A pioneering aeronaut takes on an unlikely passenger and reflects on life and loss as he floats above a gasworks to test his latest invention.
I floated a thousand feet over the Point Breeze Gas Works. From this vantage, one could imagine it was a gothic cathedral, complete with crenelated turrets, sprawling majestically along the Schuylkill River. The industry below, illustrated by billowing towers of black smoke, was muted in absolute silence from this height, adding to the impression of divine tranquility.
Even the Monarch butterfly that stowed away when I fueled our ride with hydrogen appeared to appreciate the stillness as it fluttered in random arcs around the ropes, landing intermittently on the lip of the basket. The slow beating of its wings seemed to speak to me in its need for companionship on our isolated journey among the clouds.
Today’s flight was meant to test my invention, but I welcomed the opportunity to escape up here, relishing the freedom and solitude to mourn the life ended too soon of an extraordinary woman.
My wife would have been proud of my latest patent involving a water gas process that increased the production of hydrogen, ever fascinated when my ideas resulted in record-breaking efficiencies and conveniences for modern living. The smile that would light her face when I shared my ideas was so clear in my mind, she could be standing in this basket with me.
Fluttering movement caught my eye. The more I watched the hypnotic orange wings, the easier it was to believe we were the only beings existing on or above the Earth. Not even a bird disturbed us. The crowds bustling along the streets of Philadelphia might not even be imagined, let alone the 485 men directly below us engaged in shoveling coal relentlessly into hellish, hungry boilers, just one task among many equally laborious ones that resulted in lighting an entire city.
I had to admit my inventions might make things easier for the average city dweller, but not for these men. Still, each of them, called by a piercing whistle, gathered for a break from their labors to watch me take flight today, and each grimy, sweaty face wore a look of pride as the gas they helped produce filled my balloon.
The absence of sound let me reflect on these rhythms of life; the men shoveling, the butterfly’s wings beating, my wife at my side celebrating each milestone of my career, then my pumping heart emptying of all that gave life meaning when she took her last breath.
I began to feel closer to my small, winged stowaway, having arrived myself at the end of a cycle of birth, growth, and metamorphosis. Though the cycle now seemed too brief, I marveled that I would have ceased to exist well before this day of testing another achievement if not for the bravery of my life’s chosen companion during a dramatic period in our lives, the lives of the whole country for that matter.
Absorbing the profound silence let me cast my mind back twenty years and the glimmering river, billowing gasworks, and even the surrounding clouds faded away, replaced by a vivid memory of being stranded on the wrong side of enemy lines.
Two decades ago, President Lincoln appointed me Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, and I was proud to operate the first telegraph aerial station for the purposes of reporting on the enemy’s position. My maiden assignment was the Battle of Bull Run under General Irvin McDowell. It went well, but balloons do not always cooperate when they come down.
Exiting my basket in a hurry, so I could finish stowing away what had become a beacon pointing to a spy in the rebels’ midst, I took a wrong step and sprained my ankle. Fortunately, I landed the balloon near a thicket, which allowed me to stay out of sight while I hoped for rescue. My fortune persisted when a Union troop came upon me, but I couldn’t walk with them owing to my injury, and they reluctantly left me behind. Still, my luck continued because they reported my position after arriving at Fort Corcoran. But it wasn’t the army who came for me.
The days and nights that followed, worrying over who might appear next in my little clearing, filled me with a case of nerves worse than anything I’d yet experienced when flying an object fueled by a volatile gas. Then, sounds I both dreaded and wished for made my heart thud as they drew closer to my hiding spot. I braved peeking over a fallen tree where I crouched in the shadows and took in the unlikely sight of an old woman driving a horse and buckboard stacked with canvas covers.
The traveler wore a pendant and at its glint, a jolt shot straight to my heart. I knew that topaz butterfly, and I looked closer at the face set above shoulders hunched beneath a matronly shawl. The blue eyes peering out from the bonnet were those dearest to my soul. I stood and raised my arm in a greeting.
The familiar dulcet tones sounding anything but old whispered across the clearing. “Do you need a ride, brave aeronaut?”
“No one who has ever set foot on this battlefield is braver than you, my dear.”
Orange caught my eye and my mind returned to the silent sky and a world devoid of the soul who had been my partner in every way.
It was time to descend.
Butterfly wings beat in time with the hiss of venting hydrogen, and the giant gasworks loomed closer, its booming, wheezing, and banging sounds displacing our peace.
I peered closer at the tiny creature, then at its topaz encrusted likeness that I pulled from my vest pocket. Maybe this lofty place was not so empty after all, and suddenly, neither was my heart.
This short story is one in a collection I have published in a sweet book called Priss Starwillow & the Wolf and Other Short Stories you can find on Amazon. In addition to being available in a 99-cent e-book, you can find my stories on Vocal.Media.
Thank you for reading. All comments are welcome.
Note: Story inspired by the real-life story of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe.