WHEN I WAS SIX, Grandma McCullough told me this story:
Once upon a time, there was a girl made of gravity.
Both of her feet were firmly planted on the ground.
Everywhere she went, she carried her heart around with her in a metal cage. It was comfortable there.
Her parents were made of gravity too, and they liked to keep her close, to keep her safe, everyone with their heart locked in their cage.
The little girl was mostly happy. She liked the garden behind her house with its red and yellow flowers, and having ice cream with her parents on special occasions. Sometimes she felt a little lonely, but then she’d take a walk in the woods and put her bare feet in the creek, or she’d lie on the grass and look at the clouds.
One night, in the middle of the night, the little girl heard a noise outside. When she looked out the window, she saw another little girl hovering in the air, one of her wings caught in the branches of the oak tree outside her window.
A helium person!
The gravity girl’s parents had told her about the helium people. They came out at night and flew through the clouds and soared among the stars. They had wings made of moonlight, and their hearts lived outside of them.
(“What does that mean, ‘lived outside of them’?” I asked Grandma McCullough.
She clenched her hand in a fist and pounded her chest. “Their hearts are free on the outside! Not safe in a cage!” She stomped her Velcro sneakers against the foot guards in her wheelchair, her cancer-stale breath hot, her big eyes wild.)
“The helium people are reckless,” the little girl’s dad had said.
“Their hearts could fly away at any moment,” her mom had said.
The little girl worried about the helium people, that they’d steal her from the ground, that she’d lose her heart.
But right then, the helium girl in the tree seemed more sad than scary.
“Will you please help me?” the helium girl cried. “I’m stuck here.”
The gravity girl nodded and snuck outside. She climbed up the tree carefully, using all the gravity in her to make sure she stayed steady against the limbs.
She drew nearer to the helium girl.
She was close enough to see her eyelashes, as delicate as a spider’s web.
She was close enough to see her eyes, all the colors of the sky.
“Hello,” the gravity girl whispered back.
And then, with one arm clasped around the tree trunk for balance, the gravity girl gently shook the branch holding the helium girl’s wing, setting a flutter of green leaves falling, the caught wing moving free.
The gravity girl climbed back down to the ground as the helium girl fluttered above her.
“I wish we could be friends,” the helium girl said. “Would you like to visit the sky with me?”
“It’s not safe,” the gravity girl said, and held up her cage. “I don’t want to lose my heart.”
“But I’ll make sure you’re safe,” the helium girl said. “Plus, the sky is the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see! You can sleep on the clouds and touch the stars. We can be best friends!”
The gravity girl wondered what it would be like to take a nap on a cloud. She secretly wished she could keep a star in her pocket. She had always wanted a best friend.
So she nodded, and the helium girl took her hand.
“All you have to do is close your eyes, then jump up. You’ll be able to fly too.”
“But I don’t have any helium in me.”
“Everyone does. They just don’t know it yet. Trust me.”
So the gravity girl scrunched her eyes shut, but it was scary not being able to see the ground. When she tried to jump up, her legs simply wouldn’t move. All she could think about was falling, not flying.
“Something good might happen too!” the helium girl insisted. “You just have to trust me.”
The gravity girl was too scared to change. It was much easier to believe there was no helium in her heart. It was much easier to believe she would fall.
But she didn’t want to lose her new friend.
“You should stay here. With me. It’s safer,” she said. And she began to pull the helium girl toward her.
“I don’t want to,” the helium girl said.
The gravity girl tugged at her new friend even harder.
“Please let go,” the helium girl cried as she began to resist, her heart straining, her wings aching to fly free.
The gravity girl could feel her hold on the helium girl beginning to slip, so she stretched out her other hand to grab tight, dropping her cage on the ground, her heart tumbling out onto the dirt.
She left it there, refusing to let go.
The helium girl’s wings began to wilt, and her heart got smaller and smaller in its sadness.
But still the gravity girl didn’t let go.
And so they stayed, heartsick and lost, both of them stuck in the in-between place for the rest of their days.
(“What’s the in-between place?” I asked, unable to stop myself.
“No place for anyone to live, that’s for sure,” Grandma McCullough said.
I remember telling Charlie this story later, how he wrinkled his nose, like I had just served up a plate of lima beans.
“Why didn’t she just let go?”
“Because flying isn’t safe!” I said, trying to convey the same amount of authority as Grandma McCullough.
But he seemed unmoved, which in retrospect isn’t surprising.
Charlie’s always been the one who wants to fly.