Til Lint woke in his hammock, the hemp sling slung between beams and making the hook screw creak as it swung. He glanced at the table, his gear spread out on the cheap, warped wood: the dropper, the tinted glass vials, the beaker of alcohol, the oil lamp, the empty foil packets. Below him was Ali, asleep on a straw mat, head resting on a bundled shirt piled atop his sandals. A rivulet of tarry, dried mucus ran from his nose.
He swung his legs over the side, struggling to push himself up out of the hammock without landing on Ali. The floor hadn’t been swept. There was a fired clay charcoal stove in the corner, inefficient at both cooking and heating, two earthen water jugs and a basin on a narrow wicker stand. Below that: a chamber pot, unemptied and stinking. In the corner were his crated books: specialized engineering texts, illuminated science and chemistry volumes, some in the hand of renowned technicians. These were the last of his treasures, the vestiges of his adolescent promise at mathematics and figures. He looked again at the table. He wished they had more. But that was always how it was after using Tincture: you wanted more.
Where had they been? To the desert, the far South, only instead of dry wasteland and slit trenches and murderous aborigines there had been forests of plants he had never seen before, vast orange bulbs growing on succulent, branched, reclining stems covered with ruby-colored beads; a tall, spineless cactus with sections like human knuckles that arched in graceful, looping curves to bear the weight of fruit the color of watermelon flesh; yellow and pink sea grass that shimmered and undulated in the soft breeze and ended in violet, cup-shaped, three-pointed flowers. He had seen Ali there, of course, and they had wandered the long, soft earth paths through the sea grass, toward a village of some kind that was populated by young people, other Enthusiasts of the Tincture, who sat on silver and gold thread mats and drank chai and smoked tobacco and laughed and made quiet conversation. There was music, as well, beautiful music, zithers, sinters and lotars, expertly played, the melody carrying over and between the dry scrape of leaves in the breeze.
This was the Warren, the usual format of the world in Tincture, the network of small, cozy villages, worn wooden salas, thatched roof palapas, and his fellow Enthusiasts in soft conversation, smoking, drinking, making love, the hamlets connected by soft packed earthen trails through fragrant flora, This map, this architecture, this design, it was somehow the collective desire of all the Enthusiasts.
What had they talked about? His airship, of course, his dreams of flight. But beyond that, he didn’t remember. He recalled lying on one of the mats, and a woman, a dark-skinned woman, beautiful, with short hair and a gold stud in her nose and henna tattoos, appearing across from him, and she had spoken in another language, the language of the South, the aboriginal tongue, but somehow there had been conversation, pleasing, steady, soothing chat — there were among the aboriginals many Enthusiasts, yet in Tincture there was no language barrier, and then he woke up back here again, in his hammock bed, above Ali, his head just a meter from the chamber pot.
* * *
Every day the same dilemmas. Where to find Tincture. How to pay for it. He and Ali worked together, both of them making the rounds of the capital, visiting fellow Enthusiasts, chasing down rumors, cautiously inquiring with friends of friends. This scarcity was a recent development, and Enthusiasts debated whether this was a temporary state or whether the supply had been permanently interdicted.
Tincture had been synthesized in pharmaceutical laboratories by patent medicine companies here in the capital for use as a surgical anesthesia, though it was soon deemed too imprecise for that purpose, and was replaced by a chloroform gas. Briefly, there was Tincture included in bottled medicines prescribed for what was called “nervous exhaustion,” but this was soon made illegal.
Still, even as a growing population of Enthusiasts in the capital were abusing the powerful narcotic, the state was experimenting to see if the drug may help to pacify the aborigines who still plagued the southern regions of the country. There was some success with this, though it soon became obvious that simple alcohol was an easier and cheaper means of enslaving that population.
Tincture’s appeal as a recreational experience was primarily among what remained of the bohemian class in the capital. Writers, artists, musicians and those who might fancy themselves one kept the Tincture trade going as a subculture of bliss-seeking hedonists. Still, the state had recently concluded that it must eliminate the Tincture trade in its entirety, launching a lurid propaganda campaign associating Tincture usage with terrorism, Judaism, homosexuality and general, unwashed bohemianism. What alarmed the Ministry of State Security was obvious enough: it was the communal space that Tincture Enthusiasts inhabited when they were in their altered state. This translational space could in theory be occupied by thousands of Enthusiasts, and their communication and interaction there was completely outside the control of Security officers. Indeed, it was a matter of some debate if illegal activities in this translated space could even be prosecuted. What was certain was that the distribution, possession and consumption of Tincture were highly illegal, and the broadsheets were now suggesting they might soon be declared treasonous.
* * *
For Til Lint and Ali, that their recreational activity, that their primary activity, could be considered treasonous would have been laughably ridiculous if it didn’t threaten their continued enjoyment of the Tincture. They weren’t rebels or revolutionaries; Til Lint had even served in the Army, manning a dull stretch of the coast during the period of heightened tension with the Sultanate. Before the army he had briefly attended the National Institute of Agriculture and Engineering, where his intuitive grasp of structure and his quick study of mathematics singled him out as a future scientist and engineer of great value to the State, until his aggressive apathy caused his dismissal. And though he owned a few precious and valuable books, he did not consider himself a member of the intelligentsia. Oh, he had ideas, some of them grand. Occasionally, when he and Ali had taken their dose, he would tell Ali what he saw: a flying machine, not a dirigible, but a vast wing with a piston-driven engine bolted down with propeller behind it, pushing it forward and up, into the air, a man, a pilot, sitting before the engine, operating the airship with a rudder-like device that could tilt the wings and direct the propellers. Ali, who hadn’t received a secondary education and certainly didn’t understand even basic engineering, just nodded and considered Til Lint’s ideas yet another of the exotic attractions of the Tincture. That was the fun of it: you never knew what you would find. And you never felt alone.
Ali had known Til Lint since they were boys. Til’s father had been a factor, loaning money to those who couldn’t access the traditional banks, while Ali’s father had worked for him as a sort of office attendant and janitor. Both boys spent afternoons in the office, or playing in the courtyard to the back of the building and when they were older, wandering the streets in the neighborhood, and they found in each other utility and company. Somehow, their fathers’ relationship had transmuted to the sons. Til provided Ali with a purpose, a schedule for his days. Ali was for Til a reliable companion, a savior who occasionally turned up when Til was about to take a bruising, a pair of strong hands to help him move his crates of books. Together, they experimented with cannabis, alcohol and dreamed of women.
Ali had spent his days and nights around the Institute while Til matriculated, and neither found that arrangement odd. Ali even living for a time in Til’s student lodging, sleeping on a straw mat on the floor beside Til’s bed. When Til was expelled and then conscripted, Ali sought to enlist as well, but was deemed unfit. He had failed the intelligence test.
It was a tribute to the universality of Tincture that both Ali and Til could extract equal pleasure from the experience. In fact, it was only when they were using the Tincture that Ali felt Til was really speaking to him, would take him seriously. As they wandered the festival-like communal hallucination it brought on, the seasonable warmth, the gentle breeze, the faerie-light like glow of the perpetual evening, Ali would finally feel the equal of Til. He would find his words, would be able to converse, to access a vocabulary that he knew was beyond him when he was out of Tincture.
That morning, as soon as Til Lint was awake and heating tea in a pot over the charcoal stove, he shook Ali awake.
“Do you think Dead Sai has anymore?” he asked Ali, who had jumped from the mat to take over the tea preparation.
Ali nodded and then shook his head.
“Which is it?” Til Lint asked. “Yes? No?”
Ali held out his hand and pointed to his palm. “He had pellets enough to fill his palm yesterday. Today . . .” He shook his head.
“We should have bought more,” Til Lint said, pulling a crate of books over and taking a seat on it to wait for the tea.
He pushed tobacco into a pipe, holding a wooden match over it.
Ali served him tea in a brass cup.
Ali proposed they go to the Ghetto and see if the Jew had more. The Jew had access to a pharmacy. The Jew always wanted books, Til Lint knew, and would part with pellets only in exchange for his science books. He stood from his crate and removed books, performing yet another triage. Every day he separated his books into categories: sell or not sell. Each day, the pile he judged as too precious to part with shrank. He once vowed he would never sell his illustrated and illuminated mechanical texts, nor his engineering books, some of which were now classified by the State in an attempt to keep the expertise falling into the hands of the Sultanate or the aborigines. Yet he knew these were his most valuable, those pages of lavish illustrations of how an irrigation system works or the cutaway of a turbine, lovingly preserved between cloudy, onion-skin pages. Til Lint had been disgusted when he went back to The Jew one afternoon and saw that pages from his volumes had been cut from the bindings and framed to be sold as wall hangings.
Still, Ali suggested: The Jew.
Til Lint selected six large volumes.
Til and Ali made their way down the five flights to the narrow, slanted hallway and then out into their dirt alley. There was a wooden footbridge over the alley’s mouth that connected the two street-facing buildings and made the alley seem more grand than it was, serving as a lintel over the dusty turn-off from the road. A train of a dozen camelids made its way down the street, shaggy humps festooned with wooden crates secured by leather straps around the animals’ saggy teats. A cloud of sand flies alighted and landed with each step of each animal.
Til had Ali carry the books. Out of habit he stayed a few paces behind Til as they outpaced the camelid train and then turned down Avenue of the Heroes and past the monuments and Central Station.
Ali complained he was hungry. Til dug through his pockets for change and from a pushcart vendor bought flat bread for each of them, which they chewed hungrily before the station.
“This is much like having a career,” Til observed. “The life of the Enthusiast.”
Ali shrugged. He was sweating from porting the books. It wasn’t in his nature to question the relative ease of one lifestyle versus another. Nor was he aware of exactly what a career entailed. Running through his mind was this pattern of thoughts: carry books, get Tincture, go back to garret, take Tincture. Repeat tomorrow.
He looked up, a surveillance dirigible was passing overhead. There were rumors that these cigar-shaped airships contained listening devices that could eavesdrop on conversations.
“Tell me again about the flying machine?” Ali asked.
“What?” Til said. “Oh, it’s a theory. But everybody has theories about flying machines. None of them work. It’s a matter of horsepower versus displacement; more of one, less of the other. The mathematics suggest it should be possible.”
He turned to Ali who was already confused: horsepower? Displacement?
“Later, when we’re at the Warren, I’ll explain,” Til said.
Ali swallowed his bread and thought: Eat bread, defecate, repeat.
The Jew, a handsome, slender man with crew cut, smooth forehead skin, grey eyes and long, delicate, actually quite beautiful nose, managed a scriptorium and antique book shop, a shabby, dusty-windowed, wood-paneled storefront seldom visited by serious collectors. His practice of dismembering semi-rare books and framing the images did generate some business among civil servants seeking art for their parlors. These civil servants preferred two types of images: animal woodcuts or mechanical renderings, both politically unfraught.
Despite the recent increase in anti-Semitic press and the dismissal of Jewish civil servants from what the State termed “sensitive” Ministries, Til Lint continued his indifference to racial and religious difference. In fact, one of the appeals of being in Tincture was the easy mingling of races and religions: where else would he ever meet an aboriginal woman such as he had encountered last night? Those few aboriginals in the capital were employed as menial workers; their women were nowhere to be seen.
Still, he found this Jew’s practice of chopping up books into their constituent parts to be offensive, yet he was a uniquely positioned Jew, somehow striding the Tincture and rare books trades and thus bound to frequently collide with Til Lint, Enthusiast and rare book owner.
The Jew knew why he was there and as soon as Til and Ali were inside, he locked the front door.
“Come, come,” he told Til. To Ali: “You stay.”
Til took the books into the back. The Jew studied the volumes, flipping through Drucker’s Encyclopedia of Hydro-Architecture and Tursky’s illustrated Great Engines, pausing at full page, four-color images as if already sizing them up for potential framing.
“Not so dear,” The Jew commented.
This was his regular comment upon inspecting books. Yet next time Til Lint would come, there would be images from his books cut out and framed, with prices equivalent to what he had received for his whole lot.
But Til Lint was already feeling the yank of the Tincture. It was a kind of boredom, Til Lint reflected, at this world, at the limited expression, both because of the greater, almost telepathic communication between Enthusiasts In Tincture, but also because of the fear in this world, the atmosphere of caution and suspicion. There wasn’t so much one could say anymore.
Yet it was this caution and suspicion that made his books with their drawings of engines and carpentry tools and internal combustion engines so valuable: these were the safest home decorations. How could an engine be seen as subversive?
“Three pellets,” The Jew said, “Two books for one pellet, that’s the price”
“It was one pellet per book,” Til said.
“Those were better books,” The Jew explained. “And Tincture is scarce.”
“Four,” Til said, “So we have two each.”
“You share with the Ochnod?” The Jew said, disgusted.
Til nodded. Everyone hated everyone, was suspicious of everyone, Til thought. Why?
The Jew seemed to think this over. “Wait in the store for a few moments.”
Til went back out and inspected the bookcases. Ali was paging absently through a book of paintings from the North, Mohammedin-influenced, almost geometrical patterns of blue, red, green, orange.
He looked up, asking with his eyes if they could go.
“Reenter,” The Jew called form the back.
Til reentered and the Jew handed him four pellets wrapped in soft green leaves of some kind. Til had never seen it packaged like this, but he liked it.
* * *
The preparation was to dissolve the pellet in a mixture of alcohol and water, to heat the solution over a candle until it steamed, and then shake the beaker which resulted in a yellowish liquid with purple, red and green mosaic undulating, inter-locking chains of bubbles that helixed toward the surface like ribbons in a breeze. (If those slicks did not form, then you knew you were dealing with counterfeit tincture.) The liquid could be taken orally, but the preferred method was to take it nasally with an eye-dropper. One pellet usually made about a half-ounce of fluid, about six droppers full; longtime Enthusiasts like Til Lint and Ali preferred to use two pellets at a time.
Enthusiasts knew that what each of them were seeing when they were in tincture was personal, that the fauna and flora were products of their own imagination, a metronomically, artificially induced pseudo-environment produced by their benevolent subconscious with the dark compulsions banished. Despite the communal experience of The Warren, the versions of each other they were perceiving In Tincture were constructs assembled by each Enthusiast of his fellow Enthusiasts’ subjectively congenial or desirable features. If two Enthusiasts met In Tincture, they perceived each other as pleasing beings, based on the projected attributes and characteristics that each wanted to see in the other. It was utopian. There was, as far as Til Lint and Ali were concerned, no reason to stay in this world if you could stay in The Warren.
* * *
Indeed, the translational hallucination had proven so powerful and enticing — and such a compelling allegory for what should have been possible in this world — that the state had become wary of the Enthusiast community, not just for being decadent and degenerate but also as potentially treasonous. Soon, very soon, Til worried, there would be no more tincture anywhere.
Til had noticed a clique of Enthusiasts while he was in tincture, a band of what he knew to be intellectuals, those with ideas the state might consider dangerous or treasonous. Ideas about democracy or liberty or freedom. They would meet in tincture to share their ideas, a few of them had even taken to writing their tracts in tincture, only to discover that whatever they wrote in tincture would vanish as soon as they woke. And the next time they were in tincture they would have to start all over again. But it was the unconstrained nature of these conversations, the free love among unmarried young people, the expression of what felt like free will among the Enthusiasts when they were In Tincture that posed a threat to the State.
That night, as Til and Ali drifted through The Warren — they never tired In Tincture, never even felt as if they were walking, they were propelled, as if projected — Ali began asking Til again about the flying machine. What would it be made of? How heavy? Would there be one wing, or perhaps two, or more? Where would the operator be standing? Or would he be seated?
In Tincture, Ali possessed the same telepathic vocabulary as the everyone else, he could understand, could converse, could respond.
Til took a seat on a sala, settling into the soft wood, lying with his back against it. Above them, through the palm frond roof, he could see the stars, vivid constellations, stars in unfamiliar yet beautiful patterns.
“The Southern Sky,” said a female voice next to him.
It was her, the aboriginal woman from last night.
“It’s different,” he said, turning to her, “than ours.”
She wore a sari of gauzy material. Diaphonous, it had a metallic shimmer, and . . . were her breasts visible? He squinted to look closer. Generous, plum-colored areolas, pert nipples, and . . . they were gone.
“I wouldn’t wear something like that,” she said, laughing at his hallucination.
He smiled. “I know.”
A row of golden ear-rings ran up her pinna. Her hair looked coarse, brush-like. He wanted to reach out and touch it. He did, gentle curls, slightly damp. He smelled his fingers, a jasmine oil of some kind.
She touched his hair. “Soft.”
“Do you speak my language?” He asked.
“Yes,” She said.
“Can I see you out of Tincture?” Til Lint asked.
“No,” she said.
“Stay with me then, as long as we’re in The Warren.”
She smiled. She was beautiful.
“I only took one pellet.” She was standing up. She walked a few steps from the sala. Already, she was becoming insubstantial. He could see through her to the pink, red, yellow and white wand flowers behind her. The she was visible only in meager outline, without color, almost translucent, diminishing as the brilliant flowers crowded in where there had been flesh.
“Bila.” She vanished.
Ali was seated next to him, smiling.
“The machine will just float up into the air?” He asked.
“What?” Til said, “Oh, no, it will need some ground on which to gather speed. I think it should be downhill.”
“Perhaps pushed off a cliff?” Ali asked.
Til smiled. Not a bad idea. “Perhaps.”
There was nothing, Ali explained. He had been to see The Jew. He had visited Dead Sai. He had even asked the rickshaw pullers at the Central Station. The capital was Tincture-free.
Ali had returned with olives, smoked fish and flat bread. Til Lint refused. He had no appetite. He drank tea and smoked his pipe. This was what they had feared, that the supply would run out and they would be trapped out of Tincture, in this world. He looked at his depleted supply of books, now worthless if they couldn’t be bartered for The Jew’s Tincture.
Even Ali’s eyes appeared without shine now as he contemplated a Tincture-less day.
Surely, there was some untapped resource, some hidden reserve of pellets somewhere in this city that could be divined. But if Ali couldn’t sniff it out — and he was a bloodhound in that regard — then perhaps not?
So they were left with this: the garret, the stove, the tea, the books and each other. Such dismal company they proved without the Tincture.
Til attempted to go back to sleep, to crawl back into his hammock and close his eyes until there was again supply. But Ali’s smallest movement, even his breathing, seemed cacophonous. When Ali took a book and began flipping the pages, that sound, the dry brushing of paper against paper, seemed an intolerable imposition.
“Can you even read?” he asked Ali.
Ali shrugged. “Some words.”
“So you just flip through pages, looking at pictures?”
Ali nodded. Til felt he could even hear the movement of muscles in Ali’s neck.
“Just stop it, stop flipping the pages.” Til ordered.
So Ali sat there, the book open in his lap to the place he happened to be when Til halted his page-flipping, an annotated illustration of a sailing vessel, a two-deck schooner. He moved his finger from topmast to topsail to flying jib to jib.
Impatient and agitated, Til fastened breeches, vest and hat and went out, leaving Ali alone in the garret. As he emerged on the main street toward Central Station, he acutely sensed the despair and futility of the lives around him, the men and women rushing to and from their jobs, the children in black school uniforms and caps on their way home from school, the old men on stools in doorways, the old women hanging clothes from their windows on pulley-lines, the policemen walking the beat, the uniformed soldiers on leave, the aborigines pouring tar, the newspaper boy selling broadsheets.
He stopped at the rear of a crowd watching a barker in waistcoat, frock-shirt and stove-pipe trousers sell tickets to an entertainment that evening. A muscular, miniature man stood beside the barker in a black-and-gold tank top. On the other side of the barker was a small black bear, perhaps a cub. The barker promised a fight to the death. “Only one shall live. Will it be man or bear?” The man looked defeated already; the bear merely agitated.
Til saw in all of this activity a bloodlessness, a numbness, a grayness, a loss and despair. It was the tedious pattern of each life and then the larger pattern — of humans born, begetting other humans, dying, repeat — that seemed so tragic he wanted to grab the first baby he saw and run away.
The Warren, of course, the one place he could not get to from here.
There, he felt it, a muscular, serpentine coiling around him, of life, of the patterns of life, of the hostile minutiae of life. With each exhalation, he felt the serpent tightening its grip, squeezing the life out of him.
He stumbled back to the garret.
* * *
He found Ali seated, legs folded on the floor and an unfamiliar-looking man in a dark blue, two-piece suit. He wore polished, auburn-colored boots.
Ali jumped up, made eye contact with Til and then quickly glanced at the man seated on the crate in a manner that communicated to Til that this man had pellets.
The man in the suit stood quickly, smiling broadly.
“Til.” He reached forward to shake his hand. “How are you?”
Til took his hand. “Have we met?”
“Miro, Miro Seckiner,” He had brown hair parted but cut so short that when the part fell, as it did now, it fell over his protruding forehead to reach his eyebrows, which because of their prominence, formed a sort of steeple over his blue eyes, small nose and pursed, fleshy lips. His chin was week and unstubbled. He looked as if he didn’t need to shave. “From the A and E.” He used the abbreviation for the National Institute of Agriculture and Engineering.
Til didn’t remember him.
“I ran into Ali here on the street, and recalled him from our school days.”
Miro went on. “The two of you have barely changed.”
Til looked Miro over carefully. The suit was plain but well-made; the shoes looked expensive. He didn’t recall Miro, but then there was much about University he didn’t recall.
“Welcome,” he said to Miro. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything to offer. Did Ali make you tea?”
Miro gestured to the brass cup on the table before him. “Very hospitable.”
Again, Ali made the aggressive darting of the eyes toward to Miro. The pellets.
“Yes,” Miro interrupted him. “Ali and I got to talking about, um, things. The current situation. How difficult it was for, well, Enthusiasts of a certain experience, to continue that experience.”
Til sighed. He walked over and opened a crate of books. His prized chemistry texts, complete with periodic tables in the hands of scribners of the classical era. “Here, these can be framed,” Til sighed.
“No, I’m not a book collector. Or buyer.” Miro said.
“We don’t have any money.” Til said.
“I, we, can do it together. I have pellets.” Miro explained. He reached into his pocket and removed six of them, foil-wrapped.
Ali, almost reflexively, began to busy himself with beaker and spirits.
“You? I didn’t take you for an Enthusiast,” Til said.
“I dabble,” Miro said.
Til looked him over. “What have you been doing since University?”
“I’ve been with the Ministry of Science,” said Miro.
“A State job?”
Miro nodded. “If you had stayed at A & E, you would have joined me.” Miro said. “You were the most brilliant student there. And you weren’t politically or racially suspect.”
“You work at a Ministry and you are an Enthusiast?” Til asked.
Ali had unwrapped the pellets and was crushing them up, mixing tincture with the alcohol and then shaking the beaker. He lit the oil lamp, setting the beaker atop it.
Miro nodded. “There are Enthusiasts everywhere.”
This didn’t feel right to Til. He didn’t remember Miro. And he didn’t have the louche and disheveled quality of most Enthusiasts.
But the pellets certainly looked real, and as Ali heated them and then shook the beaker, checking it in the light he could tell Ali was assured by what he saw there. He poured the mixture into smaller vials, handing each man a vial and a dropper.
Til looked over at Miro, his fleshy lips in a smug grin. He couldn’t trust him. Then he thought of Bila, the aboriginal girl, who would perhaps be in The Warren right now.
* * *
The three of them strolled through The Warren, in the evening light, the tendrils of delicate plants brushing them as they passed along a soft earth trail. There were the usual conclaves of Enthusiasts, languorously reclining in the hamlets, on straw mats on the ground or on the salas.
Miro had taken on a more pleasing aspect, his suit now loosely fitting, his hair mussed, his grin less unctuous and more joyous. Ali was walking behind them, mumbling something about the flying machine.
“Yes, yes,” Miro said, picking up the thread, “Tell me about this flying machine?”
Til felt the warmth of the communal good will, for that was the great lure of being In Tincture, the thousand, the 100,000 souls wishing you well. He smiled as he thought yet again of his machine.
“The principal problem is control, the multiple axis of control, left and right, up and down, but there is another issue, to bank, to turn — think of flying a kite with multiple strings, how there are sharp turns and at other times, depending on wind current, the more gradual banking, and this last part is crucial for it will allow you to maintain a straight trajectory even against the wind, almost like a sailboat tacking. This could be perfected with a giant kite, of sorts, a gliding kite large enough to accommodate a man, he could operate the giant kite from within, almost like the driver of a buggy—”
Bila appeared from between two descended willow branches with yellow-lined orange leaves, fragrant as if with wisteria, or was that Bila’s own scent?
Bila took him by the arm and pulled him toward a straw mat. Miro and Ali followed.
“But why is this craft more efficient than an aerostatic?” Miro asked.
Til shook his head. “Speed. Precision. Aerostatics are at the mercy of the currents.”
Bila took him in her arms — the sweet smell of the wisteria now mixed with the faintest smell of her sweat. “Now, no more about this ridiculous flying machine,” she murmured.
Miro pulled at Til’s arm. “But the wing configuration. Can you sketch it? Is it beveled? Convex? Straight? And the material? Canvas? Wood?”
But Til had momentarily lost interest in the idea. It was a diversion for him, calculations he ran through in his mind to pass the time; he found Bila a much more fascinating subject.
Still, Miro yanked at him. “Come, just a quick illustration, showing the wing configuration.” He held out a parchment, a pencil. Where had he gotten those?
Til found Miro’s attentions flattering, he made rapid but precise strokes, writing in dimensions and draughts, the depth of the canoe-shaped hull.
“A flying boat!” Ali exclaimed when he saw the sketch.
Bila also studied it, as if committing it to memory.
Then she licked his ear and he fell into her again, losing interest completely in the sketch, in the flying machine.
* * *
Til came to in the back of a wagon, his head bouncing on the hard, slightly damp floor as it passed over cobble-stoned streets. Where was he?
“Ali?” He called.
Nothing. He felt around him, his hand recoiling from the wetness of the floor. Then he reached his arm out carefully. He was alone.
It was dark, save the faintest crack of light from beneath the rear door, widening and narrowing as the wagon bounced.
He wiped his mouth, the taste of tincture was still on his breath. He must have been moved while he was in tincture, his empty husk of a body picked up and carried and then settled here. He recalled Bila, the two of them entwined in happy jumble, clad body touching clad body in warm current. And he recalled Miro grabbing the paper and then, he woke here.
This was disappointing, wherever this was. He could hear outside the calls of the barkers, the clatter of passing buggies, the fragments of shout and steadily, metronomically, the clatter of hoofs.
He could hear by the echo that they were passing through a narrowing — a gate? — and into a courtyard of some kind. The clatter stopped. He waited. He followed the sound of footsteps as they approached the wagon, the door swung open, and he saw outside two massive men in suits and another, even larger man, in the brown uniform of a State Security officer.
“Come out you filthy mud-head.”
He stood up, squinting against the harsh daylight.
He climbed down.
“Where am I?” He asked.
He was told: A secret Ministry. Roughly, he was swung around, his arms shoved together and his thumbs locked up in screws. A foul-smelling hood was placed over his head.
“Is that necessary?” He asked.
There was no answer.
He wanted to ask after Ali, but hesitated.
The two men in suits simply pushed him ahead of them so that he had to trot to stay ahead but when he slowed down, wary of running blind, he was shoved again, so that he lost balance and fell, hitting the crown and side of his head hard against the cobblestones. Immediately, he felt the cool trickle of blood beneath his hood. He struggled to his feat.
He didn’t stop again, and could tell again by the change in the sound of his steps that they passed beneath an archway and into a building where he was roughly thrown into a cell, breaking his momentum by again smashing his face into a stone wall.
Til sat against the stone wall, hood stuck to his face by dried blood, his arms bound behind him by the screws, his thumbs and then his hands and finally his whole arms going numb. As the first wave of panic and fear abated just slightly, he ran back in his mind the events of yesterday, the frantic search for tincture, the miraculous appearance of Miro and his supply, the warm embrace of Bila and then what?
He paced off his cell. Seven steps from the door to the wall, four from side to side.
If he bent his legs he could lie down with his head on the floor.
How much time had elapsed? It was excruciatingly slow, he was sure, but how long had he been here? He held his urine for as long as he could, and then wet himself. And he sat so long his pants dried and he became distressingly thirsty. When had he last had a sip of water? It had to be before they had taken the Tincture. He nodded off for a blissful moment — or hour? — he couldn’t tell. They must have forgotten him.
Finally, the door was opened. There was a shuffle as another person was tossed into the cell, crashing into him and then quickly pushing herself away by her bare feet until her back was against the perpendicular wall. She was foul-smelling and shouted in a foreign tongue. Her voice was deep but soon settled down to steady, plaintive murmur. By the sound of her, she was aboriginal. Probably picked up for drunkenness.
He took care to keep his feet and legs away from hers, which was difficult in the small cell. She seemed too self-pitying to share a similar consideration, and so sprawled, her legs akimbo.
“Shhhhh,” he tried to quell her.
She shouted back at him in her tongue.
He could hear her slumping as she settled into a moaning, tribal song of sorrow. In the close cell, her smell was awful: fecal, sour, rotten, unwashed genitalia and feet.
Soon, he withdrew into his own discomfort and pain, the muscles in his arms violently cramping, causing him to writhe in a futile attempt at stretching to improve circulation. He felt himself drift into a kind of daze, half-asleep, half-awake, unable again to find any measure of time.
* * *
He was taken from the cell, marched down a hall to a small office where his hood was removed. He gasped and greedily inhaled the pure air as he looked around. There was a wooden desk and chair. Atop the desk was an copper ashtray with Til’s pipe next to it.
Til wondered if he’d had his pipe in his pocket when he came in, but couldn’t remember.
“Do you know where you are?”
Til turned and saw Miro walking into the office. He was much taller than Til had remembered, practically a giant. How had he missed that last night?
Til shook his head. “Some sort of prison?”
Miro smiled. “The Ministry of Security.”
Til looked around. “I knew you weren’t at A&E.”
Miro nodded. “No, I wasn’t.”
“How did you find me?”
“Oh, Ali gave you away. You can always count on an Enthusiast to betray his friends for Tincture.”
“What do you want?” Til asked.
“What everyone wants, the design for the airship.”
Til was surprised. “That’s just a theory.”
“Still, it’s what the Partisans wanted. Could you imagine if the South got a flying machine? What they could do?”
“What?” Til had never thought of any violent application for his airship. He had never thought of any applications, actually. It had always existed as pleasing mathematical problem, an engineering conundrum.
“They were trying to get the design from you. The girl, Bila? A spy.”
“No.” Til wouldn’t believe it.
Miro nodded. He came around and unlocked the thumb-screws. When Til tried to raise his arms, they cramped up instantly. When the cramps passed, his arms felt almost buoyant as he lifted them. Miro took out a tobacco pouch, a book of matches and slid the pipe across to him.
“Give us the whole design, the whole concept.”
“But who knows if it will fly.”
“Who knows if it won’t?”
Til packed tobacco into the pipe and inhaled. It was delicious, the flavor sweet with a slight cherry taste.
Miro opened a drawer and removed a sheet of paper, a pencil. “I had your sketch at the Warren. I couldn’t reconstruct it when I was back.”
Til nodded. “You can’t bring anything back.”
Miro nodded. “Show us your rendering.”
“What about the girl?” Til asked. “Bila?”
“The abo spy?”
Miro shrugged. “Get to work.”
“And then you’ll let me go?”
Til took the paper and began sketching. He found this process a small relief from his worries, his stresses. He marked dimensions and weights, and frequently used additional sheets of paper to make his rough calculations, the various M=y2-y1/x2-x1 calculations that had to be factored into F=ma calculations, the various vector calculations. Til scribbled through a half-dozen sheets of paper and kept annotating and then resketching his flying machine, discarding the older version for a newer one. The real issue remained weight versus thrust. Was there an engine light enough that could provide enough horsepower, the old H=wv formula?
He asked Miro if such an engine existed.
“That’s not your problem.”
“But how can I—?”
Miro came over and stood by Til’s shoulder. “Would the wing be cantilevered?”
“They would be suspended by wire from a central pillar above the engine.”
“Wood and canvas.”
Til flipped through his pages. “Look, here, the canvas makes the wings lighter. And this hull, it should also be stretched canvas. You have to decrease W to decrease H. You see?”
* * *
By the time he was returned to his cell, he had already sketched out his rudimentary plan. There was more, of course, but he was exhausted.
The aborigine girl was still there, unhooded, her head slumped forward. When he stepped around her legs, he again caught her powerfully rank odor.
He took his place against the wall, now unshackled, and assumed that after a review of his plans, he would be set free, and then could resume searching for Tincture. Still, he wondered if they would build his flying machine, and wouldn’t that be something? A man sitting in a motorized kite, going to and fore above the city, wherever he wanted, flying into the wind if he so wished.
The black girl looked up, her eyes reddened and one of them puffy and black around the meaty looking edges. She had a strong, protuberant nose and full lips and it took an instant for Til to place her but then he was shocked.
This was Bila, only made repellent and awful and rank.
She seemed to already know who he was. She said something in her language, shaking her head.
Til didn’t understand her. In Tincture, they had communicated seamlessly. But this was her? He shuddered. She was monstrous. He felt disgusted with himself for having clutched her so closely at The Warren, and then guilty for now finding her so repulsive.
He sat down. She was still shouting at him in her language, now sounding as if she was pleading.
She pointed upward, toward the wet, damp ceiling. No, she was pointing up at the sky. Then she made a gesture like a bird, extending both her bruised arms as if flying.
She shook her head. She didn’t want him to tell anyone else about his flying machine.
“Who knows if it will even work?” he asked.
But this great interest in his vision made him believe perhaps it was possible. With the right materials, the proper engine, it could be done. He believed he had the right steering configuration, a series of ropes connected to rudders, six handles with six different controls, so that the pilot, seated in the hull, could bank, lift, turn, and do any of these simultaneously. Oh, it was exciting, this notion that it could all be possible.
They let him have one more dose, as a reward for his giving them his idea, his design, all sketched and schemed. He admired his own work, and actually enjoyed his afternoons in Miro’s office, smoking his pipe, doing his calculations and double-checking his figures. How many sheets of paper had he filled? Entire notebooks? Crates? He had no idea.
Somewhere, he imagined, they were building his flying machine. Miro would never admit as much to him, as such a matter was of course a State secret, but the thought that the wood and canvas and steel was collected and assembled, that the sputtering, ultra-light engine was being built, that this great, beautiful monstrosity will be given the breath of life, such an idea was almost as intoxicating as Tincture — could almost make him forget the thrill of being In Tincture. Almost, but never really, of course.
Bila had been taken a day after she came in.
They had never been able to communicate, and he had found her so repellent out of Tincture that he wasn’t sorry to see her roughly removed by two giant guards.
He asked Miro what happened to her and he told him she would be sent to one of the camps.
Miro smiled. “Camps. For people like her.”
“For aborigines?” Til asked.
“For enemies of the State.”
Til worried that he might be sent to such a place. What if, when they had fully extracted his idea, his theories, they simply disposed of him? It was entirely possible.
Sensing that such a possibility would slow down Til’s work, Miro made an offer Til couldn’t refuse: he showed him a small pouch, a half-dozen pellets.
“Your degenerate heart can’t resist, can you?”
Til was like a starving dog presented warm calves’ liver. He almost drooled.
* * *
Finally, when Miro was satisfied that he had fully siphoned Til’s best plans, he brought in a small oil lamp, a beaker, some alcohol and water and cooked up the tincture, handing the dropper to Til who eagerly dipped it without waiting to see if it cooked up to the proper kaleidescopic color.
The taste was as he remembered, earthy, mushroomy, the familiar trickle down the back of his throat, but as soon as he was transported, he could tell that something was wrong. There was still a Warren, but instead of the lush, sub-tropical den of soft earth and gauzy wind and gentle branches, it was a dungeon, grey stone pathways, miles of them, damp, hard, and around every corner, another wandering Enthusiast, each regarding him warily and with suspicion and hatred in his eyes. And he hated them. They were all dirty and vulgar, cheap, foul-smelling, perfidious, their worst attributes were all he could detect or feel. They saw only the darkest parts of each other. They passed in the narrow corridors, not deigning to speak to each other. It was hours of this lugubrious wandering, of averted glances, smirks, sneers. It was a maze of hate and despair. And for good measure, they felt hunger, aches, nausea and an intense and steady itchiness that caused them to scratch so hard their flesh soon bloodied.
Hours later, when he woke up on the floor of his cell, he understood immediately what they had done. Somehow, the State had invaded The Warren, had taken it over and subverted it so that it was a kind of penal colony. Rather than an escape, the State had made it a punishment.
Til cried for the destruction of this last refuge.
* * *
He feared he would be forgotten in his cell, subsisting on tin plates of mashed, unseasoned chickpeas. He spent his days bringing forth memories of his past, his childhood, his youth, his adolescence, and even the recent days, the lovely evenings In Tincture. What they said was true, Til discovered, that one never sufficiently appreciates his hours and days until they are passed. And now, that he had no more hours or days to speak of, just the sameness, he dwelled on those bygones and felt a deep and painful yearning — to hear a hawker sell bread, a child sell a newspaper, even Ali clanging a pot as he made tea. He missed the small movements and gestures of life.
One morning, two of the gigantic guards clanged open the door and tossed in a cap with chin strap and thick cotton jacket. He studied the leather cap, turning it over in his hands. It was finely made, already worn in by someone with a bigger head than his. Still, he slipped it on. It slid over his forehead.
The guards had left the door open, so Til carefully peered around the corner and then darted back into his cell at their return.
“Ready?” Miro asked.
“For what?” Til was so grateful at the sight of him that he didn’t dare press when Miro didn’t answer.
Miro led him from the cell and down the corridor. The sunlight of the courtyard was dazzling, making him grateful he had his cap. He was put into the back of a van, and the doors sealed.
The journey stretched longer than he would have imagined. Where were they taking him? To a camp? To be shot? Then why the cap and jacket? He had never grown accustomed to fear; at this renewed anxiety, he quivered. They were going to kill him!
Yet the ride was so long, the wagon rocking along the cobblestones and then the smoother gravel road outside of the capital, that he even grew impatient about riding to what might be his own execution.
* * *
He saw it as soon as the doors swung open. His flying machine, or an interpretation of it. Some of the wooden struts were missing, the cables snapped, and the canvas torn; they had affixed two wagon wheels beneath the hull so that the plane limped awkwardly onto its left wing. It seemed to have already been badly damaged, perhaps by an attempted flight?
They were in a field of sea grass, gently undulating in a soft, off-shore breeze. The variegate lush greens and olives descended in a gentle slope to what Til could see was a cliff. He could smell the sea beyond. There was bright sun, clouds curled in almost whimsical wisps, and a smell of earth and salt and chalky stone that Till greedily sucked in, the clean, good air felt almost intoxicating after the long stretch in his cell. It was a lovely spot. A few men in black suits were gathered around, and there was a photographer, standing behind his immense box camera.
“You built it!” Til said.
“And did it fly?” Til asked.
“Not yet,” Miro said. “We lost a good man on the first attempt. On flat land.”
Their plan now, as Ali had once hypothesized, was to push the flying machine down toward the cliff’s edge, so that it gathered enough velocity to stay airborne once the earth fell away.
“And you want me at the helm?” Til asked.
Miro nodded. “We can’t find a volunteer.”
Til studied his machine more closely. They had made mistakes, or had disregarded his design in key areas. The wings were too heavy and should have been wider, the propeller blades too wide and squat, the whole machine had a heaviness about it that looked unpromising. And they seemed to have misunderstood his own idea for rudder controls: he had sketched three different sets and they seemed to have incorporated them all into two paddles. Still, he was pleased by how sleek the hull looked, though the wagon wheels made it look like a piece of artillery angled for low trajectory.
He climbed aboard, slid into the canoe like hull, took a seat on the bench there, and looked around at his machine, or this version of his machine. He couldn’t find the crank for the motor and was impressed when he saw that they had fixed it so that it turned on with a toggle switch. The engine made a powerful, angry rattle.
Two of the giant guards took the listed wing and held it upright as Til adjusted the rudders to maximum lift and the machine began rolling down hill before he even had the engine revved to full, the momentum hurtling it toward the cliff face. He pulled out the clutch, engaging the propellers.
He detected, in the lumbering motion, the heavy thumping of the wagon wheels over the grassy earth — how much did those wheels weigh? — that this machine was a bulkier, less beautiful thing than he had envisioned. But there was a chance, with enough power, enough momentum, that he could hold fast to the air in this flying canoe.
* * *
The earth fell away. For an instant, he was sure he felt it, the propellers catching, the machine bearing him aloft, the sky growing closer, the possibility that he could fly away from here, from the state, that he could steer his flying machine to freedom.
Then the earth asserted its relentless grip.