I didn’t bother knocking on the door when I got to Circe’s house. Her mom was still at work, and Circe would be around back, in what she called her laboratory, an old smithy, a shallow cave under a ledge of rock under the bluff. A little brook cascaded over the lip of the bluff right over the cave, pooling in a nest of rounded cobbles before it ambled off through the yard.
Inside, the cave was cool, damp, and the fine sandy dirt in the floor was cratered with dozens of tiny cone-shaped ant-lion nests scattered in the corners where they couldn’t get stepped on. I dropped my bike and books beside the broken-down cement mixer she had brought home from the dump seven months ago. “It’s about the right size and shape for the old Mercury spaceship,” she had said. “Like they used to send the astronauts up in the ‘60s with. I’m going to get all this cement out of it with some vinegar I’m making, and then I’m going to clean it down to bare metal and paint it so it won’t rust,…”
She didn’t even look up when I came in. “Got it?” She asked.
I dumped a bag on a bench cluttered with boxes of saltpeter and sulfur, lumps of coal, and a tiny perfume bottle half filled with mercury she’d got out of old thermostats.
“They made me sign for it, Circe.”
She fished one of the cans of Sterno out of my bag. “What for?”
“Because they probably think I’m going to give it to some nut who’ll use it to burn the school down, that’s why. Lucky for you my uncle owns that hardware store. So, what are you going to do with it, anyway? And now you owe me fifteen bucks. That’s not counting the ten for the copper wire and batteries you had me bring last week. And that telegraph didn’t even work!”
Circe sighed profoundly, and set aside the filmy, thin, dry-cleaner bag and the threads she was tying to the corners at its open end. “Our telegraph is going to work. Just you wait. It’s just that I came across a schematic diagram for a radio telegraph, you see? So we won’t have to string those wires across Mr. Bailey’s corn field after all. We’ll have it working next week. I just need you to get me a few transistors. And some diodes. And a couple of other things. I made a list. Here. Then we’ll have it.”
I shook my head and she bent back over her bench, folding some aluminum foil into a square, rolling it flat with a blackened metal tube, scorched to a beautiful iridescence at the far end where she’d tried to build a ramjet engine last year. Then she bent the corners of the foil up, making a shallow bowl, and she tied the loose ends of the strings to the corners of the bowl.
“Finished!” Circe said.
It took me a few seconds before I realized I didn’t think I had ever heard her use that word before.
She started out with the dry cleaner bag-string-aluminum foil thing and one of the cans of Sterno. I followed her out. She headed toward the center of Mr. Bailey’s corn field, the dry stalks all crushed and bent in the late fall twilight chill.
She crouched down around her apparatus and opened the Sterno can, cutting out a cube of the pink fuel and placing it in the aluminum foil bowl. “Okay!” She said at last. “You hold the bag up.”
She took out a lighter and lit the Sterno. The warmth of the burning fuel stroked my hands as it rose into the chill autumn air.
“Careful!” She said. “The edge of the bag will singe!”
I pulled it higher, stretching the strings out so the foil bowl rose off the ground, but she didn’t like that—she tugged it back down so the bowl lay flat on the ground. She held the bottom of the bag open to collect the warmth. The bag quickly filled.
“Okay!” She said. “Let it go, but gently!”
The bag tipped to the side slowly, the flame licking at the edge and shriveling the plastic up a few inches, but then it straightened up and tugged gently at the threads, tugged again as it straightened in the still air. Then the clear bag began to rise into the dark, the threads straightened, and pulling the bowl filled with the sacred fire under it, it quietly rose straight up, the flickering light of the pale flame glimmering off the clear plastic until it was a luminous jewel rising silently against the dark blue of the cold night sky and toward the stars beyond.
Then I looked at Circe.
She looked like she had expected it to work that way all along.
© 2012 by Keith Azariah-Kribbs. All rights reserved.