The Secret of Flight

A Legends of the Fall story by Jess

one moment we're on our way to work,
the next we're work for someone else;
one moment we're making love, the next
we've become what someone else loves to do
  - from Pompeii by Mark Cox


Website: Too Early For the Circus
SUMMARY: They had little in common beyond Samuel.
NOTES: Tristan, Alfred, and Susannah Fincannon Ludlow were first created in Jim Harrison's "Legends of the Fall", a short story which was later made into a film by the same name. These characters belong to him. No infringement is intended, no profit is being made. Thanks to Older and kel. for their assistance.


One Stab likes to tell the story of the summer when Mrs. Ludlow was large with Samuel. The heat that year was unexpected and unrelenting, like a hard winter in reverse. It cracked the earth, the heat, and cooked everything including the boys. Mrs. Ludlow spent a solid two months within the house, which privately bothered the Colonel, though he never spoke of it. He was at a loss, too, about how to heal the bright red burns his sons acquired from hours spent under the sky. One Stab slathered their hands and faces with cold mud he'd dug from a near-dry stream and it kept them comfortable and protected them.

Tristan and Alfred were alone at the stream when the rains broke. At first the rains seemed like a gift for the thirsty land, causing the mud to run into their eyes and making everything seem filled with promise. But then the rains came harder, in thick sheets that made it almost impossible to see. The stream filled up in minutes and then was flooded, and in the confusion Tristan lost his footing and was swept away in the water.

Alfred was stricken with a deep terror. He ran along the bank of the stream, unsure of where his brother was or how far the water had carried him. But he knew the current was strong and that he was Tristan's only chance of survival.

He reached into the water and on instinct found his hand directly on Tristan's collar. Alfred pulled his brother from the water like a bear does a fish and once they were on the shore, Alfred held his brother in his arms for a very long time.

They were found that way by One Stab and the Colonel, who knew where the boys were and had set out from the house at the start of the rain. Stab pulled Tristan onto his horse and the Colonel rode in with Alfred, but the boys stayed quiet for the rest of the day and, when they were back in the house and bathed and warmed, did not leave each other's sides.


When Samuel was born, he became their focus. This didn't change when their mother rode East, absent for decades; but Tristan and Alfred grew further apart. Tristan once heard the Colonel remark to One Stab that his oldest sons were further apart than he and his wife. One Stab said the sand in their relationship would drift to the bottom in time. Tristan privately disagreed but was not troubled enough to make his thoughts or his presence known.

Tristan himself couldn't say what it was that caused the change in their relationship, though it all could be traced back to Samuel. After so much time spent leading Samuel down paths and trails - teaching him to ride, teaching him to be a Ludlow - Tristan and Alfred had lost each other. Tristan felt a little like he could fix his compass to Alfred if he tried, but time passed and it was easy to settle into this practice.

As they grew older and Samuel followed their mother East, Tristan and Alfred continued to live at the ranch and continued to evade each other. Tristan spent his days with One Stab and his nights much the same. He would occasionally disappear into town for stretches of time to keep the company of both hired and common women, which he afforded by selling the hides and teeth of the animals he and Stab had trapped together.

He and Alfred crossed paths only at meals, with no real regularity. Their father appreciated the formality of early dining, a holdover from his youth in Cornwall. But more often than not, Tristan couldn't be bothered to bathe and dress for biscuits and hen. He preferred the company of One Stab and the light of a fire, and coaxing venison from the bone with the gentle pressure of a hunting knife.

It was not as though Tristan had stopped loving his brother or even that they disliked each other. The situation was simply as it seemed, that they had little in common beyond Samuel, their father, the blood in their veins, and their love for their grand, wild land. This was true for many years. And then Susannah floated into the mountains in such a way that made a bashful breeze seem dangerous. The splendor of her became the fifth detail on their list of truths.


Alfred says he is leaving. He says it to Susannah on his way up the staircase and he says it to the Colonel as they stare at each other from opposite sides of the room. He utters not a word about it to Tristan, who knows Alfred, though heartbroken and humiliated, will never leave him without saying good-bye.

Daylight bleeds into a fiery sunset, and then another day passes. Alfred does not mention his plans to Tristan. He and Pet fill a small trunk with clothes for all seasons and some trinkets from his youth, but still, he stays.

Susannah slinks around the house like a wounded cat. Tristan hears her light, mindful footsteps when he is waking or preparing for bed. She is, perhaps, hiding from Alfred. If Tristan could wish her anything, it would be a stronger constitution. One Stab said, after Susannah's first night in the house, that she was made of breakable things. Tristan supposes now that she's earned her vulnerabilities, but also recalls a letter his mother wrote long before Samuel's death, outlining Susannah's fragility. He sees it in her always, though she tries to hide it from Alfred, though she continues to conceal things from even Tristan.

A stronger constitution is not the only thing he would wish for her, but then, there are also secret things he would wish for himself.

Alfred has taken to standing in front of the fireplace like the Colonel, inhaling smoke and discarding the remainder of his cigarette into the ashes. His eyes paint everything in the room, scenes Tristan has rarely recalled since he was a child. Tristan knows Alfred is seeing Samuel; Tristan is reminded of him in every part of the house, most of all in the long-untouched room which holds their father's book.

Before Tristan had made love to Susannah, she'd whispered, "before you left -" and he'd covered her mouth with his whole hand. He remembers the way Alfred had looked when he'd discovered then together. Tristan remembers more than he supposes Alfred gives him credit for.

Alfred's fingers tremble when he tugs the cigarette from his mouth, tossing it into the fireplace. His elbow slides against Tristan's when he walks out the door.

Their father rises from Susannah's side, touching her wrist as he leaves her. She watches him go, then looks at Tristan. He wonders what else happened before, and after, he and his brothers were at war.


Alfred closes his eyes like a newborn foal. He raises his hand, palm up, fingers stretched toward the sky. It is a gesture filled with hope, as though he wishes to cast his anger out from the tips of his fingers, turn it into a meadowlark. Tristan can see the bird for half a breath, soaring here through the box canyon, resting on Samuel's stone. Tristan shakes his head and the bird is gone.

Alfred draws a breath and drifts into a different stance. It is his daily routine. Decker told Tristan over wine and brown grouse that Alfred's done this since he returned from the war. One Stab spent the better part of a day out on the frozen land soon after Alfred returned home, teaching Alfred to stretch, Decker says. He says, too, that the stretching does a world of good for Alfred's leg and back. Tristan reckons it probably does.

He came to speak about dinner and to ask if Alfred would be joining them, but now he slips his hands into his pockets and squints into the sun and watches his brother.

The fabric of Alfred's shirt creases like a map in the Colonel's book. His hand closes and his shoulders straighten, and his chest rises and falls like the sharp incline of the land here, in this place where Samuel's heart is buried. He moves again and Tristan keeps silent and watches.

The wind blows slightly, just enough to make the hair on Alfred's forehead dance and stand out like feathers. Behind Tristan, his horse whinnies, and Alfred turns. Alfred's eyes are blue as the Montana sky and in them Tristan can see all the way back to the war. He says nothing, just looks at Tristan, and on the ride back to the ranch Tristan clings to his horse like there are Germans hiding in the trees.

He joins his father and the woman for dinner around the grand table. She takes the seat next to Tristan, her hand from time to time straying under the table to rest above his knee. The Colonel never speaks a word.


Tristan's nightmares are frequent, frequently the same, and always terrifying. He wakes in a sweat, skin prickled with chill, and Susannah's always there, her long hair falling across his face as she whispers, "It's all right." She never asks what he dreams about; he supposes she can guess.

Her nightmares are more unpredictable. Her silent weeping wakes Tristan because he feels the movement of the bed, and tonight her sudden scream pierces the night so violently that Alfred rushes in from his bedroom before Tristan can even take hold of Susannah's hand.

He stands unmoving in the doorway, his face white in the half-bath of the moon. Even in the dim light, Tristan can see the tears standing in his brother's eyes. Susannah reddens as her trembling worsens and she turns away from them both. The hairs on Tristan's neck are still tingling and he knows that Susannah's cry has woken One Stab, too. Tristan rises nude from the bed and circles it slowly. Alfred looks at his brother and takes a step back, and Tristan closes the door.


In the mornings, Tristan rides his horse up through the wilds on the edges of his father's property, kicking up mud until it's splattered onto his legs and covering the legs of his horse. It does not ease the burden in his heart, but it tires his body and he appreciates the ache of fatigue.

He's weary of the way Pet looks at him with her soft eyes and the way the Colonel is so quick not to blame him for Samuel. The only one who is as cruel to Tristan as he is to himself is Alfred. This is the best he's loved his brother in years.

Alfred's waiting in the stables when Tristan rides back in. He knows Alfred is waiting for him because he hasn't been able to ride worth a damn since his leg was broken. Tristan stands there and waits, too, and Alfred says, "Do you have any regrets?"

Tristan removes his hat and holds it in front of him like an offering. "There's little point in those."

"I know you have regrets, Tristan." Alfred's voice is quiet and does not at all match the darkness and color on his cheeks. "You drift through the house like a ghost and pull everyone into it with you."

Tristan grips the hat tightly. "Father's happy I'm home. And Susannah."

"Father is a fool," Alfred spits, and the color on his cheeks deepens.

"What do you want, Alfred?"

At this Alfred says nothing, and bows his head as if at prayer, as if he's ashamed.

Tristan exhales, and hangs his hat on the wall. "I don't regret Susannah any more than you do." And Alfred looks wretched, pitiable and small, and for this reason and maybe another Tristan reaches forward and places his hand along the side of his brother's neck.

Alfred doesn't start and doesn't look up. His skin is warm like a cat that has just woken from a long nap. He doesn't lean into it and he doesn't lean away, and he lets Tristan kiss him slowly.

The space between their bodies is wide and doesn't close, but Tristan brings his other hand against Alfred's neck too and Alfred grips Tristan's wrists like he's afraid to let go. Alfred kisses back with the force of a gale wind, the fierceness of his need surprising Tristan. They move backwards together until Alfred's tight in a corner and Tristan's leg is firmly between his brother's.

Tristan doesn't know why he's doing this except that sometimes it's difficult to keep the emotions of anger and fear and hatred and love from bleeding into each other and turning into lust. Susannah is up in the house but she's never, not even that first night, bent as easily beneath Tristan's fingers as Alfred does now.

Alfred closes his eyes against it and Tristan wonders how heavy it must feel to have the weight of another man against your stomach and your chest. Alfred presses his shoulders into the rough wall, favoring his leg, and his dick slants against his pale stomach.

Tristan opens his mouth and takes Alfred in, and is more gentle than he even means to be. Alfred takes handfuls of Tristan's hair and pulls it back, away from his face. Tristan looks up once and sees Alfred looking at him. Alfred drops his hands away at this and Tristan's hair falls over his eyes and mouth again.


When they were boys One Stab said the secret of flight is to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying any laws. Tristan tried in the box canyon for days, skidding right to the edge with his arms spread like an eagle's wings. He wept bitterly when he failed and was so disappointed that even the Colonel's face turned kind at his foolishness. Stab dried the tears on Tristan's cheeks with his wide thumb and said, in Cree, that Tristan was brave to try, but also that he might never be that fast.



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