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The Young Cloudmaker

by Hayleigh Santra

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


I arrived at the hot springs ten minutes before noon. I try to be on time for things. Ms. Buckenfelt invited me in for tea. There was no need to stoop when I parted the front flaps of her tent. The ceiling was supported by fifteen-foot tall bamboo poles, and the walls were adorned with paintings in ornate golden frames.

We relaxed at her dining table, and she pushed a book across to me, which was as thick as two volumes of an encyclopedia. A Short History of Watermaking, by Lulina Pewan. The leather cover was torn and frayed and stained. She’d drawn silly things all over the outside of the tome, e.g. an elephant holding a balloon with his trunk, and a clock talking to the moon. I flipped through. Other than the highlights and the dog-eared corners and the coffee stains, the pages were intact and bright white.

Ms. Buckenfelt told me about how depressed she’d felt when she first began experimenting with water, because she’d failed at conjuring clouds. I rested my chin on both hands and cocked my right ear towards her.

Back at my campsite, I sprawled on my sleeping bag and dove into Ms. Buckenfelt’s book. It was like dipping my toe into the ocean. I recorded each word I didn’t know and each person I’d never heard of.

“Allweather, Albra,” for example. She was the first to combine the method for making the water found in cucumbers with the method for building the spray from an orange to result, rather surprisingly, in the moisture left on one’s stomach after a raspberry has been given by a loved one.

That led me to an article written on the accomplishments of Min Wan, who improved on the wetness remaining on one’s lips after kissing a resentful and needy lover. Min Wan had hundreds of lovers in her lifetime, and extensively studied each kiss. I read until my eyes mutinied.

The next day I decided to make a stone for Ms. Buckenfelt to thank her for her kindness. I didn’t have my normal tools with me, or the supplies I kept in my workshop back home, so I improvised. I borrowed some salad tongs from the guys at the hotel and used those instead of pliers. I spent a day gathering and stacking wood to create a bonfire that would generate enough heat, since I didn’t have my brick oven. I taped toothpicks together in place of a proper stainless steel rod to hold the shape.

It felt like I was eight years old again, messing around in the kitchen with my brother. While I was kneading the sediments, I added memories of skipping stones on the river, and storing rocks for my collection in an old cigar box, and examining soil with a magnifying glass. I added the time my brother stuffed a pebble in my ear. I added the smell of my father’s coat, of dust and dirt and ash. At the end of three days, I realized my armpits stank, and there was only one oatmeal packet left in my plastic food bag, and I’d had fun.

The resulting stone was reddish-gray with a smooth exterior that was mottled with brown spots. I wrote a thank-you note to Ms. Buckenfelt, and attached it to the rock with a dark green ribbon, and left it at the opening of her tent.

Building the rock inspired some ideas for clouds that I wanted to see but were not in the sky, so I sketched those. Then I tore those pages out and sketched them again, improving on the first iterations. I traveled to the market and talked to Lewan about the different types of dust particles and their sources. I researched methods for combining the dust particles with the water crystals. The Internet recommended using a cast-iron cauldron, but I settled for a plastic bucket on sale at the market. I wasn’t trying to be Sofia Galleta after all. This was my first cloud.

Lewan advised me on the best type of net to use for attracting suitable dust particles.

“Since you’re a beginner,” he said, “the easiest way is to pick a spot where you feel most light, settle the net on the ground, and maneuver it around the dust when it streams in.”

“Where I feel most light?”

He nodded.

I rubbed the side of my shoe against the tile floor.

For the first few days, I brought the net everywhere. When I brushed my teeth at the lake, I positioned the net a few feet off the trail and waited. Only a few particles streamed in, and they were so tattered that they were unusable. During my afternoon hike, I laid the net on the sunniest spot on the mountain. I caught one particle. Before I climbed into my sleeping bag, I balanced the net on my favorite log, where I usually perched to observe the fire. In the morning, I’d lost the one particle that I’d caught. I flung the net at the side of my tent and decided to take a break from particle-catching for a while.

My sketches became more bizarre. I created a cirrocumulus that looked like a demented rabbit. I sketched a stratocumulus with a dragon head and a butterfly body. I drew a stratus that looked like a taxi with a tulip on its roof that was the size of a redwood.

Since I ran out of paper on my sketchpad, I bought another one, and I ran out of paper in that one too, so I bought another one, and I also began hoarding napkins from the hotel so that I could sketch on those too.

For several days, my net lay dormant at the spot it had fallen after ricocheting off the side of my tent. At night, when I tired of reading about famous watermakers, I stared at the sky through the mesh screen and replayed the conversation with the young, successful cloudmaker and how he said maybe I could do it. I thought that’s what I remembered him saying, anyway.

Fellow campers passed around a rumor about a meteor shower, and I climbed up to the boulder after sunset. It rained stars. I hung my head back and giggled, and then ran down to my campsite to retrieve my net. I positioned it on top of the giant rock, and then sat cross-legged and gawked at it.

Nothing happened. I waited a half-hour, and then an hour, and then two, and eventually I fell asleep with my head enveloped by the web of the net. In the morning, I had no particles.

With sunken shoulders, I went back to the market.

“What’s the reason for the return?” Lewan said.

“It’s broken. I didn’t catch one particle.”

“You don’t have a receipt.”

I clenched my fists and my voice grew high. “You sold it to me.”

“Give yourself room. We can’t take it back.”

“I need to speak to the manager.”

Lewan put one hand on his belly while he chuckled. “I own the place,” he said. “Now get out, you’re holding up the line.”

I cursed Lewan and slammed the net against the tile. I smashed it against every rock and stick and tree I passed while stomping back to my campsite, denting the rim all the way around.

In front of my tent, I chucked the net as hard and as high as I could. It landed in a tree about twenty feet from the fire pit. A group of birds scattered at the impact.

I paced around the mountain for miles, until I found myself back at the hot springs. I slouched on a log near the spot where Ms. Buckenfelt’s tent used to be and considered other things I could do. I remembered liking plantmaking in high school. Maybe that was more of a natural fit, plants growing from the Earth and all.

The wind picked up, and I watched the ripples on the surface of the hot springs, and noted the beauty in the steam coming off the water. For some reason, and only because no one else was around, I took off my clothes and plunged into the hot springs naked. I felt the water hug my skin and absorb my sweat.

I dove down, opening my eyes so that the minerals stung. I dug into the sediment at the bottom. The callouses and scars on my hands, from years of rockmaking, shone in the dimness. I clutched the mud and then opened my palms, watching it disperse.

When I returned to my campsite after dark, I climbed the tree and liberated my net. It had a few particles in it. They were frayed and dingy, but I decided to work with them anyway.

Instead of sleeping, I donned my headlamp and placed my bucket near the fire. I scaled the tree again to pull five feathers from an abandoned bird’s nest. I searched through my bag to find the small bottle of water crystals I’d bought during my first days on Mt. Tokachi, when my optimism was blinding. I shaved off some of the trunk of a birch tree for a little color. I used a feather to stir the concoction according to the directions that I’d looked up on my phone.

Per instruction, after several hours of stirring with the first feather, I added that tired feather to the mixture and then picked up the next one. By noon the next day, I was so exhausted that my head drooped until it was almost inside the bucket. I added the last plume.

Something clicked, like there was a picture being taken very far away, and then a puff of a cloud rose up. The puff didn’t look anything like my sketches. It looked like how motor exhaust is depicted in cartoons. My cloud existed for four and a half seconds before it dissipated.

No one called to congratulate me.

I slipped into my sleeping bag, rubbed my fingernails against my nose, and thought about where I could get more feathers.

I am still working through A Short History, and the amount of information that I don’t know continues to be overwhelming. For example, I’ve been trying to understand Willhelm Gurbull’s method for creating the spray that soaks a person’s face while she’s sitting on the bow of a sailboat. Personally, I think Gurbull’s method is a little overrated, although he is, of course, a genius, but his protege Spier Zhagoson is really the one who perfected the technique. At least that’s what I read in Spike Rosenthal’s Watermakers of the Last Millennium: An Overview.

According to a photo I’ve seen in social media, the young cloudmaker is at Big Sur presenting a talk on “The Lipschitz Brothers: The Spaces Between Clouds and Fog.” Sometimes I fantasize about running into him. I imagine that we’ll be sitting beside each other on a boulder, and he will comment on the craftsmanship behind the froth on a dog’s muzzle or the sweat on the outside of a water bottle or the dew on the petal of a wildflower. He will connect it to some larger watermaking movement from the thirteenth century that I’ve never heard of.

“Oh?” I will say. “How interesting. Tell me more.”

Copyright © 2017 by Hayleigh Santra

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