The Early Days of Aviation
St. Exupery stayed in the hotel between flights
for the postal service. Then, they navigated by landmarks—
a farmhouse, a body of water—and,
when those were made invisible, a compass,
and flashlight. No wonder he imagined
a prince on a tiny planet
as he hurled himself against the constellations.
The world was a dark scroll unrolling beneath
and the plane could become a vehicle you’d use
the way a gnat uses its wings, with a three-dimensional
fluidity and the world might feel to you
the way water must feel to a dolphin.
It was too cold in that hotel, wind
snaked through the cracked-framed windows
and faded drapes. I was easily distracted—too cold
for too long. I could tell you this was the year that I too
flew through a darkness, but at the time
I only felt ugly, inarticulate. I’d take a hot bath
every other night for 5 extra francs. So hot
I barely breathed for a half-hour
after emerging, my heart still beating hard and fast.
I’d go directly to bed and sleep 10 hours. Too cold
and I wanted the day to pass so I could
start over. In the papers, an 80 year old
named Papon was being tried as a collaborator
for the Nazis. During the trial,
his frail wife died, a result of stress. Papon explained
that he took the papers handed to him by Germans,
signed them, and sent the papers on. This is what
kept him alive, he said, signing these papers
which sent hundreds of French Jews to the gas chambers.
The young Papon was dapper in the wartime
photos, his wife well-shod and I wondered at how
what doesn’t happen at its neglected moment
flares up, virulent, more so from regret.
How we are all accountable and how it never stops.
Sometimes, I eavesdropped on the nasal
American couple next door—animated in the hallway,
a key in a lock, and I held my breath. Him, with his athletic
stomach and sideburns talking much and more
than she. They wore the banal uniform of American travelers,
as if they might be forced to tear through a jungle
or conquer a mountain, but nighttime
she wore a rich leather jacket with scalloped details
on the pockets and cuffs. Lying in my creaking,
deep-slung bed, lonely, I imagined speaking
before them. We’d make plans and their casual natures
were very attractive, made me feel at ease. I imagined
sitting at dinner with them—why? In my vision
I was flushed, internal, explaining what it is
to be a writer. That one is constantly revealing oneself.
That, as a result, a writer always needs love
but never can remember being loved enough. I’d wrestle
the pillows and debate turning on the light
to read my textbook about French cathedrals, muttering,
what do I think they can give me?
I would sometimes try to imagine what it would be
to play in the sky.
The medieval builders of cathedrals abandoned
barbaric forms, wrote M. Guy Duby—the vegetal motifs,
the repetition of abstract designs. They moved towards
grander, more elaborate forms
of worship—gold and splendor, biblical
tales reproduced in whole, hundreds
of angels carved in stone as if making it look
human could dissolve the terror
of mystery. I wondered at barbarism—the combination
of the real, minor vine and leaf with the fathomless,
solid expression of a circle inside a square.
I looked around my hotel room at the strewn
clothing, the chipped sink that leaned from the wall, the crack
in the plaster that looked like a man leaping
over the dresser. I understood that the only thing I wanted
from this world was that it need me. And it
did not—a woman waiting in her bed
because there was nowhere she would go. And weren’t those
the fearless, early days of aviation—a plane,
the tiny arrow shooting towards an oblivion of sky, wind,
the spree of flight, the eventual
crumpled metal in a farmer’s field?
The Early Days of Aviation first appeared in Hunger Mountain, Spring 2007.