THEY LEVEL OUT along the water, at five hundred feet, in clear air. A horizon line now. Brown reaches for his drift-bearing plate, corrects his compass. Almost eight o'clock Greenwich Mean Time. Brown scrambles around for his pencil. Ticklish? he scrawls, with a series of exclamation marks. He catches the sideways grin of Alcock. It is the first time in hours they have had a run without fog or layers of cloud. A dull, chewy gray out over the water. Brown scribbles down the last of the calculations. They are north, but not so far as to miss Ireland altogether. Brown reckons the course is 125 degrees true, but allowing for variation and wind he sets a compass course at 170. Ruddering south.
He can feel it rising up in him, the prospect of grass, a lonesome cottage on the horizon, perhaps a row of huddled cattle. They must be careful. There are high cliffs along the coast. He has studied the geography of Ireland: the hills, the round towers, the expanses of limestone, the disappearing lakes. Galway Bay. There had been songs about that during the war. The roads to Tipperary. The Irish were a sentimental lot. They died and drank in great numbers. A few of them for Empire. Drank and died. Died. Drank.
He is screwing back the lid on the flask of hot tea when he feels Alcock's hand on his shoulder. He knows before turning around that it is there. As simple as that.
Rising up out of the sea, nonchalant as you like: wet rock, dark grass, stone tree light.
The plane crosses the land at a low clip.
Down below, a sheep with a magpie sitting on its back. The sheep raises its head and begins to run when the plane swoops, and for just a moment the magpie stays in place on the sheep's back: it is something so odd Brown knows he will remember it forever.
The miracle of the actual.
In the distance, the mountains. The quiltwork of stone walls. Corkscrew roads. Stunted trees. An abandoned castle. A pig farm. A church. And there, the radio towers to the south. Two-hundred-foot masts in a rectangle of lockstep, some warehouses, a stone house sitting on the edge of the Atlantic. It is Clifden, then. Clifden. The Marconi Towers. A great net of radio masts. They glance at each other. No words. Bring her down. Bring her down.
They follow their line out over the village. The houses are gray. The roofs, slate. The streets unusually quiet.
Alcock whoops. Shuts the engines. Angles in, flattens the Vimy out.
Their helmets applaud. Their hair roars. Their fingernails whistle.
FROM OUT OF the grass a flock of long-billed snipe rises and soars.
IT LOOKS TO them like the perfect landing field, hard and level and green, yet what they don't notice coming down are the nearby slabs of peat that lie like cake, the sharp cuts in the brown earth, the lines of wet string that run along the banks, the triangular ricks of earth off in the distance. They miss, too, the wooden turf carts that lie weathered and rainpocked at the side of the road. They miss the angles of the slanes, leaning up against the carts. They miss the rushes grown long on the abandoned roads.
They bring the Vimy towards the ground. A flawless trajectory. Almost as if they could lean out and scoop the soil in their hands. Here we are. The plane suspends itself a foot from the ground. Their hearts thump in their shirts. They wait for the moment of touch. Skim the top of the grass.
They hit and bounce. We are down, we are down, Jackie boy.
But they know straightaway they are slowing too suddenly. A wheel maybe? A burst tire? A snap of tail fin? No cursing, no shouting. No panic. A sinking feeling. A dip. And then they realize. It is bog, not grass. The living roots of sedge. They are skidding across a green bog. The soil holds the weight of the plane a moment and they skid along fifty feet, sixty feet, seventy, but then the wheels dig.
Excerpted from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Copyright © 2013 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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