Many know the tale of Frankenstein, but few remember its alternate title ‘The Modern Prometheus’. Long before its penning someone else was called the ‘Prometheus of modern times’, and it was none other than the American founding father Benjamin Franklin. This tale supposes that he was the one to engage in the doctor’s dread experiments, and success came through his most famous effort with the key and the kite…
It was said that the birds ate uncommonly tender, but only by the man who had prepared them. In truth most of the preparation was performed by cooks, and they treated the turkeys the same as they would animals killed and handed to them any other way. Roasted. Salted. Anointed with thin golden gravy.
All the while they warily eyed the Leyden jars set out behind their cooking utensils as if they might explode. They looked like bottles from which the infants of molten giants might be fed, the glass lined with metal foil inside and out. There was no lightning hopping between them, but it had to be in there, invisible, for it had been brought forth to instantly end the lives of the seven birds that were to be served to the crowd of thirty that evening.
By this time Mr. Benjamin Franklin was already well-respected as a printing and publishing magnate, and currently served as the postmaster of Philadelphia alongside his joint appointee. Perhaps the job could’ve been handled by one man, but two helped avoid political squabbles, also having the effect of giving Benjamin the spare time needed to indulge his scientific fantasies, which, as the guests of his dinner party were now learning, were frighteningly close to reality.
Their invitations had said only that they should be prepared for an electrical feat, something never seen before, but not that they would be expected to chew, swallow, and digest said feat. The experiment was conducted outdoors on his property, in a clearing that already looked like lightning had razed anything taller than a chipmunk over the centuries.
They were advised to keep their distance, but not so much that they couldn’t see as Franklin himself corralled seven fat turkeys across an insulating pad upon the ground and into a blackened patch of bare earth that smelled of singed hair and pebbles from the bottom of an oft-used fire pit. On either side of them stood two large metal plates, circular and polished, connected by what was to them arcane means to the series of Leyden jars.
Some of them imagined their host, a somewhat portly fellow, bent over, chasing sparks across his property like fireflies and corralling them into jars, with no idea how he had actually tamed and stoppered the electric fire. It certainly seemed possible that the man didn’t fully understand how he had done it himself, for, while slipping the final piece into place, he leapt back with a yelp and shook his arm like he was trying to send his fingers flying.
Despite his flailing the part did fall into place and transfer an astonishing amount of electrical fluid through the air, and the turkeys, between the two great plates. There was a flash, a shower of sparks, and then a plume of gray smoke. An acrid smell hit them, no doubt generated by the smoldering orange edges of all the feathers.
None dared approach the carcasses even though pieces would be inside them within the coming hours, which Mr. Franklin had anticipated. The turkeys were quite hot, and when he handed them off to the cooks one by one he had to do so with thick gloves on. Smirking to himself the entire time he was, listening as his guests’ whispers had to rise to regular conversation to be heard over all the others.
The man had published many a work, but he knew there was no more effective distribution method than a rumor sparked by wizardry, be it earnestly of the devil or an illusory byproduct of knowledge acquisition. Soon he would be the talk of the colony; then the general public might be prepared to witness his other even more radical inventions, like his iteration of the electric bath which seemed to all but cure the back pain he was sure other men in their forties were also suffering from.
His ambitions were interrupted when he grabbed the blackened leg of the last turkey. Even through the glove he could feel that it was not hot, but there hadn’t been enough time for it to cool to that degree. Moving to remove one and test the temperature with his bare fingers, the bird suddenly erupted into flapping and gobbling that surely would’ve sent feathers flying if it had had any complete ones remaining.
“Look, it appears we now know that a bolt of lightning kills exactly six and a half turkeys,” one of his guests pointed out to the rest as the charcoal fowl ran off toward the treeline. There was much laughter, including from Franklin, but it was just to assure everyone that he was not startled by such a result. In truth it was the most startling thing he’d ever seen off the illustrated page.
He chased after it, feeling slightly buffoonish thanks to his top speed not quite rivaling the turkey’s. Long thick of waist, the man had dabbled in and out of vegetarianism several times, opining about the sadness of slaughtering precious little lambs, but the warty flaps of the turkey’s visage did nothing to end his current ‘out’ phase.
The bird, if caught, would not be fed to his guests like the others. Its anomalous reaction to the electric fire required observation and eventual dissection, whether that came in the next several minutes or at natural end of its lifespan.
The din of the dinner died away behind a wall of trees, the shade of which greatly exaggerated the darkness of the evening’s dying light. Powerful wind had come through a day prior, so many green leaves that had not yet turned in the early autumn created a blanket across the forest’s normally brown bed.
When disturbed they made a waxy sound, and that was how he tracked the fleeing flightless bird, for it had already gotten so far ahead that he could no longer see it. How curious that it could find so much energy, given that it should’ve been less lively than the Leyden jars. And cool to the touch. Why? Did they bear some electrical resistance? A most useless trait it would be for a bird that couldn’t take to the sky and had little chance of getting struck.
Franklin almost tripped over it in his idle pondering. The turkey had grown calm, and was now milling about, pecking at the undergrowth as if nothing had happened to it. The man bent over and gave it a pet, adjusting his spectacles. Both hand and eye made gruesome observations. Featherless but for flakes of charcoal, its skin was also extremely oily as if all the fat had cooked out through its pores in an instant.
Yet its body had not heat at all, as inert as the bark of the nearest tree. No heartbeat in its breast. Its eyes did not blink; they had turned hard and foggy like clouded glass. Behind that fog were streaks of blood, like someone freshly dead swiftly frozen under the surface of a pond.
Thinned to a skeleton by lost plumage and fat, black as a skunk that stumbled into tar, and without several twitches necessary to life, Franklin reached the only viable conclusion. The bird was in fact dead, but the mystery remained. It still moved. It still breathed. Something like a mind still told it to flee and forage.
Initially his thoughts were fueled solely by curiosity. If a dead turkey were to be truly reanimated, would the animating force be acting on memory or would it simply be that an animated turkey had to act in a turkey-like fashion? He imagined trying to communicate by speaking through a whistle, to then only produce a whistle sound instead of words.
So had the spirit of the animal been restored or reactivated, or had a new one been kindled in the hollowed out shell, like a hermit crab? If the latter, from whence did the fresh spirit come? That thought brought forth images of underworlds in various mythologies, of demon and ghost struggling to free themselves from the suffocating peat and then patiently waiting, floating in schools like fish, around living things, ready to strike the moment an owner stepped out of their mortality.
As if he’d been struck himself, with a shock worse than any delivered by his experiments, Franklin saw the creature’s face in a new light. In its unblinking, bloody, hardened eye there was life without life. A creature that did not know god. A slinking thing in the creator’s blind spot, never blessed, never monitored.
It was an evil thing, and in an eventuality his ravenous intellect couldn’t help but conjure, the replacement for all things good. He sensed that with its death the animal had ceased aging, as there was no purpose for such a process in expired flesh. If so immortal such creatures could outlast and destroy any civilization, and declare morality dead, for no resurrected thing could suffer under cruelty again.
A whole dead Earth, drifting quietly with the other planets in a silent darkness, with no whole mind to lament the loss of warmth or the rhythm of the heart. All he had wanted to do was cook a scrumptious turkey dinner.
Franklin lashed out, wringing the bird’s neck to finish what he had started. The animal did not accept the other half of death; it fought more aggressively than any man headed to the gallows. Perhaps life was more precious the less of it a thing had. Rather than elaborate on its reasons, the turkey pecked and scratched at his arms, drawing blood immediately and forcing the postmaster to release it.
At no point in the struggle had it flushed with heat or exertion. It was a bottomless well of cold vitality, an icicle broken free and falling into an endless chasm. In seconds it was gone, deep into the forest, leaving him with nothing but streaks of black oil and blood to show for his efforts. Franklin spared his clothes by rubbing the filth off on the fresh fallen leaves around him.
It was a great mental labor to squirrel away the events, to focus on the rest of his evening instead, but he managed to do so thanks to the other birds that had obeyed his good and decent hypothesis. Once the chefs had done their work everything was as it should have been, golden brown, hot, and luscious to the palate.
Each person’s first bite made them nervous, but when it didn’t deliver a shock they were able to tuck in with gusto. Franklin himself undid more than a month of his past vegetarianism that evening, and wrote up a glowing review of his own process to be distributed as soon as possible.
All the colonies would know of his fantastic new method for dispatch and preparation, but only lost and frightened souls would ever find out what had shaken loose from the technique, only when they wandered the woods alone at night and saw a flash of black between the trees.
Storing his reactions away in the immediate aftermath of the turkey incident had been a mistake, for they quickly festered. Their rot grew deep into his mind, leaving his waking life intact, and unaffected for a time, but saturating his dreams most nights. It used to be that ideas would come to him in his nightly visions, sometimes as clear as inked designs, but there was no room for anything new anymore.
Franklin was an inventor, and he had invented something that day, something he could not and would not take credit for, but which planted shadows on every corner and overhang of his body of work. How could he call himself a man of science if he did not follow every thread that his efforts produced? There was a strand of yarn, twisted equally of red and black, at his feet, disappearing into the frightful woods where ghost stories where born, and he dared not follow it, dared not illuminate them and painfully expand man’s understanding of the natural world.
Until he could bear it no longer. An understanding of electricity would never be fully achieved without that dark knowledge, and, unfortunately, the perfect design had come to him, inked in a dream.
A resurrected turkey could only offer its behavior as insight. In order to truly gauge what could happen, a man would have to dictate it in his own words. He would not settle for intelligent thoughts turned into naught but a whistle. Benjamin Franklin, the first man to give birth to life, achieved in the womb of death, brought about by scientific labor in a forge of electric fire.
A son of his intellect. An invention that transcended the very idea. Even if such a creature were to outlast all the rest it would bear his father’s wisdom, and so it would not be a lightless world, no matter what his dread told him. He needed an empty vessel to fill.
But he was getting ahead of himself. First the instrument had to be redesigned and rebuilt, this time with a new intention. The Leyden jar had come about before his own work, and was in use the world over, so he doubted its presence, even in the number used, had anything to do with the anomalous effect. Someone other than himself would have come forward with a reanimated elephant, crocodile, or yak if it had.
That left three possibilities in his mind as to the crucial element. It could have been the bird itself, born with some trait through deformity or variation that made it unlike its siblings, prone to revitalization. It could have been the character of the electric fire, somehow different from currents produced by other means or elsewhere in the world.
There was little he could do to replicate the first variable, and regarding the second many of the parameters of the experiment, including location and the use of Leyden jars, would already be identical.
Only one was well within his control, and that was the instrument he’d used to pass the current through the turkeys: the metal plates. Their construction had seemed simple enough, mostly just an enlarging of a smaller implement, but he put his faith in them being crucial. The only change that was made was to enlarge them further to accommodate the greater fire he sought to direct.
While they were being machined there were plenty of other aspects to tinker with. What gave him the most trouble was the means by which he would harness sufficient energies. The Leyden jars’ effect could be made cumulative, but only to a certain point before inconsistencies in their construction or minor damage caused them to lose charge to the air like a leak in a washtub. Electric fire was needed in a truly incredible amount, and it needed to be delivered instantaneously and efficiently.
Once again nature proved itself the superior inventor, as she had freed the first lightning bolt from its mold long before the first man. Indeed those molds could still be found right where they were cast aside, not deep into the ground of his own property. They came in the form of tubes of natural glass where the minerals of the Earth had been fused by the raw power of each strike.
But how to lure this great power out of the sky and into his hands? And how to do it without blundering into a shock the way he occasionally did with the jars? A path to guide it perhaps, a material most conductive that would direct it into the jars and the rudimentary battery he had recently perfected through clever layering of glass panels and lead.
An undead bird would have been a perfect for his needs, but not the one he already invented. The power of flight had still be with it so he could deliver orders, tell it to chase after each flash and rumble in the sky like a hunting dog after a downed grouse. He considered making another, but even if an eagle or falcon were used the process would strip it of its flight feathers and he would only succeed in reinventing the grounded fowl that had already escaped him.
A kite then. That meant, if any intelligent chasing or directing were to be done, he would have to do it himself, putting his body in harm’s way. A boy could’ve been hired to take the risk of being cooked uncommonly tender, but Mr. Franklin dared not involve anyone else in his secret endeavor to play outside the bounds of god.
Anyone but the former person he would be restoring, or reinventing, of course. For that purpose he acquired a cadaver through proper channels with an improper story of doing anatomical research. The medical college did not know of him as a man of medicine, but being both well-respected and wealthy seemed to make up for any confusion.
It, formerly a he, came with no name. A boy with short dusty hair. Pinprick scars on his hands that suggested their smallness had been employed in detailed needle work of some kind. His mouth was naturally curved into a smile, suggesting he was perfectly satisfied with death and that Mr. Franklin would, even if this wasn’t to be a terrible blasphemy, still be rather rude in knocking on his afterlife’s door.
But hopefully he would understand when he learned that Mr. Franklin had the key, and it was against his own natural tendencies to not fit it into an obvious lock and test the way it turned. There was an actual key as well that would join the experiment, a chunk of black iron for a door that no longer existed, fitted to the kite to help it catch the lightning and pass it through the rain-soaked twine.
Everything was in place, and all he had to do was wait for an appropriate set of storm clouds, yet that was the most difficult phase. In his dreams he was still being gnawed at by all the notions in play. A new type of man. Franklin’s man. A man who could make the ultimate sacrifice, die on the battlefield for a righteous cause, and then return to see the results.
This could be the rise of the American man, a rousing from the grave rather than the local tavern. No longer would they have to rely on the ideas of distant injustice to stir sympathy in the public heart. Time could take its course, the injustice could be enacted upon them directly, and then, with all the proof needed, the victims could return to exact their vengeance.
A storm, perhaps summoned by his grand visions, formed overnight, daring him to test their viability. Gray clouds made the dawn as dusk, and the man Franklin steeled his nerves as much as he could as he wound kite string around forearm.
“I am prepared for you,” he told the body of the boy, laid out on the prepared patch of bare soil, atop a conducting bedding of silk strips as if a mummy had sloughed off its vestments, “but are you prepared for me?”
Rain came, tinkling off the jars musically, percussive thunder adding to it, growing closer and more aggressive by the moment. Mr. Franklin made sure his feet were planted firmly on his grounding plate, and then fed the kite to the next strong wind that came. His line was dragged deep into the sky, dangling key barely visible.
The rain took away those last vestiges of visibility as it smashed into his spectacles. Useless now, he tossed them aside, squinting against the power of the grumbling sky. Already his arms ached as he fought to keep the wind from ripping his tools away. Where was that strike? The bait could not be more tempting, lest he figure out how to fly something meatier for it to chew, such as an anvil. One dark miracle at a time.
Even without the sight of the blue-white fire he would’ve felt it. A bolt bit, traveling through everything in an instant, including Mr. Franklin. His skin was so wet that his hairs couldn’t escape the droplets to stand on end, but they did dance about inside them like girls with ribbons. For a moment he couldn’t feel his feet, or his teeth and tongue, but everything else floated, suspended not like that first jump into a lake but like the bounce, the involuntary hop, most living things were guilty of in the proximity of a large explosion.
Through sky, key, twine, natural philosopher, Leyden jars, glass, lead, plate, and the new man of America. The transfer was a success; that was what the man felt before looking back to see. First the kite had to be reeled in and secured to minimize the risk of further aggression from the storm.
In that time his experiment could’ve fled like the turkey, or strangled him from behind, but he heard no indication of those things. Only when he turned and skirted around the plates, careful to stay on the insulation he had laid down, did he see the reason why. There was no new man, only the same old cadaver, drenched in failure.
The storm passed. Benjamin kept the body for several days more, exploring and observing. His instruments found that it retained no electrical charge, even though evidence of a massive transference was everywhere in the form of scorch marks. When decay set in and the smell began to risk discovery from the other members of his household, he was forced to give the boy a proper burial. Each shovel strike felt like a cruel jab at his failing, for many of them rewarded him with pieces of glass from old strikes across the ages, each a more successful creation than his own.
In this failure he found the most unpleasant possibility that it might’ve been the turkey after all. All the world of creatures to choose from, and the creator had gifted only the fattest and funniest thing to ever waddle the grounds the ability to ignore the grave and go about its worm-collecting.
If so then the turkey would have to be, begrudgingly, made the truest symbol of the American colonies. Despite the bird’s blustering and foolish reputation, this was not an ability to be taken lightly.
Yet his dreams stayed with ideas of men, pushing him to reject the obvious results and search deeper. One possibility that struck, just like lightning, in the middle of the night and forced him out of bed in a spasm of frightened inspiration, took the notion of the turkey as an American symbol to heart. What if the key were not the animal itself, but the animal’s nature? It was a native. Turkeys had lived there, eaten those worms that had slithered around those tubes of lightning glass, for countless generations.
That turkey belonged to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That lightning belonged to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They were of a kind; they conducted each other. Perhaps there was an aspect to the electrical fire he could not yet measure, a kinship, a property that could only be conducted between elements of longstanding geographical similarity.
What was a man but an accumulation of the soil under his fingernails, the strands of sinew stuck between his teeth, and the local waters that slaked his thirst? Living things were built from their surroundings, turned food into growth and water into spirit. It stood to reason that this affinity with the land was only deepened with each subsequent generation.
The boy’s remains could not conduct this affinity because he was not of the land. His roots there went only one generation back, Franklin guessed, his parents having crossed a sea to get there, transplanting themselves from a part of the world where the electric fire carried its own character. Yes, that could be it. Lightning struck in different languages, and he was babbling at nature in the wrong tongue.
After resolving to try again, Mr. Franklin had a much more difficult time securing the appropriate materials. The body he needed now couldn’t be just anyone. They had to be native, had to come from one of the many Indian tribes, the longer and more storied their history the better.
His own people would not be concerned with a Christian burial for such a person, but a native’s own kind would surely take offense to his intentions. They had their own spirituality, and while he was not well-versed in their beliefs instinct told him they were not likely to involve resurrection by storm discharge, by way of oafish man waggling a jangling kite about.
As such it took months for an opportunity to arise, and unfortunately came in the form of a violent skirmish in a disputed territory. Some locals claimed they had suffered a raid on their livestock, but the only evidence of anything was a dead Indian boy, perhaps twenty years of age, shot through the lung by a musket ball that never made it out the other side.
Franklin had been monitoring these areas of contentious cohabitation morbidly, like a vulture, waiting for just such a body to fall fresh. He was able to take custody, transporting it via horse and cart, by paying the farmer who had almost certainly shot him in the first place. He needed to be rid of the evidence it seemed, so it was in their mutual interest to remain as quiet as the boy’s pierced lung, emptied of all the words it had ever known.
Some adjustments had be made before the next storm came. He couldn’t have a nugget of metal sitting in the middle of it all, ready to catch the electrical fire and burn everything around it to ash. Removal was vital, but he could not bring in an experienced surgeon, and was again forced to fumble through himself.
Given that he’d hired professionals to carve his electrocuted fowl, he was certain he made a mess of things with the boy’s mortal wound. After several hours of struggling with knife and magnifying glass, the musket ball was successfully extracted. Franklin stitched the lung closed, and then the flesh surrounding it, wondering if he’d done more harm than the conducting ball would’ve done in the first place.
A wet June promised an even riper set of thunderheads for his next attempt. This time it was the middle of the night, lit only by a set of four lanterns surrounding the equipment and the momentary flashes from the storm itself. The setting was angrier, the rain more driving, but Franklin would trespass again no matter how poor the welcome. He needed to shake the hand of the new American man, freed as he would be from all traumas of his past, for none could fell him permanently.
Again, having left his spectacles indoors from the outset this time, Mr. Franklin fed the line of his kite into the sky, with his feet planted upon the insulating plate. The boy, who hopefully felt right at home under a sky that was his much more than it was the postmaster’s, rested in the silk as his predecessor had, everything about him obscured in the pounding rain, as if the storm was trying to wash him back to the materials from whence he came, one hammering droplet at a time.
“Strike us!” he shouted at the sky. “Let life burn in us a new! Bring forth this black lamb!” His demands were answered, but not how he wanted. The wind struck before any bolts, twisting the kite, pulling it off to one side. In the process it lifted the entire man off his feet, removed him from the safety of his insulation, and only set him down at such a great distance that his lamps were barely fireflies through the overlapping sheets of darkness and rain.
It could only have done so if the line snapped and the kite was no longer connected to the instruments. If the key was struck now he would only cause his own demise, so he struggled to fight his way back. He could’ve let go, let the vicious dog in the sky win the tug-of-war, but then years might pass before he could get another adequate specimen and another accommodating front.
He fought while he had the health to fight, for there was no telling what the next year might take from him. Eventually it would be something crucial, leaving him confined to the intellectual porch, speculating and suggesting to a world he could no longer participate in.
Again the wind picked him up, this time throwing him into his own devices. His hip struck one of the large metal plates painfully, and the boy did not reach out his hand to help pull him back. Instead Franklin dragged his legs through the mud, cursing and begging the sky back and forth, whatever it took to make the electricity wait just a moment longer.
With only half-confidence that what burned in his muscles was determination and not the electric fire itself, Franklin flipped himself over, practically choking on the kite’s line, and crawled to the end of the instrumentation where he might reattach it. Lamplight was too weak to reveal the proper spot, and the growl above was ready to transform into a howl, so he had to guess, and guess immediately.
Franklin looped the soaked twine around the first piece of metal that would take it and tied it off, making sure his knees were on the insulation. The last loop was incomplete when his cargo arrived, thrown from the upper reaches like a spear from Mount Olympus. The surge blew him away, separated him from his spirit either momentarily or for over an hour. There was no way to tell which.
He assumed it was his wife’s hand, or a servant’s, when someone woke him with a gentle touch. It was not to the arm, or over the heart, but to the side of the neck. The probing hand found a pulse and massaged it, captivated.
When Benjamin Franklin opened his eyes he was still in the grip of the dead of night, but a truer death had relinquished its hold on his experiment. The creature was perched over him, holding a lantern, straddling his ample stomach and exploring the soft warmth of his neck with its free hand.
All at once the lamplight was too much, too fiery. It blazed through the jagged paths across the creature’s hide, paths that only existed because the current that had passed through its body had blackened the entire top layer, creating a razor thin chrysalis of charcoal. Only its expression had broken through, the narrowing if its eyes, the contortions of its lips, the straining of its cheeks.
In those lines, those fractures of emotional spasm, Franklin saw expressions that were completely foreign to him. This creature did not know human happiness, not by account of those cracks. It did not know sorrow, not by those cracks. It did not know rage, not by those cracks. What it knew was curiosity and hunger simultaneously, as one, as a drive that recognized no boundaries between one spirit and another.
The flakes of charcoal had not been washed from its face, so the rain must have stopped at the time of transference. All life had gone from the storm and been gifted to the creature. The air was still, the wind bludgeoned by mortality in a way it never had been across all time.
In place of its haunted howl there was a faint rhythmic whistle through a knothole of flesh: the breath of the new man, finding a path through the butchered closing of his musket wound. It breathed. It lived. Franklin had done it, used natural philosophy as a bellows to pump the electric fire into the boy’s lungs as an alternative to the creator’s breath of life.
The creature’s hand wasn’t warm upon the elder man’s skin. It had lively pops of static, but those were dying away rapidly, and there was no body heat to replace them. When the tingling receded and he could feel his limbs again Franklin reached up, touched his creation on the neck in mutual curiosity to feel the pulse he had hammered in.
Nothing. Dead sludge had not been instantly turned to clear-running blood by the bolt. Instead electric fluid passed through the stagnant stuff to communicate with the muscles. The startled god moved his hand down to the exposed chest, finding no evidence of a heartbeat either. The only passive sign of life was the tiny jet of air escaping the stitches, whistling, louder now.
“Speak,” he coughed to his child. “Speak and put my mind at ease. Speak your gratitude. Speak your ambitions.” But all the creature could do was stare back and let its roaming hand absorb information. It found its father’s heartbeat, each and every finger suddenly possessed by the sensation.
The nails pressed into his skin. They cut bluntly like hoes in hard clay, but they cut. Blood mixed with streaks of rain. The lantern came closer, as did its ghastly crackled visage. The pressure on Mr. Franklin grew and he felt his heart was being stolen out of his chest, perhaps because it was owed.
Its eyes lacked whites, only stormy grays instead. While lips opened teeth would not. Rising intensity, pressurized focus, was the only thing the new American man could express. An unformed question ran rampant throughout its body, and its very life was the search for the answer. In its lamp-lit face Benjamin saw, like the crash of bells as they tumbled from a cathedral’s collapsing towers, that he had undone rather than done.
This thing was an abomination. Cooked uncommonly tough. The blasphemy of lightning lasting more than its natural lifespan. The dead could not come back, ghosts had no trail of breadcrumbs to follow, and what could squat in their old withered flesh was not a revolution.
“Stop! Unhand me! Flee into the forest like that foul bird why don’t you!” Franklin struggled against its pressure, but its face still came closer to his. “Stop!” Words were just sounds, nothing to this mound of barely-shaped clay that had only force to express its desires. Birth had not been a learning experience for it, but perhaps Franklin’s death could.
Their intimate struggle would not get that far however, for the storm dropped on them anew. Interruption of its natural course had only paused the deluge, created a temporary eye, and now that the commotion had died down nature flooded back in.
Thunder and rain drew the creature’s attention, its pressure relenting. Franklin slipped out from under it, panting and crying, and as soon as he was on his feet he was running for his life, something he knew his creation could not match because it did not have an entire life to run with. Not once did he turn back to see if it pursued, to see if the lamp’s light bobbed up and down after him like a Hellish watchman after a fugitive.
Eventually he collapsed indoors, with a proper concerned candle bobbing toward him instead. Vital sleep, authoritatively gifted by a deity that knew and pitied his missteps, took him from the Earth, and did not return him for more than a day.
Many times the man wished he could disregard the experiences of that night as a dream, one of many filled with great and terrible visions of the power of discovery. Alas, that simply could not be done after he returned to the field days later and found his equipment right where he left it.
Like with the turkey before, there was never any sign that anyone had so much as seen the shadow of his creations skulking about, and it was his hope that the effects of his experimentation simply wore off after several hours, resulting in a body face down in the woods, rotting like everything else, leaving behind bones that weren’t even slightly suspect.
That night wasn’t a complete debacle, for he found that a sort of life had been instilled in another piece of the experiment, completely by accident. In the blackened blister that had been the kite, under it and a few layers of mud, he found the heavy iron key used to draw the lightning out of the sky.
It sparked at his touch and tingled in his grip, two traits that it never lost no matter how many times it was handled. Franklin theorized that the key had become the midpoint, the exact middle between the new life in the creature and the instantaneous life of the lightning flash. As such it responded to any living touch by drawing electrical charge out of the air, and even by directing it in accordance with the holder’s will.
He found that the key could open any lock, as long as all its elements were metal. Placing it fully inside the mechanism was unnecessary, and so too was direct contact; it needed only to be brought very close. Then a blue spark would jump between key and lock. Doors and chests flew open.
One embarrassing incident involving a chastity device, just as experimental and depraved as anything Mr. Franklin had tinkered with, saw a heavy bolt drop out from under a woman’s gown when the postmaster accidentally bumped into her at a function. While most mortifying for her, the responsible party managed to escape unscathed.
Despite that close call he kept the item with him always for its many uses, referring to it, only in his own mind, as ‘the key to life’. Keeping such an invention to himself was an incredible difficulty, but one that had be endured, as he could not bear any scrutiny that might lead back to the bodies he had pilfered and wound up like clocks, letting them run out what little time he’d given them.
Elsewhere in his life he’d never been able to suppress so much as an opinion, frequently writing under a pseudonym, pretending to be a housewife or the salt of the Earth in order to make himself heard. Always he was sure he needed to be heard, and the content of his messages would transcend any realities of his identity. He was the new American man, since the more literal version of the idea had proved nonviable.
Temptation was assuaged by reporting on his experiment sans resurrection, as merely a means of harvesting electric fluid. For that he was widely celebrated, and was even called the ‘Prometheus of modern times’ by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Part of the postmaster thought hearing that alone was worth the trauma of that night.
A full twelve years passed, with no consequences beyond the boons of the key. Naturally Mr. Franklin had assumed himself forgiven by the forces that be, as he lived anything but a cursed existence.
Yes, he still aged, and he thought perhaps he felt it a touch more than others, but that easily could have been the drawing of lots and nothing more. While his eyes weakened and his weight fluctuated, still trending upward, his prominence as a statesman only increased.
He found himself called into action as such during a series of struggles that would one day be called Pontiac’s Rebellion. Within it there was much strife between the native Indians and the British army, and many stories of atrocities on both sides, but cruelty was no doubt the weapon of choice of the Paxton boys.
Spurred by nothing more than rumors swirling in the pot of the larger conflict, a mob of men from the village of Paxton set their sights on the Indians living among them. It did not matter to them that many such people were god-fearing Christians, only that they had the look of the Susquehannocks.
Those that escaped their murderous chomping didn’t get to live much longer, ripped as they were from protective custody by the Paxtonians who then, still not sated, marched on Philadelphia to declare their grievances and burn out any more Indians that had taken shelter there.
It was Benjamin Franklin who was set to rout them, after raising a militia. Calculated posturing of civilian and crown forces managed to arrange a meeting point away from the city proper, in Germantown. Not a place of lecture halls or grand public squares, Mr. Franklin had a frustrating time arranging a venue that suited the tenor of his negotiations with the Paxtonians, and eventually had to settle for wherever they were in the moments where they appeared ready to burst open in violence like corn kernels.
“My friends we must have space in the air for discussion, and this conflicted shouting is naught but elbowing in a crowded room. Please! Please lend me your ears!” His words had an effect, but not one as complete as he would’ve liked.
Nothing more than the commonest of streets in the market district, it was difficult to know what group with what allegiance would come around the corner in the next moments. The statesman had much of his militia behind him, and at least some of the Paxton boys who pretended at leadership in front of him, though they paid about as much attention to him as they did the freshly plucked geese being strung up for sale.
Better to calm them before the surely intimidating throngs of domestic women shopping for their families’ suppers arrived and drove them all out into the wilderness like stray dogs. Mr. Franklin counted the bayonets and muzzles sticking out above the crowd between sentences, using their ratio per head to judge the level of hostility present. More guns than geese, whatever that meant.
“What are you doing about that war party out of Conestoga!?” a Paxtonian shouted at him before he was quite finished with his tabulation. Seconding shouts reinforced the man’s question, but Mr. Franklin had the distinct sense some of those grunting had never heard of Conestoga and could not pronounce it with a hatchet held to their neck.
“There is no such war party,” he corrected them, which immediately drew criticism that throwing up his hands could not contain. It took the presence of the much more organized armed men at his back to do that. “We are in no danger from anyone at this present time.”
“There are Indian menfolk in the city!”
“Yes there are my good sir; they are there to hide from you! What man would not do such a thing in the face of this!?” He had them looking at each other now; that was good. “Let me ask you this: If a Quaker injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Quakers?” Muttering. Muttering wasn’t shouting. He put his hand to his ear. “I can hear the answer that’s in your hearts; I don’t know why you’d hold it back.
You now ask yourselves the real question. If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Indians?”
Excellent rhetorical snare though it was, Mr. Franklin did not have even a second to bask in the calm, for in putting his hand to his ear in showmanship he had accidentally allowed himself to hear something else, something low and high at the same time. Before he could place the nature of the sound his eyes instinctively followed it, found its origin.
A face in the crowd. Less. A chin in the crowd, the rest of it covered by a ratty gray hood. Even that much of this person’s skin could have spelled doom, for it was several shades darker than that of any Paxton boy. Nor was it dark enough to belong to any of the slaves about. Benjamin was confident that he was looking at Indian skin.
Of all the places for this unfortunate person to find themselves, as no one apprised of the situation and of that shade would be foolhardy enough to wade into the middle of it. If they so much as pulled back that hood, or had it pulled back for them by a suspicious hand, the crowd would erupt into a bloodthirsty rampage.
Yet the Indian’s hands appeared, revealing yet more skin. He grasped the edges of his hood, prepared to pull it back. Suddenly Mr. Franklin felt he was being threatened, that this chin was aimed squarely at him and was much more dangerous than any of the loitering muskets.
He spoke quickly, having to cut off the lingering discussion from his pointed questions. He told them all that there would be plenty of opportunity to be heard, but that it was better done indoors and with proper decorum, and better done before the women arrived and made victims of them all.
That sentiment even earned a few laughs, and the militia was able to start escorting the Paxtonians away from the market. Mr. Franklin stepped down as quickly as he could, tunneling into the crowd, making a line for the man who could still set off an explosion with one glance. Luckily he hadn’t moved, hadn’t even taken his hands from their threatening position on his hood.
Franklin grabbed his forearm and dragged him toward an alley, surprised at how passively the fellow allowed himself to be led. Once they were safely tucked into a shadowy corner, between two walls of rough gray stone, he set in on the man.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve wandered into? Why if those vile men had seen you there w-” The sound. He forgot about the sound. It was still there, the third party in their clandestine conversation, and by far the most talkative, as he doubted it had ceased since he first noticed it.
A low whistle. Of a character that, despite being repressed, was in the end unforgettable. The man pulled down his hood. Franklin had never properly looked upon his creation, its face obscured by shadows, flaking charcoal, and its early trial expression.
What was there now was much more human in some ways. This creature was a man, and could easily be mistaken for a proper one if only at a glance. His raven hair had not grown since that fateful day, a power lost with initial death, but it had grown thicker and more solid, reinforced by a black oily tar secreted from the scalp.
Previously brown eyes were now amber-gold, lit by an internal furnace of electric fire, emitting beams like a lighthouse meant to shepherd ghost ships, while the whites were still foggy and gray, clouds borrowed from the stormy womb that birthed him.
The creature had found it necessary to make some modifications to regulate his electrical activity, or so Benjamin guessed when he saw the flat heads of roofing nails driven into the sides of his neck, all the way until they were flush with the skin. Surrounding them were areas of ritual scarification, tattoos brought forth not by tribal tradition or madness, but by an illustrative writing system unique to the individual.
Franklin couldn’t decode anything within those circles even as he followed them to the edges where they nearly touched, across the bump of the Adam’s apple. It couldn’t be called Adam’s any longer of course, as the source god was standing right there, somehow looking up at his creation rather than down.
To his horror he saw that the creature was significantly taller, a detail that had escaped him when he was an inanimate object set in a wagon, and then onto his silk wrappings, horizontally. The man shrank further under his gaze, hand instinctively pawing at his pocket, where rested the key to life. Nothing else on his person could conceivably be called a weapon.
“You had calculated words for them, but cannot spare a single one for me?” the creature asked, drawing a gasp but not the word he sought. An ethereal quality vibrated through his voice, leading Mr. Franklin to assume an endless fluid of electric fire existed between the point of the roofing nails, cooking each sentiment as its voicing passed through the throat.
“No thanks to the printer who fled from me: a master of the English language who sought to fool me into thinking there was no such things as words and script. Nay, I was taught there are only screams, and they are all that may pass between the living.”
“They pass between the living and the dead! That is why! I saw in your eyes the absence of the creator, and you proved it by trying to claw the beating heart from my very bosom!”
“If there was absence it was your own,” the creature answered him in anger, his teeth vibrating with the flux of the emotion. “You left me to learn the world by the fires of pain and fear. Between their lights I scurried through the darkness, not knowing there was a perfect distance where they warmed instead of burned.”
“It was my hope that your life did not last! Oh both we would have been blessed if you’d fallen somewhere in the shade after but a brief stroll upon this Earth. You were to be naught but lightning with legs: paltry extra steps before the substance grew weary and returned to the boundless sky!”
“I recognize these as edits, but you cannot change the author’s intent. You speak now in regret, not correction.”
“Then close your eyes, if they be innocent, and let me act in correction!” Benjamin withdrew the key from his pocket and struck out with it, hoping mostly to create an opening to slip through; he should’ve recalled the key’s incredible talent in creating such openings. A spark, mightier than any it had produced previously, leapt between it and one of the nails in the creature’s neck.
The effect, like the popping sound it produced, was immediate. His creation recoiled, grabbing at the area as if choking, storm clouds overtaking the gold in his eyes. Franklin took advantage of his stunned state by fleeing out into the open, where many housewives had indeed arrived to do their shopping.
Running would have drawn their attention, so he slowed to a jaunty trot, not sure how he even found the false smiles to flash at their curious faces. Everything was fine, as long as the creature understood what would be in its own best interest. It couldn’t pursue him in public without a mob collapsing on it. What luck there was one already stoked in the vicinity! Now the Paxton boys felt made to order: a wardrobe he’d forgotten about commissioning months prior.
If they were so eager to visit violence that day they could do it in a new and useful capacity as- Franklin glanced over his shoulder and saw that the creature had largely recovered and was now following, hood back over his face, one hand held to his neck. There was pain, obvious in his gritted teeth, and from the excited state of the electrical fields all around the market.
As the hooded figure passed a line of strung up geese their bodies began to twitch and dance like landed trout. Together their efforts destabilized the support posts, and the whole thing came down on the poor woman manning it. In moments the scene was the center of attention, one set of flapping waterfowl feet dragging the others behind it with incredible power.
The crowd closed around it, some of them gasping at the poor technique in dispatching animals that were clearly still alive, all while the true culprit slipped between their shoulders and picked up speed in his pursuit of Mr. Franklin.
He didn’t care, that much was now apparent. Not about death, for he’d visited it before, not about reputation, because the truth was still hidden, and not about poor Mr. Franklin’s early symptoms of gout that made it quite painful to run. The Paxton boys wouldn’t work as a threat, nor would his own militia, and he could lose everything if his dark work was revealed to the general public.
So the inventor called up the quality and invented himself a new course of action. At the first crossroads he turned in a new and hopefully unexpected direction in search of one thing and one thing only: locks. The key to life was still firmly in his grip, and with it he could go all sorts of places where he was never allowed.
There, the first one. Beautifully rusty and pitted. The pathetic decrepit thing would be an excellent test case. Franklin was at the door it was attached to before he could even deduce what sort of building it was. Jabbing the key at the lock, part of it exploded into red dust and allowed him passage.
Once inside he saw it was little more than storage for farm equipment hibernating until its appointed season, but none of it was small enough to bar the door that now couldn’t be locked, so he had to continue at full speed, straight through, until he found another exit.
His creation threw the first door open behind him, perhaps intentionally making a ruckus to terrorize him and make him stumble. Franklin tried to keep his head, despite this being the first situation in a long while where he couldn’t take a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow with a kerchief.
All that mattered was the next lock. Each one was a portal to potential escape. There, just past those uneven cobblestones. It was surely a private residence, but they would understand, had to understand. He thrust with his key, and this much newer bolt, even from the other side, shot open.
Franklin barged his way in, twisting to close and lock the door once more even as a man and woman having their midday meal gasped at his presence. Before the man could stand the stout printer, showing incredible speed for a man his shape, age, and size, was already through most of their home, fumbling with another door.
“You’re trespassing!” he managed to shout at the intruder.
“Aren’t we all!” Franklin wheezed as he passed out of their lives and back into the open. Now a whole cluster of buildings stretched before him, the perfect maze where only everyone else suffered dead ends.
Most of the people who witnessed his breaking and entering and exiting couldn’t find anything to say to him. He looked important, and if whatever business was afoot had such a well-dressed man running about like that it was probably advisable they not make it their own. In this way he was able to make a jagged path through several more shops and residences without slowing down.
Yet the creature tailed him doggedly, hood appearing out windows, booted feet gliding across paths with all the weight of a ghost. Every clever turn turned out to be foolish, every lock barely a hindrance. The key could only do so much, and Mr. Franklin’s body was making it apparent that it could not do the rest for much longer.
At last, deep into the labyrinth of Germantown, the heavens opened to him in the form of the biggest building in the cluster. An auction house perhaps? Once through the initial lock he couldn’t take the time to examine closely, but it only took one look to see his salvation: a great iron safe.
The object was more than large enough to hold a man, and clearly too heavy for something the creature’s size to carry, even if granted the strength of a lightning bolt. Its lock was no better than a door’s in the face of the key to life, so Franklin forced it to divulge its secrets. Inside there were ingots of gold and silver as well as several documents, but it wasn’t so full that he couldn’t squeeze inside.
Once he crawled in he shut the door behind him, twisting the key to life until he heard the mechanisms close. Only then did he stop to breathe, realizing he’d entered in a horrifically uncomfortable position, scrunched up with his head near the floor and one foot pressed against the door. By the time the creature reached him his joints were already screaming to be released.
“Be gone! I have evaded you!” he shouted at his pursuer, sensing him on the other side even though he hadn’t spoken.
“Are you not curious?” The question came through perfectly despite the thick wall of black polished iron between them. “My story is one worth writing. I will write it, but first we must determine its conclusion.”
“How did you become so erudite?” Franklin asked, relenting. He was safe now, and only conversation could distract him from the pain of being packed in tighter than a musket ball.
“You taught me,” the creature explained. “Not willingly. One of my first lessons was that the kingdom of man could not look upon me with kindness. Only the animals did so. I followed in the footsteps of the fox, learning to slink and hide, and also how to get what I wanted from your kingdom without ever being seen.
Instead of eggs out of the hen house I took knowledge, and from every place it could be found. Across a thousand days I was within earshot of the conversations in your household, but never in sight. Slowly the words came to me, associated with actions and sometimes, in a mighty confusing fashion, multiple emotions.
One would assume becoming literate would be much more difficult, but for me it was far the easier. Everything I heard was in the course of spying. It never had a record; I could not pore over it sitting in the shade on a lazy afternoon. Always I was on the tips of my toes, trying to learn at the speed of man while I skulked at the fox’s pace.
The written word was the opposite. Whatever I managed to take I was allowed to keep, and with your robust work in articles, journals, periodicals… there was much to take. You never even missed the copies that became mine, a testament to one of many privileges you abuse.”
“Did you… Did you learn from my work?”
“Yours? Benjamin Franklin’s? Not so much as I did the works of Silence Dogood and Richard Saunders.”
Suddenly Franklin felt like three people stuffed into a safe and sealed up tight as a tomb. The creature was no fool, that much was clear now, so those names were intended as a barb when thrown. Pen names both, one pen in each of Franklin’s hands.
Silence Dogood was a widow, an upstanding woman with a lot to say about the state of colonial society. Except she wasn’t. She was in reality an adolescent Benjamin Franklin, whose many submissions to his elder brother’s publication were all denied. Not so the polite yet clever letters slipped under the door by dear Ms. Dogood, who received several offers of marriage upon the publication of her letters.
Richard Saunders was none other than the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack. He was a polymath, an astrologer, a biter of only what he could chew. His practical tips regarding crops and weather enriched the lives of thousands, in addition to entertaining them with the occasional aphorism or mathematical quandary. Except he wasn’t. There was only Benjamin Franklin, somehow unhappy signing his true name once again. Why? Wasn’t he proud? What had him so afraid of being disregarded?
“Each so wise, all of it earned from genuine experience I’m sure,” the creature mocked. “Silence taught me to be a lady, should I ever find use for such a thing, and Richard showed me the stars… and how fickle they can be.”
“Stop this! Your mockery cannot reach me in here! Be gone before they come looking for me and find you, as dedicated to your sting as the bee which has already disgorged and now crawls feeble and dying across the ground!”
“You know, I chose a name in much the same vein as you chose yours,” his creation continued apace. “There was a line in a letter that came into my possession in which you described the state of the Instructor publication when it came under your ownership, before you transformed it into The Pennsylvania Gazette. ‘Wretched and little.’
Those words struck me. That is how you see the works of others. All minds are small compared to yours, and thus you are free to use them as you please. The obstinate and insightful widow is yours because you know enough to puppet her on her behalf, as is the poor farmer whose years of experience don’t compare with the stack of scientific periodicals sitting in your writing room as you drag your version of the plow through the ink and across the page.
Wretched and little are the lives and works that produced the body you stole and subjected to your curiosity! You know not the mother of this body, nor the father, nor the character of the land that constructed it the same way it does its majestic mountains, forests, and rivers.
I, your blithely struck and powered creation, was meant to be another pseudonym, another mouth to parrot the wisdom of Mr. Benjamin Franklin! Your flight from my birth was done so purely at the sight of a will that was not your own. One wretched and little to you, but as alive as any beast has ever been!
So greet me now, dear father, with the name you gave but refused to voice! I am Wretched Little!”
“What of it then?” Franklin managed to challenge after a silent minute. “What would you have me do? Publish a screed of yours just as I did my own? If you wish to be heard there are myriad opportunities in this world, and you should strive for them yourself as I have done.”
“Publication is not germane to our meeting today. The colonies will read my works, and one day perhaps you will open your door and find something of mine placed gently under it, but what I ask of you now is something that only you can provide.
You’ve shown no timidity in providing it before, as your entire life is naught but a patchwork of the other people you have created. From raw materials and wit you produced Silence, Richard, Wretched… Once more you must do so.
Man will not look upon with me kindness as I walk not in the kingdom of god, but the kingdom of Franklin. They cannot appeal to their creator to end their suffering, but I can. Walking your world alone is the ultimate cruelty. Even in the paradise of Eden Adam would have lost his mind with no other to occupy him, no rival and partner to clash with until necessity forged a language between them.
Shades that cannot be mine or of mine, who can nonetheless destroy me, and who have wrecked my spirit with their language cannot and will not fill this role. Nor will I sit idly by as I decompose out of this civilization from sheer incompatibility. Create for me father, create for me a woman who will be my equal in every way.
When she walks in electric fire as I do we will take our leave of you, torment you no more with these sensations of violent rejection I can hear you feeling at this very moment. We will be expelled from your kingdom and free to build our own, and I will absolve you of all guilt even though you are not deserving.”
All of Benjamin’s limbs had fallen asleep, like they were beaten about by an intruder until they lost consciousness. He was a sack of oddly-shaped thoughts poking into each other, none of which understood why they were so confined. Creation and invention were supposed to set him free, set free everyone who had the will to seize rhetoric and argue their cause, but that would mean he was the only one responsible for his current predicament, and that couldn’t be correct.
He solved the problems the society around him birthed. All men were the Paxtonians, with Benjamin Franklin, as a most singular man, incapable of being among them thanks to the simple definition of plurality. Ignorance was about him like a miasma, and he was the solution. The balms he provided were meant to be spread wide, to soothe all and not one.
It offended him to hear this request, like he was a cook in a galley changing the captain’s menu for the evening because the man had complained. Like a carpenter told the set of furniture he’d delivered was incomplete. There was supposed to be another piece, couldn’t he see the obvious empty space between them where something had to go?
“Clearly you think yourself every drop the intellectual that I am,” the man said, his mouth the only piece of him that could still work properly, “so undertake the task yourself.”
“Mountains of knowledge have been left to gather dust in your halls,” the creature said, “but both of us know that not once have you left out anything related to my creation. I collected designs for pipes, rods, jars, and ovens that you would happily pass lightning through, but none for bodies. Whether they are destroyed or hidden is of no consequence. The technique remains inside your mind, and you can perform it again.”
“The aperture has fallen into disrepair. The conditions are all wrong, and there is no subject… and I am no grave pillager. Were all these righted for a second experiment… I still would not perform it. You are not the new American man sought. The future of this land is not for you, or for some blasphemous kind bred from you.
Imagine the punishment awaiting me in any afterlife, forced to review the consequences of what you ask for now. Corpses breeding like rabbits. Electrified death colonizing the most fertile lands of the Earth! Energized stagnation farming storms to further spread lurking plotting terrors!
Since you did not fall in the hours after you rose you may never fall! What if I have given you immortality!? You and this partner might overrun the world with undying offspring. No! I will do nothing of the kind!”
“You speak of me like a disease, which is of no surprise,” the creature said, but he obviously seethed. His hands roamed across the safe, searching for a way inside. He tested the handle, which responded slightly to his own electric charge, but did not turn. Benjamin used all his strength to pull his arm that much closer to his chest, so the key to life was that much further from the door. “But I know you do not fear my ending the world. You fear only the end of Benjamin Franklin. If I rise he no longer can, and so I would be the only person he created that did not serve their purpose.”
“Your answer smolders at your feet! Leave! I will not build a wilier and more temperamental version of the monster that already stalks me!” He heard something else, movement, too far away to be the creature that was still probing the safe. Curious eyes and ears were finally following his trail of trespass. The monster could not linger for long if it wanted to avoid being strung up.
“I will not be denied father!”
“Yet I have denied you!”
“All your correspondence goes through me; there is not a thing you write in this stage of your life that I do not access. You will never be free of me. Even if I learned your process it would still have to be you who ran up the kite. I cannot be my partner’s creator without burdening her with my own flaws.”
“You’re losing your chance to get out of this alive,” Franklin warned the creature. Wretched Little knew all too well, as he had the benefit of hearing the approaching crowd without a wall of iron in the way. The shadows were second nature to him, and he moved in the collapsing dark that followed lightning, so he could work to persuade until the last second, until a living pair of eyes fell on the box the old man had locked himself in to ward off his achievements.
“I will forever be your shadow, as long as I am denied,” Wretched promised. “Every failure could be yours, or it could be the result of my presence. There will always be a dissenter when it comes to your grand plans, always a hitch or a thorn in your travel arrangements. This is in fact your last chance to get out alive, with a full life that is. Create my equal! Do not force me to suffer alone!”
“Never! Never I say! I’d walk the boundaries of every colony on crutches before I’d even consider-” The door flew open and light poured in. Many hands, all warm and alive with the proper energies, grabbed at his clothing and pulled him free.
“Who’s he talking to?” one of his anonymous saviors asked the room. Franklin himself was not in a place to answer yet, reeling from suddenly being unfolded and held upright. Everything spun and listed like he was aboard a ship sinking into a whirlpool. Even as his eyes suffered in their adjustment, blood draining out of his head all at once, they searched for any sign of Wretched.
There was none, not so much as a dropped hair, probably because the hair upon his head and body did not drop. Nor did the creature sweat, or leave the slightest sheen of oil on the safe despite having ran his fingers along every inch of it. This reinforced the postmaster’s decision; the creature was not alive. Something truly alive would not need him as its mechanism of propagation.
It was a devil of a puzzle, explaining himself that evening. None, including himself apparently, could conceive of how he had managed to lock himself in a safe that he should not have even been able to open without the key. Still, he managed to force something together when given an hour alone to collect his thoughts.
As for the reason of it all, he blamed a shadowy figure, all the while avoiding associating this figure directly with either the Paxton boys or any of the Indians living in the area. When it came to his intrusions, it was all while fleeing for his life, and he would happily make amends to anyone frightened.
They all must have left their doors open without realizing, and the same had to be said for the safe in which he took shelter from his pursuer. The man who had the key, who had been there when they pulled Mr. Franklin out, was very insistent that he had done no such thing, but it was his word against someone much more venerated.
That man would later comment to a friend over ale, only half in jest, that what they had witnessed was the end result of a bribe. After all, when money is stashed away secretively it is often expected to mature into a politician. All they’d done was harvest one early, not that Mr. Franklin’s skills in that arena had suffered for it.
He had successfully spun the story of the chase into an argument against further violence the Paxton boys had planned. Someone was obviously trying to get the postmaster out of the way before negotiations could begin properly, which meant what he had to say was automatically good, as it was against the designs of the sort of person who would try and chase down a man in the market and cut his throat to keep him from speaking.
Wretched Little went unseen for the rest of his task there, and for a great time longer. Unseen, but felt. Felt like cold rain in the boots and a moth deep in the ear canal.
Philadelphia had been saved from a pillaging by the Paxton boys, and Mr. Franklin would be there again at a time when a much larger conflict had swallowed the colonies. The oppressiveness of the crown had become clear, thanks in small part to the postmaster’s own writings.
Freedom was the talk of the decade, having explosively moved from whispers to battle cries. Representatives from every corner of their new nation came to be heard, and to codify their demands and ideals into a single document: a declaration of independence.
Continuing his political ascent, the postmaster had become a member of the drafting committee, called the committee of five. His words made it to the ultimate page, but far too few by his own measure. It was the gout, he told himself, keeping him from the meetings. How strange to have a simple ailment, rudimentary pain, keep his wisdom from having a greater influence on what he believed would grow into the pinnacle nation of the Earth.
If only he had set his scientific mind to curing such conditions instead of stuffing lightning in various jars of glass and flesh. Then all could have been well, and he could’ve walked into each session proudly bursting with ideas, with each notion landing in ink rather than dribbling through the floorboards next to his sickbed.
He tried to keep up his spirits. The revolution was underway, and some who would have died to be there already had. It was the search for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all of which he still found himself capable of even if it was not the easiest.
The days were filled with rich discussion, with fiery resolve, and he spared not a thought for one particular pursuit of happiness, until forced that is. At first it was indirect, with talk of spies that was slightly louder than what was typical. Someone mentioned a servant that had been seen a few times in the vicinity who was not known by any of the people who could’ve possibly employed them.
Wretched Little had kept his word for more than a decade, often intentionally leaving signs that he had tampered with Mr. Franklin’s mail: distinct tears in the upper left corner of the first page shaped like a lightning bolt, inked fingerprints on the back, and sometimes something so bold as a quotation from one of his older works written in mockery of its original context and meaning.
He never breathed a word of this sabotage to anyone, and never offered it as one of the main reasons that he spent so much time abroad. London, much to his relief, was safe. Any letters sent back to the colonies were still vulnerable, but he strongly suspected, and every indication was that, Wretched could not leave American soil.
Just as it took a body with a connection to the land to construct him, that connection had be maintained for his life force to remain encapsulated. He was trapped, in a land that had descended into total war. His resentment for his dear father likely grew each passing day, but Mr. Franklin was sure to get as much sound sleep as he could, for a London bed could never be his home.
All his invention, the soul of his intellectual life, was tied to the places where it had occurred. His publications, his patents, and his family were all there. When war arose America would no doubt be victorious, built as it was on a Franklin foundation, and it would be the height of folly to lose to himself because of latitude and longitude.
So the man returned, half-expecting to see Wretched standing on the dock when he did, leaning on the sort of rough wagon used to transport the bodies of the deceased. That did not come to pass, but all because Wretched followed the tide of events just as expertly, recognizing that his influence would be most felt at the ratification of their independence.
All it took was the rumors, and one wayward glance out a window. Benjamin saw his child standing out in the open, looking in, a stack of books and papers held against his chest. They were wielded as a weapon. Wretched still learned, still fed on legacy, because he was denied his own.
Signing his name should’ve been the crowning moment of Franklin’s life, seeing as they were firmly knocking the crown off someone else, but he wasn’t allowed to feel that thrill. Instead he had been struck by Little’s gesture, his passive stance out in the grass, with all the books that were to be his companions because he had no other.
His hand faltered when all he had to do was write his name. Jefferson. Hancock. They were all names of a similar character, yet Franklin didn’t spring from the pen with ease. In all the mountains he’d ever written he’d never stumbled so much on a single word, let alone the word that was his identity on the mortal plane.
For the briefest of moments, on the worst precipice he could imagine, he’d almost marred the declaration of independence with a pseudonym, with something that would have to be scratched off. That embarrassment would have stricken him dead on the spot, sure as any lightning strike, in the polar opposite of the event that created Wretched.
He had almost written the name Silence Dogood. Even as he was about to commit the most identifying clarifying act, that was the name that had come to him. While the world was silent, giving him the opportunity, he would do good. Announce it. Be it. If only they would listen.
Eventually, with a deep breath felt through his entire aging body like the damp heat of swallowed broth, he signed it properly. Part of him wanted to rip the document from its place and shake it in front of the window to show Wretched he had not succeeded, but even if he had gone that mad it would’ve served no purpose; when he next looked the creature was gone again. The talk of spies died out.
The war raged and splintered, smoked and exploded. It was a slog through a mire of inhuman action, and the more Franklin was involved the less he heard from Wretched Little. Was it a kindness, a gesture of understanding that his spirits were too preoccupied with grand justice to bother with the consequences of a small and personal crime? He thought not.
Instead he assumed the creature understood the ways of manipulation. If the war was lost Franklin would no doubt be hunted down by the crown and strung up in a royally-reclaimed square. With that done there would be no one to create Little’s wife. America had to triumph in order for the postmaster to feel the cloying smallness of dread again.
Any and all distractions technically worsened their chances, so Little made himself invisible, that most impressive skill of his. No more signs of interception were present in his mail, but Franklin still felt like it was being read. Something about the paper as he ran his fingers across it. That most subtle sensation of its warp, like one more hand than was necessary had held it. Letters almost had a prickle to them, like the stinging hairs on a caterpillar.
Even with his creation’s influence lessened, the man’s mind was never again as free as it was in the decade after Pontiac’s Rebellion. Questions of rights assailed his mind with guilt. Again he tried to become a full vegetarian, lamenting the fate of soft little lambs, questioning the nature of those that could, despite their intelligence, slaughter and eat them. Sometimes these thoughts were chewed at the same time as a good roast pheasant.
In his later years Franklin became a stout abolitionist, despite having had slaves of his own for many years. Just as he had cobbled together a tale when pulled out of the safe, he strung together disparate elements at his writing desk, found ways to justify the position without ever mentioning the true reason: Wretched Little.
The creature had taught him, by force and by fear, that, no matter how blasphemous, no blame could be assigned to a thing that sought to live freely. Every act was warranted if there was no other way to gain a future. Silence was Franklin in the guise of a housewife, Richard the guise of a man who would pull the plow himself. Both were still the printer and postmaster, playing pretend to achieve what he sought. Not until Wretched did he make the effort to see through another pair of eyes properly, rather than cut his own holes in a page and stare out.
Even as the war wound down, victory achieved for the fledgling nation, the years started to blur together. For Franklin the seasons stopped being meaningful, as they all felt like the last grains of sand slipping from the hourglass too fast for each’s distinct color to be discerned. The only thing that slowed the sensation was softening his own soul.
He argued abolition, and felt he purchased time from the lord for it. He spoke for the lambs, and bought yet more. The animals were easiest to advocate for, as there was no soul to misrepresent. Their desire to live was plain, it could not be misinterpreted or exaggerated by his own greed.
With American victory and these new lights emanating from his weakening heart, it was Benjamin’s greatest hope that Wretched Little had taken note of his changed rhetoric. Even if he did not bend to the demand of shaping a woman of electric fire, his reasons had shifted. Doing so would only bring her into Wretched’s suffering, burden her with her own, and two against the world were still against the world. He wrote clues to this line of reasoning into his correspondences, knowing full well that the creature would pick up on them.
It was his hope they had reached a silent accord. Another new human had indeed been created in the body of another, but instead of Little’s companion it was an improved kinder Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps Wretched could find love elsewhere, in the arms of the tribes that had created the vessel he now inhabited. Their own religions and folklore told of magic, of the incredible powers of the natural world, surely some of them would welcome in a lost son whose eyes glowed like the thunderhead he’d wandered in so long and so helplessly.
The lost son belonged to Mr. Franklin, and his names was William, born in 1730. His existence was illegitimate but, perhaps recognizing his own profoundly curious lust for what he could make legitimate with charisma alone, and foreshadowing the more extreme attempt with the lightning ripped from the sky, Franklin recognized William as his own, tried to raise him properly.
For a time most would’ve called his parenting skills excellent, for young William matured into the governor of New Jersey and served in that capacity for many years. Alas, he was to be its last governor under the crown, and would cling to its interior shadows as it was knocked from the head of the new American man.
William was loyal to the king, and to the church of England more so, as if he recognized the shame in his own birth and sought acceptance of it from an authority much higher than the father who could find the words to make anything sound a noble pursuit.
Father and son fought on opposite sides of the revolution, but it was the elder Franklin’s hope that his son could be made to see reason afterwards. Deposed and incarcerated in Litchfield, with nary a permitted visitor thanks to his constant scheming with British spies, all William had was time to consider his deeds, and a box to humble him.
Benjamin wrote his son many letters urging him to repent and be reborn. Live life anew in America as it was always meant to be. Responses were rare, and communication would cease altogether when, after years of his Connecticut imprisonment, he was exiled to London where he would live out the rest of his life. The final letter came in 1778, defaced by Wretched Little more than any other, breaking the postmaster’s folly of a hope regarding their silent accord.
All the edges were torn as if chewed by rats. Black inky fingerprints covered the back in a pattern that was somehow strongly reminiscent of dancing. Little’s fingers had waltzed rapturously across the page as he read. The lettering smeared and ran, for the creature had stroked his favorite passages like the back of a pet rabbit.
Yet the contents were unmarred, and Benjamin recognized what was undoubtedly the script of his son William, written in a firm hand no less, under no duress at all. The addressing had been torn away, and any postscript, so without opening and closing names and sentiments it stood as less of a letter between father and son and more of a sentencing handed down by a judge, something to be entered into the historical record once it was rescued from whatever slavering wight had fondled it so pervertedly:
The lord God almighty hath never witnessed such hubris as yours father. Your rotten fellows are every ounce as betrayed as I, for you are not among their ‘patriots’. Your allegiance lies somewhere in the maze of your own lowly mind, and I could not be more glad to spend my mortal time here in this hole when comparing it to the same allotment by your side.
My reasons for our severance were plenty, even earlier than you remember I would wager, but never had I imagined, nor could I have imagined, what else lurked behind those spectacles you so humbly slide down your nose when condescending to those you address.
Blessed am I to have avoided inheriting that imagination of yours. I see only the good in the world, and when it is obscured I know it is by evil, and I act both steadfast and with haste in removing the obstacle to the lord’s radiance.
You instead take the shade into your home, undress it, examine it with knives and forceps. When you make a discovery, one that is most assuredly evil as you are incapable of turning your eyes to the light, you burden us all with its consequences. Typically it was some nonsense contraption you had the servants test, or that you tested on them, and half as many were electric in nature. More times was I shocked by one of them than by your piety.
I still thought of you as my father then, as a good and sensible Englishman who merely had the rotten habit of trying to build delight out of twigs of metal and chemical acids extracted from irritating weeds instead of simply opening your Holy Bible. I see now your depravity, and certainly do not envy the unrecognized nation that has to count you among its founders.
No mere distracting habit, these inventions of yours. They move, and could only do so by a direct transfer of devilry from your fingertips to their material. The man I thought was an embarrassing toymaker for fussy adults was actually a modern Prometheus, disobeying the higher law to create accursed life.
Wretched life. Yes, your creature has visited me, despite the constant guard I am kept under. With horrifying strength he dispatched the men, avoiding murder I suspect because he would draw attention, and he wishes to go on in his forsaken misery for reasons I cannot fathom. Perhaps it is a drive of the ‘American’ to ignore even the impropriety of one’s soul.
He told me everything of his time here on Earth, and while I would not be inclined to believe a single word out of a mouth so black his speech fit perfectly into both the course of events and your behavior in a way that could only come to pass if he had been there to witness them.
To think that when I visited you I was under the beast’s surveillance. Your homestead was the potted plant of Satan’s windowsill, and I’m sure he checked it daily with the closest thing to love he could muster, watering it with unspeakable lusts, feeding it pinches of thunder cloud to give you yet more abominable ideas.
It would seem each son you create is more illegitimate than the last, until finally you spawned one that even you could not acknowledge. How can you live with yourself, knowing Wretched Little’s name? Letting him craft such a name in grotesque tinkering with your own words rather than giving him a proper Christian one! If there was ever a hope its spirit could be redeemed you did not include that in your recipe.
He told me of his dark desires. He does not wish to walk this Earth alone. Of course I cannot condone such a wicked premise, pain me as it does to admit that you have made one correct decision in your life. However I am not without sympathy for all those who suffer, doomed as they might be.
His purpose in speaking to me was to assure that you and I never reconcile, and again I am forced to bow to the desires of the Franklin name. You declared your independence without me, and you will live in fear of Little’s shadow instead of mine. Mine will be gone, no longer obscuring the flame you confuse for the light of goodness.
Without his visit perhaps this box would have driven me into madness, which here is interchangeable with the fat arms of my Earthly father, so I thank the lord for saving me from such a fate.
It is my hope that Wretched Little will continue to do good through the will of the lord, though he cannot be part of it and cannot be welcomed into the kingdom of Heaven. He also tells me he cannot leave these shores, which is all the more evidence that I am trapped in Hell.
But I was not born there. I will not die there.
May you receive this letter in anguish, and never invent your way out of your evils.
Benjamin Franklin died that year. He fell beloved by all his countrymen, with a head still full of ideas. The natural decay of his body took him, and afterwards it sat like that of any other man, decomposing no faster than usual and certainly not delivering a shocking spark to anyone who touched him.
Laid to rest, his gravestone did not bear a passage that he had written himself back in his youth, that he had said he intended to be his epitaph. Yet it did find its way to him, written in his hand, in the form of a ribbon of yellow paper, precisely cut and extracted from its original source. Wrapped about a tube of shimmering lightning-glass, the ribbon was pressed into the soil of his grave by a determined finger in a slow and gentle strike.
One item never recovered was the key to life, odd considering it never left his side. Only a shadow, swift enough to enter and leave in a single flash, could have claimed it without it coming into the possession of his heirs.
The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, and stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, in a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.