...because life is delicious

No Lines in the Sky

Oct 1, 2017 | Middle grade, Short Story

illustration by Papang Jakfar

There was a hot air balloon named Sam who loved to watch the world below. From his faraway perch on a cloud, he could hear festive music, see people dancing in colorful outfits and taste the smokey fireworks in the air. It seemed like life on land was one continuous celebration from one place to the next. How wonderful it must be to take part in these celebrations, he thought. Surely, they wouldn’t mind if I joined?

Excitedly, he went to China for their famous New Year celebration and nudged himself in among the crowds. He had never seen fireworks from below before.

“Hey, you’re blocking my view”, someone yelled.

A child pointed at him and started crying, “I can’t see the fireworks. He’s too big”.

“What are you doing here? You don’t belong here,” they cried.

Sam fled the city while dodging the firework sparks that rained down like comets. “Maybe I’ll try joining a celebration that doesn’t have fireworks, then I won’t be in the way,” he said to cheer himself up.

Sam traveled to Brazil for the renowned Carnival. He slipped into line behind the procession of glittering floats and jiggled his balloon in time with the music. He was having a fun time until he ran into a powerline and fell backwards, knocking into the float behind him. One by one the floats toppled over like dominos.

The crowd was angry. They pushed him out of the parade saying, “You clumsy balloon! You ruined the parade. You don’t belong here!”

Sam felt terrible. Maybe something’s wrong with me. If only I wasn’t a bloated hot air balloon… he mumbled and retreated into the darkness of the night sky.

Sam went up and up until he left the South American continent entirely. Looking down at the arc of the blue planet beneath him, he saw Africa to the east and headed there. “I’ll try one more time,” he said hopefully. “I know there are no fireworks or power lines there.”

Sam found Festima in the country of Burkina Faso. Hundreds of masked dancers flocked together from neighboring countries and danced to the rhythm of drums. Sam jumped in to dance with them. Their movements were powerful and fast. The colorful fibres hanging from their masks whipped about in blurry streaks around them. Sam tried to keep up as the drumbeats became faster.

As he skipped and swirled, his basket got snagged on a pair of wooden horns from a man’s mask beside him. The mask fell to the ground and broke into two with a THUMP! and CRACK!

The music stopped and the crowd gasped. The man immediately covered his face with his hands and ran away.

“The identity of the mask-wearer must always be kept secret. Now he many never be able to communicate with our ancestors again.” They shook their arms at him. “Leave us. You don’t belong here!” they shouted.

Dejected, Sam shrank into the sky and hid inside a puffy cloud. What have I done? I just wanted to have fun. Something must be wrong with me.

Sam let the wind carry him aimlessly around the world until he was left on the top of a mountain surrounded by desert. Sam moped on the summit as a deflated pile of fabric. He looked out over the emptiness of the desert and felt alone. He didn’t even know where he was anymore.

All of a sudden he heard a grunt and a pair of hands slammed down over the edge of the cliff where he sat. A rock climber!

“Where did you come from?” Sam asked.

The rock climber hauled himself over the ledge and lay down panting. When he regained his breath, he grinned at Sam and sat up. “Hello! I climbed up from the bottom. I live near here and I climb this mountain every week.”

“Do you know where I am?” Sam asked. “I’m a bit lost.”

The rock climber patted the ground next to him. “You are sitting on a mountain named Sandia, and the city below where I come from is Albuquerque.”

“Where is Albuquerque?” Sam asked.

The rock climber pulled out a map and pointed at a dot located in a squarish shape. “Where else? In the glorious state of New Mexico!”

“What are those shapes?” Sam asked. The rock climber traced the shapes with his finger. “These shapes? These are the states surrounding New Mexico: Arizona, Texas, and Colorado.”

Sam had arrived in the country of the United States of America. He squinted at the funny lines dividing the map. “That’s strange, ” Sam said, “When I look down from above, I don’t see any of these lines. I just see the land, ocean and sky.”

“The lines are important.” The rock climber said, folding the map. “The lines help us know which lands belong to which people.”

There was that word again. Belong. Sam thought about the various festivals he tried to join. “How do you know which land you belong to?”

“Hmm”, the rock climber pondered and said, “I guess you belong to the land where you were born into this world. Typically, people that are born within an area bounded by these lines share a common way that they live; the way they talk, what they wear and what they eat.”

Sam nodded. The people in China, Brazil and Burkina Faso were all very different from each other in all those ways.

The rock climber continued. “Even within this country, many things can change after you travel across a line.” He pointed at the squarish shapes on the map again. “For example, in the states surrounding us, people eat trout in Colorado and barbecue beef in Texas. Pine nuts is a specialty here in New Mexico,” he explained. “Want to try?”

The rock climber sat down next to Sam and took out a bar of oats and pine nuts. “This a pine nut granola bar. I created it in memory of the pinion nut cakes that my grandfather made. He was a Navajo Indian.” He lowered his voice. “But between you and me, I think these bars taste much better.”

Sam laughed. “It does smell lovely.”

“It’s the cinnamon, also a New Mexico thing.” The rock climber broke off a piece for Sam to try, and went on to talk about how his grandfather taught him to collect the pinion nuts from trees and how to grind them to create pine nut butter, which was like peanut butter but made with pine nuts instead of peanuts.

In exchange, Sam told the rock climber about his travels around the world and his disappointing experience in joining celebrations. “I just don’t belong anywhere.” he concluded.

The rock climber jumped to his feet. “My friend, you have come to just the place! Tomorrow will be the start of the largest hot air balloon fiesta in the world.”

“Really?!” Sam exclaimed. He didn’t know a hot air balloon festival existed. How wonderful! “How do I join?” he asked eagerly.

“Come with me and stay the night.” The rock climber offered. “We will rise before the sun and come back here to get the best view of the fiesta launch. My name is Miles, by the way.”

“Thank you, Miles! That sounds great. My name is Sam.”

Miles smiled. “Nice to meet you, Sam.” He pointed to a house down below. “Think you can give me a ride back?”

“Of course! My pleasure.” Sam gave Miles a ride down to the foothills of the mountain.

After dinner, he settled down next to Miles’s house where he had the desert as his bed and the stars as his nightlights. For the first time in a long time, Sam did not feel cramped, and he relaxed with a sigh.

The next morning, when the sky was still dark, they returned to the mountaintop.

The sunlight stretched across the land, illuminating a desert floor painted with circles of every color. Mounds of fabric slowly filled with air and billowed up against the shrubby landscape.

Sam couldn’t believe his eyes. There must’ve been more than 500 hot air balloons. “Let’s go greet them!” He urged. Miles leapt into his basket and together they descended to the valley towards a bright pink hot air balloon that was getting ready to launch.

The pink hot air balloon shook like a dog before a walk and cast off its lines, bumping into Sam.

“Oops, sorry! Didn’t see you. Fine morning, isn’t it?” The hot air balloon bobbed up and down.

Miles laughed. “Yes, perfect weather for a launch!” He pointed up at Sam. “It’s his first time here.”

“Oh, welcome! Where are you visiting from?” she asked Sam.

Sam hesitated. He thought about the lines on the map and the meaning of belonging. He didn’t belong to China, Brazil or Burkina Faso. He wasn’t born into the boundaries of any lines. “I’m not sure. I guess I’m from the sky.” Sam said.

The hot air balloon looked pleasantly surprised. “The sky, huh? I like your answer.” Then she turned to the Miles. “And you?”

Miles looked up at Sam with a grin and said “I’m guess I’m from the land. What about you?”

At that moment, a small red balloon shot past them as a child’s squeal split the air behind them. “Oh no! I lost it, Mommy!”

The trio turned around to find a girl crying with her hands outstretched towards the sky. The red balloon was getting farther away by the second. “Don’t worry!” Sam said. “We’ll get it back for you!”

He zoomed up after the balloon, flying higher and faster than he’s ever gone before. The air grew thin and Sam worried about Miles.

“I’m fine, keep going!” Miles wheezed.

Sam pushed harder and soon caught up to the tail of the balloon. Miles leaned over and plucked the balloon string out of the air. They looked at each other in relief and started laughing from the exhilaration of it all.

When they landed back on the ground, the crowd cheered and the little girl gave each of them a hug.

“You sure can fly.” she whispered to Sam. He swelled with joy.

A few hot air balloons witnessed what Sam did and came over to introduce themselves and compliment him. Together they rose to the sky and were joined by hundreds of multicolored hot air balloons: striped, spotted, checkered and even one patterned like a strawberry. Everyone brought picnic lunches to share onboard and Miles tossed his pine nut bars to the hot air balloons they passed by.

Sam recognized people from all over the world, but up in the sky, they were all simply people in baskets. The people marveled at rainbows shaped in complete circles and pointed at the coastline, farmlands and mountain ranges. Sam and Miles watched as people waved and smiled to everyone they saw, regardless of which country they came from. There was enough room in the sky to hold them all. Sam smiled. He liked that. This is where I belong! He decided.

For each of the festival’s nine days they soared in lazy arcs, weaving and dancing with each other in the expanse of cyan until the evening fog rolled in and filled the valleys, turning the desert into an ocean of cloud with the mountain tops protruding like islands.

While they were resting on such an island, Miles turned to Sam. “You are right. There are no lines in the sky… and it is beautiful.” Sam smiled and nodded. Together they admired the horizon that stretched on for eternity.

Cinnamon Pine Nut Granola Bars

makes 8 bars

prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 2 minutes
total time: 12 minutes plus 1 to 2 hours to chill in refrigerator

ingredients

1/2 cup pine nuts blended into pine nut butter

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp honey

3 tbsp unsalted butter

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/8 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp salt

2 cups quick-cooking oats

2 cups crispy rice cereal (Rice Krispies)

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

cinnamon to taste

ingredients

1/2 cup pine nuts blended into pine nut butter

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp honey

3 tbsp unsalted butter

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/8 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp salt

2 cups quick-cooking oats

2 cups crispy rice cereal (Rice Krispies)

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

cinnamon to taste

instructions

Line a 9x13-inch baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly grease with butter or nonstick cooking spray.

Blend 1/2 cup pine nuts until in becomes a buttery texture.

In a large pot, combine the brown sugar, honey and butter. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Remove the pot from heat and stir in the pine nut butter, vanilla, cinnamon and salt.

Add the oats, crispy rice cereal and toasted pine nuts to the pot. Fold with a rubber spatula until well combined.

Transfer the mixture to the baking pan and press down lightly to even out the top. Allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes before adding the chocolate so it won’t melt. Sprinkle the mini chocolate chips over the top and press down firmly with the spatula to incorporate. The mixture should be about an inch thick after being tightly compacted into the pan.

Place pan into refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours to set.

Once set, transfer the mixture from the pan to a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut into bars sized to your liking.

Sprinkle cinnamon on top and enjoy!

Adapted from Once Upon a Chef

Author’s Notes

In the kitchen
These bars can get crumbly in hot weather so I recommend storing them in the fridge until ready to eat or wrapping each individually in foil. As long as you keep the dry ingredient to wet ingredient ratio, you may substitute a portion of the crispy rice cereal for other crunchy ingredients such as crushed pretzels or blue corn chips. For a more New Mexico flair, I used 1/4 cup blue corn chips in this recipe.

 

In the classroom
Where do pine nuts come from? Pine nuts are the edible seeds of the piñon tree. The tree is native of the Americas (but it also grows in Europe and Asia). In North America there are three main species of piñon, but the Colorado piñon is the species that grows abundant in north central and northwest New Mexico. 
The Native American tribes harvested the piñon tree for food, firewood, and sap. Piñon was also used as currency for bartering and was a source of income.

 

In life
I’ve never been in a hot air balloon and I hope to visit the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta someday. I always wondered what the world would look like from a balloon’s perspective; all territorial squabbles must seem petty against the vastness of the sky. This thought inspired me to write a story that celebrates the unity of diversity on this planet which we all call home.