The Iron Balloon
By Tony Rauch
A kid is in the park with a metal hoop and stick, practicing rolling the hoop around when she senses something in the air. There is a hint of sulfur about. This sensation grows to a malodorous tar smell. The stinky aroma lingers. She turns to see what could manufacture this stinging odor. But there is no oil or tar wagon around. No roofs are being patched. The wind is blowing westerly, away from the rendering plant and molasses extraction factory that are near the harbor, down by the docks.
She can hear a slight clicking, a faint chugging in the air. But it isn’t a noise as much as a feeling, a vibration, a slight hum. She senses something in the sky. She turns and searches, looking though the colorful fall trees, scanning the horizon, then spots it behind herself - a ball of dense black smoke. It drifts in the wind, swaying back and forth. It hangs above the tree line, but slowly drops. It moves up and down in the breeze, then continues lower, behind the yellow, chartreuse, orange, gold, and vermillion fall trees, a tail of black soot swirling in the wind behind it. Why it must be some kind of new fangled mechanical flying device, the likes of which she’s never seen before.
It’s a smoking ball of . . . well, of something. The smoke swirls around the great ball as if wafting out from inside of it. Perhaps this exhalation is from an internal engine of some kind, such as in a steamship. The kid can’t really tell. In thinking of it, it just looks like a round, smoking balloon, a balloon on fire perhaps. Whatever it is, it sure is curious. The large ball disappears behind a large rooming house and line of colorful trees.
The great smoky ball appears again, from behind the Cobbler’s Hall, around the building’s steeple spire, rising over treetops and low roofs, across the street, over the trees to the edge of the park - lumbering about, whipping its long tail of black smoke to twist in the sky. The dang thing is huge. It hops over the tree line and descends, gliding into the park. But it is not a smooth, elegant descent. No, not in the least. The thing comes wobbling down at a rapid pace. It takes the kid’s breath away. She gasps, for it looks as though it will crash and break apart. She covers her mouth. Her body tightens. She loses all feeling. Her metal hoop rolls away from her and flops into the grass.
The great smoky ball pulls up. It slows and sets itself down on the grass about a hundred feet from the kid. She’s stunned. For it is a great iron balloon, about fifty feet in diameter, the size of a small house. It looks as if constructed of an open iron grid – small internal framing with a wire mesh covering the entire thing. The top part looks to be of solid sheet metal. The whole thing is black with smoking soot. There is a small basket suspended from below. The basket looks to be wicker, and the bottom of it looks to be curved, like the bottom of a boat – but covered in silver sheet metal, probably to keep out water in case it lands on water. The basket hits the ground first and slides on the grass, the curving metal parting the grass and sand out of the way as the great iron balloon slowly sets down, flopping the basket onto its side.
The kid stands and watches, fascinated. She is transfixed, frozen. Finally, she starts to jog, then finds herself running - running and running to it.
Smoke emanates from inside the center of the iron framing, billowing up through the metal grid and wire mesh. The wind catches the thick gritty churning swirl and blows it around like a great tail. The kid runs and runs, across the undulating grass, leaves crinkling under her feet. She stumbles out of breath to the great metal ball.
“Well, that didn’t work,” a young woman crawls from the basket which now lies on its side in the grass. She rises to her feet and brushes herself off. She looks herself over, then looks at the balloon. She is wearing a long leather smock and riding goggles. A long knitted scarf flutters in the wind from her neck. She has on a leather skull cap and light blue work overalls. “Maybe I should try wood next time. . . . Maybe I could treat the wood with something that’ll make it burn longer . . . and cleaner. . . . I don’t know if coal’s the answer here,” she turns to me, “Coal’s pretty light. But it’s messy. . . What do you think?” She removes one of her leather gloves and scratches her face.
“Me?” the girl asks, surprised.
“Yeah. You,” the young woman chuckles. “You see anyone else standing here?”
“Ah, no. Not really,” the girl answers.
“Not really,” the young woman sighs, repeating the girl, but looking over the large, dark metal ball.
People begin to gather at the edge of the park. The dark smoke is dissipating in the wind now.
“They probably think we’re standing around a fire,” the young woman looks around.
The crowd mills about, pointing to them, the iron balloon smoldering, curling smoke wafting out to thin in the breeze.
“Maybe some kind of oil or gas would be better,” the young woman stares at the iron balloon, “As a fuel,” then looks to the girl standing at her side, “What do you think?”
“You were flying in the air,” the girl exclaims with a gasp, “You were riding on the wind in that thing,” she points, shaking her head in disbelief. “In that heavy giant thing,” she pants, out of breath from running.
“Yeah, I couldn’t get the fabric ones to work,” the young woman bends to look the structured sphere over, “Kept igniting. The dang fabric. I couldn’t get the fire coating to take,” she shakes her head, “So I had to go with a light gauge metal. . . . Got ‘er off the ground though, so . . . well, that’s a start anyway, isn’t it now?”
“Yeah. Yeah,” the kid nods, still in disbelief at it all, “I seen drawings of flying balloons in a book once, but never thought I’d see anything like this in person.”
“Can’t steer too well in the fabric ones either,” the young woman huffs, “Too dependent on the wind. An iron one is like a ship, more stable. You don’t need to steer by the wind so much. Not with the internal propellers digging into the air, pushing you along. With any luck, I think I can get this one to keep chugging along, like a train. If I can just find a lightweight fuel,” she bends and leans to examine the insides of the metal ball.
“Ah, yeah. You were goin’ real good there for a while,” the girl nods, “I seen ya. . . But just gettin’ ‘er up into the air, that’s gotta be the hardest part. That’s an accomplishment right there.”
“The heat catches the top of the metal there, . .” the young woman reaches down to point. She crouches, then crawls to the stove in the basket, working a lever to send fire up through the stove pipe. “. . . and raises it off the ground when you work the baffles over there. An internal balloon fills with heat to get you up. Then the propellers can do their thing, keeping you afloat. You don’t need no wind at all. . .” she crawls back and stands, watching the fire shoot out of the stovepipe. Slowly the balloon rises off the grass. The woman reaches and grabs one of the propellers and jerks it down with all her weight to start it, “I just need to find a fuel that will create a lot of heat, and still be light enough to carry for long trips, . .” she turns to the girl. The two propellers sputter and cough to a slow start as the entire thing slowly tilts to right itself. Bicycle chains churn from the stove to turn the propellers. “. . Oh well. Guess you just gotta keep trying,” she sighs and walks to the basket. “Help me with this thing,” she turns to bend to right the basket, trying to tip it back into place. “Come on,” she grunts.
The girl rushes over and pushes the basket. The entire thing slowly flips over as the balloon quietly rises. Chains that hold the basket under the balloon slowly clank. Metal slowly creeks and groans. The small propellers sputter. The stove hisses.
“The stove makes it bottom heavy,” the young woman climbs into the basket, swinging her legs over the top. “Eventually I’ll install a door so I can ferry passengers across the harbor. Maybe even to surrounding towns.”
The girl peers over the large basket. It has surprisingly tall sides. The inside is maybe the size of a couch, with room enough for maybe four people. Sure enough there is a small stove in it with a pipe running way up to a large aluminum plate at the top of the metal balloon. A long bike chain loops up to a set of gears. The gears split two more bike chains that turn two propellers, one on either side about ten feet apart just below the framing of the great ball.
The young woman reaches down and lifts a heavy jug. She pours a solution into a funnel at the top of the stove. “The ‘Go’ juice,” she nods as the stove howls to life, sending a blue flame out the top of the pipe, into the metal balloon that slowly sloshes upward under the basket, metal slowly groaning, chains creaking. “Climb in. . . Hurry. . . Before the authorities arrive. They’ve been out looking for me all month.”
The girl looks around, then sees a group of constables running across the street, pointing and entering a corner of the park. The girl looks back over to the young woman who is busy working a set of levers and looking up as some vertical metal plates move back and forth above, squeaking inside the metal balloon. The girl looks back to the corner of the park, watching some authorities running like mad, then back to the young woman who is now tossing some coal into the stove from a large bucket. The basket slowly rises. The girl holds onto the top, leaning her weight forward as the basket slowly lifts. She feels herself being pulled up, her feet leaving the grass. Suddenly she feels lighter as she is tugged upward, off the ground.
“Stop. . . Stop,” the young girl hears a faint call, “Stop right there. . . Stop what you’re doing. . . Come back here this instant. . . That’s far too dangerous. . .”
The young girl is dangling, her body swaying in the wind, clinging to the edge of the basket, the top of which is wrapped with a leather coping to form a smooth finish. She feels herself giving way as if gravity is weighing her down. She struggles, swaying back and forth, swimming her body upward, her shoulders rotating, fists tightening, trying to pull herself into the basket. But the engine chugs, the propellers sputter, jerking the basket. The girl loses her grip and is jerked downward, one hand snapping free, that arm dropping, her body swinging to the side, away from the basket so she can see below now. She watches the street pass under her, then the sidewalk, then a roof, just a few feet below. Her feet scrape against the roof. She wonders if she should just let go to rest on the roof, or if she should keep struggling. She sees people running across the street, holding their hands up, some holding out their arms as if to tell her to let go. Several are yelling in panic, their hands on the sides of their heads.
The girl reaches her free arm, but can’t grip anything. Her weight is forcing her arm wrapped around the top of the basket lower and lower. She feels her arm loosening, the edge of the basket sliding across her arm. Her feet drag up the side of the slope of the slate roof, and then nothing, as if they passed the peak and are now on the other side, slowly rising. She looks down. Sure enough there is a back yard, the carriage house below, the alley, a line of trees, another back yard, another sloped roof, a front yard, a line of trees, a street. Her arm is giving way. She jerks lower and lower. The spire on top of the Cobbler’s Hall turret passes at her side. It’s as if she could reach out and grab it, hold on. There is someone in one of the windows. Their eyes meet, but they slide right by one another. The woman inside runs to the window, slapping the glass in wonder.
The young woman in the basket reaches over the side and grabs the girl’s shoulders, tugging the girl up. The girl swings to reach the top of the basket, grabbing the leather on top and pulling herself over, then swinging her legs and body around, landing to tumble inside. She looks up.
The young woman looks down and giggles, “That was a close one. You alright?”
“Ah, yeah,” the girls looks around, then lifts herself off the wood floor. She stands and peers over the edge of the tall basket. The top of the basket is at her neck, so she can just see over the top. She waves to the woman in the window of the tall brick turret. The woman waves back, a serious look of concern growing across her face as she sinks away.
The girl looks out at it all. She can see much of the city, the streets snaking like gray veins, like a spider web, like a broken glass pattern, into the hazy gray distance. The sloped roofs are all grey, red, or green - inside tight lines of puffy yellow and orange trees. “Where we goin’?” she looks to the young woman.
The young woman shrugs and smiles out at it all as they float and chug to the harbor, “Where would you like to go?”
The girl looks back over the side to see the line of sparkling blue water beginning to form on the gray horizon. The long freight houses slowly grow into view, then the masts of the tall ships, some just beginning to raise their sails, getting set to voyage to foreign lands.
- - -
Tony Rauch has three books of short stories published – “I’m right here” (spout press), “Laredo” (Eraserhead Press), “Eyeballs growing all over me . . . again” (Eraserhead Press). He has additional titles forthcoming in the next few months.
Labels: Tony Rauch