The Earth and the Aloft
The air is cold and wet, and the biplane’s motor gives off steam in the morning twilight; but neither the pilot nor the mechanic notices it is warm. When the mechanic leaps up and throws the propeller the engine does not complain against the cold but buzzes to life as if it had been holding its breath. The startled mechanic slips in the mud, and the propeller strikes him down. He screams. A score of men come from the cabins nearby, their boots drumming on the runway and shushing through the grass. Men conduct the unfortunate mechanic away on a stretcher, and the rest return mumbling to their bunks. Then only the whispering breeze of Europe can be heard for some time.
The whooping of birds commences with the first spears of dawn, interspersed with the popping and coughing of properly stubborn combustion engines, and then drowned by the drone of aeroplanes roaring across the field and into the sky. Their choral hum echoes throughout the lush plains of France and can be heard for a long time after their dragonfly silhouettes disappear over the horizon.
Beside the airfield sits an old, two-story inn with the circular device of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force painted over the door. Within, behind a pine counter and beneath crossed rapiers hung upon the wall, a small, bald man in a khaki shirt stands wiping wine glasses with a cloth. His eyes peer out under hedges of iron-colored brow, and an enormous, drooping, iron-colored moustache fails to conceal the sorrow at the corners of his wrinkled mouth. Opposite him, Aleister leans on the bar with his elbow and cradles a glass of port in his other hand. A gruesome splotch of it stands out on his un-starched white collar. The balding bartender stares at it as he puts down one glass and picks up another. He wipes the inside of the glass a few times, sighs, and puts it aside. The young pilot turns to look at him.
“Alex died,” the bartender says.
“Men don’t survive propellers much.”
The bartender glowers, but the boy has turned to watch the door. Voices announce the safe arrival of several others; the door flies open to admit them. All but one stomp straightaway to warm their faces and hands at the fire.
“Halloa, Allie,” he says, embracing him. “Been here long?”
“Bah! Pour me from his bottle, please, Roger. I’m too thirsty to wait for the corkscrew.”
The bald man produces the bottle. He smiles at the debonair airman, though feebly.
“You seem out of sorts, man.”
“Alex died,” says the bartender.
Aleister raises his brows. “He was the man that slipped in the mud this morning.”
The airman nods, looking at the floor with his crystalline eyes and smoothing his pencil-thin moustache. He glances at Roger, who meets his gaze and swallows.
“Well – here’s to Alex, then,” intones the pilot.
Somehow a glass is in Roger’s hand. He raises it and his chin juts proudly as they toast. The port clings to his whiskers, but he does not wipe his mouth. “Thanks, Rene,” he says, going to help the other pilots.
“He seems affected,” says the lad.
“Alex was here longer than anyone, except Roger.”
Aleister drains his glass and reaches for the bottle. A grimace flashes across his face and is gone, yielding to the soft contentment of wine and youth. He winces, asks, “How long is that?”
The young pilot puts the bottle to his glass and the glass to his rosy lips. He gulps. Lavender residue slides down the curvature of the glass. He smiles, blows bubbles into his wine, a light like that of inspiration gracing his features. Rene chuckles. When the youth pulls his white, impish face away, deep red droplets mark his pale cheeks strikingly. Rene rolls his eyes and drinks through a smile.
“One would never know you’d killed a man today.”
“’Twas the crash what killed him.”
“Wipe your face.”
“Besides, he could be making his way back through the wire just now.”
“Not bloody likely.”
“You did. You did, twice.”
Rene turns to Roger and asks for another bottle. When it comes he checks the label.
“That Bordeaux,” he says, and Roger winks before moving away again. By this time, the room is bustling. Someone has started a whist game in the corner. Someone else has nodded off with his booted feet before the fireplace, a gray scarf still knotted around his neck with frost clinging to the ends. Rene produces a cigarette case and flips it open, placing one between his sparse, chapped lips and lighting it dismissively. His smoke veils him a moment, and then he must address the younger pilot, who has been staring.
“Yes,” he says, blowing a stream of smoke through a frown.
“I could crash behind the lines.”
Rene blinks. His lips part, then close.
“Really, though; I could. How d’you do it? Get home, I mean.”
Rene ashes his cigarette and sips his wine. Aleister refills his own glass. His eyes dim as he lifts it to his mouth.
“How,” he says. “How does one get home?”
Rene’s eyes shift, then center. “I took an enemy uniform from – someone – and wore my own underneath.”
“Clever!” says Allie, drinking. “But what kept the French from shooting you upon your return?”
“Ah,” says Rene, “the trick is in knowing when to strip off the false clothes.”
The young man smiles and then looks down. He seems about to say something, keeps quiet, and instead grins with the corners of his eyes.
“Cheers,” he says.”
The tavern bustles around them. Somewhere something breaks.
“You know, I saw one of the Kaiser’s knights going away on foot last week. I let him.”
Rene’s glass droops.
“He’d be dead within the month, I figured. Better that he die in his plane, I figured, take it flaming into a tailspin to hell with him.”
Rene sneers. He tries to chuckle, but scoffs instead.
“You should have shot him.”
“Hardly. Airmen deserve better than that, Rene.”
The door creaks open. A small, raven-haired girl with a face like freckled snow enters and hurries to Rene’s side. She presses herself to him, burying her face in the folds of his jacket. Then she goes to Aleister, putting her chin on his breast and looking up at him as he smiles at Rene. He makes an awkward grin that is mostly upper teeth and blushes. She steps back and begins again.
“Hello, Rene,” she says.
“Halloa, then, Michelle. You look well this evening.”
The girl blinks. Her lashes swing an inch.
“Pour Monsieur Allie, seulement,” she croons, kissing Allie on the cheek. Her lipstick coats his cheekbone amid the faint spatters of his red wine like a great scarlet sun amidst stars.
Rene laughs, signaling to Roger, who opens another bottle, the neck of which Michelle immediately grips, drawing it to her pursed lips and drinking.
“You steal my wine just as you steal my friends. You bankrupt me, Mademoiselle.”
“Airmen are born broke,” Michelle says. “Your wine and your friend are mine. You may keep your aeroplane, and your uniform.”
Rene maintains his smile and puffs his cigarette.
“My plane is Her Majesty’s,” he says, “and I thank God for my uniform.”
Michelle’s eyes smolder.
“So do I,” says Allie, bringing laugher from them. He tussles her bobbed hair.
Tobacco smoke hovers ethereally above the heads of the pilots in the pub like cloud cover, and the raised voices from the whist table carry only a little above the general din of the airmen and other personnel present. Allie and Rene look at each other over Michelle’s head during this break in the conversation, and Rene, seeing his blonde friend clutching this jolie fille to his waist, salutes his comrade at arms. Allie must put Michelle in the crook of his other arm to return it. He snaps his hand to his hairline with an insouciant smile.
“My God!” says Rene, gaping at Allie’s wrist. “What happened?”
“Oh, I bore down on my quarry yesterday, had a brilliant angle on his cockpit, and my machine gun jammed with bloody ice so that I had to beat on it. Got the bastard. Bruised myself, somewhat.”
“I should say so. Ghastly.”
Michelle spins in his grasp and tries to see his bruises, but he keeps his hand away from her. She grabs his forearm with both hands and turns it over. “Oh, la vache,” she says. “Does the ice stop your gun often?”
Rene talks into his glass. His voice muffles. “All the time.”
“Happened again this morning. But I improvised this.”
Allie pulls a wide, flat piece of metal from his jacket. A slight warp shows where it has bludgeoned something round.
“Keep this in my glove, now. I can make you one if you like. Every man needs something against the ice. It’s war.”
Michelle shudders against his abdomen.
“Yes, do – although, my guns don’t freeze every day like yours.”
“That’s because you miss enough to keep them warm.”
Rene chuckles and punches his shoulder, then takes up his wine. Then to Michelle, “I’m going to finish this cigarette out front,” he says, starting away. “Don’t let Allie talk you into anything interesting.”
The brunette makes a face at him that Aleister does not see. When she steps to a conversational distance, Allie reaches to touch her coat. It has a rich, natural color in the firelight, like chocolate. She watches him fondle the fur, watches his face show appreciation, recollection, a moment of apprehension as he drops his hand.
“I like your coat.”
She takes the bottle to her lips again.
“You’ve said so before.”
A droplet runs from the corner of her mouth and she wipes it away.
“Do you mind my saying so now?”
She stares; but he has been drinking longer and does not notice. He gets another bottle of Bordeaux from Roger, who says it is gratis. His red-tinged eyes add a surreal quality to his smile.
“To celebrate the dirigible you’re going to explode for us tomorrow. And I’ve another bottle for each of her escorts you manage.”
Michelle bows her head but picks it up in time. Aleister puts both hands on the bar and leans over, smirking.
“That’s betting heavy, Roger,” he says.
The bartender keeps his smile on, but the warmth of it goes out of his eyes. He laughs nodding, and walks around the bar to the whist table. Aleister raises his glass to Michelle, who closes her mouth and stands up straight. Behind her, Rene re-enters. Beads of dew glimmer on the pomade in his hair.
“Fetched this for you,” he says, pulling a billiard pipe from his pocket.
“Ah, wonderful friend!” says Aleister. “The same what we enjoyed in Artois?”
The smoke from it smells like cedar and rotting pine. It causes Michelle to flicker her eyelids. He offers his hand to Rene who shakes it, and tells him that friends like he is are a rarity in Europe. Michelle says that she is his friend, also. She looks away when he says she is more than a friend. She reaches for the bottle and glances at Rene out of the corner of her eye. He gives no sign.
“You know,” says Rene, “putting that piece of metal in your glove was a fine idea.”
“I doubt I’m an innovator,” Aleister says from around the stem of his pipe. “Every pilot here needs to bust up the ice.”
“Yes, you’ve said so,” says Michelle. She looks at both of them and takes the billiard pipe from Aleister, smoking deeply before giving it back. Allie makes a few misses trying to put the stem back between his teeth. He steadies himself with a hand on the bar and takes Michelle in arm. She turns around to look at Rene, who is watching her. She grasps Aleister’s hand.
“You look a handsome pair.” He strokes a side of his tiny moustache with the back of his thumb and looks away at the whist players. One of them has a blonde girl on his lap, the only other woman in the tavern. Michelle’s eyes follow Rene’s like taught fishing line.
“How many tomorrow, Rene?” says Aleister, finding his glass.
“How many? Three? Five?”
“I’m not flying with you tomorrow. Dawn patrol.”
Rene looks at the French girl, whose walnut eyes glisten through their lashes. Her blush has faded. She nudges into Aleister’s embrace like a toddler.
Roger appears with shots of bourbon, though neither Rene nor Aleister admits to ordering them when Michelle asks who it is deserves her reprimand. Their throats burn. They laugh. Aleister leans on Michelle so that she tips against Rene, who pushes back.
“That’s fine,” she laughs. “We will require three more, Roger.”
“Sauve qui peut,” says Rene as the drinks are poured, his eyes round like hard-boiled eggs. Aleister breaks up. Michelle drapes her arms around their shoulders, then drops them to their waists.
“ I like you best laughing.”
They drink to Fonck, to Rickenbacker, to Orville and Wilbur, to Her Majesty, and then to each other. At some point Aleister observes that Michelle has not been drinking her bourbon. She shoots it and stares him down like a devil. He looks about to kiss her. Then she straightens, asks Rene for a cigarette, and pulls Aleister close by his sleeve while gazing up at Rene, whose visage is like that of a delighted sculpture.
“How long have you known each other?” she says. It is not so long a time. She looks at a knot in the wood of the bar and balls up a cloth napkin. “I’ve known you both for six weeks,” she says. She looks at Roger, who looks back with his swollen, friendly eyes as he wipes wine glasses. “I’m glad you are good pilots,” she says. Rene raises his eyebrows and lights another of his cigarettes.
“But you’re more glad that we are handsome,” he says, making Aleister laugh.
“Pas du tout.” She squares her shoulders and crosses her arms, and the men have to warm her between them before her countenance thaws into a smile again.
The whist players have gone by this time, and the few other pilots present stand by the fireplace discussing the differences between American girls, French girls, and British girls, sometimes sneaking glances at Michelle as they hush their storytelling to avoid being thought vulgar.
“Tell us one of your riddles.”
“You’ve heard them all.”
She puts her hand on the nape of his neck. “We can’t have heard them all, already.”
Rene agrees, smoke streaming from his nostrils.
The baby-faced flier steps back, swigs some Bordeaux from the bottle, then rubs his hands. “Well,” he says, “there are ten pigeons on a wire, say. One of them is shot. How many birds are there left? Michelle’s hair whisks as she faces Rene, who raises an eyebrow and smiles out the side of his mouth. He makes eye contact with Roger, sighs, and says, “God forgive me, Allie, please, but there are nine birds left. Yes?”
Aleister can not contain himself. His laughter warms the room. He puts a hand on his chest and bows, slightly. “No birds. None! None whatsoever.”
“Because the others fly away. Simple as that.”
“Simple as ever,” mumbles Michelle, her head lolling forward. “Ha-ha. Excellent.”
Rene laughs, too. Aleister holds Michelle and seems to support her. Rene looks at the back of her head for moments before raising his blue eyes to Aleister’s, which are obscured by golden strands that have fallen forward into his face. Aleister’s drunken, intimate glare is both stoic and passionate like that of a philosopher saint.
“I’m going to fall over,” says Rene.
“Stay more, Rene,” says Michelle.
“Can’t. Dawn patrol in a few hours.”
Aleister hugs the man hard and Michelle turns away. The billiard pipe rests on its side along the bar, a skinny wisp of smoke trailing up from its bowl. She imagines that it is still warm. When she looks back, Rene looks at her from over his friend’s shoulder and a convulsion ripples there that curls his lip, closes his eyes, and causes him to step back.
“Friends,” he says, “bon soir.”
The pilots near the fireplace have gone. Roger is nowhere to be seen. They have most of the bottle of Bordeaux and all of the very early morning to themselves, and as the dew begins to trickle down the inside of the tavern door, Michelle leads him to the fireplace, saying that he is a better pilot than any in Germany, and he follows her. Once at the hearth, she sings to him a song foreign and ambrosial to his ear, and he dances with her, dances with tact and sincerity as the fire warms their cheeks and foreheads.
“Don’t let the Sergeant catch you,” calls Roger. The door opens and shuts.
She brings him to the cold planks of the floor. Their clothes are shed. Constellations of freckles across her décolleté delight him.
“Not all the birds leave when one is shot,” she breathes.
“No. They all fly.”
The dew soaks the tavern, the cabins, the aeroplanes, and muddies the field, but today the dawn patrol flies away without incident, except that in their absence the Sergeant reprimands a young flier for conduct most unbecoming Her Majesty’s knight of the air, only moments before personally saluting him as his blue biplane lifts off and glides roaring and buzzing into the sky. Witnessing the departure of this pilot and four others in his squadron are a bald man and a small, attractive woman, who crumples in his grasp and will not listen to reason until the dawn patrol returns, the sight of which gives her pause.
“How many planes do you see, Roger? How many?”
“Tranquille, they are there, Michelle.”
She shades her eyes with her hand and slips a little in the mud.
“How many, damn you?” she says, weeping. Her sorrow reaches its full compliment after the patrol has landed and its captain attends to her, saying, “Faith, woman, faith!” as she lands in his arms, and the squad’s boots rush over to where she lies in his lap.
“Faith!” they say.
She stares into the periwinkle sky and listens to the fading hum of propellers until the birds start twittering again, and weeps some more to hear them sing. The little brunette cries and cries, even amidst the gallant gentlemen attempting to succor her, and when finally she is sternly addressed and escorted away, her expression silences the onlookers and matches precisely that of the pale man escorting her off the airfield.
The muddy strip is silent for a couple of hours, then, until the buzzing returns, soon overcoming the sounds of the clomping staccato of boots, the hollering of orders, and the slamming of doors as concerned persons step outside to witness the squadron’s tires return to turf.
In time the sun goes down on this cold, quiet meadow in the midst of France. The moon lights the way for pilots searching their cockpits for their scarves, and the twilight glows lavender on the dawn patrol, who clap their hands and strap their leather helmets against the chill wind and suffer themselves to think about French women, dear friends, and red wines from Bordeaux.