I got on the wrong plane with a very strange briefcase, and it might be about to save my life. We’re landing now 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 just a bunch of propeller planes lined up on the pavement with their gangways down, like buses waiting in an elementary school parking lot. 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 a few hours: just enough time to retrieve my cargo, pack it up in a briefcase, turn around and head for home.
The plane was set to land in Washington at 8:20 a.m. and when it did, I would rush straight to the museum. 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 the pilot was pushing us over speed bumps, ignoring them. My eyes snapped opened and my hands clamped down on the seat dividers.
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.
The thumps faded.
I pushed up my window shade and immediately wished I hadn’t.
They must have changed the gate. The JFK–IAD shuttle is 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.
Maybe 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 terminal and I kept shuffling, half-asleep, and the gate agent kept shuffling, half-asleep, and everything just shuffled along.
Or maybe my Epson smudged the barcode in such a way as to produce an encoded string that passed muster. Maybe my boarding pass was defective and yet, presented at 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 certainly a very strange sky.
Third, the plane. My seat was positioned just behind 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 it in the cabin — a low harmonic hum, like an orchestra warming up.
I pressed the flight attendant call button, which was blue, with an icon of a round, 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 cropped close in a neat pixie cut. Over it, she wore a net of sparkling silver links. A queen in exile.
She leaned 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 passed her my pale printout with its United logo. Her eyes widened. “Oh no. This is not right.” She pushed the paper back into my hands like it was contraband, or radioactive, or radioactive contraband. “I am sorry. I don’t know how this could have happened. It is — I am sorry. Please, wait here.”
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.
“Do you know anything at all about this flight?” Her voice was an urgent whisper.
I shook my head. No.
“Then I must — hmm.” She paused, gathering her thoughts. Translating them into English, perhaps. “Do you know the feeling you sometimes get, when there is turbulence, or just before you land — the fear that you are going to die?”
Jesus! I was already freaked out —
“On this flight, that feeling is real.”
Was there a problem with the engine? Was it not supposed to be humming like that? Why wasn’t anyone else —
“On this flight, 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.” She paused. “We are landing soon.” 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?”
What am I supposed to do? What is she going to do?
“I will meditate, as I always do,” she said. “There are many ways. You could imagine a bright star burning in your chest. You could visualize yourself dissolving into dust, then swept apart by the wind. Some people sing or chant. I see 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, gongs, chimes, and at least one sword.
She 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. Partly 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 steady on my tray table, palms on the rough lid, fingers 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 sharp smell gusted out into the cabin’s antiseptic atmosphere. It had an edge of alcohol, astringent and preservative, but mostly the odor was dry and dusty, with a strong note of decay.
The briefcase was completely full — a solid rectangular brick of gray fuzz and shrapnel.
It was a liquefied bird.
The Smithsonian has a sideline in ballistic ornithology. That is to say: bird collisions. We employ more ornithologists than any other institution in the world, and we possess more bird specimens than every other institution put together. So every year, we get over 4,000 samples, mostly 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 in the briefcase came from runway three at JFK. It 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 Grinder.
And sure enough, based on the location and a quick look at the fuzz, this morning I’d guessed, with confidence: Canada goose. I’d confirm it in the lab later today.
Or, as it turned out, maybe I wouldn’t. The PA made another chord, and the icons on the console beside the flight attendant call button all flared blue. A cigarette, a seatbelt, a complicated knot, a single staring eyeball.
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 wild and gleaming. 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 dizzying pressure of descent; we were coming down fast. Suddenly my heart 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 cabin began to rattle and hum, but it was the passengers making the noise, not the plane. They were clicking 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 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 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. You were not a Canada goose after all. You were a silver spotted church raven.
There was a declarative thump and the plane rocked side to side and my blood ran cold but it was ecstasy: my cold-running blood. I was alive.
A chord of arrival rang over the PA. The hum of the engine was already fading. The flight attendant, my flight attendant, my guru, came rushing down the aisle, squirming past the passengers all packing up their things — she knocked a fez off someone’s head and made a woman drop her 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, and broke out laughing.
“You did it,” she said with a grin. “I have no idea how, with that, 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.