the end of his life. But, Arnaud asked him what he was going to do for him. He answered that he was going to make him shirts.
At the party, Nedra said that Bruce Ettinger is beautiful. He also said that Viri had the best shirt but Bruce had the best smile. Viri offered her something to drink. She answered that nothing too strong. Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach. She was pale, elegant, slutty. The man was facing was shorter than she was. His name is Arnaud. Arnaud was coming toward them. He greeted Nedra, he leaned to kiss her. He asked where Viri was. Nedra said that he was wearing the exact same shirt. Then, Viri came to them. They were coming to the film. Viri had a conversation with Faye Massey. When he talked to Faye, he saw the girl on the couch had risen and was talking to someone. He could not keep sight of her. He hung back. He touched deBaque on the elbow. He asked about the girl. deBaque said that her mane is Kaya. She came with George Clutha. She is looking for a job.
In the summer the Viri went to Amangansett. Peter and Catherine join them, together with their little boy and Kaya as Viri’s new employee. Peter rises and walks slowly, without a word, into the sea. Viri joins him.
In the restaurant, Viri seated with a girl name Kaya. After that, they went to her apartment. There was one large room. Then, without reason, she kissed him. They began to making love. After all, she asked him what he should go back to the office. He commended her back to office after him, but then he decided to go with her. He could feel her love plainly. She was his, he understood it. He had never felt happier, more sure.
Marcel-Maas lived in an unfinished stone barn, much of it built with his own hands. He was a painter. He had a gallery that showed his work, but he was largely unknown. His daughters named were Kate and Nora. Viri and Nedra were in his house. Then, Jivan came. Jivan was Marcel’s friend. He recognized to Viri and Nedra.
He come to Viri’s house, he brought them gifts. He entered the house confident but correct, like a relative who knows his place. Nedra gave him wine, she was easily kind. Nedra asked Viri to light the fire, but Jivan offered to do it. They go to lunch until dinner. At dinner, Jivan told them about his father ever said to him that he does not gamble. Never!
Nedra told Jivan about things that she loves about marriage. First, she loves the familiarity of it. Then, she love money, she likes a lot of money. She said that she should have married someone with money that Viri would never have any. There was no movement, none at all except for a slow distending to which she reacted as if to pain. She was rolling, sobbing. Her shouts were muffled. He did nothing, then more of it and more. Afterwards it was as if theyhad run for miles. They lay near each other, they could not speak. She lay like a woman sleeping. Her back was bare, her arms above her head, her hair loose. He touched this back as if it were something purchased, as if he had discovered it for the first time. She could never be without him, she had told him that. There were times she hated him because he was free in a way she was not; he had no children, no wife.
Nedra said to Viri that she had met the most marvelous man named Robert Chaptelle. He is a writer. He is French. She wanted Viri to read a book. She would give the book when she was finished.
In the morning, Viri goes to Kaya’s apartment but there he knew her with someone else. He met her then, but she did not want to talk. His eyes were filling with tears. He could not tell her what he felt. He said that he could not do anything without her. He could not go back to work
Nedra goes to Eve’s house. She talked to her that she would like to go to Europe. It would be marvelous. Eve said that she would stay in Rome with Arnaud. He would send him some handkerchiefs which he likes.
On Christmas Eve, it was cold and windy. In the driveway, Jivan, his arms filled with presents, was passing the lighted windows. A glimpse of white bookshelves, children whose voices he could not hear, Nedra smiling. They sat by the fire as Viri read. Jivan was quiet, he felt like a guest. His mistress was untouchable. She was in the midst of ritual and duty.
There was no dinner; they were too busy with last minute things. Viri and Nedra work together. Jivan was helping and the girls wrapping the gifts in their rooms. The lights stayed on until after midnight. It was a great celebration, the greatest of the year. Nedra had changed the sheets. They went to bed contented. Her sense of order was satisfied. She was tired, fulfilled. They slept. The house was in darkness, its rooms ghostly. The fire had gone out, the dog slept, the cold fell on the roof in brittle white spots.
Her father was visiting. He was sixty-two. It was his birthday, he gave his granddaughters dolls. A friendly game in the warmth of the kitchen. How carefully she arranged things for him, how thougtful she was. This coughing salesman who was her father, she accepted him wholeheartedly. He asked nothing of her other than an occasional welcome. He never outstayed it. He wrote no letters, his life was passed in an automobile going from customer to customer, in bars where women slurred their speech, in the house from which Nedra had escaped years before, a house from which one could not imagine her: ancient furniture, a shade on the back door. A house without books, without curtains, the basement smelling of coal dust. Here she grew, day by day, a child who even at sixteen gave no hint of what she was about to become, till suddenly in one summer she shed it all and disappeared. In her place was a young woman who had inherited nothing, in which everything was unique, as if she were a message or the bearer of one numinous, composed, not a blemish on her body, not a flaw.
She received a letter from her father written on small sheets of lined paper. It thanked her for the three days he had spent there. He had caught a cold on the way home. He had made good time, though, even better than on the trip up. She was a good poker player; she must have inherited it. There are no real friends, he warned.
Summer at Amagansett, she was thirty-four. She lay in the dunes; in the dry grass she had lost her interest in marriage. There was nothing else to say. It was a prison. She bored with happy couples. She does not believe in them.
Arnaud came that summer. He drove up with Eve in a white convertible, giving little waves when the front wheels went up on a stump and lifted the nose of the car three feet in the air. It was the summer of lunches and marvelous cigars. They decided to smoke Palma.
She wrote to Jivan that she there without him, she could not feel this if she did not love him and feel his love strongly. She had mail from Robert, who was in Verengeville. His cards began without a salutation; his hand writing was illegible and dense. He told her about his schedule.
They were divorced in the fall. For Nedra, it was as if her eyes had had been finally opened; she saw everything, she was filled with a great, unhurried strength. It was November. Their last night together they sat listening to music-it was Mendelssohn-like adying composer and his wife. The room was peaceful, filled with beautiful sound. The last logs burned.
The next day, she left to Europe. The car stood before the house in the late afternoon. From afar it seemed like any other departure. Like one of the thousand that preceded it. She said goodbye to them. She started the engine. She turned on the radio and left quickly. The road was empty. The lights of nearby houses were on. Viri was left in the house. Every object, even those which had been hers, which he never touched, seemed to share his loss. He was suddenly parted from his life. That presence, loving or not, which fills the emptiness of rooms, mildens them, makes them light-that presence was gone. The simple greed that makes one cling to a woman left him suddenly desperate, stunned. A fatal space had opened, like that between a liner and the dock which is suddenly too wide to leap; everything is still present, visible, but it cannot be regained.
That winter Nedra was in Davos, which she had been mistakenly told she would find an interesting town. At lunch one day she was introduces to a man named Harry Pall. He poured wine generously into his glass, and then gestured with the bottle toward hers. He asked her where she stayed. She answered in Davos. He would come by for her at seven.
She returned to the hotel in the late afternoon. She prepared his eyes in the mirror.
Nedra was ill. She did not admit it except to feel uncomfortable suddenly in the city. She wanted the open air, she wanted the invisible. She was forty-seven. Her hair was rich and beautiful, her hands strong. It seemed that all she had known and read, her children, her friends, things which had at one time been disparate, contending, were quiet at last and had found their place within her. A sense of harvest, of abundance, filled her. She had nothing to do and she waited.
She woke in the silence of a bedroom still cool and dark. She was not sleepy, she was aware the night had passed. She small, gnarled branches of the apple trees were stirring in a soundless wind. The sun was not yet up. The sky to the west was the deepest blue, with clouds almost too brilliant, too dense. In the east it was almost white. Her body and mind were rested, they were at peace. They were being readied for a final transformation she only guessed.
That summer Franca came to visit her mother once more. They sat beneath the trees. Nedra had money; she had brought some good wine. They nostalgia about Ursula, she wanted to sell her. But, Nedra said that her father would not permit it. She looked at her daughter, a feeling of envy and happiness swept her, a gust of it thick as air. They talked of the house, of days long past, the hours lay beside them like a stream that barely moved. All around stretched the wide farmland made thrilling by hidden sea.
They lay in the holy sun which clothed them, the birds floating over their heads, the sand warm on their ankles, the backs of their legs. Nedra listened as Franca’s clear voice described the landscape of Russia, on and on, grew weary at last and stopped. They lay in silence, like lionesses in the dry grass, powerful, sated. Nedra told her that she love her very much. It was the true love. She glad her come that year. Franca took the hand and kissed it. Franca said that there is a wonderful Greek restaurant there, she wanted go there with her sometime.
Nedra died like her father. She felt ill. Abdominal pains. For a while they could diagnose nothing. The x-rays showed nothing, the many test of blood. Franca was there alone without had husband. Danny had her children with her, little girls of two and four who had hardly known their grandmother. Eve stood near them. Her face was wet with tears. She said to Danny that her children were beautiful when it was over. Then, they said goodbye to everyone, they accepted murmured regrets, they lingered and started back to the city finally in a hired car.
It was a spring when Viri returned. He drove up from New York on a warm day. He had come alone. He looked around, everything unchanged seemed terrible to him, a gas station with its wooden building, the very land. His mind grew numb. He tried not to think of things, not to see them. The fort had fallen, the children were gone. He walks toward the river, placing his feet carefully. His suit is too warn and tight. He reaches the water’s edge. There is the dock, unused now, with its flaking paint and rotten boards, it’s under pilings drenched in green. Here at the great, dark river, here on the bank.
It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leaves, he stand on the shore. He thought that he was ready, he has always been ready, and he was ready at last.