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The Balloon Tree MAG
The children called it the Balloon Tree. It was magic. From blocks away you could see the bright colors swaying gently in the breeze. When you got closer, you saw the balloons, like round, brightly colored tropical birds perched in the tree. On windy days a chirping euphony would erupt from the tree, balloon rubbing against balloon in a squeaky, rubbery chorus. You would think that with so many balloons, the ground would be littered with their bright worn-out droppings. But the ground was all soft grass and rough roots.
One week a group of boys and girls who had nothing to do decided to post a seven-day, twenty-four-hour watch to catch anyone coming to clear away balloons. Or (oh, traitorous thought!) add them to the brilliant bundle. They soon became bored.
Only three of us ever knew how it started. One afternoon, in the early days of summer, Joanna, Pat, and I, all sucking orange lollipops and tugging on the strings of tricolor balloons, climbed to the top of a wide hill at the very end of the town's single street. At the very top, scraggy and gray, was an oak. It was a sentinel, leafless and alone. “Poor old tree,” said Joanna, who had a romantic streak. “It must be so tired of itself. All its leaves are gone, and it has no color at all.”
Pat, taciturn as Joanna was talkative, merely nodded. He leaned back against the old tree and sighed. “It's really the king of the town.”
We looked at him. He scrunched up his eyes and gazed into the distance. “Well, you know, it is at the very end of town. The end of the only street. On a hill.” He cleared his throat and ducked his head. Joanna's eyes lit up.
“If you put something on this tree, everyone could see it, even on the east side!” It was the beginning of summer; our lollipops had the usual expired sticky taste of Memorial Day candy.
“What do you suggest?” I said. Joanna stood up slowly, with a studied theatrical air. With her back to us and her balloon gripped tightly in one hand, she reached up into the tree. Up, up – until she was standing on tiptoes, arms waving gently. She gripped a high branch and with careful, awkward fingers tied the string of her balloon to the tree.
“There,” she said with a satisfied finality. “Now yours.” Pat looked down at his orange balloon
with obvious reluctance. Finally he sighed and stood up. “She'll never let us alone until we tie them up.”
But once the balloon was firmly tied to the tree, he seemed to straighten up. “It actually does look nice. I mean, sort of right. Like it was meant …” He trailed off and pushed his baseball cap lower over his eyes.
“Now your turn.” Joanna had a tyrannical glint in her eyes. They actually did look right together, Joanna's blue balloon standing proud and upright next to Pat's orange one, and mine, taller as I was taller, crowning them in yellow opulence.
We went home that night with our strange little secret hiding in the corners of our smiles and tingling on the edges of our minds.
It was not until the next morning that we discovered the miracle. From our favorite tree-top perch in Joanna's backyard we saw not three colors, but five. A magnificent purple balloon bobbed on one side of our little trio; a neon green balloon was fastened on the other side of the tree. Racing each other in mysterious ecstasy, we arrived at the foot of the tree in stumbling breathlessness. And our mouths remained open as we gazed at the new balloons. They were not tied to the tree. Though they were helium balloons like ours, they floated in the tree, not held down by branches. Their long strings dangled free in the air. None of us spoke.
Suddenly, from the hill below us, there was a distant wail. We turned, recognizing the distinctive voice of Allie Macintosh. She was racing up the hill, and we did not understand why until Joanna suddenly ducked. A pale sky-blue balloon shot over her head and situated itself in the tree. Allie, enviously arrayed in a polka-dot red dress and frilly white Mary Janes, came more sedately up the hill, obviously believing we had captured it. Suddenly she stopped and gasped. “My balloon!”
She darted up the hill, knocking Pat to the side. She reached up to grab the string, but as she did, the balloon drifted higher until it was out of her reach. She turned to me and pointed. “If you get it, I'll buy you a fudge pop.”
I knew it was hopeless, but I hauled myself into the tree. The balloon merely drifted to the other side and settled into a tangle of branches.
It was like that all summer. A parade, or a visit from the balloon man – a child losing his grip, or a balloon drifting out of an open window – it could always be found in the tree. After a while, people stopped trying to retrieve balloons, and once we even observed the balloon man surreptitiously releasing his leftover balloons at day's end. People would come and take photographs, and there was even a small piece in the local paper about the “Helium Curiosity.” People came for picnics, and you could always find spare change from their pockets on the ground. It was a tacit agreement that this change could only be spent on balloons.
In fact, people began to take the tree for granted until one night when we were suddenly reminded of its presence. It was in the early, pre-school autumn, the kind of afternoon when storms quickly gather and thrust themselves swiftly downward in gray sheets of rain. Joanna and I were sitting on my living room floor, pasting leaves onto a sheet and labeling them in quavering cursive. Suddenly we were startled by a banging at my front door. Rushing to it, I beheld a drenched Pat. His eyes were wide and he was waving mutely at the sky. Joanna followed me out under the awning of the porch. And then we, too, were struck dumb.
At the top of the hill was the tree, but it was no longer cloaked with colored balloons. In a large, lumpy, rainbowed bundle, almost as if they were tied together, the balloons were sailing down the street. We watched mutely as they floated by above us. Though they were buffeted by the rain, they stayed their course, down the street, to the edge of town and beyond. The balloons drifted until they were no more than a speck, a speck which could be anything, really.
The balloons are gone now. The tree is bare and covered with snow. But as soon as it becomes warm and the balloon man makes his first round, I know that Pat, Joanna, and I will climb the hill, all the way to the tree, and we will start over. Because the joy of a balloon does not last forever. It is a pleasure that is merely repeated again and again.