In menacing fluorescent caverns, Malcolm Duffy slept.
Occasionally he would muster, adjust a numbing leg or stiffening neck, and doze off again. He was determined to sleep in spite of the distant hiss of taxiing Boeings and the constant clamor of reunions and farewells. To him, such a world needed more escaping.
And so he slept, but his mind was a ceaseless sea of troubles.
The stewardess eyed the sleeping man suspiciously.
Halfway between departure and destiny, the pilot reported a patch of turbulence ahead. The "fasten seat belt" sign lit up just as beverage service had ended. The stewardesses took a cursory stroll down the aisles, helping parents with small children, more or less providing an air of calm to the bumpy proceedings. In circumstances such as these, our watchful heroine's smile did the trick, fetching, mysterious, adept at hiding any signs of worry or want.
But now, as she made her way towards the front cabin, the sleeping man sent a chill of discontent down the stewardess's back. He had been asleep during the takeoff, asleep during the safety instructions, asleep during cart service. And now he slept, in spite of the incessant jostling and jockeying of the plane.
The stewardess was properly trained by the airline to recognize potential security threats, and of the telltale signs, none was more revealing than overt calmness. As captains of their fate, potential terrorists were more often than not dispassionate beings, logical, decisive, and unemotional. On the other hand, this old man seemed not so much tranquil as relieved. Here in the darkened hull of the jet, God's wrath was muted, beating almost absentmindedly against the craft, futilely demanding an audience.
As she buckled her own seat belt, the attendant chalked her suspicions up to her own nerves. Her newfound mistrust of others was a necessary tool - such was the diminution of the human experience in the age of constant worry.
Later, when the plane's throttle gave way entirely and the drone of the engines rose to an endless scream, the stewardess's last thoughts were of the sleeping man, of God's pounding warning, and of the strong conviction that things were never, ever going to be as good as they were.
Malcolm arose from his slumber some time shortly after the left wing had cracked firmly down the middle. One of the engines backfired violently, giving the plane an unnatural twist and sending it spiraling downwards. The pilot's disembodied "M'aidez, m'aidez"s echoed the passenger sentiments: help me, help me ...
Not knowing what to do, Malcolm lowered his head and began to pray. His was a prayer of acknowledgment, a simple resignation to mercy and grace. They had been answered before - in circumstances much more dire - and Malcolm had been reliant on the convenant of God ever since. As he said his prayers, he reached down below his seat, grasping the package he had failed to deliver. And now, he thought, his mouth filling with the bitter taste of regret, it will be lost forever.
The oxygen masks fell, and Malcolm realized as he put his on that he was breathing calmly. As if he were still asleep.
The looming Alps swallowed the plane whole and returned to its dormant state, the rushing winds of outer space the only witness.
Steeped in darkness, Malcolm emerged from the ruins of the airplane, dusting off his miscolored hairpiece with one hand, clutching his rescued parcel with another, wrapped in two of the airline's miniature blankets. He had called out, offering assistance - a nonsense empty gesture, he was of no help to anyone - but his echoes were unreturned.
The man sitting next to him had a ghastly head wound, and did not object to Malcolm's desperate push to reach the aisle. A large section from the rear of the plane had come disconnected from the front. The tailwing had been succinctly annihilated, forming a scarred, twisted cross, and driven down into the cargo holds, making them fairly inaccessible.
Malcolm trudged about 40 feet away from the plane, slipping on the darkened ice twice before settling beneath a small rock outcropping. There he sat, staring at the wreckage that lay before him, alone on a hilltop, listening to the rhythmic gusts of crisp April air inhale and exhale. Soon he was dozing off again, gripping the blankets tightly, the package tighter, wondering if daybreak would bring salvation.
What makes a disaster a disaster? Is it the event or the impact? The moment of destruction - or everything after?
Surely we all agree on the basics. Casulaties. Hysteria. Media saturation. Environmental damage is a big plus. There are, of course, the no-brainers: the sinking of the Titanic, the tsunamis of southeast Asia, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The sheer magnitude of some events grants immediate induction.
But then comes a threshold, something which separates disasters from the merely unfortunate incidents which govern our existence. And this line is far from clear: after all, only 41 people died during the Donner Party excursion, 36 when the Hindenburg burned, 31 at Chernobyl, and (though disputed) perhaps as few as 10 people perished in The Great London Fire; whereas the Spanish flu killed over 25 million people. The number of dead alone does not give the word disaster justice.
191 people died on KLM flight 1352 en route to Prague. Died on Malcolm Duffy's flight. Died.
Perhaps an etymological approach then. The word disaster is Latin in origin, and means bad stars. The Romans thought one's fate could be found in the stars - and when the stars were misaligned, so too was fate. The irony, then: from the universe springs chaos, a son begetting his father.
Deep in the crags of a treacherous mountain, Malcom Duffy waits to die. He is a Pisces.
Is it visibility? If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, is it still a diaster? How many unreported (and underreported) disasters loom in our history? The scores of rapes of the Sabine, the multitudes of Thermopylaes, the endless floods of the engorged Nile, all the diminutions of humanity in time. No, it can't be visibility - surely the unknown disaster is, if anything, more grossly amplified in our head than any known thing, the disturbing truths no match for our self-satisfying imagination. Our fondest hope is that our collective death wish will not be denied indefinitely; we want so desperately to witness the final days, to escape from the mere mortality of ash and dust, and instead join the great mortality, the death of all civilization, of all mankind, of all the world.
Perhaps a disaster is defined more by envy than suffering.
It took three days for rescue teams to reach the wreckage of flight 1532.
What could it be? It must be the suddenness of it, the sheer unexpected nature of it all. In ancient times, people relied on a bureaucracy of prophets, wielders of divined information spat out in endless visions, lectures, and decrees. In such an age of paranoia, misfortunes were not only inevitable but fully prepared for; the surest cure against disaster is constant fear.
In modern times, though, we have thrown out our prophets, rededicated ourselves to men of science, who promise nothing but explanation, something disasters defy with remarkable ease. And we are doubly damned: the possibilities are multiplying at a greater rate than our ability to account for them. To paraphrase a modern prophet, then: in the long run, we really are all dead.
It was the first plane crash by a KLM airplane since 1977, and their first ever in Europe. When pressed for details into the crash, a KLM spokesman merely said, "We don't know what happened, what went wrong. It's a disaster."
The shivering, corruptible mass of Malcom Duffy awoke to a singular calm. The crashing winds that had rolled through the passes the night before had broken, leaving a jarring silence in their wake; the magical reverence of nature had transformed the scene into a dream.
Malcolm now stood up, assessing the situation. The day sky was lit but not bright, but he covered his eyes as he walked back to the plane to search for food and water. He re-entered the deck cautiously, avoiding eye contact with the dead, remembering the parachutes he had knit during The War, how futile it had all been, the soldiers, the children, the rabbi's bloodstained face -
"No one else is alive."
Instinctively, Malcolm gripped the package in his hand tighter, turning around to see who spoke so calmly in such a predicament. It was another man, older than even Malcolm, greybearded, Semitic, offering a sympathetic smile to share between them, a covenant of relief in their last days. Malcolm loosened his grip on the package; he did not smile back.
"We'll have to build a fire. Were you in the Wandervogel?" The old man raised an eyebrow at Malcolm, seeking more than the answer to this question.
"No, but I can make a fire," Malcolm answered wearily. He set the package down, his eyes lazily following the other man, who had begun collecting blankets and pillows from the aisles. Malcolm noticed the man had a limp (perhaps exaggerated by the cold) but a barrel chest and strong, far-seeing eyes. It comforted Malcolm to know he was not alone, but it was an empty comfort, starving, muted, a quiet echo of a decaying future.
There is no joy in the conventions of storytelling, only science. Witness the ultimate story: all of our lives begin in medias res, climax quickly, rarely provide a theme (beyond serving as a warning to others), and just as quickly as we picked up steam, we are forced to abandon it for other passages.
We are the poorest work, of the grossest order. We are easily deciphered, our conflicts but minor blips on an ocean of monotony, reflections on the monotony of monotony itself. We are so rarely at peace with ourselves, so rarely aware of our lot, that to do so for any short bit of time leaves us pretty much flat out for the rest of the week.
This is where we find Malcolm Duffy.
The fire was small but adequate, and the two men dined quietly on their rudely cooked portions of albacore. The older man's name was Emanuel, Manny for short. He was German-born but living in Switzerland. He was a professor of cosmology, heading to a conference in Prague. All of this information he surrendered without any prodding from Malcolm.
"And you, what led you here?" the man asked, a profound sense of interest emanating from within him.
Malcolm stared down at the fire, its serpentine flames licking at the tips of his boots. As the sun had faded, the winds had begun to billow again, casting an ominous wave on the plane's cracked exterior. What had once seemed like a shelter now served as a prison.
"I was paying a visit to my old hometown. Humpolec, do you know of it? It is near on the old border between Moravia and Bohemia." He offered a nervous laugh. "On the Moravian side, of course."
"I'm afraid not. My Czech is very poor, my geography even worse. So you were visiting, do you have relatives there?"
Malcolm spoke without realizing. "Oh, yes, my father was a policeman there, and my sister Esther ..." He trailed off, his warm eyes dulling as his memory returned. "They are gone, of course. I only go to visit the synagogue now."
The old man took a breath to ask another question, and then thought better of it. He rubbed his left arm quietly, though the wind had long since vanished.
Maybe at this point it would be a good idea for you to just walk away from the rest of this story. They are just two men, after all, two old men trapped on a mountain, stuck in limbo. They are the cat in Schrodinger's bag; if you walk away, just click away from this page, just stop reading, you can save them. (If you did, do they cease being men and become merely characters or cease being characters and become merely men?) They will exist, they will have their unexpected genesis, their unresolved exodus, and that might be enough. We don't have to answer for bitterness, for sorrow, for the unendingly cold universe; we hardly ever do. Here in convenient worlds of our own creation we play God. We divine truth by entrapping it, collapsing it, depriving it of the substantially infinite dimension of myth. Whatever the author says is true is always true: the doubts are truth, the unsaid is truth, the spaces between the notes, a performance of closing doors, passive restraints, casting spotlights and killing shadows.
Perhaps it is best if you know right now: the old man, he doesn't make it. He's too old, too fragile. How did he even survive the crash? (And in such good shape! (You could ask the same of Malcolm, but you probably hadn't. (He's the main character in a short story, and that is good enough for most of us. (The act of suspending disbelief is complete before the first word emerges. (Such is the power of literary hope. We pounce upon the symbols, we judge our conflicts by schema tables, we diagram, we reference, we annotate. (We never doubt.))))))
Is it enough to simply say that the author does not know how his own story will end? Then I am as concerned as you are about Malcolm. But that's not true - I'm not concerned about him, I know how this story will end, I wrote the ending before the beginning, the process beneath the product. Only the writer's intentions can be unrealized; only the author's calculus governs. The true sign of the creator is the indifference to his work, the exhausted abandonment, the hunger and the metamorphosis. In creating, the creator is destroyed, rising again not as the phoenix reborn but the chrysalis transformed. And like the work, the old is abandoned, punctuated by the feeling of escape, release, relief.
So much of life is driven by the prospect of change.
On the morning of the third day, The two men clamored to the edge of the southern precipice, searching for anything in the craggy, gaping maw of earth below. They saw nothing through the deep mist but a few birds idly searching for food: scavengers.
Rising off his knees, Manny addressed Malcolm. "We need to head down the mountain. It is our only chance. The search planes, they can't see anything through this fog. If we can just make it down the mountain, where it's not as cold, we can hike our way out."
Malcolm studied Manny for a moment, eyeing the older man's oddly cocked ankle, the weariness behind the smile, the dust of ages. He rubbed his finger thoughtlessly against his guarded package, thinking of all of the only chances he had not taken. His acceptance was more of resignation than resolve.
The two now packed as much food and water as they could into a knapsack; they found a flashlight in an emergency kit. "The bulb is dimming," Manny noted. "We'll have to use it wisely."
Manny took the lead, the two men tied together at the waist. The crisp air suggested promise, but little else agreed. As they made their way down the steepest face between them and safety, Manny began idly chatting again. His serenity was at constant odds with Malcolm's dizzying worry. He had not slept more than an hour since that first night. The realization of his failure, the lack of excuses, after so many excuses had been offered ..
" ... and so they discovered almost 20 more stars before they realized that someone had toyed with the dials!" Manny cackled, relishing the tale as any appreciative audience would. They pushed their way around a small arete, leaning on it for balance as they inched towards a flat patch of snow fifty feet below. Malcolm was hesitant, and was constantly feeling the taut tugging of their connecting rope, overcoming his sloppy footing and exhaustion.
"So, tell me, Malcolm, what is it in that package of yours?" It was the question he had not asked the night before. "Are you holding out on me? Some nice pate maybe, or some fine Brie?" He smiled back at his companion as he maneuvered down the mountain, daring Malcolm to share his burden.
Malcolm reluctantly offered, "a few baubles"; Manny was unimpressed.
"Baubles? Some rusty music boxes, then, or some costume jewelry - and you hold them so close? Well, I'm no thief, but if I were, a few baubles you can keep." Again, that enigmatic smile, shrouded in a scraggly beard and portent.
"Yes, they are of little value," Malcolm agreed hurriedly, his feet again slipping as he gripped the mountainside a little too tightly, favoring caution over urgency. He did not favor Manny's boldness; he watched several times as Manny's ankle buckled tenuously in the loose snow, and in those moments terror became him.
"Perhaps not to the thief, but to you, they clearly are of a great value. Tell me, then, what are they?" Manny's curiosity was no longer tempered by propriety; he was tired of telling stories, and was in the mood to hear one now instead.
Malcolm stared down into the abyss before him. Such oblivion. If he did not survive, all of this wouldn't matter. But if Manny survived, and knew about the package ...
"Torah scrolls, you've seen them? The real ones, the ones as old as sin."
Manny stopped mid-stride, turned to face Malcolm, his curiosity focusing into a single furrowed brow. He nodded expectantly.
And this is what Malcolm told him.
Can you imagine the guilt of Catholic priests?
The horrible deeds recalled in the strictest confidence, their own befuddled sense of betrayal, that such a God would forgive such things, and would use them as the conveyors of such unworthy news. Their ever-increasing conspiratorial obedience to those they fear and loathe.
Can you imagine their mistrust?
The idea that even the most heinous confessions hold back, lack detail and unfettered truth, that for every sin revealed, ten more are cast into the dark history of man. This is what encompasses the lives of those who the power of the Lord's infinite understanding are thrust upon. And yes, they do come to understand. Understand evil, and passive-aggressive annihilation, and conceit, the vanity and the hypocrisy, the cloak and the dagger.
And then to realize that this dark seed was indoctrinated into us from the first, that these injustices, these travesties, they litter our backstory, envelop it, and that we are the product of a trillion faults and failures.
Can you imagine their sorrow?
"Humpolec had three of the finest scrolls in the world. When the Germans began the invasion, everyone tried to save what they could, ship it east, racing to the Russian border, outrunning the wickedness. My father, he used his connections to send Esther away, to friends in Yugoslavia. He and I stayed behind, to help other women and children. My father secretly hoped for an army of the people to rise, and we would be safe through our numbers. But then they came, and there was no army, and there were no numbers."
"It was an awful time to be alive."
"Yes - and yet, I don't know --"
"Anyway. When they came to Humpolec, there was very little fighting. They only sent a handful of troops, some cars with mounted guns - it was so casual. My father planned to stay and fight them, to rebel in secrecy as long as he could. I was to be his lookout, but - I am no hero. I ran. And as I ran, I could only think of my salvation, and I thought of those scrolls, and the beautiful silver crowns that sealed them. In the church then, while I heard the first gunshots of victory, I took them all. That night I slipped off into the countryside, first south into Hungary, then east into Romania. A boat to Turkey, then Greece. It was there that I sold them."
"You sold the crowns? Then what is in the pack-"
Malcolm continued on, his words flowing out in rhythmic, unceasing waves. "I had no money, no food, nothing but the clothes on my back. I sold them, yes, or rather I traded them for passage on a ship bound for Brazil. I spent 5 years in Brazil, I learned how to sew, I began working in a tailor's shop, and at nights I would head to the piers, to help the other emigrants, and to interrogate them. Always I asked about Humpolec, if anyone had news of Humpolec, but there was never any. Then after the war ended, I was told there was an office in Washington, D.C. that was collecting information on emigrants, to help them find lost relatives. I wrote to them right away, and they wrote back saying they had no records of my father or my sister, but that they would let me know if they received anything."
"I waited two years for word from them. I returned to Europe - to Switzerland - and opened my own tailor's shop. By then, Humpolec had become part of the Soviet bloc, and was closed to the West. I was an enemy to my home now. And as I waited, I knew in my heart that they were gone, and I had failed them, failed my people, failed God. Twenty years I anguished, the misery of my cowardice on me always, and worse, to steal hope itself! And now I am being punished, even though I came to return these!"
And he spilled open his package. Two ornate crowns fell to the earth, shimmering in the froth-white snow.
"I had finally gotten up the courage, too, to return them to Humpolec, to face my shame. But now they'll be lost on this mountain, an empty memory, the forgotten proceeds of evil."
Manny carefully kneeled over and gingerly picked up the crowns in his gloved fingers. He handed them back to Malcolm and stepped back. Then he spoke, softly, but with great resolve.
"Se sarà scritto in cielo ..."
"Se sarà scritto in cielo che dobbiamo morire, avremo almeno la gran consolazione di morire abbracciati insieme. From Pinocchio. 'If it is written we must die, then it is a great consolation we die together.'" He paused to pick up his own bag, and kicked snow off his boots.
"Come on, then. Let's not let such impossible bravery go to waste."
And the two men continued down the gullet of the mountain.
They had not gone too far when they reached another crevice. They approached it slowly, watching their steps with nimble fear. They were nearly two-thirds of the way around it when it happened, that awful sound of bones cracking and snapping. Manny let out a powerful wail, his foot twisted in a hidden hole, and he slipped, crashing down the sides of the crevice, dragging Malcolm with him. At the last second before momentum edged them both into darkness, Malcolm stuck his arm out, snatching a craggy outcrop near the abyss's edge.
Manny wailed again as his body jerked to a stop, his body limp from exhaustion and panic, a grotesquely frozen figurine. He looked up now, his once-friendly eyes a mix of indignation and terror, to Malcolm. And then he saw Malcolm's predicament: Manny's weight being so much greater than his own, he simply could not support the both of them for much longer.
"You must return to Humpolec, and you must right what is wrong. For Esther, for your father. Fix these things."
Malcolm heard these words in distant tones, the last vestiges of consciousness before the dream, and then he watched with fragile helplessness as Manny undid the knot at his chest, slipped his surly bonds, and was swallowed up by the mountain once more.
A disaster is defined by its suddenness.
A miracle, then, is simply a disaster defied.
Some time later, after the hospital and the newspapers and the recovery, Malcolm Duffy sat in a beautiful, intimate synagogue he had not seen in 50 years. Little had changed - a new altar, a few new paintings to replace those long since stolen. Yet it seemed not only foreign to him, but abnormal, a place of such light and comfort that he could not keep his eyes open.
He had delivered the crowns to the synagogue's rabbi-in-training, a 25 year old man with a grating laugh and cauliflower ears. An Israeli reporter stood near by, snapping a photo now and then between furious scribbling on a notepad. It was a short ceremony : a prayer summarizing the mysterious glories of God, a brief handshake and a hug, and then it was over, and Malcolm Duffy could at last rest.
And so he had sat, in a pew near the back of the temple, his eyelids closed, a prophetic smile on his face as he recalled Manny's childish glee in conversing about the stars, the wondrous secrets they promised to reveal, the infinite escapes they promised to allow, and the endless hands that steered them onwards.