Strange Travelers

Article excerpt

Non est ad astra mollise terris via. (There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.) --Seneca the Younger

Along time ago, in the earliest of days, not long after the People had crossed into this world, Coyote was tasked to carry a sack far to the south and not open it until he had climbed the highest peak of the southern range. Well aware of Coyote's curious nature, the People made him promise not to open the sack. Coyote reluctantly agreed, and so they tied the bag onto his back and sent him off.

For days Coyote ran through barren country, across soil and sand and rock, with the sun scorching his eyes and the bag flapping against his back so that the fur was nearly rubbed from his flesh. With each day's passing he grew more curious as to what was in the bag, as well as more gaunt because there was no food at all in this great empty land. At last, worn from traveling so long on an empty stomach, Coyote said to himself, "What if there is food in this sack? Surely they would not begrudge me just a little so I can continue on my way." And in this way he thought he could satisfy his mission, his hunger, and his curiosity all at the same time.

So he pulled the bag from his back and untied it to see what he might find to fill his stomach. But inside was nothing but stars in countless numbers, and, before Coyote could puzzle out what was all a-glimmer inside the bag, the stars flew out in a great spray of light far up into the sky. And there they remain to this day.

At a bit past noon, on September 19, 1783, over one hundred thousand people, including King Louis xvi and Marie Antoinette, craned their necks skyward from where they stood on the grounds outside the Royal Palace of Versailles. They had just witnessed the Montgolfier brothers, Etienne and Joseph, release a fifty-seven-foot hot air balloon from over its cauldron fire of straw, old shoes, and rotting meat, and now they watched it move steadily upward and away, its painted suns and fleurs de lis flashing golden in the midday sun against its dark blue fabric. From the large wicker basket suspended below the balloon perhaps came a few disconcerted bleats or indignant quacks, the passengers' complaints growing ever fainter in the ears of the "prodigious concourse of spectators" until they disappeared completely, the balloon well on its way to its peak height of fifteen hundred feet.

Inside were a rooster, a duck, and a sheep--aptly named Montauceil ("Climb to the Sky"). I imagine they took to the flight with varying degrees of aplomb. For the duck, of course, save for the cage it found itself in, this was nothing new; ducks are strong flyers and have been found at more than twenty thousand feet up when migrating. Roosters, on the other hand, are lucky if they can clear nine or ten feet. What then must he have felt, looking through the bars of his cage and the gaps in the wicker gondola, seeing the gardens of Versailles receding below and feeling the wind in his rarely used wings? Fear? Frustration? The wonder of possibility? Did he for the rest of his years strut around among the hens like, well, like a rooster, thinking about the time he flew higher than any other rooster could dream of? Or did he spend his days scratching idly for bugs in a dusty yard, now and then gazing forlornly at the sky, fitfully recalling his few minutes of glory--an eighteenth-century avian version of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin shuffling desultorily from room to room, feet forever firmly planted back on this too small and far too heavy world?

As for Monsieur Montauceil, it appears much of the eight-minute flight was spent lamenting that the grass he had been cropping only minutes earlier was swiftly getting farther away--an unexpected turn of events it seems he wasted no time in rectifying when the balloon touched down at the edge of the forest of Vaucresson, tipping out its three pioneering passengers. When discovered by a pair of gameskeepers shortly afterward, the sheep was calmly grazing, seemingly unfazed by either the historic journey or the fact that he had apparently kicked or landed on the loudly complaining rooster, injuring one of its wings. …