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Lily Tuck 

The Man Who Was Struck by Lightning 

 

The way Chanler Bigelow tells it, he was horseback riding in Montana. He was on a pack trip -- just a day trip -- with his wife, another couple, two wranglers, their horses, and two pack mules. The reason they had the two mules -- since it was a day trip and they just needed the one mule to carry the lunch – was that the second mule was being trained, and, instead of carrying food in the boxes strapped to its sides, the second mule, a young mule, carried weights. The day was one of those bright blue western days with fast moving fat white clouds, which if one knew about them, meant occasional gusty winds and rain. And when Chanler Bigelow and his party stopped for lunch, it did rain a little and they had had to find shelter under some pine trees. Mainly, however, the sky was blue and looking back on that day, this was one of the things that everyone remembered and remarked on. No one could ever have guessed that Chanler Bigelow would be struck by lightning.

Chanler Bigelow is an easterner; he is a banker, and to look at him it is hard to picture him in jeans, cowboy boots and hat. It is much easier to picture him as he usually is -- in a three-piece pin-striped suit melting in with the subway crowd in the morning and surfacing again in Wall Street where he works. His look is good, not handsome, and reliable; his investment advice probably won't make you a fortune but, by the same token, it won't loose you your shirt either.

Chanler Bigelow is also a man of habits. He and his family always take two vacations a year. On one, the winter vacation, they go to an island in the Caribbean; on the other one, the summer one, they go out west to the ranch in Montana. The same ranch, a family style ranch. Like the Bigelows, the other guests at the ranch have been going there for a number of years, so that each summer is like a mini reunion for them. They are able to catch up on each others' lives, on their children's lives, and this gives them a feeling of continuity. Everyone likes to hear what colleges the children are going to, whom the children are engaged to be married to, and, should a grandchild come for the first time to the ranch, everyone makes a big to-do. Although Chanler Bigelow is not yet a grandfather, one of the reasons he gives for going back to the ranch every summer is that it keeps his family together. Close.

On this particular day they were walking single file heading back toward the ranch after lunch. The wrangler who was leading them was also leading one of the mules while the other wrangler was bringing up the rear with the mule "trainee." Mules., Chanler was told, are more sure-footed than horses, they don't amble when they walk which is another reason why they are used as pack animals, but they are not friendly. The horses at the ranch, however, are extremely friendly and docile; it would take a lot to get them excited or riled up. They follow each other nose to tail no matter what is going on on top of them or around them, which was one of the things Chanler Bigelow would say to reassure Sally, his wife, who, even after all these summers was still a bit anxious about horseback riding. (But Chanler was right, the only instance he or Sally could recall of the horses spooking was when, a few years ago, they were riding along a mountain ridge, a ridge very much like this one, and two phantom jets from a nearby Air Force Base -- the jets were going so fast no one heard them coming -- had suddenly flown over the mountain. The two jets were only a few hundred feet above the ground, above the horses, and later Sally swore she could see the pilots' faces, also that they had flown so low on purpose, and instead of bucking or rearing the horses, as if paralyzed, had gone into a four-legged crouch; but no one had fallen off or gotten hurt.)

The horses had just begun to carefully pick their way down the zigzag path from the mountain ridge and no one was saying much or talking to each other as it was right after lunch and everyone was full from their meal as well as a bit sleepy (also it requires an effort to talk from horseback -- one has to half turn in the saddle and almost shout to be heard -- which, if the going is fairly steep as this was, is not such a good idea).

Lost in their own thoughts: Chanler was vaguely thinking about a deal he would try to work out in the fall; Sally was thinking about taking a long hot bath when she got back to the ranch as well as wondering whether the children were having a good time. And perhaps a bird, a big bird like a hawk, was circling high above their heads, but mainly, the sky had remained the same bright blue, and not one of them was in the least bit apprehensive.

"Literally, that bolt hit me right out of the blue," Chanler Bigelow was to keep saying later. "And when I came to, I couldn't see. I couldn't see anything. I was blind." All the other riders, including the two wranglers with their seats made of cast-iron were knocked or flung out of their saddles and they all lay strewn out on the mountain top like blown garbage. The first thing Chanler Bigelow's wife, Sally, saw when she picked herself up was Chanler's horse lying on his back, his four legs stiff as boards stretched straight out toward the sky, "just like in a cartoon." Next, she saw sparks flying from Chanler, "swear to God," Sally also said. Then, when Chanler's horse started to

move, to flail his legs around, Sally realized that he was trying to roll over and stand up, but since Chanler was lying next to the horse, she ran toward her husband. on account of the saddle's high pommel, the horse could only roll one way – toward Chanler -- and Sally frantically tried to pull Chanler out of the way of the horse. Fortunately, one of the wranglers must have seen what was happening (or else Sally called out to him, only she cannot remember, everything occurred so fast) and he ran over and helped Sally pull Chanler out before the horse rolled on top of him.

A few minutes later when Chanler came to, Chanler said, "Have we been in a car accident?""No," Sally said and started to cry.None of the other riders were seriously injured; they were shaken and, as they would discover later, bruised.

When, after a few more minutes, Chanler tried to get to his feet, he was so dizzy he nearly fell over, plus his head felt as if someone had driven a spike through the middle of it; but the main thing was that he could not see.

Sally and one of the wranglers had to lead Chanler Bigelow by the hand to his horse and they had to help him back on to the saddle. It was then, too, that the wrangler noticed that Chanler's horse -- a black gelding, and a horse Chanler requested and rode every summer, and, a horse, believe-it-or-not, called Thunder -- was acting peculiar. The horse was standing quite still, he was holding his head in an odd position, neither up nor down, straining the muscles on his neck to keep it there. When the wrangler walked in front of the horse and put his hand up to the horse’s head, in front of the horse’s eyes, the horse did not move. Like Chanler Bigelow, Thunder had gone blind. "It was very surreal," Chanler Bigelow said, "standing there on that mountain top, knowing exactly what everything looked like -- the pine trees, the valley below us with the trout stream running through it -- and not being able to see it or any other damn thing. I could feel that my horse was very warm underneath me, and I could hear Sally trying to control her voice and telling me that everything would be all right once we got back to the ranch. She called me ‘Chanie,’ the way she used to when we were dating, before we got married. I could also hear the wranglers and the other couple discussing what was the best thing to do: whether one of them should ride on ahead, faster, or whether we should all stay together. They decided that we should all stay together, but the way they were talking about it, to me, it sounded as if I was a million miles away or as if I was dead already. I also remember that someone said that the mules had bolted right away, while the horses, more reliable, I guess, had stayed put. And I remember that I pictured those mules in my head, galloping off, their big ears pressed flat back against their big heads, their packs banging against their sides, and maybe coming loose and hanging them up. Especially the young mule, I worried about the mule with the weights, the one they were training."

One of the wranglers led Chanler Bigelow and his horse to the ranch and it took them three hours to get back. At one point during the ride, Chanler noticed that his jeans, next to his crotch, were damp and he realized that he must have wet himself but he did not care and anyway the jeans dried off by the time he reached the ranch. Aside from that embarrassing fact and worrying about the mules, Chanler Bigelow claims that he does not remember anything about the ride back. The three hours went by in no time at all -- more like in three minutes. Not so surprising, Sally said, Chanler Bigelow was in shock.

Each time Chanler opened his eyes, he saw lights. Pulsating bright lights -- orange, red, purple lights. The lights made his eyes water, so he preferred to keep them shut. With one hand, he was holding on to the pommel of the saddle, with the other hand, since the wrangler was leading Thunder by the reins, Chanler was holding on to Thunder's mane. Thunder's mane was coarse, but it was also a comfort to Chanler, and he twined the horse’s hair around his fingers. He might even have spoken to Thunder, said something soothing to him like: "Atta boy, easy there boy."

Perhaps it was the pulsating bright lights or perhaps it was the repetitive turning motion of the ride down the mountain which brought back to Chanler Bigelow's mind how years ago, one night, when he was in college and was going out with a slender French girl named Eliane, he had driven round and round Louisburg Square. He had driven around the square twenty-one times – his age then. At that hour, three or four o'clock in the morning, Louisburg Square -- in fact, most of Boston -- was completely

deserted. Only the street lights shone. Not a single light from the old brownstone houses with their tidy front gardens and wrought-iron gates was on. The houses' occupants, as well, were all safely in bed and asleep as, outside, Chanler Bigelow effortlessly shifted the gears of his black Karmen Ghia (he double-clutched), and smoothly turned the mahogany steering wheel.

Chanler cannot remember what got him started driving around the square -- it was not the result of a bet or a dare, he and Eliane had just finished making love in Chanler's grandmother's vacant house, nor was it drink, he had only had a few beers; more likely it was a gratuitous gesture, an expression of how he had felt. Chanler could remember instead how once he got started driving around the square, he could not stop. Eliane was sitting next to him in the car -- it was before the days of seat belts -- her leg pressing into his, and she never said a word.

At about his sixth or seventh turn around Louisburg Square, one by one the lights in the windows of the old brownstones houses facing the square started to come on. Cautious bedroom lights. And although Chanler did not look up from driving the black Karmen Ghia -- it had rained recently and the streets were slushy with old snow -- he could picture the faces at the windows -- disapproving yet handsome New England faces with strong bones like his own and those of his ancestors, and the women, too, like his mother and grandmother with their hair, for once, let loose.

"Eleven, twelve," Chanler sang out.

"Eighteen, nineteen." Chanler never felt better in his life.

He made it just in time. He got to twenty-one just before someone in one of the old brownstones telephoned the police. He heard the sirens as he was driving on to Storrow Drive. Eliane still had not moved her leg or said a word.

When Chanler parked in front of her dormitory and opened the door to the black Karmen Ghia, she fell out. She had fainted.

Chanler saw Eliane again a few years later. They were both married by then -- Chanler to Sally, Eliane to a man Chanler did not know. They met by accident on a windy street corner in New York City. Before the introductions had even been completed, Eliane had thrown herself into Chanler's arms, she had pressed herself to him and kissed him. It was summer and Eliane was wearing a light cotton dress, but instead of arousing him, she had startled him. The force and the abandon of her embrace. Afterward, and for several more days, Chanler had felt the imprint Eliane's body had made on his. Like on a copper plate or a woodcut, it had burnt into his skin; he could feel her outline. He could run his fingers around it if he wanted to. From time to time, at work, he touched his lips.

From the ranch, Chanler Bigelow was taken by car to the hospital, another hour drive away. He spent the night under observation. By the time he got to the hospital, however, his sight had come back slightly. He could distinguish light and dark, and shapes. Sally, Chanler's wife, went to the hospital with him and, according to everyone. she behaved like a real trooper.

As for the mules, the older mule eventually trotted back to the ranch where one of the ranch hands caught him and unstrapped the empty boxes that had held the lunch. He then hosed the older mule down, brushed him, and turned him out in the corral. After the two wranglers got back with Chanler Bigelow and his party, they rode out again to look for the younger mule, the mule "trainee." Chanler had been right to worry, the young mule had broken a leg. The two wranglers found him standing shakily on three legs trying to reach down to eat the grass, he was less than half a mile from the ranch; one wooden box filled with weights was still dangling from his side, the other box lay smashed to smithereens a few feet away on the ground. One of the wranglers had had to shoot the mule "trainee."

Once he was back east and home, Chanler Bigelow made an appointment to see a well-known ophthalmologist. For although, by then, he could see normally again, he complained of a kind of "film" over his eyes. The ophthalmologist was frankly curious about Chanler's case and on his own he did some research. To Chanler, he cited a few instances of cataracts forming in the eyes of prisoners who had undergone the electric chair. It was an interesting phenomenon, he admitted, and one he wished he had more time to follow up. He could, however -- after examining Chanler Bigelow's eyes -- find nothing abnormal. And when, as an afterthought, Chanler told the ophthalmologist that Thunder, the horse he had been riding at the time, had also gone temporarily blind, the ophthalmologist laughed and said: "I wish you could bring him in for me to examine."

In the meantime, the ophthalmologist gave Chanler Bigelow a prescription for glasses saying that the glasses might alleviate the sense of strain or the "film" Chanler had complained of, but that in his opinion, this was not due so much to the lightning but, more prosaically, to age -- or as he put it, "the natural aging process."Since then, Chanler Bigelow has taken to wearing the glasses all the time and he ignores Sally's warnings that he is growing overly dependent on them. Uncharacteristically stubborn, Chanler takes off the glasses only when he showers and when he goes to bed, and Sally, were she to pay closer attention to Chanler in bed, might notice an unfamiliar look in Chanler Bigelow's eyes. The crazed look the mules may have had when they bolted and ran away, their packs banging against their sides, or the exultant look Chanler may have had when he and Eliane drove twenty-one times around Louisburg Square.


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