How beautiful our daughter is in her white Tethering dress, dancing with her younger cousins across the decorated length of our yard: First the waltz, then the cha-cha, then the tango. Old people dances, she called them when she was eleven, but now, twelve years old, feet shod for the final time in bobby socks and dress-flats, she can’t wait to teach the others every step, every turn and twirl, every last aching contact of foot upon grass.
The band plays on while my wife cuts the cake, while she passes out thick frosting-dripped slices of vanilla to everyone present, whether they want cake or not. Only afterward is our flush-faced daughter allowed to open her presents, her gifts from her many aunts and uncles, this family extending beyond my wife and I to this entire community, all us lonely adults closer now than when we were kids ourselves, when there were no Tethering parties to bring us together.
My daughter is all teeth and dimples as she says thank you to each gift-giver, to each sad-eyed parent in the crowd, then lifts her ankle to show off the present her mother and I gave her, opened during the Tethering itself: a steel cuff, clasped around her ankle, concealed by the fanciest lace and pearls we could afford.
After the party ends, I help her pack, placing each gift—each sealed bottle of water, each unspoilable food item, each oversized, cable-knit sweater—into her tether-bags, attached to the braided-steel cord already fed through the carabiners and guide-loops, already secured to the clasp on her tether, that anklet which will for a time keep her life close to ours.
And then me hugging her goodbye. And then her mother doing the same, refusing to let go.
Already she longs to be farther away from us, to be up in the air with the other sons and daughters drifting in the wind, her cousins ballooned with this adolescent gas that fills their bodies, that never filled ours.
And then me tearing mother from daughter so that our child might climb the ladder to the platform where she will await her rising.
How great our sorrow is during the first few months, when she is still close enough that we can climb the ladder ourselves and hold her floating hands, bring her food and drink so that she might not use up her supplies meant for the trip ahead. Already she longs to be farther away from us, to be up in the air with the other sons and daughters drifting in the wind, her cousins ballooned with this adolescent gas that fills their bodies, that never filled ours.
And then our daughter is ten or twelve feet above the platform, her belly bloating until she floats out of reach, then out of yelling distance, then too far away to see with the naked eye.
Only then do we host this second party, the one where everyone brings binoculars and spyglasses instead of presents and a dish to pass.
The Untethering, it is really more a party for us more than for our daughter, but it doesn’t feel much like a celebration, not with everyone dressed all in black.
Midway through the dancing, I remind my wife that she is the one who must release our daughter.
I say, If our daughter was a son, then I would do it, because it is what has to be done, what has always been done since the time of the first rising.
We do not know where she will float to, but if you do not let her go, she will starve to death upon her tether. Together, we will have to watch her deflate, and then float back to the earth, our own lifeless feather.
Do you really want your child back that bad?
Our hushed guests wait while my wife looks through her spyglass at our daughter, that fat, far-off speck, caught in an updraft, spinning uncomfortably at the end of her line. They watch through their own binoculars, struggling to read my daughter’s lips, the last message of our only child, only half-mouthed when my wife, already turned away, finally pulls the release lever.
How quick the rest of the line shoots up and out through the guide-loops, speeding into the air behind my daughter, and how fast our baby girl disappears, off for whatever world awaits her up there in the atmosphere, among all the other children this town has released!
Who can imagine what far-off countries they might settle, what new families they might next inhabit?
All we know is how sad our land-locked bodies are now, comforted only by each other’s flightless, balloonless limbs. Her mother and I, we weep, black-clad, while around us our neighbors sing the Untethering song, while they cut our Untethering cake: Chocolate, my wife’s favorite, the one she hasn’t had since our allergic daughter was born, since we traded its pleasure for some other flavor once thought even sweeter.
Matt Bell is the author of the collection How They Were Found, forthcoming in October 2010 from Keyhole Press. His fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2, and appears in magazines such as Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, and Unsaid. He is also the editor of The Collagist and can be found online at www.mdbell.com. “Quella, Querida, Quintessa” is an excerpt from an unpublished novella, Cataclysm Baby.
Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez: My favorite novel from last year, I’ve read this book three times now, once in galleys and twice since it came out in the fall. Funny, heartbreaking, and stylistically innovative, this is one of those books I can’t stop talking about, thinking about, and feeling my way through.
The Ask: A Novel by Sam Lipsyte: The newly released fourth book by one of my favorite writers. Just as finely written as any of his previous books, The Ask maybe doesn’t have quite the same brilliant strangeness as Home Land: A Novel, but that’s probably because it attempts—and succeeds—to be more human.
Europeana by Patrik Ouredník: A history of the twentieth century in a mere 120 pages, Ouredník uses a morally flat tone to give every event the same weight. Our atrocities sit beside our accomplishments, neither held up nor decried. In the end, it is up to the reader to judge, and so Ouredník engages the reader at a deeper level than most historians and novelists are brave enough to allow.
To contact Guernica, please write here.
Homepage photo via Flickr