A rower for years, Kate Gray coached crew and taught in an East Coast boarding school at the start of her teaching career. Now after more than twenty years teaching at a community college in Oregon, Kate tends her students’ stories. Her first full-length book of poems, Another Sunset We Survive (2007) was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and followed chapbooks, Bone-Knowing (2006), winner of the Gertrude Press Poetry Prize and Where She Goes (2000), winner of the Blue Light Chapbook Prize. Over the years she’s been awarded residencies at Hedgbrook, Norcroft, and Soapstone, and a fellowship from the Oregon Literary Arts. Her poetry and essays have been nominated for Pushcart prizes. She and her partner live in a purple house in Portland, Oregon, with their sidekick, Rafi, a very patient dog.
In her debut novel, Carry the Sky, Kate takes an unblinking look at bullying. It’s 1983 at an elite Delaware boarding school. Taylor Alta, the new rowing coach, arrives reeling from the death of the woman she loved. Physics teacher Jack Song, the only Asian American on campus, struggles with his personal code of honor when he gets too close to a student. These two young, lonely teachers narrate the story of a strange and brilliant thirteen-year-old boy who draws atomic mushroom clouds on his notebook, pings through the corridors like a pinball, and develops a crush on an older girl with secrets of her own. Carry the Sky sings a brave and honest anthem about what it means to be different in a world of uniformity.
Excerpt from Carry the Sky
Forest Avenue Press
© Kate Gray 2014
From “Taylor / Small with Him”
The chapel, its semicircular arches intersecting, the power of Romanesque architecture to overwhelm with the sheer weight of stone, is a tomb. Nothing in the contract required me there, but expectations in boarding schools are like ribs; the bones don’t show, but they confine every breath. The cornfields surrounding St. Timothy’s were mud and motion and spiraling bugs this Sunday in late September. Cut short, the stalks stuck up like a bad crewcut. My feet, out of my shoes, were quiet in the warm mud of the path, and the flocks of geese didn’t know I was there. The fog in the morning helped get me into the middle. The geese snuffled while they dug down. In the middle of the brown field with black and white and gray geese, feasting on grain and honking, I was one of them, a member of a flock, following heat and wind and food. Four swans in the far corner of the field, a clump of white interrupted the brown, and the geese didn’t mind.
In the middle of the field was a red patch the size of a moving box or a cooler or a sleeping bag. It wasn’t the color of mud or corn stalks or geese. If I tried to check it out, the geese would launch.
In the first days after I arrived at St. Timothy’s, I made them. I sprinted right into the middle, ran flat out. The birds took off. Their wings pounded, and their voices went up an octave.
That’s what happened just then, but not because of me.
The red thing moved. First a hand came out, then it sat up. The geese went mercury. The red thing was little. Its stretch scared them. It was that student, Kyle, the one the other kids called weird, coming out from under a red blanket. His hair was sticking out, and he stretched his arms way above his head, let out a monster yawn.
And after the yawn, he dropped his hands into his lap and turned into a rag doll. After looking around, he looked straight ahead, and my maroon-and-gray windshirt stopped him. He didn’t move. The birds were rising and swarming into the next field.
Then, there was light on dark. His white hand moved back and forth, right-left, right-left, in front of the red blanket. Quick little waves. His hand a little curled.
I waved back. Something small in me was small with him.
And I stood there in my windshirt. The whole world went mud and cloud and swirling birds.
Rolling forward on his knees, he put his hands into the mud and lifted himself under the red blanket to his feet. Wrapped in the blanket, he walked toward me, a cocoon walking itself.
I stepped over the crewcut stalks, and we met in the middle of the field. The geese still frantic and folding into each other. Plenty of fields, corn and soy, and they got mad at this one. This was their field, and this kid was in it.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“Praying.” He said it to the dirt, and then looked up at me. His eyes were blue, the pale blue when clouds burn off the sky.
“Then why aren’t you in chapel?”
“Why aren’t you in chapel, Ms. Alta?”
“Hey, attendance is mandatory for students,” I said.
“Attendance is mandatory for all chapel services.” He quoted the school catalog. The blanket made a circle around his head. He repeated my words the way I said them.
“Enough,” he said. My sisters and I did this too often growing up. I took a big breath in.
“Look, you’re going to get in trouble if you spend the night out here,” and he started in, repeating me.
“Cut it out,” I said, and I reached for his shoulder. As my hand was about to touch him, he jumped back and toppled over. Landing on his butt, his feet in the air, he almost did a backwards somersault. He’s so little and light. He didn’t say anything, just rolled on his side and curled in the blanket, his head tucked in, the blanket over him, like he was waiting for something else from me. Maybe a kick. I bet older kids kick him. And his peers, Second Formers. Kids from elementary school. Everybody.
Stepping to his side, I squatted down. “Hey, Kyle,” I said. He didn’t move under his blanket. He’s so little, little like a bug curled up, a curled-up bug a bird would pluck whole and swallow.
“Kyle, what’s wrong?”
He didn’t say a word.
The fog had already passed over this field and left everything wet. I sat down cross-legged, next to Kyle. He was a red lump in the brown of the field. He didn’t whimper or sigh or shiver. Pretty soon my butt got wet, and the backs of my jeans got soaked. Pretty soon the geese settled into the next field, and Kyle and I were the only two people in the world.
“Sorry I tried to touch you,” I said.
He didn’t move.
“This is a great place. I go here, and I can leave everything behind,” I said. Why I was talking to this weird little kid I didn’t know, this thirteen-year-old wrapped in a blanket in a middle of a cornfield. “Everybody’s always around. There’s no place to think. I can think when I’m rowing, but it has to be in the middle of a lake when everyone’s working hard, when everybody’s pulling so hard the boat feels light. I can really think then.”
A beetle crawled from under one of the pieces of corn stalk. It waddled because it was so big. Its brown was so brown, like the middle of eyes.
“But I can’t make that happen when I need it,” I said. “Today I need to think.” The beetle crawled under another pile of grass.
“About what?” I heard from under the blanket. No movement.
“About everything,” I said more to the beetle than the boy. “Well, we have a head race in a few weekends in Philadelphia, that’s a three-and-half-mile race, and the Schuylkill’s where my friend died, and the crew isn’t rowing together, yet, like Carla isn’t matching Buttons’s back, Carla’s really strong and all, but the whole boat has to move uniformly, and anyway, I have your papers to grade.” I’ve said too much.
“Don’t assign them,” Kyle said under the blanket.
Smart kid. “You’re funny.”
“Am not.” The blanket was red over the lump of his head. “Do you like Mr. Jeffers?”
I couldn’t see his eyes, if they went clear like he knew nothing, or if they smiled like he knew something about Alex and me in the bathroom at the faculty party. Maybe his eyes didn’t land on anything, and he was dropping depth charges, seeing what came up.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “No.”
“Mr. Song?” This kid is younger than I thought.
“I like all the faculty, the men and the women.” My stomach felt gray like the sky right after saying that. “But not in the way you’re thinking.”
“How do you know what I’m thinking?” His voice came out quiet from under the blanket.
“You’re right. I don’t.”
“Mr. Song likes Carla.” There was no question in his voice, kind of a statement like a stalk laid out in the cornfield.
“And you know this because . . .”
“Like, at dinner, he looks where she’s sitting. They walk around a lot, sometimes at night. And he folds things for her and leaves them in trees.”
“He does not.” It’s weird what this kid sees.
“Does to.” He sat up, stripped the blanket off his head. “A week ago, I saw Mr. Song put one in a tree by the boathouse. It was a dinosaur. I got it.” His face was red. His eyes were big now, not squinty.
“You took it?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think it would get anyone in trouble. I just wanted to see,” he said. He looked at me square. His eyes were close together. “Honest, I wouldn’t have if I’d known.”
“No one’s in trouble,” I said, “but you said he left it for Carla.”
“It was a good guess after you talking about her rowing and uniform motion,” he said. Under the blanket something rustled around. Then, a hand reached out, and a tiny dinosaur was in it, the tight folds, the bright colors of paper, almost silk. “I put two and two together.”
His palm was a sweaty pillow with brown in the creases. The origami dinosaur looked soft when it should have looked crisp. The purple pattern wasn’t distinct against the white background, the white not so white in Kyle’s hand.
“Yeah, well, don’t jump to conclusions,” I said. I leaned toward him and gave the side of his arm a little tap. I wanted to grab the dinosaur, ruin any evidence that Jack and Carla were something. And I didn’t know why I wanted to shut the little guy up.
That touch on his arm shocked him again. The dinosaur launched out of his hand. I ducked, and the dinosaur landed in my lap.
“Kyle,” I said, “it’s okay.” And I picked the dinosaur up. “Why are you so jumpy all the time?”
His eyes looked where the dinosaur was. He said, “There’s no time left.”
“You don’t have much time when a nuclear bomb goes off, like if you’re within two miles of the epicenter!” He was talking really fast, like he was six years old and saw a car crash. “A few seconds,” he said. “That’s it. Ninety-eight percent of the population will be wiped out. And if you live more than a mile away, you don’t stand a chance, either. Death comes slower, and you wish you died quick. First, you go blind from the flash, and then, the wind, and then, the skin starts to drip off.”
“Yeah, and listen.” His eyes got bigger. “You should know. You gotta be ready. You got to do something.” He leaned toward me as if he might grab my windshirt, hang on, shake me.
This kid is weird. But when he talks about death, he’s like a sculler at the start line, total focus.
“So,” I said, “we’re all going to die.”
“Not like that. Imagine Mr. Song, with radiation boils all over his body, and if he and Carla got kissy-face, his lips come off on her lips.” Horrible. This kid is creepy.
“Wow, Kyle,” I said, “you’re out of line. What’s going on?”
A breeze came down the crewcut rows. It didn’t move the stalks and grass; it moved strands of Kyle’s blond hair, the strands that weren’t stuck to his greasy head.
“I’m scared,” he said. “I don’t want the geese to die.”
The flocks of geese in these fields made the ground come alive. Their way of feeding and calling made a hum, something steady. “Why are you talking about death?” His face jerked left like a machine, then jerked right. Without looking at his face, I put the dinosaur on his blanket.
“Why do you like rowing?” he asked. The question was drum roll, cymbal crash, horn.
I didn’t answer because I didn’t know.
It was something to do with not wanting to feel pain but wanting to know pain. Like wanting to know fire. You light it in front of you, the colors all over the place, the heat all over your skin, but you don’t want to burn or anything. I don’t know, but I understand him a little more in the middle of that field, with geese all over everywhere, geese getting along with swans, and all of us finding a place to land.