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The Wrong Plane

I got on the wrong plane with a very strange brief­case, and it might be about to save my life. We’re land­ing now — not in the place I intended to land — and if I do this right, I’ll survive.

But I’m not sure I can do this right.

I got on the wrong plane.

This shouldn’t really be possible. Maybe at the New York City air­port in 1929, when it was pro­peller planes the size of small cars all jum­bled across a dusty field like some sort of flea market — maybe then. Maybe peo­ple got on the wrong plane all the time in 1929: “Baltimore, what? Oh bother!”

But now? Checks, double-checks, pass­ports and board­ing passes. An entire minia­ture city has been con­structed with one objective: to make sure you don’t get on the wrong plane. Well, also to make sure you buy some­thing before you don’t get on the wrong plane. But mostly the first part.

So I don’t know how it happened. I’ll admit, I was half-asleep and I wasn’t pay­ing attention. I’ve made this trip many, many times; it’s part of my job. I work at the Smith­sonian in Washington. IAD to JFK back to IAD, always on the United shuttle. No frills. Lots of daily commuters. Can you imag­ine fly­ing to work every day? I do this once a week, tops, and it kills me.

This was the flight back to Washington. I’d only been on the ground in New York for four hours: just enough time to retrieve my cargo, pack it up in a brief­case, turn around and head for home. I never even left the air­port.

The plane took off at 5:40 a.m. and when it landed in Washington, I would rush straight to work; every­thing was eas­ier if the con­tents of the brief­case were fresh. But now, I slept. I was uncon­scious as soon as seat 13A had taken respon­si­bil­ity for a plu­ral­ity of my body weight.

The next thing I experienced was the thump-thump-thump of landing, except it wasn’t the thump-thump-thump of landing, because landing just goes thump. I know this. My expe­ri­ence of flight is a hazy dream brack­eted by the soporific pres­sure of take­off on one end and the declar­a­tive thump of land­ing on the other.

These thumps did not declare; they insinuated. They were jar­ring and close-packed, like we were going over speed bumps but ignoring them.

My eyes snapped opened and my hands clamped down on the seat dividers. For a moment I was sure I was about to die.

The cabin was nearly empty. And it didn’t look normal. It was … narrower? But what did I know: I always slept on the plane.

A scat­ter­ing of heads poked out of the rows in front of me. Sev­eral had strange hats: a fez, a beret, some sort of head­dress with gold discs and green feathers. I couldn’t tell if it belonged to a man or a woman.

The thumps faded.

I pushed up my window-shade and imme­di­ately wished I hadn’t.

They must have changed the gate. It’s always gate 13. It’s never not gate 13. The sad truth of the airport is that even if you’re so excited to be there, even if you’re about to start your vaca­tion or go meet some­body you love in Paris, the peo­ple who work at the air­port are doing the same thing they did yesterday, or forty-five minutes ago, and they’re doing it at the same gate.

And yet, they must have changed it. Here’s my theory, devel­oped in real-time in row 13:

I showed up at the old gate, handed over my boarding pass — printed at home on an aging Epson inkjet that will no longer pro­duce the color red — and the lit­tle scan­ner beeped in protest, but it was lost in the din of the board­ing process, and I kept shuffling, half-asleep, and the gate agent kept shuffling, half-asleep, and every­thing just shuffled along.

Or maybe, through some strange printer error, my Epson smudged the bar-code in such a way as to pro­duce an encoded string that passed muster. Maybe my board­ing pass was defec­tive and yet, pre­sented at pre­cisely the right wrong gate, effective. I realize this expla­na­tion is totally implausible, but I found myself drawn to it — because of what I saw out the window.

First, the ocean. Noth­ing out of the ordinary, except that it was the ocean, and we weren’t sup­posed to be fly­ing over the ocean.

Second, the sky. An elec­tric globe, ramp­ing from pink at the hori­zon to indigo high above us, speck­led gen­er­ously with white curlicues, lit­tle cloudlets shaped like com­mas and tildes. They were dis­trib­uted evenly across my entire field of vision. Not an impos­si­ble sky, but an extraordinary sky.

Third, the plane. I was sit­ting on the wing. It curved away from the fuse­lage like a giant sickle, and it had a mir­ror fin­ish like a blade, too, reflect­ing the pink and blue of the sky. Its length was physics-defying (and I know wing physics); it tapered to a sharp point that looked about a mile away. This was not the United shuttle.

There was no engine attached to the wing. It must have been some­where else, above and behind us. I could hear its rum­ble in the cabin — a har­monic hum, like an orches­tra warming up.

I pressed the flight atten­dant call button, which was blue, with a lit­tle icon of a smil­ing face. The lamp above me blinked, and it made a short tone, a tone that matched the chord of the engine per­fectly.

The flight atten­dant came from the front of the cabin. She was short and slender, per­fectly plane-proportioned, in a trim gray jacket and skirt. Her hair was ink-black and over it she wore a net of sparkling sil­ver links. She looked like a queen in exile.

She leaned in across the empty seats, smiled, and said some­thing in a language I didn’t understand. It wasn’t even a lan­guage I recognized. It sounded like a mix of Japanese, Russian, and crickets. I gaped.

She recov­ered imme­di­ately, and repeated, this time in inflected English: “Yes. How can I help you?”

My mouth was dry. I think I got on the wrong plane.

Her brow fur­rowed beneath the sil­ver net. “May I see — your board­ing pass?” She added pauses in odd places and clipped vow­els in adorable places.

I handed over my pale print­out with its United logo. Her eyes widened, and she pushed it back into my hands, as if it was illegal, or poisonous.

“Oh no,” she said, “this is — not right. I am sorry. I don’t know how this could have happened. I am sorry.”

She said I am sorry the way a doc­tor says it when the next sen­tence is a fatal diagnosis.

“Please, wait here. I will be back.”

She straight­ened and glided up the aisle. Just past row six, she glanced back at me, and her face was drawn tight.

Please, wait here. Where else would I go?

The plane banked. The long, curved wing dipped down to point at the gray ocean — the Atlantic? — and I saw, halfway to the hori­zon, a speck of land. An island.

The flight atten­dant returned and crouched down next to me, so she was just below eye level. I felt like I was in kinder­garten and she was the teacher, about to explain the con­cept of sharing.

“I am Gabriella,” she said. “Do you know any­thing about this air­line?”


“I am sorry — 

Brain cancer!

“—but now there is some­thing very impor­tant I must tell you.” Her voice was an urgent whisper. “Do you know the feel­ing you some­times get on an airplane, when there is turbulence, or just before you land — the fear that you are going to die?”

Jesus! I was already freaked out — 

“On the Entropine, this feel­ing is real.”

I understood no part of that sen­tence.

“The Entropine requires fearlessness. If your mind is not free of fear, absolutely free, in the moment that we land, you will die. It will be instant and painless, but — you will die. We are land­ing soon.”

She paused. Her eyes were locked onto mine, and they were burn­ing with concern. I was now totally in love with her, and sad that our romance would be so short-lived.

“It is the law of the island. Do you understand?”

So what do I do? And what are you going to do? (She was so full of empathy. It was rub­bing off on me.)

“I will meditate, as I always do,” Gabriella said. “There are many ways. You could visu­al­ize a bright star burn­ing in your chest. Some peo­ple sing or chant. I imag­ine myself as large as the moon, orbit­ing the earth — 

A chord played through the PA and the cabin rus­tled to life. Many pas­sen­gers stood and reached into over­head bins. Out came: books, beads, totems, amulets, crystals, chimes, and at least one full-sized gong.

Gabriella glanced up, then back to me. Her face was so sad. I wanted to tell her it was okay: I was bound to die on a strange spir­i­tual air­line at some point. It might as well be now.

“I need to go,” she said. “We are land­ing very soon. I believe that you can do this. Good luck.”

She stood and smoothed her skirt with both hands, then repeated it, her strange inflec­tions tilt­ing every syllable: “I believe that you can do this.”

Then she glided to the front of the cabin and disappeared.

Here’s the irony: I have never once been afraid of fly­ing. Par­tially it’s the sleeping, of course. But it’s also because I understand flight. I know how it works. I know — here’s the secret — it’s not that hard. It’s not as mag­i­cal as our mam­mal brains want to make it seem. And therefore, it’s not as dangerous.

I know all that. And now I’m terrified, because this isn’t about flight at all.

Props. The other pas­sen­gers all have props. Foci. Instruments. Tools.

Maybe I have tools, too.

The brief­case was made of thick plastic, and it came eas­ily out of the over­head bin. It was dark gray, with heavy metal snaps. I held it on my tray table, palms on the rough lid. My fin­gers were splayed across the faded biohazard sticker.

I slid the key out of my pocket and released the lock. I took a deep breath, and opened it.

A wave of sharp smells gusted out into the cabin’s anti­sep­tic atmosphere. There was an edge of alcohol, astrin­gent and preservative, but mostly the odor was dry and dusty, with a strong cur­rent of decay.

The brief­case was com­pletely full — a solid rec­tan­gu­lar brick of gray fuzz and shrapnel.

It was a liquefied bird.

Here’s another secret: The Smith­sonian has a side­line in bal­lis­tic ornithology. That is to say: bird collisions. We employ more ornithol­o­gists than any­where else, and we pos­sess more bird spec­i­mens than every­where else put together. So every year, we get over 4,000 samples, almost all of them from air­ports, of birds that have been pulled through pro­pellers or sucked into jet engines. We take the remains and iden­tify the species that was shredded.

We charge a lot of money for this.

The bird (or birds) in the brief­case came from run­way three at JFK. It (they) got sucked into the star­board engine of an Emi­rates Air­bus A340 last night. That engine is a Rolls-Royce Trent 500 turbofan, which is noto­ri­ous at the Smith­sonian. We call it the Goose Magnet.

And sure enough, based on the loca­tion and a quick look at the fuzz, this morn­ing I’d guessed, with confidence: Canada goose. But I’d con­firm it in the lab later today.

Or, alternatively, I wouldn’t.

I looked down at my box of splin­tered bone and snarge. What now?

There was a man in the row next to me, in the mid­dle seat, across the aisle. He was long-limbed and per­ilously gaunt, with a curly black beard. He was wear­ing a brown cas­sock and a neck­lace threaded with rodent skulls. He noticed the smell — you couldn’t not notice it — and leaned over to investigate. His eyes were sharp and wild. He looked at the briefcase, then up at me, then back down at the brief­case, and finally up at me again — looked me right in the eye — and said: “That is fuck­ing great.”

I could feel the strange pres­sure of descent; we were com­ing down fast. My heart dropped into a highly-inefficient gear and sud­denly it was beat­ing six hun­dred times a second. If I fainted, would that count as fearlessness? Maybe I could knock myself out. I held my breath.

The pres­sure.

The cabin began to rat­tle and hum, but it was the pas­sen­gers mak­ing the noise, not the plane. They were click­ing pat­terns through prayer beads, tap­ping tiny drums, chanting, moaning, throat-singing. Breathing — some slow and deep, some sharp and percussive. My neigh­bor with the beard and cas­sock was inhal­ing and exhal­ing like he was shoot­ing bullets, going ah-HUH, ah-HUH.

I looked down at the brief­case and did the only thing I could do: I went to work.

The feather grade was light, and the fibers didn’t hold together. Bad nutrition. City bird. The bone-splinters were long, and they’d split along the axis. A glider, not a flapper. No sign of iridescence; prob­a­bly (but not definitely) female. I raked my fin­gers through the brief­case, sift­ing avian after-mat­ter, look­ing for the tell-tale.

The cabin’s grav­ity shifted; the plane’s nose was lifting.

Don’t think about the plane. Think about the bird.

The bird passes through the plane, but the bird is still the bird.

That’s what Dr. Prandtl-Glauert always says. My boss. “The bird is still the bird.” All remains can be identified, no mat­ter how man­gled or incomplete. Always. Because the bird is in there.

There! Two blue-gray shards of beak. The clues snapped together. You were not a Canada goose. You were a sil­ver spot­ted church raven.

There was a declar­a­tive thump and the plane rocked and my blood ran cold but it was ecstasy: my cold-running blood. I felt it. I was alive.

A chord of arrival rang over the PA. The hum of the engine was already fading. Gabriella came rushing down the aisle, squirming past the passengers all packing up their things — she knocked a fez off someone’s head and made someone else drop their gong — and when her eyes met mine (my ecstatic living eyes, not the cold staring eyes of the dead) relief washed across her face. She said something in that other language, something I couldn’t understand.

She stopped short when she saw the briefcase, and smelled the smell, but then nodded, and looked again (some­thing about this brief­case inspires a double-take) and broke out laughing.

“You did it,” she said with a grin. “I have no idea how, with that”—pointing, disbelieving — “but you did it!”

The bird passes through the plane, but the bird is still the bird. I said it solemnly. Tell that to the next pas­sen­ger who wan­ders through the wrong gate.

Thank you, Gabriella, for your help.

“Well,” she said, still laughing — it was the laugh­ter of weird relief, the kind that’s close to crying — “now I suppose I can wel­come you! Welcome”—she struck a pose and spread her hands, as if I could see any­thing outside this cabin, out­side this aisle — “to the beau­ti­ful island of St. Entropy!”

October 2010, SFO ✈ JFK

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