The narrator’s mother, the surviving half of a blindfold trapeze act, has lost her sight to cataracts. She navigates her home so gracefully, never upsetting anything or losing her balance, that the narrator realizes that the catlike precision of her movements may be the product of her early training. The narrator rarely thinks about her mother’s career in the Flying Avalons, however, because her mother preserves no keepsakes from that period of her life.
The narrator owes her mother her own existence three times. The first occurred well before she was born, when her mother, then Anna of the Flying Avalons, was performing with her first husband, Harold Avalon, in the same New Hampshire town in which she still lives. The narrator got the story from old newspapers. In contrast to the West, where the narrator has lived, New Hampshire weather can change dramatically without warning. On that pleasant June day, the local people came to the circus and enjoyed the various acts while awaiting the Flying Avalons, who gracefully dropped from nowhere, like sparkling birds. Unbeknownst to the audience that day, Anna was seven months pregnant.
The finale of the Avalons’ blindfold trapeze act always had them kiss in midair. On that fateful day, however, a powerful electrical storm arose at the very moment that they began their finale. While they were in midair, their hands about to meet, lightning struck the main tent pole and sizzled down its guy wires. As the tent buckled, Harry fell, empty-handed. Realizing that something was wrong, Anna tore off her blindfold. She had time to seize her husband’s ankle and fall with him, but she instead grabbed a guy wire, superheated by the lightning.
Anna burned her palms so badly on the wire that there were no lines on them after they healed; she was not otherwise injured until a rescuer broke her arm while pulling her from the wreckage. She was then confined to the town hospital for a month and a half, until her baby, a daughter, was born dead. Although her husband was, at his own request, buried at the place from which the family came, Anna had her child buried in the New Hampshire town. When the narrator herself was a child, she often visited the grave of her stillborn sister, whom she considered not so much a separate person, but a less-finished version of herself.
The second debt that the narrator owes to her mother goes back to her mother’s hospital time, when she met her second husband—a doctor, who became the narrator’s father. While he taught Anna how to read, they fell in love. In learning to read, Anna exchanged one form of flight for another; since then, she has never been without a book. After her husband’s recent death, no one remains to read to the blind woman, which is why the narrator—whose own life has failed—has returned home to her.
After marrying, the narrator’s parents settled on a local farm that her father had inherited. It was her mother who insisted on living there.
The narrator owes her existence to her mother, a third time, because of an event that occurred when she was seven. The farmhouse caught fire—probably from standing ashes—while she was home under a babysitter’s care. The sitter telephoned the alarm, but the narrator was already trapped by flames in her upstairs bedroom. When her parents arrived, volunteer firefighters were surrounding the house, but because an extension ladder was broken, there appeared to be no hope of reaching the narrator’s bedroom. A tall elm tree near the house had a branch that brushed its roof, but it appeared too slender to support even a squirrel. Nevertheless, the narrator’s mother stripped off her outer clothes and used the broken extension ladder to climb the tree, into whose branches she vanished. She reappeared, inching her way along a bough above the branch touching the roof. After standing on the branch momentarily, she leapt toward the edge of the roof, breaking off the branch with a loud crack.
On hearing a thump, the narrator looked out her window and saw her mother hanging from the rain gutter by her heels, calmly smiling. After entering the room, her mother clutched her daughter tightly against her stomach and jumped to the safety net below.