It had never hailed before in July, and August interpreted the errant weather as further evidence that the universe was sliding off-course. Most everything was set up for the wedding that Saturday. The tables were arranged on the grassy patch below the orchard under a white tent with Christmas lights, and they had strung a wispy piece of fabric over the driveway by the mailbox, as if the wedding guests were entering a fortune teller’s room. Not that August knew anything about fortune tellers, besides what he had seen in books. He didn’t need anybody to read his palm—the ghosts that visited him from the future told him everything he needed to know.
August was in the attic of the inn with Hen when the hail started. Here, in the crook of the roof, was where they kept the old old things, like piano books and calico dresses that all looked the same color under the buzzing yellow lightbulb. Hen had just suffered a sneezing attack.
“The pollen count is high today,” she sniffled, wiping her nose on her wrist. “It hasn’t rained since Thursday so the count is really high. Also, the bees are suffering an epidemic. I’m going to ask Uncle Robert for his medicine.”
She was sitting with her knees tight to her chest, watching August sort through one of the cardboard boxes that cluttered the plywood floor. The inn had been a real functioning inn a century ago, but by the time Uncle Richard’s family bought it, the parkway was carrying folks around the mountain rather than over it, and the inn had become a home. Two hundred years of living had been deposited here in the attic, like sediment in a riverbed. Every search yielded something interesting. He once found a World War II knife with the image of a Marine inlaid on its hilt, and a device for measuring the heights of distant objects that he never learned how to use.
“I heard her parents are taking a limo,” Hen said.
“They won’t. It won’t make the turn into the driveway,” August said.
“They can park it at the farm store and walk up.”
August frowned. It was a half-mile up from the farm store, and Katherine’s mother struck him as the type of woman to wear high heels to a party. He found what looked like a Swiss Army knife, but when he unfolded it, it was just a spoon and fork.
“When they make the toasts, is Clarke going to drink grape juice? Isn’t that sort of juvenile? Maybe no one will know. I’ll switch glasses with him if he wants. I know what champagne is like,” Hen said, looking wise.
“The groom doesn’t make the toasts. He just sits there and everyone talks around him,” August said. The farm hosted three or four weddings every summer, more now that they had moved the horse barn down the mountain, and he always got to climb one of the apple trees and watch strangers cry and kiss each other. Each time, everyone was marvelously excited, as if they forgot that this kind of thing happened every day.
So he knew how weddings worked. This was the first one he would go to for family, though. No more apple trees—they had him fitted for a miniature suit in February, and he had endured unending instruction ever since. Walk slowly, smile, don’t drop the ring, wait off to the side when they do the God stuff, be polite to Katherine’s parents. He made no promises about this last part.
He had always anticipated Clarke’s wedding eagerly. When August was four and Clarke was seventeen, his cousin Anabelle had gotten married. She was fifteen at the time, and August couldn’t recall a wedding, or even a letter, but it made him think that Clarke was already behind schedule. It took his brother seven years. At some point, though, he had gotten seriously turned about.
Clarke had left for college in Nashville with his riding boots and a whole canvas duffel full of books. He was going to read the Russian writers, Nabokov specifically.
“Nabokov’s prose is the closest you can get to a psychedelic experience,” Clarke told him once. “‘One opal cloudlet in an oval form reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm, which in a distant valley has been staged, for we are most artistically caged.’ He was synesthetic, you know? He saw sounds.”
Clarke had called home almost every week in those first months he was gone, and he even came to the inn for a few weeks in the middle of the semester. “For his health,” their mother had said. Clarke told him, during one of these visits, that he was worried about the future. August could never find the courage to ask his brother whether the ghosts from the future visited him, too.
When Clarke went back to school, he stopped calling so much. For some reason, their parents were happy to hear from him less. And when Clarke came home for Christmas, he left his riding boots in the shoe closet. August found them the January morning that Clarke was supposed to return to school and had brought them just in time to the front hall, where the rest of his bags were. Clarke just laughed and put them back where he had left them. “There aren’t any horses in Nashville,” he said.
He ended up studying political science, ‘for future leaders,’ and that’s how he met Katherine. She was from San Francisco, she was also in the Honors College and she had a smile that looked like sculpted plastic. She came to visit at the end of the year and you might have thought God was stopping by. Clarke arrived home a week before her visit and willingly cleaned the house for the first time in memory.
She arrived in an airport taxi with a suitcase whose little wheels got stuck in the gravel driveway. She was pretty—August’s tongue felt like pudding for a moment, she was so pretty—and she knew all of their names the moment she stepped out of the car.
He thought she was quite something, actually, until they went out riding one morning. Clarke let her ride Stamford—this was the first sign. Stamford was sullen and apathetic and boring, and they only saddled him up when little kids came to ride. Katherine was wearing high leather boots and a white shirt that she cinched above her right hip, like a girl in a horse movie. But when Clarke helped her into the stirrups, August saw the way she hugged Stamford with her thighs, and he knew she had never ridden before.
From that day onward, Katherine was like fruit in a bowl of ice-cream: sweet and well-meant but unwelcome nonetheless. She often came home with Clarke for vacations, San Francisco being so far, and she would help with the morning chores. She pitched hay in the barn, set out the lick out for the horses and even went into the chicken coop, which was dim, close and deafening—not to mention the odor. After they ate sandwiches on the porch, she would drink beer and rest her head in Clarke’s lap, and Clarke would twist his fingers into her hair. August wondered if they were both thinking how badly the other smelled. He resented the glamour Katherine carried with her. She made his life into some kind of lifestyle.
This continued until Clarke and Katherine graduated and moved to Charlotte. They had flown around looking at all the best towns for twenty-somethings, they said, and Charlotte fit the bill. They forgot to come to the inn, but August knew Katherine and Katherine’s Clarke well enough by now not to say anything.
Also, Clarke stopped drinking. August didn’t notice when this habit started, but he did notice when it stopped. Mom and Dad poured out all of the bottles from the cupboard that night. The kitchen was silent except for the splatter in the sink, and their eyes were elsewhere. They used the empty bottles to hold flowers instead.
Then, one day, Clarke called home and asked to borrow some money. Mom and Dad went about the rest of the day with smiles that escaped their restraint like a pot boiling over. Mom pulled the nice plates out of the glass-paned cabinet in the dining room that night and dusted them off, but Dad came in and said, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Three days later, on the first of January, August held the phone to his ear and learned that he would have a sister-in-law. His first thought was, he wished he didn’t have to use the word “sister” to describe someone so pretty.
Hen screamed and jumped to her feet when the hailstorm started. As the roof rattled like machine-gun fire, she grabbed August’s hand and pulled him into the dim recess of the dumbwaiter. It was the only way to get to the attic besides the staircase that took them through Uncle Richard’s room. Between the two of them, there was just enough space to blink and breathe. August pulled at the thick rope, and the cardboard boxes rose out of view. Everything was dark and sweet and wooden in the shaft between the attic and the kitchen pantry.
“Here,” Hen said.
August asked a question with his eyes and then realized that she couldn’t see him.
“This is alright,” she said. He felt her shift beside him, and the stillness that followed prompted him to find a comfortable position. The clatter of hailstones on the roof persisted, but it was somewhere above them, made distant by their shell of cedar wood and darkness. It was warm in here. He felt her knee against his leg.
“There’ll be less pollen, I bet,” Hen murmured sleepily.
Hen had once diagnosed August with ‘temporal anxiety.’ He had told her about the ghosts that visited him, who told him things that nobody else could know. She said that he was being silly, and that a ghost that hadn’t even died yet couldn’t be called a ghost.
Hen was eight, and her full name was Henrietta, but she hated that name and refused to answer to it. Her family started work at the farm store one November. She had the darkest skin August had ever seen. August found her in the piano room once, looking at a medical encyclopedia from the study. It had all sorts of wild stuff. She kneeled on the couch, sucking on the orange plastic flower affixed to the end of her braids and looking at the pictures of skin diseases and stillborn fetuses—these looked rather like broken egg yolks, except that the light below the petri dish gave them all a sickening red glow. August looked away when he saw the pictures and made a sound in the back of his throat.
She made it all the way to “zinc-toxicity.” No-one paid her diagnoses any mind until she looked at Uncle Richard drinking orange juice one morning and said that his white blood cell count was low. The next week he had a check-up, where the doctor touched his shoulder the way some people touch pieces of dead saints’ bodies. You have been living on the head of a pin, he said. One razor nick and poof, gone. Fortunately, Uncle Richard did not shave his beard often. He just clipped at the edges.
It was like God had dropped marbles from the sky. The morning following the storm, August rubbed his bare toes and listened to the nuthatches in the Fraser fir chatter about the cold. He was on the wicker couch, in the shorter leg of the porch that wrapped around the inn like an L. He could see right down to the pass from his dusty blue cushion. The valley glittered.
When his cup of cider was nearly empty, he poured the final drops over the railing onto the high hedge and pulled on socks and sandals. Hen had left earlier, to go help her brothers at the store. The farm was quiet. Everyone was driving about, running last-minute chores or waiting for incoming relatives at the airport. The caterers were scheduled to arrive around eleven.
He would go see the horses. Uncle Richard had relegated them to the lower barn for the week because he didn’t want any messes up by the orchard, and August thought they ought to have some company, being left out of the party and all that. He lifted a canvas bag from a hook on the pantry door and filled it with oatmeal. Dad always said not to use the Quaker Oats on the horses, they weren’t as picky as us, but this was a wedding, for God’s sake. He walked through the garden, which was all bent stalks and battered flowers. Below the row of tomatoes, he scooted down the stone embankment onto the tennis court. The court was long since unusable, having cracked and buckled from the summer sun and occasional winter freeze, but it still served as a soccer court and a space for the really little ones to trundle around on their red Radio Flyers. The fence skirting the periphery was nearly invisible beneath a cluster of kudzu vines and rose bushes.
Something near the fence caught his eye. It was a hailstone, bigger than the rest, and it glowed a sort of electric blue in the sunlight. August crouched down and touched it.
Now that the clouds were gone, it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. August’s heart thudded—it was getting quite hot. In a few hours, the hailstone would be a puddle, or even a cloud, and August would walk slowly and smile and wait off to the side while Clarke kissed Katherine, and they would cut the cake and dance and then then be gone. On Sunday morning, August would open the closet to find a crumpled pair of boots.
He shook the bag clean of oatmeal and quickly, tenderly used it to scoop up the hailstone. Then he set off back up the hill.
Right below the orchard, by the row of little houses where Hen and the other families lived, was the spring house. It was squat and stone, and the fourth oldest building in the entire state, supposedly. August ducked into the dark and cool interior. The only light came from a lattice window near the eaves that supported a cluster of ivy, and the air in here seemed a different breed from the world outside. It was heavy, like something born below-ground, and it had the sweetness of moldy leaves. The water was directed into a wide trough from the spring way up on the mountain by way of a plastic tube. It flowed along the inside of the wall in a U shape, until it entered another tube, which carried it down to a basin by the hay-barn.
The trough was full of all of sorts of things to be kept cold for the wedding. All types of beer bottles, casks of cider, turkeys sealed in plastic and a carton of ice cream sat in the freezing water, which wound its way slowly around the room. Someone, probably Ms. Isbell, had left a bundle of Queen Anne’s lace in the corner.
August lifted the hailstone from the canvas bag and onto the ledge above the water before his fingertips could leave a mark. It hadn’t melted by any considerable amount during the brief journey, but its glossy surface had attracted flecks of oatmeal and lint from the bottom of the bag. He brushed them off. Then he covered the hailstone with white flowers so that nobody would bother with it.
He turned around and saw Clarke standing in the door. No—it wasn’t Clarke, but this man had the same build, the same mossy eyes.
“You’re August?” he said.
“Uh-huh. We need to wash these.” He held up the fine plates from the dining room. “They got all dusty.” He motioned with his head and started down the hill.
August moved the Queen Anne’s lace to see the hailstone, once again, just to be sure. Was it cold enough in here to keep it from freezing? It was no comfort to see ice and running water side by side. There was something wrong about that. He followed the man down the hill.
“It’s funny to see the farm like this,” the man said. He gestured towards the garden. “The rows so neat these days, someone really knows what they’re doing.”
“That’s Ms. Isbell,” August said. “She comes twice a week. Uncle Richard pays her, though she says all the cash goes right into a sock for when she’s dead. He knows it too. It’s a matter of respect, he says.”
“And his blood trouble?”
August looked at him sideways. That was family business. “Getting better now. They put him on the opposite of rat poison, or something like that. It makes his blood thicker until they can do a transplant.”
When August was small, he would take baths in the horse basin. It was just deep enough for him to stand with his toes on the algae-smooth bottom while his father drizzled hemp soap onto his head. Afterwards, he would jump into his sandals and run uphill buck-naked, feeling the air slide over the spearmint freeze on his skin.
The man smiled sadly and put his palm flat on the water like a floating leaf. “No need for soap, we just wanted to get the dust off,” he said.
There were only twenty or so plates. Enough for the immediate family and Katherine’s parents. August began dipping them into the spring water.
“Are you excited for the wedding?” he said, not knowing what to say.
“Are you?” the man said. “You’re carrying the ring, it’s your party.”
“I like weddings. I like…” This felt insufficient. “Clarke is very excited.”
“He should be. He gets to see you walk down the aisle.”
“I guess,” August said. “It’s like he forgot it. He left the ring behind on his own wedding day, and I have to bring it to him just in time.”
“So it’s just as much yours as his,” the man said. He smiled, and August smiled too.
“I don’t think so. I’m not marrying Katherine,” August said. He saw the man’s reflection in the troubled water and knew he was reading his thoughts. “I didn’t mean to sound like that,” he said.
“It’s okay. Take these.” He handed August the stack of clean plates. “It’s a special day, for both of you. Clarke gets to see you walk down the aisle. Remember that, will you? He’s your brother. He gets to see you walk down the aisle too. That’s the sort of thing that only happens once.”
He touched August’s shoulder, and August was not at all afraid. He nodded, to show the man he understood.
“That’s a good man,” he said. “Take those up to the house for me.”
August didn’t want to go, but he did. As he walked up hill, he thought of Hen and what she said about August and his ghosts from the future. There had been more and more of them, the closer he got to the wedding, but none of them had felt quite so familiar. He left the plates in the empty dining room, then sat with his legs hanging off the edge of the porch. To pass the time, he stuck his feet straight out and watched his toes grab at the air like strange little hands.
After enough of this, he stood up to find someone who could teach him to tie a tie.