Short Story / Inventions

last month

“I’ve got it!” said Uncle Sigismund, sitting back down at the desk in his study. “Finally, something that will put an end to their disparagement. This—I can tell already—will earn me the respect I deserve.” He had just gone for a night-time walk around his study, which was in its own building—a converted toolshed. The shine in his eyes was exaggerated by the flickering candlelight.

“Where’s Uncle Sigismund?” asked Kamil.

“Make a guess,” said Sophia, Kamil’s mother. “He’s out in his study, as usual.”

“Can I go show him this?” said Kamil, holding up a complicated schematic—or maybe it was a map—his mother couldn’t decipher.

“No, Kams. It’s too dark out now; it’ll have to wait till morning. And besides, I’m sure your uncle wouldn’t appreciate being bothered just yet. You know how he gets. He doesn’t appreciate you going in there when he’s not in there, and he certainly doesn’t appreciate you going in there when he is. Please Kams, just leave him to himself for now.”

“Why did he bother to come all the way out here, anyway, if he’s just going to lock himself up all the time?”

“My boy, your uncle has got the spirit of the nineteenth century within him. He’s determined to invent something useful. He just couldn’t do it in the city; it’s more peaceful here. Now please, just let him be when he wants to be alone.”

“But Moms—”

“Kamil, would you really rather him not be here at all? Don’t you think it’s better to see him only sometimes than to see him never? Come now, it’s time for bed.”

“Okay,” said Kamil, with only a little bit of reluctance. Though he earnestly wanted to show Uncle Sigismund what he’d been working on, he was always excited to go to bed: Not only would that bring him closer to the following day, but he found that he always did his best work while he was asleep. Whenever he found himself struggling with a problem, he just woke up and found it taken care of. One day, for example, he woke up and found that his room was as clean as could be. He never remembered doing the cleaning himself, but who else could it have been? Certainly not his mother—she couldn’t even manage to keep the kitchen clean most of the time.

The next morning, Uncle Sigismund bursted into the kitchen during breakfast, his hair straggly, his face stubbly and his shirt wrinkly. It was evident that he’d spent the night in his study—again. He began speaking, though, with the energy of a composed person who had gotten a good night’s sleep, and both Sofia and Kamil were captivated.

“I’ve got it, you two,” he said. “They’ll never laugh at me again after this.”

“What is it this time, Brother?” said Sofia.

“You say that as if I bore you with my inventions, Sister. Please, if you’d rather not hear of my latest and greatest, you are free to pay me no mind as young Mister Kamil and I have an intellectual conference.”

“If I leave, then who’ll fetch your breakfast?”

“Duly noted, Sofia. Please excuse me,” said Uncle Sigismund.

“Now let’s hear about what you’ve thought up,” said Sofia, setting down a plate of eggs and vegetables at Uncle Sigismund’s place at the table.

Uncle Sigismund smiled widely at Kamil before he began speaking. It was a face of optimism, without any hint of the determent that Uncle Sigismund usually wore.

“My boy, I trust that you’re familiar with the idea of magnets, correct?” His eyes were glinting.

“Of course, Uncle Sigismund,” said Kamil. “We learned about them in school.”

“Excellent. I’m glad you’ve been keeping up with your studies. I was thinking about magnets last night—how two pieces of metal can attract each other—and I thought, ‘Why, maybe it’s true that two like things can always attract each other. After all, we usually see birds flying together, and people seem generally happier when they’re around other people.”

“I think you’re right, Uncle Sigismund.”

“Of course, Young Sir. Now here is where it gets important. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about darkness.”

“And no wonder!” said Sofia. “You spend nearly every night in that study of yours, surrounded by it!”

“Please, Sister. I’m in the midst of describing something very complicated to your young son, and interruption does none of us a favor.”

“It’s okay, Uncle,” said Kamil. “Go on.”

“As I was saying, I was thinking about darkness. Surely you’ve realized that it’s dark outside half the time, and when you add up all those hours, it’s quite a sum. Now, imagine if it never got dark out. All these farm-people would get more work done, and I imagine that the plants themselves would grow faster and larger, to boot. Finally, we could expect that people in general would be a great deal happier. Everyone seems happier when the Sun is shining, don’t they?”

“Well yes, I think so,” said Kamil, “but what does that have to do with magnets?”

“I’m getting to that, my boy. So these two thoughts were tumbling in my head for some time, and finally last night a polished gem emerged: What is the Sun, essentially, but a giant ball of fire? So if my hypothesis about the innate magnetism of all things is correct, all we must do is build an enormous fire, which will keep the Sun from setting.”

“But Uncle, don’t you think there have been big fires before? So why hasn’t the Sun stayed out?”

“My boy, I’m just a little further ahead of you. Let me ask you: At what time of day do people usually build fires?”

“Well, I suppose at night.”

“Correct. And at night, the Sun isn’t out. How could we expect to attract the Sun when it is so far away? My boy, we must build a large fire during the daytime, so that we might cause the Sun to stay out, rather than feebly attempt to attract it during the night.”

“But what about wildfires? Or the fires people use to cook their food during the daytime?”

“Those thoughts have crossed my mind too, Mister Kamil. As to wildfires, it seems to me that whenever they arise, the people rally to extinguish them as quickly as possible. It is my theory that they have the capacity to keep the Sun shining, but it is just that they are never given the opportunity. And as to the typical cooking fires that you have brought up, those are far too small to attract a fire so great as the Sun.”

Kamil was silent, looking for another loophole, his brow furled. From outside, a faint meowing could be heard, but nobody at the table seemed to notice. Sofia interpreted the lull as her opportunity to speak. “Well,” she said, “you seem to have thought this through. You’re going to build an enormous fire, then? Where is it going to be?”

“Always the cynic, my sister!” said Uncle Sigismund. “I still have to scout out the site I have in mind, but there is a nice vacant field just outside this town that I think would suit me beautifully. Kamil, you’ll come with me, I trust?”

The walk to the vacant field was littered with Uncle Sigismund’s failed inventions. The largest, by far, was the mechanical clock that Uncle Sigismund had installed surreptitiously on the facade of a neighbor’s barn—as surreptitiously as something so large can be installed, at any rate—that always pointed to twenty-seven minutes past four. The clock was meant to be powered by the sound of the roosters’ cock-a-doodle-doo in the morning, but it turned out that a single round of cock-a-doodle-dooing, no matter how many roosters there were, wasn’t enough to power a clock for an entire day. Uncle Sigismund had meant to invent something that might make roosters cock-a-doodle-doo more often, but he soon lost interest in the whole idea of clocks, as inventors sometimes do. In any case, the farmer whose barn now wore the immense decoration didn’t seem to mind that it wasn’t functional; he never made any effort to remove the thing.

Another one of Uncle Sigismund’s inventions resulted in a large clowder—that is, a population of cats—taking refuge in the town. After hearing the broom-wielding screams of more than a single terrified housewife regarding the town’s mouse problem, Uncle Sigismund developed a blend of herbs and spices that would attract cats. It was only after he had proven successful that he realized he hadn’t thought up a plan to make the cats go away; burying the amalgamation didn’t seem to help. Moreover, solving the mouse problem only unmasked the fruit fly problem, the frog problem and, of course, the cat problem.

And then, of course, there was Uncle Sigismund’s mammoth aeroplane that sat parked behind the house. He didn’t invent it, per se, but rather he purchased it from a pair of gentlemen who couldn’t quite make the contraption lift off the ground, under the supposition that he could complete such a task himself.

“It’s perfect,” said Uncle Sigismund. “Absolutely divine.” Kamil couldn’t see just what made the field so perfect and divine. Uncle Sigismund could tell that Kamil wasn’t impressed. “Let me illustrate,” he said. “Now picture this: I am going to build a brick structure—a sort of wall—that extends along the circumference of this field. It’s round, more or less, and rather flat, which is why it’s fit perfectly to this purpose.

“Now that’s just the first step. Once the brick structure is complete, it will be time to construct the network of ducts that will carry oil throughout. I trust you’ve learned about irrigation systems in your classes?”

“Yes, Uncle Sigismund.”

“Well, it’s quite the same principle. Once that network is in place, supplied by a reservoir of oil that will be atop that hill at the other edge of the field, you see? And finally, to get things started, we’ll have to stock the entire thing with dry logs and other tinder.”

Kamil was skeptical. Something was bound to go wrong, he thought; with Uncle Sigismund it always seemed to. But Kamil didn’t want his uncle to know he didn’t believe in him–surely Kamil was one of the only people in the town who treated him with any respect.

The next week, Uncle Sigismund began work on the project. He contracted a number of bricklayers and other laborers to assist him, and the illustration he had made for Kamil was coming to life.

It was a shame that Uncle Sigismund was doomed to fail, thought Kamil, because the idea was actually pretty good. That was how it usually happened, Kamil noted. It was tragic. One time, Uncle Sigismund had come up with a solution for mothers without the patience to rear their needy infants. “It would be much easier for all parties involved,” Uncle Sigismund had said, “if children could be older when they were born, at least past that stage of relentless neediness.” He had gone on to develop a stiff draft that would do just that, but it didn’t work quite as planned. The poor women who were brave enough to down the tincture found themselves giving birth to babies with a full-grown limb or two and more hair than any baby had business having and who, moreover, perished after only a week of bleating.

“This is all a waste, as long as it’s Uncle Sigismund doing it,” Kamil said to himself. “But what if I did it? I don’t have as much money as Uncle Sigismund does, but I think I could get around that.” He ran home to his bedroom—his own version of Uncle Sigismund’s study—and got to work.

A few weeks passed, and Uncle Sigismund’s project was completed. “I shall call it,” he said, “the Earthsun. Now let’s get this started.” A small crowd had gathered atop the ridge opposite the oil reservoir—the construction had attracted the attention of a number of townspeople—and though Uncle Sigismund didn’t bother to shoo them, he didn’t go out of his way to promote the (what was sure to be) historical event. “It will be better for them not to be here at the very beginning,” he had mentioned, “so that, come the first night, they’ll wonder why, exactly, the Sun has not yet set. And then they’ll realize that I’ve finally got it right. Oh, and how miserable they’ll feel with themselves.”

Uncle Sigismund walked confidently to the inlet he had built for lighting up the Earthsun—the only defect in its otherwise perfect circularity. He motioned to an assistant to initiate the oil flow, and once he felt the liquid coursing through the pipes, he raised a safety match to the ignition and illuminated the field. The fire caught on quickly, just as Uncle Sigismund had imagined, and soon the entire Earthsun was alight.

Now, the only necessary upkeep was to stock the oil and then patch the brickwork to the extent that it might be required. Barring anything unforeseen, there was no reason that the Earthsun shouldn’t go on burning forever. “This is the Perpetual Machine,” said Uncle Sigismund, satisfied. It was big and beautiful and burned like all nine circles of Hell, but there was, of course, the one true measure of its success that remained to be seen, which was whether the thing actually worked to attract the Sun.

In his study, Kamil was thinking about the Earthsun. “Something’s not quite right with it,” he said to himself, but he wasn’t sure what it was. Things his teacher had said regarding incandescent lightbulbs, which were recently beginning to reach small towns such as his, crossed his mind, and he got an idea. “The Sun isn’t so much like a fire as it is like a lightbulb up in the sky,” he said tentatively, “so it would seem to follow that in order to attract the Sun enough to keep it out at night, one must build an enormous lightbulb rather than an enormous fire pit.”

The Earthsun burned for two whole hours before something went wrong. For some reason or another—Uncle Sigismund blamed the bricklayers, the bricklayers blamed the oil duct technicians and the oil duct technicians, along with everybody else in the town, blamed Uncle Sigismund—there was an explosion somewhere in the middle of the Earthsun, from which a mass of shrapnel rocketed, flying a hundred yards into the air before reversing and heading directly toward one of the quaint little houses at the outskirts of the town.

Luckily nobody was injured; the people had exited the house when they heard the explosion, and they took off running when they saw the flaming metal heading for them. Their house, on the other hand, was neither so motile nor so fortunate, and it was incinerated completely, along with all their belongings. Uncle Sigismund, sensing some anger at this, ordered his assistant to cut off the oil line, extinguishing the Earthsun. Though it puttered and spat on for another hour or so, the fire was much more controlled.

“This Earthsun business is just like the Soundwall,” said a woman to her neighbor. “Don’t you remember that?” It was an enormous wall that Uncle Sigismund had constructed between the town and the nearby railroad track, which was meant to block the sound that the trains made as they went by.

“How could I forget?” she said. “When that atrocity fell, it crushed nearly all my chickens!” The Soundwall did work fine for a day before it was overcome by the train vibrations, but even when it was working to block the sound of the train, it only seemed to amplify the sound of the crickets.

“We will have to make some adjustments to the Earthsun,” he announced. “But I would not yet mark this as a failure, if I were you.” Though Uncle Sigismund was apparently still optimistic, the townspeople had no reason to be anything other than angry at the crackpot inventor who’d taken up residence in their town. “I wish he’d just give it up and go back to the city already,” some people could be heard saying.

The Earthsun was then vacant for some time, another reminder to the townspeople of all the annoyance Uncle Sigismund brought. The man in question, though, was nowhere to be seen; he’d locked himself up in his study, where he was planning out his changes to the Earthsun.

“Oh, by golly!” said Uncle Sigismund aloud. “How could I not have thought of this before? All this time I was going about the issue the wrong way.” He was peering out at the Sun through his window when it dawned on him that the Sun was more of an incandescent lightbulb than a fireball. “It’s edges are crisp, defined. A lightbulb is a much better approximation, isn’t it?”

As his first step toward besting his uncle, Kamil paid a visit to the town glassblower, who he knew personally. When he was younger, Kamil often played with the glassblower’s daughter, but for some reason or another she was sent off to the city after her tenth birthday.

“Hello there, Mister Anderson,” said Kamil. “I’d like to place an order.”

“It’s wonderful to see you Kams. What can I do for you? Is it another vase for your mother?”

“Not this time; she hasn’t broken that one yet. I need to ask you: You know about incandescent lightbulbs, right?”

“But of course. Everybody’s been asking me about those lately. They seem to think I know how to make them. Now don’t get me wrong; I can fashion a glass globe as round as any onion, but I know nothing of the science behind wiring a filament or creating a vacuum. When people ask me about lightbulbs, I send them to Gertrude. She has a contact in the city who can have them couriered here.”

“I see,” said Kamil. “Well, what’s the largest glass globe you could make? I need one for a special project, and it has to be big.”

“Well, I suppose I could fashion one about as wide as my arm span, but it would be heavy. Whatever do you need such a thing for?”

“I can’t tell you about it just yet, but do you think you could create that for me? Just a clear one. A globe, as big as you can manage.”

“I can do that, young sir. But it will take me a week or two—I’ve got some orders ahead of yours to work out.”

“Thank you. Oh, and can you put it on my uncle’s account? I’ve already worked out with him how I’m going to pay him back.”

“What works for you works for me,” said Mister Anderson. “I’ll send for you once it’s ready.”

“Oh, please don’t,” said Kamil. “I’ll check back.”

Energized, Kamil returned to his bedroom study and continued his planning. “Well that takes care of the first part,” he said to himself. “I wish Mister Anderson could have been a little more helpful regarding the metal part, though; I’m not sure how I’ll pull all that together to make the lightbulb work.”

“That Mister Anderson is a miscreant,” said Uncle Sigismund in his study. “There’s no way I can go to him to produce the lightbulb.” Uncle Sigismund and Mister Anderson hadn’t gotten along for some time; it wasn’t necessarily personal—it was just that Uncle Sigismund didn’t trust the glassblower to keep a secret or do a good job, two necessary components of his project. He had heard that Mister Anderson once told another man’s deepest darkest secret—that the man had killed his neighbor’s dog—and the poor man could never live it down. Although Uncle Sigismund didn’t care for dogs, he had no reason to believe that Mister Anderson would be any more discretionary with secrets regarding giant lightbulbs.

Uncle Sigismund decided to order the glass globe for his lightbulb from a glassblower in London. He’d install his own filament and solder on the metal pieces after it arrived. At first he was unsure about ordering from Europe; the shipment took quite some time and in some cases it never arrived at all. Orders frequently got lost on the way to Europe, and shipments frequently got lost on the way to America. Uncle Sigismund wondered how many parcels and purchase orders were to be found on the floor of the Atlantic.

It wasn’t long before Kamil’s bulb was ready. It was a delightful surprise; he had been visiting the Mister Anderson every day since the first week after he had placed the order, and after another week he’d stopped expecting good news when he went.

“Some of my best work,” said Mister Anderson. It was truly beautiful, thought Kamil. And enormous: It was about five feet in diameter. To get it home, Kamil borrowed a thick blanket and a wheelbarrow from Mister Anderson, which he wheeled nonchalantly the hundred yards to his house. Not wanting his mother or Uncle Sigismund to see what he was up to, he hid the glass globe in a pile of hay behind Uncle Sigismund’s toolshed study, covering it as best he could.

Uncle Sigismund found himself at a standstill, so he got up to take a walk around the yard like he usually did when he was facing a mental impasse. Tonight, though, he wasn’t stumped so much as physically unable to advance in his plan—he was still waiting for his bulb to arrive from Europe. I think it should have been here by now, he thought.

He basked into the moonlight for a few moments before turning, as he usually did, to tour the backyard. His path eventually brought him behind the toolshed where days earlier Kamil had hidden the giant lightbulb, which Uncle Sigismund noticed almost immediately. Though Kamil had tried valiantly to hide the lightbulb, he was only a child, and the lightbulb was rather enormous. Moreover, Uncle Sigismund was familiar with the haystack that went untouched his entire tenure at his Sofia’s house, so of course he noticed when it seemed to have quadrupled in size.

“Well this is strange,” said Uncle Sigismund aloud. “Why have they delivered my bulb to this haystack? Those couriers really are good for nothing, aren’t they? Wouldn’t it have made much more sense to deliver it to the front of the house, rather than the back?”

He didn’t dwell much further on the curiosity that probably should have concerned him much more deeply, perhaps because he was so eager to go ahead with his development of the lightbulb. He rolled it carefully into his study and got to work immediately. Before the night had ended, he’d fixed the filament and metal encasement to the globe, completing the incandescent bulb.

“I am a genius!” shouted Kamil when he discovered that he had, in his sleep, rolled the glass bulb into Uncle Sigismund’s toolshed and fixed the metal part to the glass bulb, but not before looping in the filament. “I wonder what a filament is, anyway. It looks like it could be a horse’s hair, or maybe a stretched out worm.” Luckily for Kamil, though, it didn’t matter. Now all he had to do was connect the lightbulb to the battery pack he’d purchased from Gertrude’s storehouse, and he would forever change the way the world worked.

The Sun was beginning to set, and Kamil was lucky: Uncle Sigismund was not spending the night in his study; instead, he’d gone to sleep early in his bedroom. Excited, Kamil wrapped the enormous lightbulb in the blanket in which he’d transported it from Mister Anderson’s, and he rolled it across the yard and into the street, where it could best be spectated. He pulled from his rucksack his battery pack, and wired everything together with such dexterity that somebody not watching carefully might have sworn it came pre-connected.

Upon connecting the final two wires, though, the bulb didn’t illuminate. “Blast,” said Kamil, looking up to the Sun, which had reached the horizon and was no longer visible in its entirety. “There’s no time for this. Come now, what can have gone wrong?” There were a million variables, of course, and a million uncertainties. Kamil had never built a lightbulb, much less in his sleep, and he wasn’t sure where to begin troubleshooting. By this time a small crowd was beginning to accumulate around him—nobody speaking to him, but everybody whispering to each other. Kamil interpreted their interest as malice, and he began to sweat, his fingers fumbling.

“Aha!” said Kamil. “I’ve confused the positive module with the negative terminal with the positive. This should do it.” He may as well have pronounced that there be light, for as he finished his sentence, the bulb illuminated. It shined as brightly as the Sun at midday, just as Kamil had hoped it might, but he wasn’t quite satisfied just yet.

He looked again to the western horizon, begging for the Sun to reverse its descent, but he had no such luck. “I must have gotten here too late,” he said. “Maybe the Sun is too far away now to be attracted. I’ll—I guess I’ll have to try this again tomorrow. But what if Uncle Sigismund finds me out?”

Kamil hadn’t noticed the crowd that had gathered around him. It seemed to be nearly everyone in the town, all eager to see what that glowing orb in the middle of the street. And when Kamil heard the voice of the one person he didn’t want to see him, he froze. “Boy!” the voice said. “What are you doing?” Kamil was at a loss for words—the image of Uncle Sigismund in his nightgown pushing through the rest of the townspeople to get at him was intimidating.

“Ah,” said Kamil. “I—this. I built this lightbulb.”

“Surely you did,” said Uncle Sigismund. “If by ‘built,’ you mean to say that you stole it from my study. You, good sir, are in a whole mess of trouble. Not only did you go where you were forbidden to enter, but you stole my property and attempted to pass it off as your own, didn’t you? You should only be glad that you didn’t spoil all my labor by breaking the globe!”

“But the boy’s telling the truth!” shouted Mister Anderson from somewhere in the crowd—his voice was distinctive—as he pushed to the forefront. “Not a month ago he commissioned this glasswork from me. It’s my largest and finest work; I’d recognize it anywhere.”

The people murmured to themselves, believing Mister Anderson over Uncle Sigismund. Mister Anderson was, after all, known for telling the truth, while Uncle Sigismund was not only known for being a nuisance but also for being out of his tree.

“You’ll really believe this boy and this gossip,” said Uncle Sigismund in disbelief, “when it’s obvious that I am the inventor here, and neither of these two is?” His words were underscored with such scathe that a few onlookers were sure he was fighting back tears.

“Well—”

“I—”

“But—”

As the town was bickering, their faces aglow by the largest lightbulb any of them had ever seen, nobody seemed to remember what they were arguing over—the whole purpose for building the Earthsun and then the giant lightbulb. The Sun had long since set—evidently the lightbulb did nothing to stop it from doing so—but even in its absence, the town was illuminated completely.

It was the first streetlight.

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