The Land Beyond

Michael Washburn

You have no idea what to do on your arrival in the city whose name you do not know. You step off the train after a long ride during which you slept fitfully and often, and here in the station people move about so busily that you dare not trouble a stranger with a question no grownup would be in the position of asking. How humiliating is this lack of awareness about where you are and what business you have here. As you make your way through the moving bodies you console yourself with the thought that coming here by train cannot have been a random choice and that, at least in your confused mind, the decision may have saved your life. You think you are smart but the truth is probably far less appealing. You are a coward making a virtue of your own needs.

But at least there is one certainty. You remember vividly the experience of going out to the airport in that remote land that some people, with careless ignorance, continue to call flat, and striding through the terminal until you reached the gate where the agent in a dull beige outfit stood a few feet from an open door, with an infinity of winds and barren land behind him. He reminds you of nothing so much as a ticket-taker at a ride in an amusement park, daring you to come and try your luck in the outdoors extending forever behind him. This agent, this broker and arbiter of chance and luck, welcomes you with total earnestness to try your fortune, to move past him and step through the narrow tunnel and into the belly of a plane whose course you cannot predict but which you have so often imagined falling prone to the whims of a pilot whom it was impossible to screen properly, a plane that might as easily soar toward the moon or the stars as fly on its assigned course.

With a spontaneous decision on the pilot’s part, as sudden as any other he could make, the plane will pivot upward from its ninety-degree angle at liftoff and tip ever more sharply upward until it soars straight towards the heavens, aping the trajectory of a missile that launches and just keeps going and never flips back toward its earthly target, and if you dare to turn and gaze out the oval in the wall of the plane, as you try to ignore the screams and odor of excrement, the fields and the winking lights of towers below will get more and more remote, though the stars will not grow any larger, until the details of the landscape fall away altogether and the planet you leave behind comes to resemble a cheap wooden globe in a sixth-grade classroom. But your view of the receding orb will be fleeting as the plane hurtles further on its course toward the moon, and further and further still, fifty thousand feet, sixty thousand, seventy thousand, eighty thousand, and higher still, and begins to break up amid winds too fast to track and air hitting four hundred below zero.

The pilot must be ill, or crazy, or tired of life. We all know that pilots undergo the most sophisticated forms of screening and evaluation, but even so, a pilot judged healthy and sane can as easily take such a course as make any other decision, and who knows, maybe one of them did. It would not be the first time. They never found out what happened to that DC-4 flying from New York to Seattle back in 1950, or to that military plane on its way from Alaska to Montana the same year, and it is possible that the stars called to the pilot as a river, powerful and susurrant, now call to you. It is quite possible. Those who tout the training of pilots are simply thinking about this the wrong way. No amount of training or screening can anticipate or forestall such a spontaneous decision, so even though you feel that a coward is the worst thing a person can be in this world, you know that flying isn’t for you.

So now here you are, having slept and woken more times than you can recall on the ride over the plains and through the hills and gullies, unable to recall what town you bought a ticket for or how often the train started and stopped over the past two or three or however many days it has been. You do not wish to embarrass yourself with a question a child would ask, and you cannot dismiss the possibility that you have arrived exactly where you hoped, so out you go now into the damp afternoon to try to make what sense you can of things. As you pass out of the station and feel the marble-sized drops splat on your head and shoulders, you tell yourself you are not a toff who must have an umbrella to ward off a few anemic beads, but the rain is building. All around you on the street the forms in raincoats are distant and harried and you guess might misinterpret an unthreatening hand. So your fists stay shoved far down in the pockets of your coat as you make your way down a street stretching far out of sight in the drizzle and mist and gray. Your passage is swift for someone with no idea of where he is or what his purpose might be. In vain you try to discern the details of one of the ovals barely visible between the collar of a raincoat and the brim of a hat, and you scan the windows of the buildings on either side of the street in the hope of detecting a face of no matter what dimensions, any face, the visage of a clown or a dog or a giraffe would be preferable to the dark dreariness filling the space behind all the façades.

As the rain builds and the anonymous forms continue to pass all around and no familiar or recognizable street or monument or building comes into view, you consider begging one of the strangers to stop and share a bit of information. Facts have intrinsic value, you tell yourself, but of course what you crave is contact with another. But none of the faces here in the shifting columns of rain can be familiar to you, so you ask yourself what you think you can really gain. The name of the city around you, for one thing. So you pause and reach out boldly to one of those forms that seemed locked in their course from one point to another in the rain. To your surprise the figure turns and without any hostility or annoyance that you can discern pulls his collar open a bit wider so that he may speak more fluently but you still cannot see your interlocutor’s face.

Here is a man in early middle age who may well hold a position of responsibility and might be interesting to know, and his approachability challenges what you have assumed about all the others shuffling this way and that in the damp, but your concern now is with practical information. He seems to know this and appears happy to oblige with precise directions. Just go south another three blocks and then cross the street going left and keep walking. You thank him and watch him move off among the shambling forms, and then you continue on your way. With light traffic in the street, you do not have to wait long to cross and continue in a direction perpendicular to the one you have gone. Then two blocks over you reach one of the taller buildings, somber and imposing in the mist and, to your eyes, defiant.

You look up at the top floors but the same blurry dark meets your gaze and here is the nature of the defiance, it is the refusal of this edifice to deign to allay your curiosity in the mundane way you expect and demand. You know how dangerous the world is and how resistant to yielding actionable or culpable facts, but you went out of your way to find this building and now your stubbornness asserts itself in the face of this absence. The rain flecks the windows and slides down the façade to the roof of the narrow loggia six feet over your head. It seems the dark behind those semi-obscured panes is testing you, challenging you, daring you to hold your ground, and you know on some level that the self you dream of being is unrealizable unless you can summon the courage to loose the demon, stare it in the face. But heads are turning now on the street as people begin to wonder what your business is here and why you are behaving so oddly. Yes, more heads are turning, you can see that even though the features of the passing men and women are impossible to discern.

With a final look at the rain-lashed glass, you turn and amble back toward the long street. When you reach it, the street defies even your generous notion of its extent and stretches into infinity, its mocking length unobscured by the mists. You think of that agent at the airport who is so much like a gatekeeper, or a ticket-taker at a funfair, daring you to try your luck in the infinity beyond him, and the thought comes now, a most unwelcome thought, that maybe his offer was a good one. You lurch and skid your way over the wet pavement until you cannot maintain even a semblance of balance and the street begins to whirl crazily around you. Then you’re looking up at the clouds and the beads of water are no longer anemic but more like punches, and the people whose faces you cannot see come and crowd around you and they begin to point, and now a far more noxious sound displaces the rain’s hiss. Laugher rises all around at the question passing your lips, the absurd unbelievable childlike question. Don’t you know, don’t you know? You are in the city where you have lived all your life.

Michael Washburn

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

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