“K-120” by Brett Finlayson

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Olympian ski jumpers perform on famous $6,000 imported snow, New York Public Library

 

1.

I didn’t used to tell the ski jumpers about the time they have to endure at the top, but in the more than thirty years I’ve worked at the Lake Placid Olympic Jumping Complex—meeting the competitors at the base of the K-120 long jump and directing them to the start—I’ve come to realize that it’s better to get this information on the table immediately. Otherwise, they grow restless. We all do. And that’s when the real accidents happen. I was here for the worst of them, too: Vladimir Aslakhanov, 1982, when the three-time Russian gold-medalist came off shallow and landed on his chest during an exhibition. The official cause of death was a detached aorta. But, eventually, I learned the truth.

Later that same winter, after the town had endured an especially cold few weeks, the ghost of Vladimir Aslakhanov came and sat at the end of my bed. He said I was the only person he knew here. His complexion had blanched beneath a blue, translucent film. Somehow, his beard had continued to grow, but it hardly seemed to have any weight. The lightest jet of air lifted the long, gray strands at an angle away from his face.

“What was it like, Vladimir Aslakhanov?” I asked him on his visit. “Did it take long? Was it painful?”

“You were there. You saw the whole thing,” he said.

I had to remind him that I couldn’t see anything. “The landing was covered in fog, don’t you remember?” I said. “It always is. The spectators’ breath makes a roof over everything.”

“Then you’re lucky, Donna Metzger,” he said.

That’s when he got up from my bed and stood over me. We watched one another for a long time. Maybe minutes, maybe hours. I don’t know.

Finally, I asked him: “Did I step on your skis, Vladimir? Did I begin a chain reaction that, by the time you reached the takeoff, had stretched to a point of no return?”

“Don’t blame yourself too much,” he said, walking over to my closet, where he pinched the terrycloth belt of my bathrobe. “Nobody’s perfect. As a person,I made so many mistakes and hurt so many people on my path to glory that nobody loved me in the end. Nobody wanted to be around me. I cheated and lied. Whatever it took to be the best.”

As he spoke, Vladimir Aslakhanov paced around the room, casually inspecting my belongings. He picked up a hairbrush, smelled a bottle of lotion, checked his reflection in the small mirror on the inside lid of my jewelry box, but underneath everything there was an anxious tenacity— as if he were searching for something he was embarrassed to admit he’d forgotten. Then, returning to my nightstand, he grabbed an old framed photograph from the 1980 Winter Olympics.

In the picture, I’m standing with the American coach, Bob Whitaker. Bob and I had fallen in love during those three weeks together in the Village. We had more in common with each other than with the athletes we revered. A short, sturdy man, Bob, like me, had needed to find a back door into the sport. We passed those long weeks discussing the history of ski jumping and where the sport was headed. We took long walks on the ice covering Lake Placid, talking under the shadow of Whiteface Mountain. And in the evenings, we sat in the Palace Theater on Main Street, our heads buzzing with red wine and our arms touching in the dark. But like most things in life, our affair had only ended in sadness and pain when he’d had to return to his wife and family in Utah.

Vladimir Aslakhanov stared at the photograph for a long time before surrendering it to its place beside my clock. His expression, in the end, registering nothing.

“All that mattered to me back then was that I made a name. I never jumped for anyone or anything other than myself,” he said. “If only my parents had stopped me. Or if I’d listened. I don’t know. I hardly knew my family.I don’t think I ever loved them.”

“That’s all in the past now,” I told him. “You were young and didn’t know any better. ”

“I hope you’re right,” said Vladimir Aslakhanov. “But either way, I paid a heavy price, and you can’t think too much about me. The important thing is to forgive yourself so that you can be a complete person for all those who still depend on you.”

He reached down and touched my forehead, and his hand was like ice.

“But why should anybody depend on me, Vladimir Aslakhanov?”

“What I’m about to tell you is difficult to believe, Donna Metzger,” said Vladimir Aslakhanov, staring now at his blue hand. “But you must believe it.”

“I cross my heart.”

“Fifteen meters before the K-line on the big jump, there is an invisible hole,” he said. “This hole is not large, maybe the size of a pea, but it is a vortex in which the universe turns inside out, and anybody who passes through it will end up just like me.” He paused for a moment and ran his beard through his fingers with the slow deliberation of a man weighing his words. “They will choose to end up like me.”

“Vladimir Aslakhanov, this doesn’t make any sense,” I said.

But he was already shaking his head at the memory returning to him.

“I found myself suddenly naked, distended in a fluidic whiteness,” he said. “The space was incredibly bright. I had no idea how I had gotten there or how much time had passed. Slowly, the light began to change color. This occurred so gradually it was impossible to see the transition in real time. It only became apparent when I was struck by the spontaneous memory of something different. The cycle went: white, blue, green, orange, red. The loop was unyielding. Somehow, I could remember the end I had not reached, the end relative to the point in which I had entered, and this redness darkened in my memory, became a current of warm air, and my eyes could no longer focus. I could not tell up from down. I was standing at the center of infinite time and infinite space, which of course has no center. In all directions were versions of myself—one as a famous ski jumper, one as a murderer, one as my own father. We were each one face of a compound eye, but each face displayed an infinite number of faces. There was even a version of myself as you, Donna Metzger.”

Vladimir Aslakhanov took both my hands, and a chill spread through my arms.

“I saw your entire childhood,” he said, “your body wracked by disease, the wet eye of your lover staring back at you from a small plane covered in ice. I saw everything. I know that Rheumatoid Arthritis has robbed your life of children.”

His smile was so gentle that I was compelled to look away.

“I could feel my life slipping away. Disappearing. But even then, I could have held on if I had wanted to. I could have returned. I could have landed in the center of a breathless crowd of onlookers. But there was no peace in that for me anymore. There was only this anomalous memory, a house with a hallway that leads to a front door into the back of the house. I wept,” he said, “I wept because there was no way back to the mystery. This is the secret of the dead, We live out an infinite number of choices, outside of time, but one of these has to be the choice to die. We all arrive herebecause we want to.”

I couldn’t speak for a long time. I was sad and terrified. Elated. All I could do was stare up into the face of Vladimir Aslakhanov, his expression turning and turning beneath a still and colorless membrane. In the end, I could only manage a whisper:

“Is this madness?”

“You promised you would believe me,” he said.

“I do believe you. I just don’t understand. How does the vortex work?”

“It is an everted sphere,” he said.

“But an everted sphere is a sphere.”

Then Vladimir Aslakhanov bent over and kissed me on the lips. There was a weight behind his mouth that nearly crushed my bones.

“See? You understand perfectly, Donna Metzger.”

The two of us became quiet for a long time, and I could feel the cold wind curling off his skin like air escaping a freezer.

“But what can I possibly do in the face of such a powerful force?” I asked, already feeling defeated.

“You can support the ski jumpers. You can prop up their spirits. You must understand, this hole is easily avoided. Only one who has lost total confidence can fall inside.” Here he paused, his line of sight protracted into the distance. “In the end, none of us can be saved. You are right about that, Donna Metzger. But even a little time is no small miracle.”

Sensing our visit was coming to an end, I asked him what I’d wanted to ask all along:

“Do you ever see Bob Whitaker over there?”

It was the first time I’d spoken the name out loud in years. News of his cancer had reached me through the grapevine. I’d wanted to go to his funeral, had even packed a bag, but I didn’t want to offend his family. In the end, I kneeled at the foot of a memory.

Vladimir Aslakhanov’s features stood out in sharp relief, the light reentered his eyes, and for a moment, it seemed like everything had become clear to him again.

“Of course, Donna Metzger. I see everybody who is over here, including Olaf Rye, the great Norwegian lieutenant who invented our sport in order to inspire his men with a performance of great courage.” Which filled me with happiness, because here was the greatest Olympic ski jumper of all time implicating me in the sport I loved so much. I started to cry, and it was as if my entire life stretched out below me in an endless river, the water tumbling over stones, grabbed at by eddy lines, forced through sieves in those moments when the world had threatened to close in. And as I rose higher and higher, I could see for the first time that the river was actually as still and solid as a block of glass.

Then Vladimir Aslakhanov told me to take good care, that the ski jumpers needed me. And with a nostalgic smile, he said he loved me in his own language:

“Люблю тебя всем сердцем, всей душою.”

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Der berg Fuji, Kamsaka Sekka, Rijksmuseum

2.

Ever since that night, I’ve dedicated my life to Vladimir Aslakhanov’s appeal, ferrying hundreds of unsuspecting ski jumpers across that invisible void. And this secret mission is the context in which I now assume custody of Seung Ki-moon, the youngest professional ski jumper in the world, thirteen years old, from South Korea.

I’m immediately struck by his face, which has the stunned countenance of a field mouse. Eyes wide-open. Muscles twitching. The beginning hairs of an adolescent mustache rise tentatively from his lip, misty with sweat. Having only seen him in photographs, I’m surprised by how small he looks as he hauls two gigantic skis into the elevator, which begins to sway mercilessly the moment we leave the ground. According to Olympic lore, when the lift was installed in 1979, the engineers configured the wrong counterweight. The truth is, the entire structure is bending in the wind.

Nervous, either nervous from the elevator ride or by being tasked  as the youngest ski jumper to ever attempt the K-120 in a World Cup event, Seung Ki-moon zips up his suit and begins tightening the buckles on his boots, whispering a checklist of instructions to himself as he fidgets with his equipment.

“Any tighter and you’ll cut off your circulation,” I say, stopping his arm for good measure. “We haven’t even reached the beginning, Seung Ki-moon. We still have a lot of time.”

“Who are you?” he asks, his inflection made strange by his limited English.

“I’m your guardian angel,” I say, and then I let out a laugh. “Loosen up. I work here at the facility.”

His brown eyes aren’t exactly skeptical, but they’re cautious.

“I’ve followed your career with a lot of enthusiasm. I think you have a chance to be the greatest ski jumper of all time,” I add, which seems ridiculous, considering South Korea has only had a national team for three years. But the writing is on the wall for anybody who’s paying attention. “As soon as you break the minimum safe body max index, you’re going to shatter every record in the universe.”

With these words, the aluminum doors slide open, creating a vacuum, and a blast of cold air rushes into the building from the portal at the top of the jump. Seung Ki-moon doubles down on his grip, shifting his skis to his shoulder. My ears pop, and my voice seems suddenly alien as I call for him to follow me into the concrete corridor, where the metal guts of the ski jump snake through the interior. This is where the cosmetic funding ran dry. Like the athletes, only the outside of the building remains on display.

We make our way towards the launch room, through a twisting, photograph-lined hallway that feels longer than possible given what the jump looks like from below. A trick played on the eye by the immense height of the tower and the odd geometry of an edifice that seems more appropriately qualified to lift off the earth and explode into outer space.

One by one, I explain the photographs on the wall: a black and white overhead shot of the Norwegian, Birger Ruud, seconds after he’s left the takeoff of the K-120; a wide angle of the U.S. Team marching across the ice in the opening ceremony of the ‘32 games, with then governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, looking on; and a landscape taken on the final day of the 1980 Winter Olympics. In this last photograph, there is an Olympic flag on the extreme left of the composition and the Olympic torch, extinguished, stands in contrast on the far right. The space between the two relics seems forsaken, the snow smudged with grease, the stands vacant, and in the background, the red mountaintops glow in a husk of black mist, as if the world has suddenly caught on fire.

Seung Ki-moon walks so gently, I turn around every so often to make sure he hasn’t gotten separated. Each time, there he is, his skis floating above his straight black hair, his bones rolling sharply underneath the elastic spandex of his jump suit.

Then we reach the portrait of Vladimir Aslakhanov.

On the ten-year anniversary of his death, the Russian Embassy donated the painting to the Olympic Museum—one of many gifts to mark the end of the Cold War. To deliver it, they sent a low-level dignitary whose career, undermined by scandal, had made him unfit for domestic assignments. He knew nothing about Vladimir Aslakhanov or the sport of ski jumping. By the looks of him, he knew nothing at all. To add insult to injury, most in attendance had taken full advantage of the complimentary vodka before the reception and were in a state of disrepair. I remember the afternoon was incredibly cold. As the temperature plummeted, I prayed the ghost of Vladimir Aslakhanov would arrive and bend that crowd to its knees, but of course that never happened, and one by one the attendees filed out—few having even heard of the man whose legacy they were there to celebrate—but not before a team of maintenance workers had hauled the painting away to the museum’s archives. Only through sheer tenacity and some mildly delinquent behavior did I manage to reclaim the portrait and install it in its rightful station at the heart of the K-120.

“Before your time, he was the greatest of them all,” I tell Seung Ki-moon as we stare into the painted face of Vladimir Aslakhanov. “He trained in the Soviet School, but he had his own signature. A style rooted in the ancient Cossack war dances he’d learned from his grandfather.” Turning now to look at Seung Ki-moon, I take full stock of his profile. “In some ways, you remind me of him.”

Seung Ki-moon doesn’t answer at first, and I notice suddenly that his mood has changed. His posture stiffer.

“You think I have not watched that video?” he says, the color receding from his cheeks.   And I realize what a fool I am for thinking that, young as he is, he wouldn’t recognize the only person to die here.

“Then you won’t make the same mistake,” I say.

But I can tell the damage has been done, and for a solitary, horrifying moment, I catch a glimpse of a nature within myself—something slimy and black and buried so deeply that already it’s difficult to say for sure if this thing is actually a part of me or if it is only passing through.

Without another word, I usher Seung Ki-moon into the launch room, where he confronts the altitude of the K-120 long jump for the first time. Outside the wraparound, plate glass windows, iron clouds descend against the basement of the Adirondack Mountains. The Sentinel Range lies across the western horizon under a veil of early snow. The people below are tiny flecks of dirt. Even the cars snaking through the hills on Route 3 look like toys that could be turned over by a finger.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “it only looks much higher from this angle. You’ve been preparing your entire life for this.”

But before the words have left my mouth, the young Korean has planted his head in a trashcan. When he turns around again, the embarrassment on his face makes him seem even younger than before, as if that were possible.

“That’s OK, Seung Ki-moon. It happens all the time,” I tell him, which is a lie.

Wiping his mouth, he clips into his bindings and slowly approaches the edge, his petite body shivering with terror. With no time to waste, I point out the monitor that will switch green when the track is clear, the monitor that never stops counting down, and I ask him to confess.

“Confess?”  His teeth are chattering, but it’s impossible to say if it’s from the temperature, which has dropped thirty degrees, or nerves. “I do not understand?”

“Every secret you carry is weighing you down,” I tell him. “The bigger the secret, the heavier it is. You still have a few seconds. Tell me. What are you hiding?” Seung Ki-moon looks at me, then at the jump in front of him, then at me again. I can tell he thinks I’m crazy, but it’s just as well. I gave up caring about myself a long time ago. Now I only care about the ski jumpers. “Your life depends on it.”

His face flashes, as if he has seen a vision from a nightmare he’s had over and over again, a nightmare about himself.

“I am afraid,” he says, finally, this time in his native Korean (나는 두려워요), and though I can’t speak a lick of anything but English, years of working within the arena of professional ski jumping have granted me with a rare gift—with the help of the athletes’ body languages, I can understand them perfectly, even when their words are entirely foreign.

“What are you afraid of, Seung Ki-moon?”

“I am afraid that I will crash.”

“Stop wasting time,” I say. “Tell me. What are you really afraid of?”

At first, he only stares at me. Then he takes a deep breath.

“When I was in third class, Hyundai opened a ski resort in Muju, the town where I lived,” he says, still in Korean, now staring off into the space just above the jump, which is exceptionally dark  against the amber glow of the lights below. “My elementary school called us all into an assembly, and the principal told us that Hyundai and our government were looking for young people that would become great ski jumpers. They dreamed that someone from our elementary school would learn the art of ski jumping and become a star in an Olympic Games hosted in Korea. This person would make everyone proud. Hyundai put lots of money into the program. All the students at my school tried out. I participated because I wanted to make my body strong because I was weak. When I started, I was so scared that I would often cry. But, as I achieved my goals, I also felt excitement. And I became the athlete I am today. I got stronger and flew farther each timeand my coaches and my family, and the managers at Hyundai, they all came to watch me practice. They said that I was exactly what they were looking for, and they were certain that I would not stop until I was the best. But what did they know about ski jumping? They were so much older than me, but I already knew more about this sport than all of them combined. Do you understand?” he says, his tone more direct now, almost accusatory. “I knew that I would reach my limit, but they believed there was nothing I could not do. So I did whatever they asked. Every new jump? Every new medal? Every new record? It only made them more confident. And now they believe I will be the youngest ski jumper to ever compete on the big hill in a World Cup event.” Shaking his head, these last few words seem almost whiney, but then I realize they have merely been spoken without hope. “I am afraid,” he says, “because I know that sooner or later, I will let down my family. I will disappoint Hyundai. I will let down all of Korea.” Pausing, he looks down at his feet, his head trembling. “I am afraid that I am an imposter.”

Before he realizes what’s happening, I grab him and hug him to my chest, and Seung Ki-moon, either devastated with emotion or afraid to offend a custom he doesn’t understand, begins to weep—quietly, at first, like a puppy, then like a trapped bear.

“You have nothing to be afraid of, Seung Ki-moon, because you’re a great ski jumper,” I tell him. “And I’ve known the best: Toni Innauer, who won gold here on the normal hill, but who was impressive nonetheless; and the Austrian, Hubert Neuper, who was incredibly handsome; and Jari Puikkonen, also known as the ‘Finnish Eagle’; and the East German, Manfred Deckert, who told me stories about a twin brother he hadn’t seen in years because he lived on the opposite side of that terrible wall. And Hirokazu Yagi, who was short but powerful, and who always kissed a rose before he jumped, which his grandmother had given him in the same hospital where she later died.” I check the names off on my fingers. “And of course we can’t forget Jim Denney, who was the best we Americans could muster in Lake Placid and who placed eighth in 1980 before hundreds of his family and friends, and whose coach, Bob Whitaker, later found him singing the national anthem to an empty forest.”

“Down there,” I tell Seung Ki-moon, motioning at the invisible crowd, “they only see the height and distance the ski jumper braves in midair. Danger is what excites them. Secretly, they’re praying for an accident. But once you’ve seen all of this from above, like I have, you understand that the true beauty of ski jumping lies in the abject stillness of the act. This is the great secret of the sport. As the earth falls away, the ski jumper resists the basic human instinct to brace for impact. She trails her arms behind her body. Her legs. She would cut them both off if she could. They stand in the way of her ideal form. And ever so slightly, she leans forward. She does this with ease, unafraid, because she knows that her power lies in her absolute vulnerability. This is what makes her beautiful,” I say. “For a moment, she floats above everyone.”

On the verge of tears, I grab hold of Seung Ki-moon’s hands, which, in a parallel universe, are the hands of my son, and I search for the strength to go on, to say the name I know must be said. That horror and beauty standing behind my words like a patient shadow.

“I have known the one and only Vladimir Aslakhanov, who, as you know, dedicated his soul to our sport and paid the ultimate price, but whose legacy and tragedy haunt this place even to this day, and who, if you pay attention, you can still feel in the air like a light mist. But unlike him, Seung Ki-moon, you have a clear heart. Out of all of the ski jumpers who’ve put their lives on the line, you’re the youngest. And because you are the youngest, you are the most honest, which means you are lighter than the air. Not even God,” I say, “could keep you on the ground.”

Here, Seung Ki-moon—maybe feeling the mist of Vladimir Aslakhanov, or ultimately determining that I am crazy and he doesn’t want to be around me anymore, or finally feeling ready to be the youngest ski jumper to ever compete on the big hill in a World Cup event— wipes his eyes and looks me squarely in the face.

The monitor switches green. Seung Ki-moon pushes off, and I watch him disappear into the fog like a bullet.

I can never see if they land.

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D70142_01 – Version 3

Brett Finlayson received his MFA from Syracuse University and his PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was a Black Mountain Institute PhD Fellow in Fiction. His work has appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder, Beloit Fiction Journal, Black Warrior Review, Juked, New Delta Review, and Third Coast, among other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, daughter, and pit bull, Ahab, where he’s at work on a collection of linked stories and a novel.