D.S. WHITE LESSONS IN THE CLOUDS
D. S. White D. S. White has worked on numerous publications, including children's storybooks, textbooks, anthologies and magazines. He teaches high school and loves the short story format. His collection of short stories, The Land of Words, broke the top 50 best seller list on Amazon. The book is a healthy mixture of speculative and literary pieces, showing off his curiosity for all kinds of storytelling. He was born in the mountains but now lives by the sea.
Lessons in the Clouds
There’s a good reason why clouds look different at night than they do in the day. The night is the realm of the Cloudbuyers, those little people who buy clouds to live on. When clouds dissipate, they purchase more from whoever has too many, anywhere clouds are available around the world. Clouds get herded across the sky to build new homes for the families of Cloudbuyers living up above. And when they have clouds multiplying, they sell to whoever they can. This is the way the economy is run in the sky.
For Cloudbuyers, there is only one rule: stay above the clouds; beware going below them. Although the Cloudbuyers love the mountains, they are afraid of rainwater. Upon contact with rain, Cloudbuyers explode, something we refer to as thunder and lightning. Water in rivers is usually just as bad, coming from the sky. Water in fruit and from fresh springs has been purified by the earth. It’s safe for Cloudbuyers to enjoy. There’s no sense in questioning any of this. Nature has clearly made it this way.
The Cloudbuyers have a long history of residing near the mountains. They only come down to the earth when clouds touch the land in higher altitudes. If the clouds disappear without warning, they have to wait in caves for a chance to return to their homes, hoping it doesn’t rain.
Cloudbuyers have been raising families for thousands of years, but their children haven’t grown any wiser. They decide to snatch a boy from the city and bring him back with them. He will teach their children many things, things that only humans know.
In those days, the woods had been torn down to make way for progress. What progress, Sarah couldn’t say. She’d come there to pick fresh apples, but it was too late as the apples were already decaying on the ground. As she hurried across a log stretching over the river it started to rain. The log grew slick and she slipped and fell in the water.
A man passing by heard her cry and swam across the river to rescue the girl. Sarah was saved and taken to her mother. The man and woman grew to love each other and between them was born a boy. This boy was a child unlike any other, as innocent as fresh snow falling in the mountains. His name was Jonah.
Late one night Jonah was taken away by the Cloudbuyers. They tied him up and took him to the clouds. His father searched for him everywhere, but never saw him again.
“Let me go!” Jonah yelled at the Cloudbuyer. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here. He selected a rock from the rutted trail-side and tossed it, missing the little man altogether. The Cloudbuyer roared at the sky, angry at the boy’s defiance. Jonah jumped back, shielding his ears in terror. The little man snickered at this reaction and danced closer, goading Jonah with a stick.
Jonah looked again at the cloud the little man wanted him to step upon. The little man pointed to the children, young Cloudbuyers, waiting in the sky. He jittered from side to side, like a puppet with strings tied to his skeleton. He mimicked a teacher lecturing students and slapping them around. The meaning was clear to Jonah. The Cloudbuyer wouldn’t rest until Jonah taught the children something.
“Aw-right. Aw-right,” he said and rolled up his pants.
The cloud was soft, not nearly warm enough for Jonah, but the little man wanted him to hurry, to get across the sky and begin the lesson right quick now. A fluff of air tickled Jonah’s heel and he swayed and let out a raucous whoa…
After reaching the children he introduced himself. The children looked at him in awe, not comprehending a word he said. Feeling foolish, Jonah hurried back to the mountainside. The little man approached him gently this time, encouraging him to try again. When Jonah would not go, the Cloudbuyer lowered his head and breathed deeply and then gave Jonah a push.
Jonah slid across the clouds and fell down in front of the children. They laughed and rolled from side to side, nearly falling off the clouds into the valley below. Jonah was far from convinced he could teach the children anything. He decided this time to try a different approach. He told them a story about his family. They listened with delight. He acted out the parts of his father and his mother. He mimed being his sister. They laughed uncontrollably when he flung back his hair like a girl.
After the story was over, Jonah turned to go. He skidded across the clouds and jumped once more onto the mountain. The little man looked at Jonah and bared his teeth in the shape of a smile. And then the Cloudbuyer roared with laughter, a mighty bray. Jonah stumbled back, totally deafened. He waved his arms for mercy and the little man ran away.
The Cloudbuyer disappeared into the layer of clouds on the upper ridge of the mountains. Jonah tried to follow him, but got lost. He wandered until he came across a cabin with a bed in it. He had no idea how to go home, and exhausted, he laid down there to sleep.
Little Mark raised his hand and asked why they had to go to school on Saturday. Jonah explained that they’d had a storm on Monday and school was not in session that day. Little Mark was silent for a moment as Jonah went back to teaching. Then he raised his hand again. He wanted to know why they’d had a storm on Monday. Jonah wondered how long Little Mark would follow this line of reasoning. He was impressed. The boy was only a young Cloudbuyer, about the age of nine years old.
He explained that out above the ocean there were currents of hot air and cold air, but he was interrupted. Elysee raised her hand and started speaking rapidly without permission, a habit Jonah hoped wouldn’t spread to the rest of the class. She ran up to the front before Jonah had time to stop her and commenced with giving the class a description of the hot and cold air weather patterns out over the ocean. Of course, weather was easy for the children. They watched it unfolding below them every day.
By now the class was heading in a new direction, not the one Jonah had intended, but he let it slide, just to see what would happen. A week ago he’d explained to the children that animals had tails and people didn’t. One boy had raised his hand to tell the class that his mother thought Cloudbuyers used to be monkeys, swinging from branch to branch, way up off the ground. They’d never liked to walk on the earth as humans did. But debating the finer points of evolution wasn’t a path Jonah wanted to go down with a class full of young Cloudbuyer minds.
After Elysee finished her speech, Jonah sent her back to her seat, a soft spot on a well-rounded cloud. In the back of his mind, he wondered if Mark would ask the next logical question: How do air currents bring storms to the mountains? Little Mark never did ask and Jonah got through the lesson on time that day. He knew he had to get back to the mountain before nightfall.
In the safety of the cabin, Jonah reflected on his classroom experiences. He was impressed that the children could understand everything so well. They’d learned his language fast. And sometimes there might be a moment when the students comprehended things far greater than anything he taught them. Those were the moments he wished would happen every day.
He looked out the window at the mountain-river-valley, and beyond that, what? A town, perhaps? He wondered if they still existed. Years had passed and Jonah was growing older. He worked at a table, shelling nuts. He picked up a nut, cracked the edge on a stone, and pried the nut open. The meat fell out onto the table. The nuts came from a grove he’d discovered on the other side of the mountain.
Jonah thought about what he would teach the children tomorrow. Certainly not geography, as they could see the whole world from up above. He couldn’t teach them any business, either. They already knew much more about international trade than he ever would. And not a thing about reading and writing could he teach them. Jonah could hardly read anything at all. He’d only finished a rudimentary education when the Cloudbuyers had snatched him up and taken him away to the clouds.
As he looked out at the horizon, he came to realize what he must do. He would teach the children to question things. After all, questions made for the best education. And with questions, they might come to understand that he didn’t belong there. He wanted to go home, but he didn’t know the way. He wanted to see his sister again.
Many more sunrises appeared and again Jonah met the little man standing at the cloud’s edge. The man kicked and circled and stamped near Jonah’s feet.
“Whoa!” Jonah said, but the warning failed to register in the Cloudbuyer’s head.
Jonah missed his family. He refused to work for the Cloudbuyers anymore, not unless they met his demands. He was growing tired and wanted to go back to the city. He needed to visit his sister and let her know he was still alive.
If they let him go, Jonah promised he would return to the mountains and stay here forever, if only he was allowed to go back home one time. Those were his terms. The little man refused to listen. Jonah stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out some nuts. He offered them to the little man, but the Cloudbuyer only slapped at Jonah’s hand, sending the nuts flying.
Jonah stood his ground. The Cloudbuyer let out a loud kek-kek-kek like the angry hawks do and raised his hands to the sky like giant wings. Jonah refused to step on the cloud. They squared off, facing each other. Jonah knew the little man was growing older all the time. And Jonah was growing stronger. He gave the little man a push and the little man took a step back in surprise.
Jonah explained that if the Cloudbuyers would let him return to the city, he would bring back books for the children to read. He said he would, but he knew he wouldn’t, because he had no idea how to teach them anything found on a page filled with words. The little man sighed. He nodded and turned and waved for Jonah go.
The Cloudbuyers provided Jonah with a horse. They’d taken it from a rich man who owned a large mansion in the city. The horse knew the way home and would take Jonah there. Jonah pulled a rope over the horse’s ears and let it fall on the horse’s neck. He swung his leg over the horse’s back and then flicked the rope, urging the horse forward. Down the trail they went, down the mountainside, wandering farther and farther, lower and lower, until the world of the Cloudbuyers was lost from sight, far up above in the sky.
In the long days that followed, Jonah admired the land he passed through. The trees had returned, growing so thick in the region that the earth seemed overrun with them. He witnessed the flight of birds of prey and birds being preyed on. In the night, when he stopped to rest, the sound of water falling nearby eased his fears of the dark.
After a week the path became a road and the road became a street. Then the town surrounded him on all sides. It was a place of confinement, houses and buildings held down on the earth as if the land had been littered with them by the hand of the busy. People were hurrying and scuffling along the roadways and walkways and up and down the stairways, but with all their activity, none seemed able to escape the limits of the town. It was a place bent on restricting them until they would move about no more.
Jonah saw the cemetery decaying. The church bells would not stop ringing with the birthing and wedding and servicing, on the hour every half hour at the quarter of the hour. What was it that made these people all need to keep so close together? He did not know. They took no notice of the world outside them. They could not look up and fathom the meaning of the clouds that filled the skies above them. They knew nothing of the ways of the Cloudbuyers.
The horse took Jonah through the town. They stopped before a service entrance, a side gate located in a fence that went around a well-tended lawn surrounding a stone white mansion. A service man inside the fence stopped his tending of the lawn and came to see them. He nodded his head when he saw the horse and he opened the gate. He took them to the rear of the mansion where a stable held other horses. Jonah felt the horse stir beneath him at the smell of home. It was with surprise that the service man opened the door to the loft and with surprise that the service boys threw down a bale of hay into the rack for the horse to nibble on.
Jonah slid off the horse’s back and followed the service man into the mansion and there he sat down in a room full of books. They surrounded him on every side. He knew he could not break free of them or the words held tightly on their pages. He waited there for the books to speak and never a word did he think to say. The writing of a word was something he had not done clearly in many years. On the reading table one such book lay open toward him, providing complicated combinations of glyphs and squiggles. They danced in and out of his vision.
An educated man, in posture and costume, entered the library to speak with Jonah. He sat down at the reading desk and pulled out a check and asked Jonah his name.
“Name? Names, pages, words,” Jonah said, mumbling a fumbled reply.
The man was going to ask him to spell what he’d uttered, but then thought better of it. He wrote something indiscernible on the check and passed it over to Jonah. Jonah looked dumbly at the paper in his hand. He’d returned the horse, but had no idea it was worth something.
“I assume you have a car to take you back? You do have a car waiting outside, don’t you? Outside? Shall I have my man fetch the driver and bring it around now?”
“Your car? Is it outside?”
“Wh…aa…t?” Jonah said, hardly understanding. He fidgeted in a chair not built to fit him.
“I guess you can get back by yourself. I have to say, I do respect a man who doesn’t mind a walk.”
“Aw-right. Aw-right,” Jonah said and got up to go.
He followed the service man out to the gate. As the service man shut the gate, Jonah looked back into his eyes and heard an expression he could appreciate.
“Thank you, dearly,” he replied.
He’d finally made contact with the civilized places in his mind. He was delighted to find he could string together a little something that made him smile and made the service man smile even deeper. In a moment they were laughing together at the simplicity of their lives and the straightforward ways they enjoyed.
Out on the road, Jonah turned around to look for his sister. The city towered over him. Fear set in and held him fast.
Alone on the street, he’d lost himself in the ways of wondering where the road would take him. The town was a maze laid out before him. He could not find his way in any direction save the direction that took him to another street and then to another one like it and then back to the one before that or maybe to the one he thought about later in a dream. He walked alone in the wind-filled night, the air a little cold, with a wish to be back in the clouds. He missed his Cloudbuyer friends.
He’d been sitting at the bottom of a rust-wire fence when he saw her face. A pale stone set against the darkness. The moonlight held her there. Her old face, her face old, a statue in the stillness, she was the only thing he could remember of this patched up world and all its subdivisions. Sarah had been his sister.
Her face appeared again next to the street lamppost, swarming with all its light-blotting bugs, half-blinded by the bliss they experienced in the search for the one true road to eternity. She side-smiled unsure and then turned away in indifference. Her face appeared again, looking down at him from above. She was not even sure he should be there, but there he was. His face was real and no longer a vision. He whimpered aloud. She wondered and wept.
Something in his shirt pocket fought for her attention. She stared, disbelieving, at the contents he withdrew. The check was there. Jonah had brought it to her. She knew not why and cared not that he could not explain it. She shared with him a laugh which told the world a whole new story. Although the course of their lives could not be charted on a map, something bigger had drawn them back together again.
She took him to her house and before a little window he sat at a table. He sat during the day next to an empty chair, which sat next to his, and together he and the chair looked out the window. The town lay before them and he and the table and the chair were hesitant to speak out about the view. The landscape appeared as if designed by the mind of a clay-molder gone mad. Under the pressure of an invisible hand, the town was crumbling. Much of it was in ruin, like a saucer cracked and discarded.
In desperate need for a miracle, Sarah had spent years wondering when her tribulations would end. It was Jonah who had found the horse. She read of it in the newspaper. They’d said he’d been given a substantial reward. She would now return to the bank those missing payments. They’d harassed her about the house as if it was destined to be discarded like a pack of napkins ruffled and matted at the last meal of the dying. As if stuffed in the seats of an old sedan, ditched on the downhill side of a mountain, the money she needed had taken the long road home. But it had arrived!
Jonah sat at the table in the stillness of his companions. Like a war he was tugged back and forth, to live with the people of everyday life, or to watch them from afar. One day it started to rain. He looked up at the sky and knew was time to return to the clouds.
Jonah left the town on foot. Alone again, he tended to his thoughts, whichever way he wandered. He traveled along the mountain trail and found many things to ponder, ideas he’d left out to grow along the land. He saw the way the river falls. Although a waterfall drops from high above and hits the earth, the water becomes a river again. He thought to return to the earth after a falling away.
He came at last to his cabin in the mountains. The grass here had faded, turned pale-brown. The leaves on trees were gone and the air dry. Up above, not a cloud waited in the sky. It hadn’t rained in many days and would not rain for many more, he realized.
The Cloudbuyers were nowhere to be seen. In his cabin he laid himself down to dream. He had a simple vision in the night. He saw the leaves of a withered tree blown gently into the river by the wind. Next, caught up by the current, the leaves roved hither and thither on top the waves in the water. Then, one leaf was trapped on the edge of a jagged stone. He felt its heart stretch as it struggled there. The river rushed back and forth and tried to lift it up and let the leaf go free. Once torn apart, the leaf sank in the water and his vision drifted away.
Each day he awoke and rose when he wanted. Jonah set his pace by his own time and not the timepiece of some other. He wandered around the mountain to gather more nuts growing in a grove where a fresh spring watered them. Near the spring was a cave and when he walked past the opening he saw someone hiding inside. After entering the cave, he was confounded by a pair of young Cloudbuyers.
There was Little Mark, and Elysee, hiding in the shadows with fear on their faces. They’d been trapped on the mountainside when the clouds had disappeared. They hesitated to go outside the cave, knowing even a single drop of rain could destroy them. They had grown thinner and paler than any Cloudbuyer Jonah had ever seen before. Their bodies had withered and they’d nearly sunk to the floor. Like a wisp of cloud in the sky, they might vanish before his eyes. They were so light he could pick them up and carry them.
He took them back to his cabin and tended to them as if they were his own children. The rain did not return for many years. Something had gone wrong with the world. The clouds remained vacant from the skies. The land was dry and the crops died and the people in the town had little water to sustain them. The children in the cabin continued to evaporate, day after day, their eyes withdrawn inside their heads, their bodies thin to the bone. It seemed like the world would never recover.
In late August one year, Jonah started to dance. The steps he made were complicated. He moved from side to side and kept in time and chanted aloud an invitation to the heavens. He danced every morning, hoping the rain would fall and the Cloudbuyers would return.
One day Jonah felt a drop of rain on his shoulder. Up above, new clouds were forming and the sky was growing white with their returning. He continued to dance and chant as the rain came down in torrents. He laughed at the world and jumped from puddle to puddle and waved at the sky.
The children held each other close inside the cabin, looking out the window, waiting for the rain to end. As the clouds collided and splashed, the young Cloudbuyers grew stronger. They were eager to return to their families and friends. When the rain stopped altogether they climbed the mountain and jumped onto the clouds. Jonah followed them and told everyone where he’d been. He talked about the city and how it confused him. He apologized for not bringing any books, because they were too heavy to carry.
Every day the Cloudbuyers watch people on the earth down below and wonder at the skyscrapers we are building. We call these tall buildings progress, but the Cloudbuyers know we are really building them to visit their world up in the sky. They have asked Jonah to tell the story of the Cloudbuyers to the people when we arrive.
The history of the Cloudbuyers is in a language Jonah doesn’t understand; even so, he knows the story well. He chants and dances, moving forward one cloud at a time. He is the Rainmaker, the guardian of the Cloudbuyers.
7/16/2017 12:29:21 am
Thanks for sharing my story.
7/16/2017 05:09:51 am
Reading this, I found myself lost in the world of the Cloudbuyers.
7/16/2017 11:28:10 am
I agree with Pete Johnson's comments, and thank you to him for giving some shape to my own feelings, which were (quite frankly) cloud-like. This resonates of an indigenous population, with much of the same pushing and pulling that I suspect may go on among indigenous peoples. It's haunting, sad, triumphant, all at once. There's an overlay of rules and the subversion of individuality in both the cloud and the earth cultures. As a reader, I find this story timeless.
Ann S. Tomasevic
7/18/2017 05:11:46 am
A story that stays with you after you've read it. The different levels of it – or so I understand it – and phrases like "purchasing clouds from whoever has too many", and others. Now I will read it again.
7/18/2017 09:34:33 am
This was so well written! It has a timeless quality, beautiful and multi-layered and original. Nicely done!
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