I remember that day clearly. The sky was covered by fog, the fields were bare and the animals appeared sluggish. On a day like that the only pleasant place to be is the barn. It was warm with the sweet aroma of hay and fur and dung. If you cricked your neck up you could see light coming through the chinks in the roof and tried to spell your name.
There was a ladder nailed to a crossbeam high up in the third loft. The ladder went straight down to the barn floor. We were forbidden from climbing on it because it was old and wobbly. Dad had promised mum a million times that he would take it down and put up a stronger one but something else always seemed to crop up. If you climbed up that ladder you would get to a beam that was seventy feet above the straw littered barn floor. Then if you slowly edged yourself out along the beam about twelve feet, your knees jittering, ankle joints creaking, your mouth tasting like compressed sawdust, you were above the twenty five foot tall haymow. Then you could finally jump off and dive seventy-five feet into a lush bed of soft hay. It has a sweet smell hay does. When she landed in the hay, Kitty had once said that she felt reborn. You had fallen and lived to tell the tale. It was a forbidden sport. If we had been caught my mother would have shrieked blue murder and my father would have laid on the strap. Even at our advanced ages. If you had happened to, at any point, lose balance you would fall to utter destruction on the hard wood of the barn floor. But the temptation was too great. We stood at the foot of the ladder. Kitty’s eyes more sparkling than ever.
“Dare ya,” I said.
“Darers go first,” replied Kitty promptly.
“Girls go before boys,” I retorted.
“Not if it’s dangerous.” Casting her eyes down demurely as if everyone didn’t know that she was the biggest tomboy in Hemingford. But, that’s how she was about it, she would go but not first.
“Ok,” I said, “Here I go.” I was ten that year and thin as a twig. Kitty was only eight.
The ladder had always held us before and we thought it would always hold us. Which is a philosophy that gets men and nations in trouble time after time. As usual I had a vision of what would happen if the ladder gave up the ghost. I kept going until I could firmly grasp the beam and hoist myself up. Kitty’s small oval like face turned up to watch me.
I called down to her, “Hi down there.” My voice floating down to her on moats of chaff.
“Hi up there,” she loudly replied.
I stood up. Swaying back and forward a little. As usual there seemed to be a strange current in the air that had not existed down below. I could hear my own heart beat. I inched out further. At last I stood above the safety of the hay. Now looking down was not as much frightening as sensual. There was a pause. Then I stepped off into space. Holding my nose for effect and as it always did the sudden grip of gravity yanking me down. I tried to swan like Kitty but fear grabbed me and that swan always seemed to sharply turn into a cannonball. I hit the hay. Shot into it like a projectile. I was buried deep in the hay. I climbed out of the hay, sort of swimming through it.
I looked up ten or twelve dives later and noticed the light had changed. My mum and dad were due back any minute and we were covered in chaff. It was as good as a signed confession. I told her it was time to go in but she wouldn’t listen. We eventually agreed that she could have one more turn.
Before I knew it she was half way up. For the first time I was actively scared. Three rungs from the top the nails became looser. I turned cold with terror. The fun of the game was gone.
“Kitty! Stop! It’s not safe!” I yelled.
“It’ll hold me. I’m lighter than you,” she replied confidently.
“Kitty!” But that never got finished. Because that was when the ladder let go.
I cried out and Kitty screamed, “Larry! Help!” She was about where I had been when I felt that I had pushed my luck too far. The rung she was on gave way. Both sides of the ladder of the ladder split.
Kitty uttered a high pitched scream, “Larry! Larry! Help me!”
I knew what had to be done. She was better than sixty feet above me. Her legs kicking wildly. I still can’t see a circus aerial act. Not even on TV.
“Kitty. Just hold still!” I yelled. She immediately stopped and hung straight down. I ran to the haymow. Clutched up as much hay as I could and dropped it below Kitty. I went back again and again. Looking back at it you might have thought of one of those cartoons where the guy jumps into a glass of water. Back and forth. Back and forth. “Kitty you’ve got to hold on!” I yelled. It was chin height now. The one we had been diving into it had been twenty-five feet deep. I thought that if she just broke her legs we would be getting off cheap. I knew that if she missed it she would be killed instantly. “Let go! Just let go!” I yelled. She instantly obeyed me. She dropped straight down like a knife. She struck the hay right in the centre. Kitty was out of sight. I heard the thump of her body hitting the floor. A loud thud. It was too loud, much too loud. My throat was coated with chaff.
“Larry,” she cried softly, ”Am I alive?” I picked her out of the hay and hugged her. She hugged me back.
“You’re alive,” I said with disbelief. “You’re alive,” I repeated.
She’d only broken her left ankle. When Dr. Robertson, my dad and I arrived back in the barn, the doctor stared into space.
“You don’t know how lucky you were,” he said, the last rung on the ladder still swaying there on one nail, “It’s a miracle.”
A moment after the doctor had gone my dad turned to me. He put his cold hand on my shoulder. “Were goin’ to the woodshed Larry. I believe you know what’s gonna happen there.”
“Yes Sir,” I replied. With every hit I thanked God in a loud clear voice, that Kitty was still alive. I was pretty sure he was hearing me by the last whip of that brutal leather strap.
They let me in to see her just before bedtime. She looked at me so long and lovingly that it was almost uncomfortable. Then she spoke to me in a calm voice. “Hay. You put down hay.”
I said, feeling surprised, “Course I did.” There was an awkward silence. “You didn’t know?” I said in shock.
“I didn’t know what you were doing.”
“You must have.” I blurted out! “I was right under you for crife sake.”
“ I didn’t dare look down. I was too frightened. I had my eyes shut the whole time.”
I was thunderstruck. “You didn’t know? You didn’t know what I was doing?” She shook her head. “And when I told you to let go you just did it?” She nodded. “How could you do that?” She stared at me through those deep blue eyes.
“I knew you were doing something to fix it. You’re my big brother.”
“Oh Kitty…” But that never got finished either. I put my hands over my face. She sat up, took them away and then kissed me on the cheek.
“But I knew you were down there. I’m sleepy. I’ll see ya tomorrow Larry.”
My father replaced the ladder but we never dived again. It was the end but somehow not the end. Somehow it never ended until nine days ago when Kitty dived from the roof of an insurance building. I carry it in my wallet as if it’s my work. The headline reads ‘Girl Swan-Dives To Her Death’.
Now, that’s all that matters, other than facts that don’t mean anything.