I fled the City of Radiant Objects and hurried into the waiting dark. The merciless logic of the Architect and his city, brilliant under a never-setting sun, had injured sensitive tissue so that I craved the bandages of shade and shadow. My head ached, and my eyes stung. My mouth was bitter with the taste of disappointment. I had hoped to escape the weight and waste of matter, the endless variations on a theme of procreation. I had longed for the economy of the ark floating above a drowned world of useless diversity. But the purity of the City was intolerable, its idealism inhuman. I could not live without desire, love, and night -- without the sweet disorder of Anna's hair.
"Hello," said Wilbur as I entered the clearing. "Would you like to ride in my new aeroplane?"
"Why yes," I said.
He was leaning against a juniper tree, eating a sandwich.
"Where is Orville?" I asked for I understood they were inseparable.
"In Dayton," he answered, "looking after the shop. I came to Paris to drum up money for our machine. The night was so beautiful I thought I'd fly to Africa."
"They will wonder where you've gone," I said.
"Paris is asleep. All of France is asleep. Only Wilbur is awake."
He slept little, he said, because of his mind; it revolved constantly with diagrams and formulae. His mind, he said, gave him great pleasure.
His mind, he said, wrought the most elegant science.
He sang a jaunty song, accompanying himself on the piano-wire braces of his aeroplane. In return, the jungle performed a delicate score for winds and nightingale.
Silence once more restored, we stood under the moon, smiling at one another. I was tempted to go off into the trees with him, but only for a moment.
I coughed instead, to break the spell.
"I flew through the night," he said. "I felt the land under me and then the ocean. The ocean was blacker than the land and lit here and there with the tiny lights of ships. And then Africa -- its welcoming darkness. I landed my machine here among the thorns without a single tear to its paper wings. How do you explain that?"
I couldn't. Instead, I quoted Victor Hugo: "'The enigma in which being dissolves.'"
I admired aloud the various features of his aeroplane.
"The engine's a dream," he said. "I have only to close my eyes."
I began to cry for reasons I have never understood. Perhaps the softness of the night, the strangeness of the machine, the beauty of science and the moon.
The wild forest people came out from behind the trees and began to dance. My friend Pennington, whose throat had been cut by the porters, was with them. His face was white, but that may have been the effect of
moonlight. Wilbur looked on benevolently. His oiled sandwich paper shone in the grass. How lovely everything was at that moment! The imaginary Haha bird sat on a pine bough just as it did on the Chinese scroll
hanging in Quigley's tent. Where is Quigley? I wondered. And Carlson,
Hanby, Stephens, and Captain Slade? What has happened to the journey
upon which we embarked with full hearts so long ago?
I took off my clothes and joined the wild forest people in their dance.
"Is this what you want?" asked Wilbur, getting into his machine.
"I don't know!" I cried in an anguished voice.
He started his motor.
"That man is dead, you know," he called above the noise. "In a little while he will start to stink."
I tried to leave the dance, but the dancers had formed a charmed circle around me.
"Goodbye," said Wilbur.
"Take me with you!" I shouted. "To Paris. To America and to Anna in the Hamptons!"
But the aeroplane was gone -- I won't say "vanished" although that is the impression with which I was left. I heard the roar of the motor, the humming of the wires, then silence. The wild forest people went back into the trees, carrying Pennington with them.
I dressed quickly and left for Mombasa.
A herd of zebras rushed through the streets of Mombasa. I stepped into an alley, so as not to be trampled. They did only minor damage to the streetlights and the steeple of the Episcopal church. The people of Mombasa leaned out of their windows and cheered them.
"Hooray!" they shouted.
"Qua-ha-ha!" barked the zebras.
A woman waved to me from a house across the street.
"Come and drink with me," she called.
I waited for the zebras to pass, then crossed the street to her house. She was French; I am an American. We drank bumpers of champagne in honor of democracy.
"I am Madame Tussaud," she said. "My husband went into the jungle to discover a new orchid and never returned. I am hungry for kisses."
I kissed her. Why should she go hungry?
We opened the curtains and encouraged the moonlight to fall on the bed. Particles of it got all over us as we rolled on top of the sheet. Outside in the Mombasa night, the zebras whinnied joyously.
Night, I said, is what I like best.
She told me her house: Sagittarius; in China, the Monkey.
I fell asleep and dreamt I was flying in Wilbur's machine.
"Is that what you want?" asked Wilbur.
He was standing at the open window. His teeth flashed; his eyes sparkled. Stardust and broken bits of moon clung to his hair.
"What a handsome man!" exclaimed Madame Tussaud from the depths of sleep. Her face was white, but that may have been the effect of moonlight.
"Is that what you want?" he repeated.
"I don't seem to be able to leave!" I cried again in anguish. "How did you find me?"
"The zebras. Get dressed; we're flying to Dayton tonight. You'll
work in the bicycle shop, tightening spokes. Anna can join you there."
I dressed and followed him out into the street. The wings of his machine trembled lightly in the wind. The wind strummed the wires.
Kassitura! I said to myself. How can I leave your magic harping?
Wilbur laid his hand on my arm. He spoke kindly:
"We'll be there in no time. I've reshaped the propellers to a new equation. You have only to close your eyes."
We rolled down the street and jumped into the sky. The motor dreamed; the varnished propellers scarcely disturbed the sleeping town. The zebras drowsed under the mimosas. Madame Tussaud floated in the dark waters of sleep, and I was in flight from Africa.
Is this what I want? I asked myself.
I could not answer. For the second time that night I wept.