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It's the Fourth of July and a hot wind is blowing. Out in the front yard our once-a-year flag tugs at its moorings and the huge sugar maples pitch and toss like the sea. Deep in the mountains of Virginia, I feel as if I am at the beach. And in the shimmering air of this bright morning, I hear the call of a parade.

So we decorate our daughter's little red trike, my husband and I. While her sister teeters around the yard in ladybug bloomers, we wrap streamers across the metal handlebars, tape fluttering flags to the rubbery grips, tie balloons to the runner. Then we hoist the trike and a stroller into the back of our well-traveled station wagon and strap the girls in. We hurtle toward town, a tidy family of four, raising dust along the gravel road then rolling onto the tarmac past hayfields and honeysuckle and tiger lilies blooming like fireworks from damp weedy ditches.

Looking in the rearview mirror, I marvel at our children's serene faces, still as sylvan pools. As the green world blurs past, first in sunshine and then in shadow, they gaze forward, undistracted and composed, like tiny astronauts at blast-off, bodies pressed into car seats, little legs dangling, eyes dreamy and wise. Behind them in the tangle of spokes and wheels and streamers drifts Little Mermaid, the Mylar balloon that four-year-old Silvia insisted we bring along, too.

By the time we arrive in town, Silvia has changed her mind. Leave Little Mermaid in the car, she says, as we ease into a parking space across from the library, where the children's parade always begins. So we unload our stuff and lock the car, bidding adieu to the Disney girl who bumps and glides against the back windows like a restless aquarium fish.

We cross the street and plunge waist deep into a sea of little red wagons and double-bay strollers and bicycles with training wheels and dogs on short leashes. All around us whole rafts of preschoolers in star-spangled play clothes wander wide-eyed, almost blank, while parents with visors and fanny packs hover like gulls, dabbing on sunscreen and adjusting trike helmets, laughing loudly over the yip-yapping dogs and the popping balloons. Then Uncle Sam emerges from the crowd on a six-foot unicycle and veers onto Main Street. Two hundred pedaling kids flood out of the parking lot in a great tide of rolling wheels. But it is a silent tide, nothing but the scrape of trike wheels, the rumble of wagons, and the clickety-clack of dog nails scuffling along the asphalt. Grandmas with video cameras holler and wave, but the pedaling kids are just too busy to look and the toddlers are too dazed. Silvia hunches over her red trike in pure concentration, avoiding parked cars. The baby yawns. We roll past the corner bank and the corner church. We roll past the small-town cops who stand at the crossroads, holding back traffic that idles and shines in the bright light. Pedaling and pulling and pushing, we keep rolling. Ten minutes later we slide into the shade of the town green, park our wheels, and wander over to tables of juice and warm watermelon chunks.

So it is nearly noon when my husband drives up with the car and we load up the tricycle and the stroller and our two weary girls. The car is hot inside, but Little Mermaid smiles sweetly at us, still pert and cool. As we wend our way over the hills, I forget that she is untethered, forget to be prudent. Back home again, I spring open the door to unbuckle the kids and the coy little redhead slips out.

For a long moment, the Mermaid and I just stare. Startled, I marvel at her unfet-tered place in the world. I let her linger. I watch, admiringly, as she trails her ribbony tail across the sunny grass and glides with such ease over the wooden rails of the pasture fence. Too late I wake up. The Little Mermaid is already drifting down the open field. I race after her, but just then the winds fold her into their currents and carry her along like a plane taking off.

Back at the car, Silvia is crying and reaching and grasping. I unbuckle her and lift her into my arms. Together we stand by the fence and watch the little balloon set sail. We watch her ride the hot winds across the field and over the treetops, on toward the mountains and the rim of the whole known world. Higher and higher she rises, till she is just a dot in the boundless blue, then just a glinting speck, then a fleck of light, then nothing.

Silvia clings to me and sobs in her crumpled sailor dress and tiny braids. I try to console her with lighthearted stories of Little Mermaid flying over her friend Kate's house, past the mountains, past the piedmont, past the shoreline to the ocean beyond. But the stories feel sad and raw in my throat. I set Silvia down and take her trembling hand. Together we walk over to the front lawn. We sit down in the shade of the maples and listen to the great trees blowing and thrashing like the sound of the sea.

Elise Sprunt Sheffield lives with her family in rural Rockbridge County, Virginia.





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