There’s a legendary cliff, somewhere in Sonora, I’m told, from which it’s possible to fly.
I can imagine the first man to leap from that bluff. He removes his hat, slicks his hair, and straightens his shirt. He says a quick prayer, and begins to run. Up and over ruddy gravel. His bare feet pucker on sharp edges. There is blood in his footprints. His lungs burn. Sweat congeals in his eyes. And then the sun fills his vision. He falls up into that column of air. He’s caught, thrown up, skittering free, flipping like a cat’s toy. Spinning, he catches glimpses of the desert; his horse, the thin trail, all slipping away. He bleeds tears, big and hard as rock salt. Rising, his vision is filled by blue. He hears only ripping speed. Perhaps the shirt is stripped from his back, perhaps his limbs are broken by the force. Either way, he is borne into the sky-world ignominiously – an unwelcome intruder.
I’ve encountered two conflicting stories. In the first, more prosaic version of the legend, those leaving the clifftop are caught by the updraft and rise a few hundred feet before the column is broken by intersecting wind, at which point they fall to their deaths. But in other versions, something magical happens: There, high above us, in a band of elastic atmosphere, the travelers are trapped, frozen flies in amber, drifting in a train of broken corpses. Suicides and adventurers, lips cracked, fingers curled and bitter, trapped in a hidden band of convection.
The diaries and letters of early aviators largely conform to the second version. In one memorable account, a pilot speaks of reaching from his open cabin and touching the mist of dead men, his nails scraping against frozen shocks of hair, breaking stubble that is caught in wingtip vortices and dispersed.
There are still stranger accounts.
In some versions, the dead bodies become a kind of reef. Life accretes. Swallows and wind-lost moths harbour in the folds of their bodies, building nests of stolen tobacco and pubic hair. Slow-flying pelicans graze the sluggish currents, mouths wide and filtering, gripping slippery sparrows from oozing vapour, slow and graceful as whales. Albatrosses, wingspans of fifteen feet or more. Lammergeyer that blot the sun, feathers smooth as polished brass.
In the late 90’s, during the dot-com bust, I met and interviewed “X”, a onetime poet and electrical technician. His clever fingers were tanned with cigarette smoke, and he made no secret of his addiction to methamphetamine. He lived in New York City.
I began each morning by wandering the outer edges of Central Park near my hotel (I never mustered the courage to fully penetrate that tamed wilderness – it struck me as unbearably sad, surrounded on all sides by indifferent steel). Sometimes I would listen to recordings of our previous conversations. Other times, I would listen to music, running through his story in my mind.
We’d met, of course, through the internet. I’d published a small article on a semi-reputable website, referencing the air-reefs.
RE: YOUR ARTICLE
DEAR MR N.,
I HAVE SOME EXPERIENCE WITH THE FLOATING WORLD. WE SHOULD MEET.
Unbelievably, he claimed to have been a whaler from Nantucket during that island’s short time as the world’s premier whaling port.
“That was hundreds of years ago,” I admonished.
He told me they’d been sailing somewhere “on the line” (that is to say, the equator – presumably close to Mexico). He’d been assigned to morning watch and was sitting on the cross-bar of the mainsail, feet dangling as he watched the sunrise. “Then,” he said, dewy eyes rolling into his skull, “I saw a big whip of air tear across the water. I didn’t even have time to cry out, or jump down onto the deck. The wind caught me and carried me up into the air.
“I passed out, and when I came to, my mouth, ears and nostrils were absolutely coated in dried blood. I looked around, and I was floating. I was convinced I was dead. But then I wiggled around a bit, and I realised, ‘I’m still alive.’
“After a while, I worked out the barriers of my world – too far down, and my arms and legs would get slack and heavy, because the air was too thin to support them. If I went too far up my fingertips would get all crusty and black, because of cosmic rays. It was like I was an eel, caught in a drainpipe in the desert.
“It was three days before I saw the first reef. At the edges it was little animals – dead possums and rats, birds and wild cats. Then, closer to the centre, dogs and livestock. Then a ring of men. At the heart of the reef there was this huge corpse of a dead whale. It was white by the sun and the air, which was incredibly dry.
“I was almost dead of thirst. But I found pockets of water which had gathered in the under-sides of bodies, and I suckled moisture out from the ribs of cows and the whale. For warmth, I took clothes from the dead people. For food, I used this long bit of wood to club birds, and I ate them raw, or allowed them to dry into a kind of jerky.
“In the end, I made a house. My walls were made of dead men. They didn’t smell, and they were as hard as timber.
“It all ended when I came down in a rain-shower. There was this thunder that ripped the reef apart, snapping the band of air. I slipped down the end, falling as slowly as a man sinks in the ocean, and I landed in the streets of Manhattan. Of course, it was several decades later, you understand. Time passes more slowly up there.”
I collated notes, but never did anything with them. After all, who would believe it? I met an old friend of X. She showed me photos of his parents and assured me, “He’s fucked in the brain, man.”
“Yes,” I thought, much later, “but does that mean his story is a lie?”
That summer my own mind went flying. I was living in Idaho, and during those hot nights, windows open, I sometimes felt my body lifting, as if it was suspended on a cushion of air. Based on the aviator’s notes, the stories about the cliff and reefs I’d collected from Mexico and my own spiritual suspicions, I found it impossible to fully discount X.
Several years later, through research on an unrelated article, I met Donald, a commercial airline pilot. His wife was the head of a notorious prayer group, and was involved in a long-running dispute with the county government. Donald was, outwardly, the supportive husband, licking envelopes for her mail drives, helping knit her prayer-shawls. It wasn’t until I got him drunk that he began talking about his life before “rebirth and true christening”.
I mentioned X’s story in passing (in the context of East Coast immorality). Suddenly Donald took my hand, and held me by the shoulder: “Y’know it’s true, because the good Lord says it’s so. That’s what my wife told me, and I’ve come to believe she’s a Prophet.
“It’s the land of angels, and I’ve seen it. Night-flight over Rio: There was low cloud-cover, so we went high. As we were circling a thunderstorm ignited beneath us – BAM! – like a firecracker went off inside the clouds. My co-pilot told me he saw threads of lightning as thick as a Buick.
“We climbed, and those clouds followed us. I kept saying, ‘We’ve got to go back – we’re coming up to the ceiling!” and my co-pilot kept saying, ‘No choice, buddy. There are sparks on the wingtips!
“After about fifteen minutes of constant climbing, I began to feel the engines losing purchase. They’d slip, like a gear under too much pressure. The air was too thin – there was nothing for them to grab onto, y’see?
“And just when I start thinking, ‘Fuck, we’re all dead! I’ve just killed two hundred people,’ I look out the window.
“Remember that it’s night, and remember there’s the Devil’s own thunderstorm beneath us, throwing up brilliant white light:
“I see these men, floating in black soup. They’re twisted into all sorts of shapes – some are raising their arms to the moon, others are curled in on themselves. There’s a blue flame around them – St Elmo’s Fire – and in that light, just for a moment, I saw wings.
“When I came back to earth, I took the first flight to San Francisco. I walked through the door of my house and told my wife, ‘I think you’re right. I think you’ve been right this whole time, and I think the whole Goddamn rest of the world is wrong.’”
Could those wings have been pelicans? The slow-flying lammergeier?
I’ve spent some time on the ground in Mexico, searching for the portal to the Upper Realms. It’s a dreary country, hot and empty of kindness. I’d never seen a dead dog until I came here.
There is a town in Sonora, which I will not name for fear of giving it a bad reputation, which suffers from the highest suicide rate in the whole of Mexico. I traveled there, hoping to find some well-trodden path to a local cliff – some traditional way known as “Dead Men’s Path”.
But in that town, I discovered that men died by shotguns in dirty bathrooms, or in smoking cars, or from tree-branches. I attended with the police, who did not seem to care, and assisted them in their investigations, such as they were. I purchased a house, although I had not intended to stay.
I still keep in regular contact with Donald, and fitfully attempt to reconnect with X. And yet, every time I speak with my contacts, and they type excited and breathless about the mystical world above our heads, I’m reminded of other bodily drifts – the rice paddy where my Father was murdered because he wore glasses (I imagine his limp mouth, invaded by mud and pale insects), the ditches into which Europe’s Jews were discarded, the tangled messes of Stalin’s handiwork.
Here, in my Sonoran town, I’m confronted by the wild anger of death. No matter how odourless, how sanitised a corpse, it’s impossible to clean from it the human misery of death. Every suicide is the same: Beneath the cage of resin, of gums and ivory, I can see the machinery of lip and tongue; I hear sacramental language, hissing breath. Against my cheek, I can almost feel wild kisses. What hidden worlds were measured by those tanned fingers? There is a dead empire beneath those forehead bones, and I am terrified of its abandoned colonnades. The wings of silence spread over him like a lammergeier.
On weekends, I drive into the desert. I stay in the shade of my car, all doors and windows open, and lie across the back seat – brown vinyl sticking uncomfortably to my back. Through the rear window, I can watch the vultures above, and imagine the cushion of air holding them aloft. I wait for nightfall.
In the desert there’s no barrier between a man and the stars. Some are doubtless satellites, crawling through the shallow layers of space. But could others be crystals, caught in reflected city-light, growing on a dead man’s beard? Might others be the desiccated flank of a whale, slowly circling above us? The land of angels? The wood of self-murderers, above our very heads?
I close the doors and windows and open a thermos of coffee. I dare not sleep. Not under that sky.