The Gentleman Balloonist [excerpt] – Ian Kappos
June 11, 2020
The Gentleman Balloonist
a story in letters & images by
Arrived safely, sobering up finally. The doctors had warned me about thinning blood in higher altitudes. I underestimated, however, the extent to which this can affect how drunk you get.
With the train hurtling through the dark for most of it, the trip felt like hours. I sometimes couldn’t tell if it was night I was looking out the window at, or the inside of a mountain. At some point, I fell asleep.
I didn’t know I’d fallen asleep until I saw the Gentleman Balloonist standing at the end of the aisle. His top hot nearly brushing the ceiling, his gloved hands contorting. Over the roar of the train, I could still hear the squeaking rubber. He addressed me, but the moment his voice sounded I shot awake, sweating.
Ever since I got sick, he’s appeared more and more. I hope the same can’t be said for you.
Anyway, I found a yellowed guidebook in a seat pocket, poked through it to pass the time. Thought I’d share a bit with you.
- a map I copied from the guidebook and
- a photo I took of the mountain, just before it was tunnels the rest of the way in.
See at the very top that small, crooked tip? I’m somewhere up there. I know you probably still can’t read this, but I’ll continue to recount the details of my trip, per our agreement. Sending this out tomorrow with the departing train. The return address is the inn’s.
No luck today.
I went about exploring the town’s south-side, somewhat aimlessly. It’s got an old, rustic feel to it: bricks, logs, chimneys. The houses come in either cottage- or cabin-form. I stopped by the store to buy pain relievers. It won’t mix well with alcohol—then again, by now I’m something of a recidivist when it comes to heeding medical advice… even if I’m feeling weaker and my shoulder hurts and my head’s pounding and I can’t eat and can hardly sleep—which partly explains, I’d like to say in my defense, why I’d slept through the train departure.
Around lunchtime I’d come downstairs to nurse my hangover. The inn is a cozy bed-and-breakfast type, you’d like it. There’s a dining room with a fireplace and a bar. Dark wood, smoky. Very Christmas card.
I asked the innkeeper when the next train was due in town, but he didn’t know. Until then I’ll just have to let the letters pile up.
(Speaking of letters—the innkeeper didn’t recognize the address on Mom’s envelope, either. To be fair, he doesn’t seem like the talkative type. I went to ask other lodgers, but there weren’t any. I think it’s mainly porters and other railroad staff who stay here. At best, the place gets to half-empty.)
Lacking a direction, I set out west. It’s a longer walk than it looks. By the time I came to the end of the line I felt like shit.
There, just over the tracks on the north side, lies a cluster of hovels. Weather-beaten wood shacks held up by stones, thatched roofs looking like they’ll fly off if the wind kicked up enough—I don’t know what else to call them. Hard to imagine anyone living inside. As it was, only three looked stable, the rest all but deflated into the snow.
No lumber piles as far as I could tell, or laundry lines. A couple of shutters creaked on their hinges. No addresses or mail slots, and in any case when I knocked nobody answered.
Hiding behind the third hovel was a mine, though judging by appearances it was long out of use. The front door was clapping in its frame. Carved into the wood was a strange symbol, which, since I didn’t have my camera on me at the time, I tried to replicate.
Having brought out my flask to ready myself for the trek back toward town, I merely gave it a once-over before turning on my heel.
“Child,” came a voice from inside. I stopped. “Prop open the door to see, if you must.”
I came back and did as she suggested, picking up a nearby stone and pinning the door to the wall.
With light spilling in, I could see pots, pans, and ladles hanging from wire, chopping blocks on a counter. Not a speck of dust anywhere. The floor was partially iced over. An old woman sat at a table. On the table were mounds of what once may have been food but was now little more than freezer-burned matter.
“Hi.” I waved.
“Come in,” she invited.
The cold does this weird thing where it gives you just a hint of what something must really smell like, under all the frost. It throws you off because you can’t tell right away whether or not a certain aroma is agreeable. But something told me that the smell inside the hovel was best left suffocated in low temperatures.
The woman looked awfully frail. I figured she’d beckoned me because she was in need of my help.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to get a fire started for you,” she apologized.
I took a slug from my flask. “It’s fine, thanks.”
The old woman smiled at me. She had very pleasant features, her face plump and sagging and lined with joy-wrinkles—like what Mom used to call them. She only ever mentioned them in reference to other people, but you and I saw them sometimes, when she was gardening, or trying to teach us the constellations.
“You’re new,” the old woman said. Her eyes were wide and curious. “When did you start, young man?”
“When did I…” I’d gotten distracted, eyeing a collection of dolls sitting in a corner. They were rough and faded, probably dating back to the days of the Regime. “Oh. Oh, no, ma’am. I didn’t come to work the mines.”
The old woman cocked her head.
“I, uh…” I looked around for a chair. There was only one other than hers, but it didn’t look like it would be able to bear my weight. I kicked some frost out of the way and took a seat on the floor. “I knew someone from here,” I told her.
For a while her expression didn’t change, head sideways, mouth slightly agape. Then she swiveled her neck to the other side and squinted. She seemed to be studying me very closely. I looked away, uncomfortable.
She said, “Knew someone?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, taking another swig. “They passed. Actually”—I withdrew the envelope from a pocket—“I was wondering if you’d be kind enough to point me in the direction of this address.” I got up to my haunches and extended the letter toward her, laying it on the table. That was when I noticed she wasn’t sitting on a chair but on a bulbous heap of material. I peered closer, trying to discern it.
Then she spoke again. “Son,” she said, “I’m not used to giving directions.”
“Oh, it’s no worry, ma’am, I’ll—”
“No.” Her face hardened. Briefly she resembled a sculpture. “What I mean is, I shouldn’t be giving directions.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. With difficulty I tried holding her gaze while also determining what exactly it was that she was sitting on, and wasn’t making much progress.
“What I can do, though,” she said, “is tell you a story.”
I figured it had probably been a while since this lonely old woman had entertained company. I smiled politely at her and made a show of making myself comfortable, resting my back on the wall.
“Once there was a young woman who lived in a hole,” she began. “She had lived there her whole life, subsisting on worms and rainwater and whatever else happened to fall in. Her clothes were made of roots, knotted together, and wet leaves, and clay.
“All the young woman ever wanted was to get out of the hole. It was about the size of a well, and wide, but not very. She had grown muscular from trying, since she was a little girl, to climb out of it. She had never succeeded. It was not so much that she disliked the hole as she was just curious to see what lay beyond it.
“What lay beyond it—or around it, rather—was a fertile swath of land. This was all she knew. Because of the richness of the soil, it was inevitable—the young woman hoped—that, someday, farmers would settle there. Then maybe she could enlist their help to get out.
“So, when farmers did arrive, the young woman was excited.
“One of the farmhands was a young man who until that time had only known the island that he’d grown up on with his family. He was eager to get to know the mainland. He found the endless stretches of earth awe-inspiring.
“Days after settling in with the other farmhands, he was plowing the land, getting it ready to seed, when he came upon the hole. He poked his head in.
“‘Hiya!’ he called down to the young woman below.
“‘Hello!’ she called back.
“‘What are you doing down there?’ the farmhand asked.
“‘I live down here,’ the young woman answered.
“‘Live! But I don’t want to anymore.’
“The farmhand pondered this. He, more than anyone else, could relate to her situation.
“‘I can get you out,’ he said, after a moment.
“The young woman could hardly believe it. She thanked him profusely.
“‘The problem is,’ the farmhand said, ‘I haven’t any rope.’
“‘Do you have clothes you can tie together to make a rope?’
“‘Just the clothes on my back,’ he replied.
“The young woman didn’t want the farmhand to sacrifice the only clothes he had. She tried to think of alternatives.
“‘Wait!’ the farmhand said suddenly. ‘I have an idea!’
“The end of a hose lay coiled on the ground nearby. The farmhand followed it a quarter-mile back to the well that he and the other farmhands had finished digging just a few days prior. He turned the knob all the way to the right, then ran back to the hole, picking up the end of the hose along the way.
“‘Cover your eyes!’ he called down. ‘I’m going to flush you out!’
“Before the young woman could respond, a jet of water shot into the hole. Water rose to her knees, then to her hips, then to her shoulders, and then she was rising.
“‘It’s working!’ she said, but she couldn’t hear her own voice over the roar of the hose. And when she opened her mouth, water filled it.
“Oh no, the young woman thought. I don’t know how to swim. All her life she had climbed and climbed, building strength and preparing herself for a rope, but she had never learned how to swim.
“Thus it was that, by the time she crested the lip of the hole and spilled onto the ground, the young woman was drowned and dead.
“The farmhand was devastated. He fell to his knees beside the young woman.
“‘All your life in a hole,’ he sobbed to her lifeless body, ‘and above ground all you find is death.’ He stared across the endless stretches of earth hopelessly.
“It was all his fault, of course. Had he merely tossed the hose down the hole and pulled her up that way, this could have all been avoided. Or he could have just as easily found some other fabric to tie together, like bedsheets, but the young woman—having lived in a hole her entire life—probably hadn’t known about bedsheets, and so had not suggested them. Or he could simply have asked another person to help him get her out. In truth, he’d had many options to choose from. But the farmhand had acted rashly, without forethought, and by doing so had made the worst possible choice.
“That day, he watched as the water sank, soaking once more into the soil around the hole. Once it had substantially receded, the farmhand tied the hose around the young woman’s body and lowered her back down. Then, with his knife, he separated the length of hose. It slithered to the bottom of the grave. It was, the farmhand couldn’t help but to think, not unlike a burial at sea.
“He said a prayer. He grabbed a shovel. As the sun began to set, he started casting in dirt.
“For the rest of his days, the farmhand was haunted by images of the young woman appearing from the hole, in a gush of dirty water, silent and still. He thought, at one point, that he might consider going back home to his family’s island. Soon after this thought came to him, he realized, with a sinking feeling, that he would never be able to look at water the same. He could not live on an island. Not ever again.
“Meanwhile, the farmers were overjoyed at their yield, which, year after year—no matter the circumstance—was always plentiful. The farmhand never told them about the young woman, and they never found the hole. Over time, though, they took notice of his odd behavior, and whispered amongst themselves.
“Sometimes they heard him speak in strange ways about the crops, how they resembled a young woman wearing an outfit of knotted roots and wet leaves. Instead of working, he was often found staring, face racked with emotion, at budding sprouts.
“All that the farmers ever saw were cabbages, artichokes, celery.
“Years of seeing the farmhand standing motionless in the fields with tears in his eyes passed until finally, one day, the farmers convened. They came to a decision, and respectfully asked him to leave. The now-former farmhand went without a word.
“It is said that before departing he stopped one last time at the grave that used to be a hole. They say that he dug it up, retrieved the length of cut hose and, with it, hung himself from a tree not far from the farm. That night, lightning struck the tree, and it went up in flames. Before long, the fire spread to surrounding trees.
“It spread quickly. By morning, all was laid to waste. It never rained there again.”
Outside the wind had picked up, making the door tremble in its place. It had gotten considerably colder.
“That’s a, um…” Furtively I took another drink from the flask, even though I’d drained the last drop minutes prior. “That was lovely,” I said.
But if the old woman had been expecting a certain response, I don’t think what I’d given her had been it. She regarded me very seriously.
“So,” I tried again. “Is it supposed to be an origin story for this place? Like Romulus and Remus?”
“It’s getting dark out,” she informed.
“Yes,” I sighed, groaning to my feet, all my joints stiff. I crossed the room to shake her hand. “I best be—”
“Let me send you away with a gift,” the old woman said. She turned around to look for something, but she did it awkwardly, rotating at the hip, her legs staying in place. Then I saw that it was a coat underneath her, and that the shape under the coat was that of a man, doubled over on his hands and knees. I couldn’t tell where the material of their clothes started or ended; it was like they were of one fabric.
“Dear,” she called out. She threw me a conspiratorial wink, whispering, “He’s kind of deaf.”
A gruff old voice responded, “Hunh?” Her seat quaked slightly.
The old woman asked, “Do you have the spyglass on you?”
More quaking, fumbling ensued beneath her.
I stuttered, unsure. “Oh, ma’am, that’s not necessary. Very kind of you, but—”
A grizzled hand extended upward, holding a bronze cylinder. The old woman took it, then extended it toward me. “Consider it a souvenir,” she said, with an almost urgent tone. “Please.”
Thanking her, I grabbed the spyglass, but before handing it over she leaned in, locking eyes with me. “He’ll know,” she said.
My gaze darted to the man underneath her, but she shook her head. “Not him,” she said. “Keep your thoughts pure,” the old woman intoned. “Or keep them dumb.”
The spyglass fell into my palm. I stared at her. She didn’t blink. Forcing a smile, I waved the spyglass.
Outside, I started to shift the stone. She called out, “Oh, do leave it there. I haven’t felt the breeze like this in so long.”
I stood there dumbly, my foot wedged under the stone. Right then I had the feeling of being watched.
I retraced my footsteps back to the inn.
That’s all for now.