8 – The Balloon

Overhead, the springtime weather was swept away by a ragged cloud. A whiff of rain blew in with gusts of cool air. Undine brought Diogenes a vial of morphine — a present from Georg — and told him she intended to convince Hindenburg to fly them to Paris. Diogenes replied, monitoring the sky, that it was a perfect day for group suicide. He shrank away to Areté’s grave site and drank down the contents. He could see the balloon swell and contemplated the absurdity of it all. Cherry blossoms swayed above the fresh, upturned earth as he considered the emptied house and her stone gravemarker.
Fumbling into his pocket he found Rupert’s letter. He cursed when he realized that it was written in verse, but read it anyway:

There are paradoxes on earth
the same as there are in my skull
to acknowledge love or betray
that which commits us to destroy
the path of virtue for crime.
But how could she understand?

“Why this isn’t Bedlamsburg’s style at all.” It read rather like naïve blank verse rather than chopped-up oratory. But what was Rupert trying to say? “Areté! what’s this obnoxious kid trying to say?” Diogenes implored aloud. He was floating now and would not be surprised if she replied or popped from an envelope of sublunar light. Nothing happened, however, and he began to ponder that there might be more to Rupert’s rapprochement with Grabmaler than he or Undine understood. It went on:

Yet what if the crime was free
and made free and recompensed
betrayal with a reward?
A monster’s head on a plate?

“Well, I’ll be damned –” Diogenes said aloud. ” Perhaps this schoolboy verse masks patricidal intent?” Or perhaps Rupert, while implying he wanted to commit, as Diogenes freely interpreted, a crime against Grabmaler, intended to play off both ends so not to appear the coward?
Diogenes peered up into the low, heavy cloud and over to the grave marked “Areté”, then to his hand grasping the vial, then over to the house top to the inflated balloon peaking over the slate shingles and tufts of weather-proofing thatch — “like a young girl’s breast in the hay.” he thought.
“Yes!” He struggled to his feet. “Paris!” He exclaimed as rain droplets sprinkled on his haggard face. Several crows winged from a deserted suburban house across the road, landing on the elm, as the rope swing vexed in the wind. He hurried into the house, rummaged through Hindenburg’s dresser and found his pistol with a fistful of bullets. He walked back out into the backyard and surveyed the wholly inflated balloon, Manfred, Hindenburg and Undine, gaping at it amazed, and shivering.
“Well, let’s go!” He shouted in German. Undine looked at him slyly, knowing full well what he had said and that it was mad to tempt the weather:
“We’ll be flying into the eye of a storm, Diogenes.”
“Have you convinced Hindenburg?”
“Oh yes, he offered to make his ‘maiden voyage’ with me.” She sighed, interrupted by thunder.” At least that’s how Manfred translated my request. But Hindenburg is mad with misery.”
“Will he change his mind if we wait out the storm?”
“Who knows! He wants to do something. He wants to follow his children to Toulouse, or visit them after Paris. Though he fears he won’t be welcome there. He thinks he’s fallen in love with me. And he has half-formulated the idea of becoming an air reconnaissance scout for Nebuchadnezzar’s army.”
“What?”
“Exactly. Look at him!”
Diogenes watched Hindenburg mumbling to himself, fidgeting with a bit of rope, ogling Undine with a silly, tearful pride.
“And you, Manfred?”
“Wait out the storm or return with me to defend Berlin.” Manfred replied sensibly, in German.
“No! No! We go now! No time to lose!” Hindenburg screamed. “I fetch ballast!” waddling down the cellar stairs, then, with his head poking up over the top of the stairwell, he commanded Manfred: “Help me fetch the ballast!”
Manfred threw up his hands following Hindenburg into the basement.
“Let’s do it!” Diogenes re-affirmed. Manfred emerged with three heavy sacks while Hindenburg dragged another sack behind him with a long cord in his hand: “We need a basket!”
“You have a beautiful gondola in the cellar!” Diogenes protested.
“No, I save it, in case we smash. This is our maiden voyage!” Hindenburg winked sentimentally at Undine.
Diogenes thought for a moment, inspected Manfred’s cart then began struggling with his vase: “Manfred! Help me!”
Manfred assisted Diogenes, rolling the vase with him into the backyard. Hindenburg caught on and produced several lengths of rope with which to honeycomb its bottom, and secure against it the balloon’s skyward torque. He worked furiously, rudely brushing away Manfred’s and Diogenes’ offers to help. He then demanded that they roll the vase over, under the balloon, lash the four ballast sacks to the sides, light the generator’s flame, to heat the air in the outer balloon; then he hoisted Undine into the vase, and clambered in himself. He directed Diogenes and Manfred to cut the final few ropes with a macheté which lay amongst his tools to the side.
“You forget that I’m going!” Diogenes pleaded.
“There’s too little room!” Hindenburg shouted.
“Let him come!” Undine purred.
“Let him come!” Manfred translated while he kissed Undine good-bye. “This is true lunacy!” Manfred whispered unequivocally in Diogenes’ ear.
Just as Manfred raised the macheté, thunder rumbled and rain crashed down mercilessly. But he hacked the ropes anyway and the balloon bolted and soon hovered over the house seesawing to the swift clouds. Diogenes leaned over and saw Manfred waving. He peered down the road Armin and Heike had followed to France to the elm tree’s top and to the now miniature circle of flowers around Areté’s grave. Manfred’s cart and horse were shrinking; the house, a gray tuft. The Neckar River appeared, gently meandering, a dark green under gray mist and sheets of rain. The hills of Heidelberg itself, mingled with cloud, appeared to smoke, with budding trees waving in carpets. He looked over to Undine, clinging to the vase side, or the support rope. Hindenburg gripped his compass while stoking the propane hot air generator. They then drifted into the clouds, the earth disappearing, the flame blowing back and forth as stiff winds began to pull them backwards, often dipping them just under the mass of cloud then dizzily skyward with a warm gust. Undine now held onto Diogenes. He could see only the darting flame and the ropes until they dipped again and he glimpsed below a wholly new landscape, Hindenburg, chalk-faced, with his misty compass in hand, yanked desperately on the ropes, screaming, “We’re going East!”
They shivered with rain and wind after a half-hour spent leaning backward, blown East, alternately attracted to the warmth of the flame and frightened by its erratic leaps at their faces with each new blast of air. Diogenes tried to wrest a knife out of Hindenburg’s pocket to cut the ballast so that they could climb through and above the storm cloud but Hindenburg violently resisted and began scaling back the flame, planning to land. As they slipped underneath the cloud and began descending, still leaning back, their lateral or Eastward speed slowed and they began to tilt upright slightly. Diogenes scanned the fields underneath them and spotted burning hay and scorched trees and men in brown uniforms, running after a young boy who was outdistancing them in the mud. The soldiers began firing at the boy until they gaped up and espied the balloon, with three figures fitted tightly in a huge earthenware vase, falling erratically down from the sky.
“It’s Nebuchadnezzar’s troops!” Hindenburg muttered fearfully, as he struggled with the ropes.
“Cut the ballast!” Diogenes shouted, shaking Hindenburg’s shoulders.
“But Areté’s life-savings are in those sacks!”
“What, you mean money?”
“Yes!” Hindenburg insisted.
“What did he say?” Undine cried, holding onto Diogenes.
They began scraping over the muddy field, slid, then finally stuck briefly to a blasted stump, still tilting, with soldiers running after them.
“Hindenburg! Get out and tell them we’re civilians!”
“Everyone is a civilian … except them! There’s been no army to resist them! That’s why they’re here already!” Hindenburg blustered, with an eerie hint of admiration in his voice.
The balloon kept tugging the vase. The soldiers were slowing down, surveying them for arms, fascinated by the spectacle of the balloon. Their mercenary faces were rugged and dark, many sporting matted beards, some with malnourished, gaunt cheeks dripping with lice. Yet they were strong and young enough to run and express a guarded awe. They appeared to be Turkish or even Afghans, or the paler ones, may have been Russians or Serbs.
Hindenburg disembarked. The soldiers waited, guns pointed. He waddled over to the them and started to explain, with his hands on his head. From Diogenes’ and Undine’s perspective it appeared they didn’t have the slightest idea what he was saying. Then a lighter complexioned soldier arrived who apparently understood German.
The soldier nodded. Hindenburg lowered his hands.
“What is he doing?” Undine asked.
“I don’t know.” Diogenes replied.
“Why didn’t he turn up the flame or cut the ballast when he saw the soldiers?”
“He claims that the sacks are filled with money.”
“What?”
“I can’t figure out what he’s doing. Soon, he’ll have us slaves of this damned army or its prisoners.”
Hindenburg then stomped quickly back through the mud to them and pulled the bottle of whisky out of its sack from the bottom of the vase.
“What are you doing?” Diogenes asked, pulling on Hindenburg’s sleeve.
“Leave go! Leave go!” Hindenburg pouted. “These are just men afterall!”
“Shit!” Undine cried, “What is going on?” They watched him deliver the whisky into a soldier’s anxious hand.
“I no longer care!” Diogenes shouted, stoking the flame on the generator, the outer balloon re-inflating.
“Drop that sack, Undine! Untie it!”
“Are we going to just leave him here?” Undine giggled, both frightened and astounded.
“Damn straight!” Diogenes laughed. Meanwhile the balloon began to scrape with the wind across the field, slowly. Hindenburg then turned as the soldiers began to notice the balloon’s movement. At first he thought that it needed to be staked down but then he glanced up at the re-inflating outer balloon and the ignited generator and began stumbling, then running desperately after them as the vase was now dragging then bouncing up off the field. Undine was still struggling with the knot while Diogenes searched for a knife, rifling through a sack at their feet, which also held their lunch and Hindenburg’s instruments. The soldiers were aiming their guns, preparing to fire.
“Stop! Stop!” Hindenburg sprinted the best he could through the mud. “Please!” Hindenburg pleaded, within twenty meters of the balloon and just ahead of the soldiers as Diogenes found a knife and slashed the first ballast sack free and the balloon sprung into the air. The soldiers began firing and Diogenes and Undine watched Hindenburg scrambling beneath them, hands upheld, imploring them, crying out, begging. The soldiers fired. Diogenes pulled out the pistol, but they were already into the bottom of the cloud rising as they watched the now tiny Hindenburg shrink into an agitated lump, then vanish behind the mist.
Wrestling with the remaining sacks, Diogenes merely cut a broad gash across the burlap. Sand poured out with sundry letters, photographs and heaps of paper money, everything but the sand dancing with wind currents overhead, tossing, fluttering down, littering the clouds. Photographs of Areté and her children randomly folded against the ropes or pasted to the vase or landed in their hair then swirled away: adolescent letters, charcoal sketches, useless certificates of stock, underlined poems, myriad old francs, marks, Euros, teased them as Diogenes flung away the sacks, a “life-savings”. The balloon climbed farther above the dank gray into afternoon light, leaving a trail of money spinning into the puffy mass of clouds, sinking after glittering into the dark cumulus under which an army marched and Germany fell.
They examined the compass, and tried to figure how to re-direct the balloon West. The damp vase, wrapped with rope and pasted with money and photographs jerked skyward, the flame jetting from the propane generator into the fully expanded balloon. Gradually they emerged into a warmer air current, a lazy spring zephyr which gently towed them West. They experimented with ropes, adjusted the flame, unfolded maps and, for hours, studied the enigma of steering a balloon. Undine kept checking their direction and found an altimeter, a barometer (in centigrade) and air-current maps, deciphering cross-currents, temperatures, and matching them to Diogenes’ reading of the conventional land maps, some of which detailed air-observable land-marks. They were maddened by the relation between the distances of the air temperature and current charts and the distances between land-marks now obscured by cloud. And quite soon, the sun would set.
Diogenes filled the generator with more propane, lighting a lantern to augment the blasts of pink dusklight skimming the blanket of rain cloud below, and the deepening violets of the East. Undine, eventually, let out a cry:
“I think we were lucky!” She said as she cross-examined an air current map.
“At least we’re dry!” Diogenes exclaimed, scanning the clouds, trying to discern whether the shadows were really breaks or holes.
“Look, we met this current and this temperature with which we’re now gliding West.”
“How fast are we traveling?”
“According to this, we might be making progress at forty knots!”
“That’s our wind-speed, forty miles, I mean, kilometers an hour?”
“Maybe. Maybe faster. I don’t know! But we’re now going West, by Northwest.”
“And when do we have to change altitudes?”
“I’m not sure. We have to check the maps over France. If we aren’t blown South here … which is somewhere … I don’t know … over here … (pointing) we could make it to Paris!”
“Can we rest now?” Diogenes asked, weary from the hours of deciphering. The stars twinkled in the Eastern sky, reminding him of the transatlantic barge. He then peered down and spotted lights, the clouds were giving way to scattered, shadowy fields and he believed, in a valley of such shadows, he espied a meandering river.
The Western sky slowly began to send spindles of blood red light with pink aureoles through translucent washes of sea-greens and violet illumining their balloon. Diogenes gaped at Undine, bathed in a riot of rich color, both transparent and dreamily opaque. The East, behind them, absorbed the waves of dusk-color spectrally in a darkening blue, with flickering stars and cool streams of misty space above.
“Thank God we can see this!” Undine shouted, as the vase swayed.
“You mean, Thank God for carbon dioxide!” Diogenes replied, when they leveled off.
“Are you going to scoff at this, Diogenes?” Undine cried, awed by folding spindles of green enveloping them then evaporating.
“I’m not scoffing!”
“Pah! Look!” She lifted her chin, pointing to the horizon.
“The thing is, God, by the present scheme of the world, must have come to full self-consciousness and then, … simply stopped thinking.” He laughed.
“What?” Undine smiled, still feasting her eyes.
“Just what I said. I mean, no matter how beautiful this is — this is also a Miracle of Pollution.”
“I know that! Tell me, what do you think happened to Hindenburg?” Undine turned to him, drenched in green and yellow shadow.
“He’s probably cooperating with them — the soldiers — already their patsy. He’s probably bragging he can send aloft another balloon and offering his services.”
“For military reconnaissance?”
“That’s my guess.”
“And Manfred?”
“Manfred, if he reaches Berlin, hopefully before the siege, will, I guess, have some ‘intelligence’ for Georg. Perhaps he’ll have the privilege to blow Hindenburg out of the air … I don’t know.”
“Does The Council have any armament?”
“None whatsoever. They’ll improvise or fall.”
“And what about us?”
“Our goal is Paris.”
“And Rupert?”
“That’s your department.”
Undine sank, momentarily depressed. Night was setting on and the air cooled. They were forced by changing temperatures to return to the charts and discovered that if they descended somewhat their velocity increased. They passed slowly over a few cities, which could have been Saarbrucken and Metz. They stoked the flame again somewhere inside France and climbed, then seemed to freeze in mid-air for a half hour until they dropped and caught another Westerly, this time a shade sultry. By dawn they could see in the horizon a huge, sooty aura which may have been a few hundred kilometers outside of Paris. They laughed, hugging each other, grasping maps, encouraged. By noon they were crawling over the outskirts of Paris. Diogenes traced the road where he had his conversation with Antisthenes. They were astounded by their luck, but running out of propane. Since they reached Paris’ city limits, they dumped everything which cluttered their feet, including the maps, now in crumpled disarray, then the lantern, altimeter, barometer and still they barely skidded over deserted apartment complexes. Undine decided to drive the propane to full and exhaust it, and they bounded skyward, when the generator gave out. Far and away, after an hour passed, they could see the center of old Paris in a swarm of dust, the Eiffel Tower, with its now empty observation deck, a faint, smog-wrapped silhouette. Suddenly they started to lose altitude and began a long gradual glide which they could no longer control.
They could spot people now. They made it over Montmartre and the Seine emerged, winding its way through the dull smog enveloping the city. Finally, the outer balloon collapsed and they wondered whether they would end up crashing then sliding down a building like squashed cockroaches or get skewered by a radio tower. Undine hyperventilated as they nearly brushed a rooftop and the now deflated outer balloon caught briefly on the top of a jutting scrap iron billboard. Just as unnerving, they stopped descending. The helium center held their half-deflated, baggy shell aloft just enough to scrape the higher aerial obstructions but not to gently land. Diogenes held his breath and pulled the cord gently and they could hear the squeal of the helium in the much smaller inner balloon rush out and they began to descend again. They slid over the Rue de Rivoli, glimpsed Notre Dame on their left as they just eased over the Seine. They then scraped on a rooftop and busted a skylight on a Left Bank apartment building, which they nearly stuck, if it were not for their latitudinal inertia. They were falling now, finally, veering again, and could see a crowd running not fifty yards beneath them until they passed over the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg. A mob of homeless gawkers were shouting at them from below until, peering down, they suddenly slammed into a tree — the branches violently thrusting at them, whipping, gouging into their faces and poking through their clothing. The balloon, like a sick elephant, tore apart, but continued pulling them into yet another tree where the vase finally smashed, nestling into a chaos of branches and twigs. Undine, who caught onto a branch before the final impact, let go and landed on her back in the grass and Diogenes, still with the vase, was pulling sticks and shards of the vase out of his skin, hair and torn clothing.