S H O R T S T O R Y
b y d o r e n e o ' b r i e n ~
w e s t b l o o m f i e l d , m i c h i g a n
A PERUVIAN child in the Andean mountain village of Arequipo writes a short note in practiced English and, with great determination, forces it into the mouth of a balloon he has received during Monteval, a religious feast beckoning Christ's return. The other children call him loco for parting with his treasure, but he knows from years past the disappointment that grips his heart when the balloon becomes frail and dies, leaving him with nothing more than a shriveled pool of rubber. This year, the balloon will ferry his message of faith to the heavens.
He climbs to the top of the largest hill where the llamas graze and throws the balloon into the air. The green bubble pitches wildly at first, threatening even to come down, and the child blows into the air to facilitate its journey. A wind that has swept up from across the Argentinean pampas catches the balloon and carries it westward beyond the village, and the child praises the Virgin for the miracle of his lungs.
The balloon rises quickly and rides El Niño over the Nazca Ridge in the Peru Basin where a team of oceanographers in an orange dinghy collects water samples in an effort to determine the effect of unusually warm water on the anchovy stock. One of the survey members, the young woman in khaki shorts and a baseball cap responsible for taking water temperatures, smiles as she points to the sky. The other researchers dismiss her, this American who stares into space when thousands will die without a protein source to weave into the local food chain.
Atmospheric pressure forces the balloon downward as it approaches the Galapagos Islands, and it touches the back of a snub-nosed snapping turtle on the island of Genovesa before coasting northwest over the Clipperton Fracture Zone. Several sailors on the Kiribati, an Australian freighter carrying teak to California, spot the green ball through their binoculars and bet a week's salary over who can shoot it down. Each fires one shot and misses before the rain pelts the balloon down to the ocean, where it plummets into a large, caged buoy fastened to the north side of the Clarion Shipping Channel. The buoy, with its captive ball, bobs in the waves for several hours before the gale subsides. The sun spreads across the water, drying the balloon's shrunken skin and releasing it from its cage to soar southward toward Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands where three young boys risk life and limb to pluck it from the highest leaves of a giant palm.
"There's something inside," exclaims the boy who first reaches the top. But they will never know what the balloon contains as they are eager, impatient boys who snatch and pull the balloon until it jumps from their hands and catches a northwest trade wind that takes it treacherously close to a jagged outcrop of Kingman Reef. There it lies suspended in the doldrums for several hours. It has grown smaller during the course of its travels, but as the water cools, the bubble rises into the warm air and is again pushed and tossed by atmospheric forces which carry it toward Japan. A small portion of the green latex is covered with ash as it sweeps over the Marianas Trench during a volcanic eruption, and the heat blows the balloon over Yokohama. A suicidal young girl who has just requested a sign from the Buddha is painting delicate and minuscule flowers on rice paper, and she gazes through her window as the balloon passes overhead.
Sweeping across the Continental Slope, the balloon sails down the middle of the South China Sea and over the Malay Peninsula into the Bay of Bengal where it is spiked into the air by a hungry shark that has mistaken it for a tropical bird. A warm front ushers the balloon almost directly north; it crosses the Ganges and begins a short descent into Lhasa, dipping into the lush gardens of a Tibetan monastery. A young monk there meditates on the green ball for several hours as it sways in the tiger reeds. He approaches the balloon, gently pulls it from greedy reed fingers and uses his own lithe and nimble hands to easily untie the knot at its base. While placing the bubble to his lips and firmly holding its neck, the monk sees the paper inside. Blowing into the journey-worn balloon slowly, he watches the ash branch across its skin like cracks. He double-knots the neck and secures this message he believes is meant for someone else. The bubble flies like a Mandarin duck from the monk's outstretched hands, over the heads of temple orchids and cherry blossoms, and catches a wind gust toward the Arabian Sea.
Several American soldiers kayaking in the Gulf of Oman salute the teetering balloon, calling it the latest development in US espionage and directing it with their paddles toward Iraq. It does not follow their directions, however, and floats toward Egypt, landing on the east side of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. An elderly couple, tourists laboriously climbing the stairs of the monolith, notices a small green ball against the brown backdrop of desert.
"Do you see it?" the woman asks her husband.
"Yes," he says, holding his chest and wheezing. "It's a sign."
They turn back.
The balloon sails up the side of the pyramid and settles near the peak when a gyrfalcon lights to study the strange object. Losing interest, the bird pushes off the great stone slab, its wings creating an undercurrent that forces the balloon straight up and into a northeasterly trade that pushes it toward the Mediterranean Sea. There an American hot-air balloonist in the process of a solo transworld flight spots the green dot and maneuvers his craft toward it; he is straying somewhat off course, but he is an adventurous and determined man.
"Well, hello, friend," says the balloonist, netting the bubble from the air after multiple attempts, his determination fueled by the fact that he has seen nothing but clouds and the inside of his craft for three weeks. It is when he ties a shoelace to the balloon's rubber lip and fastens it to the wall of the gondola that he notices the paper inside.
"Well, I'll be," he says before radioing his personally-funded command center to tell them of his find. Herbie, a bright and promising public relations graduate, generates a press release telling the world that the message in the mysterious balloon will, upon the rich American's landing, be broadcast live. Newscasters everywhere mention the message during their solo-flight updates, and the world becomes interested in a small green balloon.
Storms toss the craft into Libyan air space, and the pilot tells the green ball he will be certain to release it if they are hit. After several desperate hours of shifting ballast and pumping flames, however, the balloonist manages to glide toward Tunisia, then over Algeria and finally Spain before approaching the great expanse of the Atlantic.
"We're almost there," he pats the small green head, which has shrunken to a quarter of its original size.
The air-balloon sweeps over the Azores, dips near the Bermuda Rise and rides out a gale over Cape Hatteras before the balloonist cradles the bubble in his hands and peers through its thickening skin. His hands tremble as he unties the shoelace, and he holds the balloon to the sun in an effort to better see the note inside. Somewhere over the Appalachian Mountains, he stares at his empty hand, feels his numb fingers clutching the basket wall as he loses sight of the balloon in the evergreens below.
Bouncing along on a mountain drift, the ball sweeps over Cherokee Lake and skirts Powell Gulch before plopping uneventfully into the backyard of a Burnside, Kentucky woman who hangs sheets on a clothesline while mumbling to herself.
"Clive, you rotten bastard," she sniffles as she touches her growing belly.
She turns to blow her nose into her apron, and it is then that she notices the green blob in her tomato garden. The balloon's skin is pinched, crusty in spots, and she is about to toss it into the scrap pile when she feels the hard paper inside.
Newscasters laugh as they request a nationwide search for the escape balloon with its Rosetta Stone, but the jilted woman from Burnside, like Cinderella, will keep her glass slipper safe until the miracle is wrought. She clutches the note, her talisman, to her chest, as she reads again the dim words:
He will return.
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