Locust House Variations, A Weekly Fiction Column by Adam Gnade, “Over Heads, Over Grave, Over Death”

Whenever I’m set to board a flight, I feel like writing my will and calling those I love to say goodbye.

Two days ago, I watched the news on my phone while I ate dinner alone in the farmhouse. It was Russian invasion coverage, war crimes, NATO talks, then analysis on the confirmation hearing of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

I should’ve turned it off when the story of the Chinese plane crash began, but I didn’t and now I can’t stop seeing the plane drop out of the sky.

Flying to California, I think of Ritchie Valens and the premonition he had of his death. I know it from the movie. Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie. His death at 17, thrown from the plane’s cabin as it cartwheeled across a frozen field in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Turbulence now—the plane I’m in rocks side to side like a car skidding out on a wet road as we climb into the clouds.

“So, this is normal?” asks a woman sitting somewhere behind me.

No one answers.

It is. Normal, I mean.

We shake through the air then the plane levels out and flies straight and now we’re rising smooth through the sunny clouds.

I breathe out.


Hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath.

Now—the dull murmur of voices in the cabin and the ocean sound of the engines; the air blowing through the vents as the overhead bins rattle just slightly.

A girl in the row across from me sleeps, bowed forward, head resting on the seat-back of the next row, her arms folded in her lap. The man to the right of me has fallen asleep and the woman next to him sleeps with her balled-up sweater as a pillow propped against the window. (I realize at that moment adults in planes are like toddlers in cars.)

Today is the fourth time I’ve flown since the pandemic began to slow this fall.

Four flights after nearly two years of staying put.

You can grow accustomed to anything.

And I did.

In my will I would divide up future earnings from books and make a clause about keeping certain ones in print (as well as publishing the ones I’d rather not see released during my lifetime).

My extensive collection of childhood toys—Star Wars, Voltron, M.U.S.C.L.E. wrestlers, He-Man, GI Joe, Battle Beasts, Transformers, comics, Garbage Pail Kids, marbles—would go to my godsons Willy and Johnsy. Books from my personal library divided between Alison, Frankie, Ethan, and Kenny. All important things—letters, photos, yearbooks—to Alison as well as all the things I’ve loved and collected during my short life—Roman coins, fossils, gems, dinosaur teeth, knives. My car to Frankie’s sister Rebecca if she still needs one. My Civil War saber to Ben Frank. My cowboy boots, Docs, sneakers, clothes, hats, belts, scarves, and sunglasses to Willy and Johnsy because everything comes back in style eventually (while others never fall out of fashion).

A boy behind me is playing a shooting game on the plane—the gunshots sound like someone knocking on the metal frame of a screen-door which is maybe a summer sound, but I think of Ukraine not summer days—Russian forces firing into a crowd at a protest I watched online. Thinking of the protest, I imagine which friends of mine would attend such a thing had it been Stateside, and I imagine them running from the shots.

How many of those arrested will never return to their loved ones? I’ve read enough about Stalin’s gulags and mass graves, and with that in mind, the points of comparison are glaringly obvious.

Gulag is an acronym of “Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey.” Translated, “Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps.” Concentration camps. (A few days ago, the Economist reported 15,000 Russians have been arrested in anti-war protests.)

The Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam was sent to a Russian forced labor camp during “the Great Purge” in 1938.

He never returned.

In one of his final poems, Mandelstam writes:

“When my journey is finally over,
Bonds of love will not fade right away,
And the heavens’ response still will hover
Over heads, over grave, over death.”

Mandelstam’s last letter was sent both to his brother and his wife:

“Dear Shura!

I’m in Vladivostok, SVITL, barracks 11. I got 5 years for K.R.D. [counterrevolutionary activity] by the decision of the OSO [Special Committee of the NKVD]. From Moscow, left from Butyrok on September 9, arrived on October 12. Health is very poor. Exhausted to the extreme. Have lost weight, we’re almost unrecognizable. But I don’t know if there is any sense in sending clothes, food and money. Try it, all the same. I’m freezing without proper things. Nadinka, I don’t know if you’re alive, my dove. You, Shura, write to me about Nadia right away. There’s a transit point here. They didn’t take me to Kolyma. Wintering is possible.

My relatives, kiss you.


Shurochka, I’m writing more. I’ve been going to work in recent days, and it’s uplifting.

From our camp, a transit camp, they send one to the permanent camp. I obviously got caught in the ‘dropout’ and we have to prepare for the winter. And I’m asking: send me a radiogram and money by telegraph.”

That was it from Mandelstam, one of the finest minds of the 20th century.

Up next for him, the mass grave.

When I fly, I’m obsessed with how people might read the texts from my phone as my final thoughts.

The last texts I sent before boarding the flight were to Alison. A practical exchange:

Me: I’m having breakfast in the restaurant here at the airport and it’s very loud

Her: Okay

Her: My mom offered to pick you up from the airport so you don’t have to Uper

Her: Uber

Me: Where are you going to be?

Her: With them

Her: In the car picking you up

Me: I was thinking maybe we just meet down there, head across town to Pokez,
and meet up with Jeremy and Christine

Me: Was talking with Jeremy about meeting them at Pokez at 7

Her: You want to meet at your parents’ house first?

Me: Let’s meet at the airport or downtown somewhere then Uber to Pokez

Me: I get in at 5:30 something

Me: Then we Uber back to P.B. to sleep.

Me: I’m out of the restaurant now. Gonna call you

Her: I’m about to go into a restaurant

Me: Okay, I’ll call you from Las Vegas

Her: Don’t gamble too much

Me: You can’t stop me

Me: Okay, boarding now. I love you. I’ll call you in shitty Las Vegas.

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