He fell. He clutched the chimney.
The shadow draped him, hushing down.
It was cold as a sea cave in that cloud-dark.
But suddenly the wind, of itself, veered.
The Witch hissed in frustration. The balloon swam a washing circle up around.
The wind! thought the boy wildy, it’s on my side!
No, don’t go! he thought. Come back.
For he feared she had smelled his plan.
She had. She itched for his scheme. She snuffed, she gasped at it. He saw the way her nails filed and scraped the air as if running over grooved wax to seek patterns. She turned her Palms out and down as ff he were a small stove burning softly somewhere in a nether world and she came to warm her hands at him. As the basket swung in an upglided pendulum he saw her squinched blind-sewn eyes, the ears with moss in them, the pale wrinkled apricot mouth mummifying the air it drew in, trying to taste what was wrong with his act, his thought. He was too good, too rare, too fine, too available to be true! surely she knew that!
And knowing it, she held her breath.
Which made the balloon suspend itself, half between inhale and exhale.
Now, tremulously, experimentally, daring to test, the Witch inhaled. The balloon, so weighted, sank. Exhaled — so freed of vapour — the craft ascended!
Now, now, the waiting, the holding of dank sour breath in the wry tissues of her childlike body.
Will waggled his fingers, thumb to nose.
She sucked air. The weight of this one breath skimmed the balloon down.
Closer! he thought.
But, careful, she circled her craft, scenting the sharp adrenalin wafted from his pores. He wheeled, following as the balloon spun, and him reeling. You!. he thought, you want me sick! Spin me, will you? Make me dizzy?
There was one last thing to try.
He stood very still with his back to the balloon.
Witch, he thought, you can’t resist.
He felt the sound of the green slime cloud, the kept bag of sour air, the squeal and stir of mouse-wicker on wicker as the shadow cooled his legs, his spine, his neck.
The Witch took air, weight, night burden, star-and-cold-wind ballast.
Elephant shadow stroked his ears.
He nudged his weapons.
The shadow engulfed him.
A spider flicked his hair — her hand?
Choking a scream, he spun.
The Witch, leaned out, was a mere foot away.
He bent. He snatched.
The Witch tried to scream out breath when she smelled, felt, knew what he held tight.
But, in reaction, horrified, she seized a breath, sucked weight, burdened the balloon. It dragged the roof.
Will pulled the bowstring back, freighted with single destruction.
The bow broke in two pieces. He stared at the unshot arrow in his hands.
The Witch let out her breath in one great sigh of relief and triumph.
The balloon swung up. It struck him with its dry rattle-chuckling heavy-laden basket.
The Witch shouted again with insane happiness.
Clutched to the basket rim, Will with one free hand drew back and with all his strength threw the arrowhead flint up at the balloon flesh.
The Witch gagged. She tore at his face.
Then the arrow, a long hour it seemed in flight, razored a small vent in the balloon. Rapidly the shaft sank as if cutting a vast green cheese. The surface slit itself further in a wide ripping smile across the entire surface of the gigantic pear, as the blind Witch gabbled, moaned, blistered her lips, shrieked in protest, and Will hung fast, hands gripped to wicker, kicking legs, as the balloon wailed whiffled, guzzled, mourned its own swift gaseous death, as dungeon air raved out, as dragon breath gushed forth and the bag, thus driven, retreated up.
Will let go. Space whistled about him. He turned, hit shingles, fell skidding down the inclined ancient roof, over down to rim, to rainspout where, feet first, he spilled into further emptiness, yelling, clawed at the rain gutter, held, felt it groan, give way, as he swept the sky to see the balloon whistling, wrinkling, flying up like a wounded beast to evacuate its terrified exhalations in the clouds; a gunshot mammoth, not wanting to expire, yet in terrible flux coughing out its stinking winds.