“Hot Air”, by Diane Gallant

Aug 20th, 2008 | By | Category: Prose

The life of a balloonist is a life of adventure, and as I have the stout heart of an adventurer, I have chosen this life above any other. Where other men desire simple comfort or mere wealth, I prefer to experience many and varied wonders from a thousand feet in the air. I have seen the cities by the sea where men hunt sea-monsters and where the roofs of the houses are covered with dragon scales in a hundred colors. I touched my balloon down in the famous gardens of Duke N. on the banks of a silver river, where I smoked hoy leaves with the duchess on her terrace of blue stone. And in the temple of the god of air, I listened to the heavenly singing of eunuchs.

I have seen other things besides, equally marvelous if less wholesome. I visited the wardens of the great prison yards of the north, and in exchange for the tales I told, they shared with me their meal of mutton stew. In my balloon I flew over the bone-white towers of the witches in the deserts of the west, and there I did not stop. Nor did I stop at the fields of Knu after the now famous battle, where from the air I saw of thousands of men lying in a great, dark sea of red.

The life of a balloonist is solitary, but not lonely — honest, but not plain — not always pleasant, but filled with wondrous events.

One such event occurred as I was returning from a mermaid-spotting expedition over the waters off the coast of W. in the east. An unexpected southerly wind blew me off course, and as the wind released me from its power I found myself floating over the pretty island of D. It was April, and all over the island hus-hus flowers were blooming on the trees. I lowered the balloon to take in a better view, and perhaps to catch sight of one of the island’s rarer species of birds.

I skimmed over the tops of the trees, looking for evidence of strange and beautiful life, when to my delight I caught sight of a most unusual creature running upright and indeed hopping and waving at the edge of a clearing. The creature appeared to have long dark fur on its head, although its torso was white and fuzzy. Naturally, I assumed it was most likely an exotic monkey, or perhaps a very atypical bear, and I raised my telescope for a better look. On closer inspection, the creature proved to be neither monkey nor bear, but rather a young man with long dark hair and a beard. He wore a white shirt with a great many ruffles sewn to the front and along both sleeves. I also noted that he wore very tight, bulging trousers, of the sort that are popular with ladies in these decadent times. Evidently he had been watching me, and was attempting to get my attention by jumping up and down while gesticulating wildly. The fellow, I surmised, had found trouble on the island, and was in need of my assistance.

I lowered my balloon into the clearing, and had barely touched ground when the young fellow climbed frantically into the basket and stood before me. I saw now that his hair was untidy and his ruffled shirt was torn in places. His eyes were red and filled with tears. Also, his nose was running.

“Up!” he shouted. “Up, to bright heavens! Where the majestic cherubim do fly upon golden wings…”

“Sir,” I said. “What is the matter? You appear quite flustered.”

“Oh miserable misfortune, that the fates do cast upon us!” he cried, pointing to a place between the trees where armed soldiers were just now running into the clearing. “Are eyes blind, that do not see their doom? Are hands and feet lame, that do not run?”

Although I had yet to discover the reason for which the young stranger was pursued, I did not hesitate to work the controls that would lift the balloon off the ground and remove us from this deadly situation. As we ascended, I worried that the hail of arrows flying from the ground would pierce my balloon, and it was not until we were out of range of the best archers that my heart stilled and I began to breathe more calmly. Only then did I turn my attention to my strange passenger. I looked at him carefully and attentively for some time, taking accurate measure of him, so to speak, while he did the same to me. At last I asked plainly, “Why are you pursued? Are you a criminal?”

He shook his head adamantly. “Crime is grime. In time I rhyme,” he said.

At this point I began to fear that my passenger was a madman, perhaps an escapee from a house of madmen. “Sir,” I said. “Do you have your wits about you?”

“Where madmen do appear to rave and rant,/ the wise man hears the royal poet’s chant.”

“Oh, I see,” I said, even though I most certainly did not see. “But could you be more clear?”

“Clear. As the summer sky, the eyes of my beloved, the waters of the lake where first I held her hand…”

“Enough!” I said. “Why do you speak in this fashion? Do you mock me?”

The young man shook his head sadly, and spoke again. Again, his speech was strange and vexing to listen to, and many times I interrupted him and made him start again. But after I had spent some time in dialogue with him, I found that I understood him, that his words made sense to me, and that in his own strange way he was capable of maintaining a rational conversation. And gradually, as we drifted over the sea toward the mainland, he told me his extraordinary tale. He described how he arrived at the island of D. from foreign lands, how he developed the trick of speaking in poetry, how he came to serve as court poet to King R. (the Fifth), and why the king’s soldiers were pursuing him. His speech was an odd mixture of alliteration, rhyme, iambic pentameter and free verse containing some very difficult metaphors, and I will not tire you with it. Instead, I will recount his story here, in my own plain and humble speech.

It seems my new friend was a man of adventure himself, and had spent the previous three years journeying through the kingdoms and wild lands of the eastern continent. During his travels he frequently feigned knowledge of things that he had not studied and practiced a variety of skills and trades — things which in reality he had never learned. So successful was he in this business of pretending to be what he was not that my friend managed to find profitable employment and enthusiastic companionship in every place he visited.

In the land of K., far to the east, my friend pretended to be a great trainer of wild animals. In fact, he was quite good at it right away, and he gained such fame in that land that he was offered the hand of the sixth daughter of the forty-second concubine of the emperor’s second wife’s great-uncle. She was a delightful young lady, with whom my friend had previously dallied and enjoyed himself immensely. However, the day before his wedding to the enjoyable lady, a lion cub nearly took his own hand, and by this sign my friend knew that it was time to leave that place, which he did, under cover of night.
In the monasteries of the mountains, my friend shaved his head and donned the red robes of a monk. There he meditated four times daily and expanded his consciousness to include, he said, the whole of the cosmos. He left that place only because he missed the attention of the ladies.

He traveled southward, then, into warmer lands. In the town of J., he wove carpets in the manner of the ancients, which none of the present inhabitants of that place had ever seen done before — indeed, which none of them had ever heard of before. With the profits from this venture, he purchased a tea house in the great city of T., and there he set out to hire girls to perform the traditional dance of the blossoms for his guests. While walking in that city at night, looking for girls whose parents would allow them to dance in his tea house, my friend observed many horrible, shadowy figures lurking in streets and alleys, and he took fright. Later, when three of these odious figures assaulted him and relieved him of his purse, he understood that they were but the shadows of men, and men of the lowest sort. However, to a true adventurer no experience is wasted, and that night my friend thought of a more profitable occupation — that of warding off evil.

With this idea fixed firmly in his mind, he traveled northward, to the dark and wild lands surrounding the Sea of B., where he apprenticed himself to a local medicine-man. Before long, however, my young friend was alarmed by the barbarism and ignorance of the people of that place. He had expected that he would learn spells for seducing women, for making gold, for calling on the demons of hell to destroy enemies. But so simple were the peasants who visited the medicine-man, they asked only for spells to determine the best time for planting, to influence the sex of unborn children, and to banish mice from their stores of grain. My friend tried to sell them herbs from the medicine-man’s cabinet — milicing, which made women beautiful, and quenei, which made them pleasant, and the seeds of the semao plant, which made men speak in poetry. But the peasants of that place were interested only in those herbs which cured arthritis and glaucoma and infertility. Naturally, being a gentleman and an adventurer, my friend soon became disgusted, and he left, carrying away with him a pouch of semao seeds which, he thought, might prove useful to him later.

He went next to the desert kingdom of Y. The sultan there, my friend had heard, was a man who encouraged the arts, and loved song and poetry. Moreover, it was said, he appreciated talent, and gave rich rewards to those who entertained him. It was also said that the sultan maintained a harem of five hundred wives and concubines. My friend, of course, was eager to make the acquaintance of this extraordinary sovereign, and equally eager to fix his gaze upon the ladies of the palace harem. With this purpose, he juggled before the palace gate, and turned somersaults, and walked on his hands, and balanced items on his nose, exerting himself greatly in these activities. After many days of this, he had gained a loyal audience of men and boys, who threw coins at him, and asked him where he learned such marvelous tricks, but he still had not attracted the attention of the sultan. After many more days, he began to lose hope of ever seeing the inside of the palace… where the sultan reclined on silken cushions eating cherries out of a cup, while around him bare-breasted women reclined on cushions of their own, smiling warmly at the stranger who recited poems of love for them (for my friend had not forgotten that he still carried his pouch of semao seeds)… where each woman imagined that the poet spoke directly to her, and wondered by what sorcery the poet had discovered the secret wish of her soul…

These were the precise thoughts my friend was thinking when, without warning, the palace gates opened. In the hushed street twenty white-clad men marched toward the palace, carrying on their shoulders a sedan chair covered entirely in curtains of embroidered black silk, while twenty armed guards followed behind. This chair, it was whispered, carried the sultan’s newest bride to the palace. As this most curious procession moved past the place where my friend stood with his modest crowd of admirers, he was seized suddenly with burning curiosity, and despairing of ever seeing a palace woman by other, more legitimate means, my friend leapt courageously forward and there, before the crowd of horrified on-lookers (all male), he pulled open the curtains of the sedan chair. Inside, there sat a figure draped from head to toe in a long black veil, so that no part of “her” was visible. It was precisely at that moment that my friend decided that in fact there were no women in the kingdom at all, that the existence of women was merely a rumor started by the sultan and his counselors, and that the veils and curtains were merely a cunning ploy devised to prevent men from leaving the kingdom altogether.

By then my friend had tired of veils and curtains, and rumors whispered in the street, and he longed to look upon the soft, elaborate hairstyles, beautiful faces and white bosoms of the ladies of the island of D.

It was late in the summer when he arrived on that pleasant island, and he did not waste time. Immediately he swallowed some semao seeds, and with much humility presented himself to the king. He now spoke the sweet speech of poetry, which he said was the speech of his native country. Which he said was the kingdom of the human heart. Which he said was love. So delighted was the young queen with my friend’s manner of expression, that she removed her fan from her bodice, opened it, and began to fan the sweat from her bosom, elbowing her husband in the ribs as she did so. Thus by a clever trick, my friend found a new position as poet in the court of King R. (the Fifth).

He passed many delightful months in the company of the noblemen and ladies of that court, and gained a reputation as a poet of profound feeling and great genius. (Lest I convey the wrong impression, I must here state that my friend truly was a witty and charming and sensitive fellow, and that it was not simply the semao seeds which made him appear so.) The gentlemen of the court sought my friend’s counsel on all matters pertaining to love, and they asked him to read and advise them on their own poetic scribblings, which he graciously did. The ladies sighed and smiled at him, and wrote him letters professing their own undying devotion to him, which they slipped discreetly into his hands. Of course, no one in the court guessed his secret — that to maintain his remarkable talent for poetry he swallowed seeds –one each week — from a mysterious medicine pouch which he kept hidden in his room. In addition to poems of love, my friend also composed poems which exalted the splendid deeds and fine features of the king, and the heroic victories of the king’s ancestors on the field of battle, and thus the king came to prize him highly.

My friend, in short, was perfectly suited to this role of court poet, and he would have happily continued living in this agreeable manner, had not an unfortunate event occurred which put him in the dangerous situation in which I first found him. The king employed a cook who, while not very talented, continuously sought to prepare new dishes to delight the court. Most of these dishes were quite inedible, and my friend could not swallow them even to be polite. The king also employed a certain maid, who according to my friend, was really a tiresome busybody, and quite unattractive. These two, the cook and the maid, were the twin ignoramuses who brought about my friend’s downfall. The maid discovered the semao seeds while cleaning the poet’s room and, suspecting that they were extraordinary but not knowing their true nature, she brought them to her friend. The cook tasted them and found they possessed an interesting and unusual flavor, and promptly added them to the dish he was preparing.

Indeed it was a most dreadful thing to witness. At the end of that day’s banquet, the king and queen and all the nobles of the court began to jabber in poetry, precisely in the same manner as my friend. In the midst of the frightful confusion which followed, the king stood and, pounding the table with his fist, he shouted, “Forbear from speech which doth like the winter tempest devastate this gentle vale of sense!” The room fell silent, and only then did my friend fully realize the gravity of his situation. The king was enraged. His poet was a charlatan who had made a mockery of an honored tradition, and who had disrupted court life to an unbearable degree. Speaking in iambic pentameter with an elegant a-b-b-a-c-c rhyme scheme, the king promised that justice would be expedient, which meant of course that the hanging would be carried out swiftly, without a trial. However, only the poet understood the king’s speech, and it was hours before the unhappy king was able to effectively communicate his wishes to his guards. By this time, the poet had made his escape, and was running through the woods toward the clearing at the center of the island, because he had seen salvation in the shape of a hot-air balloon skimming over the tops of the trees.

My friend finished recounting his extraordinary tale just as we reached the mainland city of M. In this city I knew a physician who would be able to treat my friend’s injuries — mainly, I thought, bumps and scratches — and who might also be able to help him recover normal speech. With this purpose I lowered my balloon into the courtyard of the hospital, and there I entrusted my friend to the care of the esteemed doctor. The young poet thanked me profusely for saving his life, and he said he was pleased to have met another man with the heart of an adventurer. And so I bid him adieu, climbed back into my basket, and we parted.

This was not the last I heard of him, however. Later that year, a venture of my own brought me back to M., and I took the opportunity to visit the physician and find out from him what had happened to my young friend.

I entered the hospital to find, to my surprise, that my friend was still there, and that he was now treating patients. He explained to me that after I left him, he convinced the doctor that he was a trained physician’s assistant, and he was immediately offered employment at the hospital. This did not trouble me overmuch, as evidently he was quite competent. Another noteworthy fact — my friend still spoke in poetry. The reason for this — according to every medical journal he had read on the subject — was that the semao seeds worked to restructure the synapses within the brain, and the effects of this restructuring were permanent. And so it was ironic indeed that while on the island of D. he had taken such great pains to preserve his pouch of semao seeds, and was careful to swallow one and only one each week, when he would have done better to throw them into the sea.

I told him that I was impressed with his new choice of profession. Doctoring, I said, was noble and praiseworthy. He said that in truth he was growing tired of it. He had heard of a place in the west where gold had been discovered, and he had conceived of a plan that would make him rich very quickly. Also, the women there were reputed to be very beautiful, and poets were rare. My friend hesitated for a moment, then asked me if I was interested in taking part in this venture with him. I smiled, thinking that perhaps he wanted use of my balloon. Then I shook my head. I had come to M. on a venture of my own, I said. I smiled again to see his eyes widen with curiosity. I would be giving balloon rides to paying passengers, I told him, and business would be brisk. There was an island that had become a fashionable place to visit, a pleasant island called D., were all the inhabitants spoke in poetry.

The End


In addition to being a writer, Diane is a mom. Her hobbies include: repeating herself innumerable times (she enjoys experimenting with different tones of voice); driving her kids to every known address in the state of Pennsylvania at least once; wearing Spiderman stickers on her face (originally this was done to get a certain boy to eat his Cheerios, but somewhere Diane crossed a line, and now she does it because she likes to); and repeating herself innumerable times.

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