Well it is Valentine’s Day…
On Fiercest Winds (written 2013)
I love you.
I apologise for telling you this on the day that you die. I wish I’d told you sooner, or not at all, but I couldn’t make myself do it earlier, and I can’t stop myself now. We’ve been friends all our life, I could never jeopardise that. Now though, here at the end, I have to make sure you know the truth: I’ve always loved you and I always will.
I love that you love gardening, and that you know the name of every bird in the orchard. I love the way you talk about flowers and fruit and soil. I love that you’re incredibly ticklish but only around your knees. I love your loping walk, and your obsession with beetles, and the fact that you can never tell the difference between left and right. I love that your laugh changes every day. I love watching how you care for the people in your life, including me. I love that you call me Jonah, and I love that, when I tell you not to, you do it anyway.
You don’t know how much I’ve agonised over sending this with you. I suppose it’s extremely selfish to make you read it as you go, but I hope it gives you happiness and I hope it sets you free. I hope it makes you happy to know just how important you’ve always been to me, and I hope it helps for you to know you never have to pretend to feel the same way, or work out how to reject me, or worry about our future as friends. Our friendship is safe, and always will be. That’s what I’ll remember.
And I will remember, I promise. Forever.
They say there are cultures, in this world or another, who watch their own people die. They wait until their friends and family are very ill, and then they ghoulishly place them on a bed for all to see. Sometimes they even crowd around at the moment of death, and talk and cry and hold the poor person who’s trying to slip away. Barbarians!
When I hear stories like that, I am relieved to live in a world where the dying are treated with dignity and respect. I am glad to live in a culture that uses balloons.
It’s raining on Katie’s last day, as I suspected it would be. Not the sort of torrential rain that leads you to suspend a death, just the constant rhythmic dripping of melancholy, an appropriate display of grief from a day that understands it should be sad. The water churns the orchard soil, spattering mud across my trousers and shoes.
My friend Arthur has come with me to offer support and an umbrella. I appreciate the support but the umbrella feels somehow wrong.
“You’re just getting wet, Jonas,” he says to me, holding the large black canvas over his head. “There’s plenty of room under here.”
I shake my head mutely.
“Look,” Arthur says patiently, “no-one else is getting wet. Not Katie, not her family, not any of her other friends. It’s not noble or brave.”
“I know,” I reply. “It’s just… right.”
Arthur growls and continues to try and hold the umbrella over my head when I’m not looking. The rain mattes my hair to my face and trickles uncomfortably down my neck and arms. My glasses begin to mist over.
Katie stands across the field, next to her hot-air balloon. I can just make out the swirl of her red hair in the breeze. Between me and her lies nothing but dirty, sodden grass and half an army of well-wishers. We mill around awkwardly at a respectful distance as Katie and her brothers prepare her balloon.
I remember the day I talked to her about how it would look. We sat in this very orchard under a bright sun, our backs against a tree.
“It should be black,” I said, squinting into the sky. “A huge skull and crossbones. You can dress up as a pirate and shout piratisms as your enormous floating balloon ship blots out the sun.”
Katie laughed. “Piratisms?”
“You know: Avast and Shiver me timbers and so on.”
“Piratisms definitely isn’t a word.”
“So what do you think?”
“Jonah, have you ever heard me express an interest in pirates?”
I pretended to think about it. She threw an apple at me.
“Oh goodness, you’re going to design it like an enormous beetle, aren’t you?” I said. “That’ll be terrifying.”
“Beetles aren’t terrifying,” Katie said defiantly. “They’re cute.”
“Yeah, tell that to the tiny child who sees a twenty foot earwig floating above her house.”
I dodged another apple.
“It’s not going to be a beetle,” Katie said.
“You’re coming around to my piratisms then?”
“One, it’s going to be a garden.”
I smiled. “That’s good,” I said. “That’s you.”
“I hope so,” Katie said.
“Two, there’s no such word as piratisms.”
Katie’s garden hot-air balloon is framed against the slate-grey sky. The canvas is a sea of different greens, of trees and plants and grass. Dotted around it are subtle flashes of colour: flowers, glinting sunlight, even the occasional beetle. It’s a beautiful balloon, nestled against a backdrop of tall orchard trees.
“Come on,” Arthur says. “It’ll be our turn soon.”
In front of us, the crowd of people have formed a sort of queue. It reminds me of weddings, lining up to wish the bride a happy life.
Far above, water continues to fall from the sky. It’s beginning to pool in my shoes; my feet are turning numb. This too is somehow right.
“What are you going to say to her?” I ask Arthur.
He looks at me. “I don’t really know her,” he says. “I’m just here to look after you.”
“You have to say something.”
He looks at the ground. “I’ll have a think.”
I take my glasses off to wipe them dry. Within seconds of putting them back on, I can barely see.
“Jonas, come under the umbrella. You’re shivering.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “It’s…”
“Jonas, it’s not right. It’s just guilt.”
I peer at Arthur through the rain. “What?”
“I’m going to tell you again.”
“Tell me what?”
He hesitates. “You can’t give her the letter.”
I wipe my right hand on my shirt and slip it inside my pocket. The folded piece of yellow paper is still dry.
“What’s more, you know you can’t,” Arthur persists. “You know it.”
“I don’t know anything,” I say, the words catching in my throat. “And neither do you.”
I continue to stand apart from my friend and his umbrella as we shuffle slowly through the mud towards the woman I love.
When Katie and I were five years old, we met on the carpet at our first school. I wanted her to hand over the building blocks so that I could write my name; she felt very differently about the entire situation.
Later, when we had resolved our differences, we sat together on a purple rug and listened to our teacher read. I’ve heard that myth many times since, and I’ll tell it to you now.
In the beginning, the world was dark. Two children played in this darkness, a girl called Sue and a boy called Moe. Sue and Moe would often look up into the empty sky and wish for light.
“How sad it is,” Sue would say, “that our world is so dark.”
“I agree,” Moe would reply, “but one day we’ll make it right. One night we’ll make it bright.”
“We’ll do it together,” Sue would agree, and the two would run through the blackness, certain that one day they would change the world.
Sue and Moe grew up, and then they grew old, and finally one day it was time for them both to pass on. They built their balloons together, friends to the end. Sue painted hers a fiery orange, and Moe’s was a luminous white.
As their balloons floated into the charcoal sky, Sue and Moe held hands for the final time, but they refused to say Goodbye. Their balloons rose up into the heavens but they did not disappear. They stayed to keep a promise.
Sue’s fiery orange balloon is called Sun, and Moe’s luminous white balloon is called Moon. You can see them in the sky now, making the day right, making the night bright.
At long last, Arthur and I reach Katie’s balloon. It towers above us, much larger than I expect it to be. I never get used to the size of the balloons, not ever.
Katie is standing next to the wicker basket that will carry her into the sky. Her left hand rests gently on the basket, while her right hand holds a green umbrella over her head.
“Hi Katie,” I say awkwardly as I approach.
“Jonah, you’re soaking. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say. “How are you?”
She shrugs. “Are you going to give me a hug?”
I open my arms and she runs into them, squeezing me tightly as if she’s trying to wring me dry.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispers. “You in particular.”
I want to tell her then and there how much I love her. I imagine her saying it back to me, telling me that she’s always loved me, then leaving her boyfriend and her death and running away with me.
“I wish you didn’t have to go,” I say instead. I immediately regret saying it.
“Me too,” Katie says patiently. “Doctor’s orders, you know. If I don’t go now, I might never make it. Might just die on the ground.”
“Waste of a balloon,” I murmur.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll miss you.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah.”
I know what I say next. I say: I have something for you. Then I give her the letter.
I have something for you. I have something for you. I have something for you.
“I’m really wet,” I say, as the rain rolls down my cheeks. I motion to Arthur who has tactfully shuffled away from us. He hands me the umbrella wordlessly.
“Can you even see through your glasses?” Katie asks.
I shake my head and take them off. Umbrella in one hand, glasses in the other, I blink to clear my vision. There she stands, a little shorter than me, long hair and bright eyes, her face much more gaunt than it ever used to be.
“I’ll miss you too,” I say belatedly.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got your whale,” she says, pointing at the small picture that I painted onto the side of her balloon.
I try to laugh but it sounds desperate even to me.
“My name’s not Jonah, remember?” I whisper.
She hugs me again. “You’ll always be Jonah to me.”
I raise the umbrella back over my head and motion to Arthur. He sidles underneath, shaking dry his hair.
“Thank you for being a good friend,” he says to Katie.
Katie looks at him blankly. “I’m really sorry,” she says. “Do I know you?”
“Not really,” says Arthur. “That’s not what I meant.”
Our time is up and we walk away, the letter stuffed uselessly in my pocket forever.
I painted a whale because she always called me Jonah.
“There I am,” I told her when I finished painting it. “You’re stuck with me forever.”
“Where?” she asked.
“Inside that whale, of course,” I replied. “Just sitting in his stomach. Waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” she asked.
The rain stops before Katie’s balloon takes off. I put down the umbrella and put on my glasses. My feet are still bathing in shoe-shaped puddles, but ever so slowly, I start to dry.
By the time Katie is ready to leave, a low-hanging sun has appeared above the orchard grove. The air smells rich and fresh and clean. A strange kernel of hope swells inside me, as if there might be a final reprieve after all.
“I think it’s time,” Arthur says, pointing to the sky.
On the horizon, silhouetted against the blood-red sun, hot-air balloons are beginning to rise. At first there are just a few: lone pioneers setting off bravely into the twilight. But very soon, they are joined by more, and still more, until the skies are filled with a whole host of balloons, each one marking someone’s last day. And for each last day in the sky, a proud family stands their ground, united by pain, watching from a house or a church or a mud-streaked field filled with tributaries of rain.
Katie’s balloon has risen now, and I hear people clapping as I watch it join that army in the sky. The sky is where Katie belongs: she will see the whole Earth fall below her and witness the crescent curve of our world rotate, and she will soar long into the night, until she takes the easy pill or succumbs to the cold.
The balloons are drifting fast, hurrying away from us in a growing wind, racing above the orchard as if chasing the sun-drenched horizon. Very dimly, I am aware of a woman approaching me. I should know who she is, but in the moment, I cannot place her.
“Katie wanted me to give you this,” she says.
The world is suddenly silent as I take the piece of paper without reply.
As I open it, I realise who the woman is. It’s Katie’s sister.
I start to run long before I finish reading the note.
On, I run, and on, and on.
Onwards through muddy fields and hunchback woods. Over brooks and criss-crossed dams.
In a twilight field, fireflies dance. Amongst moonlit trees, owls hoot and flap.
The sun is sunk; the moon climbs high. Still the endless river of balloons rushes above me, flowing swiftly through the evening sky. I have long lost the garden, its vibrant green indistinguishable in a sea of black.
The dark procession is led away on fiercest winds, higher and further into the star-drenched night.
I will give chase forever if that’s what it takes, for what else is there to do but run? Somewhere above me, somewhere beyond me, Katie is shivering in the cold and dark. She still doesn’t know, but now I do.
Her letter begins:
I love you.