She would see them in the twilight when the wind was right, roly-poly shapes propelled by ocean breezes, turning end-over-end along the beach or down the alley behind her house like errant beach balls granted a moment’s freedom. Sometimes they would get caught up against a building or stuck on a curb and then spindly little arms and legs would unfold from their fat bodies until they could push themselves free and go rolling with the wind again. Like flotsam in a river, like tumbleweeds, only brightly colored in primary reds and yellows and blues.
They seemed very solid until the wind died down. Then she would watch them come apart the way morning mist will when the sun burns it away, the bright colors turning to ragged ribbons that tattered smoke-like until they were completely gone.
Those were special nights, the evenings that the Balloon Men came.
* * *
In the late sixties in Haight-Ashbury, she talked about them once. Incense lay thick in the air—two cones of jasmine burning on a battered windowsill. There was an old iron bed in the room, up on the third floor of a house that no one lived in except for runaways and street people. The mattress had rust-colored stains on it. The incense covered the room’s musty smell. She’d lived in a form of self-imposed poverty back then, but it was all a part of the Summer of Love.
“I know what you mean, man,” Greg Longman told her. “I’ve seen them.”
He was wearing a dirty white T-shirt with a simple peace symbol on it and scuffed plastic thongs. Sticking up from the waist of his bell-bottomed jeans at a forty-five degree angle was a descant recorder. His long blonde hair was tied back with an elastic. His features were thin—an ascetic-looking face, thin and drawn-out from too much time on the streets with too little to eat, or from too much dope.
“They’re like…” His hands moved as he spoke, trying to convey what he didn’t feel words alone could say—a whole other language, she often thought, watching the long slender fingers weave through the air between them. “…they’re just too much.”
“You’ve really seen them?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah. Except not on the streets. They’re floating high up in the air, y’know, like fat little kites.”
It was such a relief to know that they were real.
“’Course,” Greg added, “I gotta do a lot of dope to clue in on ’em, man.”
* * *
Ellen Brady laid her book aside. Leaning back, she flicked off the light behind her and stared out into the night. The memory had come back to her, so clear, so sharp, she could almost smell the incense, see Greg’s hands move between them, little colored after-image traces following each movement until he had more arms than Kali.
She wondered what had ever happened to the Balloon Men.
Long light-brown hair hung like a cape to her waist. Her parents were Irish—Munster O’Healys on her mother’s side, and Bradys from Derry on her father’s. There was a touch of Spanish blood in her mother’s side of the family, which gave her skin its warm dark cast. The Bradys were pure Irish and it was from them that she got her big-boned frame. And something else. Her eyes were a clear grey—twilight eyes, her father had liked to tease her, eyes that could see beyond the here and now into somewhere else.
She hadn’t needed drugs to see the Balloon Men.
Shifting in her wicker chair, she looked up and down the beach, but it was late and the wind wasn’t coming in from the ocean. The book on her lap was a comforting weight and had, considering her present state of mind, an even more appropriate title. How to Make the Wind Blow. If only it was a tutor, she thought, instead of just a collection of odd stories.
The author’s name was Christy Riddell, a reed-thin Scot with a head full of sudden fancies. His hair was like an unruly hedgerow nest and he was half a head shorter than she, but she could recall dancing with him in a garden one night and she hadn’t had a more suitable partner since. She’d met him while visiting friends in a house out east that was as odd as any flight of his imagination. Long rambling halls connected a bewildering series of rooms, each more fascinating than the next. And the libraries. She’d lived in its libraries.
“When the wind is right,” began the title story, the first story in the book, “the wise man isn’t half so trusted as the fool.”
Ellen could remember when it was still a story that was told without the benefit of pen and paper. A story that changed each time the words traveled from mouth to ear:
* * *
There was a gnome, or a gnomish sort of a man, named Long who lived under the pier at the end of Main Street. He had skin brown as dirt, eyes blue as a clear summer sky. He was thin, with a fat tummy and a long crooked nose, and he wore raggedy clothes that he found discarded on the beach and wore until they were threadbare. Sometimes he bundled his tangled hair up under a bright yellow cap. Other times he wove it into many braids festooned with colored beads and the discarded tabs from beer cans that he polished on his sleeve until they were bright and shiny.
Though he’d seem more odd than magical to anyone who happened to spy him out wandering the streets or along the beach, he did have two enchantments.
One was a pig that could see the wind and follow it anywhere. She was pink and fastidiously clean, big enough to ride to market—which Long sometimes did—and she could talk. Not pig-talk, or even pig-Latin, but plain English that anyone could understand if they took the time to listen. Her name changed from telling to telling, but by the time Long’s story appeared in the book either she or Christy had settled on Brigwin.
Long’s other enchantment was a piece of plain string with four complicated elf-knots tied in it—one to call up a wind from each of the four quarters. North and south. East and west. When he untied a knot, that wind would rise up and he’d ride Brigwin in its wake, sifting through the debris and pickings left behind for treasures or charms, though what Long considered a treasure, another might throw out, and what he might consider a charm, another might see as only an old button or a bit of tangled wool. He had a good business trading his findings to woodwives and witches and the like that he met at the market when midnight was past and gone, ordinary folk were in bed, and the beach towns belonged to those who hid by day, but walked the streets by night.
* * *
Ellen carried a piece of string in her pocket, with four complicated knots tied into it, but no matter how often she undid one, she still had to wait for her winds like anyone else. She knew that strings to catch and call up the wind were only real in stories, but she liked thinking that maybe, just once, a bit of magic could tiptoe out of a tale and step into the real world. Until that happened, she had to be content with what writers like Christy put to paper.
He called them mythistories, those odd little tales of his. They were the ghosts of fancies that he would track down from time to time and trap on paper. Oddities. Some charming, some grotesque. All of them enchanting. Foolishness, he liked to say, offered from one fool to others.
Ellen smiled. Oh, yes. But when the wind is right…
She’d never talked to Christy about the Balloon Men, but she didn’t doubt that he knew them.
Leaning over the rail of the balcony, two stories above the walkway that ran the length of the beach, Christy’s book held tight in one hand, she wished very hard to see those roly-poly figures one more time. The ocean beat its rhythm against the sand. A light breeze caught at her hair and twisted it into her face.
When the wind is right.
Something fluttered inside her, like wings unfolding, readying for flight. Rising from her chair, she set the book down on its wicker arm and went inside. Down the stairs and out the front door. She could feel a thrumming between her ears that had to be excitement moving blood more quickly through her veins, though it could have been the echo of a half-lost memory—a singing of small deep voices, rising up from diaphragms nestled in fat little bellies.
Perhaps the wind was right, she thought as she stepped out onto the walkway. A quarter moon peeked at her from above the oil rigs far out from the shore. She put her hand in the pocket of her cotton pants and wound the knotted string she found there around one finger. It was late, late for the Balloon Men to be rolling, but she didn’t doubt that there was something waiting to greet her out on the street. Perhaps only memories. Perhaps a fancy that Christy hadn’t trapped on a page yet.
There was only one way to find out.
Copyright © 1993 by Charles de Lint