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art by Justine McGreevy

Ballad of a Hot Air Balloon-Headed Girl

Douglas F. Warrick is a writer, teacher, activist, and world-traveler. His work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Murky Depths, Pseudopod, and the Drabblecast, as well as in several anthologies. When he's not trying to see as much of the planet as he can, he lives in Dayton, Ohio with his wife.

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.
The war came to Fantago, and in those days you could ride to Fantago from Courdray in two days, so our drills became tenser and our rifles got cleaned more often, and nothing else changed. We waited and we trimmed our beards and smoked our pipes, and I dreamed of climbing trees. The Revolutionaries ravaged Fantago and holed up there for three months. Some of our boys defected, and nobody minded too much.
I kissed her for the first time when I was twenty, standing beneath the cypress tree. We came to the tree at the same time, so I didn't have time to climb the tree before she got there, which was our usual custom. I was crossing the field lazily, dragging the toes of my boots in the dirt to hear the sound it made, when I looked up and saw her running toward me. She was smiling a little, in the haunted way I still think about when I'm lonely. When we met, she said, "It's starting. This is the first progress I've made."
I said, "What are you talking about?"
"Really? What do you think I'm talking about?"
I shrugged.
She threw her fists against her hips and growled, exhausted and frustrated with the seconds that were passing us. She said, "God, just… Here!"
And she kissed me. Our tongues touched, and I tasted smoke. Her mouth was hot like a stone beneath the sun and she tasted red and brown and old. We kissed for a very long time, with our noses smashed together and my eyes wide, staring at her closed lids, watching the tears slip through them. When we exhaled, the smoke roiled through our nostrils and circled our heads. I put my hands on her waist and she knocked them away. We broke the kiss and a strangle vine of smoke joined our lips together for a moment before it dissolved. She said, "See, stupid?"
And I said, "Yeah. I see."
After that, the changes happened so swiftly. It came to be that going to see her filled me with an awful excitement that scared me more than it impelled me. I stayed in the barracks every night until one or two in the morning, reading letters from my mother and trying to stop my hands from shaking. The thought of seeing her, the knowledge that each secret meeting held another terrible gift to discover, those things held me in place, frightened at my own need for them. I switched from pipes to cigarettes, because they seemed a better fit to my mania. I would smoke them back-to-back most nights, waiting for myself to make the inevitable decision to escape the barracks and run to the field to see what new mutation had overtaken her. And I always did.
One night I arrived and the hairs of her thin, fair eyebrows were orange and shining like burning tobacco beneath twin rows of blue flame. She looked happier than I'd ever seen her before, and I said so.
She laughed and said, "Well, that's not saying much, is it?"
In the winter, she couldn't come too close to the dry cypress, fearing the heat rising from the top of her head would set it ablaze. Instead, we sat a respectable distance away, both of us with our coats removed, her lying back with her hair in the snow to melt it away, and I stared at my tree and wished I were up it. I asked, "Does it hurt?" and I was afraid of what she would say.
She said, "Not really. But the snow feels nice."
She became hotter and hotter, and I wanted her more. She was too hot to kiss, and in any case she wouldn't let me try. One day, she lifted the envelope over her head and the heat filled it up and lifted her a few feet into the air for a few minutes. I sat on the ground and played with her fingertips from below for a change.
I told her, "I'm in love with you, I think."
And she said, "Well, sure. Now that you've said it out loud. Push me up. I want to see how far I can go." She didn't get very far that day.
The war came to Courdray in the spring, and we pushed back the Revolutionaries. Forces from Pendleton and Gumble Township came to our aide. I fired my gun and other boys my age fired their guns, and our horses stomped through the field, which had been made into a slick pit of mud by the constant rain that year, and nobody could tell who was on what side. I fell off my horse, and one of our own boys stepped sideways on my calf, and I limped across the battlefield with my ankle sprained for the rest of the fight. I shot a blonde boy in the face with my pistol, and I didn't feel any remorse for years afterward. A boy I knew whose name I can't remember was disemboweled by someone's saber, and I remember feeling angry with him for being such a poor soldier. That's how death came to the boys of Courdray. It came as a numb and faraway anger, hot milk in our bellies, destined to curdle and poison us. We were boys with fine beards and nice mustaches and pipes and guns and cigarettes and horses. And we killed. And we were killed. And the worst we felt, in those dreamy and wonderful days of death, was a mysterious gnawing loss, as though something novel but inessential had slipped through holes in our pockets and disappeared. And my girl hid in the forest, somewhere faraway from the mud, in the miserable place where she lived, wherever that was. I think the best time for soldiering is youth. If you are going to be made to kill, you ought not to know why, you ought not to understand the permanence of it. A soldier ought to be stupid. Genius soldiers are the most wretched of us creatures, on the dirt or under it.
Still, we felt the shadow of our impending age, our inevitable learning, in the barracks and in the infirmary. We stared at empty cots, or cots that were full but not as full as they used to be, and we chewed on our cheeks and felt sad.
After we drove the Revolutionaries back to Fantago, the old men spoke of turning points, of last-minute comebacks, and we were supposed to be proud of what we had done, and we were. Still and yet, again I began to escape the barracks at night, hobbling on crutches, trying to relearn the delicate craft of climbing trees. I mastered the cypress and moved on to a lithe little willow, whose thinness and fragility afforded me more challenge and a shorter way to fall should my injured leg give up on my weight. I didn't see her for weeks, and I felt guilty. When I did see her, I was hidden in the willow, and I watched her shuffling through the field while the wind picked up the balloon and pulled her around, looking for me. When she called my name, crackling orange embers popped from between her lips and wound down into the dirt. She was careful to step on them to stop them lighting up the grass. I didn't want to see her. Her sadness and her hope were too big, too desperate, and while I was able to comfort her before, I had been in battle and I had become a man, and the hot milk in my belly had begun to film over and clump. I wish I had been more aware of it then. All I knew at the time was that there was something uncomfortable and frightening happening in my solar plexus, and I didn't want to share it with her.
Courdray grew. We incorporated Gumble and attracted foreign visitors. In those days, we trusted foreigners more than natives. Our enemies were natives, and the foreigners were polite and quiet and opened new and fascinating shops in the main square and sold clockwork dolls that sang our Battle Hymn in tinny, twinkling voices. Our army grew larger, and my friends and I were not the youngest soldiers anymore. We fought three more battles in Courdray before my twenty-first birthday, and the foreigners devised guns for us to mount on our rooftops, using the same strange clockwork they used to make our toys, and they sprayed bullets like a fire hose, so hot that they glowed red and turned the sky above Courdray into a bloody starscape, and we rode out into the field and killed again, and were killed again. I caught a bullet from one of our own giant clockwork rifles in the hand, and the blazing bullet itself cauterized the wound before it could bleed. I remember staring through the hole in my hand and seeing light on the other end. And I think that drove me a little crazy for a few days. We're not designed to look through meat and see light. That's not something anyone's prepared for.
I collected my courage and went to see her again, and in many ways for the last time, on my birthday. I brought along a bottle of wine, and felt hard and proud of the way I imagined myself to look, a man on his way to court a woman, using my unbandaged hand to hold the kind of sticky-sweet merlot exclusive to adults with long histories and discerning tastes. I was surprised to find that, in my months of infidelity, the cypress had finally given up and died. Its bark had turned ash-gray, and the wood beneath was the same. The branches were dry all the way through, and no good for climbing. The lowest and thickest, the one with which I was most familiar and of which I was most fond, cracked and collapsed when I put my weight on it. Then I didn't want to be there anymore.
She came to me slowly, with tiny licks of flame riding up from beneath the collar of her sundress, lighting up the night. When she reached me, I was sullen and distracted, barely aware of the sparks and sputters of her campfire head, the way her eyes glowed with the blaze behind them, or the way her exhalations funneled dark blue smoke through her nostrils. I remember the way my mother would look after a fight with my father, standing on the back porch with candles lit, staring into dusk and breathing slowly and looking exhausted, immensely sad and still somehow victorious. For me, that look will always be fused in my memory to the look on the face of the girl with the hot-air balloon attached to her shoulders on the last night I spoke to her. She said, "What's wrong?"
"Fucking tree is dead," I said.
I was angry with her then. Angry with her for aspiring to something so stupid and so pointless for so long that it had begun to come true, and I was angry because she had amazed me with those changes for so long, and I was angry because I could no longer find that place within me that used to be amazed. I said, "And? What do you mean, and? That's not enough?"
Her fragile smile cracked and collapsed like the cypress limb, then grew back stronger and angrier. That was her best kind of smile. She said, "That would be enough, but it's not all. So… And?"
"And… I really, really don't want it to be? I'm not ready."
I didn't look at her again, because I was afraid I would cry, and I had learned that the most pathetic thing in the world was a man with his own tears matting down his beard. I lit a cigarette instead and I said nothing. I leaned on the tree and crossed my arms and wedged one boot-heel against the dead wood.
When she spoke again, it was with desperate, parental impatience. She said, "Look, do you want your birthday present? Do you want it? You need to tell me now, alright, because you only have one chance to take it from me."
I kicked the bottle of wine and said, "Fine. Whatever." I think back on myself in those bloody, innocent days with so much hatred now, for the things I said and did not say.
She said, "It's happening tonight. Soon. Before the hour's done. My head will blaze and I'll fly away. I've patched the envelope and double-coated it with polyurethane and I'm ready to leave. When it happens, I'm gone forever, okay? No more bad memories, no more doomed predictions, do you understand?"
She wanted to escape, and I never even found out from what. A few more days in the field with her, still a stupid boy capable of caring for her, and maybe I would have learned. Just a few more days. Please.
I forced my eyes onto her and I said, "I understand." I tried to write a secret message in the space between our faces, tried to will her into understanding with the force of our eye contact. 'Please don't talk to me. I am so very sad these days and I don't know why, and I can't take care of your sadness anymore. Stop talking about balloons and fire and escape, because I can't stand to watch you existing, broken as you are, without wanting to weep and throw myself into your chest and wrap myself in you. Please stop. Please stop.'
I think she saw it. I will always think that. But she ignored it. She said, "No, listen. I've been thinking about this, and I can take you with me. I think I'm contagious."
That girl. Why didn't she keep pushing?
I cried, like I knew I would if I had to keep this up. And I fell against her chest and felt the heat of her head radiating down into my shoulders, and I balled my hands into the thin plaid of her dress, and her arms grew like vines around me, subtle and determined. And she said,
"Shhh. Shhh. It's okay. I'll take you with me. We'll go together. I made you an envelope. I brought a needle and some strong steel rings."
I pushed myself away from her, still crying, now howling as well, howling to approximate the sounds of an animal, because if I could not be a man I wanted to be something just as dangerous. "What do you want me to do? Huh? What do you want? You want me to run away, to abandon the war, to leave the country to the Revolutionaries? How? How am I going to do that? Huh?" Words that meant nothing said to fill the space that would otherwise have been occupied (and better occupied) by acceptance. Yes please, I should have said. Whatever you say. Save me.
She set her jaw and weathered the assault. She was a better soldier than I. And then she said, "I want you to kiss me. I'll fill your head with fire and we'll both fly."
I tried for a very long time to think of an excuse not to do it. The only one I came up with was, "I'll burn. I'm not like you. Fire burns me. I'm sorry." And that's the one I gave her, crumbling away from my anger, away from my pretenses of manhood, drowning in the heap of my forgotten childishness. I wept. Openly, and without being able to stop it. She cried a little too, and she did not take me in her arms and I did not offer to take her into mine.
She said. "Okay. Then… do me a favor?"
"Fine," I said.
She slid the sundress over her shoulders and held it above her breasts with one arm. The moon turned her skin into a blue sea, each wave capturing shadows. She said, "Check the anchors. Make sure they're tight and strong."
I ran my fingers over each of the four steel rings and found that the ropes were anchored well. I told her so. She asked me to put her dress back where it belonged, and I did, and I felt like I was amputating something from myself.
She said, "I have to lie down. The envelope needs to be above my head when it starts. Will you do me one more favor?"
I nodded. This had started to feel sacred and inevitable, and I was unable to take back the decision I had made. I only had one chance to make it.
She said, "Climb the tree and hang your hand down to me."
"It's no good for climbing."
"There's got to be someplace you can sit."
She got onto the ground and I positioned the envelope over her eyes and nose so that only her mouth peeked out. It started to expand immediately.
I told her I was in the tree, even though I wasn't. And I hung my hand down for her. She played with my fingers until the change came, and then I watched her rise, no longer able to speak or laugh because her throat and lips were buried beneath a high column of red flame. I tried to grab her hand as she went higher, but I missed it. She set the old cypress on fire, and it burnt quickly and easily, and it took much of the grass with it. The wind took her away over the trees and over the city and past the unsympathetic chopping block of the horizon line, and I went back to the city and told of the fire, and then to the barracks and tried to vomit up the curdled milk in my belly, and I failed.
I fought with the National Urban-Defense Army for six more years. I killed many men, and many men died next to me, and I swallowed them all and kept them in my belly. I left Courdray and went on the road with the National Crusaders to wipe out the Revolutionaries wherever we found them. I rose to the rank of Colonel. I set fire to a bungalow outside of Acconda because from the window we could see the flag of the Revolution hung in brash, challenging prominence, and I hid in the woods while the fire chewed through the beams and the roof, and I shot down the three Revolutionaries who ran outside, one very fat man and two women, one fat and old, one not very much younger than me. I presided over the public beheading of a Revolutionary leader from a stage set up in the hamlet of Losetino, and I asked the executioner to use my saber so that it might be honored by the death of another pestilent rat, and thereafter I picked up the head of the man and howled at the crowd, "Do you see what happens to perverts and psychopaths?" before flinging the thing into their midst. I killed children, and thereafter dreamed of being murdered in my sleep with a hunger and desire that toed the edge of obsession. And I no longer cared about war. I was not young and I was not patriotic, but I readied my rifle and I slept in shifts, not because I believed in the cause or the nation or the species, but because I was bored and angry, and the war occupied the former and stoked the latter. For a while.
I saw her again flying over a battlefield in Carschton. I almost missed her. The sky was the same color as her head, and she floated over me without a noise. I shot a young man from his horse and laughed. Then someone shot my horse in the hind leg, and he tumbled backward, throwing me off. And lying there in the dirt, I saw her. The tension and weight of her muscles was gone. Her arms and legs floated and swayed and danced, and even though I could not see her face, I will swear, here and until my death, that she was happier than any girl before or since her, happy for a simple sunset moment, red and brown and old, that allowed her to float over dead and dying men, and happy for every moment after.
They put me in the Carschton prison and they gave me an ultimatum. I could die, or I could renounce the National Crusade and side with the Revolutionaries. Propagandized as a dead man or propagandized as a living one. I told them I would very much like to die. Still, as the days and weeks moved forward and as I sat on a cold, wet, stone floor and let my fine beard go to shit and began to smell of mildew and grew sores on the bottoms of my feet, and as I awaited the triumphant moment of my public execution, I could not shake the image of her from my mind. I saw her in the shadows of the stone ceiling, in the cracks of the floor, lying on the hard cot and turning from my back to my belly, and wondering where in the world she was now. Whether she thought of me, or thought only of joy, or if the fire had obliterated her ability to think at all, and whether or not that might be better, more pure, happier, than the alternative.
They came to me at last and gave me one more chance. And I made my decision, born from the desire to see her one last time, to climb the highest tree and latch on to her dangling feet and pull myself up and find her lips and kiss them, or failing that, to shoot her down with my rifle and give myself a reason to die. They said that they didn't want me if I couldn't believe, truly and sincerely, in the cause of the Revolution. I told them that I didn't even know what the cause was. And they told me that nobody did, that wasn't the point, knowing something was not prerequisite to believing in it. And I said, "Sure. Fine."
I stayed in hotel rooms while the troops stayed in tents. I sipped whisky and smoked my pipe (cigarettes were out of fashion among the Revolutionaries, seen as common and anti-intellectual) while the soldiers killed and were killed. I made speeches and met with sympathetic sponsors and went to bed early. I was worth more alive than dead, as a symbol of the rightness and righteousness of the Revolution. I crept away and climbed trees.
Years passed. And we won.
On many occasions, I have been asked to provide some profound snippet of personal experience to sum up the Revolution, something for the benefit of future generations, something to be skimmed and forgotten in history books, and I have always obliged. It's easy to fake enthusiasm. People don't want details. They want poetics. This works out well for me, because I don't remember the details. I remember each battle before my thirtieth birthday as the same battle, glimpsed from the safety of a hotel room or a tree branch, itching with an anger that drove me toward the fray, an anger only held in check by the constant awareness that I could not allow myself to die until I had joined the girl with the hot air balloon head or brought her down. I remember weeping and cheering, which sound pretty much the same from beneath strange blankets in strange rooms. What I say when I am asked is this: "Blood spilled in the cause of freedom is sacred. It is the only sacred thing in the world." And people like that, I guess.
I was never a very good man. But, damn each step I ever took, I would have been one hell of a balloon.
I was made president of the new republic when I was thirty-seven, and I accepted on the condition that I would not have to do anything for the rest of my life. The new government boys, the ones who found enough of themselves left over after the war to give a proper fuck about governance, signed papers and made speeches, and I nodded and looked distinguished, and sneaked into dark and lonely woods to find adequate climbing trees.
I look much older than I am.
My physician says that my body is not strong enough to climb trees, that my knees are like rotten driftwood and my spine is beginning to twist, and I have satisfied myself that he is full of shit. He asked too many questions when I told him to attach the envelope to my shoulders with the four tiny surgical steel rings, and I answered him in coinage and a stiff glare. I paid a great deal of money to transplant the world's largest tree, a redwood whose height is, I understand, uncanny, but whose technical dimensions I never bothered to memorize, into the back lot of the Presidential Estate. I fastened a ladder to its trunk, and I have made a ritual of climbing it every night as the sun begins to set. In the summer, the sunset is the same color as the roaring torch of her head, a smear of livid reds and yellows. In the winter, it is the same color as her plaid sundress.
Every night, I climb the redwood with my rifle in my hand, in case I do not succeed in grabbing her fingers as she passes. I don't like to think about that possibility. That I might shoot her down instead of carry myself up. I weep when I imagine it.
In my imaginings I always see her in summer, at the highest point of the tree I can reach, cradling my rifle in my arms (it is a poor substitute for her, but it's sturdy and hard and it makes me feel the same), with my wide-brimmed hat and my dark glasses on, to keep my vision sharp in the blazing sunset. I am always alert and wary in my daydreams, and I always spot her with plenty of time to prepare for her arrival, riding across clouds the color of wine spilled on white sheets with her fingers dangling, swaying like seaweed as though she is already brushing them across my fingertips. And I say, "I found you. You were right. I should have kissed you and let you fill me up with fire and carry me away."
In the worst of my imaginings, the breeze takes her high and to the left, and my fingers are never long enough to reach hers. As she floats past, I sight the envelope (I am never crying in the imagined scene, although the real me, the one of flesh and regret, weeps in the act of fantasizing), and I fire. I reload. I fire again. I reload. I fire again. And eventually the envelope collapses, and she plummets toward a patch of ground I can't see. I have never, since the sores burnt my feet in the Carschton cell, spent a moment of awareness not hating myself for this fantasy. For the desire to steal from her the only transcendence she ever knew, to end her long experiment with happiness by reintroducing her to gravity, and to merciless impact. My only comfort is that, in this least-loved dream, this is not an act of malice. It's an act of necessity. My girl, please, you've got to believe me. I don't want to do this. But I have to. I'll never die while you still float. And if I can't join you up there… well…
Would she forgive me while she fell? Would she know that she could? Would it occur to her that I would need her to?
But. But there are other fantasies. When the wind is my collaborator, and it sends her to me, and I reach to check the anchors in my shoulders and find them sturdy. I throw my rifle down. And I reach for her fingertips.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 25th, 2012
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