Fifty eight adventurers sat at folding tables in a building made of pine logs. It was summer. They were eating hamburgers.
“You have two choices,” explained a camp counselor while everyone guzzled. “After dinner you can either go with me on a snipe hunt, or you can follow Janine down to the lake. She’ll show you how to make paper sky lanterns. Does anyone want to go on the snipe hunt?”
Many hands shot up.
“You should probably know,” the counselor explained, “snipes aren’t real. There are no snipes. All we’ll do is hike up the hill behind the cabins and poke around in the dark. We won’t actually find anything.”
Blake continued to hold his hand up. Nobody else did.
. . .
Blake followed the counselor up the steep desert hill. Both carried flashlights. After nightfall the blazing heat had rapidly vanished. The air was already chilly.
Two small wavering circles of light fell upon cacti and broken rock. The counselor stopped to beat on a thorny bush beside the trail with his hiking stick. “Keep a sharp lookout!” he urged with enthusiasm. “It’s a well known fact that snipes hide around here!”
Blake moved past the counselor and plunged ahead into the night’s darkness. The rough trail, at times difficult to follow, cut back and forth up the rocky hill and the climb was slow.
“Don’t forget to hit the bushes with your stick,” the counselor prompted.
Blake ignored him. He continued up the trail. As he climbed away from the cabins and their dwindling light, the black sky deepened. Sprinkled stars appeared.
It would be ridiculous, Blake understood, to search for things that aren’t real. But there was strange mystery in the deepening night–there was freedom, the limitless air, the unknown–
He climbed eagerly. He wanted to see what starlight falling from unreachable distances might touch.
The night became colder. His flashlight wavered right and left. All signs of the trail had disappeared.
“Don’t get too far ahead of me!” the counselor shouted. “Don’t become lost!”
Then, Blake, turning to peer into even more darkness, saw them. A handful of sky lanterns. Small lights slowly rising among the stars.
They rose like tiny distant suns. As he stood, he watched them drift away, becoming fainter.
One after another they winked out.
Nothing was left above but those unreachable stars.
“Beautiful, weren’t they?” the counselor said coming up beside him. “It was worth climbing up here just to see that. But it’s getting late. We should turn back.”
Blake ignored the counselor and started climbing the steep hill again, more restless than before. The night breeze was increasing, becoming colder. The wavering circle of light offered by his flashlight discovered more of the same cacti and rocks. The counselor quietly followed.
What can a person up here actually find? Blake wondered. More prickly cacti, more of the same broken rock, and perhaps, eventually, the summit of this one barren desert hill, and a night sky with far horizons filled with even more stars. Things nobody else will see.
Perhaps it was the sharpening wind, or his adjusting eyes, but as he climbed toward the stars the night became more alive. He heard rustlings, saw shapes and shadows swaying slightly, moving on the ground around him. Certainly not snipes. But there was a thrilling, unexplainable something up here. Probably only the wind.
Blake was sure he could see the hill’s top. He was almost there. The stars were all around.
In the gentle starlight, he switched off his flashlight and looked all around with wonder.
But he could go higher.
Looking up, he thought he could see a thing moving on the dark hill’s summit. Something very small and glimmering.
He climbed toward it.
“I found a snipe!” shouted Blake.
The counselor came up, his light off, too.
And there it was.
A fragile living thing.
Sent by wishful hands toward the stars, a paper sky lantern had returned to Earth. It had tangled in a low cactus, where, extinguished, it shivered in the cold wind and faintly reflected starlight.