The Chums of Chance Meet the Wandering Sisterhood of the Sodality of Ætheronauts (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

CROSSING THE ROCKIES, they found aloft an invisible repetition of the material terrain beneath them. Three-dimensional flows of cold air followed the flow of rivers far below. Air currents ascended sunny sides of mountains at the same steep angles as colder air drained down the shady sides. Sometimes they would be caught in this cycling, and hung over the ridge-line repeating great vertical circles until Randolph ordered the engines engaged.

It proved a struggle after that, for the wind desired them to go south, and numberless standard cubic feet of engine propellant were wasted against the northerly imperative before Randolph, calculating that they had exceeded their energy allotment, gave up the ship’s immediate future to the wind, and they drifted thus over the Rio Bravo, and into the skies of Old Mexico. So they were borne onward, before winds of obscure sorrow, their clarity of will fitful as the nightly heat-lightning at their horizon.

It was just at that moment of spiritual perplexity that they would be rescued, with no advance annunciation, here, “South of the Border,” by the Sodality of Ætheronauts.

How could they have ever crossed trajectories? Afterward none of the boys could remember where it happened, during which toxic ascent, amid what clamor of bickering by now grown routine, they had blundered into this flying-formation of girls, dressed like religious novices in tones of dusk, sent whirling, scattering before the airship’s star-blotting mass, their metallic wings earnestly rhythmic, buffeting, some passing close enough for the boys to count the bolts on gear-housings, hear the rotary whining of nitro-naphthol auxiliary power-units, grow rigidly attentive to glimpses of bared athletic girl-flesh. Not that these wings, with their thousands of perfectly-machined elliptical “feathers,” even in this failing, grime-filtered light, could ever have been mistaken for angels’ wings. The serious girls, each harnessed in black kidskin and nickel-plating beneath the inescapable burdens of flight, each bearing on her brow a tiny electric lamp to view her control panel by, regrouped and wheeled away into the coming night. Were glances, even then, cast back at the lumbering, engine-driven skycraft? frowns, coquetries, indistinct foreknowledge that it was to be among themselves, these sombre young women, that the Chums were destined after all to seek wives, to marry and have children and become grandparents—precisely among this wandering sisterhood, who by the terms of their dark indenture must never descend to Earth, each nightfall nesting together on city rooftops like a flock of February chaffinch, having learned to find, in all that roofs keep out, a domesticity of escape and rejection, beneath storm, assaults of moonlight, some darker vertical predation, never entirely dreamed, from other worlds.

Their names were Heartsease and Primula, Glee, Blaze, and Viridian, each had found her way to this Ætherist sorority through the mysteries of inconvenience—a train arriving late, a love-letter mistimed, a hallucinating police witness, and so forth.

—Another passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.


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