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The Last Plane Out of Chungking

The following is one of the short short stories from Barry Gifford’s Sad Stories of the Death of Kings. It was one of the best stories in the book, and I thought at once of sharing it with you. The first paragraph is a scene from the movie Lost Horizon.

The little plane was barely visible through dense night fog as it sat on the ground. Then the engine turned over and the single propeller started to rotate, scattering mist as the plane nudged forward, feeling its way toward the runway. Chinese soldiers suddenly burst out of the airport terminal and began firing their rifles furiously in an attempt to prevent the plane from taking off. Tiny lights from the aircraft’s cabin winked weakly from within its whitish shroud while the plane taxied, desperately attempting to gather speed sufficient for takeoff. The soldiers stood confused, firing blindly and futilely until the aircraft lifted into blackness and escape.

Roy fell asleep after watching this opening scene of the film Lost Horizon. He liked to watch old movies late at night and in the early morning hours, even though he had to be up by 7:00 a.m. in order to be at school by eight. On this particular night, Roy dreamed about four boys his age, fourteen, in Africa, who discover a large crocodile bound by rope to a board hidden in bushes, abandoned by the side of a dusty dirt road. A stout stick was placed vertically in the crocodile’s mouth between its upper and lower jaws in order to keep the mouth open as widely as possible and prevent its jaws from snapping shut.

The crocodile could not move or bite, so the boys decided to drag it by the tail end of the board to a nearby river and release it. As they approached the river’s edge, it began raining hard and the ground suddenly became mushy and very slippery. To free the crocodile, they placed the board so that the croc’s head faced the river. One of the boys tore a long, sinewy vine from a plant and cautiously wound it around the stick. Another boy had a knife and prepared to cut the rope. The other two boys kept a safe distance. The boy with the knife sliced the rope in two at the same time the other boy tugged forcefully at one end of the vine, pulling out the stick. The crocodile did not immediately move or close its enormous mouth. The boys stood well away from it, watching. After a few moments, the crocodile hissed loudly and slowly slithered off the board and wobbled to the water’s edge, slid into the dark river and disappeared from view. The boys ran off as the downpour continued.

When Roy woke up, it was a few minutes before seven. He turned off the alarm before it could ring and thought both about the plane fleeing Chungking and the African boys rescuing the crocodile. What was the difference, he wondered, between waking life and dream life? Which, if any, was more valid or real? Roy could not make a clear distinction between the two. He decided then that both were of equal value, two-thirds of human consciousness, the third part being imagination. The last plane from Chungking took off with Roy aboard, bound for the land of dreams. What happened there only he could imagine.