Conjunctions:34 American Fiction: States of the Art

Lost and Legendary Aviators
The following is an excerpt from Paul La Farge’s “Lost and Legendary Aviators” as originally published in Conjunctions:34.
In 1678 the Sieur Dulhut, whom everyone in America called Duluth, travelled across Lake Michigan into the Mississippi Valley. There he spoke to Indians who told him that, if he went a few days farther West, he would find a salt sea. This was the Western Sea, from which a great river flowed into the Pacific, which ran all the way to China. Probably hundreds of Europeans were looking for a river to the Pacific, but Duluth was hardier than the others, and better informed, and an aristocrat to boot. He grew up in a castle with a tapestry that showed a unicorn luring tiny knights to their orange, woven death; so he could say that he knew from long experience the dangers the woods held for solitary men. He took a party of Frenchmen and Indians several times toward the Western Sea, and came so close to it that he encountered Indians who, in his opinion, spoke with a Chinese accent. But the sea hung back, always one story out of reach. 
     In the same year, a locksmith named Besnier who was no kind of aristocrat at all, and whom nobody had heard of except his wife and his three children and those whose locks he fixed, built a folly. It looked like Christ’s Cross but with square wings at the end of each crosspiece. He claimed he’d done Christ one better: the savior had to carry his cross whereas Besnier’s winged cross would carry him. To prove it, he strapped his arms and legs to the posts and threw himself off a chair. His wife, scandalized by her husband’s christological comparisons, let him lie on the floor, groaning for a full half an hour before she unstrapped him and helped him to his feet. Besnier’s nose was broken and his shirt bloody. “Well, my sweet fool,” his wife said. “Have you learned your lesson?” Besnier looked past her, his eyes wide, seeing nothing that was, and, indistinctly, something that was not, a look which will be so common in the annals of aviation that we might as well call it The Look right now. “I have, my wife. Bigger wings.” He went back to his locksmithy and took the wings off his folly and put bigger ones on; while he was at it he put hinges on the wings and ran ropes through them so that they could be made to flap. With a new and improved cross and a bandaged nose Besnier went to the second-story window. “My husband, my husband, have you learned nothing? You must bear the cross—and I must too,” she added, sighing. Her husband threw himself out the window. Miraculously his flapping wings carried him across the street, where he collided with the neighbor’s house, fell, and broke his arm. His wife helped him off with the wings. “Now you see how it is, my husband. The first time you didn’t listen to the Lord, and you broke your nose. This time you didn’t listen to your wife and, look, it is worse.” Besnier groaned and clutched his arm. He lay in bed for three weeks, then one day his wife found him hauling a ladder up to the garret. “What are you doing?” she asked him, and Besnier said, “I am going to jump from the roof.” “No you won’t,” his wife said. “I had your infernal wings broken up for firewood and gave them to the priest.” Besnier cursed the priest and his wife, went into the workshop and locked the door from within. He came out some time later with two wingèd metal poles, which he defied anyone to burn. He climbed up on the roof. The neighbor saw him there and asked what he was doing. “He’s gone mad,” his wife said. People gathered to watch; someone sent for the priest, and soon there was a crowd outside the locksmith’s house. Eventually he jumped off the roof, flapping—and a miracle carried him all the way over the roof of the neighbor’s house, and a little ways down the street, before miracles, which are notoriously inconstant, let him go. This time he broke his neck. The priest made the sign of the cross and said a few words; Besnier’s wife took her husband home and laid him out to be buried, and the blacksmith took his wings and made them into a kettle and three frying pans. Besnier’s flight was never reported to the Academy of Sciences; news of it did not reach the King, although he heard about Duluth’s failed mission West, and, in time, commissioned another party to look for the water route to the Pacific. No one followed Besnier—but on the other hand, his wings him in the air for a few seconds, whereas the Pacific could not be reached by water and never was.

Paul La Farge is the author of The Artist of the MissingHaussmann, of the Distinction (both Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and The Facts of Winter (McSweeney’s Books).