“A Balloon Seller” by Takane Kiuchi
(published here with the permission of the translator, Toshiya Kamei)
In a certain town there once was a curious man who made his living selling balloons. The man lived at the top of a large tree in a park. During the day he would stroll around the town selling balloons of various colors, such as blue, red, green, and purple. When evening arrived, he would return to his home up in the tree.
On his way home the balloon seller would buy himself something for dinner in the first store he stepped into, whichever it might be. For that reason, sometimes he would end up buying nothing but odd things. Also, he was careful to eat as light as possible because of his line of work. So he would buy only two things at each time. Depending on the store, he would buy only a caramel and a cracker at times, only a fig fruit and a bunch of grapes at other times, and only a carrot and an onion at another time. Even so, the balloon seller found all this funny. He would stuff his purchased items into his pockets and go home with a smile on his face. His home was the largest and tallest tree in the park. It was a magnificent tree, indeed.
The balloon seller would always whistle his way back. Also, he would think about everything that had happened that day. He would remember every one of his customers, pretty girls and lively boys who had bought his balloons. As he walked while whistling and smiling, his heart would gradually become lighter. By the time he had reached under the tree, his body had become fluffy and light, so he would be able to fly up to his home with the floating power of the balloons he hadn’t sold that day. That’s why he was able to live high up in the tree, where there was a branch that had grown in the shape of a soft bed among the thick leaves. He would lay down his tired body there.
He would tie his balloons tightly to a branch, and then eat slowly what he had bought earlier. Whatever came out of his pockets, he would savor his dinner with a smile. When he lay on his back, the stars would shine brightly above him. While humming or whistling a tune, the balloon seller would feel cozy and doze off into sleep.
In the morning, a chorus of chirping birds would wake him up. Then he would loosen the strings of his balloons from the branch, hold half of them with each hand, jump off the tree, and land softly on the ground.
Then he would walk up to a nearby food stand and eat his breakfast. After that, he would spend the whole day strolling and hawking his balloons. Day after day passed, without any incident. However, one night, the balloon seller was no longer able to go back to his home in the tree. What on earth happened? This is a story of how he lost his ability to fly home.
* * *
The day had been sultry since the morning. The wind blew hard, raising dust. It was a dreadfully unpleasant day. The whole town had become cranky, irritable, and spiteful. Even though the balloon seller headed for home as usual, he couldn’t think of anything pleasant. Earlier that day a little girl had stamped her feet and burst into tears, complaining that her mother had bought her a green balloon, instead of a blue one. A little boy got angry and kicked another boy, who said, “My balloon is bigger than yours.” Two boys, who were brothers, fought over their balloons. When both of them let go of the balloons, which floated up to the sky, they cried. None of the other children who had bought balloons did a good thing.
While remembering such things, the balloon seller, too, felt angry and disgusted. On that day, he, who hardly stopped grinning all day, from morning until night, didn’t crack a smile at all, not even once. On top of that, the mean-spirited wind tried to blow his balloons away in all directions. The balloon seller fell into a terrible mood.
In addition, the balloon seller marched into a hardware store by mistake when he went shopping for diner. Now he was in a fix because he had decided to buy in the first store he entered.
“Uh, let me see… Please give me a couple of nails,” he said reluctantly. But suddenly he changed his mind. “No, I want a nail and a rivet.” Even though they were too hard for dinner, he would rather have them both. He then put them into his pocket and started trudging along the darkened path.
“I wanted to eat something delicious to cheer myself up, but I have nothing but a nail and rivet. What did I do to deserve this?” the balloon seller whispered.
He couldn’t see a single star when he stood under the tree. His heart became heavier and heavier. He couldn’t even bring himself to whistle. Unlike other times, his body didn’t become light. No matter how hard he tried to jump, his heavy feet dropped back to the ground.
The balloon seller pulled the nail from his pocket and threw it away because he wanted to make his body lighter, even a little. But nothing changed. His feet were stuck to the ground, not willing to fly. Having no other choice, he tried to climb the trunk of the tree. However, it was so thick that it would take three or four men, each with arms outstretched, to encircle the tree. He just dropped to the ground and banged the tip of his nose.
“Ah, darn it!” the balloon seller said, quite upset. “I can’t go home ever again. Balloons, why don’t you pull me up with more force? Is it really too much to ask you to lift me up?”
Then the balloons pulled him up with all their might. But the balloon seller’s body felt like lead. Finally, the strings snapped and the balloons glided away in every direction.
“Ah, this is the end of everything!” the balloon seller said, hurling himself to the ground. Then he began to pluck weeds as if tearing out his hair.
“Oh, what’s the use of doing that?” Startled by the voice, the balloon seller looked up at the tree and saw an owl whose face was familiar to him.
“So what should I do?”
“You should go look for the balloons.”
“Why? It’s impossible to do that.”
“On your way home, you weren’t whistling, like always. Now, that’s a problem.”
“But I don’t feel like whistling. I feel so bored, worried, and disappointed that I don’t know what to do.”
“Why are you feeling that way? That’s what’s the matter with you. People got upset because you were in a bad mood. That’s why you have lost your balloons and can’t go home,” said the owl. “Why don’t you whistle now?”
The balloon seller got back to his feet. But he still wasn’t in the mood to whistle. Even so, in the end only feeble sounds came out of his mouth. They were so frail and weak that he would have burst into laughter if he weren’t in such a bad mood.
The balloon seller whistled again. This time it was better.
“You’re getting better at it,” said the owl.
Then as the balloon seller started to whistle one of his favorite tunes, his heart began to feel lighter.
“I bought a nail for dinner! How silly of me!” He burst into a loud chortle. “How come I didn’t find this funny before?”
The owl joined the balloon seller in laughter. And then they picked up all the balloons together.
Before he realized it, the balloon seller’s body had become light and afloat, so he was easily able to return to his home in the tree.
* * *
After that, no matter how bad the day had gone, the balloon seller would always whistle his way home.