The Red Balloon
--Inspired by "Red Balloon" by the Civil Wars
Originally appeared in UNC's Crucible Magazine--
There’s a café on the south side of town. It lies just by the riverfront, the cobbled streets all seem to end at its front door. The city rests against its rafters, the roof sunken in under the weight of its shadow. Yet it still stands, supported by the sighing of humanity moving within it. The windows are smudged and blackened by the cigarette smoke that comes to rest, layer by layer on the thick glass. No one notices how dark they’ve become. But then no one remembers a time when they existed without taint, when they were pure. A tattered awning drapes like a veil over the street. The sunlight filters through, grey and ashen upon the wrought iron tables left outside the front door. The legs of the chairs and tables bend in imitation of their former beauty, delicate curves now folding in on themselves. They’ve seen the people come, no reason to go their only reason to stay. It’s a place where time stands still as long as there are empty cups and wine to fill them. It is a place for remembering, and a place for forgetting.
She sits in one of those chairs. In her hand, a silver thread winds around too-thin fingers. It rises from her hands and holds a single red balloon. Every day as the bells toll from distant towers, she passes through the square where she visits only one vendor, the man who sells balloons. She wanders down the cobblestone steps with her red balloon, her white dress trimmed in the grey soot of the street, and takes her seat by the café and watches the river. Sometimes if she sits still enough, she can hear its currents rushing to meet the sea. If she listens close enough, sometimes she feels herself floating away.
People pass beneath the awning where she rests. Some she knows and some are strangers. She learns no names and never gives her own. But they all know her. They come to sit with her, to hear her speak. Tell us, they say. Champagne blush in her cheeks, her past stirs in her eyes. Tell us. So she does.
He tied the silver string to the bedpost, the red balloon a world afloat in a moment in time. She was in love, and she knew she never would be again. He poured her absinthe after midnight, night flowed around them and she met his eyes in the dark. She drank his breath, poisonous and sweet, the fever made the stars dizzy and they laughed and loved until the sun entered and quieted the breathless rhythm of their hearts. Eyes closed and ears half-open, she rested in his arms, his words finding her in a haze of half-hearing. It all passed in a dream.
A dream, and for a time her face is young again. The strangers listen without breath, wrapped in the light of her memory. Slowly the light fades and the pale glow of the street lamps takes its place, but they are left with the warmth of her passion. Some are content and they rise, their steps falling ballet-slipper soft on the streets as they walk arm in arm beneath the lamplight. But others remain and wonder, with such a love, why does she sit every night in the chair by the river in the shadow of the city? She smiles but says nothing, winding the silver string tighter through her fingers and they understand without knowing why. They rise and depart, climbing the cobblestone steps to the city. When they arrive home they wrap their arms around their lovers, their whispers and kisses alight through the shuttered windows, entwining and colliding with the lullabies of the fountains in the square, and the river sighing by the café on the south side of town.
She hears their song from where she sits. Her eyes close and she sways in time to the music. She rises from her place by the café and follows the melody until she comes to stand alone upon the stone bridge reaching languid and yawning across the water. Dawn rises, pale and tender. Tears ripple the river below; she follows their tidal footprints passing quietly beneath her feet. The silver string slips between her fingers; the balloon trembles for a moment in the breeze of the lovers’ whispers, their currents waltzing to the sea. It pirouettes in the distance and, at last, is gone.