The balloons floated through the air like ethereal wanderers, sentenced to roam the sky, high above the clouds. Each shone red and gold in the pale sunlight, carrying its passengers above the land they would soon call their home. Each was disconnected from the world below them, no longer bound by its laws or logic.
Down below, a circular castle poked its gleaming spire above the tops of trees, wreathed in the mist that blew in from the coast. The houses were hidden behind the fog so that they appeared to be floating over a sea of green, blown over with white.
Below one of the balloons, a young girl looked down on the scene below. She was not afraid, she had no reason to be. She had never experienced fear before, and how could she, floating on the gentle breeze? The gentle rocking of the basket must have lulled her to sleep, because hard as she tried, she couldn't remember anything beyond waking up a moment ago.
She floated over fields and farms, hollows and homes, and all the while she wondered where she would land and what would happen when she did. Whether she would be adopted into a nice family, or be left to be raised by the animals of the forest.
In the other baskets, the girl could see the slight figures of other children floating in their own balloons. She briefly wondered about their fates, but she felt her balloon begin to descend and forgot about them. They would find their own life somewhere else, and even if she did happen to meet one of them one day, she would never know from which balloon they had come.
Her balloon was still drifting, and she was surprised to feel herself floating towards the gleaming castle. She was still very high up, but perhaps she would land gracefully in the courtyard and become a princess. The girl had never met a princess, or even really knew what it meant to be one, but the word sounded nice to her, and she thought she would like be something nice.
In fact, the little girl didn't know where she was getting all of these words from, since she hadn't really started living yet, but they seemed to pop into her head as she looked upon more and more of the world. For example, the girl was sure she had never seen the colour red before, but when she looked up at the balloon above her, she knew that it was red. And she knew that the patterns emblazoned on it were the colour of gold. It was very strange to be experiencing all of these things that suddenly had a name.
She knew she was a girl, and that she liked the colour of her balloon, and the golden castle in the distance and that she liked the sound of the word “princess”. Not much more than that, though. She was still just waiting for a name. That was the last thing that she was sure of: that wherever she found her family, she would have a name and life would begin.
The balloon was descending more rapidly now, and it appeared that the girl was still heading for the castle. The other balloons had drifted away, one had already landed and the girl imagined the child clambering out of the woven basket, eager to start life.
That was another mystery: the girl had no idea where she had come from. She knew she was going somewhere, but couldn't remember anything beyond waking up in her floating basket a few minutes ago. Not that she was concerned, she didn't care about where she had come from and had only looked back once – and that was to watch the other balloon land. The girl only cared about where she was going.
The girl drifted ever closer to the castle, as the balloons fell away. She saw the others landing so she waved to them. She didn't really know why she was waving, but she felt that is was a way to wish them good luck; the soon-to-be children she would never know.
And now her descent was much steeper. The girl leaned farther out of her basket. The castle was very close now, and she could see brightly dressed figures moving about, swirling in and out of the fog like ghosts. She smelled smells that she couldn't name but made her think of all kinds of pleasant things.
Suddenly, it was all behind her. Not that it really mattered to her, she was simply excited to start her life. Perhaps she would land on the beach, yes that's what would happen: she would tumble onto the sand, would use her legs for the first time to walk into the town and find a family.
But the balloon didn't land on the beach. It had kept going, right into the water. It was all rather beautiful, the basket touched down gently on the surface, with the great red balloon falling softly behind. The basket floated, bobbing on the slight waves, carrying its tiny bundle to the shore.
The basket landed on the sand and toppled over with a quietthump. The little girl crawled out into the beach and surveyed her new home. She suspected that she might have just had her first adventure. She had rather enjoyed it. The girl hoped there would be a family nearby that she could join, but there didn't seem to be anyone around.
It was very quiet, only the sounds of the waves and the hushed call of seabirds could be heard. The word the girl thought of was “peaceful”, but there was another word that came to her, one that she didn't really understand. The word was “lonely”and while she knew what it meant, she didn't understand the feeling associated with it. She couldn't figure out what “by yourself” really felt like. She had always been on her own; that's why she was looking for a family.
But there wasn't a family around. Regardless, this was her home now, she would have to make do. Although, perhaps she could walk up to the pretty castle she had been admiring. There were people there she could be with.
And so, the little girl left her landing place, using her legs for the first time to toddle across the lumpy sand. She only stumbled a few times and it felt good to stretch her new muscles. Especially, when she had to clamber up the salty rocks of the bluffs. It took her some time, but she made it eventually. She stood looking back down at her Landing Place where she could see her basket, and the balloon, spread red and gold across the green-blue of the water. And then she turned to the face the brilliant structure before her, She stumbled toward it, but before she could get very far, something caught her eye.
It was a run-down little shack on the very top of the bluffs. It was made of wood and the girl thought she could see a hunched figure moving around inside. She girl smiled – she felt happy that there was someone else here. This is what she was meant to do: find people and become their family. She walked up to the door and knocked her tiny fist on the wood.
The door opened to reveal a middle –aged woman, dressed in a green, moth-eaten shawl and had various strings of glass beads around her neck. She was hardly taller than the girl herself, but seemed to rise up out of the very earth and loom over the girl before her.
By a strange coincidence, another thing happened at the same time. One of the bright figures from the castle had come up over the rise and had spotted the little girl. The girl knew this person was from the castle because she remembered seeing her and realizing that this person, now revealed to be woman as well, was dressed in the same colour as her balloon. The girl liked that colour.
“Come inside, my child. I will take care of you well.” The woman in the shawl said. They were the first words that the girl had ever heard. Surely that meant something.
“Don’t go with her, my darling. Come with me to the castle. See, it’s very pretty. You will be happy there and we will make you a princess.” The woman from the castle said, holding out her hand. The girl realized that she very much wanted to go with the woman in red to the pretty castle. She had been going there anyway. Besides, she did want to be a princess and the castle was so bright and interesting compared to the tiny shack.
What should she do? This, the girl realized, was her First Choice. She knew she would have one eventually, but this was the first one. After this, she could never come back to this moment. This decision would change the rest of her life. Pretty deep thoughts for someone who had barely started living yet.
“Well, what are you going to do?” The woman in the shawl replied, clearly getting impatient.
“Please, do come with me.” The woman in red pleaded, “If you stay here you will have to work hard and this woman will be very mean to you. In the castle we will make you a princess and you will never have to work again.”
The girl thought this sounded rather pleasant, until she remembered how good it had felt to climb up the bluffs and stretch her muscles. Did she really want a life where she was not allowed to feel that again?
And yet, there was something about the woman in the green shawl that scared the girl. She couldn’t have said why – mostly because she had really experienced fear before – but she wasn’t sure that she wanted to work hard all the time.
What should she do? And she thought of something. Perhaps she wasn’t even in the right place at all. Maybe her balloon had landed wrong and her family was actually waiting for her somewhere else. She looked to her left, past the shack and saw the most incredible scene. She toddled closer, ignoring the two women trying to claim her for their own, and looked out across a field of short scrubland, but it was the mountains fading into the horizon that captured her. She had never seen anything so big before. She supposed that she must have passed them in her balloon, but they had just looked tiny, tiny then.
Perhaps her family was waiting on the other side of those mountains. Or maybe they were just on the tip of the horizon wondering where she was. The clouds swirled above her in patterns she had never dreamed of.