The Experiment

1752
Outside Philadelphia, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

His father’s familiar booming voice beside him: “Not afraid of a little lightning, are you, Billy?”

As a matter of fact he is. Afraid, that is. Even though in his short score of years he’s seen piles of corpses scalped, seeing one horror doesn’t mean you can withstand others; often the opposite is true. He’s seen men on the streets of Philadelphia who’ve been struck by lightning and they are not as they were before. He’s — if not terrified — then at least gravely concerned. But he would never tell his father this. He, William Franklin, was a captain in the King’s Army after all. He’s parlayed with the Miami on the western frontier. Endured the taunts of “Bastard!” for as long as he can remember. “No” is the reply. As it had to be.

His father Ben isn’t listening; he’s busy talking to himself, either to check his thinking or to talk himself out of the experiment. “Electrified clouds…they pass over high trees and lofty towers…they draw the electrical fire and the whole cloud discharges…ergo the kite should also draw their fire.” William waits while Ben ruminates; he’s used to this. It happens often. Bored, he fingers the silver tip of the kite he holds in his hands, gently, gently, out of fear of breaking it. They’d spent the morning putting it together with glue and twine and two cedar sticks and a silk handkerchief. It would not do to break it now. Not as the clouds gather.

Ben finally nods in agreement with himself, satisfied with his own thinking. He does one final check to make sure the Leyden jar is securely connected to the kite by the hemp string. It is. It’s an older jar, made of 11 panes of glass with thin lead plates glued on each side, but it works. “The Electrical Battery,” Ben calls it, as though it were a group of cannon and not a container for electrical fire. It does have one thing in common with cannons, however, in that it’s surprisingly heavy from all the glass and lead; William knows this intimately since he’s the one who carried it several miles from the workshop to here in the field. Ben’s explained to him how it works several times but it never makes an impression. He’s 21, so if it’s not horses or pretty ladies or adventures he’s less inclined to be interested.

It’s time. “Off with you then,” Ben says with a wave of his fingers, although it’s unclear if he’s addressing William or the kite. There was never any doubt it would be William, not Ben, flying the kite in the storm. It was assumed. But he’s not resentful. This is just how it is as the son of an important man. He’s scared and excited in both measures. The mixture feels like combat.

William steps out from the safety of the small red shed and onto the edge of a grassy field. Already heavy raindrops fall, intermittently, each one as big as a coin. His white linen shirt, loose across his barrel chest, quickly becomes spotted wet. The air, already June humid, now it is positively like breathing steam. Breath in brings the smell of lightning, and, if this experiment holds true, of electricity. Imagine: electricity has a scent.

A rumble far above. He looks back with some envy at his father inside the shed, dry and safe. Ben holds the kite string near the end, which connects the Leyden jar on the ground with the kite in William’s hands. The kite is large, with a tip of silver tied onto the top. A fishing pole for lightning. The kite’s hemp string is waxed and while Ben has assured William he’s in no danger, he’s been told this before and still been knocked out of his senses by touching an electrified wire. His heart thumps to match the thunder even before he starts running to get the kite aloft.

He’s tall, duck-your-head going through doorways tall, taller even than his father who is taller than most men. He’s mostly torso, though, but still he makes great strides across the long grass. The kite at first drags and does not want to fly. It fights the wind, flapping erratically behind him like a crazed chicken. As he gets deeper into the field and further away from the shed and his father, the kite starts to rise. The handkerchief on its wood frame catches the breeze and expands, pulling the contraption up into the air. The waxed string makes the kite hard to hold. William feeds out the string watching it sway upwards as he keeps running, boots squishing in the mud. He wants to wipe his wet face with a hand but is too afraid of letting the kite slip away, too afraid of Ben’s admonishment should that happen.

Up, up it goes. It flies on its own now, so he stops on the other side of the field, the string taut, one end in the air, the other stretching all the way back to Ben. William tugs on the string to walk the kite back closer to the shed. He doesn’t care to drift too far away, especially should something go awry.

A flicker in the clouds but no bolt, just a flash high above. He can faintly hear the church bells ringing a mile or so away in Philadelphia now, warning of the storm to come. The tolling is supposed to keep the lightning from striking the steeples but Ben thinks that’s nonsense. And because Ben thinks it’s nonsense, so does William. Their longstanding adversaries the Penns would disagree, but his father is seldom wrong. This is something William has learned in his years at his feet.

William would, however, prefer not to be struck by lightning so he starts wandering back towards the shed, light brown hair now dark with wet. Ben isn’t looking at him, only at the kite and at the sky. Oh and at the key. There’s a large metal key tied to the kite string with a ribbon dangling near Ben. Another crackle in the sky. William jumps at the sound but Ben, lost in keen observation, doesn’t seem to notice. But then Ben isn’t holding onto a kite with a metal rod atop of it in a thunder storm.

The rain is firmer now, making it harder to see Ben stepping out of the safety and shelter of the shed. William, surprised, starts walking faster back towards him, each step harder as the mud grows thicker. He almost loses a boot in one particularly deep hole. But he doesn’t waver in his duty; he keeps his grip tight on the kite as it bucks in the wind, even as it starts to sag, the rain dampening its handkerchief sail.

Ben, now getting rained on as well, reaches up as though to touch the sky. But it is towards the key he reaches. Near, his hand pauses and jerks back as though he’d touched one of his Franklin stoves. He lets out a whoop. “Billy! Billy!” he says, waving William in. He needs an audience now.

William goes full gallop, pulling the kite behind him as it staggers to stay aloft. He reels it in as he runs until it tumbles at last to the ground, the metal point sticking into the mud like a thrown knife. Lightning now: a real bolt, the clap of thunder atop the flash. William yanks the kite from the ground and then he’s racing towards the shed. Then he’s under the overhang: panting, dripping, relieved. He’s soaked through, shirt and breeches stuck to him like another layer of skin. Rainwater falls off him drop by drop.

Ben, laughing, pontificates over the roar of the downpour. “It worked! As I reached towards the key, the electrical fluid moved from the key to my ring.” He taps the silver ring on his finger for emphasis. “There is electric fire in the sky! I’ve proved it.” Seeing William’s puzzled face: “The kite did not need to be struck by a bolt! The electric fluid is…” He pauses for drama, “In the very air! The silver tip drew the electric fire from the thunder clouds. There were loose filaments of twine standing out every which way as hair will oft do in the presence of electrification. The kite caught the fire right out of the air. Imagine what this means. Ship masts! Think of the church steeples alone!”

William can already see Ben’s thoughts moving outward: to whom he should tell the news, to how this can be applied. He has long ago realized his father is not his alone; no, Ben Franklin, printer, belongs to the colony of Pennsylvania — if not to the whole world. He’s next to William, but no longer close by. He is in the air like the electrical fire.

Outside, the weather does not care that they have learned one of its secrets; it rages on, its thunderous booms shaking windows and its flashes making the world glow for but an instant. The light catches William, freezes him for a moment in the scene, then goes out, leaving him in darkness, still holding the kite.

Aspiring historical fiction novelist

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