The man next to me is shaking, rocking back and forth, huddled within himself. His fingers tremble as he thumbs through his passport. He is short, sixty-ish. Weathered hands, fringe of gray around the temples. Large, thick, dingy spectacles give his closed eyes a flare of the dramatic.
The deep lines in his face call to mind the words of Kahlil Gibran, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” His heavy black overcoat bears the frayed evidence of long travel. Two worn paperbacks lay in his lap, books he never touches throughout the flight.
The plane heaves up and down as if rolling across speedbumps. The wingtip out our window dips. The craft rocks left to right. The roiling ship stirs anxious looks. Passengers cast glances at each other, some brace their hands on the armrests, grasping against eternity, most sit erect, with eyes closed.
The man next to me begins to sing.
Frog-like noises and gruff accents emit from his rocking frame, a cross between a growl and a hum. It is a language foreign to me, the dialect likely South African. The melody is bright. Major key, no minors, a succession of half notes and whole notes gently ascending a scale. The tune is somewhere between lullaby and celebration, a song you would sing to a child upon waking. His croak-like crooning lulls me into apathy about the rocking plane.
I close my eyes and take deep, long breaths to maintain my equilibrium.
The plane grasps for asphalt violently. Hops airborne. A succession of bounces follow the brief ground-touch. Seven hundred thousand pounds hurtle across the asphalt at 170 miles per hour, an elephant attempting a delicate pirouette. Jim Harrison's words flash in my mind, "the cost of flight is landing".
The shuttle shakes. The man's singing maintains an eerie calm, like the smooth glass of still water. The brakes slam the passengers forward. Cries of shock burst from the travelers. The ship rattles. Groans. The side-rocking slows. The wheels finally settle into deep grooves, smoothing onto terra firma, gliding into a gentle roll.
The man flashes a smile at me, as if he were responsible for our safe landing. I smile back.
Perhaps he was?