Wednesday, November 01, 2006

1932: 2. The Corsair Queen

For the rest of her life, Ruby Gale, age 4, would remember her first flight. She had to wrap both hands around the stick just to try to grasp it, and her father stuffed a pillow between her back and the seat so the harness would fit her snugly. She should have been afraid. She should have cried. Any sane and sensible parent would have thought her father mad for taking her up so young, much less in the front seat, much less in a rickety biplane with a two-can-a-day oil habit.

Ruby loved every moment. She would remember her father’s voice from the trainer’s seat behind her as a series of peaks amid the steady thrum of the propeller, and the way the wind made the tips of her hair dance around her head, and how the world turned upside down beneath her, all of Chicago suddenly pointing down from the sky, and then rightside up again.

She heard her aunt say once that the flu had “carried off” her mother when Ruby was still a baby. Until she was old enough to know otherwise, Ruby saw her mother -- the vague outline of her anyway, as she’d faded to a blurry, comforting presence in Ruby’s memory, a face smiling out from photographs -- snatched up by a thing made entirely of tiny flapping wings, and carried off into the distance of the night sky. Some nights, when her father thought her asleep, she would sit by the window in the rooms above the old hangar and look out over the stretch of dirt that served as the airstrip to the twinkling stars, and wonder if she could ever catch a glimpse of her mother sailing past the moon. Or someone else’s mother, perhaps.

On summer nights, from her window, she could see her father standing out in the tall grass at the end of the runway, watching the fireflies rise in winking crescendos of light, and vanish. They would swirl and dart and dive at one another, and he would watch them for a long time, and then go back to the hangar, and put on his Victrola, and drink to absent friends. Somehow, he had made it back from the skies over France and Germany in one piece, snatched by fate or God just dumb luck from the mechanized, flak-spitting jaws of the Great War. Later in life, Ruby would wonder just how much of him actually came back; it seemed there was a piece of him left behind somewhere in the clouds over the Ardennes.

Aviation was good business, though that seemed small consolation to Gordon Gale. Flight was daring, romantic, still slightly impossible, and Ruby never lacked for friends growing up; all the neighborhood children wanted a piece of the sky, hiding away nickels in old tin cans or piggy banks or pillowcases, and dreaming of the day when they would be too big for their parents to say no to flying lessons at Gordon Gale’s Bronzeville Academy of Aviation. Every summer he and Cornelius Coffee would do a loop-de-loop duel over the blue waters of Lake Michigan, and Ruby never forgot the day when Oscar Micheaux, in town for the premiere of his latest race picture, stopped by to take a flight with her daddy. The Chicago Defender put their picture in the paper, Micheaux grinning out behind aviator goggles as he shook Gordon Gale’s hand, though Ruby noted that they’d mispelled Gordon’s name in the caption.

By the time Ruby graduated high school, the world was growing too small for both of them. She’d taken apart both her father’s planes and put them back together too many times to count, making small improvements along the way, and when she closed her eyes at night, sleek new marvels of the air drew themselves in glowing lines on the backs of her eyelids. And her father, when he wasn’t sighing at her with that great big dopey fatherly grin of hers, would spend long hours throwing darts at a map of the world he’d pinned up over the radio in the corner of the hangar.

“Don’t matter how high you go,” he told her once, on her graduation flight, the thawing spring air on their faces, and all Chicago lit up below like a bauble, as if just for her. “You can still only see so far from the same spot. There’s always more beyond the curve of the earth, honey. There’s always more to see.” That was when she knew that it was only a question of which one of them would leave first.

Four years of studies at the University of Chicago, building herself a degree in mechanical engineering class by class, test by test, became four years of postcards from Burma, Seville, Marseille, Shanghai, all from Gordon Gale, pilot for Constellation Cargo. Ruby got sweet on a boxer named Thaddeus Hayes; she called him Lemondrop, on account of his favorite candies, and pinned his arm behind his back and called him names, laughing, until he agreed to teach her some of the sweet science. Ruby liked working with her hands, throwing punches, shooting guns. It gave her brain space to breathe, let those sweet shimmering lines of her imagination sing forth and take flight in the gaps between conscious thought.

No one would hire her, even with a diploma, but she’d expected as much. Colored girls didn’t get to be engineers, even in Chicago, unless they did it their own damn selves. She started the company in her father’s own hangar, shaping parts and sketching improvements for Cornelius Coffee and other family friends in the flying business. The day her first white customer came through the door, ducking his head, and asked about the fuselage he’d seen Ace Haskins sporting at the race last Saturday, she took Lemondrop out for steaks and Coca-Cola and the pictures; they threw her out, and Lemondrop too, before the second feature even started, because she couldn’t stop giggling to herself.

And then her father flew medical supplies into a snowstorm in Nepal, and never came out the other side. And that’s when Ruby learned the world was big enough for people like Wicked West.

She went straight to the public library after the funeral, to the periodicals, and sat herself down in her veil and her black hat and began reading the newspapers. She wrote down the names of every pilot lost to the Terror of the Air, as the Tribune had begun calling her, and every business that had lost its cargo to her shadowy grip. She sent letters and telegrams. She called in every favor her customers could possibly owe, and a few they would eventually owe, to get the heads of the major air cargo firms in one room in Chicago. And there, so nervous she thought she’d throw up at any moment, she showed them her plans, and asked for their money.

When one of them scoffed at the thought of a little colored girl going after the Pirate Empress of Asia Minor, Ruby pulled out the revolver she’d been keeping in her jacket, spun the barrel, cocked it, and set it down on the table. She smiled hugely. The room was so quiet she could hear her ears ring.

It took six months to build the Cyclone, all to Ruby’s exact specifications. She did most of the labor herself, to save on the expenses, but Lemondrop helped some with the heavy lifting in between fights and his clerking duties at a downtown law firm. She’d thought of the shape herself, all sleek silver teardrops and wings as sharp and cutting as her grief. It would be years yet before she met Tom Morrow, so it was plain mortal steel for the fuselage at first, but it was enough for her.

The night it was finished, every last bolt and seam, the seats in the cockpit still tufted with bits of straw from the shipping crates, she and Lemondrop sat in the open rear hatch and toasted with champagne. He gave her a ring, opening the velvet box with his rough fighter’s hands so she could see it sparkle, and he asked her -- begged her -- to stay and marry him.

“You’re all the world I need, Ruby,” he said, so sweetly, and she could only smile back, because she knew what she’d have to say.

Next morning, she left him sleeping in her bed above the hangar, planting one more kiss on the soft tiny curls at the nape of his neck, and took off roaring through the red dust into the sky over Lake Michigan. She knew he wouldn’t be there when she returned.

She picked up the trail, finally, half a world away in Batavia, watching stern squads of veiled women load fruits and livestock onto rusting freighters, paying always in gold, only in gold. She watched one of them cut the throat of a man who got the wrong ideas, and dump him soundlessly into the bay to feed the fish.

Flying quiet in the sky, running lights off on a moonless tropical night, she tracked one of the freighters to the volcanic island a hundred leagues off the coast, an island she would later search for fruitlessly on every map she could find. They’d left the lights along the airstrip on; perhaps they were expecting her. The dozen women with guns who met her when she strode down the Cyclone’s rear hatch suggested so, but she was never able to find out for sure. Her knees wanted to shake themselves right to pieces, but she just tossed her flight cap to one of the guards, relishing the shock in the woman’s eyes, and asked, in all six of the languages she’d picked up, where to find the boss.

The whole complex steamed and reeked, sulfur in the air, and when she laid a hand to one of the walls -- briefly, for it was hot as a stove -- she felt it rumbling gently. The guards led her through a nest of criscrossing lava tubes, past carved-out hangar bays of sleek black fighter jets, and a white room where a severe woman in a blood-streaked smock hastily closed the steel door on the sound of apes screaming, to the terrace on the far side of the mountain, where Wicked West dined on mangoes and wild pig under the empty eye sockets of a dozen dead men’s heads.

She spoke with an accent Ruby couldn’t place, and watched Ruby so closely as she handed over a platter of flatbread that Ruby wondered if she could see her gorge rise and fall. None of the heads looked like her father. Ruby let the lies rise out of her throat and tried not to choke: She had heard the tales, she had suffered the cruelties of men, and she wanted to show them all that she was a superior pilot. At gunpoint, if possible.

Halfway through the soup course, in midsentence during an anecdote about a most amusing fellow who had continuously pleaded for his life, hanging upside down, for a full fifty-two hours without sleep, Wicked West drew a ten-inch knife from down the front of her blouse and hurled it across the table at Ruby’s eye socket. Ruby deflected it with the nearest serving plate at hand -- it landed in the middle of what Ruby would later discover was the dish of poi -- and laughed, and asked Wicked West to do continue, please. Under the table her legs shook until she made them stop.

And Wicked West smiled, for the first time broadly and without malice, and called her sister.

That night, Wicked West’s new sister slipped her guard -- “slipped” here defined as a solid right cross to a delicate and unsupecting jaw -- and made her way to the hissing heart of the complex. It took her an hour to figure out what each pipe and valve did, and another five minutes to decide how to wreck it all.

The first valve blew at three in the morning, lava and noxious gases lurching and bubbling into the lowest levels of the complex, too long constrained by Ruby’s sabotage. The apes, in their cages, began to shriek and pound the bars. Wicked West awoke to her empire in flames, countless stacks of bills from every country on earth consumed in a rising tide of molten rock, the vast chambers’ worth of gold now shimmering puddles on the glowing, searing orange crust of it. Ruby was halfway up the maze of lava tubes by then, but she would later swear she could hear the shriek of rage and betrayal and undying hatred.

She had just enough fuel in the Cyclone to make it back to a friendly port, and from there to civilization, and fame, and her own picture in the Defender -- with her name spelled correctly, thank you -- calling her Chicago’s Corsair Queen. But even so, she double-checked the needle on the gauge when she saw the dark hulk of the Faithless inflate and rise against the column of red fire now leaping from the volcano’s heart. Her hands wanted to circle back and fire the guns, and tear it from the sky -- to see Wicked West and her entire empire of murder food for fish at the bottom of a heartless sea. But there would be other days for that, she told herself, and she lied well enough that she almost believed it.

And as Ruby Gale flew herself toward the rest of her life, her radio crackled to life with the voice of Wicked West, broadcasting on all frequencies.

“Wherever you are,” the voice hissed, “I will find you. You cannot imagine the scope of my resources or the depths of my anger. I will not rest, I will not stop, I will not relent, until one of us is dead.”

Ruby Gale smiled and picked up the microphone and thought of her father. “Swell, sister,” she said, to the dying, static-filled echoes of Wicked West’s screaming rage. “Let’s make it you, then.”

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