In the moonlight, I dropped light as a feather from my bedroom window to the cellar door and ran to look around the corner of the house. There I stopped and gazed across our bean field, across Cummings Creek road, and across Beaver Grove to the gap.
The gap, formed between two peaks in an otherwise unremarkable range of mountains, was plainly silhouetted in the moonlight. Musing upon the landscape, I recalled again and again what I alone had witnessed a few hours earlier – a huge balloon passing briefly between the two peaks of the ridge.
It had been difficult to make out the markings on the balloon in the glare of the setting sun, but each time I reviewed the scene in my memory, the markings shown brighter and clearer – a crimson cross superimposed over broad vertical stripes of gold and sky blue. I wanted desperately to find that balloon and show the rest of my family how blind they were.
“Isabel Lazarus!” Momma had said, “What would people think if they was to drive by and see one of my children just standin’ around when she had work to do?”
Daddy, too, had got mad at me for dropping my bucket and gawking at the horizon. “These’ll be ‘bout the last beans we’ll get this year. You ought to stick to your pickin’ and not worry about what passes through the gap,” he grumbled.
Cedric made fun of my excitement. “Looky! Looky!” he mimicked.
If they could see the balloon for themselves, I thought, they would know it was worth dropping everything for, and they would be sorry for the way they had treated me. The rest of the evening, I had wished it could be so. Now, in the moonlight…
In two bounds, I was halfway to the road, floating. The instant I remembered the tigers, though, one of them gave chase. Furthermore, my stride began to shorten, my legs became heavy, and I found myself entangled in the underbrush of the grove. And the tiger was breathing hot on my neck.
Suddenly a bearded man with a staff appeared from a clearing and erased the tiger with a whack. He spoke gently to me, lifted me up into the basket of his balloon, and soon we were looking down on my family’s farm.
We could see right through the roof of the house. We could see Momma and Daddy and Cedric asleep. We could see into their heads and see their restless dreams. In their dreams, they were searching for me, desperately calling to me. And, finding me again and again, they wept with relief and hugged me and told me they loved me.
“This is really your dream, you know,” smiled the balloon man.
Then I saw myself asleep. I could see into my own head and see my own dreams. I was dreaming that I was flying and watching myself asleep, dreaming.
With a parting glance at the balloon, I saw that the cross was really a ragged patch where the fabric had been violently torn. “Some people don’t like balloons.” There was pity in the bearded man’s voice.
Surprised to find myself in bed, I could not tell what was real. I closed my eyes and tried to continue my flight, but the man and the balloon were gone.
Morning brought Sunday and church. After the services, Daddy drove into town so we could get some ice cream. And there on the square was the balloon! It was as tall as the steeple of the white church across the street, and it was beautiful – vertical stripes of gold, sky blue, and crimson.
A clean-shaven man with a round hat and colorful jacket was announcing the coming of a circus. It would be the greatest event in the history of the town. It would draw folks from miles around, and it would lift people’s spirits higher than they could imagine.
To get attention, the man would sell rides in his tethered balloon for a nickel, but first he wanted someone to go up with him for free just to show how it worked.
“There’s just the young lady,” he announced. “Pretty bows and all,” and he started toward me. My heart raced with joy. It felt like a dream.
As the man put his hands under my arms to lift me over the red rope that separated him from the crowd, I saw the look on Cedric’s face.
“No,” I said. “Take my brother.”
On the drive home, Cedric teased me about being too scared to take the ride, but he knew that was not the reason I gave it up. And, besides, I could tell his teasing was merely obligatory.
Daddy said, “Well, I declare, Izzy!” He wore a smile of appreciation as he looked down at me. But neither he nor momma emancipated me from my daily chores. In fact, my family was not much different after the balloon. But I was. In my six-year-old heart, something was completely new. I had found a confidence I had never known and an unexplainable compassion toward my betters that has not left me to this day. And I am an old woman now.