Something Simple

Jeff McLaughlin

No single man can make a pencil. It takes separate and distinct efforts to extract the wood, shape it, ship it, mine metal, refine it, create graphite, apply yellow paint, stamp black paint, assemble these things, label it, package it, deliver it, store it, and collect compensation. It is an intricate and expansive process for something so small, something that can be discarded without thought or consequence. Beyond pencils, high above our complicated world there are massive machines, cylinders of metal, piloted by experts, guided by others, dependent upon hundreds or thousands of people each time they rise aloft and each time they return to earth, the act of transporting a few dozen souls over land an unfathomably elaborate process to map or understand, a marvel nearly miracle, until one of those terrible moments when some small thing breaks, and something enormous goes wrong.


On a clear day when the color of the sky is so pure that it could be described as white or gray or blue depending on what one sees before one glances to the heavens, on such a day it is possible to see but a reflected glimpse of reflected sunlight, a silver moment in the center of that purity of color and clarity of sky. It is possible to see this and then study the sky and not see it again. All those souls, within that machine, all those living souls, no more than a glint in the heavens, no more than an instantaneous flash, seen, gone, apart.


We lived on the base of the mountains, small mountains in a global sense but considerable in that area, our house, on the site of a home built seven generations earlier, nestled up in the trees on the rocky earth and above the cleared fields, rolling and pleasant, especially in early autumn when they were at their greatest life, those keen months before harvest. Prudence had been the watchword of my family for seven generations. We took pride, in retrospect perhaps, excessive pride, in the fact that we avoided debt, and that regardless of economic cycle or weather we could, through hard work and frugality, thrive. In the flush times we felt poor, saving, not buying anything new for ourselves or for the farm, and in troubled times we felt rich, inordinately wealthy, with no external claims on the house or land or crops, with everything paid in cash and with yet more cash in the bank, we bought when others sold. Twice we expanded the farm in this fashion, buying from neighbors who had become beholden to the same banks. With prudence went patience and waiting, qualities strengthened by practice and discipline, both unbroken by major disruptions for decades. I say we. But I was only the last generation of this; it was this into which I was born, raised, and ushered into adulthood.

Relative to the airplane or even the pencil, our small world was contained. We were slow to buy machinery. We worked upon the land and with it. From the time I could walk, I walked with my father and my uncle around the fields. They worried about building soil, preventing runoff, protecting the earth from any extreme that could be visited upon it. I knew every small rise, the places where the soil was darker and where tree roots grew beneath the reach of the plow. I tended to the goats before and after school. I picked apples from the trees along the west edge of our land. I remember the first time grain ran through my hands. I came to understand the interactions between the many complementary aspects of its arrangement. I went to school in town with other farm kids and the kids of the local doctors and lawyers. We went to church. Our lives were lived within a close radius and felt complete and even happily removed from the confusion of the greater world. I was not unaware of that world, just blissfully isolated from it. Most of what we did followed an ancient natural rhythm; we planted, nurtured, harvested and rested, as had my grandparents, and theirs, and theirs. The knotted complexities of the world began at the far edge of our existence.


Something simple: the faster air moves, the lower its pressure, so that the rush of air over the curve of the wing creates a subtle vacuum, into which the dead metal weight of the wing is pulled, and upon them the entire plane is drawn aloft. Something complicated: the myriad wires, each one entwined with the next, interlaced circuitry, small adjustments to the surfaces upon the wings, rebalancing weight as fuel is consumed or a passenger moves, the unseen variations in the air through which the dull needle of fuselage progresses, invariably small indicators switching through their programmed lines of decision, and at the center of all that, an isolated and frail mind, frail hands, frail humanity, easily distracted. Direct vision limited to one hundred and forty degrees, the ability to hear diminished by the rushing press of air over metal, an invisible incessant flood, layers of distraction, voices, dials, glare, gauges, cloud, rain, and then, finally, the elusive animating spirit that triggers all human movement, great or small. Complexity upon complexity, frailty upon weakness. Functional redundancies aside, this is but a furious knot of heavy intricacy at the center of air, pivoting upon the point between varying currents, along the simple effect. All is in balance, until it is not.


Over years, no significant changes occurred with my family or the land, and as a people rooted in a place and comfortable with the steady churning cycles of life and harvest among crops, seasons and animals, secure in our faith, even the arrival of death was without undue anxiety. The plot beside the church, not so far away, held its neat quarter acre of my family’s history, rooted there as they once had been in the house. The assurance of faith provides one a specific calm, even upon the edge of the gaping grave, the assurance of resurrection. The relative simplicity of our lives reflected a careful alignment with God: we were both prudent and carefully generous. We helped others, took care of our own, and God, in turn, took care of us. Our position on the earth seemed ordained by God, the layered shelter of the porch beneath the canopy of trees allowed a shaded panorama down the dirt driveway, through the space in the tree trunks, and onto the even furrows in the brown field below, its uneven rectangle bordered by the river.

The last time I saw it thus it was late afternoon, almost evening, with the low sun fused orange. Contrasting stripes of illumination and shadow from the trees between the road and field layered across the fields. I was twenty-three years old. My parents were sixty-two and sixty-three. I was home from graduate school. It was assumed, as it should have been, and without much discussion, that I would return to the farm in another year or two. We were drinking iced tea. Condensation made a small rise of water around the base of my clear glass.

The sound, approaching slowly, was not immediately recognizable as anything mechanical: it was a whine that suggested a distressed animal, except that it came from the north and not from the barn to the east. I recall my mother first turning her head, then, as the sound increased, my father, and as it did a deep, unnatural grinding could also be heard within it. None of us stood. I looked past them and the source of the noise was revealed with incredible speed: a black point reflecting the flame of the orange evening, but in narrow concentration. The weakness of our perception was revealed, the illusion of slowness one has when one watches a plane make its languid arc overhead, an unhurried progression marked with and softened by angelic plumes of white exhaust, the great roar of engines muffled by atmospheres to a comforting rumble; this is all illusion. The black point sprouted wings as it approached with unfathomable speed, and it was impossible to determine if the corona of flame was mirage and reflection of the sun or if it was indeed engulfed and consumed from within. We still, none of us, stood. The fury of cacophony lanced my eardrums. I dropped my glass, the gentle sound of its inconsequential impact consumed by the greater disturbance.

When the plane struck earth, it did so just at the far edge of the trees to the south of the house. Perhaps the field appeared to be a place where it was possible to land the plane. Perhaps it was just the end of a falling arc. Metal and structure plowed across the existing shallow furrows, carved in fanning shrapnel across the field, with components tumbling, an engine, still shrieking, bouncing end over end, the sudden wash of fuel, and, in retrospect, the eerie absence of screams, which surely there must have been, for those on board would have known what was happening and what would happen, even as the dew had pooled around my glass a moment earlier. Glass broke overhead and there was no time to crouch, nor run, nor hide within, and none of us saw the aluminum strip made jagged with serrated rivets that edged through the air and killed both my parents in a single and assuredly painless moment.


In the aftermath of the impact was a pause of illuminating silence, not silence in the external world but the internal readjustment when my ears shifted back into normal range after the great noise. Widespread crunching sounds rose from across the entire property, limbs alight, the trees aflame, fresh glass shattering and exploding out onto the porch roof, cascading down upon the bushes before the house, stalks crackling with flame, although the worst sound was the swelling rush in my ears when I glanced at the two patterns of blood mingling upon the sanded floorboards. I vomited into the bushes, the tea made bile, and staggered down the rock steps, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. I stumbled down the dirt driveway, tracing its shallow curve, past wreckage and the massive craters impacted into the earth, past the small embers and metal still quivering in the trees, past the strewn personal detritus of suitcases and destroyed humanity, past the living flames of fuel wicked from the earth, and that is where they found me, when the police cars arrived, I was there, oblivious to their sirens, alone at the end of the driveway with my elbow on the mailbox, awaiting something, though I was too stunned to know what that something might have been, and I scarcely recognized the arrival of actual assistance when it reached me.

Shortly after the cars arrived, the first of the helicopters throbbed from the darkness, the heavy concussions of the rotors redoubled by their own echoes, their search lights making unsteady snakes of illumination across the dispersed carnage, pale lights distinct against the growing darkness and oily orange flames on the earth. They left me in the backseat of a squad car for an hour, an accidental prisoner with the doors locked, without handles, the windows sealed. I lay to one side. More vehicles arrived and clotted the narrow country road with multicolored flashing lights and a jarring tangle of voices, radios, and speakers. When I was remembered they opened the back door. A paramedic knelt before me and checked my eyes. I sat there without moving, my feet on the dirt road, staring ahead at any of the flickering lights or none of them. They drove me to the hospital, an agonizingly slow progression against the onrushing traffic, and when it was behind us I broke into an acrid sweat and lay again across the seat. At the hospital they scanned me for injury and, finding none, treated me for shock and put me to bed.

I have nearly no memory of this journey away, nor my time in the hospital. But there are videos, numbers stored in tiny systems, intricate little systems, complicated machines concealed within simple cases. I have seen myself walking through the hospital doors. I have seen the detailed images of my own body and head. They show no trace of disturbance. Of the countless thousands of metal fragments turned to inadvertent shrapnel not a single piece touched me in any physical way.


While I was held in the pale room, alone, the complexity of the world descended in full force upon our farm, supply lines, experts from a dozen agencies, the tangled and confusing announcements of the press, public and private inspectors, each with their own expertise and point of view. Yellow morning light, somehow more precise in its revelations than evening light, when the sun hangs at equivalent angles, woke me. I watched the news, learned of the sixty-eight passengers and four crew from the plane who died in the crash and two more, my parents, who died on the ground. Videos showed so many sheet-shrouded bodies strewn across our land. I did not, as yet, have the presence of mind to marvel at the absence of my own story in the midst of this narrative cacophony. There were more aerial shots of the wreckage, the shattered house, the craters in the earth and deep disruptions to the even furrows, the bodies beneath white sheets, then in black plastic bags, the fragmented alignment of rescue vehicles and media trucks splintered along the sides of the tree-obscured road. The nurses fed me, but no one addressed my circumstance directly until a doctor from town recognized me and encouraged me to turn off the television. At noon, I showered and got back into my own clothes. The room was empty. The hallway was nearly empty. No one asked me about my parents, and in the middle of the afternoon, the person-to-person exchange of my story passed from someone to the local media, who descended upon the hospital in search of me, the unlikely survivor.

My uncle came to take me back. He could not bring himself to set foot upon the property. Somehow the helicopter found us. They filmed our return to the site, tracked my slow progress in the car along the dirt drive, from the angles of one or another of the swarming helicopters or a wide shot from the edge of the property. Either one diminished me, a single man against a massive wreckage and awesome destruction, alone upon the scene of the brutal violence that had robbed me of both my parents in a single moment. I walked without pause up the stone steps to the scarred porch, where pockets of fresh wood were exposed through the white paint, where blackened places seemed still to burn, where strange embedded glints betrayed the presence of piercing fragments of metal. I had to ease slightly around the scythe of aluminum that was quivering in the doorframe. Was it still stained with blood? Did I even know enough to recall exactly what it was? Did I have any understanding of my new place in the world? Or my old place in a new world? I could not say so with any real assurance. I closed the door. The noise of the ongoing crowd outside was only slightly diminished. I imagine, now, the slight and familiar squeak of the hinges. I was not able to see the outside world, our land, except through the small holes in the walls through which light angled across the dusty glass-strewn floors. Every remnant of the wreck, every fragment of person or machine, every element had been removed, leaving only scars upon the earth. Wind moved through the broken windows. The noise of the helicopters, the voices outside, the aftermath, trickled into the house. It was possible to imagine going to sleep, or sitting downstairs in the living room, or hanging myself from a rafter in the attic.


It took a week for the local authorities to approach the house, triggered by the oily, rancid smell of death that clouded in the barns and drifted down upon the parked cars. They found me asleep in an empty bedroom upstairs, my eyes dull and hair matted, my clothes stained and heavy upon my thin shoulders. They took me back to town, so I was spared the sight of my entire life going up in flames: they were forced to burn the dead animals and somehow the flames trickled to the barn, a barbed wire chain of sparks across the roof that ran a ragged presence through the rafters and shingles and a slight spark or faint ember drifted to the house, which quickly lit. In the ragged crowd of official cars and trucks, there were no fire engines, nor any room for them to arrive, so a knot of local police and scattered weeping relatives of the crash victims watched mutely as all our tangible possessions of this world became ash and became dust.


There were a handful of male blackbirds on the lowest part of the old power line, their red shoulders bright in the declining afternoon sun and I could hear their agitated voices as I moved past the vanished cellar, in the aftermath of the fires that took both the barn and the house; they had bulldozed earth into the hole in the ground, but through it the smell of exposed soil could also be sensed, the sharp tinge of ash and, beneath that, the rich swelling remnant of manure from a century of animals. I turned to look back at the birds, but they had all vanished without signal or trace. They would have taken to the air in the same hurried fashion on the day of the plane. Why had we not fled? Would it have mattered? Perhaps not. But why had we not even stood? Simply because it was strange? I bent my head, I looked at the broken cement step that had once led to the porch, and I thought that we had not moved because we had excessive confidence, excessive certainty, of safety, of our own knowledge, that no terror would be visited upon us from the skies, that no matter the shrieking in the air we were safe upon our own land.


I walked down the broken earth, the evidence of the crash mitigated and exacerbated by the recovery efforts, all the corn hewn, not harvested, just taken away, the remnant green twisted stalks horrific in their own understated way. At the line of trees that protected the riverbanks and defended against floods, a backhoe had dredged a deep channel, extracting some artifact of the destruction, and when the earth had been filled anew, a pale clay I had never seen before lay atop the black soil like a pallid scar, and I remembered the legends of my own family, how years of toil and careful protection had built the farm, layer by layer, this infertile swath a renewing revelation of the depth of our connection to this earth, these acres. At the family plot there were the two fresh mounds of earth, the bright headstone, and room yet within the low stone walls for me, and others after me. I do not know how long I stood there looking at the deepest evidence I had of commitment, and the power of patience, and the will to deepen this shallow world.


On the ascent up the hill to where our house had been, where my parents had been killed, where my uncle had been born, I caught sight of the sun again. In its slow descent, I could wait and watch it vanish, then move again up the slope to see it set again, and I moved sporadically to watch this until I was at the point where it had fallen completely. I turned. Far below, the river moved unseen. The graves of my ancestors had been consumed by darkness. The ravaged earth was made whole by the heaviness of shadow. My feet were heavy with damp earth. The birds were gone. Beneath the dense limbs, where the shadows were deepest, lightning bugs began to move, of two colors, which I could not remember seeing before, a pale near-silver and a warmer golden hue, entwined and curling in their individual courses, and between us was a section of land, owned in its entirety, healing itself, waiting, waiting for the finite tragedy to fade, and for restoration to commence.

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