DJ Asson and Frank Gibson


Frank Gibson
Balloons and Moon
Inspiration Piece

DJ Asson
Shelter
Response

I stretched my legs and looked out over the retaining wall. I call it a retaining wall, but tonight it largely held only air. Little remained of this house where I’d taken refuge earlier in the day. All the walls were gone as was most of the interior framing. Charred stakes of wood poked out of the concrete foundation, splintered like broken bones. A partial window frame looked out over the dirt and toward the lake. Its glass skin lay shattered on the ground, yet unblemished royal blue paint coated the wood.

This building once looked glorious. Many times I had strolled up the slightly inclined path from the boat dock. Sun beams surfed the breeze coming off the lake and bathed the building in an otherworldly light. The stone work shone like steel. Windows were gracefully etched into the facade. Their frames sparkled with color while the glass reflected the lake and my approach.

Every time I came, I stared at those windows. My reflection grew as I got closer. The lake appeared larger, like I was back at the dock. Sometimes, I would turn around to make sure I was walking the right way. Perspective can play tricks on the mind.

The glass in those windows still haunts me tonight. As I crept into these ruins, I cut the palm of my left hand. The sheer volume of shards told me that few, if any, of the windows survived the bombardment. The whole south section of the city had been devastated, starting with the initial attacks last month. Most residents fled further south, away from the capital.

A few of us stayed. Our priorities shifted quickly from long days at the university discussing this and that. Back then, we thought we debated timeless topics, only to find them turned into ephemera in the immediate aftermath of the violence. Things taken for granted now became daily struggles. Within a week, my job was gone, my university closed and my home seized. I spent less time on clever retorts and more on finding shelter from both the elements and the patrols.

Thankfully, I was not alone. Sophie had been at the same university but in a different department. She taught engineering while I was a fellow in anthropology. We met in the street outside one of the administration buildings, shortly after the school had been shuttered by the coup leaders. Together with some other teachers and a few students, we worked our way out of the main part of the city and crossed over Lake Norwant. That was four weeks ago. There are fewer of us now.

“Do you remember the balloons?” I asked, speaking for the first time since we arrived. I was thinking about the hot air balloons that used to fly from dawn to dusk during independence day celebrations. Huge balloons, decorated in wild colors and covered in geometric patterns, would climb into the sky above the presidential park. There would be sports contests and volunteering events all year long. The winners received tickets for a ride. Going up in the balloons was so much better than watching the fireworks that followed after sunset. Being airborne and seeing the whole city spread out below was exhilarating. The capital filled your vision. Its beauty did not wane, even at great heights.

“Yeah, I remember,” Sophie said. “Tom and I would take Jessie to see them. We’d pack sandwiches and iced tea and spend the entire day at the park. Sometimes, I’d go to Samantha’s, the bakery up on 9th, and get those spice cupcakes she loved.”

Even though we were almost sitting on top of each other in the dark, Sophie’s voice was so far away. It was hollow, as if she were reading a faded newspaper clipping of someone else’s recollections.

Independence Day had been last week. There were no balloons this time. No crowds either. Cherished ride tickets were hidden or destroyed, lest they be discovered during a home inspection by the new government. Fireworks, of a sort, were all that occurred. Bombs lit up whole neighborhoods while the flash and report of machine guns momentarily illuminated individual homes. The screams that echoed off the city’s walls that night weren’t ones of glee or delight.

The light from across the lake grew brighter. We crouched lower. It faded again as the beacon swept around the tower in a steady motion from dusk until dawn. I will not call it a lighthouse, since those are supposed to warn you of danger and guide you to safety. This abomination was the antithesis of a lighthouse. It tried to burn out hope with its dark glare. It also reminded those who remained in the city that someone was always watching.

I turned my back to this light and rested against the concrete. My shirt was still damp from the day’s heat and our trek for supplies. My lower back ached. I sighed.

“How are you doing?” Sophie asked.

“OK, I guess. It’s been so long and I’m just spent. I’m not sure how we can change things now. I don’t want to give up, but I don’t know what to do. Better this than doing nothing, right?” My pitch betrayed my uncertainty. I needed something to shore me up, to help get me through yet another night.

“Yeah, I mean, we have to survive. That’s the important thing, at least for now. The bigger things can wait.” When talking about the present, life and strength crept back into Sophie’s voice. “As long as we’re still out here, they haven’t won.”

Winning and losing. Those terms used to mean something very concrete and absolute to me. I won a ticket for a ride. I lost a bet and had to buy a round of drinks. Now, winning meant not losing, and losing meant not living.

“OK,” I said, “let’s rest here for a bit and then set out again.”

“That’s the spirit,” she said.

“Maybe we can find some place with a few more walls and maybe even a roof.”

“Yeah. Baby steps…” Sophie said before her voice cracked and she fell silent. In the darkness, her tears were invisible, but I knew they were there.

With my back to the city, my eyes had slowly acclimated to the darkness. As the sky went from inky black to the slate gray tint of a chalkboard, I saw them. Stars, tiny ones and big ones, filled the sky. I closed my eyes and imagined the balloons.

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One Comment

  1. Robert Hertz
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 8:03 pm | #

    An excellent story of sorrow over the loss of what was. How many of us in life remember all too well the times our fortune changed for the worse. It also depicts the horror of war, the perpetual curse on humanity.

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