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The Young Cloudmaker

by Hayleigh Santra

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

Did you know that in 1735, Penelope Zamatuba invented a new way of creating the teardrop that sticks to a toddler’s eyelashes? In the Zamatuba method, the watermaker whips the hydrogen with the feather of a male golden pheasant at the same time that she adds oxygen. This creates just the right amount of texture for the drop to adhere to the eyelash even if the toddler becomes distracted and starts giggling.

These are the things I am learning.

Let me back up.

Ever since I took my first plane ride when I was seven years old, I have wanted to be a cloudmaker. I was flying to Belize to visit my grandmother, who had retired there for the weather.

The plane had eight seats. It was a full flight, and the pilot asked if I wanted to ride up front with her. I did. We flew through a batch of cumulus, although I didn’t know that classification at the time, and I couldn’t stop staring at those fluffy pillows. It was not an intellectual thing. The sky looked like a giant blue bed with a lavish white down comforter that I wanted to jump on. That was my first taste.

When I was nine, Mrs. Pickens taught a workshop on cloudmaking — public schools used to host things like that — and I made some small clouds that had a blue-gray glint and purple accents. I remember coming up with the purple at the last minute, right before the bell rang. I’m sure they weren’t the best clouds, but afterward Mrs. Pickens pulled me and Tasha Jones aside and said we were talented. She made a big deal about it, saying that we could make clouds if we wanted. I remember giggling in response.

I come from a family of rockmakers. My grandfather’s father was a rockmaker, and his father before that, if that tells you anything. So I started making rocks instead, which sounds worse than it is.

There is a lot of variety to rockmaking that people don’t realize. One can specialize in creating those spotted pebbles found on the beaches in Maine, for example. Or the boulders dotting the desert landscape of Arizona and New Mexico, with their chalky, monumental layers. There is a solidity and a nostalgia that I like. Rocks are like timekeepers. Reliable.

Clouds are another thing altogether. You can’t count on a cloud. They slip in and out with the weather and, even when you can see them, they’ll flow right through your hand. They are a lesson in letting go.

I made rocks for several years, starting with gravel and eventually graduating to boulders. Monstrous, elegant things a sculptor would love to get her hands on. But after working on boulders for some time, I became restless. I couldn’t concentrate. While I was supposed to be layering the minerals for limestone or monitoring the pressure and heat of gneiss, I’d stare up at the sky and examine the long wisps of a cirrus, say, or the surprising girth of a cumulonimbus. My boss would come by my workshop and ask, “How’s the order coming, Sam?” I’d have to snap myself out of it in order to meet my deadlines.

I wanted to bring the rain and hide the moon and show the wind passing. I walked away from rockmaking and wandered the desert for a while. While the desert is an excellent inspiration to a rockmaker, it leaves a lot to be desired for clouds. Luckily, I met another cloudmaking enthusiast who told me about the unkai, or sea of clouds, that appears in Japan. Taking her advice, I traveled to Hokkaido to study the forms that appear there.

On my first day in the area, while setting up my campsite on Mt. Tokachi, I happened upon an up-and-coming cloudmaker. He was not yet a household name but on the verge of becoming one. We both erected our campsites within fifty feet of a hospitable boulder, which created a nice perch for cloudgazing. We climbed onto the boulder at the same time — me with my pencil and sketchpad and him with his digital binoculars that sent data to his laboratory.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” I said.

We shared the boulder. We talked a bit. He was on a year-long expedition to examine as many different types of clouds as he could, with the goal of making his own creations richer.

We had a way of communicating without words. At points, it seemed like he could read my mind. At other points, I knew what he was thinking from the way he scratched his neck, or blinked, or wiggled his toes. There were things we understood about each other, although we came from different backgrounds. His parents were cloudmakers, and their parents before them.

We lay on the massive rock with our hands behind our heads and discussed features of the clouds we admired. I’m sure I was obnoxious because I really didn’t know anything about cloudmaking, other than that it was consuming me, and I couldn’t help but ask him question after question.

“So how do you make shades of blue at the top turn to pink at the bottom?” I asked.

“And how do you make the divots of varying depths from the valleys?”

“And where do you find the dust particles for that golden color during sunrise?”

This is very simple stuff. The answers are easily found on Google, or in one of those Cloudmaking for Dummies books.

But the cloudmaker was patient and answered me. He seemed to be amused or pleased, I couldn’t tell for sure. Eventually, he said he had to make a phone call, and he jumped down from the boulder.

After my back complained about the stiff rock, I holed up in my tent and researched the young cloudmaker on my phone. His clouds were interesting and upbeat and beautiful. The cumulus had a soft, puffy texture, just like the ones I had wanted to jump on as a kid. His stratus were not too grandiose, and his storm clouds were not depressing or ominous, which is difficult to pull off. Most cloudmakers jump to ominous right off the bat. His clouds were something like what I was striving for, although I really didn’t know. Cloudmaking is such a personal, finicky business.

The next night the young cloudmaker and I met again, on the same boulder.

We shared details about our childhoods and things that disappointed us and television shows that we were into at the time. He told me about his younger sister who married a person who mistreated her.

“That must be hard,” I said.

“It keeps me up at night,” he said.

I told him about the pressure I had felt to become a rockmaker, and how rockmaking was all right but maybe not the best fit for me.

“Changing course at this point in your life must be scary.”

“Part of me wishes that I didn’t have any pull towards cloudmaking at all.”

We leaned our backs against each other; he, collecting accurate data points and I, sketching haphazardly in my notepad.

“How do you get the blurriness at the top?”

“It takes years of practice,” he said. “Some people shave off slivers of moonlight to achieve the right hue.”

Hearing that, I became depressed and down on myself and wondered aloud if I should return to erecting rocks.

“You could,” said the cloudmaker. “It’s certainly easier.”

I stared at my feet. That was not what I wanted to hear.

When I stumbled back to my tent, just before the birds started up, I wrote letters to the cloudmaker that I didn’t intend to send. They were angry, despondent letters accusing the cloudmaker of not being very encouraging. I fell asleep among crumpled pages.

When I awoke, the inside of my sleeping bag clung to my skin. I felt better. I realized it didn’t matter what the cloudmaker said. I was intent on building clouds. It was not entirely within my control.

I noticed the unkai rolling in, and I scrambled for my sketchpad. The clouds were very blue, with notes of green and gray and yellow, and they scattered like the petals of cherry blossoms raining down in a park on a windy day. Some were taller than the others, and they reminded me of boulders in the desert.

I frantically scrawled with my colored pencils before the shapes disappeared. I catalogued several different cloud features that I had never witnessed before. After sketching, I stood tall and raised my arms toward the sky in a pose that I had seen once in a yoga class. I thanked the clouds for passing and the sun for rising and my sketchpad for existing.

At night, the cloudmaker perched on the boulder again, and he seemed pleased to see me. He offered a little more encouragement. He said maybe I had the internal fortitude necessary to create the fluffy bastards. In the moment, I did not say thank you, though now I wish I had. I did not compliment the cloudmaker on his work, though I had seen and admired it. Instead, I rambled about how imposing and intricate my boulders were.

“Tourists travel from all over the States, and sometimes from outside the country, to pose next to my boulders,” I said. I don’t know why I said this. It’s true, I was on my way to becoming a skilled rockmaker when I quit, but no one traveled specifically to view my boulders. If they posed next to them, it was because they happened to see them on their way to somewhere else.

The cloudmaker nodded and gazed at me out of the corner of his eye. “I’ll have to visit them.”

We felt droplets pelt our skin. The rain made little tap-tap sounds as it struck the rock. At first the water fell in starts and fits, and then it grew more focused and intent. Neither of us moved. The cloudmaker raised his head toward the moon and laughed. Little rivers ran down his face.

I took my cue from him and. instead of ducking for cover as I usually would, I tilted my head back and opened my mouth and let the water soak my lips. The storm passed after a short time, and we stared down at our darkened clothes. I shifted my weight and shook the water from my hair.

The cloudmaker examined a droplet resting on the back of his hand. “How wonderful that the watermaker decided to use a hint of diamond in this one. It evidences a delight that he sees in the world around him.”

“Uh-huh.” I furrowed my brow.

I had never thought about water in that way before. I mean, sure, I took Watermaking Appreciation along with everyone else, as an elective. But I forgot everything as soon as the exam was over. I’d enjoyed water in the normal ways. I’d lingered at the bottom of a pool, marveling at my weightlessness and the muffled noises and the sense that time had stopped, or at least slowed. I’d stood for far too long in the shower, cherishing the warmth and forgiveness and sense of renewal. I’d stopped in the park near my house to observe the flowers and trees perk up after a long, slow rain.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2017 by Hayleigh Santra

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