I am reverse-engineering the plane, piece by piece, just as Papa taught me. Not directly—he never speaks openly of his aeronautical work during the Great War. But I’ve pieced together the notes scattered throughout his battered air log, and so know my way around a cockpit, as surely as I know that he forbids me to ever go near one.
I must work quickly to steal away the useful pieces before the wreck is found. I don’t know what a German Messerschmitt is doing flying over the French countryside, nor what caused him to crash in our field, but no one will miss a few bolts and springs in the scorched wreckage. I should know. I have stolen them before.
Lifting my skirts, I step through the shrapnel around the machine. I’m dwarfed beside it, its tin sides crushed like the ration cans we must hoard. I pat its yellow nose, the rumble reverberating, and wonder, not for the first time, what the wind must sound like, sliced by its gleaming wings. Papa says flying is a cold ordeal, ice forming on the cockpit’s windows in the high atmosphere. When I feel the fleece of his pilot’s jacket, though, I imagine it wouldn’t be so unbearable.
A corner of paneling has peeled back, revealing the engine. It’s larger than the one in Papa’s plane, currently hidden under our meager hay in the barn. The one he flew during the war. I learned of that life as I learned the mechanics of planes—by reading Papa’s logs. From them I know how he fell in love with planes after seeing a demonstration in Paris. How, when the war broke out, he joined the First French Air Service, fighting for his country and pursuing his passion to fly, all at the same time.
“So many,” he wrote in his log, “believe these machines will bring utter destruction. I, though, have more hope in humanity. Perhaps all people will be better once they have seen the world from the sky.”
The one thing I cannot figure—apart from how to unbolt the wheels from underneath the Messerschmitt—is what changed in Papa. Why he no longer flies, nor even breathes of allowing me to learn. Wouldn’t I, too, benefit from seeing the world from the sky?
I cannot dawdle. The crash will not be mine forever, and I must be gone by the time the authorities arrive. I’ve almost all the pieces to complete Papa’s plane. If I can restore it, if it still works, if this dreadful war ever ends and freedom returns to this continent, perhaps Papa will teach me to fly.
Perhaps his hope in humanity will be restored.
I take the wrench and unbolt the wheels, as Papa did once during the war, on a plane they found crashed in enemy territory. He was working with the American pilots at the time, his brothers of the sky, and they were all of them desperate to get their hands on the new technology. They’d brave an active battlefield to get a look at a German model.
He recounted the experience vividly in his logbook, his first ground-level view of the trenches. When he ran out of blank pages, he began writing in the margins, filling the space between lines with all the graphic details. Smoke of every putrid color. The kookaburra call of the machineguns. And smells. Oh, the smells! Not unlike, I imagine, the one which now makes me hold my sleeve to my mouth, blocking out the stench of burning petrol over something ranker.
Papa, dear valiant Papa, though, would not be dissuaded. He braved the gunfire. He reached the plane to find…I know not what, as the final pages of the log are burnt black.
One thing I know; if I am to fly, I will need a good throttle, one part Papa’s plane still lacks. I approach the cockpit, bracing my boot against the plane’s rattling wing to jerk open the door. As soon as I do, though, I regret my audacity, a realization chilling my soul. I should have known what I’d find in that cockpit, a part as predictable as the engine, the tail, the wings.
I did not know he would have no face.
The pilot slumps over the throttle, his fleece jacket covered in the blood no longer pulsing through his ghostly fingertips.
I thought he’d have eyes, at least.
Seeing his swollen limbs, I feel my father’s dread flowing through me like ink filling up every white space on an already blackened page. Utter destruction. Smoke of every color. Oh, to see it all from the sky, so very small, no corpses, no stiffened fingers.
Just what this pilot must have seen, before he fell. When he had eyes.
I do not back away, even as the rankness fills my nose. Instead, I force myself to bend over the body, peel back the bloodless fingers and gouge the throttle from the plane. When I return to the air, it tastes so sweet I feel guilty for breathing as the pilot never shall again.
I will never fly, I realize, even as I grip a plane’s throttle for the first time, my fingers now bloodless as the corpse, and as unfeeling. But I will fix Papa’s plane, that if ever this war ends, and if I live to have a daughter, she may someday see these horrific moments as small, like distant memories, fields seen from a plane’s cockpit.
Words written in the margins.
Deborah Rocheleau‘s work has been published by Tin House, YA Highway, the Young Adult Review Network, and 100 Word Story, as well as other venues.