Gone Out the World's Breath
In the four months since production had been indefinitely halted, the airship Ishtar’s naked keel had taken on the skeletal aspect of a beached and rarefying whale. All manner of rumor had circulated in those first days of the hiatus about the Ishtar’s designer, a Mr. Cantopher, that he had gone away sailing the Java Sea and was now flush with cakes of indigo, that he had returned at last to the Turk many workers had claimed to have seen lewd photographs of in Mr. Cantopher’s offices, that he served now at the pleasure of the Kaiser in that empire’s Oriental territories, or at King George’s in Africa, that he exercised his talents as a pilot in the cool skies over the Balkans, that he spied for America, for Colombia, for the Ottomans, for the Qing emperor, for rival airship manufactories, or a dozen other such things. Some bolder employees of the Cantopher Aeroworks Company even permitted themselves the thought of Mr. Cantopher having orchestrated the production halt as an elaborate marketing stunt.
But time passed, and each week more workers were relieved of their posts until only Cantopher himself remained, spilling money into an airship that wouldn’t fly, living in progressively smaller hotel rooms wallpapered with diagrams of unusable engine gondolas, new and exciting alloys of aluminum and copper, and covered even the beds with wooden models of that increasingly unattainable vessel, Ishtar.
Cantopher went nights to Cantopher Aeroworks Company Shed 8 to walk the Ishtar’s keel bow to stern. He would extend both arms to his sides and brush his palms along the airship’s armature with eyes closed, sometimes singing, sometimes walking backwards, or hopping one-legged, counting the catwalk planks barefooted by feeling out the cracks between them with his toes. Uncavassed, the ship looked a child’s model gone out of hand. When Cantopher closed his eyes he could see the Ishtar’s completion as if his eyelids painted the fabric over the keel. The tail number would go there, her name there.
He stopped eating after the second month. Rather than weaken, Cantopher gained the strange strength of the manic. Former workers claimed to see him drink the condensate runoff from the outside of Ishtar’s engine pods, which he ran at all hours while he stayed in Shed 8. Those workers who worried most reported seeing Cantopher licking the exhaust pipes for moisture, and chewing on duralumin scraps which had been ground off corners to streamline the keel.
Motorcars would appear and disappear from the lawn outside the factory. They came in the mornings, waited for the massive doors to be slid open, and drove into the long arcade of the construction shed. For hours they would stay, but no one could overhear anything of conversation inside because of the roar of the Ishtar’s grounded engines. Sometimes the cars didn’t come out until the next day. Some were ornately wrought with brass and silver designs like the automobiles of royalty, and did nothing to suppress the rumors of Mr. Cantopher’s international connections. Probably the cars were simply carrying bidders for the Ishtar’s metal scrap now that the project had gone bankrupt, but more and more this seemed unlikely.
Townspeople came to gather at Shed 8’s tall windows once the rumors reached them, though the glass was by now lacquered with engine soot and collages of old blueprints. Every day more came. When the beautiful cars came each morning, they were greeted by food and sweets that the townspeople had brought with them, and the cars’ occupants were plied for information regarding both the airship and her designer. The tophatted, monocled men always politely refused to comment.
Canvas tents and corrugated lean-tos cropped up around Shed 8. A general festival atmosphere came with them. After only three months the talk of Mr. Cantopher’s marvelous sky engine circulated what seemed the entirety of the Earth. There were nightly music concerts in an amphitheater some people had cleared from the forest behind the shed. Three women from the Suez danced in silk pants. An Askari spearman performed marksmanship feats. A Basqueman and his wife offered tales of beautiful duck-footed water spirits which lived beneath the bridges of the Pyrenees.
This was the pattern for the first four months of the hiatus.
On the first day of the fifth month since work had stopped, while singing his beloved Ishtar memorized verses of poetry, Cantopher felt himself being raised from the ground. He made very certain that this was not the result of unseen hands, an embrace from his tall, tall mother, or from a townsperson somehow inside Shed 8. Before he could determine the cause, Cantopher was lowered gently back down to the oiled slab floor. This event never occurred again in Cantopher’s life. Immediately he recorded an account of what had happened in his notepad, bound it in canvas once meant for the Ishtar, and shoved it into a vertex between two bits of airship keel.
Less ceremoniously than he had pictured the act looking, Cantopher wrenched one of the massive shed doors open along its track, and stood for the first time in months outside Shed 8. The time was coming on supper, and the sun was low, and the nightly music had started up already before he emerged, but as soon as he did, the entire camp that had sprung up around the walls of CAC Shed 8 went still.
Cantopher announced to the crowd that work would now continue, though the camp was large and most people in it couldn’t hear, and so a microphone was brought forward for him to repeat himself. Nearly instantly, a group of drinkers lifted Cantopher onto their shoulders and paraded him through the camp at Shed 8. He was thanked for revitalizing the town, and many of his former workers who were present in the camp offered to buy him dinner, which Cantopher refused.
Women offered to have children with him, and the Basqueman’s wife composed a song in D Minor about how Cantopher had given the goddess Ishtar her wings.
In the following days Shed 8 was open for all to explore. Cantopher promised that work would begin any day now, though still he had no money, and the only clothes he wore were those given to him by the townspeople. Slowly, the beautiful cars stopped coming.
A local carpenter brought him samples of the most elaborately marbled teak for the Ishtar’s ballroom floor which you could still smell the rain on. Bannisters and crown molding were designed and the colors selected, and in the third week of the new work an entire spiral staircase was built and installed in the middle of the skeletal airship’s open keel.
Being lifted into the air had so envigored Cantopher that the songs he sung to the Ishtar now he sung and recorded onto vinyl phonograph records and sold in the camp with great commercial success. Always throughout the day the desynchronized babbling of a dozen of his records could be heard at any time, though at night the live music resumed. The revenue from these sales was used to purchase bolts of canvas to cover the airship, and Cantopher sang to them, too.
Work stopped again when a riveter was found dead in the port engine car. Later inquiry revealed that the worker had leapt from a high girder onto the engine. Found in the riveter’s hand was Cantopher’s notepad, open to the page where he’d recounted his supernatural experience of flying.
When the worker’s wife and son came to collect the body, Mr. Cantopher offered to name one of the Ishtar’s dining rooms after the deceased. Asdrubal will make a fine brunch room, he told them, though this was also the name of the dead worker’s son, and the wife, Evelyn, thought it ill luck to name anything after her husband while her son yet lived. Evelyn, then, said Cantopher, and they seemed, for a time, content.
Evelyn and little Asdrubal began spending much of their time inside Shed 8, a privilege afforded to no other citizens in such amounts. Even the sporadically visiting occupants of the beautiful cars did not have such access to the Ishtar and her habitat. Little Asdrubal played daily in the long and narrowing corridors of the Ishtar’s axial walkways, imagining the fuel canisters as galloping horses, and playing in the uninflated hydrogen cells. The partially constructed control car, which sat still unattached from the Ishtar’s prow at that time, was one of Asdrubal’s favorite hiding spots when bed time came near. On several occasions Mr. Cantopher went into the control car to find faces marked on the pressure gauges in grease pencil.
A special package was separated from the Cantopher Aeroworks Company fund for Evelyn and her son, and the pain began slowly to fade. In the months following her husband’s death, Evelyn and Cantopher grew closer. They made love against the cylinders of a Daimler airship engine in its mounting, but were interrupted by a shriek. When they rushed into the open to investigate the sound, they spotted little Asdrubal levitating fully 30 feet above the cement floor, Cantopher’s notepad clutched firmly in his tiny hand.
In the spring they canvassed the Ishtar’s keel. The thick fabric rubbed roughly on Cantopher’s palm. Spaces were left for the control car, engine gondolas, and accessways, Breakfast was brought to the worksite and laid out on tables long enough for a hundred diners each. They ate the specialties of a dozen nations: kidneys and potatoes, duck blood soup with steamed bread, eggs and tomatoes and peppers, eggplant stuffed with sausage; Evelyn and Cantopher sat at the head of their table, watching Asdrubal pick sullenly at his oats. It seemed that the notepad allowed each only one solitary flight, up then down again, as if trialing an irresistible yet wholly useless product unavailable on the market.
For days Asdrubal continued in his slumping mood. Cantopher plied the boy with polished brass instruments an Austrian man had crafted, elaborate clockwork birds from Istanbul, tsarist statuettes carved from ebony, though Asdrubal wanted only to fly again. As a final and desperate act to lift the boy’s ill humor, Cantopher at last threw the notepad and its unknowable enchantment into the propellers of the fully throttled starboard engine of the Ishtar and together they watched the paper shreds go on the wind.
The following day, Evelyn fell ill. The fever swept through her, and left her pale. She could hardly move for weeks. Cantopher was not seen in Shed 8 save on one or two occasions, and even then his eyes carried a distance within them. He was certain that destroying the notepad was the root cause of Evelyn’s sickness. As soon as he could, he ordered a bedroom constructed inside Shed 8 from some of the spare materials from the Ishtar. It was graciously adorned in the same teak as the ballroom floor, with a captain’s bed and a portrait of mountains.
In the depths of her illness Evelyn cried out for Asdrubal, though when her son was brought to her she swiped at him and exclaimed that this was not Asdrubal. Only the doctors were allowed to see Evelyn in this state. Mr. Cantopher went to great lengths to keep Little Asdrubal from depression, remembering well the link between them: they had both tasted the amrita of flight and had it all too soon fade from their tongues. This was what led to the construction of Cantopher’s second great machine, a slender wooden biplane lacquered blue and its wings canvassed from the spare fabric of the Ishtar.
When Mr. Cantopher unveiled the aeroplane to Asdrubal the following month, for a moment the crush of solitude seemed to fade from the boy’s eyes. Asdrubal eyed graciously the colorful roundels painted beneath the wingtips and along the sides of the fuselage, and gave Cantopher’s leg such an embrace that some amateur historians claim as the cause of his current-day limp.
From the cool sheets of her bed, Evelyn watched her son and Mr. Cantopher laugh across the sky. The aeroplane was marvelous, every bit the engineering beauty that the Ishtar was, full of life and movement. She knew that Asdrubal could sense this, for only when he flew did his sullenness lie dormant. The plane was meant for her son. Soon Mr. Cantopher began teaching Asdrubal to pilot the machine himself, wrapping a red silk scarf around the boy’s neck for the wind. In the second month of Evelyn’s illness, Asdrubal flew alone.
The aeroplane became a puny cross against the blue-blue sky. It performed feats even Mr. Cantopher had never taught the boy. Spinning and diving, curling itself around cloud and flock, the plane sang. The camp around Shed 8 cheered and waved hats at its low passing. The people gasped and covered their heads as Asdrubal coaxed the aircraft upside-down, his small hand snatching a fruit pie from a woman’s basket as he zipped by.
Asdrubal flew for hours, and then days. Mr. Cantopher became worried, as he knew the biplane held only enough fuel for a short flight. But still the aeroplane dodged and swirled in the air above Shed 8, even kissing the manufactory’s roof with its skids like an oxpecker on the back of an elephant. Evelyn wept for her boy to return to the ground. She arose from her bed for the first time and prepared Asdrubal’s favorite meals, shouted his favorite bedtime stories each night into the air, knitted him scarves and socks and caps and pleaded with him to come down.
As for Mr. Cantopher, he recoiled into himself. He again ceased eating or sleeping for worry. He worked on the Ishtar day and night. Always there was the shapeless noise of Asdrubal’s biplane overhead, muffled by the corrugated factory roof, like the proximity of an insect, or a horsewhip in the moments before it cracks.
The citizens of Shed 8 Village, as it was now called, spelled out messages in corn husks and bamboo stalks in the hope that Asdrubal would read them:
MOTHER ASKS BEANS OR EGGPLANT FOR DINNER
PRAYING A SAFE LANDING AND GOOD HEALTH
BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER BEGS INTRODUCTION
and others as such.
On the day that Asdrubal returned to the ground, there was a festival waiting the likes of which had not been seen in the valley since the first rivet had been laid into Ishtar’s keel. A makeshift landing strip was cleared amidst the tents and shanties, ringed by bright flowers for visibility. Pretty young women wore their best white dresses and waited at the end of the runway waving kerchiefs and arguing over which of them would wed the king of the sky.
The first among them to spot the biplane shouted, and the rest became quiet. The plane came in low and fast, flaring itself at the last moment like a leaf in turbulence, sliding to a stop about halfway down the landing strip. As he had landed a good distance away, the onlookers strained to catch sight of Asdrubal from where they waited. Nearly an hour passed, and no aviator emerged. One of the young women named Araceli was the first to reach the biplane. She curled her fingers around the sweet leather of the cockpit’s side and peered inside, then shrieked.
There was no one at the controls.
Evelyn was at the scene soon after, pushing others aside to make way for herself. Because the occasion was so grand, Mr. Cantopher had taken a break from his airship to rush to see Asdrubal as well.
Upon seeing the empty cockpit, Cantopher began to sob dramatically into Evelyn’s chest. The inventor seemed at that moment shrunken, as if being compressed by his grief into a denser form. No apologies were exchanged, and none offered. Evelyn only smiled and petted Mr. Cantopher’s thinning hair. He has finally found his father, she said. As she spoke, the propellers of the biplane twirled about madly, first clockwise and then anticlockwise and back again with no aid from the engine. Truthfully, the plane had emptied itself of fuel only hours after its takeoff. Cantopher’s tears ceased and he took a moment studying the erratic motions of the props.
For long minutes the propellers spun and Cantopher watched, occasionally nodding. He began scratching letters onto a scrap of blueprint paper. When he was finished, Mr. Cantopher had written three short lines of capital letters on his page. Incredulously he rechecked his work, handed the page to Evelyn, and wrung his hands.
The paper read as follows:
I WOULD ENJOY EGGPLANT
HALE AND HARDY AS I HOPE YOU ARE
IF SHE IS HALF SO BEAUTIFUL AS MY MOTHER I SHALL ACCEPT
Araceli asked Evelyn if she would allow her to marry Asdrubal, and Evelyn heartfully agreed. Arrangements were made, though the question of how to fashion a wedding suit for Asdrubal became a constant worry. Eventually Mr. Cantopher decided that a gleaming new coat of paint for Asdrubal’s fuselage would do quite nicely. Araceli wove flowers into wreaths to decorate Asdrubal’s fine leather appointments, and a family portrait was taken. Araceli, Mr. Cantopher, and Evelyn sat on the upper wing of the biplane, arm in arm.
On the night before the wedding, the walls of Shed 8 were pared away and allowed to tumble to the ground, revealing the completed and resplendent Ishtar floating feet above the floor, moored by thick steel cables. The lines of her were long, fateful things that conjured images of ocean, cliff, and sky. Mr. Cantopher announced that the Ishtar was to be a wedding gift to Asdrubal and Araceli, and all the village congratulated them with a round of drinks.
The wedding itself was done in the traditional ways, as much as such a thing can be. From the scrap of Shed 8’s walls the people of the camp erected a church with doors wide enough for Asdrubal to be wheeled inside. Araceli performed a dance and recited a poem which was too beautiful to repeat. Asdrubal spoke his vows through Mr. Cantopher, who interpreted the turnings of Asdrubal’s propellers and read the lines with a proud and solemn aplomb.
But the crown of it all was not the wedding, but the flight after. All the people who had lived in the camp around Shed 8 were ushered into the Ishtar’s cavernous ballroom, served fish and flutes of champagne and given music for dancing. Mr. Cantopher made a speech thanking them for their blood and effort, and toasting the future of the married couple.
Ishtar rose from her moorings gracefully, without sound, and when the engines cut on the world seemed to give out breath to turn them. Evelyn stood by Cantopher in the control car as the party went on farther aft, watching Asdrubal and Araceli flying ahead of them, higher, higher.
Much later, in a small and warm room, Evelyn informed Cantopher that, as he would soon be a father, he should steer away from the construction of any more flying machines. There was no answer, as Cantopher had already fallen asleep.
About the Writer
Logan Murphy holds an MFA from the University of Tennessee. His work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, The Masters Review, The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society, Star 82 Review, and others.