My pulse was in my ears echoing beneath stone walls; pomegranate and chestnut trees shaded the courtyard, leaves immobile in the dry desert. I pulled my coat closer around my body, and as I did, my scarf’s decorative gold coins jangled across my forehead; I had to tell them. But would they listen? No. Never.
I looked out again over the mass of gathered people, men in blousy wool pants, and women, blue silk scarves knotted around their waists, and above, a washboard of clouds. I felt eyes shredding me. I called upon the spirits, which was the only thing left for me to do.
Legend has it that years ago, a cloud had lost its way and fastened itself to Kalashani mountain, the largest peak in our country, but in doing so, had inadvertently allowed several sky children to plop down upon its soft mattress where they somersaulted to Earth, eager for a new adventure without their annoying sky parents who only wanted to keep them safe until they were big enough to create their own storms. Nothing major, just a dust storm or two to test their readiness for solid work. But these children had heard bedtime stories about the lands below, great expanses of rock and earth with lakes filled with creatures that swam, and others that swam in the air, landing on tall plants that grew tasty jewels.
All the children ever got to eat in the sky was pudding, a porridge of air and water and dust, tasteless, but nourishing for those of their kind. But they wanted to understand how a fruit from a tree would taste, and how it could turn a mouth into the color of sunsets. What a place of wealth, they thought. Imagine becoming your own sunset!
The sky children did not listen to the lost cloud who felt responsible for their dereliction, and was going to have a hard time explaining what had happened, let alone in facing the censure of other clouds.
For weeks before, there had been nothing but a cold fog on the cloud’s shoulders whose name was Almiston, so thick she could hardly navigate. Who could blame her for getting lost? But she’d definitely be blamed; after all, she was a renegade, and now the people living below the Kalashani were angry at her for blocking the sunlight. She clung to the peak, speared at her very center.
“Come with us,” the sky children sang in a pretty chord of rising tones. “Let go and then, wheee!”
Almiston was tempted by the sky scamps. The children motioned from below a pomegranate tree where they filled their bellies with sweet fruit and tossed the shells to the ground, joyfully stomping and crushing them to slivers.
She had to decide.
I stood on the patio, hands at my side, staring at that angry gathering and wondering what had brought me to this juncture.
A flower has no back. Once again, I entreated my ancestors.
My maternal grandfather had been the son of a chief from a prominent family. In the early 1850s when he was still a child, he’d inherited millions of hectares of land for grazing goats and sheep whose sheared wool made beautiful prayer rugs and carpets. But before he could grow a proper mustache, his father had died, and was sent to live with a wealthy uncle who loved poetry and was also a friend of the Great Mobique, a ruler who hoped to consolidate the country beneath one tent. He often invited the uncle to his compound for a night of song and poetry. But jealous of his influence with the Great Mobique, my uncle’s family were massacred by provincial lords. The only survivors were my great aunties, women who would no sooner spit in your eye than be told what to do, and in this instance, rescued my grandfather and raised him as their own, spoiling him with sweets and a barrage of compliments.
“Look how strong this one is,” they said, watching my grandfather chop wood for the cooking fire.
But in making grandfather think he was a god who walked on two golden stilts, he drifted into a life of drinking and gambling, losing his hectares, all those sheep and goats, and woke up to discover that during an evening of debauchery, he had signed over papers that had left him utterly penniless.
What else could he do but leave? He walked for days until he reached the western provinces where a cousin got him a job carrying water to laborers at a rock quarry. After much hard work, he was promoted to the position of security officer, making sure that cartloads of rock were delivered to their proper customers.
As hot as it was with the smell of sweat and salt in my nostrils, my hands felt cold, even icy. I searched the crowd for a sympathetic face, especially for the man whose hands had felt the weight of my dark hair, but he was nowhere to be seen, and even if anyone chose to intervene on my behalf, they would do so only by endangering themselves. A circle of angry faces closed around me. Someone picked up a rock.
Almiston knew she couldn’t turn around to where cumulonimbus clouds laughed at how she’d never make it on her own. She didn’t care, didn’t want to marry that loud, blustery cloud with a long, gray face who’d offered her parents an unlimited supply of water vapor as a way of keeping them afloat; Randmadol’s only claim to fame was that he’d sailed from one continent to the next in a matter of months. The truth was he’d sailed over a goat path. He was nothing more than a loud braggart. But her family had neither ears nor eyes, and while she tried to point this out, they called her ungrateful, even arrogant. Instead, they told her, if you always walk looking at the moon, you will get nowhere.
Almiston felt hurt, wounded, and knew that her suitor’s family were more interested in securing her family’s compound, a temperate area filled with pomegranate and fig trees and orange fish swimming inside turquoise mosaic pools. But her parents insisted on marriage, whether or not she approved of the groom.
“Such things are unimportant,” her father said, and proceeded to negotiate the terms of her marriage. But she intervened.
“I don’t love Randmadol. If you force me to marry him, I fear something terrible will happen.”
So when Almiston saw the sky children beckoning, she knew she couldn’t go back; slipped off the mountain and rolled over trees and landed on a dry grassy patch of land, melting into the solidity of earth, a new and odd feeling. Having never before dared such a feat, she fluffed herself up and felt the color rise in her cheeks, for when all was said and done, she knew she deserved more in life than Randmadol, the cirrocumulus liar.
A rock arched over the crowd and landed at my feet. How could this happen? Dust rose in my throat. I choked back a cluster of screams. I knew these people, knew how their families slept through freezing winter nights beneath a single comforter made of wool from their own animals, and how in summer, they lay on thin cotton pads as thousands of insects sucked their blood; I understood that women were valued only for the children they bore, how mothers gave away daughters as though they were little more than loaves of warm bread to be torn and eaten.
Everywhere, there were cobblestones. One landed at my feet. I bent down and hurled the stone back and began running toward the mountains as fast as I could, crying out to my ancestors to protect and save me. I prayed for wings and plucked the strings of my feet harder, faster, my heart opening in ululation.
Grandfather was an accomplished musician. He had learned several languages, including English and Hindi. His reputation grew as someone who could also read, a rare feat. That’s how he’d met grandmother, smitten by her doe-like eyes and the way she held her head listening to him recite a letter.
He proposed marriage, and when my own mother was born, the entire village, knowing my grandfather’s difficult past, danced for three days. But soon afterward, grandmother became pregnant, this time by her cousin, and would have little to do with her girl child, calling her an infected boil, jealous of my grandfather’s love for my mother who was also his favorite.
“Wash your brother’s diapers,” she’d order. My mother would stand for hours at the yard’s fountain in freezing weather. Later, she blamed my mother for an accident that grandfather had at the refinery, a confusion of pipes and hissing metal valves, where he had been hired to maintain the station’s pumps. “You’re why your father got hurt.” She spat at my mother’s feet. “Instead of keeping his mind on work, he was thinking about you.”
My mother hated grandfather’s wife who’d spent her husband’s money on necklaces and leather boots, lauding it over her housekeepers and always complaining. She gave my mother the worst household tasks, plucking feathers from chickens, washing filthy floors, until her father intervened and sent her to live with an aunt who was a kind woman.
Almiston sat on a rock and started to cry. The sky children said, “Don’t. You’ll get wet.”
“But I miss him,” Almiston said, and for the first time since she’d blown off her wedding, wondered if she’d done the right thing in running away from a boy who thought he could build cities over his dreams. But now he was gone, hiding behind his mother’s skirts, “after we had lain together on a bed of rose petals.”
The sky children, both twins, were more interested in eating pomegranates than in listening to her sad stories. They didn’t know how to be sad.
Almiston looked up at the twins, a boy and a girl with freckles of sunshine across the bridge of their noses. “Do you have names?” She knew little of sky society and their customs, and when they kept laughing, she said, “Didn’t your parents give you names?”
One of the twins was watching a bee bury itself inside the petals of a red flower. “Yes, we do have names, as you call them, but they’re only used for special occasions.
Otherwise, we call each other by song. I’m Brise and he’s Zrak. Does that satisfy?”
“Yes,” she said, glad to have company after being stuck on the Kalashani mountain. “My secret name is Laleh,” she said. The children played in the dirt, not paying her too much attention as though it was every day that a cloud revealed her secret name. “How will you get back in the sky?” She asked. “I won’t be there to give you a lift.”
“Dunno,” Zrak said, almost getting stung by the bee.
“We’ll figure it out,” Brise said. “By that time our wing buds will have sprouted. That’s why we’re here eating fruit. We’re waiting for that to happen.”
I ran for days and nights toward the Kalashani mountain, the border between my country and the land of spirits. Anger coated my tongue and seared my lips. The liars had called me a temptress, a whore, holy men wrapped in their white cloths of piety who thought nothing of stoning women whose only crime was to love with a full and open heart. The only thing I felt badly about was choosing poorly, a man who would rather see me die in order to save himself from ignominy.
The morning brought another kind of heat. My chador was gone, lost forever. My breasts warmed steel rounds at my ribs. I rose early and prepared myself with the same care some would use to polish a weapon. I boiled hot water and planned to throw it on their heads, wished to bury traps in the desert filled with scorpions to sting them with venomous poison. I called on the clouds to abandon the sky allowing the sun to burn their huts to cinders. All I wanted was to study and to love whomever I chose. How could those two things be bad?
The mob had carried their threats across the desert, eager to stone me to death and to shout their huzzahs. But my moment had come.
At the border of my country and the land of spirits in the shadow of the Kalashani mountain, I saw something unusual and strange, a fog hovered over the ground, never before had I seen such an apparition; I cried “Help me, hide me,” and as the men gathered in close enough to pelt me with their hatred, I was lifted high into the air by two bright lights, cushioned by a softness I could only call a cloud.
Lenore’s poetry collections form a trilogy about love, loss, and being mortal: Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island (West End Press, 2012); Two Places (Kelsay Books, 2014), and The Golem (Hakodesh Word Press, 2017). Her most recent poetry chapbook is From Malls to Museums (Ethelzine, 2020). Alexandria Quarterly Press published her prize-winning flash fiction chapbook, Holding on to the Fringes of Love. She is a reader for the Mud Season Review and lives in Oakland, California with Zebra the Brave and Granola the Shy. Her environmental novel, Pulp into Paper, is forthcoming from Atmosphere Press this year.