Theodora straightened her goggles and squinted at the air structure in front of her. It was a thing of beauty, from its metal frame to its rounded nose. It reminded Theodora of a gentleman’s cigar, however much more elegant and exciting.
She lifted her petticoats and pushed through the small crowd watching the crew build the aircraft. She held her nose in the air. She refused to acknowledge the young men snickering at her presence at the docks–usually reserved for only the male species or women of a certain variety. Theodora was accustomed to it; despite her station in life and the prospects pushed upon her by her aunt, she refused to let her life be ruled by the world of men.
Sounds of hammering and the smells of soldering metal filled the air. Deep in her petticoats, she clutched at her newest creation. If things went well today, it would save her from finishing school and the stifled life of being a lady.
Theodora paused at the front of the work yard. The first time she saw men take to the air, a mere five years ago, she was enthralled. To fly, to feel the weightlessness of birds in her own bones, would be the dream of her lifetime. Newly orphaned, the world was a dismal place. Finally, things made more sense than just learning about rules and how to run a household. The heavens had literally opened to her.
She let her gaze sweep over the workers. To the right, two men took turns hammering a yard-long metal pole. In the center, an older man worked with molten fire, bending and curling thin strips of steel. To the left, a gaggle of men took their work break, the lucky ones smoking cigarettes and the even luckier ones eating lunches packed by their wives.
Theodora chose the man who was soldering, front and center. The heat was greater than she expected, and she fought back a cough as smoke entered her lungs. As she stepped up to him–at a safe distance, of course–he lifted his head and flipped up his protective face shield. The wrinkles around eyes and mouth revealed his kind nature. Theodora had struck gold.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said, “I was hoping you could help me with a small request?”
“Women aren’t allowed on the yard, miss. But I will help you if I can,” he replied. His voice was as smooth as molten lava.
“Thank you. I–” she broke off. She had recited this a thousand times, but the words burned in her throat nonetheless.
“Are you looking for someone? A lover, perhaps?” His eyes crinkled. Kind, but a man just the same.
“Absolutely not,” she huffed. His words gave her the strength to pull out her creation. It was a cigar-like structure, not unlike the one being built before her eyes. “I have made this to showcase my skills in engineering and I would like–I would request–an audience with the captain of this flying structure to ascertain work and voyage on the aforementioned flight.”
He chuckled, and her feelings toward him soured. “Please just call this ‘flying structure’ a blimp, miss. That’s what we all do.” His eyes flitted to what rested in her palm. “That’s a beautiful toy. You made that?”
She clenched her free fist and gritted her teeth. “It is not a toy,” she said, keeping her voice light, “but a testament to my skills. Look.” She clicked a button on the underside of the blimp, and it rose from her palm: one, two, three inches. From another one of her pockets, she pulled out a handheld controller and fiddled with it until the blimp circled around the man a few times. She hoped it made him dizzy. His eyes tracked the flight until she flew it back into her palm. With quick hands, she put each device back into her petticoats. Just in case he had a fresh idea to take it without her permission.
“I can see that it’s better than a normal toy. But those ones over there won’t let a woman into this yard willingly, skills or no.” He lifted the helmet from his head and wiped at the sweat. Theodora was not sure if she imagined it, but she could have sworn she saw horns. “Oh look what you’ve done,” he continued. He gestured to a man walking toward them. He was portly and wearing an olive green bowler hat. He did not look like he had done an ounce of work in his life. “The captain is headed this way now.”
Theodora’s stomach flipped. The man that approached did not have kind eyes. They burned with the roiling clangor of money being spent and earned, of the shrieks of sobbing men, and the pain of broken backs and missing limbs. Involuntarily, she took a step back.
“What in the hell is this?” he shouted. Spittle flew from his mouth, sizzling as it met the fire for soldering.
“Oh, just a lost little miss,” the older man said.
She tossed him a perturbed but grateful look. “Actually, I’m here to acquiesce some work for this here flying structure, this blimp,” she corrected.
“Work?” The captain threw back his head and laughed, his gullet open to the whole world. “No ladies aboard our ship.”
In a panic, Theodora pulled out her contraption. Her fingers flew over the controls as she lifted it back in the air. “See? I’m good with my hands, and I’m smart.”
The captain shook his head and spit on the ground. Theodora watched it mix in with the dust of the work yard. “It’s a fancy toy, girl, nothing more. These men owe me years of their life. Gambling, the irons, family secrets, you name it. At the looks of you, I have nothing to gain from this. Even if I made an exception for a woman, a noose is not in your future, girl. So you will not be in mine.”
Fighting back tears of frustration, Theodora shoved her devices into her pockets and rushed away from the yard. The workers met her with silence, and she could have sworn one of the men hastily covered a tail jutting from his trousers. She stocked it up to being upset, hysterical even, and cried freely despite the crowd of onlookers laughing at her as she departed.
* * *
When Theodora arrived at her aunt’s manor, their maid servant, Felicity, greeted her. “What ever did you do?”
“Why? What did you hear?” she asked. Her maid was a wonderful woman, but she wasn’t one to empathize with a tear-stained face.
“I don’t know, but your aunt is ready to flay you alive. Straighten your skirts out and take off those awful goggles,” she said brusquely. Felicity flattened pieces of Theodora’s wind-swept updo and then held her at a shoulder’s distance. “Whatever you did, it must have been good.” Felicity patted Theodora’s head and turned back to dusting, now with a smile on her face.
Theodora sighed heavily and then rolled her shoulders back, holding her head like she was balancing books on top. She stepped into her Aunt Cecile’s study and dropped into a small curtsy. “Hello, dear aunt.”
“Don’t ‘dear aunt’ me. Come sit down. Now.”
Theodora sat in one of two wingback chairs in front of her aunt’s sprawling, mahogany desk. She crossed her ankles and held her hands loosely in her lap, the portrait of a young lady.
Her aunt’s hooded eyes narrowed at her. Aunt Cecile was a strong-willed woman, and largely took a blind eye to Theodora’s mechanical inclinations–as long as she finished her embroidery and studies beforehand. She was a prosperous widow, an anomaly that was mostly accepted in their neighborhood, but also lent Aunt Cecile a freedom that wives and young ladies were not afforded. To see her seething, nostrils flaring, meant that someone had seen Theodora sneak off to the workyard.
Her aunt stood, pacing behind her desk. “There are too many eyes to do as you wish at all hours, Theodora. Sarah saw you leaving the manor, and her son Brooks confirmed that he saw you pestering those men at the docks. On the Sabbath! At the docks!” she exclaimed. Aunt Cecile rarely went above the decibel of a whisper, and Theodora clutched at the armchair. “I could lose you. You could lose your place at the academy.”
“As if that would be a tragedy.” The words slipped from Theodora’s mouth before she could stop them.
“Yes, it would be. You would lose your station in society, and I, my good reputation. No, we cannot have this. Your obsessions with gadgets and flying have gone too far. You are to start finishing school a week from Monday.”
“Yes.” Aunt Cecile turned her back to Theodora and regarded her massive floor-to-ceiling leather-bound book collection. “That is all.”
Theodora slunk to her bedroom. When Felicity stopped her with a curious smile, Theodora only had the energy to shake her head, solemn.
In her room, she locked her door, knowing that it was only for show. Anyone could get in with the key if they so wished, but it made her feel better just the same. She dragged herself to her workshelf, reverently placing the blimp and control between an automatic sweeper and a failed instant embroidery needle. She sat at her table. She wanted to create something with the gadgets and gears, but the minutes stretched and her imagination failed to oblige. Throwing her head into her hands, she wished for anything: an ingenuitive invention, a fire to burn down her finishing school, to be a boy…
Sitting up, she bonked her own head with her hand. Why of course. To be a boy.
* * *
Theodora spent the rest of the week planning. In her opinion, this was her best idea yet. A stroke of genius. She tore up old dresses on Monday. She stole trousers from their gardener on Tuesday. She made a blueprint on Wednesday. She talked her friend Charlotte into aiding her cause on Thursday. And she spent the rest of the weekend building and tweaking. In time, she had the tiniest but most impactful gadget she had ever made, and best of all, it looked almost like an identical twin to a wolf spider. As long as no one noticed a metal sheen to it, of course, she would be perfectly safe.
Monday came like a steam train with no break. Theodora was far from ready, but desperation made up for lack of courage. On the morning of, Theodora dressed herself in her undergarments and did her best to conceal clothing and her spider gadget amongst them. While not bodacious by any means, Felicity had gone to great lengths to bind her chest with spare fabric, flattening it. When Felicity knocked on her door, she was shocked to see her not only up, but almost dressed. “Hmm,” she said. “Why do I feel like this is a bad omen?” She pulled out her pocket watch. “I had already scheduled–well, let’s see–an extra forty-five minutes just to wake you. What are you up to?”
“Nothing, dear Felicity.” She flounced to her vanity, careful to not lose her precious cargo on the way. “I have resigned myself to a life of lady-hood, and I am simply too tired to continue resisting. Please do my hair a little higher than usual, Felicity. If I am to be a lady, I can at least be a trend-setting one.”
Felicity’s eyes showed some suspicion, but her fingers did not betray her heart. When she was done, Theodora’s hair was magnificent on its own, and would be more than perfect to hide under a bowler hat. “I love it,” Theodora said, kissing Felicity on the cheek. Felicity beamed and hummed while buttoning and tying Theodora into her petticoats.
In anticipation of the rest of the day, Theodora skipped to the spiral staircase that led to their foyer. “Ah, ah, ah,” chided her aunt. She stood at the bottom of the staircase, ever the picture of a fine lady. “A lady never skips. Walk down the staircase, Theodora.”
Even this chide could do nothing to break her spirits. Theodora walked down the staircase with her head high.
“Why do I feel like you’re up to something?” Her aunt narrowed her eyes.
“I thought the same thing, ma’am,” said Felicity.
The betrayal. Theodora threw a glare her way.
“I have no idea what you two are talking about. I am ready for my sentence.”
“It is an opportunity, Theodora. Not a sentence,” her aunt sighed.
“It is funny how those two things align oftentimes, is it not?”
“Have a good day, Theodora. Mind your manners, and please try to make some friends outside of that dismal Charlotte.”
“I will do my best, dear aunt.”
And with that, Theodora was off.
* * *
Theodora usually loved carriage rides, as she felt like it was the closest thing she could get to flying. But with the skies an arm’s reach away, she fidgeted in her seat until the carriage stopped in front of the finishing school. Without her driver’s assistance, she leapt out. Her friend Charlotte met her behind a spruce tree, as planned.
“So you’re actually doing this?” Charlotte said. She was not a lady of pleasantries.
“Absolutely. Come on, get these skirts off of me.”
Charlotte unbuttoned and tugged her free, stuffing Theodora’s dress into a bag they had hidden in a nearby bush a few days prior. While she did that, Theodora tugged on her gardener’s trousers and placed the bowler hat over her head. Her spider contraption was switched from her undergarments to her trouser pocket.
“Well, how do I look?” she said, turning in a full circle for Charlotte.
“Like a very pretty boy,” Charlotte giggled.
“Ah, well. We cannot have everything. Will I pass?”
“As long as you do not flash anyone, I think you will.”
“Wonderful.” She kissed Charlotte’s cheek and clutched her hands. “Cover for me today, please? I have an awful headache.” She lifted the back of her hand to her forehead, pretending to faint.
“Of course. Now go, before anyone sees you!”
Theodora ran out the front gates, grateful for a lull in carriage traffic. She ran the first two miles to the docks and walked the last half-mile, gathering both her strength and her breath.
The workyard was bustling when she arrived. The blimp had been built up an exceptional amount since her last foray–the structure was sound, the outside decorated in a sheen of black. Rather than going through the front as before, she walked to the back and joined a couple of men. One of them had a greenish sheen, and with surprise she noted that the other one was the man soldering that she had spoken to. Neither gave her any mind.
“We’ve got to get rid of him. He’s killing us,” the greenish one said.
“I agree. But he has us on lock and key. It’s either this or the gallows.”
“There has to be another way. I heard of strikes happening three cities over.”
“A strike would never work here for a million reasons. Now be quiet before he hears word of this kind of talk–you know how he is on departure days.”
Theodora fell back behind a large crate. She would wait for the captain to enter the steering pit, and then she would unfurl her magic.
It only took twenty minutes, at most. The captain exuded sliminess as he slunk through the workyard, his poison seeping into everyone he passed. Theodora watched him enter the steering pit, none the wiser. After a few minutes, she crept to the entrance. With five cranks of the gear and a prayer for good measure, she released her spider into the gallows.
She hid behind the crate again, right before the screaming started. Men ran from all areas of the yard, only to stop at the entrance, hanging back from the carnage.
It was then that Theodora made her entrance. She stalked through the men, walking right past them to enter the steering pit. She plucked her gadget from the captain’s neck, enjoying seeing him tied up and fully paralyzed. She kissed her spider and pocketed him. Halting at the doorway, she regarded the crew.
“I wish to fly this blimp.”
“And I wish to go to heaven,” one of them shouted. Laughter filled the yard, but fear laced it.
“I only need ten minutes on this aircraft to study its ways, and I will be ready to take flight. Who is with me?”
“Why would we agree to this? You’re but a boy,” said the greenish one.
“Because I am no monster, and I will release you of any contract that bound you to that one,” she said, driving her thumb to the man on the floor behind her.
“I like what I’m hearing,” said the man she had spoken to, “But you are no boy. I know you.” His eyes were still kind, but not without reciprocation if he disliked what she did. “We’ll show you ours if you show us yours.” It was then that his tongue slipped from his mouth, two-pronged. She held back her gasp, and she remembered the horns she thought he had hidden under his hat. It was not female hysteria, after all.
“All right, then.” She slipped off her bowler hat to reveal her long, elegantly coiled hair.
With a signal from him, Theodora was simultaneously exposed to horns and tails and wings and green skin.
She grinned, and they grinned back.
“Freedom awaits, my men. Ready this aircraft. We sail in ten minutes.”
They scampered, sending dust flying under their culloden boots. She bowed her forehead to the rising dust and, at long last, took flight.