Before you read this little piece of fiction, I want to give a shoutout to my friend Thomas Rakowitz, the guitarist that has inspired almost all of the writing improvisations on this blog. It’s because of him that I’ve found a style of poetry I quite love, and that means a lot to me. Well, Thomas has put out an instrumental/atmospheric album titled In the Atmosphere, which can be listened to and purchased here. It’s a wonderful piece of music, and it’s the inspiration for the story below. It’s different from the improvisations as it’s in a standard prose and had a bit more forethought/planning to it, but the spirit is still the same. It took me two listens of In the Atmosphere to write and edit this. I hope you like it, and I hope you check out the album linked above.
In the Atmosphere
The boy held onto the balloon with some level of expectance. It was a birthday gift, not the best one by any means, yet the most interesting. It floated on the air, a perfectly yellow sphere that reminded him of the sun and the stars. It tugged on the ribbon he was holding, desperate to reach the heavens and beyond. The boy understood that, sympathized with it even. He himself wanted to be an astronaut, though he would be grounded forever on Earth. Astronauts weren’t the kinds of people confined to wheelchairs.
Without thinking, the boy picked up a nearby marker and wrote the word “Legacy” on the balloon in thick, clumsy letters. He admired his work and the word. Even at nine, he dreamed of having a legacy. He didn’t know where life would take him, and while his friends had big dreams of taming lions in Africa or fighting fires or building robots, the boy knew none of those things were possible for him. Legacy was a big word and a big idea for some, but for others, for him, it was a nebulous thing to be sought after but perhaps never found.
The balloon, however, wasn’t burdened with such an affliction or cynicism. It could go up and up, to the stars and beyond. Maybe it could even reach the moon. Legacies needn’t be big, and they needn’t involve lions; they could be small things, insignificant to almost everyone but one or two. The boy could let this balloon away to where it wanted to go, and forever, long after the boy was dead, the balloon would remember him. Maybe it would even talk of him, of the sad boy who secretly cried on his birthday because the world had decided he wasn’t fit to dream big.
With hardly a movement, the boy let the balloon go. It was slow to rise at first, almost afraid. Or perhaps it was sad. It had only known the boy for a short time, yet it had already developed a friendly rapport with him, silence being their favorite topic. But soon it was rising with gusto, its purple ribbon waving goodbye to the boy and the earth. Legacy was going up and up, and while the balloon was turning into a smiling star, the boy was crying. He had let another dream go, and he was afraid he would soon run out of them.
The balloon vanished out of sight, and the boy closed his eyes, blinking away the tears. It wouldn’t do to let his friends and family see him cry, to see him weak. Yet he kept his eyes closed all the same, not wanting to look at the empty sky where the balloon had gone. That was too painful. He kept his eyes closed and thought, and in that act of thinking, a small piece of his imagination left his head and grabbed onto the balloon’s purple ribbon.
The balloon rose, and from the its high perspective, a lost satellite looking for a home, the universe was huge and beautiful. The blue of the sky had paled, a hushing exhale that brought the balloon higher still. Everything was light and fragile, and the balloon felt safe, far away from the points and hard surfaces of the ground. It looked up yet, aiming for the stars and the moon. It was so close to them now, and they were getting ever closer.
Then it stopped. Something was wrong. The balloon urged itself higher, reaching for space and solar winds that would take it anywhere and everywhere, but nothing happened. It was stuck. Space was above, so close yet so far away, and the ground was below, a lifetime ago that was only minutes past. The balloon was stuck, trapped in the atmosphere with both everything it ever wanted and everything it ever knew far out of reach.
Yet before the balloon could fall into despair at a legacy uncompleted and friends long gone, a strong wind from Earth’s farthest corner began to blow. It was a warm air, the color of lilacs, and it soothed the balloons sadness away. Within the air came memories, golden thoughts of places amazing and strange, of colors and smells foreign to all but a lucky few who had discovered the ways of the atmosphere.
The balloon latched onto those memories, those secret ideas, and began to sail away. The sky flew by at an exhilarating speed, blowing the balloon this way and that, past stationary clouds and floating raindrops, past dust particles as old as time and rays of sunlight from suns outside of Earth’s little solar system. On and on the balloon raced, crossing the atmosphere until it wasn’t just in it but inside it, the thin veil that is the sky having given its permission for travels far more interesting and important than the emptiness of space.
Colors exploded around the balloon, falling and swirling as time began to grow strange and vacant. A great city flew by, its enormous wings like that of an angel flapping in time to the melody of a complex and heavy song. The music didn’t float, it fell, but that was okay, because all of the glass buildings and skyscrapers pointed downwards to whatever world was below. The music sank, and the strange people in the strange city heard it and sang along, their voices like that of a thousand cicadas. The city dove, its wings folding in, and soon it was far under the balloon, heading somewhere out of reach and sight. The balloon continued.
A heavy rain came, riding an enormous bronze cloud that smelled of honey. The water fell upwards, its drops thick with dust and perhaps something more. Perhaps the building blocks of life were in those drops, wiggling around and talking of their own legacies that would one day come to be. Opportunity shined from them, for beasts large and small, for creatures that could talk and sing and create, for mythical dragons and terrifying krakens.
The balloon watched as the cloud hit a hard point in the air and broke apart, the heavy rains now playing the part of propellant as small chunks of matter and dust exploded everywhere. Some fell to the ground, others flew towards the stars, yet most went into the atmosphere, vanishing out of sight to reappear somewhere else, somewhere where new legacies could begin.
Onwards the balloon went, riding the currents of forever. Suns of every color rose and set, always turning the tapestry of reality into a kaleidoscope of images, smells, and memories. Creatures of every fashion came and went, some with wings and others without, some of biology and others of geology, some of matter and some of light, and the balloon saw and made a note of all of them. The balloon tried to talk to a few, to tell them of the boy who set such a wonderful journey in motion, but the balloon could not speak. It was only a balloon, one blessed with a foreign imagination, but still only a balloon. But it did have its word and its name, and that seemed to be enough. Always the strangers would stop and stare, and the intelligent ones would wave and read the word “legacy” with a knowing smile. Then they would go back to their harvests or dances, leaving the balloon to soar into the atmosphere and onto the next world.
Eventually the balloon became homesick. It loved the adventure it was on, and it loved the strange people it had seen, but it was growing tired of the tireless winds and seeing both space and the ground far out of reach. The balloon wanted to rest, but more than that, the balloon wanted to see the sad child again. It longed to speak to that boy, to tell him that dreams and legacies weren’t set in stone, that wonderful things could happen to even the most unremarkable people and objects. Life was a journey, and one with unspeakable beauty hidden between the seams. Because for those special few, blessed with a little bit of luck and the yearning to explore, the atmosphere was there, waiting to take them anywhere.
The balloon wanted to do what the child had done for it, to help him see the worlds between the winds, the worlds within the atmosphere.
The balloon floated onwards, now looking for a way down. It continued to try and speak to those it saw, to tell them of the boy and its want to return home, but no words would come from its thin rubber surface. Eventually the balloon’s color began to fade and dirty, and eventually the word “legacy” became smudged and hard to read. Soon, the strangers the balloon found were paying it no mind, for now the balloon had nothing it could say. Without the word, it was just an object, lazily floating through places it did not belong. No one bothered to notice the little piece of imagination still stuck to the balloon’s ribbon. Time passed. The balloon continued to fade, and its ribbon started to fray and wither.
A new storm billowed out from an invisible cloud, bringing with it hail and lightning. The balloon was rocked back and forth, and it was pelted with icicles that weighed nothing. The balloon felt its seams stretch, felt its ribbon begin to loosen, and it held on to form and life with all of its power. It tried to entangle a piece of ice within its ribbon, to give it weight to fall, but its ribbon lacked muscle and the ice was weightless. A strike of lightning exploded past the balloon, clipping its ribbon. The balloon felt no pain as a piece of itself fell away and blew randomly within the wind, now on its own journey, different and devoid of imagination.
Perhaps it was a change in pressure, or perhaps it was the simple feeling of desolation, but eventually the balloon began to grow heavy and tired. It felt itself sink and droop, and it knew what was left of the ribbon was beginning to unwind. The piece of imagination held on, afraid the ribbon would break completely and it would be lost to the winds forever. Luck, perhaps the same luck that saw the balloon placed in the hand of a sad nine-year old and not that of a happy child filled with the energy of youth and promise, kept the string attached and the descent in motion.
The ground grew in size and clarity, and the balloon felt the powers and the winds of the atmosphere recede until they were far behind. It spiraled downwards, thick and heavy but with just enough lift to hold onto hope. This had to be the right world, the right home, and the boy who wrote the word “Legacy” so long ago had to be below.
The balloon landed in a yard, and a boy in a wheelchair, very puzzled and perhaps a little afraid, approached it. The boy ignored the leftover party streamers and his parents talking while they bagged up paper plates and cups, and the boy ignored the strange feeling that something amazing was about to happen. He wanted to believe, yet he didn’t want to be disappointed. He was too used to disappointment.
The boy picked up the dirty, faded balloon, and a little piece of imagination, small and seemingly insignificant, jumped from what was left of the purple ribbon and into his mind.
The boy gasped.
The boy smiled
The boy saw everything, and he remembered the strange journey until the day he died, stricken by old age on a place far from home, a strange and beautiful place floating within the atmosphere.