Barry Yourgrau:
Haunted Traveler
short story
photo of Barry Yourgrau

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  Barry Yourgrau: Haunted Traveler

I take a ride on a bubble. I mount up on a leaf in the giant's garden. It's a young man's game, but I join the weekend daredevils who sneak in here while the giant snores in his tower of boulders. The wide breeze blows across the morning dew and the bubbles swell into being, and I wait my turn to clamber onto one, like a jockey, squeezing an iridescent perch between my knees. Then the breeze freshens, and I give a yelp of alarm and joy, and wobble aloft into the sunlight.

Around me the whooping, jostling flock of bubbles navigate the current. Most of us sport a honeysuckle trumpetblossom as an airstreamed cap, and motorist's goggles and trailing white scarf, and the herringbone plus fours which are the bubble riders' borrowing from our earthbound cousins, the bicyclists. We stream down pell-mell over the lawn and terraces, over the nodding treasuries of roses and the high stands of pink gladiolas in the flower beds.

A few calculating souls always try to outsmart the haphazardness of our flight--rigging themselves with strutted wings on their backs, or with thin airfoils strapped and cinched to their ankles. One of them comes suddenly scuttling up through the midst of us. Shouts and curses pursue him as others clamor out of his way. I watch another ambitious sort go slowly whirling down into the lily pads of the stone pool. The rotor blade of his elaborate headpiece bounces away on the flagstones. Over it comes drifting a newcomer who's somehow got himself astoundingly inside his bubble. He gapes out through the glossy membrane in a state of panic and idiotic laughter. A gust of breeze sends him flailing, like a fetus resisting birth, toward the epic tangled bulk of a greengage plum tree.

I lean into this same gust of air, steering with my knees and tugging hands. I rise, banking unsteadily, and make a wavering course for the towering eaves of the giant's house. Some fearless types are there already, hovering outside the giant's window for a glimpse of the monster abed. For the first time I myself bob beside them, and through their milling honeysuckle caps I claim my debut sight of the behemoth in his den. Yellow-check curtains form a proscenium on the scale of an opera set. I blink through in trepidation and awe at something like a haystack, which makes a rumbling like an iron cartwheel over cobblestones. It's the giant's snoring head, with its fearsome one eye closed in the center of its brow, and its blond nettle patch of beard.

"He seems so youngl" I reflect, tracing the huge bare arm that trails to the floor over a homespun blanket resembling a small plot of field. Beneath immense fingers lies the remains of an ox carcass, easily much bigger than--"than a man," I uneasily calculate.

A new gust rocks me, and starts to spin me about. "Careful, idiot--" voices erupt around me, as one of the more foolhardy riders is almost swept in over the sill. His mates grapple with him, and shove him off wobbling into the safety of blazing ivy beside the window ledge.

I turn from them, exulting. I bank around in the direction of the garden once more. My heart is in triumph. I've stolen an unauthorized, intimate view of the giant, and am alive to tell it! I feel newly bold, vital--capable even of tackling the far lower wall. To ride my glistening bubble out beyond the gardenl This is the real escapade, it forgoes the soft landings of turf and leafy bushes for the pavements and slate roofs, and other hazards, of the village. And the village folk don't take happily to young men in honeysuckles tumbling out of the sky onto their church bazaars and shop awnings and laundry lines. Putting at risk, what's more, their peaceable relations with the giant on his hill.

I've always felt daunted by the challenge of sailing the village. But now, I'm ready for my maiden jaunt.

The broad overgrown lip of the wall looms there before me. A giant tuft of dandelion floats up close. I maneuver out of its path, and hurriedly wiggle a surer perch, and shout at the small knot of bubble riders ahead to clear the way. One of them looks back around at me, contemptuous of the alarm in my voice. I crane forward, jockey style, and my heart lunges in me--and a cross breeze bumps me veering slowly at a downward angle, toward the brambles on the wall top. I writhe frenziedly, straining to buck the sinking bubble aloft. "Don't struggle, man, don't struggle!" calls a young guy hovering expertly a few yards off. He has a half halo of daisy petals sportively fringing his honeysuckle. I bleat in horror, as I drift right down onto the brambles. My bubble squashes under my weight. A thorny twig juts up into the membrane beneath me, and the whole glistening carapace sinks in slow motion toward it. "Don't strugglel" the voice repeats...but I couldn't if I wanted--I'm paralyzed, awaiting the explosive pop to send me floundering into the depths of the thorns.

And then, in reciprocal slow motion, the bubble's tensile strength holds, and pauses, and then begins to swell--and I bounce spellbound from the brambles back up into the air, and out over the garden wall. "Way to go, gramps!" cries the advising voice. I glance over my shoulder with an ashen grin, and flip a quick, vulgar gesture of triumph back, with a trembling hand.

I ride bobbing on down toward the rooftops of the village. I gulp in exhilaration and fumble at my honeysuckle cap and goggles, awry from my struggles. I readjust the clasp of my knees. Below unwinds the little river, along whose banks I've gone poking along many a weekend morning like this one. Some fishermen are there with their sons. The boys point up at me in excitement, the men scowl and spit and call their sons back to their lines in the water. I laugh. In high spirits I lean sideways, and bank a course for the village center. The rushing wind makes ocean noises in my ears, my honeysuckle cap quivers. A pair of sharpbeaked robins swoop dangerously alongside. I wave them off with a flurry of my hand.

Now the steeple of the church rises. A rummage sale crowds the lawn behind it. I can't restrain myself, I execute a bumpy show-off circle around the steeple's upright, like a windborne none-too-safe carousel ride. Shouts of scandal erupt below. Shakily I whiz glistening back and forth over sellers and buyers and tables, then make off yelping for the library. En route the open mouths of chimneys, and other fearsome places to lose altitude, stare up at me. I stare back. I pass over my own address before I know it, and I manage a brief steep glimpse through my very window, and I shout for joy.

I turn recklessly, careening onto the main street, and swoop low over honking cars and wave back at a pair of girls who've run out of the pastry shop to salute me and my bubble. Distracted, I look up just in time to avoid a bristling TV antenna. I veer off, heeling over, onto a tree-lined street of small houses. I battle a gust, and a kid comes scrambling along below me with predatory persistence on his upturned face. "Heyl--" I shout, as he aims on the run with his slingshot. He fires. "You crazy little--" I snarl, jerking frantically to change course. I skid off over a driveway, but there's a second shot.

Like a crystalline hiccup, the bubble pops.

I come heavily to earth on top of a garage overhang. I gasp. A screen door bangs open just below. An old fellow storms out. "You heedless flower-headed foolsl" he rasps, shaking a scrawny fist. "Look at my rainspout--I'll teach you something! Why, you're a grown man," he squawks. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" He disappears inside. I struggle hurriedly, grunting, to clamber off. As I start to hang by my hands, something stings me in the back of my neck so I yell and loose my grip, and tumble violently to the ground.

I hobble off under the shade trees, in my dented honeysuckle and dirty plus fours, cursing after the kid who keeps up his gleeful, taunting fusillade on the run. The old guy fills in the rear of this tableau of the three ages of man. He brandishes an ax, wheezing along in fury after me.

And on this sour, chaotic note, my aerial joyride comes to its end.

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Copyright © 1999 by Barry Yourgrau.