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The Cloud Artist

Someone up there in charge of making the sky beautiful.

Fiction | Flash Fiction
July 29, 2022

When people find out what her special skill is, the most common misconception is that she can control the weather. If any one person had the power to do that, she tells them, our collective future on this planet would not be hanging in the balance. 

No, she can’t conjure clouds from thin air. She merely shapes them.

As far back as she could remember, she’d dreamed of living in the sky. 

When she told adults about her aspirations as a child, they’d asked if she wanted to be an astronaut. No? So, a pilot? She shook her head. A bird, maybe? 

Her grandfather alone understood. Before he’d been diagnosed with dementia, before he’d left her weeping at his funeral the week of her high school graduation, he’d taught her the art of cloudmaking.

“See that cloud up there?” he’d asked her once. “Looks kind of like an abandoned dress blowing in the wind, doesn’t it?” He traced an outline with his extended finger. “That’s the work of a human being just like you and me, you know. Someone up there in charge of making the sky beautiful.”

She looked up at him. “Really?”

“Would I lie to you? It’s a skill artists spend a lifetime perfecting. I’m a carpenter, right? I build things out of wood. Clouds are the same, handcrafted. My grandparents taught me when I was small. If you want, I can teach you, too.”

They practiced with every cloud-like substance they could think of: cotton candy, plush stuffing, dryer lint, odds and ends she collected from the neighborhood creek. Those hours they spent puzzling out the shapes of intangible things in the comfort of his garage workshop were the best memories from her childhood. 

He had died in a hospital bed, all hooked up to tubes, leaving her surrounded by empty spaces and overflowing toolboxes. Even before his last breath, he’d lost control of the hands that had once been his livelihood. He’d lost control of his memories long before that.

Twenty years later, she has a child of her own. He’s the same age she was when her grandfather first pointed at the sky and told her the most unbelievable stories. Though she’s now a fire marshal who keeps her feet firmly planted in the soil, some days she still looks out the window of her little office and wonders what’s happening ten thousand feet above the ground. She wonders who shaped those dark clouds that resemble ocean waves. She wonders about the depths of their life story. She wonders if they, too, have a late grandfather who taught them everything. 

She still dreams of living in the sky one day.

She doesn’t know how to get there. Her grandfather hadn’t known either, though he had spent decades searching. A part of her had started suspecting that none of what he told her was true. Maybe it was only an urban myth—people living in the clouds, creating pictures with their bare hands for all the world to see.

Back in second grade, her entire class had released helium balloons into the open air, index cards printed with the school’s address tied to the strings. “Won’t it be exciting to see where they land?” her teacher asked with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that even she, the incorrigible dreamer, the unworldly child, had found embarrassing. The balloons never returned to earth. 

She feels foolish thinking about that now. She feels even more foolish buying a shiny Mylar balloon at the supermarket on the way home from work. She feels foolish still, attaching her cover letter to the dangling ribbon. It disappears into the fog as soon as she lets go.

Weeks go by, and nothing changes. But then it rains for the first time in ages. When the water dries up, she finds the most curious thing at the end of her drainpipe. It’s an invitation. A monthlong residency in the skies. Zone 391D, a patch of sky that hovers above the San Francisco Bay Area.

In Zone 391D, her first Monday away from home, she starts simple. A giraffe: her son’s favorite animal. Others down below might see a llama or a dinosaur. Something that speaks to their own hearts.

Tuesday: an airplane. She once flew from the East Coast to the West Coast and met her future husband when he noticed her sketchbook from across the aisle.

Wednesday: a soup dumpling. She already misses the food that reminds her of family. Here, the daily meals come dehydrated and bland in nondescript pouches. 

Thursday: a bridge. An overcast day obscures the Golden Gate. This way, tourists can still snap their photos.

Friday: a planet surrounded by rings. So everyone can see Saturn without a telescope.

Saturday: a cartoon cloud. The round, puffy kind that kids first learn to draw before they look closer and realize that not all things are created equal. She isn’t sure whether she believes in heaven, but if her grandfather is watching from even farther above, she hopes he’s laughing.

On Sunday, she finally has time to think about what she left behind. She has time to miss it. Her child’s laughter. Her husband’s lips. Her friends’ voices over the phone. On Sunday, all she can see for miles is blue.