Flight of the Onomatopoeia


a story by Andrew Wayne Adams



The dictionary salesman opened his briefcase and pulled out a gun. He aimed the gun at the pilot’s head and pulled the trigger. What shot from the barrel was not a bullet but a word, big blocky font emerged one letter at a time like a scrolling headline ... the word ONOMATOPOEIA traveling faster than sound toward the pilot’s head...


The word struck the pilot’s temple and bounced off with a heavy clang, falling dead to the dusty ground. The pilot adjusted his hat and grunted. The dictionary salesman reloaded, firing an ANTIDISESTABLISH-MENTARIANISM at the pilot’s head. The word bounced off the pilot’s temple and crashed to the ground twenty-three feet below.
The pilot held onto one of the giant ribs that surrounded him, trying to move the rib like a lever. He peered ahead through the framework of bones. He made jet-engine sounds with his lips.


The dictionary salesman had parachuted in fifteen minutes ago. Word had come from above that a Potential Buyer was alone and unarmed in the Le Vrai Desert, and he, Salesman #788, had been chosen for the honorable task of dropping from the sky to accost the PB with his sales pitch of Words And Their Meanings Together In One Place For One Low Cost.

The pilot sat within the skeleton of a giant whale, up high and toward the front, the kind of dorsal-anterior place where you’d expect to find the creature’s cockpit. The whale had been of the winged variety. The brittle cartilaginous remains of its flight-appendages lay dormant against the yellow desert floor. Moldering scraps of cloth lay scattered among the bleached bones.

The pilot, high in his cockpit of bone, pretended to fly the whale skeleton. After his airdrop, Salesman #788 had climbed up into the skeleton, tombstone-like dictionaries dangling from his ankles, where they were secured with lengths of black chain. “Words And Their Meanings Together...” was as far as he’d gotten into his sales pitch before the pilot started shrieking. The sudden shrieks made Salesman #788 jump, drop the brochure he was holding and nearly topple over backward off the skeleton. The pilot’s shrieks revealed themselves as words:

“Impermeable cumulus ahead! A brick wall stretching across the sky! More altitude, MORE ALTITUDE! This is not a drill! This is war! The moment of truth! More altitude!” He turned a solid-blue eye to Salesman #788. “Peter, man your station!”

“Right away,” Salesman #788 said, jumping into the copilot’s seat and strapping in, donning his circuitry-laden helmet and lowering the oxygen mask over his mouth. He could taste the adrenaline in his esophagus. The Captain was right: This was the moment of truth. All their training had led to this. Do or die. Definitely not a drill.

“Bravery, Peter!” the Captain shrieked. “Courage!”

Another wave rocked the ship. Peter held the harpoon ready. They moved in tightening circles toward the center of the white-foam vortex, the ship creaking with doom. The Captain clopped across the deck, shouting orders to the various plates of inanimate food that made up the crew. Mutiny from the spaghetti and meatballs, who claimed that the Captain’s orders (Shred the sails! Load the cannons with oatmeal!) were counterproductive. After an unsuccessful revolt, the spaghetti and meatballs, the egg-salad sandwich and the meatloaf were forced to walk the plank and drop into the waters below.

Finally they approached the heart of the whirlpool, and Peter saw the giant eye that rested at the vortex’s bottom. He flung the harpoon. An insane shriek sounded from everywhere at once as the harpoon shattered the eye’s great corrective lens and continued on through the pupil, into the darkness within.

The Capt., ecstatic: “Ia! Ia!”

Peter was vaguely aware of a weight that seemed to pull at his legs, as if something large, heavy and filled with knowledge was chained to his ankles with lengths of black chain. The sea-monster vomited a cumulus cloud as it died. But the ship could not escape the force of the whirlpool: It careened downward into spiraling, watery darkness.

“We can survive this!” the Capt. yelled over the crash of the waves. He appeared to have grown younger. “Quick, switch me seats!”

Peter #788 switched seats with the Capt., a vertiginous wobble in his steps, as if he were on a tightrope across the thin beam of a bone, vertebrae an arch overhead, a parabola with sun as the focus, the horizon a granular directrix ... earth upside down.

“Sir,” said Peter #788, “can you define ‘survive’?”

“Quick, switch me seats!”

The darkness was a desert.

“Quick, switch me seats!”

A dead whale at the bottom of the sea.

Peter #788 was both shocked and honored when the Capt. stood to announce that he, the Capt., was retiring and bequeathing his honorable title to Peter #788. Cobwebs stretched and broke as the Capt. removed his hat and slapped it down onto P788’s head. Adjusting his new hat, the Captain #788 said, “But what will you do now? Flying was your life...”

“I was thinking of going into sales,” said his copilot, who stood and grew a parachute out of his back. He lifted his legs--both of them at once--to display the tombstone-like dictionaries dangling there by their lengths of black chain. He said, “May I interest you in this special offer of Words And Their Meanings Together In One Place For One Low Cost...?”But the Pilot #788 barely heard him. He was too concerned by a bank of cumuli ahead to pay much attention to anything. He pulled a lever, trying to gain altitude. He hardly noticed the dictionary salesman standing beside him. He was only vaguely aware of a sensation in his legs like the absence of a mighty weight, as if some heavy thing had been chained there but was now gone.

The dictionary salesman recalled his training: In the Event of PBR (Potential-Buyer Nonresponsiveness), Shoot to Kill.

So, in the present tense, the dictionary salesman opens his emergency briefcase and removes his gun and shoots the pilot with a word ... the word NIHILCYCLICAL, which he’s not even sure is a real word. He would look it up, but he doesn’t own a dictionary.

The word bounces off the pilot’s temple.

Salesman #789 fires again. And again. The words bounce off the pilot’s temple, drop to the desert floor.

Salesman #789 scratches his nose and wonders what to do next when a cold wind rushes down and fills the parachute that had sprouted from his back, yanking him upward into the huge and terrifying sky. Far below, the pilot recedes, a young man growing old, the scraps of some abandoned uniform falling in shreds from his body.