The Fall of a Sparrow

The engines, rumbling beyond the fog’s frontier,
Invisible but felt in every rivet,
No longer offered pulsing reassurance.
Their roar had come to terrify the crew:
The navigator, still without a drop
To bring him consolation; and the pilot,
Untouched by one hard shot. She didn’t doubt 
With engines silent, she would look outside,
Assure the props were slowly winding down,
And hear a gliding song of whistling, hissing.
Emerging at a shallow angle, she’d 
Expect but modest seas, a living island,
A ship, a whale, a seagull, something floating,
Yes, something fixed and solid, real and hard,
An object recognizable at last—
All this a fantasy of course.  She groaned.
“Goddammit, Fred, where are we now?”
				                “Don’t know,
Still plotting.  Keep a lookout; don’t be scared.”
She shook her head.  Fred’s plots had put them here,
Where all the air would offer now was gray;
And in that sameness motors drowned out hope.
What had this odd condition risen from?
The sun had blazed upon the sea since dawn,
But then the sky closed in; the ocean vanished.
The radio didn’t work; they couldn’t see.
With some assurance that she knew the way,
She’d flown on instruments for many hours.
And yet she couldn’t stop her anxious fretting.
Fred’s reassurances seemed soaked in gin.
Who’d ever heard of fog out here so far?
She didn’t know how long they’d been aloft.
Clocks stopped at 20:14 GMT.
They had no understanding as to why.
The cycle of the engine sounds was not
Sufficient as a substitute for clocks.
To overcome anxiety and dread,
She hunted RDF but—nothing there.
Her navigator tried to count out seconds,
But just as Fred reached minutes, he gave up,
Although he shouted that he was still there.
Amid faint glows behind the extra tanks,
He sat before a navigation table
Firmly grasping his trade’s small tools.  A sextant,
However, cannot sight a hidden sun. 
She banked a little; then she straightened out.
“The compasses responded!”
			          “Exactly so.”
His voice was briefly reassuring, but
In truth, they were not speaking very much.
Of conversation topics they’d explored
Few better fit their current circumstances
Than silence.  Radio only buzzed and hissed,  
While engines, rumbling still beyond the fog,
Spoke nothing but a lack of reassurance.
Invisible but felt in every rivet,
Their roar had come to terrify the crew.
The rushing sound outside the fragile glass
Would likelier put them both to fatal sleep
Than stir up intimations of the hour. 
She tapped the artificial horizon’s glass;
She flicked the tach, a clock, altimeter.
Their indications didn’t change at all—
Fixed for many hours, or so it seemed.
The autopilot had its strengths, but this
Perfection made it seem that they had landed
So steady was their progress, still their flight.
The slipstream rushing past said otherwise.
Thick condensation from the heavy fog
Streaked windshield, windows, and the fuselage.
Straining to find some evidence of life,
She looked beyond the windows, port and starboard.
But there was nothing new for her to see.
The Electra’s silver wings had gotten dull
As though they’d flown across the wide Sahara,
Where clouds of sand had ground away the polish.
A thundering voice intruded on her thoughts.
“Try radio again!”  She twitched and turned.

“You’re still back there?”
			     He laughed:  “And where else then?”
She smacked the Bendix hard; a light came on,
And then she heard a loud and crackling sound.  
She didn’t hesitate to try their call:
“KHAQQ to anyone.”

The Pratt & Whitney Wasps continued roaring.

“KHAQQ to anyone.”

The Hamilton Standard variable pitch propellers
Kept spinning without a change of speed or angle.

“KHAQQ to anyone.”

The motors, pulsing still beyond the fog,
No longer offered rumbling reassurance,
Invisible but felt in every cell,
Their roar a source of rising terror now.
And worse, she’d had no radio response.
Suspecting some unusual effect,
A sunspot’s static, or a lightning strike,
She took them further down, then further still
Until their altitude was just 2000.
“Show me something!  Just one metal mast
That’s sticking up above the surface clouds!
The bridge of a passing ship, another plane”—
But still the fog persisted.  “Goddam radio!”

“What is the problem now?  Be honest, Em.”

“We’ve got no ears to listen for a ship.”

“Who sold the Bendix?”
		             “He said it was the best, 
And that they were a sponsor and entitled.”

“In other words, the usual horseshit.”
They always had to shout above the noise,
But conversation now was more like screaming.

“What about fuel?”
		      “Empty, desert dry....”

“Then what?”
	         “Be quiet, Fred. Be quiet now.”
That laugh again—found himself a bottle?
And what to say about the fuel gauge readings?
The needle bounced against the pin marked ’E’
Where it had lingered now for many hours.
And so, what else to say?  Her only comfort:
The Sperry held them level, straight, and true.

Still, the engines, rumbling beyond the fog,
Could not offer pulsing reassurance.
Invisible but felt in every rivet,
Their roar could only terrify the crew.
Try sitting eighteen hours or more; try twenty.
Everything hurt; she couldn’t even pee.
The only help was from a lack of water;
She hadn’t touched the new canteen.  And yet,
While one restriction helped with continence,
Her lips were cracked; her mouth was cotton dry;
And speaking had begun to hurt her throat.
“Goddammit, Fred.”
		        “What now?”
			                “Are you still drunk?”
That laugh again—was that a heavy bottle
He slammed upon his table?  “Not a chance.
The object is to find our way to Howland.
If I’m not straight I can’t do that, my dear.”
She laughed as best she could; it wasn’t shared.
Perhaps the noise had made her partner deaf.
A crackle on the radio, a word?
She grabbed the microphone and shouted out:
“KHAQQ to ship Itasca.
We must be on you, but we cannot see you.”
And still more incoherent crackling sounds,
A monster hiding in the fog, she thought.
Her navigator handed her a chart
Across the bulkhead of the narrow cockpit.
He’d marked a north/south course. “You ought to try.
I’m sure we’re just about to cross this line.”
Switching off the Sperry, she banked left,
While dropping lower still.  She straightened out,
Then grabbed the Bendix microphone again.
“KHAQQ to ship Itasca: 
On line—point five seven dash three three seven.
We now are running this line north and south.”
The Bendix whispered static, nothing more. 
She harshly slapped its metal case and groaned.
Her partner shouted from the rear again.
“Let’s hold that course!”
		          “I’ve got it now.”
				             “Hold tight.”

The engines, rumbling beyond the fog’s frontier,
No longer offered pulsing reassurance,
Invisible but felt in every rivet.
Their noise had come to terrify the crew.

Arthur Mortensen of Brooklyn has appeared in many journals and has three collections: A Disciple After the Fact, a novel in verse (Kaba Press); Life in the Theater, sequel, and Why Hamlet Waited So Long (San Sebastian Press). Upcoming is After the Crash, currently in submission. He has been editor & publisher of Somers Rocks Press, Pivot Press, and is Webmaster of