The harshest winds our province ever experienced kept us indoors for three weeks. When we re-emerged, we saw the sky high above completely overcast with coloured balloons. These clusters of translucent rubber let through warped tints of light (refracted into primary colours) that beat down on everything. Several ropes descended through the balloons all the way to the ground at different points around the province.
One morning we found shreds of torn rubber strewn across our quaint dirt roads and well-manicured gardens. They’d fallen without grace from synthetic heavens filled with bagged sighs floating where shifting, formless clouds once languished.
A peculiar scent spread through the air soon after. Around that time, extremely dense and heavy black tumours started to grow on our backs and shoulders. We tried wearing thick sweaters for a time, but quickly discarded them and went shirtless when the heat became unbearable. The temperature rose after more balloons in the sky exploded and released their hot air as additional shreds of torn rubber fluttered to the earth.
All the neighbouring provinces had long since closed their borders to us.
With no other option, we tried climbing the ropes to escape before the humidity made our already clammy hands even more slippery with sweat. Every climb became a struggle due to the weight of our black tumours.
The weaker among us struggled a few strained metres up the ropes before falling back down to Earth. Few remembered these mini-ascents, for multiple occurred every day.
We gathered in observance when the more fit among us climbed the ropes to an elevation capable of inducing vertigo in themselves and perspiring palms in the observing citizens far below. We followed every exhausted groan and drop of sweat on their brows, but only cheered when they affirmed their mortality by losing their grip on the rope and falling to their death among an anonymous mass of our never-blinking eyes.
I woke up one morning at six am inside my hut after three hours of sleep. I rolled out of my cot and fell to the floor. I sighed and lamented the weight of the tumours on my body, which made lying on the floor while facing up the most comfortable position for me, and constantly tipped me off balance towards that state—an affliction which made all the citizens of the province wobble and frequently vomit from dizziness as they walked.
“The heaviness…” I thought. “The weight of it all…if only…”
Blind with desperation, I half rose and stumbled out the flimsy door of my hut. It cracked as the weight of my body struck its wood.
I moved towards my tool chest on the ground nearby and collapsed onto my knees in front of it. I fumbled off the lock and flipped the lid. I pulled out a spade with such force that several other tools flew out as well. I ignored them and sharpened the tip and edges of my spade with a hand-held sharpening stone. My heart pounded uncomfortably and sweat already dripped off my face in the early morning’s soupy air. I hunched over and touched my forehead to the dirt, baring my tumour covered back to the sky, all the balloons choking out and diffusing its light. With one trembling hand I grabbed the spade’s handle and slid its point into a place where a rocky tumour sitting on my right shoulder blade met the skin on my back.
I forced the tool in with a sharp burst of pressure.
It felt like cutting into and ripping off the largest, deepest scab I’d ever developed. Pain set my nerves alight like a chemical burn. I ground my teeth, shut my eyes, and dug faster in a rush to escape the agony accompanying this self-amputation. With the tip of the sharpened spade shoved halfway into my flesh, I leveraged the strength in my arm against it and popped off the heavy black growth. It hit the ground with the impact of a granite chunk.
I collapsed onto the ground and lay down face first, but felt one important sensation: a faint touch of lightness, not definite, but present enough that I saw an escape from the weight of the tumours on my body.
Without the strength to rise again, I lay flat on the rough earth outside my hut. I reached over my shoulder and tapped my back with the spade until I found another hard growth. I let a muffled scream out into the dirt as I slid the spade between stone and skin where the pain again seared my nerves like a close blue flame. I writhed as I pulled the handle downwards, levered the spade against the tumour, and heard a wet burst of blood as it came off with a long, ugly rip.
I repeated this process until agonizing numbness filled my whole body and I felt nothing. The dirt I lay in turned into mud and became tinged with the wine of my blood as it ran off from the great gouges I’d made in the flesh on my back. The separation of each black tumour from my body brought an increasingly real and verifiable level of lightness to my being.
The spastic force in each pain-induced jerk of my limbs caused me to roll over greater and greater lengths across the ground. As I became lighter, and each time I pounded my fist on the earth I bounced up higher and higher in the air—half a foot up, one foot up, three feet up and so on. With all the tumours scattered around me, the light numbness let me rise trembling to my feet, an act that possessed ease for the first time since before the deformation developed.
A sensation tugged me upwards, a sensation I dismissed as a hallucination coming from the realm beyond suffering. Except that it persisted, and I realized that I had not risen to my feet, but that I’d been pulled up into this position, and within seconds, I felt my feet leave the ground.
Strangely, I do not remember thinking “I’m floating,” but instead that “The sky pulls me towards it.”
As I rose higher in the air, I turned over and over. I looked across the province. A handful of other citizens also levitated upwards through the hot air. Apparently, they had simultaneously come to the same desperate solution as myself. Blood from my mutilated back dripped down to the earth.
Citizens gathered and watched as my altitude gradually increased. I sensed great commotion and energy among them. They turned and spoke to one another with barely contained energy, and they could no longer hear my voice when I tried yelling to them about how I’d released myself from the black tumours.
Half of them turned and marched to the mines near the forest’s edge. From wood and minerals they began constructing obelisk shrines celebrating the concept of ascent. The crushing weight of the tumours on their backs and shoulders made their work more difficult and took an excruciating exertion of strength.
Some of the citizens building obelisk shrines committed suicide in frustration. The rest cursed their daytime labors and sobbed with heartbreaking defeat during the sleepless nights they spent resting in cots because their work seemed without end.
Those of us who’d amputated our tumours kept rising slowly, day after day and night after night.
The citizens gathered in the province below became solemn and retrieved longbows from their huts. They strung them and returned with full quivers. They tried standing erect, raised their bows, and awkwardly fitted them with arrows. They bent their bodies while pulling the bowstrings back and stumbled under the weight of their tumours. Many arrows misfired and fell onto the dirt or burrowed into the earth. A few whizzed past me and only the rare one tore a flesh wound open on my skin. Fewer and fewer reached me as the balloon-filled sky pulled me further upwards.
Some of the citizens firing arrows with comical imbalance in their postures also committed suicide in frustration.
After the first arrow wound I shouted and outstretched my hands in a gesture of peaceful surrender. When I did, the population below ceased their struggles. One half of the citizens halted their construction of obelisk shrines and the other half gave up their parody of archery. They all lay down on their backs, sighed, and abstained from all movement, fading into lethargic decay.
I looked across the sky and saw the other levitating citizens—similarly wounded by rare, well placed arrows—raise their hands in gestures much like mine while inspiring a comparable level of degenerative non-action in the population.
I cannot explain how, but the ensuing still silence emanating up from the province tore at my psyche worse than any arrows tore at my flesh. Myself and the others that filled the atmosphere eventually lowered our hands. The gift of life returned to the province below us as laborious archery and obelisk shrine construction resumed.
My body reached the rainbow ceiling of balloons blocking off the blue sky and warping the sun’s light. I lost sight of the spec-sized citizens below and the few who floated up out of the province hovered alongside me. I expected the balloons to part and reveal the true glory hidden above their phenomenon, but they remained in place and pulled me into their amassed ranks as the rubber of their forms rubbed against my skin and created a piercing squeak that grated my hearing and made blood drip from my ear canals as well as my existing lacerations. The balloons rubbing the open wounds on my back sent sharp spikes of pain into the heart of my nerves. They closed around me, claustrophobically smothering every patch of my exposed skin and tissue with their rubbery form. The heat of the light’s rays passing through their translucent material made each of my breaths feel like inhaling the scalding air of an open oven.
I stopped rising upwards and remained hovering in place once I’d been fully pulled inside the mass of balloons.
I heard balloons popping and bursting somewhere far off. These clusters of small, sharp explosions increased in volume as they got closer. Each burst released an audible sigh of frustration that had been held inside. My imagination left my body and began ascending into the ether while I frantically thought about what else dwelt inside the sea of balloons gathered just beneath heaven or the ozone layer.
I waited with bated breath inside unbearable suspense.