Last Century Vignette

“It does not make any sense,” says the child to her papa.

There is a touch of finality in her small voice that belies her tender age. The little girl in the polka dot dress, just like so many others in the throng that has gathered to watch, is hypnotized by the spectacle of the ginormous steel monster making its slow, lazy ascent. It’s a zeppelin, she overheard two ladies debate. Whatever it is, it’s exciting, stupid, noisy, funny, and scary all at once. Looks a lot like a caterpillar, she decides. Will it transform into a butterfly in the air, she wonders dreamily.

“No, I suppose it does not,” the father replies, only half-present.

For a split second, he wonders who this solemn soul inhabiting her body might have belonged to in previous lives. His attention quickly snaps back to the great demonstration in the sky, however.

His daughter is both unconvinced and undecided. She chews at her lower lip, balancing on the ball of her feet, suspended between her wish to run gaily in pursuit, and hoping that pressing her back into her father’s trousers would magically make her disappear. Her neck hurts from all the gawking. She is not the tiniest person in the sea of legs, there are other children milling about. But every person is doing exactly the same. Craning their necks upward. It’s the first time she sees so many people behave so strangely. Usually everyone is busy going to and fro. Even the other children stopped their usual merrymaking.  She wants to understand how is this possible, and also, she does not want to.

She clutches her father’s hand, his fingers wrapped around her paw. His are an architect’s fingers, firm but, surprisingly, lacking callouses, used to work with pencil and ruler, although surely they are strong enough to do some heavy lifting too. Her papa lifts her up a lot and doesn’t get any callouses from doing so. This is what a free spirit’s hands look like, she learns later in her life. (The child remembers their touch and feel to this day, even years later.) It feels reassuring now, her hand wrapped in his. There is a world out there beyond the confines of her secret garden, and it is crowded with tall people, huge buildings, and big airships, and it is scary and does not make sense, but her papa stands between it and her right now.

The father knows things. He benefited from a formal education in his earlier years when it was not yet fashionable to spend time in schools, yet there is always something new to learn, especially in this day and age. Not a day goes by without the newspaper covering something unheard of. Only a few hundred years ago, people would burn others at the stake for less than what is now commonly accepted as progress. It is difficult to keep abreast of all the changes. A tad disconcerting, too, the speed at which the world is changing, with humanity equal parts the audience but also the lead actors playing out the change. It is dizzying, and gazing up at the zeppelin gaining altitude, he forces his thoughts back to solid ground. Squeezes his daughter’s hand gently. He’s doing so to reassure her, but his mind betrays the gesture.

“This is technology, my dear. Some of the brightest thinkers and best engineers of our age have worked on that airship. One day, the sky will be full of them. Just you wait,” he says. “You will probably live to see the day too.”

The father is an architect by trade – he is at the vanguard of installing change in people’s lives – yet something holds him back. It is all happening too fast. It is scary, not knowing what the world will be like a decade or two from now. Worse still, despite his education and broad horizons, he’s unsure if he will even want to be a part of it. How do you compose with that? He’s unconvinced and undecided both, trapped halfway between what was and embracing what will come.

“Tek-no-,” the daughter tries the word out on her tongue, but loses interest midway as the first sign of smoke appears on one side of the zeppelin and, soon enough, fire fans its wings. Not a butterfly, after all.


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