I do not know for how long we traveled The Beneath, that harsh terrain on which the grounded go lost and flightless, nor could I explain to you how we survived with little sustenance, as the children did not seem the least bit interested in foraging for food and collecting water. We seemed to navigate these barren ridgelines, these wind-swept rocks, these chalky, infertile grounds under miraculous power, as if some gods had mistaken us for blessed and cleared for us an easy path. We had only to follow that path as it wound its way through the ruined foliage and splintered earth, hoping as we went that we might come across some hidden, but well-appointed pasture in which to halt for the night.
The weather, oddly, suspiciously, moved with us, but at a respectful distance. A satisfactory hole in the cloud cover, through which the pleasant sun and blue sky showed themselves, appeared occasionally above our heads while the thunderstorms shed their electric charges on the smoldering earth around us. When we slept, a fog descended over our makeshift campground, draped itself loosely about our bodies so as to hide us from our fates. Despite my avowed hatred for the rotten ground, I could not help but collapse in exhaustion upon it after each day’s journey. I suspect the children fared little better than I, though they had long ago resigned themselves to such a transient existence.
I was the newcomer, the latest to have fallen from the sky.
In the morning, we awoke in time to see yet another flying machine plummet into the distant hills at our back and disappear among the burning forests in the valley below. The children stowed our bedrolls and other equipment, strapped my body into the travel hammock, and broke camp. They had developed a practical but necessary routine of survival, one to which I had to strictly adhere if I ever hoped to return to all I cherished in my life: my wife, my son, my skies.
I remember very little of the crash itself, though I can very well imagine the violence of its activity, having long studied crashes of years past: the flight logs of now-dead aviators, the published reports of accident investigation committees, the leaked transcripts of the dying crew’s last words as they sought absolution from the gods. If pilot error had caused my own crash, then consider this story my attempt at rectifying that error, for in it you will find evidence of my suffering the consequences of my mistake. Please forgive me.
But, if some unpredictable force had exerted itself on my flying machine and sent it spiraling into The Beneath, then read in my words a mournful prayer, for I too have unfairly lost the altitude of my life, and for that, I deserve your sympathy.
In either case, what follows here is as complete a retelling as I can muster. Be aware that my retelling suffers the unfortunate drag of a faulty memory, one that makes unwieldy the flight of each sentence as it journeys across the page, and so you should read these lines with as much hopeful skepticism as I do, for I have yet to discover how I might gain passage home.
I recall sheltering anxiously in the wreckage, the eerie sound of creaking metal, cracking wood, the pops and snaps of the flying machine breaking apart in the canopy of the trees. I loosed my body from the collapsed structure of the cockpit, and reached out to my commanding officer, an elderly, ancient pilot of the guild, someone who had guided me throughout my early course of study, finally endorsing my appointment as first officer on his airship.
Sadly, I could do nothing for him.
I climbed out of the flight deck and painfully straddled a tree branch to gain my bearings. Below me bits and parts of the flying machine lay strewn throughout the underbrush, and among them curled the numerous bodies of our unfortunate passengers, bent and strained in unnatural forms like some frantic punctuation on the forest floor.
Hello? I called, meaning to make my way toward the nearest voice, but none greeted me.
In the distance, I heard the slight cry of a baby, and as I turned to peer into the gloom of the trees, my legs slipped from around the tree branch.
When I next awoke, I found myself in the company of children. They had made a cradle of their arms—their tiny, pink, swollen arms—and lifted me free of the forest floor. They carried my body to the shadowy bank of a nearby stream, and set me down on the moss and ferns. They fed me a warm concoction from the rubber nipple of a baby’s bottle. Some poked me and prodded me as if to tempt me toward exertion, though I believe now they merely meant to check my body for injuries, of which I had many. They spoke to each other as though I could not hear them.
An aviator, one said.
Where are his epaulets? asked another.
He’s no aviator.
I made to speak, to assure them that I was an aviator, but I could only cough from the pain in my chest and throat. I blinked and regarded them closely. A circle of rounded faces looked down at me, each one full cheeked and muddy, crowned by wisps of hair and makeshift caps. Their wondrous eyes seemed to twitch and turn with excitement, though I could not tell in the glow of the burning wreckage if they focused on me or on some deadly insect crawling across my forehead. For some time they deliberated as to what they might do with me, and I soon understood that while many of them thought I could be of some help to their purpose, a small number of them believed me to be a bad omen, a gremlin of The Beneath come to distract them from their mission. A small girl began to sharpen sticks that she had retrieved from the forest floor, small roughened sticks that she distributed to everyone, and I shuddered to think of their use, having suddenly recalled the stories of my own childhood, in which captured gremlins often met terrible ends.
One of the children smoked an intricately carved pipe, the tip of which he tapped now and then against the front of his tiny teeth as he thoughtfully listened to the others bicker, and I figured him to be their leader, so careful were his movements. After some time, he stepped closer to me, and the children hushed as he bent down to examine my ruined uniform. Blood had slowly spread across my chest and neck, my torn shirt, my tie, my jacket. The boy methodically unbuttoned my shirt, and when he pulled it open, he beckoned for the others to look. There, buried in the flesh of my chest, was my metal insignia pin—my wings—the force of the impact with the ground having crushed it there into me.
You’re our pilot now, the boy said.
So began my life with the children of wreckage, a troupe of stranded children who traveled The Beneath, a collection of sole survivors, those precious babes who had by some miracle lived through the most terrifying of crashes. They had gathered themselves into a collective and had made The Beneath their temporary home as they together sought out means of one day finally returning to their parents, if only they could rise high enough.
I was to help them build a flying machine.
Despite my broken body, my shattered limbs and joints, I helped them as best I could. They carried me with them in a makeshift travel hammock, the largest of the children alternately dangling me between them as we moved from one debris field to another, sites of past, present, and future crashes.
It seemed to me that the children often repeatedly visited the scenes of their own crashes, at which the survivor dutifully found his spot on the ground and lay there, curled up and dreaming of his mother and father, the gentle way they had sat with him as the flying machine began its plummet, how they had wept over him until the very end. The others stood respectfully some distance away, lit a fire, and prepared a bowl of pretend porridge to warm the sleeper upon his waking from the dream. What purpose the children meant to achieve during these visitations I could not discern, though I imagine it helped them to reconnect with their deceased parents in some way.
At present crash sites, the children sifted and sorted through the wreckage, and I discovered that each child had a certain duty. Some carried to me all manner of parts that they thought might be useful: ailerons and rudders, wingtips and propeller heads, cracked struts and knotted guy wires, lengths of fuselage, busted-up landing gear. I examined each part in turn, assessing its structural integrity, how it might fit into our current inventory, which one child relayed to me from memory at each site, and whether or not I believed it could be repaired by a child’s hand and rudimentary knowledge of maintenance. The parts I approved of were then affixed to an enormous fuselage that the children dragged in their wake, cheerfully calling it The Artificial Stork. With each crash site, the flying machine grew bulkier and heavier. The children did their best to approximate the ideal of a proper flying machine; however, theirs was a flawed rendition, derived from their having puzzled through the busted and burnt remains of countless crashes. I counseled them as best I could in its creation, but I worried that soon we would no longer be able to travel, much less fly the damned thing.
If the children’s behavior confused me at these particular sites, then when we stumbled across the clean, peaceful site of a future crash, I grew terrified. Only their leader, the silent child with the pipe, seemed capable of divining where a flying machine might someday smash into The Beneath, and when he discovered such a site, he collapsed onto the ground in fear, sending the other children into paroxysms of mourning. I feared for my life at these points, for the children often turned on me, blaming my profession, cursing my responsibility for the rise and fall of others, others who had entrusted to me their lives, others who had innocently expected me to deliver them safely to their destination. They spoke crudely of me in a language I had never before heard issue forth from a child’s mouth. They struck me with sticks, pebbles, spare parts, tools, any implement they could snatch up in their tiny fists. Of course I could not avoid their wrath, secure as I was in the travel hammock, so I had to endure the injury they wreaked upon my body until they fell asleep from the exhaustion. I knew that if they were to ever let me return to my family, I must allow them to use me as they pleased.
Nights we relaxed our travels and made camp to rest, to regain what little strength we had. The children lit fires, pretended to cook and eat their porridge, and then began story time. They gathered around the fire, and each one told a bedtime story, according to a rotating schedule. They told stories about their favorite pets, their siblings, their fondest memories of hide-and-seek. One child spoke of a family trip she had taken to the birthplace of flight. Another child told story after story about his loving parents, their habits of parenting him with a safety net, of how they helicoptered in his presence. Often the children prompted each other when their stories faltered, inserting helpful reminders as to senses and feelings the storytelling child might have experienced in that life before the crash, and when all discussion failed, they passed to the stuttering child the memory foam, a block of cushion that I recognized to be part of an air traveler’s lost pillow, which the child clutched softly, as if by kneading its structure, the foam might release another story into the smoke above the campfire.
Then one night came my turn to speak a bedtime story. I refused initially, but the child with the pipe appealed to my sense of etiquette, explaining that each of them had shared stories, why then could I not, being now an accepted member of their company? To his reasoning I yielded, nodding, and my handlers propped the hammock against a boulder so I might address the children, and from this vantage point I looked into their upturned faces, across which churned the shadow play of the fire.
Perhaps, here, I made my mistake, though at the time I believed I should do my best to ingratiate myself in their presence, as the flying machine they had nearly completed seemed my only hope of returning home, despite how badly it might function. See, I had listened long enough to their own stories to know a little bit about each of them, and these histories I thought to combine with what I knew of my own son, of his desires and actions, of raising him from a baby to a boy of similar age as these, my temporary children. I only meant to improve their spirits and perhaps give them some cheerful stories to counter their dismal evenings, for often after story time, the children retired to their sleeping rolls in tears, sobbing themselves to sleep.
But now I see that my stories merely confused them, perhaps led to their destruction.
I spoke to them terrific stories about their parents, their past lives, weaving fact with fantasy in order to create what I hoped might be wonderful worlds into which they might disappear when they felt troubled, as my son had often done on his sadder days. I granted to them magical powers that they had enjoyed as babies. I told tales about their parents, all of whom I claimed to have met during my time as an aviator, and spoke of their grand and daring feats. I prophesied the future, a happier time during which they would reunite with their families.
The more I spoke these stories, the more the children clamored to hear newer and finer details, and soon I had trouble keeping all of it straight in my mind. Who had visited the aurora borealis on the eve of his or her parents’ anniversary? To whom had I given the power of wingless flight as a newborn? Had I named the twins’ mother and father as the healers of the second sky, or did that honor belong to the little girl with the wooden arm? Where had I located the reunion festival? Certainly not in my own city? Did the jet stream serve as haven for their waiting mothers and fathers, or had I called it an accursed wind that drove their parents cruelly throughout the atmosphere until the children might save them? The children began to question my stories, some of them corrected my errors thankfully, while others argued over the intricacies of fate and self-determination, beating me when my stories contradicted the earlier versions they had heard. When I could not remember the correct answer, I pleaded with the children as they punished my error with their fists and sticks. I claimed exhaustion under their blows, and I requested that the children tell stories of their own, classic stories of their mothers and fathers, the stories I had heard during the early days of my traveling with the group.
To my horror, the children relayed nearly word for word my own made-up stories.
They had forgotten the realities of their lives, of their parents, of their childhoods.
This new forgetfulness caused the children to grow sluggish in their movements, and they soon ceased to pull with any real effort the massive structure of the flying machine. Instead we wandered in decreasingly concentric circles, until we finally settled on a flattened plain populated by light shrubs, a rare species of flightless birds, and the occasional line of dried timber that had once grown along streambeds and creeks. The area seemed to have been farmed in a previous age, though the plain appeared to have lain fallow for quite some time.
The children situated my broken body in the shadow of The Artificial Stork to protect me from the worsening weather, though I tried to convince them to place me in the shelter of its cockpit, where I might secretly attempt to start it as they slept that night. The child with the pipe insisted that no one would be able to hear my stories if I were stashed away, and he much preferred that we all stayed out of doors.
So here we remain, I strapped into my hammock and the children lounging comfortably around me, listening to the stories I tell, arguing about the details, all while the great hulk of our flying machine slowly rusts and erodes under the elements of The Beneath. I hope that one day, should the children cease to beat me long enough so that my body might finally heal, I can sneak aboard, lock the hatch, spool up the great engines so that its wings flap miraculously overhead, and return to my wife and son. Until then, I can only imagine my way home, these children the unwelcome sentinels by my side.