Some things you can’t figure out. Not even with a whole heap of scratch paper and a ribbon of data from a chattering Teletype machine. Not before time runs out. And time is like progress—she’s not stopping for anybody.
The answer is out there, though, in the weather.
Foul weather breeds foul deeds. Something my mother used to say. She said it even when I was a kid, before I ever went into the forecasting business. Before I had a career as a young man and then the new computers showed up and the whole science of meteorology went and left me behind. Before I became just an old man with his pencils and maps.
Back then, I thought my mother was foolish. Thought she was just making it up off the top of her head when she used sayings like that. But now I know better. Those sayings come from somewhere. An old, forgotten place where time has worn the words down hard and shiny as coins. When I think back on it, I figure my ma had a lot more wisdom than I ever gave her credit for.
Mothers are like that.
It was a long, long time before I could sit down here at my kitchen table and gather the tools of my old trade. Spread out an obsolete weather map and flatten it down without my hands shaking. Weight the corners. Sharpen my pencils. Try not to scream until my maps are clean and smooth, my raw weather data is bound and ready, and my theory on what went impossibly wrong can finally be laid out in crisp, clean pencil lines.
Patterns of weather. Patterns of anger.
The memory of Flight 7126 is an open wound in my mind. There is a woman’s face that has stayed with me for years, like a nasty scar. In the second before she died, her eyes were wide and black. Her lips cracked with frostbite. When she spoke, I could see she had a mouth full of stained teeth. And even though it was awfully loud on that airplane, her words sliced straight through the bedlam and rang in my ears clear as a bell.
The flight landed safe, understand. The storm was rough—rougher than you can imagine—but all of us made it through. All but her. And the odd thing was, when we touched down, not one of us passengers could recognize the other. Husbands and wives, mothers and children, anonymous folks. The tires bit into the tarmac and we rolled to a stop with so many questions lodged in our throats.
But, like I said, the answer is in the weather, see?
On my map, I can chart it out plain as day. I don’t need one of those damned computers to know what I’m looking at. Flight 7126 was headed north over the Arabian Sea. Five hundred miles east of Somalia. That gnarled horn of Africa rooting blindly out into the water. During monsoon season, the Somali jet stream comes howling off those barren plains and spills out over the open sea. And on that day, I believe the wind carried something terrible with it.
I always take the window seat. As a former meteorologist and chief weather forecaster for the 30,000 or so folks in greater Sequoyah County, it’s almost a compulsion of mine to sit over the wing and watch the weather patterns unfold. I like to say that riding in an airplane is my version of a biologist’s field expedition. I’m at peace up there among the cloud formations and fronts and thermoclines.
I can plot and analyze the behavior of every weather phenomenon happening from the Ozarks to the Tibetan highlands, but the trick is to get out there and see it evolve—learn where the patterns came from; where they’re going and why. Sure, a computer can predict where Jupiter is going to be in 1,000 years, to the centimeter, probably, but I defy you to show me the man or computer who can grasp the full complexity of a simple country thunderstorm.
It is an ancient and uncontrollable thing. The weather puts awe into my heart. It has since I was old enough to squint into a sunset.
And this storm… let me tell you, she was magnificent. A towering armada of cumulonimbus clouds, plowing over the sea in battle formation. Bruised and throbbing, laced through with lightning strikes like impurities through marble. It was a classic configuration—a flanking line of rolling cumulus clouds followed by the main tower, anvil-shaped, coming at us low and headstrong over shadowed water, dead flat on the bottom but steepled 10,000 feet high. The sea down there must have been hot and angry. Spewing raw mechanical energy up into the air, fueling the looming thing above.
One minute the sun was hard and round as a cat’s-eye shooter marble and the next it blinked out behind the beast. We were all of us thrown into twilight.
I don’t know how to describe it, but the mood darkened. The engine seemed to drop an octave, took on a hoarse wail. I could feel the vibration surging through the walls, straining against the floor under my feet. Like a voice trapped in the corners of things, trying to whisper secrets to me in a dead language.
There was a perfectly nice older lady sitting across the aisle. A gray-hair with chunky reading glasses and one of those wispy scarves around her neck. She was knitting with long needles and I found myself imagining what it would be like to snatch her needles away. To dig my fingers into her graying bun of hair, push a blunt needle up under those reading glasses. Over her cheek and under her sagging eyelid. Hold her head tight as she struggled in my arms.
The lady glanced over at me like she could read my mind. I turned away, dumbfounded by my sour thoughts—but not before I saw it. Just a flash, but unmistakable. She had no expression on her face, just this dead glazed look in her half-lidded eyes. But there was a sudden snarl on her lip, there and gone. I got it, then. That nice old lady was thinking evil thoughts. Just like me.
And then we were inside the storm.
The armada had risen up from below and consumed our little pocket of air wrapped in metal. A spatter of jet-speed hail hit the plane, pinging into it like ball bearings. It was as if the storm were trying to skin us, trying to pry open every seam and decapitate every bolt to get at the people inside. The hum of the engines dropped again and I’m not sure how to say it but that strange twilight atmosphere took on real weight. Like diving too deep, the pressure crushing in on your sinuses from every angle at once.
A few people started to cry, then.
The man behind me began murmuring to himself. Strange talk about green waters and dead branches and gates. Right away, I got this image in my head of how he might look with his throat slit. Head cocked to the side, tongue straining as he tried to gulp pressurized air. Blinking my eyes, I tried to shake the vision out of my brain. But the darkness of the storm had settled in.
The man behind me made an odd squeak then, and I made a bad decision.
I twisted around and snuck a look between the seats. In that sliver of space I found the familiar overweight guy. He was propped back in his seat, uncomfortable, wearing a foot brace and a Panama hat. Blue shirt, white pants. The guy had a silver pen gripped in one pudgy hand. And the tip of the pen, well, he had it jammed under the nail of his index finger, the broken fingernail tilted up and cracked like a ship pushing through an ice sheet. Blood was throbbing out in scarlet spurts, spattering onto his pants. The fella had a smile on his sweaty face, like a jack-o-lantern with the candle blown out. Eyes big and empty and dark.
And giggling. That squeak I’d heard before. It was a damned giggle.
I startled when the flight attendant stopped in the aisle next to me. Nearly jumped out of my skin as she clamped her fingers onto my shoulder. What with me staring through the seats like a three-year-old kid who won’t sit still. I guess I was embarrassed. I put on an automatic polite smile and looked up at her.
My smile faded quick.
It was her eyes, understand. A thin gold chain hung limp across her freckled chest. And her eyes glittered the same as the dull metal—just, no life in them. Only the dead mechanical reflection of splintered lightning in the darkness outside. I tried to speak, but my voice caught in my throat and all I could do was carp my mouth.
I think that, somehow, she knew what was about to happen. She saw.
To this day I remember that flight attendant very well, which is odd because I only caught that glimpse of her. A skinny lady in a bad-fitting polyester blue uniform. Smoky-black pantyhose. Little blue shoes with a gold buckle. Her mouth was open to ask me something. Or maybe to tell me something.
But the plane ripped open before she could speak.
I remember her hair sort of shivered, like a wave of static electricity was washing through. Then the pale white ceiling dimpled in. A giant knocking hard out there. Asking to be let inside and not taking no for an answer. And then the raging sky opened up behind her head.
Most people don’t realize how dense our atmosphere really is. Honest to goodness, at sea level people are like fish swimming underwater. Wave your arm and you can feel the nitrogen and oxygen bouncing off. But 30,000 feet up is a whole different equation. The upper troposphere is a place where the atmosphere is a quarter as dense as on the surface. You can’t find two molecules of oxygen to rub together to save your life. Thin air, they say.
It’s the domain of storms, and not of men.
When the roof opened up, the plane itself groaned like a bull elephant after being shot in the lungs. Most of the passengers started to scream then, but not all of them. Some started to laugh, god help us. For my part, I was silent, still staring into the face of the flight attendant as the cabin depressurized. That furious African storm that had rushed so far across the sea to greet us was finally here and had made her way inside the airplane to roam among us.
We were all together at last.
The flight attendant was yanked up into the air like a puppet on steel gauge wires. That hole gaped behind her, a hungry mouth. In a flash, though, she caught herself. Her arms and legs darted out with uncanny strength. Newspapers and magazines and trash whipped past her and out into the raging abyss.
Her eyes never left mine, even while they were filling with blood.
In that instant, the flight attendant spoke to me. Her face was nearly out of the plane and frost had already scabbed on her nose and cheeks. She perched above me with the tendons leaping out of her neck, arms splayed out like a spider, her bleeding fingers gripped onto jagged metal. Her lips were moving through a strained smile, and I don’t know how, but her words found my ears.
“Black planets roll,” is what she said to me.
It was then I saw her mouth was full of stained teeth. And though it was a vague feeling, I got the idea that there were more rows of teeth in her mouth than there ought to be. She blinked once; her retinas had hemorrhaged and I thought of an extinct shark. And as she smiled down at me like the specter of death, I wondered at the strength she had to keep from being torn from the airplane. I marveled at how her strange, urgent words had somehow cut through the cyclone and augured into the middle of my head.
And since I’m being honest, here, I’ll tell you something else: I was glad when the flight attendant lost her grip and rude, ugly physics folded her thin body in half and she disappeared through that ragged hole. Glad.
Because when she flew away, I felt the darkness go with her—out into the heart of the storm.
Here in my little house in eastern Oklahoma, I keep the windows open. I’ve always enjoyed letting the weather inside. I like to spread out the welcome mat, so to speak, let her come on in to say hello and visit awhile. The weather is all around me as I sit in my kitchen, plotting these fronts and pressure zones on an antique weather map. Even now, I can smell the rain-kissed scent of the wind as it sweeps in off the Great Plains. My curtains twist in the breeze and I imagine they’re waving hello and goodbye.
I have always loved the weather. Meteorology changed when the computers came and the field marched on ahead and left me behind. But the weather herself always stayed with me. You take the data and plot it and replot it yourself, see? Pressure rises and falls. Fronts advance and retreat. And as the years go by, the patterns seep into your mind. You get a feel for how certain features evolve with time, where the weather came from. Where it’s going next, and why.
Here in my kitchen, I get to thinking about that storm sometimes.
The thing that enveloped our plane that day carried a kind of poison with it, I think. That’s why I tracked her to where she formed. Along the spine of Somalia, where a wall of hot, humid wind collided with a cold front falling hard and fast. With reams of data and pencil shavings and crumbling erasers I followed that bitch of a storm all the way back to where she was created. And that’s where I found my answer.
In the weather.
Technically, it’s in the history book open on my table. Genocide, you understand. My storm rose from a low plateau on the horn of Africa. They say the fields there were clotted with the blood of butchered tribes. Women and children hacked to pieces. Over 4,000 people tore each other apart in a frenzy, on the day my storm was born. A nightmare of rape and slaughter that went on until there was nobody left to tell about it. Not a drop more suffering left.
Did the storm cause it? Or did it cause the storm? Hell, I don’t know. It’ll take a better forecaster than me to answer that question. Maybe some kid will sit down at a fancy computer and figure it out one of these days.
But foul weather breeds foul deeds.
My mother said it for years, and I ignored her. But she was right all along. We’re each of us a part of the breeze and the rain and the sunlight. The weather is with us always, lurking quiet in the background of our lives. She’s a punishing rainstorm while you change a flat tire. The breath of sweet wind on your neck as you kiss a girl out behind the gymnasium. And she is other, darker things.
Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 21, November 1, 2014.