As a passenger, I get to sit back and enjoy the trip. At least that’s usually my intention when I first board the airplane. At least it has been. I can’t really say what my intention is anymore. Things have changed.
When on a plane like this, I can wallow in intentional ignorance. I don’t have to know what is happening in the cockpit, I don’t have to know what is happening in the communications tower. I am entirely unaware of the five other hunks of flying metal that are lifting off the ground in the same second that my own is rattling out of gravity’s finger tips. I have no idea that another plane has just been redirected so that it won’t collide with the one I find myself in.
I only know that the charming woman up ahead is going to bring me peanuts, and a fizzy beverage after the captain turns off the “fasten seatbelt” lights. My mouth is watering and I’m trying to decide whether I would like a Coke or a Clamata and I’m wondering if I might persuade her to part with two bags of peanuts on my behalf… all of it while death is soaring all around me, talons neatly spread, wondering if it can make off with two jet planes full of people, including myself.
But I don’t have to think about that, not about that, not unless I really want to. Sometimes I do want to. Maybe more often than not. Isn’t that known as morbidness? I like the sound of that word. I don’t mind it being applied to me.
While I fret over the discovery that this airline no longer serves the honey roasted peanuts I had so perfectly envisioned and instead has switched to serving pretzels, some prematurely balding man in a button up white shirt is determining my fate. Let him determine, it is only a clear manifestation of something that has been true all along. “Fate is in your hands” is only an old joke to tell kids on the day of their graduation after all. My hands are not large enough for fate, they can barely hold the bag of pretzels and a soda.
I turn to the man sitting next to me. He is a middle aged executive who can’t stop fumbling with his briefcase as soon as the fasten seat belts light goes away. I begin to speak to him, without the need of any prompting, without checking to see if my speech is welcomed or even tolerated. It probably isn’t. It usually isn’t. Who wants their fellow passengers to talk to them? Very few people do.
I have learned to set aside such considerations. I simply feel it is the time for me to speak and I feel that it is time for him to listen. I am sure I will soon find out if he disagrees. However he reacts, it won’t matter. Eventually I will do what I can do, and he will do what he is bound to do, and the result of the equation will be determined by time. No need to stop at the doorway of possibility when the numbers are always ready to be computed and served back in an easy to open container of rainbow light.
“Can I tell you how I came to be here? How I came to be here at this time and this place, this point of convergence between dimensions that I imagine or experience or dream, this moment that I may not understand at all? If I tell you, swear to me that you will accept every word I say as true and not press me on matters which seem questionable, for I fear that it will break my delicate grip with this reality if you prod it unnecessarily.”
My questions are of course rhetorical. I don’t intent to wait for an answer. The man turns to me and it is clear by the look in his eyes that he is starting to believe that I am insane. Who’s to say that he is wrong? I may be about to prove him right. I often have my doubts but I only have so many things I can worry about at one time.
“These things are like fine webs made of spun sugar mounted one upon one another to form pink cloudy softness, webs that once touched with sweaty hands or a curious tongue merely melt into sticky sweetness, no more constant or fixed than human promises. I will tell you because you seem sincere and because you are here, a captive ear for my untrained voice. So listen up, place all your attention on me, give me all of it just for a moment. I will tell you the story of the black man and the little bird.”
I have to admit I don’t really think he seems at all sincere in his attention, his eyes are glazed over, as if he already knows anything I could possibly have to say. He would rather not have to listen to a stranger, but he will probably like the story I have to tell, maybe it will make him just a bit more sympathetic to my speech. That’s what I tell myself. In the end, like I have said, it doesn’t really matter how he responds, whether he likes it or not. Or it hardly matters. Maybe just a bit.
All I would have to do is sit back, relax and enjoy the trip. There would be no need to be telling stories to strangers that probably would rather have the loud silence that comes with a large mechanical plane in full glorious metallic movement. I could simply relax and take in all that is happening and all that is not happening.
It just happens to be that that is not what I do. Maybe I will do that eventually, maybe I used to do that before things happened. Since then, I can’t resist the urge to talk.
“First I will tell you about the black man.”
I say it clearly and loudly and the man’s eyes are wide open even as he tries to look steadily ahead. Maybe he thinks I will go away if he consistently ignores me. Kids think that sometimes when they close their eyes to avoid being found during a game of hide and seek. It doesn’t really work. Not there, not here.
“It does not matter which of these things I tell you about first as the events surrounding these two nouns; man and bird, occurred simultaneously, if they occurred at all. That is to say that sequence has everything to do with language in that the word is like a narrow doorway through which only one topic may pass at a time, like little drops of dewy spittle from my lip to your ear, a tiny packet of data about things which have been occurring in a world too vast to squeeze into a dew drops or words or feathers that have been made into writing quills instead of the wings of flying birds. One comes before the other only because that is all that the doorway permits, all that the ungracious lord, THE WORD, will allow, one at a time to visit the well of communion between souls.”
I stop briefly to make sure that he is still listening. I decide that he is in fact listening reluctantly, or at least as much as he ever was, as much as I can ever expect him to listen to this strange creature who won’t stop talking in a space where silence would be ideal. This strange creature who appears to be me at the moment. Eventually I won’t even care if they listen. I am not there yet. Soon, pretty soon.
“So first the black man. Let me tell you this about him.. he is the cohort of countless witches condemned to burn as well as those that fly round secret fires in a whirlwind of ecstasy before they are discovered by the mob and punished for their incomprehensible crimes. The black man, he is not what you expect. He, as I have known him anyway, is always mild mannered, self composed and unassuming. He that knows so much will ask you what he well knows as though he never knew it, not to play a game with you, but just that the two of you shall partake of knowledge together in the renewed asking of a question, in the fresh discovery of an answer. His hair flecked with gray, his posture stooped, he keeps trees that bear fruit, unusual trees, and he will peel back the leathery skins of those fruits to reveal the strange delights held within and offer it to you as water to a parched man.”
Maybe he turns slightly towards me, maybe it is just an attempt to make himself more comfortable, but what real comfort can there be when I won’t stop talking. And I truly mean it: I can’t stop talking. I simply can’t. It is an unfortunate side effect of the things that happened. Maybe not so unfortunate, maybe not so much on the side, maybe not an effect at all. As for him, maybe he really is about to start listening. Good. Just in time.
“He would withhold nothing, least of all that which grows from seed to meat. Should you wish to partake, he shares without reserve. What is his is yours while you are with him and again later if you choose. He is also a fisherman who draws great shy beasts from the deep with lures unlike any used by ordinary men. He will draw up the arcatuthus for you and then you will see your greed for the catch dissolve into sympathy for the beast and you will see its children born and hope that it survives captivity and may return to the deep, but if not, then there are still the offspring in whom to invest this new found tenderness. He is a stranger, a lover, a father all in one, your oldest friend, a friend that you have forgotten. Never did he forget you. Never did he hold it against you that you would forget or swear that you are unacquainted with him. He has all the tenderness of an old grandfather, the wisdom of a priest of one of those true orders of mystic stewardship. That is the black man. That is as much as a I can now say about him.”
When the plane changes course to avoid a lightning storm, I am oblivious to the maneuver, we both are. I say “we”, for now we have formed a we, even if unstable and tentative, even if easily untangled. I turn away briefly to ogle the flight attendant as she comes around again for the passenger’s garbage. I am not past such pleasures, I hope I never will be. I enjoy the view of her rear as she works her way up the aisle past my seat. There is something in its implied roundness that makes me sit a bit straighter, and it makes me want to talk. But of course, I have never stopped talking, not even while I looked away.
“And then there is the bird. I met the bird in a parking lot looking for a crumb to nab. I was putting groceries into the back of the truck and I heard him say that he was hungry, so I broke off some bread and tossed it gently his way as I had been taught by the black man. The bird turned his head slightly to look me in the eye and thanked me very much for taking notice of him. I told him that it was my pleasure and I hoped he would enjoy the fare and, as he went heartily to it, I got into the truck and drove away.”
Now I have to say he definitely has turned towards me. There is no doubt now that he has turned. Something in my story has interested him. Good. I knew that this wasn’t a complete mistake. They are never mistakes, these strange impulses I have, even if I sometimes worry that they might be. It’s the mention of the bird which has got to him, that is what usually does it. It certainly did it for me when I first saw it.
“How did he look? Well he was small and sort of grayish brown, a sort of sparrow maybe. It is his little voice which was clearest to me both then and now. I heard his voice again this morning while I walked to the airport. He was singing gaily. You will tell me that sparrows don’t sing, but I must tell you that by today he was no longer a sparrow. His voice was very clear and bright and I listened to it as I walked, touched by its merriment.”
A hint of a smile, something he wishes to hide but he can’t hide it from me. I have turned completely towards him and it would now be very obvious if he turned away. So he stays in place, frozen, with just that hint of a smile, that hint that tells me everything.
“I noticed that he sang the song that cars sing when they are rubbed the wrong way by someone who cannot turn off the alarm. Diabolus in Musica and so forth, at least that’s where it starts. You know what I mean? It was the song of that alarm which goes off in low class neighborhoods and runs through a series of different obnoxious tones and rhythms so that the offending car robber will be dismayed by the shrill and clownish noises and depart in all due haste. Now my friend the bird repeated this same song in his lovely trill.”
I try to sing and imitate the bird song I remember. I do a fairly decent imitation, at least based on the second hand echoes I hear inside my own head. The hint that I noticed earlier has now turned into a broad smile and I smile at him as well. He has found his place in silently listening and I have found my place in talking, as I must continue to talk, for my story is not over. Not that it ever is truly over. But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. I sing and I talk, then I sing and I talk some more.
“I stopped beneath the tree laden with pink blossoms and listened to his heart bursting with joy through his rendering of this popular new song. The outward form mattered not at all. The lyric to the song, the tones, the rhythms, all were quite unimportant. What mattered so was the heart. That is what he administered liberally to that tired old alarm call. He made it into a masterpiece.”
If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that for a moment he wanted to sing himself, he wanted to break out in song, in the song that he imagined the bird singing. He wanted to sing with me. Maybe it was just a twitch of the lips. Maybe it’s just something that passes, like a fluttering of the eyes or a bird that flies by a window as you drive out of an old town.
“ ‘You should try it.’ The black man said to me, tasting a succulent gem from one of his trees. ‘That’s what we do. We take what they made and we remake it, we remake it with ourselves in it. We put ourselves into that which is not ours, that which is not us. It doesn’t matter at all what they meant for it to be in the first place. We make it alive, we make it live once again. Life is its own meaning. All other meaning is superfluous.’ He said this with a little fluttering hand gesture that reminded me of the bird. I can’t even say for sure if he was actually speaking. I can only report what I remember. I hope you don’t mind. His beard was short and sparse then, composed of short curled salt and pepper bristles. His skin looked like milk chocolate, soft and weathered with age. He was perfect in his own imperfect way.“
The man nods slowly. I can see it clearly now. Something has resonated deep within the folds of his pulsing flesh and he just nods, there’s no need for any further comment. I stop briefly because I am overcome by the pain of memory. Is there something in memory other than pain? Maybe pain itself is the basic building block of all visions of the past, of living time that has coagulated into frozen images. Maybe it is only when we forget that pain goes away. But as I talk there is no memory, there is only the story, and that is not the same.
“I say, sing on little bird, sing on and I will listen to you and to the black man too. I will listen and I will try to sing as well, when I can. That’s what I said as I walked here this morning, as I walked into the airport, right before boarding this plane, right before coming here to sit with you.”
And I whistle briefly, softly enough that only he will hear me, for he is my one and only audience. All other passengers have become the noise that surrounds us, a vibrant sphere of activity that only serves as a frame for our one sided interaction. Now he could react in some way if he wanted to, there is space for him to do so. But his reaction doesn’t matter, it never really did.
“What about you friend? Are you listening to me now, telling you this story with gaps wide enough for us both to fall through? If you haven’t heard, then no matter and never mind, so long as you spare me your criticisms. I don’t need them and they won’t change anything. I tell it to you the best way I can with this clumsy stuff, trying to wedge a leviathan through a hole made for a mouse. That’s what I do now. And so my story ends here, with me sitting with you, talking to you as I am doing.“
I turn on the seat completely, bending my left leg up and twisting my right leg sideways, pushing my foot under the seat in front. I stare right into him. He is too caught up now, he can’t avoid my eyes, and, of course, I have my way of forcing my own gaze upon him. It is rude and it feels so good to do it.
“I could have just told you the story of Iron Hans, painting the forest in greens so deep they were almost black like the rotted underside of forgotten chard. I could have told you any story at all, an old, old story, one that you have heard a dozen times before, and, if I had, I would have done as much if not more than I did here. It just so happens that I told you this story and that you are now a character within it.”
He nods again, his eyes wide open, looking straight at me. I can see the clouds passing behind him through the small oval window of the plane. We are flying together, in more ways than one.
“It is not what I told you really that will profit you at all, but what I poured into every senseless syllable. It comes from the fount at the heart swelling over after the rains of winter, ready to feed all the spring grasses and from them, little lambs, and from them, hungry lions.”
He smiles broadly and I smile broadly back at him. People are moving around us, returning to their seats. Soon it will be time for our time together to be over. So things come to an end, so cleanly, so abruptly. All unions end this way, with a flashing sign. Sometimes the sign is not so obvious.
“That is the story of how I came to be here, how we crossed here like roads running unknown courses, my voice and your ear, joined for a moment and now soon to part, for now I take my leave of you. I will never mind if you forget me. I will never mind if you claim that we never met.”
Soon the plane is engaged in a whole new ballet of high speed hunks of metal guided by fallible human directors who may or may not be distracted just now because this high stress job has taken a toll on their sex life and their significant other stormed out this morning with packed bags. Death perks up again, hopeful, but we land safely (we have definitely turned into a we now, even if the we will soon go away and we will once again be I and you, or him and me, or them and nothing.) I get to see the fasten seat belts light turn off and I lean back on the seat, closing my eyes. Quiet at last. Not for long.
As a passenger, all you have to do is sit back, enjoy the trip, and say thank you when it is over. Sometimes other things happen as well. Sometimes things change and they never return to their original position.