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The First Day of the Festival

Chapter 1 of The Cloud Festival: In Which We Meet the Town, Its People, and the Clouds

By Sarahmarie Specht-BirdPublished 12 months ago Updated 12 months ago 19 min read
The First Day of the Festival
Photo by Mariam Soliman on Unsplash

Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. The regularity of this nebulous ritual did not deter the townspeople from beholding the spectacle. Rather the opposite: the weeklong phenomenon, which occurred at approximately the same time in mid April every year, typically drew crowds in the hundreds, if not thousands.

It was the most sacred week in the town. Children were allowed to stay up way past their bedtimes. Office workers and store employees were given the mornings off to recover from their late-night cloudgazing. Neighbors held parties that lasted so far into the morning that many of them didn’t bother to call off the celebrations, instead extending them in a kind of week-long lavender-hued haze, breaking only to go to work, or to sleep for a few hours. Every night, starting at 11:30 PM, people bundled up if it was cold, huddling together under purple blankets, in purple coats, with purple-dyed hair and purple face paint, standing in their lawns drinking purple drinks and eating purple cupcakes, staring upwards. And then, they would come: voluptuous purple dancers in the sky, tiptoeing across the not-quite-darkness on twinkling, smiling stars. The people would behold their dance in reverent awe. Even the elders, who had lived in this town their entire lives and witnessed the clouds dancing every year, stared in new wonder as the purple figures leapt and twirled.

There were certain preparations that the townsfolk took in the weeks leading up to the Cloud Festival. For some, the most important thing was to have the right clothing, which the fashion-forward of the town bought at Swept Away. It was here that Mallory—a former model turned tailor, sewist, designer, shopkeeper, and, in his free time, ship-in-bottle craftsman—had made a name for himself and for the town by creating and selling clothes exclusively in the shade he dubbed Cloud Purple. Even during the other fifty-one weeks of the year, people traveled from all over the country and the world to buy this specific hue of purple that could not be bought anywhere else. (Or they used to, anyway. The previous year had not been as good as others in the past. Mallory chalked it up to inflation and the price of gas, and tried to pretend like this was not worrying him.)

The villagers also looked to local businesses to supply their decorations. The town, despite barely containing a few hundred people, had a card shop, an office supply shop, and a party shop. Coincidentally, they shared a building, and each of these shops was owned by one of an elderly set of triplets: Maeve, Mauve, and Margaret.

Curiously, the three had never gotten along. Mauve, the office supplier, thought that Maeve, the card shop owner, was snobbish and nitpicky, while Maeve simply thought that Mauve was an idiot. Meanwhile, Margaret, the party supplier, was a happy-go-lucky free spirit who wore long skirts and tied her hair up (what remained of it, anyway) with glittery pins and silken scrunchies. Margaret had never understood either of her sisters, and her sisters didn’t understand her. (Privately, both Mave and Mauve were persuaded that Margaret was not one of the triplets after all, though each had a different and very specific theory about this.) Each of the sisters provided the town with roughly the same types of decorations for the cloud festival: sparkly streamers, shimmery bunting, face paint, centerpieces, baubles in every imaginable shade of violet, lilac, periwinkle, plum, pomegranate, and lavender. Each sister thought they sold the best decorations. (Each sister bought from exactly the same supplier.)

Another form that the town’s celebrations took was their choice of baked goods. The bakery at the center of the village, which was run by Robert, a widower, and Amelia, his ten-year-old daughter, made scrumptious purple-icened lavender-flavored mini cupcakes that the town anticipated with watering mouths for the whole year. The duo never shared their recipe, and no one ever asked for it, knowing that it was their special treat. (Maeve had once come close to attempting a copycat, but her sisters shot her down, a fact over which she was still annoyed.)

On the day that the cupcakes were to be sold, a bright Saturday morning, Amelia opened the back drawer in the storage room and pulled out the sign that would tell the townspeople that the cupcakes were ready: a metal plaque, about ten inches across, in the shape of a cloud. It was a gentle lilac color, hand-painted, and it read, simply, “Lavender Cloud Cupcakes: $1 Each.” Robert gazed at the plaque with fondness (for his late wife had made it) as Amelia dusted it off and carried it to the front of the store. “We might have to change those prices soon,” he sighed, thinking of how fewer people seemed to be coming through the town now, and how expensive everything was these days. But Amelia hadn’t heard him; she was already putting the purple cloud in the window, and there was already a line.

Amelia opened the door, and a stream of customers came pouring in. Most of them were locals, Amelia noticed: Mrs. Martinez, her English teacher, wearing a sparkly purple headband; Doug the bus driver, wearing a thick jacket despite the surprisingly warm morning; Mr. Xu and Ms. Shen, their next door neighbors who so loved the bakery’s cupcakes that Robert always had to set aside an extra dozen just for them. Each of the bakery’s patrons greeted Amelia with a smile, asking after her father, and how her weekend was, and what stories she was working on that day (for Amelia was a writer and had already published several short stories in local and statewide magazines). Amelia answered them pleasantly, confidently, seeming much older than her ten years, her green eyes flashing, her fingers twirling in the end of her dark brown ponytail as she talked.

“How many you got today, Rob?” asked Doug, approaching the counter and pulling out his wallet from one of the interminable-seeming pockets of his thick overcoat.

Robert eyed the pans of cupcakes on the counters. “About a hundred today, it looks like.”

“You always sell out so fast on the first day, right?” Doug grinned. “I’ll take a dozen.”

Robert selected twelve little muffins—purple, fluffy, dusted with a shimmery finish—and placed them in a box, sealed it with a sticker bearing the bakery’s logo, and handed the container over to the smiling customer.

“Yeah, we usually sell out,” he replied as he worked the register, “but it’s not looking too good this year, if I’m being honest.” Tap, tap, tap. “That’ll be $12.76.”

“Not a whole lot of out of towners anymore, are there?” Doug handed over a 20-dollar bill. “Keep the change, Rob. Those cupcakes make this town go round.”

Robert smiled gratefully. “That’s good of you, Doug. Thanks. See you later.”

The stream of cupcake-buying customers continued until it dwindled in mid-morning. There was no one there that Amelia didn’t recognize. Though she was young, she remembered the days when people would pour into the town for the Cloud Festival. They used to make cupcakes by the hundreds—and they would still sell out. Then again, today was only the first day. You never knew what wonders would happen during this week.

While Amelia was mulling this over in the bakery, two blocks down, Mallory was looking out the window of Swept Away. It wasn’t a big shop, but it was a good one, or at least, if you asked Mallory, that’s what he would tell you. Purple garments hung from six tastefully arranged racks on the different walls of the room in between potted plants, Van Gogh prints, and ships in bottles—a small sampling of Mallory’s extensive collection. In the middle of the room, a table with raised wooden displays sported purple bow ties, headbands, scrunchies, and bags made with fabric remnants. On the racks were suits, jackets, shirts, and dresses. The dresses were Mallory’s favorite to sew, and sometimes to wear. On this day, though, he was sporting his favorite suit, which was a deep lavender color with white pinstripes, with a cloud-shaped pin made from dyed cotton—specially made for the occasion. He’d painted his nails and dyed his voluminous white-blond hair an almost-matching shade of purple, as he always did for the Festival, and he was pleased with how both had turned out.

Too bad no one had seen any of it yet. He had been open for several hours, and apart from the mail carrier delivering fabric, no one had stopped in. He’d had a somewhat steady flow of customers recently, but nothing compared to the old days. And an empty store on the first day of the Festival? That was concerning indeed. Mallory stood beside the window, facing the street. There were people walking around, but not exactly crowds.

Then, as he watched, a family passed the window. It was a couple who looked to be in their late thirties, smiling, and a girl who seemed about ten or eleven—maybe about Amelia’s age—and who looked vaguely familiar. The girl was gesturing towards Swept Away. The parents acquiesced, and they opened the door. A bell tinkled. The family walked in.

“Hi, welcome in,” Mallory gushed, trying without success not to be too enthusiastic at the first visitors of the day. “How are you all doing today?”

“Great!” the girl answered immediately. Her dark eyes were bright with excitement as she burst into her introduction. “I’m Rebecca. I’m Amelia’s best friend. Do you know Amelia? She told me about this place. And I want a purple dress.”

Mallory laughed. That was it; that’s how he knew this girl. Amelia had met Rebecca at camp the previous year, and her family had come to visit once or twice. “Yes, I know Amelia. And she has great taste. I think I might have the perfect dress for you.”

Mallory glanced towards the parents and winked. They smiled appreciatively.

Mallory led Rebecca towards the children’s section. He gingerly sorted through the garments, appreciating the slide of the fabric against his fingertips. He located the dress he had in mind and lifted the wooden hanger off the rack. It was Cloud Purple, of course, with short sleeves and a rounded collar, gathered at the waist, with a full skirt that had deep pockets on either side.

Rebecca gasped, her mouth hanging open in a perfect, unabashed O. When the gasp had run its course, she gushed, “I love that. It’s perfect. How did you know?”

Mallory grinned. “I have a knack for this. Do you want to try it on, just to be sure?” He held the dress up to the girl, ascertaining, though he already knew it would fit perfectly. She took the dress from his hands and he showed her to the changing room—two purple curtains arranged in the back corner of the shop.

Moments later, Rebecca emerged, squealing with delight. She plunged her hands deep into the large pockets and spun in a circle, the fabric swishing gracefully around her.

“Honey, you look so beautiful!” the father exclaimed.

“That’s the one,” the mother agreed. She turned to Mallory. “You made all these clothes?”

Mallory nodded.

“This is amazing. I can’t believe we haven’t been here before. You do beautiful work.”

Mallory thanked her, bowing imperceptibly, and rang up the purchase at the register. He asked the family how long they were in town for.

“We’re staying for the whole week,” the father replied. “Amelia convinced Rebecca that she just had to see the festival. We’re staying with Amelia and Robert.” He paused. “It’s not as crowded as we thought it would be.”

“No,” Mallory replied, sighing. “We’ve noticed that too.” He looked down at Rebecca and beamed. “But we’re glad you’re here.”

“I am too!” Rebecca replied, twirling, the skirt floating around her. “I love my dress! It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever had! It’s the best dress ever! Thank you! Bye!”

Mallory watched amusedly as they walked out the shop and onto the street. Rebecca twirled and twirled in a purple blur while her parents patiently shepherded her onward down the sidewalk. He smiled.

On the other side of the block, in the building that was an office supply store, a card shop, and a party outlet, Maeve, Mauve, and Margaret were bickering. Well, more accurately, Maeve and Mauve were bickering, and Margaret was doing a crossword puzzle on an upside-down newspaper.

“Why do you have to buy so much crap?” Maeve whinged accusingly, rifling through the box next to the cash register of the office supply portion of the store. “You know not as many people come to the festival these days. And why haven’t you even bothered to put all this junk out yet? It’s making the place look like a dump.”

Mauve rolled her eyes. “Oh, you’re one to talk. Who do you think is going to buy metallic purple streamers? Stupid. You don’t have the sense that God gave a golf ball.” As she spoke, she unrolled a metallic purple streamer and prepared to tack it to the front of the counter beneath the elderly register.

Margaret let out a theatrical sigh. She tapped her pencil against her teeth. “‘Dog’s outfit.’ Three letters.”

“No one cares about your stupid crossword, Margaret,” Maeve seethed. “We’re having a serious discussion here. And your newspaper is upside down.”

“It helps me think better,” Margaret replied dreamily.

Mauve thought for a moment. “Fur.”

Margaret beamed. “That’s it! I was thinking ‘shirt.’”

“That’s five letters, idiot.” Maeve snorted.

“Humm,” Margaret hummed. “Not if you have an imagination.”

Mauve finished unrolling the streamer and started attaching it to the counter. Maeve noticed this and scoffed. “You do realize that you have exactly the same streamers as me. You’re a raging hypocrite.”

Mauve was about to reply, but a family walked in the door. A father, a mother, and a girl who seemed extremely excited about the new purple dress that Maeve, Mauve, and Margaret immediately knew came from Swept Away. Thinking of Mallory, and seeing the girl’s joy, they all softened.

“Welcome in!” Margaret said, looking up from her upside-down crossword and grinning a gap-toothed smile. “Can I help you? This shop is where the party is!” She threw her arms wide, dropping the newspaper in the process.

“Maybe you’re looking for office supplies?” Mauve asked helpfully.

“Or postcards?” Maeve interjected.

“We have streamers!” Margaret exclaimed.

“Yes, and mine are the best,” Mauve said, waving the purple streamer still in her hand.

“But mine are half the price,” Maeve retorted.

“No they’re not,” Margaret replied, and a look of genuine puzzlement settled between her surprisingly thick eyebrows.

“Shut up, Margaret. Go back to your crossword.”

The sisters became aware that the family was staring at them, each wearing an expression that suggested that they rather regretted the decision to step into this particular shop. Only the girl didn’t look concerned, merely genuinely confused.

“Are you triplets?” Rebecca asked, cocking her head.

“Yes!” Margaret answered cheerfully at the same time that both Maeve and Mauve said, “Supposedly.”

Rebecca giggled. “I don’t have any siblings. So I don’t know what it’s like. But my friends who have siblings have silly fights like you guys. So I think you’re probably sisters.”

The triplets were stunned into silence, which lasted while Rebecca walked to the card section, the party section, and the office section in succession, picking up a bag of purple streamers, a purple face paint set, and a pack of ten purple paper crowns, respectively.

“This will be perfect for tonight!” she said, turning to her parents, holding her treasures, and grinning entreatingly. The parents looked at each other with a look that said, That’s our kid, paid for the items at their respective vendors’ registers, and thanked the sisters before leaving the shop.

Maeve, Mauve, and Margaret still hadn’t said anything. They looked at each other in a stupefied silence.

Then Maeve said, “You know, Mauve? That streamer actually looks really nice.”

By Philip Myrtorp on Unsplash

No one knows when the clouds came to town. But no one really bothered to look into the history, to be fair. There was an annual celebration, and the town turned purple, and every night, the peaceful dancers leapt across the sky.

Amelia eyed the horizon as she flipped the shop’s sign to “closed.”

“Okay, Dad!” she called. “Shop is closed!”

Robert was in the back room counting the cash from the day and checking the sales report on the computer. “Okay, sweetie!” he called, finishing up his second review. It wasn’t earth-shattering. They’d made slightly less than opening day the previous two years. Mr. Xu and Mrs. Shen had collected their dozen along with a surprise extra twelve—their daughters were home from college—and Doug’s tip and the enthusiasm of the locals helped. But there really had not been that many out-of-towners—except, of course, for the Stevensons, their friends who were here for the week, who were now sitting at a table near the door. Amelia went to join them as she waited for her father to finish up his work.

Rebecca was bouncing in her seat next to Abby, her mother. Rebecca was smoothing her hands over the contours of her new purple dress. Just as Amelia was about to suggest that she and Rebecca go outside to play in the alley next to the bakery, Robert emerged from the back room, turning off lights as he came.

“I hope this isn’t too much on you, Rob,” Rebecca’s father, Joe, said with concern in his voice as he stood up. Abby, Rebecca, and Amelia followed suit. “We know this is a busy week for you.”

Robert waved his hand as if swatting away a gnat. “We’re thrilled you’re here. Let’s get ready for the festival!”

The five of them walked out of the bakery. Robert locked up, then rapped gently on the door with his knuckles for luck like he always did, saying, “See you tomorrow, old friend.” The little building seemed to glow more warmly after he did it. It was only 6:00 PM, but the sky was already beginning its transition into a lavender shade, a portent of the majesty that was to come.

Robert and Amelia’s house was small but cozy; it had been built during the 1920s, and its wood floors had what Amelia liked to describe as “that perfect creek.” She loved the shiny polish of them, the groan under her feet in the morning. She loved the fireplace, too, and the rag rug in front of it. Both were in the front room, which was now illuminated with purple twinkle lights, a plate full of shimmery mini cupcakes, and, thanks to Rebecca, shiny purple streamers. Rebecca had also insisted on painting purple clouds onto each of their cheeks, and so Abby, Joe, Robert, Rebecca, and Amelia now had prominent periwinkle cumulonimbi on their grinning faces—as well as purple paper crowns on their heads.

“It’s 11:30!” Robert said with a start, realizing that he had gotten too comfortable in his armchair. Amelia had noticed that his head was lolling backwards, his crown falling off his head, his half-silver, half-black hair (now getting quite long, she noted) splaying out like a halo, but she hadn’t wanted to wake him yet. They all stood up, bundled up in coats and blankets, and walked outside into the front yard.

It was dark as they emerged from the house, and yet it was not. There was a kind of twinge of gentle light on the horizon that had not been there before. People were already set up on the sidewalks, in the streets, on their porches and in their yards. It was chilly now that it was dark, but that wasn’t deterring anyone. They were wrapped up in their coats and blankets, with their purple hats and headbands and dresses and boots. Robert chatted with Mr. Xu and Mrs. Shen and their daughters, the eldest of whom had come home every year from college for the event, and the youngest of whom, a freshman, was returning for the first time. Doug was across the street, too, and he waved at Amelia. She could see that he had the box of cupcakes in his hand, and she smiled back at him, thinking about the number he had probably eaten already today. Mallory, who lived on the other side of the street next to Doug, waved at Amelia and sent Rebecca a purple-polished thumbs-up.

“Amelia,” Rebecca said, shifting her gaze to the sky as if trying to be the first to see the dance. “Tell me about the clouds. What do they do? What is their dance like?”

Amelia grinned. “You’ll see.”

It was 11:45, then 11:50. Each moment brought with it a more pronounced hush and a brighter glow in the sky. The stars were still visible, but the backdrop was fading, becoming less black and more gray, and then a lavender color, and then it was midnight, and the clouds emerged.

They sauntered slowly into the sky, coalescing into voluptuous shapes on the stroke of midnight. A sigh went through the crowd. Everyone applauded, and the clouds seemed to bow appreciatively. They started as one mass, one thick, puffy purple bank, and then, without fanfare or drama, they split. There was no moment of separation; they simply were one cloud, and then they were multiple. They started slowly, moving in a circle across the sky, close to the horizon. And then they sped up, kicking and twirling and waving their misty limbs in unison.

Amelia looked at Rebecca. For once, the dark-eyed girl was speechless. She stared upwards with her mouth open, hands dropping to her sides. Amelia grinned, then squeezed her hand.

The town was silent. There was no music, and yet there was; and yet, there did not need to be. The clouds were music and dance, blushing magenta light and robust plum darkness. Their rich, unhurried forms gallivanted around the vault of the heavens. Time continued, and yet it stopped. The past came out to play with the present and the future. It was all happening, and yet it was not, and the people watched. They knew anything could happen this week. They knew that all bets were off, blown away with the periwinkle breeze, time as gentle and as fleeting as a whisper. And as they stood there, eyes locked on the dancers, they heard—or saw, or felt, or tasted, or touched—a palpable, infinite awe.

Thank you for reading Chapter 1 of The Cloud Festival. Stay tuned for Chapter 2!


About the Creator

Sarahmarie Specht-Bird

A writer, teacher, traveler, and long-distance hiker in pursuit of a life that blends them all. Read trail dispatches and adventure stories at my website.

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