Once there was a girl named Elise who had no home. She had a place where she lived. In was a long low building made out of bricks, she slept each night in a tiny room next to many more tiny rooms full of girls like herself. In the day, she worked hard carrying water from the stream up to the giant house that loomed over everything and pulling weeds in the vast gardens and scraping moss off the stones of the high walls that encircled her world. Elise had spent every day for as long as she could remember inside those walls and every night on that small hard bed. But that was not a home.
Elise knew what a home was supposed to be. She had a picture in her head, almost like something she had dreamed, a picture of a warm circle of firelight and a table with bowls and steaming soup and a woman’s face smiling as she cut a loaf of bread. Elise did not know where this picture came from, but she was sure it was real, and she wanted with all her heart to find that cozy room and that gentle, smiling face.
Early one morning, Elise woke up from a particularly beautiful dream of home. She crept out of bed and went outside. She was happy to see that it was still dark. All of the workers woke up at the first sign of light, but right now Elise had a few minutes to be all alone. Suddenly Elise was aware of a soft glow coming from over by the nearest wall. It wasn’t the golden glow of the sun rising, and it wasn’t the flickering glow of a fire. It was a warm pinkish glow. Elise couldn’t help herself; she walked quickly toward the light.
The wall loomed above her when she finally saw what was causing that glow. Eight enormous pink balloons were floating down next to the wall, each carrying a package. An excited voice caused Elise to duck behind a tree. She peeked out to see two men untying all the packages from the balloon strings. As soon as the last string was untied, the pink balloons floated up and up again. The men immediately turned and began carrying all the packages up to the big house, but Elise could not take her eyes off those pink globes. They drifted high, casting their soft light in gentle circles on the wall, then they were over the wall and soaring away, out of sight. Soon even the last faint light was gone. Then Elise realized that the sun was coming up, and she turned and ran so that she wouldn’t be late for her chores.
But all that day Elise thought of the balloons. She wondered who sent them. She wondered what was in the packages tied to their strings. Most of all, she wondered where they went when they floated away over that wall. How she wished that she could float away like those balloons! To rise higher and higher , to feel the wind on her face as she left the earth behind, to finally see what was on the other side of that wall.
For many nights after that, Elise went out to look for the balloons, but they did not come back. She began to wonder if she had dreamed the whole thing. That feeling, though, that yearning for freedom, would not go away. All day long, she stared at the walls as she did her work. She found it harder and harder to sleep at night. Dreams were not enough any more.
So Elise decided to act. Maybe the balloons weren’t coming back again, but they had come once, and that was proof that something was out there. She would climb the wall. She had experience climbing it halfway to clean off the ever growing moss. The wall was high, but she was sure she could make it if she wasn’t caught. Elise packed up her spare dress and a little food she had sneaked from the kitchen. She tied the bundle over her shoulders, and she waited until the darkest part of the night.
Elise had been so sleepless lately that she was very good at sneaking around in the dark. She crept toward the wall without making a sound. She had chosen to climb in the spot where she had seen the balloons come over the wall. It just seemed right. Finding small holes for her fingers and toes, Elise began to creep up the wall.
She was about halfway up when she noticed the glow. Her heart began to pound. The balloons were coming back. Tonight of all nights! Soon the men would be coming to get the packages. They were sure to see her. Before she could even move, the first pink balloon drifted over the wall. Elise clung there, unmoving. There was nothing else to do.
There were only three balloons this time, and they were all the way on the ground before Elise heard the voices coming. The men grumbled a bit about the late hour. Elise closed her eyes and held on, barely daring to breath. She counted the seconds. The men were directly below her now. They were untying the packages. Soon they would turn to go. Elise began to hope that she wouldn’t be noticed. The balloons began to rise beneath her.
Then she heard a shout. “Hey! You! Hey, guys, there’s someone on the wall! You, now, come down from there!”
In that most terrifying of moments, Elise laughed. She always laughed when she was afraid. The fear just seemed to gurgle up in her throat until some came tumbling out, and then the fear inside was less. The laugh unfroze her muscles and she started climbing again. The balloons cast their warm glow on her as the drifted in her direction.
Something brushed against Elise’s foot and tumbled away. The men below were throwing up a rope, hoping to catch her leg and pull her down. They must have been too big to climb. Elise laughed again and moved a bit higher. Then the rope touched her foot again. This time it did not fall away. It was around her ankle. A big tug almost made her fall. She kicked her leg as hard as she could, hoping the rope would fall. It stayed. Holding on with one hand, Elise reached down with her other to pull off the rope. She was able to get one finger into the loop and pull.
Then several things happened at once. The loop of rope slipped off her foot, causing her to gasp in relief. Then the rope heaved in her hand before she could let go. It was just enough to wrench her other hand away from the wall. Elise was falling. She had about two seconds to imagine herself hitting the ground far below before she flopped onto something soft and round. She was facing down, looking at the men below her, but something was pushing against her stomach. Pushing her up. The pink glow left no doubt as to what it was.
Curling herself around the balloon, Elise held on as it floated higher. She held on as it drifted over the wall. She held on as she watched the trees go by beneath her, as she crossed a river, as she saw the wide world that was outside the wall. She held on until the three balloons slowly came to rest outside a small cottage with a red roof and a green door.
The sun was coming up as the door opened. “I knew if we kept sending the balloons, one day they would bring you back to us.”
Elise was so tired from her long journey she could barely see the warm, smiling face as a pair of arms lifted her off of the balloon. She was only just aware of a warm fire in the fireplace as she was carried inside and tucked into a bed. Was that soup and baking bread that she smelled?
In that soft cozy bed, she drifted into sleep, and she didn’t have any dreams at all, but the best dream of all was waiting for her when she awoke.