‘‘The Leap’’ begins with the narrator telling how her mother, Anna, is the surviving member of a blindfolded trapeze duo known as the Flying Avalons. Although now blind, Anna never stumbles or falls, never knocks over objects in the New Hampshire home she shares with the narrator, who has come back to her childhood home now that her father is dead and her mother cannot live alone.
Anna keeps no mementos of her former life in the circus. Everything the narrator knows about her mother’s past under the big top has been gleaned from newspaper accounts. Acknowledging that ‘‘I owe her my existence three times,’’ the narrator credits her mother’s survival of a circus accident as the first time.
Harry and Anna were members of a traveling circus, and on this given day, weather conditions were just right for a wicked thunderstorm. The Flying Avalons were the fourth act to perform that day. Harry and Anna flirted with one another as they blindfolded each other and took their places on their trapezes, high above the crowd. No one watching knew that Anna was seven months pregnant at the time; her stomach muscles were so tight that she barely showed a bump.
Just as the pair were in mid-flight—Harry upside down, hanging by his knees, arms open wide to grab on to Anna, and Anna just having dived from her bar toward her husband—lightning struck the main tent pole and cruised down the wires. Harry dropped to his death, blindfold still in place. Anna, rather than following her husband to the grave, tore off her blindfold and twisted her body toward one of the wires. Although the metal singed all the skin from her hands, her life was spared.
While trying to pull her from the mess that lay on the ground, a rescuer broke Anna’s arm and caused something to fall and knock her unconscious. She was rushed to the hospital, where she remained for a month and a half before giving birth to a stillborn baby girl.
Although Harry was buried in the circus cemetery, Anna’s daughter was buried just around the corner from her New Hampshire home, the home in which the narrator grew up. The narrator mentions that she never really thought of the girl as anything but a less finalized version of herself, but that she often visited the grave as a child.
Anna met her second husband while recuperating in the hospital. Having spent time in the Air Force during the war—which war, the narrator never says—he became an expert at setting broken arms and legs. He stayed at Anna’s bedside during her recovery, and she regaled him with stories of her life and travels. Always having wanted to travel himself, he considered these stories a gift. In return, he taught the illiterate Anna how to read and write.
Reading quickly became Anna’s favorite pastime, and when her husband, the narrator’s father, dies, the narrator comes home from her life in the West to care for and read to her mother. The house is an old farmhouse that the narrator’s father inherited and is located in the same town in which the circus accident occurred. Although her husband never wanted to stay in such a small town, Anna loved the old house, and he loved her, so they made a life there. And that is the second time Anna was responsible for her daughter’s existence, when she met and married her father.
The house caught fire when the narrator was just seven, although no one knew for sure how it started. Anna and her husband were gone, and the babysitter had fallen asleep. She was awakened by the smoke and used the phone to call for help. By the time the narrator’s parents arrived, volunteers from the town were trying to put out the flames. They were getting ready to try to rescue the narrator, not realizing the only staircase to her bedroom was already destroyed.
The narrator woke up to find the house on fire, but she kept her wits about her and left the door closed, knowing what awaited her just beyond. She put on her robe and sat down on her bed to wait for rescue.
Anna, standing below her daughter’s bedroom window, knew there would be no rescue unless she took it upon herself to make the attempt. When she asked her husband, who was about to rush to the other side of the house, to unzip her dress, he didn’t understand. She explained what she planned to do, but he couldn’t seem to make the zipper work. So Anna stripped right there in front of all the neighbors and the volunteers, climbed up a ladder to the top of a tree, and crawled along a skinny, brittle branch toward her daughter’s window.
She stood, swaying on the fragile bough, and made a death-defying leap in the dark to an even smaller branch, one so skinny it was the size of Anna’s wrist. As she grabbed hold of the branch, it cracked, and the crowd below was temporarily unable to see through the dark to locate where Anna had fallen. As it turned out, she was hanging by her heels from the rooftop gutter. And she was smiling. The narrator was not surprised to see her upside-down, smiling mother, for she knew that Anna lived ‘‘comfortably in extreme elements.’’ Anna tentatively tapped on the window and gestured to her daughter to open and prop it up. Anna then swung down, caught the ledge, and crawled through the window. All the time, she was wearing nothing but her underwear. Her daughter was embarrassed by this, yet relieved at the rescue.
As the narrator held on to Anna, she realized that something her mother had told her years ago was true: there is time to do many things while falling through the air. While mother and daughter quickly fell through the darkness and into the safety of the fireman’s tarp below, the narrator realized she was thinking, noticing the wind, the cold, wondering what might happen if they missed their target. But then she forgot to be afraid and instead felt only the safety of Anna’s hands and body wrapped around her, felt her lips on her head, Anna’s heartbeat in her ears as she pressed her head into the familiar comfort of her mother’s body.
And that is the third time Anna ensured her daughter’s existence.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Louise Erdrich, Published by Gale Group, 2010