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Sending and Taking
By David Schneider
The climax of a classic Silvester. We’d had a long, late-afternoon walk in the cold forest, and were back in the house after dusk for drinks. These turned out to be from a punch-bowl of vegan eggnog. Whatever all the milk-cream-egg substitutes were (cashew milk?) the rum was powerful and plentiful. There followed a short period of immobility, during which we sat around in the living room, tranquilized.
Then came the slow beginnings of dinner prep, in which everyone gradually participated. In time, we ate many courses of a vegan meal, larded with conversation about how to buy, prepare, and educate oneself on vegan food. After dinner, but before dessert, we played board games and drank wine, passing the time until midnight. We played several rounds of WEREWOLF, which, when boiled down to its mean political heart, is about how villagers will suspect, accuse, and kill one another to preserve themselves and village security. The evening was fun because the company was. But the game, especially when played in rural Germany, set off ugly overtones. Or maybe just for those of us with Jewish ancestry; or maybe just for me.
We put back on all our outdoor boots, and coats, and scarves, and hats, and gloves, and went into the lane with a few fireworks. The neighbors too — everyone, the whole neighborhood was out. We oooh’d and aaahhh’d and clapped and hopped around at the pyrotechnics, then we kissed and hugged, and wished one another happy New Year.
We also had with us an old-fashioned lantern—a paper shell or balloon. When filled with hot air, it was supposed to float up and fly away. Heat would come from burning a little paraffin-wax square—something about the size of a bar of soap—suspended in the center of the lantern’s circular frame. It took us quite a while to get the thing lit: cold hands, damp air, a nipping breeze. Maybe slight inebriation. Once we did get it going, we had to hold the paper shell away from the wax long enough for the interior sphere to warm. This took a surprisingly long time. The sky was clear and dark and strewn with bright stars; but on earth the air was very cold, well below freezing.
Once enough hot air accumulated and the lantern began to rise, it was absolutely magical. A silent, floating fire in the middle of space. We watched as it went up tentatively, and drifted across the street, where a gust of wind batted it toward the neighbors’ roof. They were out as well and they also watched it carefully. But then it rose more, and floated back our way, and went rapidly up and off, dipping some in drafts, but continuing its spell-binding flight. It seemed to go above the forest at a great altitude. A member of the local volunteer fire department among our number did not seem particularly worried. In fact, he had helped hold the paper of the balloon as it filled, and had explained the dynamics of its flight as we waited, and had advised patience.
Once you have seen five, or ten, or fifty rocket-type fireworks, well, you have seen them. You have also heard them, and you have smelled their smoke. Whether they explode into sparkling spheres, whether these are white or colored, whether they fizz and spin, or set off sub-explosions, whether they vary the music of their detonations, they are of a type. The commotion is, theoretically, to scare off evil spirits. This lantern though, in its silent, elemental simplicity made us go quiet, something like respectful. It was burning bright. We watched it for a long time, until it became just a tiny red dot among the stars. When we couldn’t see it anymore, we went in.
Down the Rhine toward Holland—100 km distant over land—another group was also releasing lanterns into the New Year’s sky. Apparently, they were better at it than we were. They managed to get five of them up, and they’d decorated theirs with hand-written aspirations for the coming year. At least one of these balloons came down still burning at the local zoo, where it ignited the building in which the primates were housed. Thirty helpless gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and monkeys died, including some very rare species; birds, bats and rodents kept there also perished.
Learning of the tragedy on New Year’s Day, a 60-year-old mother and her two daughters, both in their 30’s, presented themselves at the police station and explained about the lanterns. They were made to give hand-writing samples. These matched writing on scraps of paper found, incredibly, at the site of the conflagration. Pictures in the press showed only the metal frame of the Affenhaus standing, everything else covered in a layer of gray ash.
Zoo officials said the animals had died from smoke inhalation, adding that in death, primates were exactly like humans. Not sure I understood how they knew this, or what they were trying to say, the event nevertheless set off another war-crime overtone in my mind.
The women—praised for coming forward and honestly and remorsefully confessing—still faced significant jail time (5 years) or a heavy financial penalty. This kind of lantern has been illegal in Germany for more than two years. The women had purchased theirs online from China. Ours was surely no more legitimate. Instructions for its use, which we had pocketed and read aloud, were written in a gobbledygook of English that was almost amusing. They nevertheless conveyed danger.
So that’s the last lantern for this life—unless someone wants to send one up from a boat in the middle of the sea, or from a salt-pan desert with nothing around for miles and miles.