Gerald had been walking for a long time. The pain that had begun in his feet had now spread all the way up his legs, and the tiredness that had started in his eyes had spread through his brain and into his soul. He wasn’t even sure why he was still walking. There was no where to go. Nothing in this valley was worth getting to, and there was no way out of this valley.
The dark trees pressed close on every side, shadows hung beneath their branches, tangled vines breathed out decay. Gerald shuddered at one brushed his shoulder. This was why he kept walking. He couldn’t shake the feeling that if he stopped, those vines would wrap him up tight, and he would disappear forever.
Eventually, of course, he would have to stop, would have to sleep, as he had for nights past counting in this dreadful valley. When he could walk no more, he would find a spot, something not too close to any one tree, make a small pile of leaves and sleep where he dropped. He would wake with the first dim light from his dark dreams, and he would walk again. There was nothing else to do.
Just as Gerald was about to face the beginning of another such horrible night, he heard a noise. Not the eternal droning of the stinging insects, not the rustle of the creeping things among the leaves. A sharp noise. THWAP! And again. THWAP! It was the sound of something different. Something that didn’t belong among these trees. Gerald loved that sound.
He walked faster on legs that didn’t know how, so the last few steps were a stumble out through clutching vines. The first thing he notices on the other side was the sky. He was standing under a sky he hadn’t seen for days past remembering. He had grown used to the constant overhang of branches, so the vastness up above stopped him cold, as he breathed and breathed and breathed air that hadn’t been trapped under leaves until it was dead. This air was coming from up there, up by those stars, Gerald imagined, because it had the tang of far away places, cleaner places.
With his head thrown back to drink in the sky, it was a few moments before Gerald even saw the giant balloon in front of him. When he did, he thought it the most wonderful and terrifying thing he had ever seen. A whole rainbow of the brightest colors stretched across it’s rounded surface, so brilliant after a lifetime of faded greens and browns that Gerald almost felt that he needed to shield his eyes. Had anything ever been more alien than this globe of beauty in this hideous place?
“Oh yes,” said a voice, the first words Gerald had heard in so long, and a hand was placed on Gerald’s shoulder, the first touch Gerald had felt in so long. “She really is amazing.”
Gerald turned to see who this mind-reader could be and saw a man in the second half of his life, strongly built and browned from a sun Gerald had forgotten. The man was smiling as he studied his miraculous balloon, and Gerald thought him even more alien than the contraption.
“Come, friend, you have walked far. You need rest and real food. And I need to get back to work.”
Gerald saw then that the man was holding an ax in one hand, and he saw the branches strewn along was appeared to be the bank of a dried out river. The man led him down across this choked stream bed and over to where his balloon rested. A large basket was hung beneath that impossible ball, a basket big enough for a man to stand in, and from here the man produced bread and fruit and a jar of clear, cold water. Gerald forgot everything else in the taste of something clean, something filling. His legs gave way beneath him as he ate, and he slumped back against the basket, feeling something he couldn’t name, something warm and covered, like a rabbit deep in its hole.
While Gerald ate, he watched the man at his strange work. All along the river bank he went, swinging his ax at the branches overhanging the dry river, attacking the trees with an energy that Gerald could not comprehend. When he had gone several paces up the bank, he crossed over and resumed his attack on the other side. When nothing but sky showed above the stretch of rocks and weeds, the man came and sat by Gerald, wiping his ax carefully and taking long drinks from the water jar.
Gerald’s questions pushed insistently out, “Who…? What…?” His voice, so long unused, resisted.
The man did not seem to notice any lack. He answered the questions as if they had been whole, but his answers were as foreign as he was. The balloon was one of a kind, made by his father. It could float up off the ground and fly through the sky. That was how the man came here, to this horrible forest, which he had seen from up above. He had seen right away what needed to be done, and now he was doing it.
With that confusing information ringing in Gerald’s head, the man stood up and set back to work, this time with a shovel, digging out the brush along the bottom of the river, clearing a path for water that didn’t exist. Gerald stared at this useless effort until his own exhaustion sent him off to sleep.
For two days Gerald watched the strange man work and thought about a balloon that could fly up over the tree tops. The man had said that when he was finished with his work, he would get into that basket and let the balloon take him up and over the distant mountains to his home on the other side. Gerald wasn’t sure if he believed the stories the man told about the other side of the mountains. Open fields? Wild flowers? Clear, clean water? Trees that gave fruit to eat? That last part Gerald was sure was an invention. Trees didn’t give. Trees took. They gobbled up sunlight and choked off space and consumed hope.
He did love to hear the man’s stories about flying, though. The feel of wind on your face, the open air all around, the trees shrunken into insignificance below. He even believed the stories. After all, this man had come from somewhere, and it was certainly not this forest.
The man had said he would take Gerald with him when he left, when he finished his work. All the third night, Gerald stayed awake and thought about this. He thought about leaving, imagined himself in that small basket. The man had shown him how the simple controls lifted the balloon up and brought it down. Gerald pictured himself flying. Then he thought about the man’s work. He sweated from dawn until dark every day, and what was he accomplishing? Clearing a river that had no water, gouging out part of a forest that would only grow back to cover it. When would he ever be finished?
Just before daybreak, Gerald made up his mind. Stepping over the sleeping man, he carefully untied the ropes that bound the balloon. As he climbed into the basket, he could feel it beginning to rise just a little. Gerald’s heart thumped wildly. He reached for pull that would take him higher, trying not to look at the still-sleeping man below him. Up he went, up, up, up. The feeling was even better than the man had described.
Gerald rose above the trees. The freedom was exhilarating. He rose higher, felt a breeze, cold and sharp, that he had never felt before. Higher and higher the balloon went, into air that smelled clean and fresh. Gerald felt his head clearing. He was more awake than he had ever been.
The sun peaked over the horizon, and the world opened up to Gerald’s eyes. He saw the mountains, seeming so much closer from this height, thrust majestically toward the skies, their blue and purple sides emanating power, their frosted tops pointing up in challenge. He saw the pale haze of the land on the other side, saw a twist of river and a sparkle of lake, a patchwork quilt of fields and orchards, where plants grew under the order of men and provided food for their masters. It was a paradise.
Then Gerald looked down. Below him stretched the dark forest, looking from here like a shadow upon the land. The tangle of green was uninterrupted as far as the eye could see, bounded only by the impossible height of the mountains in the distance. Gerald knew there were men under that dense carpet. He had heard them, had seen traces of their passing, but they were all hidden, hidden from his eyes as from the sun’s rays which now played over the treetops, seeking a way through the branches and finding no entrance.
No entrance but one. At last Gerald saw directly below, and he clutched the side of the basket with fingers that didn’t even feel the fibers. For there was the river, cleared now for a quarter mile in either direction, a single line of pale brown cutting through that impossible green. And Gerald saw it for what it was: a sign, a path, an arrow pointing straight at the mountains and freedom.
For a long time Gerald hung suspend in the air, dividing his longing looks between the beautiful haze in the distance and that one pitiful slash below. He thought of life in a the clear air under the shining sun. He thought of his life of wandering in the gloom, of the screams he had heard in the distance.
Gerald slowly brought the balloon back down through the treetops. He was just tying off the last rope when the man woke up with his usual morning smile. Gerald couldn’t quite smile back. But after he handed the man his ax, he swung the shovel onto his own shoulder, and the two men set off along the riverbed together.