SWEETEST IN THE GALE
After Emily Dickinson
You won’t lose your hair, I heard at the start of treatment, and though I didn’t, I lost a litany of other lesser and greater luxuries—saliva, stamina, taste buds, my voice—but my hair, during that chilly sojourn in the land of extremity to which I had sailed on a strange and stormy sea, my hair was not taken from me.
Had it been, I would have perched one of those 18th century wigs on my head, such as those worn by the French aristocracy, measuring three, four, even five feet high and stuffed, as they were known to be, with all sorts of things: ribbons, pearls, jewels, flowers, tunes without words, reproductions of great sailing vessels, my soul inside a little bird cage—ornaments selected to satisfy a theme: the signs of the Zodiac (à la Zodiaque) or the discovery of a new vaccine (à l’inoculation) or, as was the case in June of 1782, the first successful hot air balloon flight by the brothers Michel and Etienne Montgolfier.
Regarde, I exclaim to my ladies in waiting, pointing to the sky on that bright afternoon as the balloon, made of linen and paper, rises some 6,000 feet. Later, a duck, then a sheep, and finally a human is carried away. I watch, inspired, hopeful, whispering, lest my doctors overhear: when the storm turns sore, and that little bird escapes her little bird cage and is abashed without reckoning, I will sail away in my balloon, prepared, if it fails me, to pluck a few ostrich feathers from the high hair of the Queen of France herself; they and hope (which never asked for a crumb) will carry me beyond disease for as long as I have left to choose between futility and flight.
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