When the girl was young her father made a hot air balloon, taking her to pick out a basket, stitching silk, tying ropes, and tucking a cloud inside to make it rise. The father became a balloonist and used to take lumbering tourists bobbing into the clouds, and sometimes he took the girl with him. One day as they were flying, darkness suddenly pillowed the air, and storm winds burst around them, carrying the hot air balloon thousands of feet higher, and in the midst of sleeting mayhem all the tourists jumped with their parachutes, and the girl jumped with her parachute, but her father stayed in the balloon and the air grew too thin to breathe when it soared into the icy atmosphere.
Then the girl sought a balloon of her own. She looked in chests of drawers, and used to hide from people by moving the backs of drawers forward and sitting very still while the wooden slots shifted around her as if woven, and then she would appear tucked inside a drawer, and people built a stage around her and called it magic.
Her father’s balloon was recovered at last near an old farmhouse, and there the girl met a flea sucking blood from a mouse, and decided to fill her balloon with blood. It would not float or anything so dangerous, but fill the balloon lying around the basket with a gelatinous red sea. The guilty farmer agreed to supply pigs’ blood and the flea was quite happy with the arrangement but spectators complained of the smell and no one wanted to float in a puddle of blood, and so the girl emptied the balloon and tried filling it again with small monkeys waving their arms; eventually they learned to act out scenes from popular movies, mesmerizing crowds as dark figures casting shadows against the balloon’s bright silk, miming kisses or murder, dramatic scenes in makeshift hospital rooms with monkey beds, and prison scenes with monkey bars. The pantomime amused spectators and eventually these reenactments became more popular than the movies themselves, with hundreds of gatherers and picnic baskets every night gathered around a circus behind the curtain of the balloon, while the girl stood underneath reciting dialogue. Again the flea was satisfied, but the girl longed to travel.
And so she trained the monkeys to stitch wheels onto the bottom of the balloon, and she bade the monkeys farewell, and the flea sat on her shoulder holding a strand of the girl’s hair as the balloon filled with air like a sail and she steered it down highways and into the desert, toward Las Vegas. The lights near the city shone like stars inside a balloon, and the girl was tired. She’d had one or two naps as the balloon zoomed down the highway and the flea steered as best it could, but she found the wind whipping around her ears too distracting, and the clouds shone in the moonlight that night, chasing her, and then she began reaching up, bringing them under her arms and tucking them into her thin heart.
Once in our village there was a cripple who’d lost all his limbs in the war, a stump of a man until he put his hooks on in the morning. He used to tease us by saying his arms were off writing great adventures without him, and so we stomped through nettles surrounding the deepest and smallest cellars we knew he’d never wiggle into, and we climbed gnarled trees to search in hollow knots we knew he couldn’t reach, and we slid down wells and wandered into caves and rummaged through tall haystacks. These places marked the only dark recesses where we found the cripple’s slips of paper. We found a tale about the sun descending from the middle of the sky onto land, blazing into a black hole. We found a tale about drops of water turning into animals that howled when they were poured into glasses and laughed when they were in the shower and mewed in lakes and ponds. We found a tale about a boy born with teeth made of torches, and he won all the eating contests. We loved the tales but they were unfinished, for after the sun set and the animals were discovered and the boy won the last contest, we could not see them anymore, only our dirty hands, and so we hid in the places we found the tales, hoping the endings would arrive. Many hours passed, and our parents became concerned, and then petrified, and then frantic. By midnight our village blamed the soldier, whose sudden appearance had made us all disappear. A rope was slung over a sturdy branch, and as we heard the mob, we understood that we had to go back. We approached the mob in the night, just as the noose was placed around the cripple’s neck while he balanced the stump of his body in a seat. Beheading must’ve seemed cruel. We screamed for attention, holding his slips of paper high above our heads, and some of them we balled up and ate, and some of them we tied around our wrists. The villagers lifted the noose from the cripple’s neck and stood for a moment looking sheepish. “Send me a paper bird!” the cripple called. And we folded his pages quickly and sailed them on their way. But not all of them.
The woman lived in a poultry house converted from a knight’s castle, amidst cold stones, feathers, and a damp oil smell. The crows called to her, and the chickens followed her around her small dirt yard where the moat had been. There once was a lady of the house who broke her leg in a riding accident caused by a faulty gate built by a reckless man, who was punished by riding a wooden horse with bricks on his feet, except the girl of the house knew him from how he would climb trees to get nests for her, and rescued him by begging her father to let him go. And this was the girl who rode a horse behind her dad, surveyed all of her land, and believed the world could be claimed in a strong-muscled gallop. At dinner her mom and dad struck each other, and at dinner a prince kissed her hand, and the girl struck him. Soon the prince proposed marriage, but the prince was a wooden horse, and the girl ran away to the sea, and the sea carried her to nest at a ferry landing. Soon she began ferrying the boat herself, riding the muscled waves, growing them in her arms as she chopped wood, wrapping them in a felt blanket at night to bear the spitting ice coming from underneath the door. When she left, the birds followed her, and she came to rest on her land again, a family of foul, a knight’s castle and nesting in the hay, with neighs of the horses nearby.
He scooped it out of a puddle, and when he inspected the world in his coffee cup he looked past the round disks floating like tiny magnifying lenses. As he bent closer, people emerged, gazing at swans by the lake, in britches fighting, but everyone fought, in defense or in aggression. They clobbered one another, sliced and ate each other whole. The man put a drop of apple juice in the mug so the tiny people could see one another in golden hue. And no, though this time the people were naked, they remained at odds with even the people sitting on grassy knolls, gazing at the pale sky, whom they bluntly struck, tore apart, and ate. The man retrieved a bottle and poured red wine into the water and all the people floated now in a red sea, reaching for one another, still naked, but for violence or love the man could not tell.
LYDIA SHIP'S stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Barrow Street, Denver Quarterly, Pleiades, and others. She lives in Atlanta and is the managing editor of The Chattahoochee Review.