Kissing the Water (an excerpt from a memoir about my grandmother who'd been in a prison camp in China)

. . .

Three days a week we did this. I did it for a whole semester until one day I didn’t wake up and meet the van outside. I let it just go the way I let the balloon rope go once the burner had filled the silk. I never gave any of the team my phone number. Arthur had no idea which dorm was mine. I wish I could say it was because I didn’t need it anymore. I did need it more than ever. Everyone needs it--those early mornings of blackness, that uplift of seeing heat raise something so enormous simply by being itself up into the sky.

There was a “move” I learned about in one of the very few conversations I had with my balloon people. We parked the van with a view of the balloon just as it lowered toward the earth. Normally, when we saw it descend, we tumbled out and started the most violent 500 meter dash over thorn bushes and yucca and pyrocanthus and every other miserable Florida plant that Florida produces to seize the ropes the Captain tossed down to us and which we grabbed hold of with every fiber of muscle tissue we had in our small little human hands. The rope burned through the heavy canvas of my gloves. The brambles tore at my denim jeans and poked through my thick socks as I held on with the others. But no balloon wants to come down. No balloon wants to be trapped on the ground. The slightest updraft would pull us soaring into the air, sometimes twenty or thirty feet (I never counted, but I never let go either) back up into it then it would end and send us plummeting to the sand, with our only goal not to get smashed by the basket. You’ve seen the peaceful flight of hot air balloons over where you live. You’ve imagined the quiet of the air, the view. What you didn’t imagine was the bone-threat of being lifted by one of those blasted beautiful things and being thrown back to ground on the whim of something so harmless as a morning breeze, a soft lilt of air. This one morning, though, we didn’t run.

“Shouldn’t we be running?” I said to Arthur.
“Just watch.”

The balloon approached a lake in the middle of the vast field, a man-made lake but a lake about the size of a similarly man-made shopping mall. The captain lowered the flame in the burner, and the balloon gently descended.

“Shouldn’t we really be running?”
Arthur shook his head.
The balloon came down to the water then just in time the captain flared the burner once again, lifting the balloon back into the sky.
“It’s called Kissing the Water.”
The seven of us stood in a line like we were watching something die and come back to life.
“He only does it when the conditions are perfect.” 

I never saw him do it again, but the phrase stayed with me. It was something that could happen.


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