Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. Tonight their movement seemed slower, more somber, as if the thoughts of the powerful men that made them purple in the first place were finally settling on this particular shade of deep lilac.
“They’re getting darker,” Leesha said, binoculars pressed to her eyes and trained toward the distant mountains across the Praetorian Desert. I was distracted by the way her flowered dress clung against her young form like a shapely, living garden.
“Purpler,” I ventured, knowing how easily irritated she got when I contradicted her.
“That’s not even a word!” She turned to face me with a scowl. I was glad it was a cloudless day, else I might have witnessed even pure lavender clouds turning to black above us. “What do you know about clouds anyway? Weren’t your parents silents?”
True enough, I thought. Having barely known them though, it was not much of an insult at face value. However, the deeper implication about me being a silent as well was harder to dismiss. “That’s what I’ve been told.”
Her tone eased a little. “Do you even know what the darkening implies?”
I thought about it for a moment. I was not very good at science but really good at guessing, at least in the vaguest sense. “Trouble?”
“You can say that.” She handed me the binoculars and, using both hands to push herself up, she rose and stood in front of me in full Leesha teaching mode. “The leaders of Floragon have been turning people’s minds to their cause for the last thirty years since the fall of Gainia.”
Alright, so not science but history, another subject I sucked at. “So…that makes the clouds purp—darker, right?”
She scoffed, but the opportunity to show off trumped her ongoing frustration with me. “Yes, and clouds of a deeper shade of purple means a more restrictive government, one where people like us would be seen as enemies of the state. Purple is the color typical of an oppressive ruling style.”
I looked at the distant clouds through the binoculars, floating above the distant mountainous chain. The pinkish skies around them appeared so soothing, I had a hard time imagining any of them could ever fly across the miles of cloudless desert separating those peaks from Sandy Springs—let alone an actual traveler. “They’re so far away though and no one, not even clouds, can traverse the desert and live.”
“Which is a good thing. But dry as the desert is today, it won’t be like that forever. Everything works in cycles and one day the rainclouds will return and the desert will again flourish into a rich valley. It wouldn’t be long before the Floragonians turned their eyes to our forgotten lands.”
I had stopped listening. It was just like in class, a cloud of distraction settling over me as I pictured the big cities of Floragon, the strange machines and festivals the books talked about becoming as real in my mind as if I were there. What was so bad about that? But then again I never paid enough attention to really know everything about anything or to really understand where danger might come from.
I sighed, descending from my momentary dissipation and turning to Leesha.
She was gone.
I took a last look at the purple bruise in the skies across the desert, glad to see that, as usual, no purple cloud seemed to move into the dead zone between those faraway mountains and our fertile lands.
I slowly got on my feet and looked directly above me, looking for one of our own puffy clouds. Spotting a single white cloud shaped like a butterfly, I followed its leisurely progress from Sandy Springs toward the desert. As usual, I held my breath as it flew above Mourner’s Creek, after which I knew it would find its death, dissipated by the onslaught of the desert’s heat.
My mouth fell open when the small cloud calmly continued past the dry creek until I lost sight of it somewhere in the desert, looking now more like a long snake making its way toward those impossibly far mountains and their purple clouds.
Turning on my heels, I ran away from the edge of the desert toward town, knowing that I had to tell Leesha and hoping she would know what to do.
“Attention, class!” Mrs. Morgan said the next morning in her typical, stern tone. “We will not discuss the rumors about clouds wondering into the desert. That’s all they are for now: rumors.”
I shrank into my seat, avoiding the teacher’s eyes as much as I could. Last night, unable and to reach Leesha, I had confided in my older sister Jana. Perhaps that had been a mistake. Either that or someone else had seen what I had seen.
Yet not many juniors ventured to the edge of the desert; many still believed the old tales about giant snakes that could swallow an adult-sized human in one gulp. Thankfully, Leesha had dispelled me of that notion, creating a safe and quiet space for us at the very edge of the livable area. Though now, thanks to that, I had potentially seen the first cloud to float into the Praetorian Desert in what, one-thousand years?
“Alvin,” Mrs. Morgan exclaimed. “Are you with us today?”
I jumped in my seat, stumbling over my words. “Yes—“ My lips fought me. “‘Mrs. Mor—“
Laughter erupted all around me. Nothing new. I was used to this.
“Why don’t you tell us about the origin of rainbow clouds. That was last week’s reading material.”
I had read the chapter but as usual nothing had really stuck. “They come from the rainbow?”
“Sure, Alvin. As much as you were brought to your parents as a bundle carried by a stork.” Her smirk made it look as it she too would erupt into laughter. “Silence!” She shouted, but the smirk remained.
Then I suddenly recalled something Leesha had said about the rainbow, how all the colors… “Ah, they are all different colors?”
“Are they, Alvin? Why then do they look white?”
I swallowed, fighting the urge to give up, but trying to channel Leesha, who by no means would give up. “I mean; they do look white. But—“ Some image about sunlight breaking into all colors came to mind. “Yes, but they used to be all colors!”
The class was silent now. I was no fun in the rare moments of lucidity when I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.
“Go on,” Mrs. Morgan encouraged me, though still hesitant.
Trying to sound more confident, I continued. “When people carry on with their different ways of thinking, all the clouds are different colors. Then—” I faltered, forgetting that one important detail. “People mix the different colored clouds together to make white clouds?”
Giggles were again sparking in bursts around the room.
“So there are people with wings that can do that? Or are you referring to the silly myths of cloudshapers?”
The room went back to full-on laughter.
Mrs. Morgan approached my desk, her voluminous form occupying more and more of my field of vision with every step. She knew I couldn’t stand human proximity and yet she kept coming.
Thankfully she stopped about three feet from me, pretty much the extent of my safety zone. “People cannot move clouds any more than flying machines from the heathen lands can fly across the desert.”
“Yes, Mrs. Morgan,” was all I could say.
“But you’re not totally wrong, just a little off. People don’t consciously mix the clouds. What becomes entwined is—“
“Got it! Human thought?” I said, cutting her off, hoping to be right.
“Well, yes. Human thought imbues color into the clouds above. So what mixes is not the clouds themselves, but our intent and alignment, which in turn affects the clouds.”
That was it, I thought, but decided to let her finish.
“Over hundreds of year of spiritual guidance, our thoughts are slowly merging and more clouds today reflect that transition from separateness to union by turning white.” Here she smiled beatifically. “So in a way, white rainbow clouds contain all the colors of the rainbow, but we only see the result of their combination, a complete reflection of how our people stand: united in diversity.”
It made sense, I thought, even though I knew well that far in the north purple clouds had been brewing for decades.
She turned away, seemingly done with questioning me. “Please find page 151 on your tablets. Today’s lesson will cover the myth of Nimbus, the first white cloud to ever be seen floating above our land amid the many-colored clouds of our past.”
The brightness of the screen coming to life made me think of Leesha’s smile. It was always like that. She normally seemed as serious and composed as the black plastic of the tablet, but then when she smiled, the world seemed to come alive around her.
I opened the Spiritual Studies book to page 151 and was ready to start reading when a message popped up on the bottom right.
I froze and looked up to make sure no one had noticed. Thankfully I had turned the sound off. I turned to the screen and saw who the message was from: Leesha.
Please don’t tell me you’re the one talking about desert-wandering clouds.
Of course she would have heard by now, I thought. Maybe? I typed, knowing well I couldn’t quite lie to Leesha.
The chatbox remained quiet for a few seconds.
Not good. I wish you actually paid attention in school. Did Mrs. Morgan cover the legend of the Hermit?
I felt a chill. Something about that legend rang a bell—a dark, sepulchral bell. I think so.
In that case, you don’t have much time. Meet me at the library after second period.
Why? Perspiration was already building up on my forehead, along with a coldness that I had only felt once: the day my parents had left my sister and I, the only vivid memory I had of them.
She didn’t reply after that. Typical Leesha, probably fearing someone would gain access to our chats.
I looked up and saw Mrs. Morgan waving her hands in the air, going on about the chromatic modes of feeling and their interaction with the air. Something told me this was going to be a very long and very colorlessly boring class.
Leesha was sitting at a table near the back of the shelves where the art books were kept. She waved me to her without even lifting her gaze from the book in front of her.
“That’s definitely not an art book,” I whispered, noticing the strange grey book.
“Duh!” she looked at me know. “Would you just sit down and shut up?”
I sat across from her and took a peek at the volume’s spine. The Hermetic Book of Auras. “Is that about the hermit?”
“What?” Following my gaze she realized I was referring to the book’s title. She laughed, then quickly caught herself. “Hermetic knowledge has nothing to do with hermits. Gosh, if you are what—who I think you are, we are doomed by your mere lack of knowledge.”
Silence. I had no idea what she meant.
“Here.” She passed me the book and rotated it to face me. “There’s only one tiny paragraph in this whole book about the lack of an aura.”
I looked where her finger pointed and read.
Achromatic aural dysfunction, though reported occasionally by obscure members of the Hermetic order, has always been linked to early cessation of life by processes too subtle for proper study and documentation. For all purposes, it can be assumed that every living being has an aural emanation, no matter how small or hard to detect.
“So?” She asked after a minute or so of silence.
“I—“ The words clashed against one another in my head, any semblance of meaning remaining just out of reach. “I am not sure what I just read.”
Leesha rolled her eyes. “We are definitely doomed.” She moved her chair over and leaned closer to me as if in careful confidence. “Basically, this little blurb says that someone like you, or your parents, should have never survived past infancy.”
My body shook involuntarily. “What?” At the core, her words echoed like some dark suspicion that had always crawled inside me like a snake, dragging a dirty secret connected to my existence across the desert, all the way to our city’s doorstep.
“Keep it down. This is some serious stuff.” She shut the book with finality. “What it says is that any living being that cannot emanate chromatic aura, should in principal not be able to survive, or—“
“Be allowed to live,” I added quietly. “But I am very well, alive,” I exclaimed. Then, realizing I had raised my voice, I looked around to find out that thankfully nobody had looked my way.
“That’s exactly what worries me. Because that’s where the hermit comes in.”
“But you said that hermits had nothing to do with hermetic studies?” I said a little bit exasperated.
“Not etymologically. But if you look at the myth of the hermit, which some believed to be some kind of prophecy, you’ll realize that he must be a silent.”
Suddenly I found a flaw in her logic. “But my parents were supposed to be silents, and they were alive!”
She thought for a moment. “That part I am still trying to figure out. I don’t really know anyone who actually knew your parents personally.”
I sighed. Neither did I. All I had was that vague image of them leaving and my mother looking back at me with what I always hoped was regret in her eyes.
“My only theory is that, perhaps, genetically, they were predisposed to have a child who would be a silent, without being silents themselves.” She paused.
I froze. Being almost seventeen and not having shown any signs of emanation, I always worried that I would be a silent. But now it also seemed to imply I should be dead.
“What’s really important right now is the fact that the hermit is said to be a silent who will open the way across the desert.”
“Across the desert?”
She nodded as she pulled another book from her pile. The cover of this one was blank. As she searched through the pages I couldn’t help but to think of that seemingly innocent cloud and the way it had just kept going above the death space that was the desert.
“Ah. Here we go. The way across the vast emptiness shall be bridged by one whose thoughts cast no shadow upon the ground nor ascend into the heaven’s vault.”
I pictured the endless land at the edge of town. “The way across the desert?”
“Yeah.” She flipped a few pages and resumed reading. “The wings of the hermit’s psyche, spread above dry death, shall take material shape to show him the way toward darkness.” She seemed puzzled. “That’s funny.”
“There’s a footnote for ‘psyche’ here below.” Her finger moved to the bottom of the page. “Huh. Psyche is actually an ancient term for ‘butterfly’”
My heart stopped. “The cloud was shaped like a butterfly.”
Leesha’s eyes met mine. There was something in them that felt like sadness and wonder combined. “We have to find your sister and make sure she doesn’t tell anyone that it was you who saw that cloud.”