I joined the hot-air balloon team four months before my grandmother died of a brain tumor just a few exits up I-4 in Orlando. I was a junior in college with a busy enough schedule not to have to add four-in-the-morning wake-up calls twenty minutes before the white van with the rest of the team in it pulled into my driveway. We all had no reason for forming a group. We weren’t even really a team since this wasn’t a competition. Just a ride like all the rides at Walt Disney, only bigger and higher and real. These weren’t classmates or friends of mine. They weren’t classmates or friends of each other. There were six or seven of us. I remember none of their names and only vaguely recall the shapes of their bodies as they gripped the coarse ropes that lifted them sometimes twenty feet in the air as we wrangled the blue silk and fire of the hot-air balloon back down to earth. We sipped coffees out of reused Styrofoam cups from different restaurants, cups we saved for this purpose before the rage of reusable real containers hit the cultural imagination. We didn’t talk that early in the day. We allowed the silence. I didn’t have to be smart. I didn’t have to be funny. No one had to know anything about me at all. I don’t know if any of us got paid. I don’t remember how I became part of it.
The guy who drove us forty minutes out of town parked on the inland sand among open fields from which only sandspurs and prickly brush grew. You could smell the sharpness of the earth. Your body felt dry surrounded by it. The humidity hadn’t set in. It was the best time of day to be in Florida, there in the barrenness of it, the placeless field where we stood waiting for the truck hauling the balloon and its wooden woven basket to arrive. We were a wordless group. The closest thing to a leader we had was the guy who drove. He stepped forward and unlatched the truck’s sliding door. With a lift, steel retracted into steel, the former disappearing into the latter. It was the only loud noise any of us heard all morning. The leader leapt up onto the truck. Another leapt after him. They pulled the basket to the edge, and the rest of us lifted it, then carried it thirty or so feet from the truck. We laid it on its side. Next we hauled the six-foot-long canvas bag and placed its opening just a few feet from the basket. As the rest of us pulled the bag across the field, the blue silk of the balloon appeared as a stripe across the earth. The sun was rising now. The team was finding its rhythm.
None of us spoke as the pilot, who had arrived with the truck, affixed the fire apparatus to the basket. Just as the sun grew at the farthest field’s edge, he ignited the device. Fire blew toward the silk and, rather than setting it aflame, merely caused it to slowly fill. After thirty minutes the balloon was upright, kept to the earth by ropes, our bodies the countering weight. At this time, spared the preparations, the passengers arrived in a third vehicle. A wedding couple or a high-end date, maybe a group of old friends, the passengers stepped into the basket by a cute little door that fastened with a rope latch. The flame burned above them. At the signal we let go of the ropes.
The balloon moved on the wind. A walkie-talkie on the console shaped our navigation of central Florida roads at dawn as we followed, surrounded by horizon. Landing spots changed so our goal was to stay as closely under the balloon as we could. This meant two hours more in the silence of the van. I watched the low wilderness develop like a photograph. With it the temperature rose. The Florida dark is entirely a different thermostat from Florida in the light. I removed my cardigan and sipped the last of my coffee, cold now but still caffeine. No one asked me anything about who I was or what I did. I didn’t ask them.
On lucky days we arrived at a lake at the same time the balloon did, just as the pilot lowered the basket to lightly skim the surface. I learned at some point that this is called “kissing the water.” A stream of water flowed downward as the balloon rose once again. It caught the morning light. The basket did as well, and I appreciated that over the course of the history of hot-air ballooning, the basket had never become anything more than wicker, something you could order from some extreme Pier One catalog. It could have been made out of fiberglass or some other lightweight material, the way barrels for going over Niagara Falls evolved until people just stopped doing it. In a world where so much engineering had changed the shape of everything, no one ever thought to change the basket attached to the hot-air balloon.
When the pilot wanted to come down, he lowered the flame. The balloon sank in the sky but never all the way to the ground. It wanted to hover and rise, descend, then leap back onto a current. It was our job to make it stop, to bring that massive ball of silk back down to earth, where we would extinguish its flame, cause it to lean to one side for a time before it collapsed, pulling the basket onto its side, after, of course, the passengers had lovingly disembarked and been driven to a champagne brunch. We were left then to ease its further deflation before folding it precisely back into its canvas sack. The sand of the inland earth merged with our skin. It was a lot of work for never getting to go up. Maybe we all hoped.
We were of one mind as we ran. The sun now shone across the earth, and it felt like we were wrestling it to the ground instead of drawing down the balloon. We grasped the ropes and wrapped them around our waists. The balloon resisted. We were lifted up in flight, then dropped to the ground when the balloon moved off the current. We understood the danger of being crushed. We also understood we were supposed to make this look painless, even though the brush scraped our skin through our pants, and the ropes burned our hands. We were strong. We were light as air.
Granny died one night while I watched Empire of the Sun. She had been a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in China so that film held significance. In the afternoons of the years I had been in college, I visited her. I recorded her stories on a cassette player hidden under her white sofa. College life never really interested me. I didn’t make friends because I didn’t like parties, except one friend who sang with me in the chapel choir. Little mattered more to me than gathering Granny’s stories. I wanted to write them down one day, even though she told me not to. “You can’t write about this because you don’t understand pain,” was her command, recorded on the cassette moments after I promise her I’m not taping her. Holding onto her stories was all I could do, I felt. I didn’t want her, or them, to just disappear.
Just two days after her death, my college flew me to Atlanta, where I had to be interviewed for a massive scholarship for which I was a finalist. In reply to their questions, I felt only silence but answered, as best I could, the row of people fastened to the earth by chairs. Things fell further apart after that. It was like watching a basket unweaving, the fire of a family just going out. My father told us he never loved any of us, and now that his mother was dead, he wanted to be free. This nearly killed my mother, who had done the whole 1950s thing and worked and raised babies while he got his medical degree. My sister changed colleges again, then disappeared for a time, maybe in Miami. I continued those four-in-the-morning trips to the center of the state. The landscape seemed to level everything in me. It made me even with it as I sometimes just stood there, feeling the weight of silk warming in my hands as it filled like the parachutes that Granny watched descending upon liberation. I stood in the shadow as it rose. The flight of a great blue balloon drifting over scrub and brush, yucca and live oak, was something I was a part of once, something that resisted to never touch the earth.
Laura Hope-Gill is a deaf writer and painter. Her work appears in 13th Moon, Bayou, Briar Cliff Review, Cape Rock, Carquinez Poetry Review, Chattahoochee Review, Cincinnati Review, Cold Mountain Review, Diagram, Denver Quarterly, Hampden-Sydney Review, Illuminations, Laurel Review, Madison Review, Mindprints, North Carolina Literary Review, Parabola, Phantasmagoria, Poet Lore, Primavera, Owen Wister Review, Rivendell, Sortes, South Carolina Review, Spillway, and other journals. Her poem “The Dimension of Dog” was nominated by Denver Quarterly for the 2022 Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College, and is the founding director of the MFA program at Lenoir-Rhyne University.