Something reminded me the other day of this bit of fiction. I’m not entirely sure when I wrote it, but it was sometime during the mid-1980s, probably in 1984 in Columbia, Missouri.
In the dim light of early morning, he came down the cobblestoned street, half shuffling, half dancing. His hair, like silver feathers, peeked out from under a hat that had been new many towns ago. He rubbed the knuckles of his right hand on the right breast of his tan jacket, where the nap of the fabric was only a memory, then breathed on the hand as if for warmth and stuck it into his trouser pocket. His left hand swayed in the air, holding tight against the breeze to the eight balloons tethered on strings.
As he came down the empty street, the balloons danced with him, bouncing in the air. They were as blue as a kitten’s eyes.
He made little noise as he passed. Only the slight whisper of his soft shoes on the cobbles and a faint melody hummed under his breath gave note of his passing in the small alley where working folk lived. Their daily labors were some hours ahead, and few had started to prepare. Of those, only one saw the man with the balloons.
She was Ritva, and she had lived alone for years, less by choice than by circumstance. Her morning tea was ready, and she sipped it standing by the single window in her second-floor rooms, watching the shadows retreat before the day in the little canyon of the alley. She sipped, then grimaced. Her tea was unsweetened; sugar was a luxury although she would have denied herself sweetness even if she could have afforded it. There was something noble for Ritva in the bitterness of the tea.
She sipped again. Her tongue curled, seeking refuge from the tartness, as always. Then she saw the balloons. They jumped and twisted on their strings as they capered past her window. She leaned closer to the glass and peered downward to see whose fist held the strings. A simpleton, no doubt, for who but a fool would prance through the alley with balloons?
She savored the bite of the last swallow of tea, found her cloak and walked carefully down the narrow stairs to the street. The fool with the balloons was heading out of sight around the small curve to her left. She turned right, toward the counting house and work, but then turned in pursuit of the fool; someone had to tell him not to bother hard-working folk who needed their rest.
She rounded the slight curve in the alley and came nearly face-to-face with him. He smiled as if he’d been waiting for her. “Hoy, Ritva! You must have stern business this morning to be off so fast with so grim a look. Who draws your wrath today?”
“It is you,” she said, then paused, less certain. “How is it you know my name, as I do not know yours?” She dismissed the question with a sharp wave of her hand. “What business have you in the alley, bothering sleeping folk? Are you foolish or simply idle?”
He laughed, his head thrown back, the sounds of his amusement coming from deep within his chest. The sun, peering through a gap between buildings, caught his upturned face under the brim of his squashed hat and made it glow like embers not quite gone. He shook his head when his laughter was done. “So many questions and so little time for answers,” he said. “I bother no folk in their beds, nor am I foolish. I sell my wares and bring what all folk need.”
“Balloons? We all need balloons?” Ritva’s scorn was as bitter as her tea.
“Nay, not just balloons, but dreams. I am a peddler of dreams, and all folk here and in all the other cities and villages in this world need dreams. We all need a moment in the day to wonder, to hope, to pretend. We need to counter the fear, the anger, and the sorrow that wait at work, at home, and in between. We need to hear the sun sing its golden aria, to know that the mountains we climb in our minds are real and that our failures are not so important.”
He paused and looked directly into her eyes, his own eyes as blue as the balloons that swayed in the slight morning breeze.
“We need our dreams,” he said. “They chase the nightmares from our sleep and hold us steadfast in our waking hours. Gloom falls in the face of their gentle advance. Come, Ritva, choose a dream!”
“I need no dreams,” she said. “And I need no balloons. I have work.” She moved to go back down the alley. He bowed and waved her on with his right arm. The balloons bobbed on their strings as he bowed.
“I charge no coin,” he said. “If the balloons be only balloons, you lose naught. Come, the figures at the counting house can wait. Buy from me a dream!”
Ritva hesitated. “You must leave the alley,” she said. “I shall have a balloon, but you must go elsewhere.”
“You would deny your neighbors the dreams they need, just as you deny your own need for dreams?” He waited for no answer but reached to his left hand and selected a balloon. He brought it down to her, held it near her chin and popped it with the thrust of a fingernail.
“Hai! You did that intentional!” Ritva glared at him for an instant, then gasped. She looked at the peddler of dreams, but he was already fading from sight.
She stood atop a tall hill, taller than any near the village, and the grass under her feet was greener than springtime and softer than the velvet worn by kings. The air was sweet like ripe fruit and just a bit cold. She was waiting for someone.
How did she know that? Ritva shivered, made anxious by this place where she had found herself. Where was the idle fool with his balloons? She brought her hand to her mouth in fear and stopped in wonder. The skin of her face was smooth, the wrinkles she’d long ago accepted with little grace now gone. She looked at her hand and saw the hand of a young woman. And she was waiting for someone.
She turned into the wind. The wind was real. It blew her hair back, flattened the fabric of her dress against her body, shaping the cloth to a figure that was never Ritva’s, even when she was young. It was like a dream. No, she thought and closed her eyes, and the young hand went again to the smooth face in astonishment. It was not like a dream. It truly was a dream. She’d bought it from the peddler of dreams.
She opened her eyes and looked down the hill. A young man with brown hair and a thick beard, strong and ruddy, was rushing up the hillside toward her. Still a little fearful, she waited for him, and he took her into his arms as he reached the summit. “I’m home,” he said, his hazel eyes looking at her as if to compare reality with memory. “We can be married now.” Then he leaned over and kissed her. Ritva, who had never been embraced, kissed back. It tasted like cinnamon, she thought, though she’d never tasted the spice. Somehow, she knew.
The kiss ended and Ritva opened her eyes. She was in the alley again, and the peddler of dreams stood beside her, watching her closely. “That was the dream of a young woman from Hardin Province,” he said. “Her young man went away to war and never returned, and she dreams of what would have been.”
Ritva gathered her thoughts, like weapons, to deal with the intrusion of fancy. She was no young girl in need of kisses from a lost lover. She was a woman, an old woman, and she had work at hand. Still, she delayed. The dream had been pleasant, maybe something more than pleasant, even if it was not real.
“If I can pay you” she said slowly, her eyes on his, “may I have another?” She frowned, for that was not what she had intended to say.
He smiled and then shook his head. “No, Ritva. One is all you may have. More than that, well . . .” He paused, evidently thinking, and then nodded. “Have you ever had airwine?” She shook her head. “No? You must someday, and you will learn that the first sip of airwine is the best ever, that moment when the racing bubbles fly out of the glass as you sip, when some of them streak into your nose to tickle it with tiny feathers as the sweetness of the nectar slides across your tongue.”
He sighed and shook his head again. “After that, as fine as airwine is, it’s never quite so fine. And so it is with the dreams I sell. The first time is all there can be, for it can never be so fine again.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue balloon. “Now you may pay me,” he said. “I will take your dream in return for the dream of the girl in Hardin. Here,” he said, placing the balloon in her hand, “give me your dream.”
“I have none,” Ritva said. “Even so, I am an old woman. Who would want my dream?”
“You have dreams, Ritva, even if you do not care to remember them. Like any young woman, you once sat in the moonlight on Midsummer, wearing a crown of silverflowers, and thought about the man you hoped to meet. Your sleep brings you dreams.”
She shook her head quickly, sharply. He chuckled.
“Yes, your sleep brings you dreams although you, like many, refuse to receive them. There are dreams hidden inside you, Ritva. You might dream of the first taste of an apple in the autumn or the laughter of young children. We all have dreams, but it sometimes takes the dream of another to bring forth our own.” He looked at her with a soft smile. “I know these things. I am a peddler of dreams.”
Wordlessly, she brought the balloon to her mouth and filled it with her breath until it shone from the light of the day reaching through its thin blue shell. He tied it on a string, and it rose into the air, lifted by Ritva’s dream. He turned away as if to leave. She stood silently, and he looked back at her.
“Come, Ritva,” he said, “go to your work. You have had another’s dream, but your life is still your own to lead, and your duties are your own to fulfill.” He stepped closer and placed his hand gently on her cheek. “Go. Live your life and remember the dream.”
He began to hum a strange tune and then his shuffling dance took him away down the alley. It was full morning. The alley’s dark corners were gone, and windows were opening. She turned toward the counting house.
Horses ran free in her sleep that night. She awoke from the dream, her own dream, and in her mind, she could see him: On the road between Ritva’s village and the next, blue balloons glimmering in the moonlight, the peddler of dreams danced a little faster.