“Inever thought of God as humorous,” said Father stone.
“The Creator of the platypus, the camel, the ostrich, and man? Oh, come now!” Father Peregrine laughed.
But at this instant, from among the twilight hills, like a series of blue lamps lit to guide their way, came the Martians.
Father Stone saw them first. “Look!”
Father Peregrine turned and the laughter stopped in his mouth.
The round blue globes of fire hovered among the twinkling stars, distantly trembling.
“Monsters!” Father Stone leaped up. But Father Peregrine caught him. “Wait!”
“We should’ve gone to town!”
“No, listen, look!” pleaded Father Peregrine.
“Don’t be. This is God’s work!”
“No, now, quiet!” Father Peregrine gentled him and they crouched with the soft blue light on their upturned faces as the fiery orbs drew near.
And again, Independence Night, thought Father Peregrine, tremoring. He felt like a child back in those July Fourth evenings, the sky blowing apart, breaking into powdery stars and burning sound, the concussions jingling house windows like the ice on a thousand thin ponds. The aunts, uncles, cousins crying, as to some celestial physician. The summer sky colors. And the Fire Balloons, lit by an indulgent grandfather, steadied in his massively tender hands. Oh, the memory of those lovely Fire Balloons, softly lighted, warmly billowed bits of tissue, like insect wings, lying like folded wasps in boxes and, last of all, after the day of riot and fury, at long last from their boxes, delicately unfolded, blue, red, white, patriotic—the Fire Balloons! He saw the dim faces of dear relatives long dead and mantled with moss as Grandfather lit the tiny candle and let the warm air breathe up to form the balloon plumply luminous in his hands, a shining vision which they held, reluctant to let it go; for, once released, it was yet another year gone from life, another Fourth, another bit of Beauty vanished. And then up, up, still up through the warm summer night constellations, the Fire Balloons had drifted, while red-white-and-blue eyes followed them, wordless, from family porches. Away into deep Illinois country, over night rivers and sleeping mansions the Fire Balloons dwindled, forever gone.
Father Peregrine felt tears in his eyes. Above him the Martians, not one but athousand whispering Fire Balloons, it seemed, hovered. Any moment he might find his long-dead and blessed grandfather at his elbow, staring up at Beauty.
But it was Father Stone.
“Let’s go, please, Father!”
“I must speak to them.” Father Peregrine rustled forward, not knowing what to say, for what had he ever said to the Fire Balloons of time past except with his mind:you are beautiful, you are beautiful, and that was not enough now. He could only lift his heavy arms and call upward, as he had often wished to call after the enchanted Fire Balloons, “Hello!”
But the fiery spheres only burned like images in a dark minor. They seemed fixed, gaseous, miraculous, forever.
“We come with God,” said Father Peregrine to the sky.
“Silly, silly, silly.” Father Stone chewed the back of his hand. “In the name of God, Father Peregrine, stop!”
But now the phosphorescent spheres blew away into the hills. In a moment they were gone.
Father Peregrine called again, and the echo of his last cry shook the hills above. Turning, he saw an avalanche shake out dust, pause, and then, with a thunder of stone wheels, crash down the mountain upon them.
“Look what you’ve done!” cried Father Stone
Father Peregrine was almost fascinated, then horrified. He turned, knowing they could run only a few feet before the rocks crushed them into ruins. He had time to whisper,Oh, Lord! and the rocks fell!
They were separated like chaff from wheat. There was a blue shimmering of globes, a shift of cold stars, a roar, and then they stood upon a ledge two hundred feet away watching the spot where their bodies should have been buried under tons of stone.
The blue light evaporated.
The two Fathers clutched each other. “What happened?”
“The blue fires lifted us!”
“We ran,that was it!”
“No, the globes saved us.”
The sky was empty. There was a feel as if a great bell had just stopped tolling. Reverberations lingered in their teeth and marrows.