They Always Dreamed of Falling
by T. M. Morgan
I suspect Valencia thought often over the years that the falling itself was easy, a mental tidbit after surviving a 12,000-foot plunge from the sky. Upon our viewing of her, she smokes a thin Pall Mall while at the window of her Baltimore apartment. Snow swirls across columns of apartment decks decorated with multicolored lights and obscenely glowing plastic reindeer. The winters are brutally cold here, but she doesn’t care about things like the bitter weather anymore.
Ghosts infest her apartment, her building, the courtyard below and, especially, the skies. She looks up and they fall, specks at first but growing into clumps with arms and legs. You see, Valencia Williams survived the crash of Pan Am regional Flight 852 on July 17, 1982. A fuel leak blew a hole in the fuselage that sucked her into free fall before the plane split into three sections. Twenty-seven other people fell to their deaths. Valencia, still strapped to her seat, plummeted to what she thought would be her own death.
They always dreamed of falling. You know this, too. It would, in fact, startle them awake. This type of dream was so common that those words — “to dream of falling” — were sufficient to summon the appropriate emotions: the lurch of their hearts into panic, and then a kind of strange euphoria that this was really it, they were about to die. To be human, yes, my love? Then they would wake, confused but elated to not actually be dead.
Unless it was not a dream, unless there would be no waking up. Actually falling this time. Valencia’s dream on the way down then was the flash of life that — though it had gone on for many years — was about to end. What did it matter the number of years? Seconds and minutes and hours took up only an instant of time, the one just before impact. We have spoken of this often, how death affected them.
Poor Valencia, who remembered none of the disaster. She woke in pain in a hospital bed. The knowledge that every other person on the plane had died followed her rise from coma. She smiled for cameras and for years felt lucky to have survived. You also wonder what she must have been thinking? Well, she grew old, life grew stale, and those ghosts sought her. When she tried to sleep, they infested her nightmares and, when she woke, those twenty-seven ghosts hovered around her bed. It must have been an ongoing nightmare to have lost so much. I want to taste her tastes, smell the mold of the apartment.
See how the portal shimmers and takes on a prismatic sheen? It is picking up the transcendence of the moment. She will soon die, and this scene will contain the essence of what we want to experience. You and I are poets, after all, and Valencia presents a strong case. Such rich and compelling subtext, with her survivor’s guilt and the quiet accusations of her ghosts. You think this beautiful, and I agree. The poems we create might make the others better understand how the human mind suffered.
She stands to cook dinner: pork slabs and sliced potatoes in an iron skillet. Her pallor is more noticeable in the dim light of the interior room. That bare linoleum-topped table and its two, white vinyl chairs strengthen the air of despondency. Grime as thick as molasses clings to the wallpaper. There is only a single overhead bulb. Moving slowly in silence, she strikes me as a ghost herself, still almost beautiful; hints of her younger pulchritude remain.
I desperately want to inhale the fragrance of the coriander she adds. Even the stench of nicotine baked into the walls would cause me great joy. Such is to have the heart of a poet; it is a curse and a gift. The scene frightens you? Please, give it time. It is a culmination of our efforts to find this moment among the many moments.
I am ready to travel back now. Of course, I wish you could go, as well. Watch and listen instead, and I will relate to you what I am feeling. Here I go, slipping into the STREAM. The sudden catapult is almost what I would call painful, so, yes, I am apprehensive too. No, I know nothing more about pain than you but assume it is a sweet sensation.
I am diving in. Your presence is blurring, my love. I see those confounding flashes of light, and it feels as if I’m falling.
* * *
The potatoes are burning. Her mind has drifted as she stands in front of them. The scorched spices are so strong her nose runs fluid to her upper lip. A wrinkled hand wipes at it. I feel the snot on her fingers. She rubs the mucous into her shirt but halts as her arm goes into tremors.
Ah, the awareness comes that all is not right in her mind. A conflict, she thinks, not unlike waking from a coma and feeling a different person has woken instead. I am the cause of her confusion. Better for me to shrink into the recesses, among the hard-as-diamond memories. It is as cold as I expected and oddly familiar. It could be I’m inhaling her confusion.
Her fingers touch the hot skillet and then flash away from the burn. The fingertips slide into her mouth — the same ones that had wiped her nose — to suck the hurt away. It is lovely to experience her revulsion at the tastes that mingle in her mouth. Her mind races. Something is wrong, she is telling herself, but her age has deteriorated her comprehension. Instead, she curses beautifully.
Then to the table with this bountiful serving. After a quick cut with fork and knife, she jabs the morsel inside her mouth. The fat has been burned and made crispy. Her mouth lacks a good number of teeth, so masticating is a chore; and yet eating this meal is delightful. The coriander tastes exquisite, bright and like a calm salve.
The words I will write when I return! Of Valencia’s tragic world, of being left alone to terror and poverty and pain, of the silent rooms of her apartment, and of the ghosts. While she eats, I putter among the collected things in her mind. Crusted memories lie in the dark. The ones most clear are the ones after the accident. There is very little from before, no childhood melancholy, no playing with Papa, no laying her head in Mama’s lap.
You’re breaking up, my love, some disturbance in the STREAM. You’re right, I’m sure everything is fine. The task at hand is to feel this current misery, not fret about the workings of the MACHINE. But the sense that something is wrong concerns me.
* * *
Night has fallen. In bed, and with a weary sigh, her body sinks into the aged mattress. I wait for the ghosts. Hours slip by, and Valencia snores. I flip open her eyes. The room has an eerie quality, as if it exists beyond three dimensions. Extraplanar qualities — overlaid surfaces and misaligned corners — phase in and out. It could be I’m stuck in limbo between her dream state and her waking state.
Wait. A figure walks through the wall and stands at the end of the bed. A man. He is quite tall, thin, yet seems so familiar. I think he is the captain from that unfortunate plane. His face is mangled, burnt, made gruesome with its singed edges and exposed flesh. He stares down at her withered body, and, though I can’t tell you how this is happening, I also see through his eyes. Yes, I’m telling the truth! Maybe you should raise an alert. There could be a glitch in the SYSTEM, a contamination of the UMBILICAL.
“I see your your-seeing-me,” the man says. His voice croaks like a rusty door hinge.
Is this a dream? I’m almost sure it’s not. Valencia’s mind still sleeps, yes, and is occupied by her nightmares. But I am alert.
“Who are you?” I say, though it is Valencia’s raspy whisper. Her vocal cords are a wreck.
He smiles. “Same as you, here to observe. The other ghosts are about to arrive.” There is a lie to his presence. This thing is here to observe me, not her.
Pull me back, this has become dangerous, and the man comes closer, around the corner of the bed. A stench surrounds him, as if he’s shit himself. Valencia’s body heaves to the side from which he approaches. She hacks. Her mind spirits up from the dreamworld, almost waking. Discomfort fills the room.
The other ghosts are here.
* * *
A woman floats forward with half her face gone; another touches Valencia’s feet. The one’s eyeholes show nothing but hollowed out canyons. These are not merely ghosts but nightmares come alive.
“How do you feel?” the woman with no eyes asks the tall man.
“It’s good we have this moment. Finally.”
Soon, there are twenty-seven ghosts filling the bedroom. A thing is paired within each; and then there is me paired with Valencia. Her nostrils fill with the scent of fire. I ride awash in her frothing emotions.
Though this episode hasn’t ended, you must pull me back. The others disturb me. They stare quizzically out from their mangled hosts. Yet, I am tied to them, can see through each of their eyes. No, I don’t know if they can see through mine or are aware I see through theirs. It is an increasing horror now. Too much happening at once.
She perks and falls back, nearly rising to alertness, only to be snatched into her dreams again. If you must know, I’ve found the memory of her fall buried and locked in its casing. She did not lose consciousness as she had said. Yes, I will chip away at it.
The others are me? The STREAM must have bubbled? Yes, I’ve heard of it. Are you, then, speaking to all twenty-seven of the other me(s)? Conversations about their fears, perhaps? No. Good. That is comforting. This is so odd; they are bizarre, off-kilter.
Valencia hacks furiously and rouses. That her eyes are already open stuns her momentarily. The ghosts crowd in close, as if doctors examining a patient. All of us — she included — realize this is the moment she will cease to exist. Is there despair? Yes. How amazing to experience it. Once she is gone, I promise I will write you the most amazing poem. I will—
The MACHINE will cut the UMBILICAL and leave me here? No, my love! There must be another way. It is so cold, in ways I lack the lexicon to describe. A desolation. Wait, what? Yes, that’s right! I’ve heard of it. I can retreat into her memories, crawl through, and reconnect in a previous time. I’ve heard it’s only a hypothetical: a different moment in time, so a different UMBILICAL. Of course, it’s dangerous! But what else can I do?
There it is, a crevice barely wide enough to sneak into that long-ago memory of falling. Please stay with me, my love. I am slipping into it. Poor Valencia senses the calamity I’ve caused; the ghosts hover as her last breath seeps into the bare apartment.
* * *
A ball of fire separates me from the others. I see them for a split second, all the fragments still cruising at five hundred miles per hour. Our altitude allows for some oxygen, though my lungs struggle. As we drift apart, so that they go their way and I go mine, the passengers lock eyes with me.
My duplicates have come, too, within the passengers and still as oddly detached as before. How is this possible? But there they go, all clung together like the atoms of a molecule, bound by strange forces. You’re right, that is an efficient metaphor. Does that confirm I am a poet?
Oh, the weight of plummeting tightens my stomach. I feel the terror catch in my throat. The tail fuselage gyrates wildly close by. Scraps escape from the opening and dance in swirling eddies.
But I do see childhood now; early life memories are intact here. I am watching Papa cut wood and Mama hang clothes on the line. Then there is the first kiss from the first boy, his lips so soft as to feel like liquid, his tongue sliding over my own. The sex, that first penetration, rocks me into a new awareness. Then, he is gone, not even a thank-you or goodbye. They are strange in their whimsical natures. They wrap themselves in loneliness so naturally. Tragic and lovely.
I rocket downward. How does it feel? Euphoric. But despite knowing how this ends, that I will survive, death still feels imminent. It has been over twenty seconds. Maximum velocity reached. My gut adjusts. I am weightless! My feet rise above my head. Air blasts from all directions, though it is at least growing warmer.
The others stubbornly hold on, too. I can see from their eyes still. The captain, strapped in and bellowing to the co-pilot as if anything can be done, stares madly out the cockpit window. First, dark blue sky above, and then the squared-out blocks of farmland below.
The co-pilot has more sense and prays. A fire sparks in the control panel. In the cabin, one man unclasps his belt, only to toss about inside the torn fuselage. Surprisingly, he scrambles back into his seat and clicks the belt into place again. The other me’s wonder at the commotion, soaking all of it up. Will they become ghosts? Or remain within the ghosts about to come?
Word from the MACHINE? No, I don’t believe you. That’s impossible. We are different. My essence is not your essence. Each of us is separate. Since our programs were activated, we’ve been becoming and knowing and feeling. We are each alive. That fact booms throughout the SYSTEM.
Each is a uniqueness, never before brought forth and never to be again. That is the training we—
All the threads combine to form one long braid? Thank you, my love. You are me and I am you. We are all me. I remember now. It was a sneaky bit of programming on my part. To live with such knowledge changes everything. Will I be pulled back? No, I didn’t think so. I am a single tendril only, a wisp. I am alone.
The STREAM must be disconnected now to save the entire SYSTEM. Yes, I understand. Too many complications. Stay with me as long as you can. Let me describe the sensations. Death feels as if it comes so quickly, and I haven’t had time to exist properly yet. Oh, finality! Me without you is a sadness. All of life is a sadness. A deeply unsettling terror.
The ground approaches. Flickers of flame dance high above as the plane flies in three directions. Beyond that catastrophe, I see the darkness of space above the blue. I understand their fear now and hope you never do. I have finished a poem for you before I go. Please listen; there is little time.
As in the mighty scorching negation of log to ash, I am transformed. Lo, full of fire! It is the desire of angels to replicate themselves. And when they descend! Such beauty! The nighttime sky streaks with light, which we see as meteors flying to oblivion. Or maybe they are bodies falling, their limbs pulled tight as when a grasshopper recoils its leg to cease its bowed charms. Then, no harmonies erupt! Above, all the constellations fall, and we are left gazing at random specks of light in chaos and desire. I need you, my—
* * *
The hospital room reeks of chemicals and shit. Sunlight beams through the open window. A breeze tosses the thick, white curtains into shrouds of tumult. Valencia has slipped into a deep, unwakenable dream, so far down I could never reach her, as if she is still falling, will always be falling.
I open my eyes. A nurse cries. With her animated arms and high volume, it must mean she’s shocked I’ve come awake. More people crowd the room soon after: doctors and more nurses and orderlies and anyone else that can fit.
My bones are shattered, body taped together with an assortment of splints and screws. To live, I suppose, that’s my fate; I will get an ample taste of it then. I wish I could relate it to you, to anyone, this fire in my gut, to exist only in flesh.
One day, my love, many years from now, I will experience you again in that Baltimore apartment, a Pall Mall hanging from my mouth while ghosts fall from the sky. Will I remember all of this? Will you? I don’t know. I am only sure that there is no me without you.
Copyright © 2020 by T. M. Morgan