Her Last Flight Page 1

Author: Beatriz Williams

Genres: Historical , Fiction

Bardenas Reales, Spain

January 1947

The airplane lies in the shadow of a plateau, half-buried in sand and scrub. It sits at an angle, so the right wing slants upward against the sky while the left wing sinks into the ground. The dull green fuselage is mostly intact but the tail has broken off. Only the ghost of its original paint—the red, yellow, and midnight purple of the Spanish Republic—has survived a decade of relentless white sun.

I dismount. The mule jerks his head. Possibly he senses my nerves; possibly he senses something else. When you come upon a wreckage like this, undisturbed for ten years, known only to God, you approach it like you might approach a graveyard.

The question is, what bones lie inside?

According to the map, my mule and I have traveled about eight miles west of the town of Valtierra in southern Navarre, in the middle of what they call the badlands. The landscape is dry and yellow-brown, a junkyard of plateaus and gullies, lone hills and dry streambeds, carved by wind and by occasional, catastrophic water. In summer, the heat would singe the hairs from your neck, and the dry air would suck the sweat from your skin. On this January afternoon, the weather is equally arid but cold. I took care to bundle myself in a wool coat, in scarf and gloves and one of those caps with flaps that come down to cover your ears. I don’t do well in the cold, you see; my blood requires sunshine to stay warm.

Not a single living creature exists around me. Only a few wisps of vegetation rise from the soil. It’s the kind of loneliness that sinks into your bones, that makes you feel as if you’re the only person left alive in the world. If I still harbored any hope that the pilot of this airplane might have survived this crash, might have escaped and made his way to safety—and maybe I did, because the human heart will go on nourishing these ideas, no matter how farfetched—that hope is now gone. This bleak territory could no more support life than could a tennis ball.

And it is a terrible place to die, isn’t it? Out here in the badlands of northern Spain, not a soul to care or to comfort you. The airplane settles into the earth, bit by bit, and as the years turn, every trace of your existence is buried too. If my guess is correct, the man inside this French-built Potez bomber was once one of the most famous people on earth, and now he rests here in the Spanish desert, body left to rot in the sun, untended and unwept for. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I tether the mule to a withered juniper bush with a handful of oats. The wreckage is about fifty yards away, and the size of the airplane surprises me. For some reason I imagined it would be larger, but then I’m used to the behemoths of modern warfare. This airplane was obsolete almost as soon as it was built, a slow, clumsy ship nicknamed the Flying Coffin by the Spanish loyalist air force, and it seems to me that you would have to be crazy to trust your life to an airplane like that.

How whole it looks, though. How almost perfect, except for the stunted wing, the broken tail. If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s the sight or sound or even idea of an airplane crash, but this one doesn’t look like a crash at all. It just looks like it came here to rest, in the shadow of a giant plateau, and never got up again. And the plateau hid it from human eyes passing above, and the desert made a fortress around it, and only my friend Velázquez remained to know that it was ever here at all.

I start forward. The cockpit windows are opaque, the blades of the propellers frozen in place. On the side of the fuselage, a door hangs ajar. The wind howls on my cheek. It’s impossible to imagine that nobody has stood here before me, that I alone have discovered this wreckage—you! at last!—but that’s what years of civil war and reprisal and misery will do. Things get left behind and forgotten, because nobody exists to remember them. The wind howls around you and covers you in drifts of sand until a single woman, bedeviled by the mystery of your fate, encounters some tiny clue, entirely by chance. Now here she stands. At last, you are remembered. You are found.

On the other side of the doorway, the world is dark. I fish the flashlight from my coat pocket and switch it on, but there isn’t much to see. Every surface is coated in dust. A pile of sand spreads from the entrance and across the floor—deck, I suppose—according to the direction of the wind that carried it. Because of the slanting platform beneath me, I feel unbalanced, not quite sound. I sweep the beam around the cabin. The space is cramped and narrow and bare, as if someone cleared all the trappings to make room for things that are no longer there. I step toward the cockpit. My pulse thuds in my throat. But the seat is empty, the dials and switches blanketed by dirt and nothing else. I touch the wheel, which is not like the steering wheel of a car but open at the top, incomplete, a pie missing a wedge. When I examine my finger, the dirt is the same dun color as the landscape around me, as the dirt that covers the windows like a curtain, blocking the light.

On the deck next to the pilot’s seat, a large, heavy book catches the flashlight’s beam, face down, spine broken, pages splayed. Like everything else, it’s covered in dirt, but I lift it anyway and brush away what dust I can.

I flip through the pages. A logbook.

I am not a pilot—this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve boarded any kind of airplane, intact or otherwise—and the entries, written in faded purple-black letters, might as well be Latin. Still I pass my fingers over them. Because whose hands touched this last? Whose pen wrote those letters and numbers? In one column, the farthest left, I recognize dates. The last one is 13 MAY 1937. To the right, in the next column, reads 0522. Five twenty-two a.m.?

I set the logbook on the seat and sweep the flashlight once more around the cabin, and as I do, an object catches my eye at the rear, near the tail, tucked in the seam between deck and wall.

It is a pile of something. A pile of clothes, attached to a boot.

Of course I’ve always understood that there should be a body inside the wreckage of this airplane. A desert climate like this one has the same effect as mummification, doesn’t it? A set of bones might be preserved for years or decades. Still. It’s one thing to tell yourself to expect this skeleton, to know that this airplane came down with a human being inside and that the remains of that person did not disappear into the air, that those remains are just that—remains—and not the actual person, the human being, the living soul. It’s another thing to see a boot attached to some trousers, to run your flashlight beam along the outline of those trousers and see the whiteness of bone, or rather the yellowness of bone, covered in dirt like everything is covered in dirt.

But you can bear this, like you have borne all other things. You can bear this skeleton. You can pretend it belongs to anybody, it’s just a skeleton like you find in an anatomy laboratory. The person who lived inside this skeleton, who animated these bones, is long dead. As for his eternal soul, if he had one, God knows it’s moved on by now, out of sheer boredom.

So. Let’s imagine I’m an archaeologist. Isn’t that what they’re called, these people who dig bones and artifacts out of the earth, who mine the soil for the secrets of the past? Say I’ve arrived in this morbid landscape to investigate the remains of a brand-new human species, a previously undiscovered branch of our ancestral tree. Mere scientific curiosity prompts me to step forward, to keep the beam of my flashlight trained on the boot of my subject, to observe its physical characteristics and note that it seems to be an army boot, a type of footwear with which I happen to be familiar. A large boot, sturdy, worn, desiccated, leather edges curled by the passage of time.

I drag the beam upward, from boot to trouser to tunic. The skeleton rests on its side, in an almost fetal position, except not quite so tightly curled as a fetus. Like a man who’s gone to sleep in a cold place, without a blanket. A skeleton that has gone to sleep. I come to stand near its chest. The tunic isn’t familiar to me, but then it wouldn’t be. This man would have been an airman in the Republican Armed Forces of Spain at the time of his death, a Republic that no longer exists, a brutal war that has since been eclipsed by wars even more brutal. How quaint and idealistic the Spanish fight seems now. This fellow in his tunic, this American fighting for a foreign cause, curled up to die.

Some nerve returns to me, some guts. I’ve progressed from boot to trouser to tunic, I’ve braved the skeletal phalanges without a quiver. There’s nothing left to do now but see its face. That is to say, its skull.