I saw the red lights blinking in the distance as the sun faded behind the clouds. The red lights belonged to the windmills scattered throughout the cornfields, and from what I could see, there were hundreds of them. They were huge, hulking masses of white that were somehow beautiful and mesmerizing, and I found myself watching them intently as I drove past the fields on my left. Some of the windmill turbines were still while others turned slowly in the low wind, all of them in sync when it came to their flashing red lights. I wondered what the red lights were for: To warn planes? Birds?
The windmills reminded me of Jack, and I thought about our trip from northern to southern Indiana several years ago when he was only twelve. He was going with me to visit an old friend and it was an incredibly hot day in July. The AC in my car could barely keep the heat and humidity away and Jack had his sandals off with his bare feet up on the dashboard. As we passed through miles of green cornfields on both sides, the windmills came into view. Neither of us had ever seen windmills like that before, and it seemed like they went on for miles.
“Pull over,” Jack said with his hand pressed against the window. He pointed to a dirt path just up the road.
I turned onto the path and put the car in park. Jack dove out without putting his sandals back on, his eyes glued to the sky and the slowly-turning turbines of the windmills. Once I was out of the car, I couldn’t stop looking at them, either. They seemed so unnatural and foreign, their presence making me feel small enough that I might disappear into the ground like the rooted cornstalks that surrounded us.
“They’re like aliens,” Jack said. “Like we’re on a different planet.”
Back in the car, Jack turned the music up loud and sang and watched the “aliens” as we drove away from the green fields and baking heat.
“Planet X,” I told him, turning the music up a little louder. “Our own planet.”
The windmills I was driving past now were somehow different, the cornfields surrounding them the brown color of impending winter and months of midwestern cold. Here in upstate Ohio, these windmills seemed too far north to be immersed in the deep green of summer corn and humidity that makes it difficult to breathe. As I drove, the red flashing lights grew more distant behind me, the outlines of the windmills barely visible in my rearview mirror.
The summer Jack and I made the road trip through Planet X to visit my friend, I was twenty-one. I was home from college, and the summer months were the most I was able to see Jack since I had graduated from high school. Once the person who had spent the most time with him, I could feel us becoming less familiar with each other, his face looking more and more grown up every time I saw him. I could feel his skin and bones changing as he became a young man without me being there to see it happen.
After we got back home from our trip, the remaining month and half before school began went by quickly. In late August, as I packed the last of my things into the car, Jack jumped into the passenger seat.
“Don’t go,” he said, his face deeply tanned from a summer of baseball and bike riding.
“I’ll come back,” I said. “I’ll be back for you.”
I thought of this as I crossed the border from Ohio to Indiana and could no longer see the windmills or the red lights behind me. Almost five years had passed since I spent that afternoon with Jack driving through Planet X. I missed the smallness and sweetness of his face, the way the green flecks in his eyes were more visible than the brown ones. I thought about how much different he had looked as a child. A few months after I went back to college, after the Planet X summer, my father took Jack and moved from Indiana to Washington. After I graduated from college, I could have gone to Washington, but I didn’t. I stayed in Indiana for a bit, eventually moving to Ohio where the humid summers and corn were just as plentiful.
I thought of twelve-year-old Jack and how he loved to sing and listen to loud music, how he collected fishing hooks in the bill of his hat, how the windmills had seemed so strange to him that they must have been aliens. I hadn’t seen Jack in the five years since the windmills, and over the phone, he didn’t sound like the same young man anymore. He sounded too much like our father, and the photos I received in my email inbox showed that he looked a bit too much like our father these days, too.
Jack and I had different mothers. My father had divorced my mother when I was six and I went to live with him. My mother tried to see me at first, but our visits became less and less as time went on. My father married Jack’s mother a few years later and, soon after, Jack came along. He was born with black hair that lightened the older he got and skin that was so pale it was almost translucent. As a child, I used to trace the roadways of the veins that showed through his forehead, his cheeks, his ears.
Jack’s mother loved birds and taught Jack and I about them. We would sit on the porch and watch them dive and land, eat from the feeder in the front yard. As Jack grew older, he shared his mother’s love of birds, always trying to find and identify as many birds as he could. When Jack’s mother died shortly before his eleventh birthday, his interest in birds only grew. I felt responsible for helping him learn, so I bought books and spent time online teaching myself. On our long drive to see my friend the summer Jack was twelve, we watched the birds closely, pointed them out as they flew to and from trees and powerlines and glided through the thick, humid air.
“I think that’s a kind of thrush,” Jack said at one point, motioning to a bird hopping on the side of the road. Its belly was white with black spots.
“You’re so smart,” I told him, putting my hand on his head and ruffling his once-black hair that was now lightened to a blonde-brown.
As I drove further into Indiana, I thought of the last phone call I had had with Jack; it was the first time we had spoken on the phone in almost a year. I asked him how school was going, whether he had decided on a college or a major, asked if he was still dating Rachel, if he had taken on any new extracurricular activities.
“Oh,” I told him. “Oh, I saw a new bird the other day and I thought of you. It was beautiful.”
“Huh?” he said.
“A bird,” I told him. “It was beautiful.”
He was silent for a moment, then said, “Cool.”
After we hung up, I felt a heaviness in my stomach that radiated to and through my limbs.
Once, when Jack was about nine, we stumbled upon an injured blackbird while riding our bikes. He saw the flailing animal, pulled over and dropped his bike in the dust. As he kneeled next to the bird, he reached out to touch it, to calm it.
“Don’t touch that!” I shouted, enough to make him pull his hand back quickly.
“It’s dying,” he said. “It needs help.”
“You can’t touch it,” I said again. “It could have diseases.”
Back at home, it didn’t take much for Jack to convince his mother to go with him to the dying animal, to help heal its wounds. Hours later, they returned home, Jack proudly announcing how they had taken the bird to a local veterinarian, how they had saved its life.
“We saved her,” he said. “We saved her.”
Our own planet. It was strange driving back to Indiana—the place where Jack was born, the place with the windmills—knowing it had been so long since I’d seen him.
“Why haven’t you come to visit?” Jack said during our last phone call.
I didn’t know what to say, so I told him I worked too much, couldn’t take time off, had a boss I didn’t like. The truth was that I could never be his mother, that I would never have come back for him even if my father had stayed in Indiana. The truth was that I had always been the injured blackbird, flailing and flitting in the roadside dust and sand.
Kristin LaFollette is a writer, artist, and photographer and is the author of the chapbook, Body Parts (GFT Press, 2018). She is a professor at the University of Southern Indiana and serves as the Art Editor at Mud Season Review. You can visit her on Twitter at @k_lafollette03 or on her website at kristinlafollette.com.
Image: “jylinnicole22” by Courtney Bernardo