art by Justine McGreevy
Ballad of a Hot Air Balloon-Headed Girl
by Douglas F. Warrick
I knew a girl who tied a hot air balloon envelope to her shoulders, just in case her head should ever burst into flames. It was homemade, sewn together from stolen scraps of Dacron, mottled and gaudy. It was as wide as her shoulders and it hung down to the small of her back like a pair of folded oil-slick dragonfly wings. She pierced the thin, tender skin of her shoulders with four strong surgical-steel rings, two just above the delicate cliff of her clavicle and two over the twin plateaus of her shoulder blades, and to these she anchored the envelope.
I used to sneak away from barracks to see her in the wide gray field outside of Courdray. I was nineteen and obsessed with climbing trees. I used to split my brain apart during drills, sink away into the recesses of daydreams to climb imagined redwoods that never ended, and in rare unsupervised moments I would climb the dry and dying cypress out in the field, with the grass twitching and the sky bruising over, and I would sit in the lowest crotch and dangle my arm down. And she would sit at the roots (she never climbed, afraid that she would tear open her precious envelope on a capricious branch, and that her head would explode before she could patch it up), and play with my fingers, never grabbing hold but always dancing across my fingertips with her own. And we would talk.
Once, I said, "It's ludicrous. The thing with your head, I mean. It'll never happen."
"Don't say 'ludicrous,'" she said, playing with my fingers and using her free hand to pull up handfuls of grass and pile them in the bowl of her crossed legs. "You mean it's stupid, so say it's stupid. You don't need to prove that you're smart, I already know that."
"It's not stupid. It's just kind of crazy."
"Semantics. And why not? Why won't it ever happen?"
I sighed and tried to grab her fingers, but they slid away from me. "Because," I said, "it's never happened before. Someone's head just spontaneously bursting into flame? What's going to stop the rest of you from burning up?"
"It's going to happen," she said. We spent ten more minutes in silence, and I let her bat at my hand like a cat with a toy.
These were in the days when we were at war. When all of my friends were soldiers and children, like me, with our pistols and our rifles, and none of us knew death because the war hadn't yet come to Courdray. We wore our beards trimmed like topiaries, proud of our new ability to cultivate them, and rode horses not much younger than ourselves, and we waited for telegrams with news of when we would become men.
The Greely Brigade has been defeated on the Eastern Mesa. Stop.
The forces of the Revolutionaries are moving north. Stop.
All patriotic young men in the Northern Territories: ready your rifles and sleep in shifts. Stop.
Once, she said to me, "You might die, you know. In the war."
I was in the cypress and she was below me. I was smoking a pipe for the first time, because that had become a popular pastime in the barracks, apparently evidential of our adulthood. I liked the taste of the smoke, hot and deep. It tasted red and brown and old. I choked on it. I said, "I guess. You might die if your head explodes."
"I'm serious," she said. She laughed, but her laugh was always such a sad thing. It always sounded like it was escaping from beneath a crush of bad memories and doomed predictions, a laugh that reminded you of sadness by contrast. "Do you understand what the war means? People die in wars. You could die. The Revolutionaries could die. Someone has to die."
"The Revolutionaries are supposed to die," I said, aiming for condescension, because I was smart, and I did need to prove it. "They want to change everything."
"So do I," she said, quiet and casually defensive.
"Yeah, I mean, me too. Just, not like that."
"Like what?" she asked, and I didn't know.