A Thing Built to Fly is Not a Promise

Justin Lawrence Daugherty


Amelia Earhart just wanted to go home. She’d survived the island as long as she could handle. Now, the Japanese had taken over and their war machines crawled all over the island waiting to be commissioned for violence. She had learned to hunt and fish and had eaten so many insects just to stay alive. She ran the island, naked and covered in mud and twigs, spying on the men making their war plans. She watched them from trees and felt all the wild taking over. She caught herself howling at night. She let her nails grow sharp and piercing.

Amelia Earhart watched the ocean from her cave shelter in the high cliffs. She’d seen the mermaids before, so many times over the years, out in the water, so free and unaware of the darkening world around them. She watched with a spyglass. They moved too close to the warships, the howling machine guns. The soldiers had begun hunting the mermaids, cutting their fish tails away for trophies. She held a stolen Type 97 sniper rifle in her hands, waited for a chance to play hero. I will tell you a fairy tale, she said to her gun. Some of this is better than we have imagined.

A birdwoman lived in a sacred, tall tree. She lived in the tree for 1,000 years until men came to chop it down. The birdwoman started a war of endings. She destroyed all around her to save the tree. The men came in greater numbers with larger axes and sharper blades, cutting machines powered by growling motor. They were monstrous armies, blood-fueled and roaring. One day they caught the birdwoman and bound her beautiful wings. They said to take away the thing that most defined her was murder. She escaped and took her captors’ lives and returned to the tree. It had been injured and diseased in her absence. She wept for the tree. Her wings drooped at her sides. She wept and awaited the onslaught of armies. Everything but the tree had been scorched and razed. The tree alone with the birdwoman guarding. She would stay with the tree as long as either one was alive and the death of one would be the death of the other.

 Amelia Earhart hunted at night. She went to men out on patrol and burned promises into their torsos before she cut out their tongues and hearts. She sang the mermaids’ songs as she did her work. After each man, she returned to the ocean and waited for the mermaids to show. She told the water, we are free only to find a way to destruction. She returned to her cave filled with metal scraps she’d stolen to build a plane to take her home. She turned on a stolen radio and listened for Tokyo Rose broadcasts. She waited for voices, for the sounds of lips and mouths. She waited for any song-made words to help her sleep. She dreamt of flying, of clouds and seas and worlds she would never step foot upon.


The ghosts of the mermaids who would not come to sing to her haunted Amelia Earhart. Nightly she waited at the water and called into seashells. She built a great fire on the beach to attract them. She did not care if the soldiers came to open up her body, to reach inside her and set fire to her bones.

A young man came to the beach, aiming a rifle at her. He yelled at her in Japanese and she put her hands up and tried to explain herself. Still the man stalked and Amelia Earhart tried to get close to him to show him the opposite of violence. Your wars have never built an opera, she said. There’re no arias birthed in gunpowder.

Amelia Earhart called the man close with song. He dropped his gun and let her embrace him. Amelia stabbed him in the heart and his breathing slowed. She took him to the water and held him under. The world I make is better than what I leave, Amelia cried. The man’s body stilled and she let him go. She watched and waited for him to sprout gills, to grow fins, for him to transform into something new and beautiful.


Amelia Earhart built an airplane without a motor, a plane made haphazard and false. Every machine needs a heart, she knew. A thing built to fly is not a promise of flight, she knew. She felt herself slipping. She felt the memory of songs going out of her. She had started to wish for the soldiers to find her, wished for a swift exit from the world. She waited on mermaids and their signs of grace. Each night they did not appear Amelia Earhart grew more ravenous. She listened to the warplanes flying off to deliver their fire. She burned her clothes and the diary she had kept every day since crashing. With more and more dead soldiers, the war parties hunting her grew. She thought to go to them, hands empty, offering surrender. They were there to take their engines of conquering elsewhere. War ends as all things, she knew. They would leave and she would be alone again. She turned on her radio and listened for any familiar voice to tell her of wanting.


Justin Lawrence Daugherty is the founder/publisher of Jellyfish Highway Press and lives in Atlanta. He founded Sundog Lit, is the Fiction Editor at New South, and co-pilots Cartridge Lit—a magazine dedicated to literature inspired by video games—with Joel Hans.