I sit here high upon the rocky crags that encircle my island home. The funeral pyre of a strange little man burns fierce and bright before me, the pungent odor of his burning flesh filling my nose. The vile smoke streams up the darkened rock face, forced away by the evening wind.
Several man-lengths away, the monstrous beast with the smooth skin of many colors is bathed in the light of the blazing pyre. It strains at the tendons holding the large woven basket to its huge form. The basket remains caught among the rocks, but with added lashes in case it breaks free.
Before his spirit left his body, the strange little man talked much. He did not speak my language well, but we were able to understand each other enough. He called the beast a “bluen”, but said it was also called a “Air-o-stat”. It is not a living thing – it was made by men. It rises into the air the same way bubbles of air rise through the water. This is caused by the huge skin being filled with light air. There are different types of light air. The little man said there was an air that burned call “hide-row-jin”, and another one that did not burn called “Hee-lee-uhm”. Hot air was also lighter than cold, which was why the smoke from fire rose into the sky.
He told me that the first thoughts of such bluens were made in a land called “Gur-rees” by a man called “Ark-uh-mee-dees” two hundred years before the birth of a great leader called “Ker-iced”. Also within that time, ancient people in a land called “Puh-roo” used them to help carve great pictures in their land called the “Narz-ka” plains, though their ancestors did not continue with it. Only a few generations ago – 1783 years after the death of the leader “Ker-iced” – two brothers in a land called “Fur-ran-suh” made the first bluens since ancient times. As men and women attempted great feats of height and distance in the bluens, many lost their spirit to the undertaking. The creatures such as the one now lashed next to me are at the mercy of the spirits of the air and water. Angry storms of great air, water, and fire have swatted bluens out of the air, such as a man would an insect. Many bluens with the burnable air have caught fire and their riders been destroyed. There are even bigger bluens that can carry large numbers of people far distances – even over the great water. I was told that the bluens are used in sport to race each other. Some men rise high into the sky and then jump out with a “pair-shoot” lashed to their back. The pair-shoot is made from the same skin as the balloon and then opens up like a flower to catch the air and slowly fall so he hits the ground softly. The bluens have also been used in battles among great villages. Some are used to watch how warriors place themselves for the fight. Other bluens are used to carry weapons that burst into giant balls of fire. In their history, bluens have carried people out of villages that held them captive.
Men have also used the bluens to rise high into the sky to learn about the sky and to look closer at the fires burning at night in the village of the air spirits.
Small bluens, the size of a man’s head, and filled with the unburnable “Hee-lee-uhm” air are given to children to play with.
The little man said his bluen used the hee-lee-uhm air and fire. The fire came from another burnable air called “Pro-pain”. There was enough Pro-pain left in his basket he said to get back to his land. But where his land was, or what else was there, he had not had time to tell. The arrival of the little man in his bluen gives me cause for great meditation. In his last breaths the stranger bade me to use his bluen to journey over the great water to find – what I understood him to say – the “treasures of the modern world.”
The legends of our elders’ tell us we are descendants of a mighty people living in a great, bountiful land lying beyond the great water in the direction of the rising sun. But our ancestors were curious about the lands beyond theirs, and crafted strong boats to venture upon the great water. The spirits of the water did not like our people on their water. So the spirits used raging storms and fast water that boats could not cross. Our ancestors landed on this island and the spirits would not let them leave. Over the generations many sailing parties have been sent out into the great water never to return. Once when my father’s father was young, a party went out and only one returned with his spirit nearly gone, telling a tale of the swift water that bore them away and the storm that washed his broken body back to us. The legend says that only when our kinsmen find grace with the water spirits will they be allowed upon the sea to gather us up and return to the great land. Until then, we plant and harvest fruits and vegetables, take fish from the ponds and the great water, and hunt the wild pigs and birds. My village sits within the valley ringed by high rock walls which protects us from the spirits of the air when they anger. Although huge downfalls of water have many times washed away our crops, even with laced fronds to protect them and deep channels dug in the earth to allow the water to run through the breaks in the rock walls to the great water.
So what should I do with the swollen beast? Should I unlash it and allow it to take me into the sky? I think I could not leave my people. I am their leader, the strongest and the wisest among them, just as my father was and his father was before him. They need me. My eldest son is not of age or readiness to take my place. And I could not allow anyone else to ascend into the sky, as it is an honor fit only for a leader. It is also a chance for separating the spirit from the body. But perhaps the spirits of the air would be more kindly to us than the spirits of the water. The stranger obviously was held in grace by the spirits of the air. Perhaps this bluen pleased the spirits with its coloring and shape. But what if the spirits were displeased with us for the loss of the stranger? Perhaps they would not allow us into their air. Then I could rise into the sky and search them out. I could go at night when I can see their village fires and ask for their grace in carrying me through the air to find our great land.
Or I should just strip the bluen as I do when I have killed an animal, making use of all its parts. The enormous skin could be used to cover our crops or our huts to protect us from the seasons of falling water better than woven fronds. And the burning air could be used to cook with so we would not have to worry as much about keeping a supply of dry plants. But soon enough everything would be used up, and my people would demand more wondrous items from across the great water. There is already a longing in my people to see the legend of their rescue come true, because the promise of living as they have never known makes their heads hot with wanting. There would be great sadness and anger among my people if they believed I have betrayed the fulfillment of the legend. I do not know what they would actually do in anger of me.
What if I could find the strange little man’s world or the great land of my kinsman? Perhaps I could return with one of the great bluens take all my people from here to the great land! But my people know no other place. I do fear that they would not be prepared to cross the great water. We may be to our – or the stranger’s – kinsmen, as the monkeys are to us. Frightened away or killed when we come too close or become too bothersome in our curiosity. The stranger spoke of huge villages battling each other with unimaginable weapons that erupt into massive fire and others that throw small hard balls so fast that it enters the body and causes the spirit to leave. My people have not known such battle. But the strange little man seemed unconcerned. He said such things were always happening. Even now and into new generations. Is this what I would bring my people into?
What if I find the great land beyond and our kinsmen? This island is my home and I am the leader of my people. Who will I be in the great land beyond? The leadership of my people is the destiny of my family. Leadership has been handed down from father to son for uncounted generations. My son is destined to one day lead our people. But if I bring my people to the great land, will I give up my leadership and deny my eldest son his rightful destiny?
It may be best if I only brought back many more unimaginable tools to better the life of my people right here on my island. I could learn and then teach my people. To learn the secrets of the man-made skins the stranger wore and the beasts huge soft skin called “seeilk”. I could learn how to make burnable air. I would also know what might be awaiting them and be able to prepare them. Or be prepared to keep them here for their continued safety.
The blaze of the pyre has now calmed. Tradition dictates, the ashes be taken to our crops and combined with the dirt. But the since the stranger was not one of us, it does not seem right to place him here among my people. So today I make the law that the empty body of anyone not born of this island, must be offered unto the spirits which brought them here. With this decreed, I place more wood and brush into the pyre and watch it flare again. I take the stranger’s manmade skins and roll them up to lay my head on against the rocks where I have sheltered myself.
The crest of the morning sun is breaking through the edge of the great water. I sit in the basket of the bluen shaking as the land when it trembles, but it is I alone that moves. I cannot admit it is fear. At my feet lay the little man’s ashes wrapped in large green leaves and tied with strong, thin vines. The basket is now restrained only by the manmade vines that I found in the basket to lash it down.
Above my head is the shiny coiled snake of the “ber-ner”. I reach up and twist the shiny crooked finger as I have been instructed. I flinch as the ber-ner coughs and screams fire into the mouth of the bluen. I slowly count all my fingers three times. I can feel the beast swell as it breathes in the flame. I twist the finger and the fire dies as it started. I reach out and unlash the straining basket from the rocks.
The beast jumps into the sky and I fall back into the basket. I rise! Rise! I move up and over the rock wall and now can see within the mist-covered valley where my village lay. I move with the spirits of the air! I am filled with glory! I continue to rise and move across my island. By the time the new sun burns whole above the great water, I am approaching the other side of my island. My skin tingles as I gaze at my beautiful island moving away from me as if it headed towards the sun.
Suddenly, I feel a coldness. Not on my skin, but within my heart. How will I get back? I am not prepared for this journey! My thoughts go to my people. I cry for them. But I remember I am here to deliver the ashes of the strange little man to the spirits of air. I open the bundled leaves and extend them out of the basket. The wind first picks at the ashes, then tears them away, spreading them rapidly outward and down. I give a long meditation to commend the remains to the air spirits.
I look back towards my island. It is very small now, but I am not as high as before. I am slowly heading towards the great water. I think of all the little man told me. I talk to the air spirits and ask for grace. As I continue to drop, the bluen shakes and twists. I watch the water and see it is moving backward towards my island!
Slowly my island grows larger. As the little man taught me, I turn on the fire and count the fingers on my hand once to keep me from getting too close to the water.
I throw a large bucket on a long vine out into the water several man-lengths below. The bucket hits and fills with water. The vine straightens and the bluen shakes. It slows and continues towards the water. I am still beyond where the water breaks when I jump from the basket. Once in the water, I swim towards the bucket which has moved far beyond me, but the bluen continues to slow. I reach the bucket as it passes through the breaking water. I wrap the vine around my arm and drag my feet in the shallow surf, directing the bucket into the heavy damp sand at the water line. I let go. The filled bucket is dragged across the sand towards a large fallen tree. The bucket snags beneath the tree and jerks it upward, but the wind has died and the bluen’s air has cooled. It floats several man-lengths above me.
The spirits of the air have shown me grace. I know now I will not slaughter the beast, but I have much to learn in controlling it. Yet, I fear by the time I have learned enough, both the Hee-lee-uhm and the Pro-pain airs will be gone. But we will learn how to heat the air. And we will build bluens.
Jackson, Donald Dale, The Aeronauts, 1980, Time-Life Books, Chicago, Illinois.
Wirth, Dick and Young, Jerry, Ballooning: The Complete Guide to Riding the Wind, 1980, Random House, New York, New York.