joe ashby porter





In cloud without warning a passenger jet flew head-on into the side of a mountain, all fifty-three aboard perishing. Neither pilot had time to register the change of state, lucky for them. The abrupt near-vertical rock face misled the altimeter according to the black box, perhaps in a freak downdraft, with impact shortly before 5:07 a.m., just pre-dawn. When cell chat broke, interlocutors misattributed the static hum to a satellite gap or government scrambling, and only began to suspect the truth when after a judicious interval redialing shunted to a voice mailbox. Much vaporized in a fireball. It registered like lightning on nocturnal forest life, and the clap roused many from sleep. Birds directly below fled high branches through incandescent debris that could have compounded the misfortune in a dry season. Kilometers away, birds lifted heads from under wings to peer about, and in an encampment of hunter-gatherers some woke and seemed to hear a spray of biography tailings beneath the hush.

An air-traffic controller caught a blink of anomaly. She networked and within minutes satellite optical feed showed the scintilla. Within hours in daybreak, tut tut two military copters telecast the site. The impassive mountain wore its dark rosette years. Questions of the plane’s own radar remained unanswered.

The next morning the destination Girtly Bonnings observed a quarter hour solemn work stoppage, a first although mementos of lesser misfortunes littered the narrow approach between ranges. What with electronic arm-twisting and transfers, the pilot took the fall for having been sucker-punched by rock wall. In cushy anonymity his wife and children slipped away to the Society Islands. The unmarried copilot left a condo and a collection of antique decoys to a distant cousin.

The sun-dappled regional capital, longtime conference center, carried on with the following week’s international happiness colloquy despite having lost one speaker. Given his obsessive secrecy little hope remained of reconstructing the calculus he had planned to unveil at the Friday morning plenary session. This pundit’s wife and daughter survived when they missed a connecting flight. Eleven other happiness conferees constituted the passenger list’s largest grouping.

Sequoia Felver of East Lansing and Berne learned of her heartthrob’s mischance via texting from his bereaved dad, a second-generation Iowa hired hand, himself a widower. En route over the pole Sequoia stared at her little screen a good minute as its message sank through blurry denial, this cannot have happened, naw, naw. Tears of rage blurred the darkened cabin. She had dated her cheerful rube barely a year. A loner, Sequoia had seemed to have found a soul-mate able to converse after a string of automatons, and now this. Never again his white skin against her black, no kids for backyard hoops with hayseed Cullen for her to scope from her crow’s nest office when she glanced up from screens and scratchpads devoted to very old light, Cullen a distance runner at his cornfield school and tech college, the ethanol kid, their meeting in a first-class O’Hare lounge (his standby bump-up delayed at the last minute) scarcely more likely than his untimely end.

The news spread triggering condolence, mourning protocol, and investigation, and thinned as it propagated through its own short life, with restrained international broadband listing casualties and offering obits of the happiness theoretician and also a mid-list spinner of young adult sports narrative whose house toyed with dedicating a fitness center to their departed author lost just before the guilty pleasure groundswell, adults steeping themselves in comforting scope and enlarged typeface, market share shifted from “adult” text.

Sequoia didn’t remarry although she sampled the occasional hook-up. Her grief over Cullen eased with time and she came to understand that, after all, all might have been for the best, at least for her, she who comparatively undistracted acquired glistening professional distinctions despite a younger colleague’s having stolen credit for a breakthrough.

On the tenth anniversary of Cullen’s demise Sequoia made virtual love with him exactly as if he had missed the fateful flight, nor had aged a day. They said scarcely a word, and before their climaxes she guessed rightly that she would be denied repetition even should she seek it. Menopause soon followed, a seeming corporeal adieu until she found herself virtually pregnant and, thinking back, couldn’t recall taking precautions. The quick pregnancy culminated in a birth so painless as not to disturb the new mother’s early morning sleep. She named her offspring Slade, unable to determine its gender.

From early on Slade disappeared for days at a time like a cat. In skin color as generally the child resembled its mother more than its father, although the cheekbone freckles came from Cullen. Sequoia took in stride her child’s accelerated maturation and how with adolescence Slade’s gender precipitated into a chameleonic either-or that could flip with no more warning than a certain far-away look.


“Yes, dear?” Spring Saturday, noonish in a quiet Swiss park, ferns, birdsong, scudding cloudlets.

“If you’d found yourself pregnant after the crash, would I have a sib? They say tests show parents give firstborns the lion’s share of attention.”

Sequoia mused. “Love’s different though. Anyway it wasn’t in the cards. With the actual act, your father and I always availed ourselves of protection. Redundant protection, in fact.”

“Mustn’t have seemed necessary conceiving me.”

“Little we knew, luckily. More than luckily.”