Daphne Longhandle’s Last Flight
Franklin and Eleanor were summer people—light housekeepers, not lighthouse keepers...
by Rob Hunter
“Bless you,” said the dragon.
It was late morning on Campobello Island and Daphne Longhandle was wrapped around a wind-blown juniper that overhung the slate beach where I had parked for a snooze. Daphne had little black wings and yard after yard after yard of muscular, scaly tail. Her snout was crusted with a slithery substance that had to be mucus, dragon snot.
“You are a summer person,” Daphne sighed. “I always know when it’s summer—people with brown knees, backpacks and nowhere to go. They mill about and take pictures. I have never been anyplace, mostly.”
Waiting for low tide, I had parked my car on the beach. Or what passed for a beach on Campobello—gray slate, shale and boulders. I had been dozing in the sun, my head hanging loosely out the window of my rental car. A steep drop to the ocean lined a narrow, curving road of many switchbacks with neat houses and wild gardens of hollyhocks and ditch roses, goldenrod, fireweed and purple loosestrife.
Oh yes, I am Harry Bronson, semi-retired editor of the Sauk City Sentinel, the newspaper of record in south-central Wisconsin. The Sentinel boasts a devoted albeit shrinking readership. As the paper doesn’t like its supernumeraries shuffling about and getting under foot, sabbaticals were mine for the asking. I had taken two months off to see lighthouses in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.
“What we’re talking here is hopes and aspirations, Bronson,” said Daphne Longhandle. “Eleanor Roosevelt, f’rinstance. She is one of those reserved public women whose depths of passion are only revealed on close examination. And again of course, there is her famous macaroni and cheese recipe...”
“Eleanor—the same. I can see how Franklin fell for her. I think of her often. She, too, is a summer person; I’d be surprised if you didn’t know each other,” said the dragon. “Get out of your tin can and we’ll talk. You don’t have any oatmeal cookies in there, do you?” said the dragon.
The story of Daphne Longhandle rightly begins ninety-plus years earlier with a tall, angular young woman standing on a dock.
“Franklin! Your favorite!” Eleanor Roosevelt called to her husband out on the water. She wielded a four-foot-long megaphone with the authority of a young mother who wishes to be heard. Her wide-footed stance said she meant business. Her husband was sailing, a favorite pastime.
Franklin, an assistant secretary of the Navy, tacked over to an anchor buoy, belayed his sloop and swam to the dock. Eleanor’s macaroni and cheese was legend. She added nutmeg with onions and chives. Franklin loved it.
The previous evening they had stayed up late to watch the night sky together, a romantic moment. That, too, had been a macaroni and cheese night. By then, of course, it was too late. It was in the eyes, a secret knowledge. Some women do that, you know. You could ask them what they are keeping hidden and even they couldn’t tell you. It is a gift.
“See that, Franklin?” said Eleanor.
The husband followed the direction of his wife’s upraised finger.
“That’s O’Brien,” said Eleanor.
Franklin observed a line of stars on the eastern horizon. There were four. “That’s Orion, dear, not O’Brien. And shouldn’t there be only three stars? I must get my glasses changed.”
“Oops, sorry.” Eleanor nodded at the constellation, O’Brien, and the fourth star blinked out. “I have renamed it after Mister O’Brien—Adelbert?—that nice man who rows the groceries over from Eastport?”
“How did you do that?” asked Franklin, referring to the disappearing star.
“My secret,” said Eleanor. “Smell the nutmeg?” Another secret of Eleanor’s, that macaroni and cheese recipe. Franklin was a lost man. The questions were dropped. Nutmeg is a well-known aphrodisiac.
“Ahem.” Daphne was waiting for a reply.
Eyes closed, I stretched and scratched then lolled against the dashboard, my head cradled in my arms. “Wake me when it’s over.”
“Would you like to hear my joke?” Did I tell you Daphne had a keen sense of humor? “It’s about a knight. Saint George. You look a little like him, you know? But it’s been a while.”
“And you have seen him, I suppose? Saint George?” I opened one eye for a peek. “Joke. Umph...” I closed the eye quickly.
“St. George’s Cross,” she said. She waited expectantly; then threw the punch line. “...and the dragon is really pissed off. How about that?” This was followed by gales of laughter. Whackhoop! Arrgh, arrgh, arrgh! The creature snorted a cloud of sulphur, brimstone and mephitic halitosis: the usual stuff if one is a familiar of dragons. I sneezed.
“Bless you,” said the dragon.
“Thank you. Ouch.” I had a welt at the base of my neck from the door handle.
“There you are,” said the dragon.
“Where, exactly, am I?” I said. In the mud below the road’s steep shoulders, the ribs of a barge eaten by shipworm looked like a beached whale.
“Sleeping away a glorious sunny day on your fat fanny in a tin can with no oatmeal cookies while I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since Franklin Roosevelt broke his promise.”
“FDR? Roosevelt made you a promise? In person?”
“Of course in person. That he and Eleanor would visit some day. You think we get a lot of telephone calls here? Charley doesn’t believe in me. But we talk.”
“Charley O’Brien. The lighthouse keeper. Macaroni and cheese is his best shot in the galley. Should be, I taught him the same recipe I taught Eleanor. Wipes the lens, fires up the generator when we get a nor’easter. You know—a lighthouse keeper. He gets a month off a year. The lighthouse goes on automatic then. This is Charley’s vacation. Soon it will be automatic all the time. No Charley. Nobody at all. I shall go stark, screaming bonkers.”
“We were talking about FDR and a promise he made you. The FDR?”
“Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the very same,” she said. “Of course, that was when he used to come here, to the island.” There was a wistful sigh. “We had some good times. That young Eleanor was some cookie. A definite babe. Franklin and Eleanor were summer people—light housekeepers, not lighthouse keepers...”
Arrgh, arrgh, arrgh!
The dragon erupted in spasms. I supposed it was laughter. Her breath reeked of cigars. “Eleanor was a looker. You should have seen her when she was eighteen.”
“Eleanor Roosevelt...” I recalled the photos of the First Lady I had seen in grade school—liverish complexion and a pouchy face like a cake fallen in the oven. “...you mentioned knowing Eleanor Roosevelt and St. George? Both?” There was a massive slithering as of construction machinery and the dragon unwrapped herself from the tree. The tiny wings were sort of pitiful against her bulk.
“I did. I just know I did,” said the dragon. The creature’s huge eyes flashed lime green highlights, verdigris and gold: a summer housefly buzzing at the window. “I distinctly heard myself say just that thing—Eleanor Roosevelt, she was hot stuff. Of course the nutmeg helped.”
Until I met Daphne Longhandle, I figured dragons tended to eat whatever came along. The macaroni and cheese was a bewilderment. I decided it was time for the formalities, so I extended a hand.
“Bronson, Harry Bronson, emeritus editor of the Sauk City Sentinel.”
“I am Daphne Prydferthbwytawrganawyreni. PRYD-ferth, bwy-TAW gan, are-ANY. It’s Welsh. Damned if I know how Mom got her talons on a Welsh dictionary. It’s a dragon thing, I guess. I was abandoned early on. Mom went west with a crew of migrating geese.
“PRYD-ferth, bwy-TAW-gan, are-ANY,” repeated the dragon. “I am told it means beautiful eater of airplanes. See, even fresh from the egg I had my future all mapped out for me. We don’t even get to choose our own names. Dragons are a lot like you humans in that. Daphne is my favorite nymph, however,” she added.
“Prydferthbit... That is a mighty long handle, gets my tongue all tangled up with my dental work. Suppose I call you Daphne Longhandle?”
“Panache, I like that. But just Daphne will do.”
“How do you do, Daphne?”
“Pleased to meet you, Harry Bronson. Likewise, I am sure. I am the last of my kind—après moi le déluge and all. Unless Mom met up with Mr. Right amongst all those geese. Hardly seems likely. Does it to you?”
It didn’t, and I had to say so. “I am only one of your summer people. Here to see the lighthouse,” I said.
“Then surely you have heard about Saint George and the dragon. Well, I’m the dragon,” said the dragon. “Only three—the Blessed George, Eleanor and you have been able to see me. Consider yourself pretty lucky,” said the dragon. “Let’s go somewhere comfy and chat,” the creature said almost as an afterthought.
“Uhn, I don’t think we can go to my place.”
“Well? Weren’t you coming to mine?” Her logic was irrefutable; we were up and moving. The pattern of the car’s upholstery was embossed on my sunburned legs.
“Summer person,” she said.
The dragon strolled along by my side. Along and along and along. Because of Daphne’s size I had to abandon the car on the beach, above the tide line. We went to my place.
“Come on, Bronson, push.”
“I am pushing. You’ve got to help. Flap your wings or something.”
Daphne breathed a sigh 45 yards long. “You will have to excuse me if I’m a bit gassy—all that macaroni and cheese.” She shrugged and fluttered her tiny wings. Then lurched forward. “Ooh! I’m in!” From inside the room there was a crash as chintz, lamps and dried flower arrangements went flying. I fell off the borrowed stepladder and barely saved my nose from getting bashed by grabbing at a window box. A clump of petunias came loose and hung dejectedly. I dusted myself off, righted the ladder and climbed in after her. I listened at the door. Pinned to the inside was a placard: Rules for Innkeepers. No Pets. Installed in, around and under the cozy ruffled chintz four-poster in my room was a dragon, a myth.
“I hate to be a bother, but you wouldn’t have a match would you, Bronson?” the dragon asked hopefully. Between her bared fangs was installed the now-defunct butt of a thick, black cigar. “If you are a non-smoker, some dahlias or macaroni and cheese would be just dandy,” said Daphne. “As I may have mentioned, I taught Charley Eleanor’s macaroni and cheese recipe. The surefire one with nutmeg, guaranteed to turn men’s knees to jelly? No effect on Charley. He’s the great-grandson of Adelbert O’Brien, by the way.”
“The same. Eleanor renamed a constellation after him. I showed her how to excise unwanted stars, too, a neat trick.” The dragon scratched her ear with a foot. We sat together on or near the sofa while Daphne told me the tale of Eleanor and Franklin that you read at the beginning of this story.
“Level with me,” said Daphne Prydferthbwytawrganawyreni. “I’ve got some dahlias waiting. You clearly come from an adventuresome stock. Why, then, do I put you off? Don’t spare my feelings. Equanimity is my middle name. If I had a middle name.”
“You really knew Eleanor and FDR?” was the best I could come up with.
“And the kids. If they saw me, they didn’t give a sign. But Eleanor saw me. I was wrapped around the lighthouse, basking. She didn’t faint away as was the practice then. She walked right up and struck up a conversation. A lot of spine, that girl.” The dragon swiveled her head a full 180 degrees to admire her tail. “Now it’s only Charley, macaroni and cheese and the occasional raid on Eleanor’s dahlias,” she said. “I do get to hankering after Eleanor’s prize dahlias. Mighty tasty with jam.”
“You have jam at the lighthouse?”
“No, only macaroni and cheese. I have to pretend.”
In bed that night, Franklin rolled over and nudged his wife. “Nell, how’d you do that?”
A muzzy “mmph,” a waft of nutmeg-scented breath, then a long languorous stretch. “All women do it, dear,” said Eleanor. “It is a mystery. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy you won’t have the time or energy to experiment with each and every one of us. Therefore I shall have to do.”
“Wha..?” said the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
“I am a woman ahead of her time; don’t worry about it,” said Eleanor.
“I meant the star. You made it go out.”
“Only a trick. A fiddle-faddle a friend showed me. Somebody I met on the island.”
“Jealous? Mmm, yummy. No, a woman actually. Daphne is her name.”
Campobello Island is remote, only a blip on the radar of boring, boring history for most kids who have to study the Franklin Roosevelt years. Daphne had lived in the lighthouse since it was built.
“Franklin pretended he could see me, I think,” said Daphne. “To keep Eleanor happy. Through Eleanor he offered me a war job. Plane spotter. I coiled myself around the lighthouse and watched.”
“Nope. No planes. Ever. He forgot to tell me who were the bad guys and who were the good guys so it wouldn’t have made much difference. Franklin couldn’t really see me anyway. He was only humoring Eleanor. Did I tell you she was a babe?”
“You most certainly did.” My eyes were watering and my sinuses screamed for relief. I was enveloped in a cloud of noxious blue smoke as Daphne sucked a last remaining spark into life. “Where do you get your cigars?”
“They’re Cuban, a gift from Winston Churchill; and to tell you the truth, I’m about out. Franklin couldn’t abide cigars and Winston sent him several cases aboard the cutest little Royal Navy cutter, a Lend Lease job with brand new paint, the Crofter. It had a little airplane with pontoon floats tethered on its rear deck. The jolly tars winched the airplane over the side and lowered the crates of cigars. Eleanor felt sorry for me, being invisible and all. I got the smokes. I know a good thing when I see it.” The short stogie glowed dangerously close. I had a choking fit and ran for the bathroom.
“What you are coughing up is Winston’s last cigar,” called Daphne. “It’s over sixty years old.”
“So am I,” I replied. “And I was hoping for sixty-two.” The dragon opened the bathroom door with a flick of her tail and chucked the last inch of her cigar into the toilet.
Franklin and Elliot were up on the summer porch putting the final touches on a model biplane.
“Franklin?” called Eleanor.
“Nell?” Her husband looked up from an adjustment he was performing on a miniature aileron cable.
“I have decided to ask Adelbert O’Brien to put in a flower garden.”
“That’s nice. Go right ahead.”
“Dahlias, I think, the dinnerplate variety. Daphne is especially fond of dinnerplate dahlias.”
“Ah, the mysterious Daphne. When will I get to see her?” asked Franklin Roosevelt.
“That eventuality must reside in the company of the imponderables,” replied Eleanor, who as a girl had shone at declamatory presentation. She turned to where the children’s play had become rowdy. “Annie! Don’t push James; you are so much bigger than he is.”
“I did so look forward to having some company,” said Daphne Prydferthbwytawrganawyreni. “All I ever wanted was a family, a little egg all my own. Being the last of my kind, the Roosevelts are as close as I’ll likely get. When the lighthouse goes automatic there will be no Charley to cook macaroni and cheese. Set loose and alone in the world I would starve, not knowing how to open a can. And these oatmeal cookies Charley speaks of—they are in a can?”
I explained oatmeal cookies to Daphne Longhandle, Beautiful Eater of Airplanes. She allowed as the cookies sounded delicious but put away pining for them to a later date. For the moment her catalog of melancholy was full. “I haven’t seen Eleanor much lately,” said Daphne.
“And Winston Churchill?” I asked. The dragon did not reply.
“Let’s go and visit her garden,” I said.
Frolicking on the Roosevelt lawns, the dragon seemed more like her old self. “Eleanor told me Franklin, Churchill and Stalin were getting together to divide the world after the war. I was so excited. They would be coming to Campobello. I dreamed of nibbling dahlias and jam with Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. They went to Yalta instead.”
“Eleanor Roosevelt is dead.”
“I know that, silly.” Daphne wiped away a tear from the corner of a giant eye. “But I have to hope. Life is a tradeoff: dahlias to nibble versus the hope of Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill coming for a visit. The odds are pretty slim, I know. Hopes and aspirations, Harry Bronson, remember?”
“I feel like a monster.”
“This is how we learn, Harry. You are the monster this time. Deeds and not appearances define who we are.”
I picked a huge yellow dahlia from the garden and offered it to her. The dragon’s lips gently accepted the flower. She munched thoughtfully. I picked two more dahlias, one for her, one for me. We sat in the shade of an old tree to eat our flowers. I thought, this tree shaded Eleanor and her children as they played together generations ago. The tree, a surviving elm, reached out its branches to a set of con trails high above the fair weather clouds.
Daphne was gently snoring. I went back to Eleanor’s garden for an armload of dahlias.
My arms were laden with flowers. I gave her an ungentlemanly poke with my elbow.
“Huh? What? I must have dozed off. We are inveterate nappers, you and I, Harry Bronson.”
“Daphne Longhandle, you have a great heart and in that heart lies your great beauty. Please accept these dahlias, courtesy of the Campobello International Park Commission. May I come to your lighthouse and watch for airplanes with you?”
“Well... Charley is away, but I think it would be all right. There’s some leftover macaroni and cheese in the fridge.”
“About Winston Churchill...”
“I’d rather not hear any more. Thank you for the lovely afternoon.”
She shrugged her rudimentary wings and turned to leave.
“If I could fly, maybe I could come and visit you, Harry Bronson.”
I explained that the Midwest was over a thousand miles away.
“Do the geese fly there?”
“They do indeed, then turn south down the Mississippi.”
And that was that. We ambled along side by side to the far end of the island where young Eleanor had sailed with Franklin.
Eighty-three feet high, the lighthouse was painted with St. George’s Cross. It shone as a fair weather beacon, bright against glaring titanium white. I huffed and puffed my way up the circular inside stairway; Daphne Longhandle simply coiled herself around the building. We met at the catwalk surrounding the great glass lens and then watched for airplanes together from high atop the Head Harbour Light.
We watched the sky until sunset. And said goodbye. “I would so love to get a piece of mail addressed to me—me personally,” were Daphne Longhandle’s last words as we made our farewells. “Those postal cards with the pictures. The summer people buy them. They are so beautiful, particularly the pictures of my lighthouse with the big, red cross and the shiny glass lens. I would save your letters in my scrapbook. Is it all right for me to keep a scrapbook? Not presumptuous, I mean. I have saved clippings from the newspapers—pictures of Eleanor and Franklin. And the children. I get a sense of time passing by watching the pages yellow and shrivel.”
I pointed to a con trail miles above, a jetliner turning toward Newfoundland. “There is the farewell of an airplane, ice crystals they leave behind. They go very high and very fast.”
“Not quite the same thing as feeling the wash of the propellers against your face, is it, Bronson?”
“No, not the same.”
“I had thought you might ask me along with you on your travels. But this is my lighthouse. I have to stay. Franklin may come back and I promised him. He promised and I promised. He might ask if I saw any airplanes.”
It was an election year in the Midwest and my dreams of far off lighthouses went on hold. By attrition I was an elder statesman. To keep my paltry honoraria along with health coverage, the paper insisted on an occasional assignment. I got to cover the state conventions of those fringe parties without a hope with which the Sauk City Sentinel’s management didn’t deign to waste the time of its younger rising stars.
I took a break from the harangues of the Farmer-Labor Party and, instead of heading for the nearest watering hole, ended up at an outdoor flea market—antiques, collectibles, ephemera and junk, the usual stuff. Couples slumped behind their offerings.
“You will write to me?” the dragon had asked.
“Of course.” Well, a promise was a promise.
An oldies station blasted from speakers mounted on light poles. The tune was Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You. Behind a table of antique postcards, a woman with lacquered bangs and iridescent nail polish sang along with the radio. Her husband was passed out in a folding lawn chair, beer in hand.
“Well, if you’ve got to get stuck,” she gripped the table and stared me straight in the eye, “...the middle is a pretty good place. When it comes down to push or shove, like.” She dissolved in a puddle of giggles.
I took this as an invitation to browse.
Shoeboxes of old postcards were arranged by Travel and Events. I bought the first Ferris wheel from the Colombian Exposition in St. Louis, the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Cyclone from Coney Island. Some of the postcards with gold leaf curlicues of an ornamental border were still intact. Sepia-toned bathers with middy blouses and bloomers, I hoped this would evoke memories of the Roosevelts at the beach for her.
Whenever I stopped for the night, I mailed a postcard. Chicago, Racine, Minneapolis. I scrupulously included my home address on each card. Not that I expected a reply.
And I got none.
“Dear, look, little Annie is working on a scrapbook.”
“Hmmm,” Franklin leaned over to where Eleanor and Anna were exercising a paste pot and brush over a thick album with gilded covers.
“Postcards. Very pretty.”
Although he had reports to read, his golden-haired daughter was the apple of Franklin’s eye. He put down his pipe, blew the smoke over his shoulder and scrunched cross-legged down on the floor between the two.
“Look, daddy. Here’s one with our lighthouse,” said his daughter. “It has a funny address.”
“Sauk City, Wisconsin,” read the president-to-be. “Someone named Daphne must have a sweetheart who is far away.”
The honking of migrating geese makes me look up when our Midwestern autumn comes. It twists young and burly round the chimney corners with the first maple leaves of another fall, and I am called out for one last time to rake the yard and bundle up my roses for winter. I keep a special stash of large, rank, delicious cigars for just this time.
On the off-chance that my Beautiful Eater of Airplanes has found her wings I mix up a double batch of oatmeal cookies and smoke on the porch. I have never figured out how the young Roosevelt girl got that last postcard of mine, the one with the Head Harbour Light, to paste in her memory album. But that happened almost 100 years ago and I was not yet born.
copyright 2008, 2015 Rob Hunter
Daphne Longhandle’s Last Flight was first published in The Aputamkon Review—Voices from Downeast Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. Les Simon and Sarah Dalton Phillips, editors.