Alumnus Paul Michel’s (fiction, ’98) story, “Angels For All She Knew,” currently appears in the online and print editions of Writing Tomorrow as the magazine’s 2013 Fiction Contest winner.
Angels For All She Knew
Orville. Wilbur. The names were absurd. It was no surprise that these men had made bicycles. They might have been bakers or street sweepers. But the fathers of flight? The idea made Vincent Molnar laugh. His laughter rumbled up from deep within: some secret secret place of spite and bile. It had festered there, in one Molnar man after another, for nearly one hundred and fifty years.
“Kitty Hawk,” he sneered, shaking his balding head.
“Kitty Hawk my ass.”
Vincent had just turned forty-one. He had a thirteen-year-old son named Rudy, who at the moment was hunched predictably in a desk chair in his bedroom, riveted on a game of galactic warfare that flashed its pixels mere inches from his nose. His thin fingers flew deftly over the keyboard. Civilizations rose and fell at his command. He was paying scant attention to his father, though it was largely on his account that Vincent was cursing the Wright Brothers in the first place. On his account, for his own damned good, and for the honor of his family.
“Lies, lies, lies,” said Vincent.
Rudy did not turn his head.
“You’ve told me all this before.”
“Clearly it hasn’t sunk in.”
“You want me to recite it for you?”
“There’s that mouth of yours.”
“All I’m saying is I know about it.”
“So if you’re so damned smart, how do you explain this?”
Vincent slammed a paper on the keyboard. The boy jerked away his hands. It was a school assignment Rudy had written on that very computer the week before. Three pages, double spaced, wide margins: “Victory on the Outer Banks.”
The paper slipped to the floor. Vincent retrieved it, rolled it into a scroll, and tapped it on his palm like a nightstick.
“Why would you of all people write such drivel?”
“It was just an assignment, Dad. The first paper of the year. I got an A-minus, in case you hadn’t noticed. The minus was only for a couple of typos.”
“Typos? You bet there were typos. Half of it isn’t true. You know what I have a mind to do with this?”
Rudy’s mother Sarah appeared in the doorway. She wore a loose cotton dress and green gloves stained with loam from the garden. She caught Vincent’s eye and wordlessly shook her head. Vincent glared from her to Rudy and back again, threw the paper on the floor and stomped from the room.
“My own damned son,” he said.
Alone in his two-car garage, Vincent brooded. He had brooded often before, as had his father, and his father’s father, and so on back to the mid-1800s. Five generations of Molnar men, brooding, planning, pleading and cajoling, and not a bit of good had it done one of them. Vincent once had told himself, years ago, that the brooding for him was over: that he did not care about the Molnar family story.
Indeed he told it to very few, usually those who wouldn’t remember it when the sun rose. He didn’t even tell Sarah until several years after they were married. But in the past decade he had begun to feel—first faintly, then with power and insistence—the clenched ancestral fist beating a rhythm of injustice that now, in his middle years, had synchronized at last with his own angry pulse.
His story was this: That his great-great-great grandfather, Cornelius Molnar, had invented—and constructed and flown—the first airplane. It was high time that the world took note of the fact.
Vincent was all too familiar with the propaganda, falsehoods, oversights, and embellishments that passed for history, not only in standard reference books and websites but even in the tomes and treatises of experts and insiders who ought to know better. He’d read hundreds of books by scholars, pilots, journalists, historians, scientists, and curators, and not one of them even mentioned the Molnar triumph. He’d visited museums, spoken to professors, and spent numbing hours with his computer after Rudy and Sarah were asleep, surfing and linking, marking and posting, tagging and blogging, more desperate each day to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that someone out there would listen.
His own son would not listen. The great-great-great-great grandson of Cornelius Molnar himself, for the love of God, would not listen. What chance did Vincent have?
Just one, perhaps. It was a big one, and he didn’t want to do it alone. Yet Rudy, his own flesh and blood, sat inside, absorbed in a cyber-fantasy, ignoring both his legacy and his destiny. It was enough to make a father weep with rage. Perhaps Vincent’s father had wept as well. It was time to bring this weeping to an end.
Cornelius hailed originally from Hungary, but early in life he became a polyglot European wanderer, blessed with both means and imagination. Though he’d inherited his father’s substantial estate, he ran it listlessly at best for the first decade of his maturity while he searched for something more substantial to occupy his mind. He was too independent to be either military or political, and he had no stomach for law. He traveled, he read, he listened and probed and waited for something to capture his prodigious imagination.
He turned his attentions to science. It was an age of invention: the typewriter, the sewing machine, the reaper, the stereoscope, the telegraph, the Daguerreotype—all these and more had been contrived in his lifetime, as Western civilization settled into its uneasy marriage with machinery that would define the Modern Age. As the century passed its midpoint, he found himself making frequent trips to America. Eventually he sold his horses, packed his trunks and, on a warm spring day in 1860, bid the Old World goodbye.
He settled first in Boston, but soon yearned for fresh air and green vistas, so he bought a house on the outskirts of Medford, famous for the manufacture of clipper ships and bricks. He invested in both and his fortune grew. So did his fascination with the technical inquiries and progresses of the day, and above all a compelling, burgeoning ambition—shared by visionaries on both sides of the ocean—to become an aviator, and to conquer the centuries-old challenge of heavier-than-air flight. Human flight. Genuine flight. Not by model or theory or hot gas balloon, not by the chance breeze of a glider’s wings or the ridiculous flapping of the crypto-Icarians and their suicidal contraptions. The possibility of machine-powered, controlled, aerial navigation was real—and seemingly reachable—to a scattering of enthusiasts across both continents. If the scientific societies pooh-poohed or even condemned the idea, well, so much the better. The twitchy reticence of the Establishment, Cornelius knew, typically heralded man’s most profound achievements.
He sought advice from every corner. He returned to Europe for research, to amass as much as was known about previous efforts. He dined in Paris with the theorists DeBries and DeLatour. He spent three days with Cayley, and saw a model of the glider that soon after carried an astonished ten-year-old servant on the first unpowered (and regrettably uncontrolled) ascent. He played cards in London with the mad balloonists Glaisher and Cox. He corresponded voluminously, in a half-dozen languages, with the young Otto Lilienthal. He visited the eccentric John Stringfellow at his lace factory in Somerset, and saw with his own eyes the ungainly steam engine that reportedly had flown more than ten yards under its own power in an abandoned mill in Chard, though eyewitnesses were nowhere to be found.
On his last European visit, Cornelius shot boar in the Black Forest with the mathematician Laboissiere. They dined at an inn near Freiburg, on a cobblestone terrace next to a garden where a hundred tittering finches hopped and squabbled. The scent of rose blossoms mingled agreeably with the odors of boiled cabbage and the damp fur of their exhausted hounds. Laboissiere had seen Stringfellow’s flying machine and Henson’s effort before that, and had thought long about the power-to-weight ratio that would be needed to take aloft a vehicle light enough to stay above the ground, yet heavy enough to withstand the forces of air upon it. While their beer grew warm in the sun, Cornelius and his host made sketches on the backs of handbills supplied by the grizzled innkeeper. They drew monoplanes, biplanes, and triplanes. They scribbled equations and scratched hurried lines through them, rejecting formulae as quickly as they conjured them. They pondered the merits of steam versus clockwork versus compressed air, of boiler size and spar construction and of the proper material for wings. The innkeeper brought fresh beer, and it too grew stale while the finches sang into the evening.
Vincent had Cornelius’s sketches still. He kept them with his other treasured papers, not in the moldy wooden trunk he inherited from his father, but in a reinforced aluminum packing case he purchased when he was thirty-three, shortly after he studied the documents carefully for the first time, and was set afire by the magnitude of their significance. There were other papers too—letters in German and French, and a sort of diary in both of these languages as well as Hungarian, switching mercifully in Cornelius’s Medford years to a primitive but serviceable English. The writing was difficult, the pages faded and stained, but along with sundry yellowed charts, drawings and lists, the diary chronicled the ancestral Molnar’s passion.
Vincent kept the case beneath his workbench. He showed it to almost no one. Sarah had seen its contents only once, the night Vincent explained to her how he had found his destiny at last. She had rather imagined herself to be his destiny, apart from which the ancient faded pages meant nothing to her at all, so she could conjure little enthusiasm for these brittle talismans of someone else’s past. She regarded them as her husband’s new hobby, and it appeared that, as with most things, he was overdoing it a bit. In ensuing years she came to understand just how much more than a “hobby” it really was. She wondered sometimes if he was fully sane. Other times she wondered if she was, to have put up with him so long.
Rudy first saw the case two years ago, when he was eleven. Vincent told him solemnly one night that it was time for a Talk. They went to the garage and looked at the notes and sketches together.
“Cool,” said Rudy.
“It’s a little better than ‘cool,’” said Vincent. “It’s history.”
“Cool,” Rudy said again. Then he returned to his
Tonight, Vincent sat in the dark and touched the smooth aluminum of the case, comforted by its presence, minutely aware of its contents. Years ago he had studied German and relearned his high school French in order to read the faded script. (The Hungarian eluded him.) The translated words were pure memory now, like the lyrics of childhood songs. Often in the evening he would sit like this with the case on his lap and the garage lights off, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, imagining the shadows of his ancestors in a wide circle around him. At such times he felt less alone than he did in the disinterested company of his wife and son. For a long time, this realization shamed him. On nights like tonight it seemed reasonable. Even just.
The aluminum case was not all that he kept under lock and key. He parked his car on the street, and Sarah left hers in the driveway, no matter what the weather. There was no room in the garage for automobiles. The double-car space was occupied by something large hidden beneath a bright blue plastic tarp. Tomorrow, Vincent decided, he would pull off the cover and have another talk—a final talk—with Rudy. His temper would be cooler then. It was enough now to sit in the quiet on a folding chair and think.
Cornelius took a wife in Medford. She was the daughter of a brick maker, a factory owner who fancied himself a man of erudition. Emily was stout, shy, and thirty, and had all but given up hope of marriage. Cornelius was delighted by her. He had brought to America his money, his brilliance, and his ambition, but also a great impracticality when it came to managing the affairs of daily life. He lost things, forgot things, ignored things. Emily was practical. She lost, forgot and ignored nothing. Cornelius purchased a barn in the nearby countryside, where he spent most days and some of his nights behind barred, swinging doors through which no livestock passed. Emily asked what he did there all day. When he attempted to explain it to her she said little in response, but privately wondered how her father, who loved her dearly, could have married her off to a madman. She told Cornelius she would pray for him.
Rudy was in the eighth grade. He was tall for his age. He had straight black hair that looked greasy even when it was freshly washed, and he seemed to be frowning even at his happiest, which was when he was alone in front of his monitor, lost in a death match of bionic armies and deep space armadas. Sometimes, through the everyday magic of a high-speed cable line, he pitted his skills against others, in Des Moines or Copenhagen or Antarctica, for all he knew. If no worthy competition was to be found on-line, he “played the computer,” as he said, facing off against the software of the game, which naturally anticipated his every move and could no more be surprised by an opponent than a forest could be surprised by its own trees. Yet Rudy often won. This troubled his father a great deal, for Vincent understood that these victories were false, contrived to lure his son deeper still into the insidious somnambulance of the age. “Won’t you get up and godo something?” he pleaded, to which Rudy invariably responded: “In a minute. I’m about to win.”
Vincent had a plan for Rudy to win something that truly mattered. In a few weeks, shortly after the start of the academic year, the middle school would hold its annual science fair, in which entry by eighth-graders was obligatory. The first-place prize was advancement to a citywide competition, from which the best project would be chosen to go on to the state exhibition. Supposedly, the students had spent the summer working on their projects, which they’d devised at the end of their last seventh grade term. As far as Vincent knew, Rudy had not started his.
Each year the fair had a theme. Last year it was Energy Efficiency, the prior year the Wonders of the Deep. Rudy entered neither, condemning the fair as “boring.” This year, the theme was Flight. Rudy had no choice but to compete. To Vincent, the subject of his project was obvious. Rudy disagreed.
“I don’t want to build an airplane.”
“What do you want to do?”
“A report like everybody else.”
“This is supposed to be a project, not a report.”
“I’ll make it animated. On the computer. We don’t get graded on this. You just have to do something.”
“So why wouldn’t you do the best thing you could come up with?”
“I didn’t come up with it, you did.”
“I just made a suggestion.”
“Dad, you’ve been building it for years. I’ve seen it.”
“You can help me finish it.”
“Nobody else is building an airplane.”
“Nobody else is descended from—”
“I don’t want to hear about Cornwallis.”
“You’d get the prize. Slam dunk.”
“I don’t want the prize.”
“Of course you do.”
“No. You do.”
Once again Vincent walked away.
Cornelius chose compressed air over steam, believing that an engine for the latter would be too heavy to achieve Laboissiere’s critical proportion. He settled on his design: two cylinders, cigar-shaped and about as long as a living room, turning two helical pitch propellers, rotating in opposite directions as in Stringfellow’s ill-fated prototype. His system of double wings (with a vertical fin for stability) employed levers to catch and funnel the lifting air with more control and precision than heretofore had been accomplished, and he practiced long hours alone to familiarize himself with them. Unlike Cayley, he intended to fly his machine himself.
He hired an irascible, one-eyed shipwright named Silas away from the Medford boat yards to craft a light, wooden framework and hammer thin copper walls for his compression chambers, and he bought wholesale silk on the Boston docks in great rolls that he carted into the countryside by mule-drawn wagon. (The dressmakers of Beacon Hill wondered what sort of competitor might be setting up shop so far from the city.) He bribed many a tradesman to secrecy and told many little lies along the way, for he didn’t want to subject himself to the derision that had dogged so many of his colleagues in Europe and driven several to abandon their projects altogether.
Still, stories were told. Even with the growing news of the war in the South dominating Medford taverns and parlors, there was talk of the Hungarian and his contraption. Some said it was a weapon for the Union troops. Others described it (unseen) as a device for harvesting potatoes. A few said they’d heard it was a flying machine. The idea brought tearoom titters from the ladies and Yankee guffaws from the men. Then the talk turned back to the war.
Cornelius worked for three years on the structure taking shape behind the barred double doors. In the spring of 1865, he told Silas that he was ready. Early on the calm, chilly morning of March 28, he hitched his contraption to his mule team and pulled it to the most level field on his property. Its first flight lasted twenty-one seconds and covered a distance of nearly two hundred yards at an altitude of between ten and twenty feet. Its second—returning in the direction of the first—was three seconds longer, but the craft pitched downward upon descent and the impact snapped one wing, a landing spar, and two fingers on Cornelius’s left hand. He did not feel the pain. After eliciting vows of secrecy from Silas, sworn on a Bible and sealed with a flask of brandy, he hurried the aeroplane back to the barn to begin repairs. The next morning, he telegraphed members of the press—the editors of Boston’s Daily Advertiser and Daily Times, and New York’s Sun and Courier. He advised them of the date of his next demonstration and suggested that they send reporters and artists to document history in the making. Then he set back to work.
Vincent had studied his family history as much as possible. He had family letters as well as Cornelius’s drawings, along with certificates of death and birth, commendations and awards, clippings and snapshots, even ribbons and medals—including a Purple Heart—passed along by Molnars preceding him. They painted a sketchy picture, and overall a sad one, but it was better than none at all.
He had but vague memories of his own father, whom he knew until his own sixth birthday, when the news came that Samuel Molnar, an only child (as was Vincent), was killed when his helicopter crashed in a rice paddy in Long Tan. The treasured aluminum box contained a typed note from Samuel’s division commander, an envelope with his father’s dog tags, and a postcard mailed home from Osaka just six days before Samuel died. In another envelope was a picture of Vincent’s grandfather Victor, who was killed at Omaha beach when Samuel Molnar was barely four. (The Purple Heart was his.) Victor’s twin brother Thomas was spared a battlefield death and would have been Vincent’s beloved great-uncle if he had made it out of the Depression, but he was taken by scarlet fever in 1931, at the tender age of twelve. The twins’ father—Henry, another only child, met his end at the Second Battle of the Marne, in 1918. Henry’s father William drowned while ice skating in December 1903, the week before the Wrights made their celebrated ascent at the North Carolina dunes. And William’s father was Cornelius himself, whose end was also unhappy, though he at least had lived to see thirty, the last Molnar male to do so until the present generation. Vincent thought long about this. Surely he’d been spared for a reason.
Easter Saturday, 1865. By the time Cornelius had driven his mules to the field, the New England sun was weak on the horizon, suggesting a fine afternoon but warming not a square inch of the white frost blanketing the new field grass. It was a morning for tweed jackets and woolen gloves, for brandy snorts and union suits, though not, praise God, for wind. Silas was along again to lend a hand. Cornelius not only had repaired his flying machine, he had improved it, he was certain: A more stable structure for the landing apparatus. Better hand controls for the flaps and fin. A comfortable platform of woven reeds upon which he could lie, face down, his feet protruding beyond the primitive fuselage. Retooled propellers. New silk. The aircraft’s name,Odyssey, stenciled on each of the cylinders. Cornelius was ready for history. He scanned the distant road, waiting for the rising dust to signal that his chroniclers were on their way.
The fair was coming up soon. Rudy had to decide what to submit. Contrary to what he’d told his father, some of the kids in class were doing real projects for this fair, projects they actually had worked on all summer, and this caught Rudy a little off guard. Danny Frederick was making a rocket, which wasn’t completely surprising since Danny was a total loser, but then Rudy discovered that Trevor Johnson, who was cool, was making a wind tunnel, and Kyle Hansen was building a glider, and Alexa Reynolds was making some sort of radar something, and the more he asked the less it looked like anybody was just making a Powerpoint about satellites or any of the other vague ideas that Rudy had forced himself to entertain on the long bus ride home. So, with less than three weeks before the fair, when Mr. Miski the science teacher stopped Rudy in the hallway and asked what his project was, Rudy heard himself blurting out the worst possible answer:
“I’m making an airplane,” he said.
Mr. Miski’s abundant eyebrows shot up.
“An airplane? Well, that’s a grand idea. I remember one year a boy from Whittier made models of all of DaVinci’s drawings. He took second place at State.”
“This isn’t a model,” said Rudy.
He wondered where the words were coming from. Mr. Miski’s eyebrows rose still higher.
“It’s not a model.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s a full-sized flying machine from the—from way back a long time ago. Before the Wright brothers. And it really flies.”
The eyebrows descended and settled slowly into a troubled furrow. In the silence that followed, Rudy played his own words back to himself and regretted every one. A model. Why hadn’t he thought of that? He could have pulled that off on his own. But no, he came right out and said it: Full sized. Really flies. Mr. Miski’s face relaxed, and he put a hand on Rudy’s shoulder, something the teachers weren’t really supposed to do.
“I’m looking forward to this, Rudy. It sounds very—very exciting. You just be sure that if you need any help, you know—I’d be happy to lend a hand. Teacher supervision is fully encouraged. Especially with the more, well, ambitious projects.”
“Sure,” said Rudy. And he ran to his next class, trying to pretend that the last five minutes had not happened, and that the next three weeks were already long past.
The sun cleared the hilltops, and Cornelius and Silas were still alone. Cornelius puffed his pipe. Silas crouched on a flat stone, picking his teeth with a sulfur match. Return telegrams had guaranteed the presence of a half-dozen prominent representatives of the press. But a few scattered cattle across the valley, black dots on a broad green canvas, were the only other warm-blooded creatures in sight. The telegraph office in Medford would not be open for hours. The telephone would not be invented for another decade, the radio for another thirty years, the television for seventy. There was no way for Cornelius and Silas to know what had happened in Washington the night before, at Ford’s Theater. A secessionist fanatic had shot the President. The Republic was entering its darkest hour. Every available newsman from Boston and New York had been summoned to the Capitol. Cornelius may have held the future in the palm of his broad, gloved hand, but at the moment it was fair to say that no one cared except him, and maybe Silas, and Emily who was breakfasting alone at their house in town, hoping that her husband would be done soon with this foolishness. Eagles may fly, she thought, and bugs and bats and angels for all she knew, but man has more than enough with which to busy himself upon the earth and sea. She poured another cup of tea, and admired the garden and the songbirds beyond the sitting room window.
The grass would warm up soon, and the rising hot air would be the devil for the Odyssey’s wide, silk wings. Silas gave Cornelius a one-eyed squint. He had been even surlier than usual since the trial run in March. He was a man of few words, but last week he muttered to his employer, nodding at his splinted hand, that he hoped Cornelius had “learned a lesson there.” Cornelius laughed in answer. Silas hadn’t spoken since. Now Cornelius motioned to him, and the two men unhitched the aeroplane and maneuvered it into position. Cornelius decided to take advantage of the morning for another trial flight, the lack of spectators notwithstanding. He climbed into the wicker gondolier and Silas prepared to uncock the cylinders simultaneously, with an ingenious cable device Cornelius stole outright from Beausilaire. As Cornelius counted down in English, a red-tailed hawk soared lazily overhead in the brightening sky. An instant later theOdyssey was aloft.
The craft caught an updraft as it left the earth, and within seconds the astonished hawk swerved sharply to avoid a giant cousin, hurtling through the air with a whistle and a shriek, for Cornelius had not expected to fly so high at all, let alone so quickly, and he screamed as he flew, a mix of panic and wild glee. The earth was falling away and the landscape expanding, unfolding before his eyes more quickly than any human had ever seen a landscape unfold before. There was the river, there the town, there the auburn haze of a hundred thousand Boston woodstoves battling the morning chill. The Odyssey banked, crazily at first, on the whim of the wind, and then suddenly Cornelius was in control, his hands on the levers, pulling the wings to catch the draft, soaring and dipping in—well, if not mastery of, then at least in an uneasy truce with the forces around him.
Below him Silas ran, his neck craned, tripping on hillocks and slipping in cow pies, turning and wheeling in his effort to comprehend what he couldn’t be seeing, but what he was seeing, above him, the ungainly structure that was equal parts Cornelius’s imagination and his own painstaking handiwork, rising higher and higher until he could no longer read its stenciled name nor discern its struts and braces, but could make out only its queerly birdlike shape in God’s own blue sky. He feared the inevitable descent, imagining already the broken body that he would pull from the wreckage and haul by mule cart back to Medford. He cried out with all his strength, words that garbled and thinned in the updrafts. All Cornelius could hear from his dizzy new altitude was the single word:
But the Odyssey did not crash. After two weaving, perilous turns the craft began to descend, slowly, as if on a deflating cushion. Down, down, down it came, tipping right and left, bucking like an anxious foal, but holding steady, impossibly steady, not plummeting but gliding, its cylinders spent after a full three minutes aloft. Into view now came the letters, the struts, and at last Cornelius himself, smile wide, hair standing straight up, eyes full of the light of the new-made world. Still there were no reporters. Only he and Silas knew what had happened.
Vincent had made one important variation on Cornelius’s design: the wings of the Odyssey II were detachable and fitted with bolts for last-minute assembly, so that the plane could be transported secretly (or nearly so) inside a rented U-Haul truck, and readied within an hour at the test site. He woke Rudy in the black wee hours to join him in the garage for the last double checks. There was no school this Monday, as teachers were meeting to plan for the coming year. The eighth graders were encouraged to spend the free day working on their projects. Vincent had chosen this day to change history.
The truck was backed as close to the garage door as the overhanging eaves would allow. Vincent wanted the cover of darkness to foil any nosy neighbor who might be fetching the morning paper from his porch. Rudy was unhappy about the early rousing, but he could not complain. Dad was bailing him out on this one, as hard as it was to admit, and he had known from that fateful, awful moment with Mr. Minski that control of the situation (indeed of his entire life, or so it felt at 4:30 a.m.) was out of his hands for a while, if not forever.
Tired though he was, Rudy was glad of the darkness. No one would see them. They would drive out into the boonies somewhere, put the stupid plane together and drive it (no doubt) into a tree—if they got it to move at all—and he would capture the entire ridiculous incident on his cell phone. The video and a few mangled pieces of wing would be more than adequate for the fair. Even Mr. Miski would be pleased.
They drove farther than he expected. Out of town, past the mall, past the outlet stores, past the sprawling subdivisions, past the power plant and its muscle man towers, over a towering bridge into alfalfa fields and truck farms, past them and the state forest with its small filthy campgrounds, out into the real countryside, woods and bottom land, untended pastures and forgotten orchards, here and there a town with no more purpose than a postal code. Dad drove with his high beams on, racing to beat the dawn. When finally they pulled off the road, Rudy had no idea where they were. The truck bounced up a gravel path lousy with pits and potholes. It ran through a small woods and emerged into a broad field with a genuine airplane runway, cracked, weedy, and obviously abandoned for years, but undeniably a runway, with the caved-in remains of some sort of shed to one side. A few threads of what might once have been a windsock dangled from a tilted wooden pole, unmoved by any hint of breeze.
“It’s a perfect day,” said Vincent, “to fly.”
They parked. They unloaded. They lifted and spaced and measured and assembled, tightening bolts, double-checking, tightening again. Vincent explained that the runway was built for crop dusters in the 1950s, but had been abandoned when so many of the farmers folded shop and moved to town. It had taken him weeks to find it, first on old aerial photographs from the University library, and then on the dusty back roads they just drove.
“Cornelius didn’t have a runway,” he chuckled, “but he’d have used one if he could have.”
“He would have used frequent flyer miles if he could have,” said Rudy. “Are we almost done?”
“As a matter of fact we are,” Vincent answered. “Prepare to witness history.”
The ingenious mechanism for uncocking the cylinders had not changed. Rudy managed the crucial moment with dignity and even a certain flourish, as if performing for an audience, though there was no one watching but Dad, who wasn’t watching at all. He was hunkered in his replica wooden basket, hands poised above the unfamiliar controls, a bicycle helmet on his head, a picture of Sarah in his jacket pocket. He counted with Rudy backwards from ten, and before he even could shout in surprise, he was airborne.
During the two weeks following the assassination, Cornelius was unable to interest anyone—not even Emily—in his miraculous flight. His messages to the newspapers went unanswered, his tentative comments at his club in Medford were met with expressions of astonished hostility—what on earth was he prattling on about, and what in the name of God Almighty did it have to do with the death of Mr. Lincoln and the national crisis? A clockmaker from Lowell silenced him and drew a few laughs with a cutting remark: “If you are so intent to fly, my good man, then kindly fly away.” Cornelius turned his attention to the accounts of the murder, and of the chase. To Silas he said only “our time will come,” but the old fellow seemed disinterested, pocketing his wages and muttering as he shuffled away.
On April 26, 1865, Richard Garret’s barn in Port Royal, Virginia was set on fire by Union cavalry pursuing John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice, David Herold. Cornelius had been reading accounts (largely erroneous) of Booth’s escape and pursuit in the Boston papers, and he heartily wished for him to be apprehended. This was for selfish reasons in part, as he hoped that the capture might start a return to normalcy and with it receptivity to the magnitude of his accomplishment in the Odyssey. But he had no time to rejoice at the image of Booth “cornered like a rat” (as the Sun told it) in Mr. Garrett’s shed. For there was a fire outside Medford that night as well; a swift conflagration that brought out the bucket brigade in force, though all it could do was watch as the eccentric Hungarian’s barn was devoured by flames, along with everything inside it, including a man whose charred bones were found in the ash and rubble. Onlookers swore that they saw a figure through the heat waves as the building blazed, leaping and dancing and beating his hands upon what looked to be a giant scaffold or (some said) skeleton, which collapsed around him just before the roof fell in. Cornelius sent a messenger for Silas to help him clean up the debris, but the old shipwright was nowhere to be found.
Sarah Molnar awoke in her bedroom just before the U-Haul pulled away. She watched the silhouettes of her son and husband as they dragged Vincent’s contraption out of the garage and loaded it in the truck, and she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was good to see them do something together at last, no matter how silly it was, or how coercive Vincent—bless and curse him both—had been. As the truck trundled down the drive, Sarah wished them luck. Not success, not really—she had no delusions that the contraption would actually fly. She simply hoped that no one would get hurt. The luck she wished for was that somehow this adventure might bring a change to the household; one that she could not precisely name, but would recognize the instant Vincent and Rudy walked back in the front door. Until then, she needed to decide what to do with herself and the quiet solitude of the morning. She rose slowly, put on her robe, and walked downstairs smiling.
Cornelius did not build another aeroplane. The good people of Medford helped clear away the ashes and blackened timbers of the barn, and offered to help Cornelius rebuild it, but he declined. For several months after the fire he did little but read the newspapers, following with unusual attention (or so his wife thought) the trial of the assassin’s co-conspirators. Gradually his interest in current events faded, along with his interest in most everything else except the small garden that Emily formerly had tended alone. She expected him to enlarge it, to move into experimental graftings and greenhouse innovations, but Cornelius seemed less interested in the blooms and occasional vegetables he grew than in the simple work of hoeing, pruning and weeding. He no longer went hunting; he seldom visited his club, he rarely traveled even as far as Boston. He became more attentive to Emily than in any of the prior years of their marriage, and she bore him four children, all girls, all of whom died in their first or second years. Then in August 1877, she gave birth to William, a stout, hammer-fisted infant whose cries could be heard by passersby a quarter mile away. Cornelius doted on the boy. He played with him, bounced him on his knee, and sang him Hungarian folk songs to lull him to sleep. When William was three years old, Cornelius died with a chicken bone lodged in his throat. He was fifty-five years old. He left something less of a fortune than Emily had expected, a library of books he had not opened in over a decade, and an oak trunk filled with letters and drawings. Emily did not remarry. She gave the trunk to William on his twenty-second birthday and died just four months later, on the next-to-last day of the nineteenth century.
Out on the country runway, the Odyssey II was moving very fast. It was scattering birds, blowing up dust, frightening small mammals from their burrows. It made a sound like a vacuum cleaner with a sock caught in its hose. Then, before Rudy could say “whatever,” it was—he could not believe it—airborne. Its wheels bumped twice, three times, then twice more on the asphalt, and all at once the craft was gaining altitude, not much, but enough to qualify as genuinely off-the-ground. Ten feet, twenty, then higher than the trees in the woods around them. He could hear his father yelling over the drone of the cylinders, and out of the wild blue improbable nowhere he was suddenly excited. This was awesome. His Dad was in an airplane that they built together—okay, mostly his Dad, but the point was the plane was flying, it was up there, like something from a TV documentary; a real live guy flying a homemade plane unlike anything anybody had ever seen before, and the guy was his actual father. Suddenly Rudy was yelling too, making no more sense than the wordless hollers emanating from the plane as it began its sharp, unexpected descent above the runway’s far end. Rudy grabbed for the stopwatch his father stuck in his shirt pocket before take-off. Nothing. He had forgotten to push the button. He lifted his cell phone to his eye. Nothing again. He had forgotten to turn on the camera. With one cupped palm he shielded his eyes against the rising sun.
Then came the fall. The runway dead-ended in a scrubby grove of alder trees, which the Odyssey II penetrated about three times its own length before it came to an abrupt stop, nose down, against a tree trunk. There was no explosion, no fireball, not even an earth-shaking impact. There was simply a plummet, and a thud, and then a half-minute of awful stillness while Rudy raced down the weedy tarmac, too frightened even to yell.
Vincent was okay, more or less. He was able to climb down from the plane without help; indeed he was leaning on what was left of the plane when Rudy arrived.
“Dad,” said Rudy. “We flew.”
Vincent beamed. There was a small cut on his cheek, from which a bright ribbon of blood flowed freely down to his neck and collar. His helmet was gone. He had broken two fingers on his left hand, but he would not realize this until later. His jacket was torn, and he was missing one shoe.
“Screw the Wright brothers,” he said. “We beat them by fifty years.”
They said almost nothing on the long drive home. Rudy held his useless cell phone in one hand, a torn piece of silk in the other. He hadn’t yet considered what to do about the science fair. Presumably he would get by with only some mangled parts to show, and perhaps a few photos taken in the garage at home. There would not be time to rebuild and retest in the next two weeks. But he was not troubled. He was beginning to realize that what was bouncing around noisily in the back of the U-Haul was more than a crazy weekend project. It was a life.
They listened to the radio for a while as they drove. There was music on, soft and innocuous, something classical, randomly punched on the dial. When the piece ended and the news came on, Vincent reached forward and shut it off. It seemed too risky at such a moment to let the outside world intrude. Who knew what other exploit, what shuddering disaster or smashing success might seek to trump their puny, private triumph? They drove in silence. The sun was fully up now. The sky was clear. The morning chill was gone. It was a beautiful September morning, and, at least for the moment, all was right with them and with the world.
At home in the kitchen, Sarah was listening to a country station, humming as she rinsed her coffee cup. She imagined the next hour or so; how she would put down a layer of bark mulch around the rhododendrons and maybe transplant the purple clematis to a more sheltered spot on the side yard. She too was courting a kind of danger, letting the airwaves tamper with her delicate piece of mind. Inevitably there would come a shrill advertisement, a fast food jingle, a grim staccato news bulletin. It might be wise to lower the volume or to turn it off completely. At least until her men were home, and they were all together again, it might be best to let the world outside fall away and to revel in the calm silence of waiting. Better still, she could open the windows and listen while the garden came alive with the simple, reliable music of the birds.