Brothers in Phenomenon by Ken Poyner

There are not so many people about that it would not have been unlikely that the first falling manhole cover would have gone unnoticed, have been utterly unremarked — driving to earth in a farmer’s field, or in a continental desert, in Antarctica, or in the ocean itself. Not only the first, but perhaps many dozens of manhole covers, many hundreds. Simply an abject phenomenon: without witness, without apparent consequence, without value to any civilization.

Eventually, though, one did fall dramatically in a more populated area. A sudden rush of air and the noise of a dependable manhole cover striking pavement. Everyone appropriately startled, each scanning around them, looking for the mystery that made the stunning noise, and finally one agape witness shouting, “Hey!  It’s a manhole cover!

Conjecture at first probably was that it was a local manhole cover – that some rare combination of physics and hydraulics coordinated to lift an otherwise settled manhole cover and send it arcing from its repose to later mindfully land on a random patch of undeserving street. In fact, people who had nothing better to do at the time might have looked up and down the pavement, seeking the round entry to the dark that would be exposed by the unscheduled ejection. Everyone perhaps would have surmised that this surely was a one-time affair, an occurrence that, though it might happen every so many years, nevertheless was essentially unique with this particular airborne manhole cover, this particular calamitous landing.

Inter-city communication being what it is, though, it was only a day or so before disparate facts were knitted together and the phenomenon of falling manhole covers was soon established as a repeating and geographically widespread occurrence. Falls had been seen in half a dozen cities, more small towns. Farmers went about to quizzically overturn their fields, trying to see if there were any unlikely manhole covers that had fallen unknown and were dolefully awaiting discovery.

Yes, there were stories of deaths. A man was standing at a crosswalk, held up by the unrelenting no-walk signal when, like the hammer of Thor, a materializing manhole cover fell square and pulverizing on him. He was dead at the impact, people around him screaming and leaping into the roadway and back along the sidewalk, spreading out as though the secret to avoiding manhole covers was in making a less dense target, less a crowd and more receding data points. People cried. They looked up, watching for manhole covers, wincing when one fell into a building or a car. Chins in the air, they would stumble when they tried to walk; others would run from doorway to doorway, the masonry above them offering them a belief in protection.

We have become quietly more circumspect since them. We still fear the descending manhole covers, but we cannot let them rule our lives. You can still catch someone slipping along in stuttering steps, gazing dangerously up. But the clattering drops are not so frequent that we are always in fear of our lives.

Ever since it was determined that, yes, this fearful falling of steel from clear skies was an on-going process, our scientists have been looking for the manholes from which the covers originally came. No one has yet found a source. Manufacturers of manhole covers have been asked to verify their production and inventories. Serial numbers are run through squat computer programs. City councils pay for repeated lamentably mundane manhole cover counts. Secret warehouses of manhole covers are imagined. Foreign governments confer, treachery is suspected.

Detailed analysis shows that the manhole covers initially appear several yards in the sky – as if out of simple space – and fall unerringly straight down, accelerating momentously as they drop. Experiments are proposed to film and measure the arrival – or perhaps it is the formation – of a manhole cover, though place and time are unpredictable, at least to our sciences so far, and there is no way to bring the necessary detailed equipment in time to the point of the bizarre and perhaps magical process initiation.

Some have proposed they are messages from the future – future manhole covers being for unknown reasons sent back. Or a gift from confused trans-dimensional aliens. Perhaps in earth orbit alien beings of good intentions are presenting us omens of manhole covers, expecting us to interpret and dutifully understand.

The simple irrationality of the phenomenon leads to all sorts of speculation. As more and more structures are damaged, ever more citizens damaged, collections of citizens killed, the theories grow ever more ragged and ever more hungry. Everyone is looking to connect the dots. There is always a reason, always a way. We simply need to see it clearly. The outlines enthrall us; the mystery grooms like a romance.

Making no present sense to it, we look to the victims. At first, those whose property was damaged by falling manhole covers could legally make insurance claims, expect compensation for these independent accidents not of their making. And then the insurance companies stopped paying. The luckless victims might hold themselves blameless, but the insurance companies nonetheless considered them to be on their own:  alone – perhaps even, in some unexpected unexplained way, at least in small, or not so small, measure the real cause of their bridgeable misfortune.

The original reason for refusal to pay may have been the greed of the insurance companies. Scapegoating makes for a better bottom line. But such reasoning, so profitably applied, can have other eager applications. So, the same insurance company logic began to be applied to the deaths and injuries. At first tragic, at first saddening; then perhaps later an omen, a prophecy, a payback. Fewer and fewer people now attend the funerals of those who have been hammered by descending manhole covers. Obituaries are no longer written for them. People in a crowd where someone is smitten by a manhole cover do not scream or wrench in anguish:  they lean away from the point of impact, walk around, ensure no debris has soiled them. Perhaps the manhole cover was dropped with karmic intent, with grand design. Perhaps there is a method to this new madness. Perhaps it is not a madness at all but a gloaming.

People who are merely injured in manhole cover invitations are locked in the worst of all cases. Emergency crews have stopped responding to their calls. They cannot merit help by saying that a manhole cover has unbidden smashed the front half of their foot, or clipped their shoulder. No, they have to make up some other believable accident or felony, hide the manhole cover; or, if they can move, pull themselves away from the scene of the injury’s commission. Try as they might, on-lookers will usually give them away. Rescue crews will surveil the area, looking for evidence of a manhole cover fall. If there is evidence, or even likely evidence, they will directly leave without rendering assistance.

People who could be saved expire in their homes, on the street, in smashed restaurant patio chairs, in bedrooms where manhole covers have smashed through the rooves. People claim they were in a simple car accident when in fact a manhole cover hit their or someone else’s car, and they are the luckless victim of the aftermath. It makes no difference.

The contagion stretches backwards. People who have been hit in the past and recovered have lost friends, been abandoned by family, are refused service in restaurants and convenience stores. Taxi service is denied them. They are pointed out in public, ridiculed. They try to hide their injuries, but their names are published. Citizen committees decide, when someone claims an injury is not manhole cover related, whether the victim is mistaken or not. The conclusions are weighted heavily to injury by manhole cover.

As we seek to understand the why and how of the new environment, of our new circumstance, perhaps we have come up already with the why. A calculus of calamity deserved; a justice exacted beyond what the community has the probity to understand; a mathematics for which we are witless, a mathematics surreptitiously working for us. If that is the case, we should be grateful, cherish the why, and admit the how is not of so much importance. You don’t ask the miracle that wondrously saves you just how in specific it works.

After years of impersonating a Systems Engineer, Ken has retired to watch his wife continue to break world raw powerlifting records.  Ken’s two current poetry and four short fiction collections (just released: “Engaging Cattle”, mini-fictions) are available from Amazon and elsewhere.

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