The Cloud Gazers
Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. As a child, I’d always wake, just before midnight—just as the tendrils of the bougainvillea along the trellises began stretching outward to watch the dance—and listen as the music they created with their winds lulled the rest of the village into exotic dreams and righteous slumber. Come morning, the town awoke refreshed and invigorated while I slalomed along through my daily rituals—the milking and the washing, or the drying and collecting—before I headed off to school.
Mother—a kind woman with sweat-stained brows and a crooked smile—would tug at the tattered edges of her apron as I deposited the eggs I’d pulled from the coop, and say things like, “My dear boy, did you not sleep well?” or “Sweet child, what is it that disturbs you so each night?” and I would yawn and assure her it was nothing, much less nothing disturbing.
It would be years before I knew why the purple clouds didn’t send me to the same sleep that overtook everyone else. It would be years before the dance would turn ominous as the purple clouds revealed the whole of their nature.
Despite my fatigue, made all the more evident by those around me who were utterly not, I was always the first to arrive at school. I liked it there: the way the halls offered straight-forward paths as compared to the wandering streets of the village; the untold histories of texts just waiting to be discovered inside each classroom. I had four true friends at that time. Timot, always jovial and quick of wit and pun; Alessandra with her freckles and blue-black ringlets haloing her mischievous eyes; and the twins, Gordon and Pip, who finished one another’s sentences with glee because they knew it shocked the other kids. None of them made fun of me for the way my black hair sometimes matted into a rat’s nest at my crown from nights of uneasy sleep, tossing and turning in my bed after the midnight showing. They found it funny that I was the first one at school everyday, and didn’t snicker like the other children when I spoke up in class. They had sought me out. And even though they didn’t believe me about the purple clouds each night, they never once teased me about my visions.
When Summer arrived, we convinced our parents to let the five of us camp out in the yucca fields not too far from my house so my mother would be nearby if she were needed. We played at children playing adults in the way that can only happen before any true knowledge has settled into ones bones. We erected our tents like we were building ancient cities. We foraged our packs for sweet fruits and candies to present to one another as offerings. And when night fell, we caught lightning bugs in jars and built a great bonfire to tell our stories around. We pulled our sleeping bags from the tents and settled in around the fire, looking beyond its gasping flames to the navy sky, naming constellations and reimagining the stars.
As night wore on, I spoke furiously to keep them alert, to ensure they stayed awake to witness what I had always known. But sleep took them all just before the sky blushed pink, and I was left alone once more to witness the ballet of the clouds.
I had only been asleep a moment when the earth began to quake. My eyes opened to the full light of day, Gordon and Pip on either side of my sleeping bag like bookends, shaking me at my shoulders.
“Ahh. There he is,” Gordon said. “We thought you—“
“—Were going to sleep forever,” Pip finished.
I sat up slowly and wiped the sleep from my eyes. The tents had already been dismantled and repacked. The sun was stumbling toward its peak.
“We decided to let Sleeping Beauty lie,” Timot smiled. “But Alessandra needs to get home.”
“Promised Dad I’d be back before noon,” she shrugged.
Groggily, I rolled my sleeping bag into a tight ball and hooked it into the lower straps of my pack. My unused tent was already tightly folded and zipped into its case.
“Did you see it?” I asked, even though I’d watched them all drift away. “You must’ve seen something last night, sleeping out here right underneath it all!”
Gordon shrugged and Pip kicked a pebble with his toe. Alessandra twisted her mouth into a sly grin.
“Looks like another show just for you,” she said.
“You lucky dog!” Timot’s fist found my shoulder in the friendliest manner it could. “Get it?” he asked. “Sleeping Beauty? Sleeping dogs? I crack myself up.”
I chuckled along as I followed them back to town.
Life went on like that for years, with only me and bougainvillea awake to view the majesty of the the midnight dance, to hear the opera of song from the movement of the clouds. What was a lullaby to others through the night, invigorated me to the point of near sleeplessness. Mother would recommend rubbing the cooling, fresh laid eggs atop the dark circles that formed beneath my eyes to keep the color from setting there, but I think it was more of a ruse to keep me tending to the hens early each morning. Alessandra offered concealer from her mom’s makeup bag, and Gordon, Pip, and Timon suggested hanging upside-down or reading the dictionary or installing light-blocking blinds. I told them nothing worked, but the truth is, I didn’t want it to. I enjoyed the midnight showings.
At nine, I watched the purple go deep, nearing maroon, and back to lavender in undulating waves.
At ten, the song of the clouds moving matched pace with a waltz and dripped a golden haze down upon the village.
At twelve, I had memorized the motions myself, and could dance along with their cadence pulsing through me as if I, too, were a part of the midnight sky.
When I turned fourteen, that’s when everything started to change. Gordon and Pip were angry in their puberty. The spurting growth of their bones twisted them further and further apart until they stopped resembling one another altogether. Where Pip grew tall and spry, Gordon’s shoulders pointed outward to make him wide. His legs bent at awkward angles, and he carried a resentment in his eyes for his brother’s beauty. Timot lost his voice. What sounds he could make scratched along his larynx like the hissing of a mad cat. Alessandra hid her face behind the dark ringlets of her curls and withdrew further and further inside of herself until it was almost as if she were a ghost.
The night my mother died, I did something I had never done before: I spoke to the dance.
The bougainvillea recoiled along the trellis as my voice whispered through the open window. It floated atop the heaviness of the night sky, drifting, catching updrafts until it reached the clouds. I felt their lilac ripples shudder upon my words, watched as their dance changed course, and shivered as they turned to face me.
But that’s when I noticed him: two streets away, standing at attention on the rooftop of another house. The shifting of the clouds had spotlit him in moonlight. My eyes locked in his direction. Slowly, he lifted a finger to his lips, and I froze. My breath caught to seize my lungs. I let my eyelids fall heavy. I pretended, even standing there at my window, to be asleep.
After what felt ages, I heard the swish of the clouds starting up again. Their dance was frantic and exasperated. The blush of the sky burned crimson in an untold rage. The lullaby sounded of nightmares.
When it was finished, I moved slowly to my bed. I traced the lines in my ceiling. I could not close my eyes.
By morning, there was a note addressed to me stuck into the screen door of the kitchen. A hand I did not recognize had scrawled a wary message:
Fellow Cloud Gazer, it read. We must speak if we are to stop what is to come. Find me. Lev.
About the Creator
Andrew Forrest Baker
he | him
Southern gothic storyteller.
My new novel, The House That Wasn't There, is out now from April Gloaming Publishing.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
I like the narrative voice you chose to tell this tale, it feels unique and refreshing. I was intrigued by the premiss that the main character is the only one unaffected by the clouds, so creative! You did a great job creating relatable, believable and unique characters. I also like how you developed them through out the story! You have intrigued for a part two!