The Philosopher’s Flight
Though he was a famously incompetent sigilrist, Benjamin Franklin included five practical glyphs that he had learned from the women of Philadelphia in an early edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, as well as a simple design for a message board. In less than an hour, a woman could build a Franklin sand table using a silver penny, pane of window glass, hammer, and broom handle. This was to prove vital to the Continental Army during the Revolution.
Victoria Ferris-Smythe, Empirical Philosophy: An American History, 1938
A LITTLE MORE THAN five decades after Mrs. Cadwallader ended the Civil War, I was eighteen years old and lived in Guille’s Run, Montana, with my mother, Maj. Emmaline Weekes, who served as our county philosopher. In her official capacity, Ma responded to all manner of accidents and natural disasters. The rest of the time, she earned a decent living doing the kind of dull, ordinary sigilry that was in constant demand—short-haul passenger flights, koru glyphs for enlarging crops, simple smokecarving cures for asthma and pleurisy.
Much as I would have liked to help her in the field, Mother only rarely gave me the chance. I had the typical male lack of philosophical aptitude and
so instead of going on emergency calls, I did the work of a philosopher’s son: I kept the books, ordered supplies, cooked, and stood night watches.
On the night of April 6, 1917, I was engaged in the thrilling task of organizing handwritten invoices from the previous year when Mother stormed into the house at nine o’clock, dripping wet from the rain.
“What kept you?” I called.
“Don’t even start, Boober!” she shouted. “Those cattle were scattered clear across Teller’s Nook. I must have put in four hundred miles trying to track down the last ones. Mr. Collins is going to be mad as hell when he gets the bill.”
Mother ran a towel over her face and graying hair. She’d taken ten emergency calls over the previous fourteen hours—a very busy day—in the midst of terrible weather.
“There’s beef stew on the stove,” I said.
Mother dished herself a bowl and collapsed in a chair. I’d eaten hours before.
“You’ve heard the news, I expect?” Mother said.
I had. After months of prodding, President Wilson had convinced Congress to declare war on the German Empire. So now America, too, would be part of the fighting that had racked Europe since 1914.
I’d decided I wanted to join up the second I heard. The army or the navy; one was as good as the other. A uniform, a chance to see the world while fighting next to the boys I’d grown up with, a real man’s job.
But I knew Mother was going to be a problem. She’d spent three decades with the Rescue and Evacuation Department of the US Sigilry Corps, flying wounded and dying soldiers from the front lines back to the field hospitals. She’d done tours of duty in the Franco-Prussian Intervention, the war with Cuba, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Hawaiian Rebellion. As a result, she tended not to approve of America involving itself in other people’s wars. She wasn’t going to like the idea of me enlisting.
“Is there any chance you could be called up?” I asked, trying to position the conversation just so.
“Never,” Mother said. “They’ll mobilize a few of the younger reservists and move more active-duty women overseas. But they’re not going to call a sixty-year-old lady, even if my name is still on the lists. It would be an embarrassment. No, what I’m worried about is when Wilson calls for a draft for the army.”
And there was my chance.
I regretted it a little. If I’d had my pick of careers, I would have done as Mother had and served with Rescue and Evac—the best fliers in the world, saving lives instead of taking them. But that was impossible. R&E was the Corps’ most elite unit. They’d never commissioned a man. And while I was a fine hoverer for a boy, the least R&E woman could fly circles around me. So, the army didn’t seem a bad second choice.
“I spoke with the State Philosophical Office,” Mother continued. “They expect to get two draft exemptions for essential support personnel. One of those is for you.”
This was going wrong already. She must have spent months laying the groundwork for that.
“Well, that’s good to know,” I said. “But what I was thinking is that Willard Gunch dropped by this afternoon. He and Jack are talking about riding into town, maybe on Monday. To sign up.”
“Roddy Hutch is going with them,” I continued. “Probably Eliot Newton, too. And—”
“No! How can you even think it?”
“Mother, listen—if you sign up, you get to choose. You don’t have to go in the infantry.”
“It’s all of them that get blown to hell and flinders! In the cavalry and the artillery and the merchant marine. I could tell you stories about the burns on the sailors at Manila Bay that would make your teeth sweat.”
“Jesus, Ma! I’m going to be the only man my age in Montana sitting at home. You joined the Corps when you were only thirteen years—”
“I don’t care if you’re the last man in the world sitting at home! You’re
not going, and I’m not discussing this.” She swept up her bowl and spoon, went to her bedroom, and slammed the door.
• • •
Midnight came and went. Outside, the rain picked up and battered at the shutters. I fixed myself a cold ham sandwich and sat glumly back down in our little laboratory behind the kitchen.
Essential support personnel. I should have seen it coming. I should have rehearsed my speech better, with all its fine sentiments about duty and loyalty to one’s friends and adventure. Maybe I would broach the idea of enlisting again tomorrow after Mother had had time to get used to it.
I tried to set my feelings aside as I settled in to mix up a batch of silver chloride, which we used for stasis sigilry. It was a godsend for flying when you had to strap a sick or nervous passenger to your back—draw a stasis sigil with powdered silver chloride on a client’s chest and she went stiff as a corpse. No breathing, no bleeding, no experience of what was going on around her. Most important, she didn’t try to help you hover by flapping her arms and throwing off your center of gravity. We were down to our last three tubes. I’d already put an order in with Harnemon’s Philosophical Supplies, America’s finest purveyor of philosophical powders, but they needed a couple weeks to arrange a shipment to a place as remote as Guille’s Run. I would have to mix up a batch of homemade stuff to last until their delivery arrived.
I weighed out a measure of thin, feathery crystals of silver nitrate and dissolved it in a beaker of hot water. I stirred for several minutes until I had a colorless solution, then did a few calculations and poured in the appropriate amount of common table salt. A whitish precipitate formed, swirling like snow toward the bottom of the beaker. Over the next hour, I laboriously filtered out the solids, washed them, dried them over a flame, and measured the powder into tiny smoked-glass tubes, which I put safely away in their padded box.
Then I kicked the powder cabinet shut.
How did Ma think she was going to stop me if I decided to sign up? I was an adult; it wasn’t as if I needed her permission. I could simply go. Tonight even. She could find any old philosopher to replace me.
I needed advice. I needed my half sister Angela.
I went back to the kitchen and pulled out my message board. It was quite a large model for the time, an eighteen-inch square of glass with a wooden frame, the underside of which was coated with silver leaf. I took a scoop of milled quartz—highly refined sand—and poured it onto the glass, then smoothed it with my board scraper. Using the four-beat rhythm that the sigil required, I traced Angela’s personal glyph into the sand in the upper right-hand corner with my finger.
Ma said no, I wrote in the sand. What nxt?
I countersigned my own glyph in the opposite corner, drew the sigil to send, and wiped the sand level with the scraper. The same message would appear immediately on Angela’s board the next time she set it to receive.
(A perfectly reasonable person might ask why it should work at all—why should the sand on a slab of glass two thousand miles away shift to form the same words I’d just written? Well, philosophy warps the laws of probability. If you watched a million plates of sand for a million years, eventually the powder on one of them would slip a little and end up resembling the letter A. Philosophical energy just gives it a nudge in the right direction.)
I drew sigils to bring up the conversation Angela and I had had during the afternoon.
Hows she tking it? Angela had written.
Dunno, I’d replied. I havnt askd yet. She’s prbly mad not to be joinng th fun.
Don’t joke abt tht! 4 wars was plenty. Talk lik that & she might voluntr.
Wht abt y? I’d asked. Cld be philsphr draft.
Nevr, Angela had said. If they do, I’ll mov to Mexco.
Snds warm. I’ll vist.
Sure, bt when are y vistng me here?
I wished I could. Six months before, Angela had run off to New York City, where a friend had found her a job as an amanuensis handling the message boards at a bank. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; Angela had entertained fantasies like that for years, one exotic locale after the next. But when she’d actually left in the middle of the night with one of Mother’s old duffels full of clothes and equipment, Ma and I had been stunned.
Angela’s departure had left Mother in a difficult spot. Angela had been Ma’s field assistant, backing her up on difficult calls and taking care of the simpler ones herself, so that Mother wasn’t exhausted by the end of the day. I was a poor substitute at best, a fact the State Philosophical Board had driven home a few weeks earlier by denying me credentials as an apprentice. They didn’t mind if I tagged along from time to time, but, as they put it, We cannot find any precedent for permitting a man to serve as a state philosophical officer, even in a trainee capacity. Indeed, it seems unwise and inhumane, both for you and potential clients, to allow such a circumstance.
Which meant Ma now did all the practical philosophy and I was nothing better than her housekeeper.
“It’s not the women’s work you’d hoped to be doing, is it?” my best friend, Willard, had said on my last visit to Billings, twelve miles up the road. That conversation had turned into our first fistfight in years. (I’d knocked out two of his teeth.) Willard was right, though. Something was going to have to change at home before I got in real trouble or Mother dropped dead from exhaustion.
I tried to console myself by reading a few pages from my favorite book, Life and Death on San Juan Hill, the memoir of Lt. Col. Yvette Rodgers, who’d commanded the first modern R&E wing during the war in Cuba. Chapter eleven—Lt. Col. Rodgers trying desperately to guide a wounded flier back to the landing field by message after sunset, the woman lost and running low on powder, when the Corps encampment comes under Spanish cannon fire. Rodgers has the clever idea to—
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the sand shift on the message board, which I’d left set to receive under Mother’s glyph. It now read:
TO: E Weekes
FR: Montana Philosophical Office, Night Desk
PRIORITY CALL. Respond immediately.
“Oh, come on!” I muttered. I didn’t want to haul Ma out of bed.
Robert Weekes for E Weekes, I replied. Details, pls?
Original request reads: ‘RA, RA, RA fam,’ the State night desk answered. Unable to reach originator by board. Glyph matches for Klein, Evelyn. Address on record is rural home approx 1.8 miles north of Three Forks.
That was a mess. So, someone had messaged an RA—a request for assistance—for an entire family and then had failed to reply to any follow-up messages. A sigilrist might do that right before she ran out to fetch the doctor. Or for a fire. Or as a prank. The State Office seemed confident of the location, but I’d never heard of anything called Three Forks.
Wht county is 3 Forks? I asked.
Gallatin County. Best estimate of location: latitude N45° 53' 33", longitude W111° 33' 8".
I pulled out a sheaf of topographical maps and found the spot—175 miles away, well outside Mother’s usual area of responsibility.
I wrote: Confrm: to Emmaline Weekes?
Y. No closer CP avail. Tell E sorry from us, Robert.
“Son of a bitch!” I said. Mother was going to have to cover it and it was going to take the rest of the night. On top of that, she’d be flying in the middle of a rainstorm with only the sketchiest information.
Acknowledged and accepted for E Weekes at 2:48, I wrote.
I rapped on her bedroom door. “Mother!” I called. Nothing. I opened the door and shouted her name. She continued snoring. “Flight for you, Major!”
Without entirely waking, Mother lurched out of bed, wrapped her bathrobe around herself, and shuffled into the kitchen.
“Did you say something?” she asked.
I ran back through the messages for her. Ma shook her head in disgust. “I’m supposed to be at the construction site for the hotel in Billings at six! If I’m lucky, I’ll clear this in time to be a couple hours late.”
Mother was fully awake now and copying the coordinates down. She spread out the large-format Montana topo map on the desk and began lining up a course. “Squeeze through the pass and sight from the church steeple in Bozeman. Roughly west-northwest.” She had a straightedge and compass out and was using a cardboard slide rule to determine flight times and powder expenditure. She stopped and gave me an irritated look.
“Well, go get dressed!” she said.
“I am dressed,” I said.
“Put on your skysuit.”
“You want me to fly it?” I asked, my voice rising an octave and a half.
Mother didn’t even look up from her charts. “I need a navigator and a second pair of eyes. This is already a goat rodeo and it’s going to get worse.”