weekend-readsBirds in Fall: An excerpt

Brad Kessler

It’s true: a few of us slept through the entire ordeal, but others sensed something wrong right away. We grew restless in our seats and felt what exactly? An uneasiness, a movement in the air, a certain quiet that hadn’t been there before? Several men craned their necks about the cabin. We caught each other’s eyes, exchanged searching looks, and just as quickly—embarrassed—glanced away. We were eighty minutes into the flight. Orion on our left, the bear to the right. The motors droned. The cabin lights dimmed. The whoosh of the engines was the sound of erasure: Shhhhh, they whispered, and we obeyed.

The woman beside me clicked on her overhead light and adjusted a pair of reading glasses. She laid a folder of sheet music on her tray. Thin, black-haired, she smelled vaguely of breath mints. Her blue cello case lay strapped to the seat between us. She was giving a concert in Amsterdam and had booked an extra ticket for her instrument. I’d joked about her cello on the tarmac: Did she order special meals for it on flights? Did it need a headset, a pillow? She was retying hair behind her head and cast me a barely tolerant smile.

When the drink cart passed, she ordered a Bloody Mary—I, a scotch. Our pygmy bottles arrived with roasted nuts. I reached across the cello case and touched her plastic cup.

To your cello, I tried again. Does it have a name?

She nodded tepidly over the rims of her glasses.

Actually, she said, it does.

I couldn’t place her accent. Something Slavic. Romanian perhaps. She wore a lot of eye shadow. She returned to her music. I could just make out the title of the piece: Richard Strauss’s Metamorphoses: A Study for Twenty-three Solo Strings.

Over the Gulf of Maine, the moon glittered below us. I wanted to point out to the cellist as I would to my wife, Ana, that the moon hung actually beneath us. I wanted to tell her we were near the tropopause, the turning point between the stratosphere and the troposphere, where the air is calm and good for flying; tropo from “turning,” pauso from “stop” (I prided myself on my college Latin). And surely she’d know these musical terms. But the woman was counting bars now. Across the aisle, a man in a wine-colored sweater lay snoring, his mouth opened wide.

Somewhere over the Bay of Fundy the cabin lights began to flicker. The video monitors went dead (they’d been showing a map of the Atlantic, with our speed, altitude, and outside temperature). The cellist looked up for a moment, her lips still moving with the sheet music. Then the cabin fell entirely dark, and a strange silvery light poured into the plane through each oval portal and lathed the aisles in a luminous, oddly peaceful glow. One by one, people tried to press their dome lights on, not yet in alarm but bewildered, to be up so far in the atmosphere, bathed in that frozen blue moonlight. A flight attendant marched up the aisle and told us to keep our seat belts on. The clouds lay effulgent below, edged in gold; another attendant shouted that there was nothing to be alarmed by. The lights blinked, faltered, turned on again. A sigh rose from the seats, and the cellist glanced at me with nervous relief.

The captain came over the intercom then. He apologized and mentioned we were going to make “a short stop” in Halifax “before we get on our way.” He was trying to sound unfazed, but in his Dutch accent—we were flying Netherland Air—his comments sounded clipped and startling. He got back on the intercom and added that we might want to buckle our belts for the rest of the ride and—incidentally—not to get out of our seats.

The cellist turned to me.

What do you think it is? she asked.

I don’t know, I shrugged.

Her glasses had slid halfway down the bridge of her nose. She squared her sheet music on the tray table. The man in the wine sweater had awakened and was demanding answers. People flipped open their cell phones—to no avail. Outside, the tip of the wing looked laminated in moonlight, the Milky Way a skein above. We had started sinking fast, that much was clear, the nose of the plane dipping downward; and there was a curious chemical smell, not exactly burning, more like a dashboard left to bake in the sun.

The man in the wine sweater bolted from his seat and ran toward the bathrooms at the rear galley of the plane. Beside his empty seat a young Chinese woman in leather pants lay sleeping, earphones on her head, seat belt cinched across her hips. She wore an eye mask across her face.

Someone ought to wake her, the cellist said.

She’s better off sleeping, I replied. Besides, it’s probably nothing.

Probably, she whispered.

Tell me, I asked, about your instrument.

She looked at me with disbelief.

My cello?

Yes, I said. I wanted to distract her; I wanted to distract myself. Then, as if she understood the reason for the query, she swallowed and began talking about her cello, how it was built by one of the great Italian cello makers, a man named Guadagnini, and how he traveled between Cremona and Turin, and how his varnishes were famous, though they varied with each place he worked. She talked of the thinness of the plates, the purfling, the ivory pegs, the amber finish he was known for. I could barely hear her voice; she kept toying with one of her earrings. I asked if it was old and she said, yes, it was built a few years before the execution of Marie Antoinette.

She snapped off her glasses and drained the meltings of her Bloody Mary and placed the cup back in its bezel. Her hands were trembling slightly. The Chinese girl hadn’t moved; we could hear the tinny sound of hip-hop through her earphones.

For several minutes neither of us said a word. Clouds shredded past the windows. The cabin rattled unnervingly. The entire plane was silent now, save the shaking and the whisper of air in the vents. The name Moncton appeared on the video map. We were being passed from one beacon to the next, a package exchanged between partners, Boston Control to Moncton Control. The cabin grew noticeably hot. The moon was now the color of tea.

I told the cellist I had a particular interest in orientation and flight. In birds, actually. That I was an ornithologist, my wife too; I told her about the study skins and museum collections. She nodded, clenching and unclenching a cocktail napkin in her fist. I rabbited on to fill the empty space, so my voice might be a rope that both of us could cling to; and I told her about polarization filters and magnetic fields, the tiny pebbles, no larger than poppy seeds, found between the skull bones of migratory birds. Magnetite, I said. Black ore, which helps them home, to the same nest or tree across an entire hemisphere. I kept the patter going, reeling and threading out more rope, whatever came to mind, cladistics, the systematics laboratory, how we needed new bird specimens for their DNA (which you couldn’t obtain from the old study skins), and how I collected birds (killed them actually), and that I was going to Amsterdam to deliver a lecture and then visit the Leiden Museum to inspect their collection of Asian Kingfishers. I told her about Ana as well, her work with Savannah Sparrows and migration—but the cabin was growing hotter by the minute, my collar sponged now in sweat, the little hairs on my arms damp. The plane shuddered and pitched and my heart leapt and I could hear the cellist’s breath quicken beside me. “Gravity” comes from the Latin gravitas, I said. Heavy, grave, a lowness of pitch. The impulse of everything toward the earth. Newton’s universal law, Kepler’s “virtue.” Someone vomited in their seat; we heard the vile gurgle, then smelled the sickening odor. The cellist yanked the paper bag from her seat pocket.

Shut up! she hissed.

Was I still talking? I hardly knew. She fished inside her pocketbook and fumbled a tube of lipstick and a hand mirror, and held the trembling glass in front of her face. Her forehead gleamed. She skull-tightened her lips but kept missing, dabbing dots of pigment on her cheeks.

Fuck! she screamed and clicked the compact and tossed it in her purse.

Then she pushed up the cotton sleeve of her black blouse. Her arm was slender and pale. With the lipstick, she composed an E just below her elbow. I watched as she wrote each letter on the inside white of her arm: E, then V, then D, then O.

When she finished it spelled “Evdokiya.”

She handed the opened tube across the cello.

What do I do with this? I asked.

You write your name.

You’re being dramatic.

Am I? she asked.

The name of the lipstick was Japanese Maple. Against her pale skin, the letters looked lurid and blotchy.

The Japanese maple on our roof was slightly more purple than the lipstick. Its leaves in fall the color “of bruises” Ana once said. She would have looked good wearing that pigment. I held the glistening tube in my hand, not knowing what to write or where. I wanted to write Ana’s name, or both our names, as though we were a piece of luggage that, lost, would find its way back to our loft. So I put our address down, taking care with each number, each letter: 150 First Avenue; and then I showed my arm to the cellist, and she said: Your name. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to write it down.

The smoke seeped in slowly and curled to the ceiling. The smell of burning plastic was distinct now. The video monitors were still working and showed we were twenty miles from Halifax. A man in a silk prayer shawl stood bobbing up and down in the aisle, the white cloth a cowl over his head. The girl with the earphones still lay fast asleep; no one apparently had woken her. Now and again a pilot or a flight attendant raced up the aisle, urging us to keep calm. We all had our life vests on by then—some inflated theirs against instructions, and you could hear the alarming pffffff of them filling with air. The cellist found my hand across the cello case and burrowed her fingers into mine, as if to hide them there. Others were grabbing hands across the aisles. I kept jerking open my jaw to pop the unbearable pressure in my ears; the cellist was doing the same. I imagine, in the end, we all looked like fish.

An eerie whistling filled the fuselage, like someone blowing into a soda bottle. The cellist named the notes as we were going down. The pilot was uttering the word “pan, pan, pan.” We could hear it over the intercom. It sounded as if he were shouting for bread.

We dropped between layers of atmosphere. Clouds tore past the wing. The whistling lowered to a gentle warble, the fuselage a flute with one hole left open, an odd arpeggio in the rear of the plane. Someone shouted land! and I pressed my forehead to Plexiglas and saw, between scraps of cloud, lights below, pink clusters like brush fire, four or five of them, the brief flames of villages and towns checkerboarded, scalloped along the coast, yet distant; and some began to cheer, thinking, We will make it; we are so close to land, Halifax couldn’t be far. We were coming over the spine of the world, out of the night, into the welcoming sodium lights of Canada. We hit clouds again and the plane shuddered; the ocean hurled to the left, and the plane rammed hard to the right.

Oxygen masks sprang from the ceiling panel and swung in front of our faces. I caught mine and helped the cellist with hers. The plastic was the color of buttercups.

She took the belt off her cello and unfastened the buckles.

Help me! she screamed through her mask. She was in a sudden rush, fumbling, standing, a flight attendant shouting for her to sit. I helped her prop open the shiny plastic case and saw inside the instrument—amber-toned, varnish gleaming, the grain a fine and lustrous brown. In its capsule of red velvet it looked like a nesting doll. She slipped a finger through the F-hole and touched the sound post and closed her eyes. The instrument was humming a sympathetic vibration.

It’s the D, she whispered.

It’ll be safer with the case closed, I said.

She leaned over and kissed the cello’s neck and let the cover drop.

The cabin rattled. The bulkheads shook. The overhead bins popped open. Bags, briefcases, satchels rained down. The cellist clenched her eyes. I felt her fingers tightened on mine—but it was Ana I felt beside me.

We broke cloud cover and dropped into a pool of dark. The bones around my cheeks pressed into my skull. I saw the sheet music flattened like a stamp on the ceiling. The Metamorphoses. I couldn’t tell which way was up and which was down and out the window a green light stood on the top of the world, a lighthouse spun above us, a brief flame somewhere in the night.

Did I feel it then, the beginning of this pilgrimage, from air to thinner air, from body to body, before the impact? Was it then or after or in between, before the seat belts locked our pelvises in place and unleashed the rest of us. The ilium. Why is it the same name for Troy? Ana once asked, tracing the upper bone of my hip with her finger. Because it’s a basin, I said, and told her the Latin word ilia. More like wings, she said, and climbed above me and laid the two points of her hips on top of mine. Our bones tapped together, like spoons.

The cabin burst into light, sunbright, dazzling, an orange edging around it. I could see the bones beneath my flesh like pieces of pottery. And then we were entering the sea.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The
Kenyon Review
and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

Read an interview with Brad Kessler by KR Fiction
Editor Nancy Zafris.

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