There lived a girl.
A very odd sort of girl, with bright eyes and a pale, heart shaped face. Her hair was short and bundled around her head in wind-swept curls. She laughed easily and cried never. She was not especially tall nor especially beautiful in feature, but she carried a fierce glow of life in her small body that seemed to burn into her very gaze. Perhaps most peculiar of all, was that she kept tied around her wrist a string. This string was attached to a red balloon. The girl carried this red balloon with her wherever she went, which was many places. The more accurate phrase would be the balloon carried the girl wherever it went. With her red balloon, the girl could fly through the air, freer than a cloud. She traveled far and wide, high and beyond, and saw many wonderful things with her bright, laughing eyes.
In a small, sleepy, kind town lived a young boy. He lived a small, sleepy, kind life, this gentle and brave young boy. One day, he saw something gleaming at the top of a very, very tall tree on the edge of the road that led to the lake where he went fishing every morning. He squinted up into the tangle of branches and leaves, but he could not see clearly what the thing was. It seemed to be a red dot, as though a giant hand had painted a little rose on the very tip of the green tree. The boy, being as courageous as he was kind, decided to climb to the top of the tree, as tall as it was, to see what this red spot could be. He grasped the branches and hoisted himself up, his strong legs pushing against the bark as he raised his body higher and higher above the ground. His hands were scraped and dirty, but his face was clear with curiosity. As he reached the perilous top, he saw that the red spot was in fact a red balloon.
“How strange!” He said out loud, looking at the balloon that was trapped between the very topmost branches.
“It’s not strange at all,” came a cheerful voice.
The boy nearly lost his grip on the thin branch he was grasping, as he turned his head in shock towards the voice. He saw a girl, sitting easily on a very slender branch, her legs crossed.
“It’s not strange,” she repeated, after meeting his eyes with her own bright ones. “After all, if you are flying in this part of the sky, it’s no wonder a great tree would be the thing that my balloon would catch on. Nothing else is so tall, after all.”
The boy stared at her. He had never seen such eyes as hers. They seemed to reflect the very sky.
“Would you mind untangling me?” She asked.
The boy noticed that the balloon was attached to a longish string which was tied firmly around her wrist.
“Yes, of course,” he said.
He cautiously climbed a bit higher, to where the balloon was bobbing, trapped beneath the green leaves. Careful not to pop the delicate balloon, he unwound the string from the branches and handed it back to the girl, who had been watching him.
“Thank you,” she said graciously, taking the balloon back.
They looked at each other for a moment.
“Would you like some tea?” The boy offered courteously. It seemed the right question for this unusual occasion. Nothing brings two strangers together like a steaming cup of tea after a good rousing climb to the top of a very tall tree.
The girl smiled. “It has been quite a while since I’ve had some hot chocolate,” she said merrily. “It’s very hard to find some good chocolate when so high off the ground.”
After this statement, (the boy wondered if the girl actually lived in the tree), he nodded and offered a hand to help her climb down. She took it without a word, and they began the winding descent.
They reached the ground with little difficulty, the girl somehow holding her balloon under one arm while using her other hand to climb down. The boy had kept one hand on the small of her back to offer support. Together, they had managed.
The boy noticed that though he stepped back on the firm ground with his two feet, the girl’s feet hovered in the air and were held aloft by her red balloon. Had he not been holding her hand, he was sure that she would have merely floated away. She gave a smile and no explanation.
Holding her hand firmly, the boy led the way to his little house where the girl sat on a wooden beam on the low ceiling as he made hot chocolate. This was the beginning of their friendship.
Days went by and the girl still did not leave. The boy was quite relieved every morning to see her bright eyes as she smiled at him. Soon she tied her string to his wrist as well, and wherever he went, she floated along after.
They were quite happy, living a small, simple, sleepy life together. The boy was sure he had never felt so full before. Her eyes became his sun in the day and his stars in the evening. And he knew that he loved her with all the strength of his kind and brave heart.
But as time slipped away in its mysterious and unstoppable stream, the boy began to notice that the girl with the red balloon began to look sadder and more drawn. She no longer dreamily told him stories about incredible storms she had survived or the glorious snow-capped mountain tops she had skimmed with her toes. He tried his best to cheer her up with poetry and more cups of his best hot chocolate, flowers which he grew himself in their tiny garden and silly songs that he wrote in his head. She smiled at everything, but her eyes were less luminous, and the boy felt, too, that the sun had strangely begun to set. The red balloon which remain ever tied around their wrists began to droop and the string hung limply between them.
The boy secretly felt happy that she began to come nearer to the ground every day because it meant she was getting nearer to him and his earthbound life. Yet it was a guilty and selfish happiness. It was a happiness he was ashamed of, and at the same time, he felt a deep sadness to see his bright girl with the red balloon lose her color and life that was once a part of her.
One morning, as the day dawned golden and clear, a terrible thing happened. The balloon had shrunk so much it could just hardly bear the girl’s weight and the girl’s feet touched the ground for the first time.
Her pale and empty expression shook the boy like an electric bolt and he knew he could no longer keep her.
He spoke first.
“I love you,” he said to the girl. She looked up at him, the light in her eyes gleaming faintly.
“I love you and I want you in my life. But I can see that it is not enough and that your life is shrinking away and that your balloon is becoming smaller each day. More than anything,” he swallowed now. A lump had grown hard in his throat and his courage, which had always been so sure and bold, had shaken for a moment. “more than anything, I want you to be happy.”
Pick me, he thought fervently. I promise, I can make you happy. But he spoke not a word as he watched her face.
The girl, for the first time in a very long while, smiled a true smile. Her smile seemed to light a candle inside of her, and she grew radiant and buoyant. The boy saw that in the moment of her true joy, her balloon had grown. It expanded, twice in size, stretching out and up into the great, blue sky.
The girl kissed him once on the lips. And before he could change her mind, the girl untied the balloon string from his wrist. In one pang-filled heartbeat, before he could grab her again, she slipped from his hand and was lifted away suddenly into the unchanging sky.
And boy watched as her figure became smaller and smaller, her eyes looking back at him with such fierce brightness and joy, and perhaps a bit of regret, he knew that to love her was to let her be as she was.
Lonely, defiant, and free, his little girl rose away, carrying only the weight of his love, which with its unknowable power, lifted her to greater heights.
He was left alone with his simple, sleepy, sweet life that had not changed at all and had become entirely different.
As he grew older, he met another girl who became his partner and wife, another kind and brave soul like he, and he grew to become content with the way things were.
But sometimes, he looked up at the sky and every so often imagined that he could see a red balloon floating along, daring the edges of the sky. And he was happy and sad all at once.