Three years after the pilot’s wife died, her sister flew across the Atlantic Ocean to visit America for the first time. The sister’s name was Anna. Anna, the wild, redheaded, double-jointed girl from the photo albums. Anna, who’d fishtail chamomile into her braids in the summer and dive into the sub-zero Greenlandic waters on dares. Who’d chase reindeer through fjords and climb the sea cliffs to collect loon eggs in her pockets to hatch between warm sheets in her parents’ laundry room.
The day she arrived, the pilot glided his Cessna along the flank of McKenzie Mountain, following the line of evergreens. As he descended toward the runway he saw Anna, her body an unfamiliar, crimson smudge on the edge of the tarmac. He landed, taxied into the hanger. He secured the brake and scraped tropospheric ice off the propellers. When he walked back to the runway, Anna was crouched in the sagebrush in a red sweater, watching a Piper take off rockily against a head wind.
“Hello,” she called when she saw him, and her voice had the same soft, foreign lilt that his wife’s did when they met.
The pilot nodded. He tried to return his mind to the north currents above the Adirondacks, the ground unfolding beneath him like a map. He examined the runway, and creeks ribboned through valleys. Snow shadowed the north side of mountains. It was February, and everything had devolved into a texture. As Anna approached him, he thought about how her shoulders were shaped almost exactly like the Kettle Ridges.
“You’re the husband?” she asked. “You replied to my letter?”
Anna looked younger than his wife had when she died. Her skin was still smooth, hair still free of grays. But her eyes were the same shade of gray-blue.
“Yes, it was me,” he said.
For the twenty years her sister had lived in America, Anna only interacted with her through letters, sent once a year, in the spring. Labeled with an address the pilot couldn’t pronounce. When his wife was asleep, he would pull the letters out of their envelopes and flatten them against the kitchen table. Under the yellow light, he’d comb them for the Greenlandic word for husband: ui. Or pilot: flugmadur. The words were always missing. When a letter finally came for him, two weeks ago, it was in English. Sitting in bed, he’d traced the rounded letters, the impressions they made, and searched for something recognizable.
The pilot reached out and shook Anna’s hand, feeling the ridges of her knuckles, the valleys in between. A hundred feet away, a Piper landed and jumped twice against the runway until gravity bound it to the concrete. Gray cumulonimbus clouds built over the mountains.
The pilot wanted to fly without a plane. He had an ache behind his eyes that whispered north, north, and when he woke up, he couldn’t remember who he was. He stared at the sliver of dark sky between his curtains, slowly locating himself. Upstate New York, latitude 44.3 degrees north, longitude 73.9 degrees west. He was thrown off by the sound of breathing in the living room.
The pilot lived in a cabin, close enough to the runway to see the underbellies of planes as they took off. Mornings, he’d wake before the airport opened and let himself into the empty control tower. He liked the view of the runway from above, gray and still. White-tailed deer picked at Indian grass between cracks in the concrete, spectral in the winter fog. If he set the radios on the right frequency, he could hear the chatter of pilots across the east coast. Words that populated the sky. “Misty in Toronto tonight.” “Watch, geese migrations at two hundred feet.” “Requesting landing in Newark.”
Anna was already awake when the pilot wandered into the living room. She sat cross-legged on the rug, fully dressed, like she’d been that way for hours. On her lap were open photo albums. The pilot and his wife on vacation on Chincoteague. The pilot and his wife learning how to make spider crab sushi rolls. The pilot and his wife catching daddy-long-legs in jars and stenciling snowflakes around the walls of the laundry room.
She didn’t look up as she asked, “How did my sister die?”
The pilot rubbed the toes of his wool socks against the carpet. He waited for the static. “It was pneumonia,” he said.
Anna flipped the page: photos of the pilot and his wife on top of Algonquin Peak. “She wrote to me after she met you. She was going to come back to Greenland.”
“I’m sorry,” said the pilot. He longed for disembodied voices floating through airwaves. For the runway, the only flat surface in the northeast.
“That’s it?” Anna asked. “You’re sorry?” She looked at him.
The pilot breathed. “A year after she died, I thought I was haunted. It started up there, flying.” He thought he felt the shock of electricity under his toes, but he hadn’t seen the spark. “I’d see a wisp of something around the wing flap or the tail. Always looked like a cirrus cloud, those were her favorite, she said they looked like reindeer tails.”
“You thought my sister was haunting you?”
“I looked through all the photographs I’d taken since she’d died. There’d be a mist snaking around the propeller blades of my Cessna, and I’d circle it. Or there’d be a white orb against my engine, and I’d place an x next to it. I got into the habit of carrying around a disposable camera and taking pictures of rooms before I left them. Later, I’d scour through them for odd shadows or shapes. I could never find her.”
Anna sniffed and pulled the ends of her sweater over her palms. “We don’t have ghosts in Greenland,” she said. “The land changes too quickly.”
“That makes a difference?”
“Yes. They have nothing to hold on to.”
Outside, a pine tree shook against the shingles. The pilot turned his back to Anna and walked through the front door and onto the front porch. He curled himself against the wind, and listened for the cold in the air. He imagined he could hear the miniscule sound of particles rubbing together.
After the first morning, Anna built a nest of blankets on the pull-out couch and slept for three days, waking up when the pilot returned from the control tower for dinner, then going back to bed immediately afterward. She talked as she entered dreams, murmuring the same words the pilot had heard his wife mutter during her fever dreams: kunaat, anori, issi.
She’d told him once that a single Greenlandic word could contain an entire English sentence. He imagined it like the Alps accordion-folded into a single, towering peak. Or like the Yukon coiled into the deepest lake.
Anna dreamed, and the pilot sat at the kitchen table and listened. He strung together the consonants, sounds piled on sounds. He imagined that during those three days she slept, Anna told him her entire life story. Stories that his wife never got to: first nights away from home, first heartbreaks, the first time she fell through the ice. What was it like growing up on a continent surrounded by water? A lost puzzle piece.
Apivoq, the pilot’s wife said.
It has been snowing.
At the end of the three days, Anna woke up and told the pilot she wanted to see the mountains. She wanted to touch the Adirondacks. She wanted to see a moose with icicles hanging off its antlers and bobcats yowling at each other from ice-mossed logs. So they hiked into the forest, up McKenzie Mountain. Planes buzzed overhead, and the pilot identified them by the sound of their engines. They passed sap buckets nailed to trees, waiting for spring and the slow drip of resin.
Anna asked, “What did my sister love the most?”
The pilot breathed, muscles aching against gravity. “She loved the snow geese. They’d fly over our house every spring on their way to the Arctic tundra.” He stopped to catch his breath. “Whenever she heard them, she’d yell to me, and we’d jump in the Acro Sport. It’s the lightest plane. The plane I learned to fly in. We could never catch up with them, though. We’d always get in the air too late. She wanted to know how high they flew, if their beaks froze shut from the cold.”
Anna asked, “What was she like when you first met?”
The pilot rubbed his hands together and described her. “Black hair. Bones like a bird’s, easily broken. When she flew with me, she was fearless.” He could swoop under bridges. He could land in cattail fields on top of mountains, and she’d laugh and laugh. The stories his wife told him about home sounded made up, from a dream: midnight sun, the taste of braised polar bear meat, the coarseness of musk ox fur.
Anna and the pilot stopped to rest when they reached a break in the trees. A Cessna flew past in the distance, and the pilot pointed out how you could tell how high it was by the size of its shadows on the mountains. They watched the shadow-plane shrink and grow on the changing incline, skimming and quivering over spruce and pine until it nosed upward and disappeared.
Anna placed her hand on the trunk of a tree.
“The ground has never felt stiller,” she said.
She sounded so much like his wife in that moment, the pilot wanted to touch her. He wanted to cradle her chin with his hands and wait for something to rearrange in her face and show him the answer.
That night, when the chatter and howls of coyotes in the valley woke the pilot, he wandered into the kitchen. Moonlight striped across Anna’s back on the couch. She whispered, kalaallisut.
The pilot pulled open the drawer under the microwave. He reached blindly past a screwdriver, a loose washer, a Swiss Army knife, until his fingers curled around the smooth lens of the Polaroid camera. As Anna inhaled, he took a photo over the couch. Snap. He pulled on boots and a jacket and walked to the runway. Cold bit at his cheeks. A hundred feet away, white-tail deer paced across the cement, their hooves making a sound like a jaw unlocking. As the pilot walked toward them, he expected them to scatter. He wanted them to scatter. But he was only a ghost to them. Their muscles twitched, flexed. Mist fogged the space around their nostrils. The pilot snapped a photograph of the buck, midstep, neck swooping. The flash illuminated the runway, hiding the pilot. He saw the cracks, the age lines, in the buck’s antlers, and then everything was dark again. There was the sound of confused movement as the deer bounded back to the forest.
When he reached the end of the runway, he kept walking into the mountains. Above him, the stars looked like clusters of cities from the sky at night. The world was in reverse. Snap, snap, snap. He lit his way with the camera flash. He stumbled, once, and let his body fall onto the mountain. A mile away, a coyote howled. The pilot shuddered, buried himself in pine needles, and tried not to breathe. Underneath his spine, he could feel the soil cracking, the force of plates steadily pushing him upward. He knew then that Anna had been wrong when she said the world was stiller here. The world had never revolved faster.
When the pilot’s wife had talked about Greenland, she would pull out a big map and spread it across the living room rug. She knew that the pilot could understand that way, her history broken into lines of latitude and longitude. On the map, Greenland was orange. In reality it was white or blue or gray or black, depending on the color of the sky, she told him. During the aurora borealis it turned green. She told him that 85 percent of Greenland was hidden beneath an ice cap three-thousand meters thick. Three-thousand meters. The highest peak of the Adirondacks was one-thousand and two hundred meters. Over the centuries, the ice’s weight had slowly reshaped the island, carving it into a basin. The Greenlandic people lived balanced on its edges, on the coasts, 85 percent of their country a mystery to them. She told him they couldn’t keep accurate town maps, because the land was constantly carved away by glaciers. The ice melted every spring, then refroze in a different shape.
His wife had loved the Adirondacks for their consistency, year after year. She loved the sky for its predictable air currents, the way you could tell the weather tomorrow by the shape of the clouds today. She didn’t understand that even here the mountains were eroding away. The houses were sinking. Everything was falling.
In the morning, the pilot organized his Polaroids in rows across the kitchen table. He studied them, looking for a shadow in the trees, a glow hugging Anna’s sleeping form, an orb balanced on the buck’s antlers. But he couldn’t see it. There was only what was always there.
Anna asked what he was doing, and he gave her the photos from the forest. She pointed out a possum creeping under a log and an icicle growing off a tree branch. Her fingers left prints everywhere. Her DNA floated through the trees.
A week and a half after Anna arrived in New York, the sky dropped snow onto the runway. In the morning, it was covered in deer, rabbit, bear prints. The animals were waking up. Anna rode with the pilot in the snow plow as he cleared the runway. He told her that his wife could identify an animal from the air by the way it moved through the snow. Anna listened and built a little snowwoman on her lap.
When the pilot climbed into the control tower, every frequency was quiet, only echoing back static. No planes would take off or land today. He asked Anna to walk into the woods with him, and this time they headed east, along the base of McKenzie Mountain. The ground turned to frozen marsh in the valley, and they skated through stiff cattails. Anna slid ahead, at home on the ice, and the pilot had to call her back once he found it, the small cave entrance hidden between the roots of a box elder.
“This was her favorite place,” he said. “You can only reach it in the winter, when the water’s frozen.”
He wrapped his fingers around the snowy roots, pulled his upper body into the entrance. Anna followed. They leaned their heads into the darkness.
“The bats hibernate in here,” the pilot said. “We can’t hear them, but they’re talking to each other, in their sleep.”
“How do you know?”
“She could just feel it, like this vibration in the back of her head. On the coldest days she would crawl in, tilt her ear upward.”
Anna’s face was so close. Shadowed, her cheekbones were like the rounded peaks of Hoffman Notch. Her hair was the color of a forest fire in the distance, burning the horizon. The pilot had that urge, again, to touch her. He realized how easy it would be to kiss her. But then she moved away, using the roots to pull herself into the darkness of the cave, the space where his body wouldn’t fit. She disappeared in shadows, but he could still hear her. Breathing. Cooing. Reaching into the black and curling her hand around what she found.
The next morning, Anna folded her nest of blankets into a pile at the end of the couch. She didn’t say anything, but the pilot could tell she had found what she was looking for, and she was preparing to move on. She wrote in a journal he hadn’t seen her use before, and the pilot wanted to ask her: What? What did you find in the cave? He barely knew her.
He needed the potential of air, the openness. The runway was still icy, but the pilot decided to risk it. After breakfast he left Anna and readied the Acro Sport. It buzzed down the runway, and he held his breath waiting for the separation of tires and concrete, the moment when the engine won over gravity. He imagined it like the sound a zipper makes.
When the pilot was in open air, he turned on his headset. He spoke into the microphone: “Over McKenzie Mountain. Over.” The mountains were blue beneath him. He followed the Saranac River north. “Cloud cover at two hundred feet,” he said. No one answered back.
He reached the river’s headwaters. This was normally where he would circle back, but instead he pointed the nose of the plane upward and kept going. “Crossing Jay Mountain.”
The land rose and fell beneath him. All curving lines and snowy shadows. He imagined flying east, over the ocean, then north until he reached Greenland. He thought of icebergs that looked like giant paper cranes floating in the blue waters. Constantly freezing and melting, different each time. Now: a swan. Next year: a fox.
Dana Diehl is an MFA candidate in fiction at Arizona State University. She received her BA in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. Dana is the current Managing Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review.