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Bird and Balloon

September 15, 2008 by · 4 comments

Lauren Shows

Photo: denis collette

The sound of the hit, when it happens, is suspended in the air longer than the man himself. For a moment he’s up there, one gray nylon wing extended, the other curling around the side. His furry antennae, like his arms, are reaching up, feeling around in the air. He falls, though.

The thick noise of the car, plus man, connected, is still up there as people run close to see, their breaths whistling in their throats. I put my hands on my face. It’s Halloween, and the motionless face of this man, who is dressed as a moth, looks like the face of my favorite uncle, who died when I was eleven years old, stretched out in his bed. My mother, his sister, cried all the way, on the three hour trip to Mobile, and I twisted my ponytail and tried not to hear her. Here in the street, the man in the ridiculous moth suit shows no sign of struggle.

As a child, I collected the dust from the wings of many moths on my fingers. The insects, who smelled like earth and sugar, always spent their energy the same way: one wing flapping itself stupid, and the other pinched between my thumb and pointer. One summer on my grandmother’s red brick porch, my uncle told me not to rob the moths of their dust anymore. He held out his hand to me and opened it, and I looked down at a moth, one I had been playing with earlier, and which I had discarded. It moved lazily over the creases in my uncle’s palm, in circles, on one side.

“Why doesn’t it fly?” I asked.
“It can’t anymore.”
“Why not?”
“Because its wings aren’t strong enough.”
I looked down at the bug again, its spindly legs grasping at the space in front of it. A sudden flush of cold and warm, together, came into my chest.
“Will it die?” I asked.
My uncle looked at me. “It will.”

I cried. My uncle left the porch and, in my periphery, I saw him place the moth, gently as the air, into my grandmother’s flower bed. When he returned to sit on the stoop beside me, he told me a story, to make me feel better: that a bird, flying high one afternoon, passed a bright red balloon, floating, on its way up.

“Hello,” said the bird.
“Hello,” said the balloon.”
“What are you?”
“I’m a balloon.”
“And how do you fly?”
“With the air inside me. How do you fly?”
“With the air beneath me, and above me, and on all my sides.”
And the bird and balloon floated away from each other, both perfectly happy in flight, but each in their own way.
“Don’t balloons have to have helium in them to float though?” I said to him. “That’s not the same as air. And floating isn’t the same as flying.”
“Ok,” my uncle said. “Smart ass.” He got up and left me sitting alone on the front porch.

I sat and looked at my feet against the aging red brick. I looked out at the yard, and at the camellia tree with its dropped blossoms circling its slim trunk, until my vision blurred. I looked hard into that vague mixture of color and light for a picture, a sound, a word; a clue to whether it would be the wind inside me or around me, and how, ultimately, my flight would be taken away.

A woman, finally, approaches the man in the street, the tip of whose extended wing flaps lazily in the breeze. She lays a hand to his forehead, his neck, and pulls her hand back, a flash. A thrum of murmurs and gasps ripple through the crowd at large, whose concern is newly heightened by this brave contact.

The woman looks at her fingers, bewildered, terrified. Her expression is familiar, like the long-forgotten lyrics of a song suddenly making their way back into memory, and I can feel her apprehension on my own fingertips; it, too, is a memory.

At the wake, my cousin dared me to touch my dead uncle. I told him no, and he alluded that I, by denying, was a coward. I, eleven, proud as a royal, would tolerate no such insinuation. My grief, hushed and hidden, tucked itself behind my indignation, and I bade my cousin follow me, if he wanted to watch.

My uncle, laid out in a dark suit, had his hands clasped, lightly. With my cousin hovering near my ear, I looked around at my family members, distracted by their shock, and the absurdity of loss. I reached my hand into the casket and touched the hand of my dead uncle. The contact was cold, and thick, the way no flesh should be.

The man in the street is clearly dead, and I can only watch for so long. I pull my coat closer around me, and turn to walk. My feet quicken as I round the corner, and when I almost knock the handbag of a passing woman to the ground, I realize that I’m running. Shocked by the feeling of death beneath my fingers, I ran from my uncle too, with my cousin in tow, shouting my name. Through patches of our mourning relatives we ran, past the black leather guestbook on a pedestal and out the door.

In the diminishing pink that the departing sun was leaving, there was the sound of a coming train. My cousin and I, jogging, crossed the street. I took off my shoes and, in my best bereavement clothing, climbed a mesh fence. My cousin did the same, and we saw, in front of us, the dull rust of the train tracks. I ran ahead until my toes touched the bolts, and I heard again the whine of the approaching train, on its way to round the corner and, if allowed by our proximity, strike the life from us.

Thus, I proposed my own dare for my cousin: to stand on the side of the tracks until the train approached, and then jump off. Defiant, pre-adolescent, he agreed, and stepped up. As the whistle of the train, which showed itself around the bend now, grew louder, I could see his resolve beginning to thin. I stepped up as well, with my feet right next to his.

Two blocks away, now, from the death of the man dressed as a moth, there is a fear that clutches my throat, remembering the train’s approach, the closeness of death. Tonight I have escaped again, but the confidence I had at eleven, barefoot on the rails, is thinning.

The train came closer. I looked at my cousin, and he looked back at me, the fear pooling all around his eyes. The train horn honked at us, loud, admonishing, telling us that it couldn’t stop, for god’s sake. I could feel the heat on my face, and my cousin grabbed my hand. We smelled burning, and the wind lashed our faces. Hands clasped, in unison, we bent our knees and pushed off.

The power was there, in our legs. The end had approached fast and without mercy, and we jumped back. From the flat of our backs, we had watched it pass, quick as the air, and when we finally got up and ran away, we looked at each other, blessed and crying. We would run from death for as long as we had the power. We would, if possible, run forever.

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