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Excerpt: 'Birds in Fall'

by Brad Kessler
Jun 2, 2006

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Lucia Silva of Portrait of a Bookstore in Los Angeles, Calif., recommends Birds in Fall by Brad Kossler in her conversation about summer reading with Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition. It "blossoms from inconceivable tragedy into an uncontrived mosaic of love, loss, and simple grace."

One

It's true: a few of us slept through the entire ordeal, but others sensed something wrong right away. We grew restless in our seats and felt what exactly? An uneasiness, a movement in the air, a certain quiet that hadn't been there before? Several men craned their necks about the cabin. We caught each other's eyes, exchanged searching looks, and just as quickly—embarrassed—glanced away. We were eighty minutes into the flight. Orion on our left, the bear to the right. The motors droned. The cabin lights dimmed. The whoosh of the engines was the sound of erasure: Shhhhh, they whispered, and we obeyed.

The woman beside me clicked on her overhead light and adjusted a pair of reading glasses. She laid a folder of sheet music on her tray. Thin, black-haired, she smelled vaguely of breath mints. Her blue cello case lay strapped to the seat between us. She was giving a concert in Amsterdam and had booked an extra ticket for her instrument. I'd joked about her cello on the tarmac: Did she order special meals for it on flights? Did it need a headset, a pillow? She was retying hair behind her head and cast me a barely tolerant smile.

When the drink cart passed, she ordered a Bloody Mary— I, a scotch. Our pygmy bottles arrived with roasted nuts. I reached across the cello case and touched her plastic cup.

To your cello, I tried again. Does it have a name?

She nodded tepidly over the rims of her glasses.

Actually, she said, it does.

I couldn't place her accent. Something Slavic. Romanian perhaps. She wore a lot of eye shadow. She returned to her music. I could just make out the title of the piece: Richard Strauss's Metamorphoses: A Study for Twenty-three Solo Strings.

Over the Gulf of Maine, the moon glittered below us. I wanted to point out to the cellist as I would to my wife, Ana, that the moon hung actually beneath us. I wanted to tell her we were near the tropopause, the turning point between the stratosphere and the troposphere, where the air is calm and good for flying; tropo from "turning," pauso from "stop" (I prided myself on my college Latin). And surely she'd know these musical terms. But the woman was counting bars now. Across the aisle, a man in a wine-colored sweater lay snoring, his mouth opened wide.

Somewhere over the Bay of Fundy the cabin lights began to flicker. The video monitors went dead (they'd been showing a map of the Atlantic, with our speed, altitude, and outside temperature). The cellist looked up for a moment, her lips still moving with the sheet music. Then the cabin fell entirely dark, and a strange silvery light poured into the plane through each oval portal and lathed the aisles in a luminous, oddly peaceful glow. One by one, people tried to press their dome lights on, not yet in alarm but bewildered, to be up so far in the atmosphere, bathed in that frozen blue moonlight. A flight attendant marched up the aisle and told us to keep our seat belts on. The clouds lay effulgent below, edged in gold; another attendant shouted that there was nothing to be alarmed by. The lights blinked, faltered, turned on again. A sigh rose from the seats, and the cellist glanced at me with nervous relief. The captain came over the intercom then. He apologized and mentioned we were going to make a "short stop" in Halifax "before we get on our way." He was trying to sound unfazed, but in his Dutch accent—we were flying Netherland Air—his comments sounded clipped and startling. He got back on the intercom and added that we might want to buckle our belts for the rest of the ride and—incidentally—not to get out of our seats.

The cellist turned to me.

What do you think it is? she asked.

I don't know, I shrugged.

Her glasses had slid halfway down the bridge of her nose. She squared her sheet music on the tray table. The man in the wine sweater had awakened and was demanding answers. People flipped open their cell phones—to no avail. Outside, the tip of the wing looked laminated in moonlight, the Milky Way a skein above. We had started sinking fast, that much was clear, the nose of the plane dipping downward; and there was a curious chemical smell, not exactly burning, more like a dashboard left to bake in the sun.

The man in the wine sweater bolted from his seat and ran toward the bathrooms at the rear galley of the plane. Beside his empty seat a young Chinese woman in leather pants lay sleeping, earphones on her head, seat belt cinched across her hips. She wore an eyemask across her face.

Someone ought to wake her, the cellist said.

She's better off sleeping, I replied. Besides, it's probably nothing.

Probably, she whispered.

Tell me, I asked, about your instrument.

She looked at me with disbelief.

My cello?

Yes, I urged. I wanted to distract her; I wanted to distract myself. Then, as if she understood the reason for the query, she swallowed and began talking about her cello, how it was built by one of the great Italian cello makers, a man named Guadagnini, and how he traveled between Cremona and Turin, and how his varnishes were famous, though they varied with each place he worked. She talked of the thinness of the plates, the purfling, the ivory pegs, the amber finish he was known for. I could barely hear her voice; she kept toying with one of her earrings. I asked if it was old and she said, yes, it was built a few years before the execution of Marie Antoinette.

She snapped off her glasses and drained the meltings of her Bloody Mary and placed the cup back in its bezel. Her hands were trembling slightly. The Chinese girl hadn't moved; we could hear the tinny sound of hip-hop through her earphones.

For several minutes neither of us said a word. Clouds shredded past the windows. The cabin rattled unnervingly. The entire plane was silent now, save the shaking and the whisper of air in the vents. The name Moncton appeared on the video map. We were being passed from one beacon to the next, a package exchanged between partners, Boston Control to Moncton Control. The cabin grew noticeably hot. The moon was now the color of tea.

Excerpted from Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler. Copyright 2006, Brad Kessler. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY. All rights reserved.

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