Serendipity - Cloud Harvest by Mark Howard Jones

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Cloud Harvest
by Mark Howard Jones

Suddenly all the clouds I'd harvested during my life were there in the room with me. The breath of the heavens, clinging to the walls and ceiling, crowding in on me. Silent and reproachful. To exist they will rob me of my air, I know it. They hang there like threatening memories, their insubstantial forms pushing and moving and somehow growing. They've been with me since my childhood but this time it's different. I look down, hoping to escape seeing them; out of sight, out of mind. But a soft mist is beginning to creep across the floor, too. The door is only two steps away, I think. And, yes, I could simply go through, shut it behind me and lock the floating fear inside. But that would only be a temporary respite. They would be back, later today or tomorrow. Next time it might be in public, or while I slept. I don't know which would be worst. I don't know where the best place to die would be.

There are broken days now, stuck between the annoyance of a fresh morning and the dark lure of night, when my memory fails to fail me and I can remember her. Too many days like that, now.

It was a purely private love affair totally unrelated to the crimes with which he was charged. This was a lie her husband told himself often, I believed. Maybe it was the only way he could carry on. Yet he was still absent; segregated from the world in which she and I lived, at liberty. Steel bars kept him out of my hair. We met in the street. For the first time, I mean. Our first meeting was like a scene from an old Cricklewood film. Corny, really, when I think back on it. She'd been out shopping and was carrying home a stack of boxes that blocked her view. I'd just been to buy the most absorbent newspaper I could find, and was waiting to cross the road, when I saw the boxes wobbling towards me. A trolleybus turned the nearby corner and clanged its bell loudly. Rushing to get out of the way and finding her shoe caught in the track, she tilted forward, tipping herself and her tower of boxes onto the pavement at my feet. At once she pulled herself together and began to apologise, scrabbling at the topmost package which was feebly tied with string and now had a large blue hole in it. Two small, winged creatures were struggling free from it, unpicking the knots and wriggling to be free. Peserichens, I realised. "Let me give you some hands with that," I'd said, kneeling to help her. Two were all I'd needed after all and soon the package was back together again, after a fashion. I gallantly said I'd get her shoe for her. Glancing to my right to ensure no trolleybus was near, I stepped out onto the road to retrieve her delicate tricorn shoe. It was stuck in the groove of the rail and I had to tug at it to get it free. It had been cut almost in two by the vehicle's steel wheels; the soft leather sliced through, the satin torn and dirty with two of the delicate bone buttons missing. I held it in my hand and gasped with a suppressed erotic delight when I realised how tiny her feet must be. My suggestion that we take tea at a nearby cafe that I knew was as much for my benefit as for hers. She leaned on me and hopped the short distance to the establishment, a tower of parcels balanced delicately in front of us. Once inside, I tossed my aftercoat over hers in a display of open erotic bravado. She merely smiled and lowered her eyes as we took our seats. After some self-deprecating comments about how much she had bought today, our tea arrived and we began to talk. Meanwhile, one of her parcels began to move across the table as her Peserichens sought freedom. A questing hoof poked through the paper at one side while the edge of a wing appeared just under the flap at the top of the parcel. I intercepted the mobile package and was given a sharp nip for my troubles. This both amused and appalled her and I allowed her to bandage my hand with her handkerchief, despite the lack of blood or any obvious injury. By the time we were on our second pot of tea, she was chatting away openly about quite private things: I remembered to smile often and feign interest. It was only when she mentioned a husband and noticed the perturbed look on my face that things took a turn for the worse. She began to weep quietly while speaking about him, her small dark eyes filling with tears. Because of the nature of his crime she was not allowed to visit him and his letters had become infrequent, their contents confused. I reached across and placed my hand reassuringly on her arm, all the while harbouring thoughts of her slumped across my bed in exhaustion following the successful completion of my erotic ministrations. As the afternoon light began to fade, I called her a cab and reassured her that she had found a friend. I promised to keep in touch. Yes, it should have been in black-and-white but it was mainly in subtle shades of dust and smiles and loneliness.

By now there were armed men on the streets. It was impossible, and unwise, to determine which faction they represented but always best to appear happy at their presence, whenever they were nearby. During our third meeting, at a little restaurant overlooking the submersible station, I suggested that she get out of the city as soon as she could. She immediately told me of her parents' old house in a village some miles away, near the frost forest. It had been empty for the past three years and she confessed she never visited it as often as she felt she should. It seemed ideal. I said I would accompany her, for her own safety, and that we should leave the next day. To escape the best of the violence, we waited until dusk and travelled in my cousin's borrowed armoured car (an ex-Colonial Services model with five skis). We played palliative music through the two external loudspeakers in order to placate any armed gangs we might encounter and, even though we had used the more roundabout and less well used roads, we reached the house shortly after midnight. It was agreed that I should stay overnight in a spare room and return to the city the next day.

The house rambled pleasantly into two wings. I noticed that she placed me in a room that was in a separate wing to where she herself slept. After a breakfast of whatever was left in the cupboards and some very old-tasting tea, she showed me around. Besides the living and sleeping quarters, mainly furnished in an uncomfortable style 30 years out of date, there was a large wine cellar with a good stock. Her father, an engineer of some sort, had also ingeniously supplied the house with a food cellar that was cooled entirely by a stream flowing down from the frost forest. There, below the house, were two large open pits. One contained frozen fish while the other was filled with neatly cut joints of meat. "So you see, we'd never starve," she giggled. I smiled and nodded. I soon remembered that I had to get back to the city. I suggested, however, that I should return to stay at the house that evening, for her protection. She smiled, lowered her head and I heard a whispered 'Thank you'. The journey to and from the city was becoming increasingly hazardous. When I arrived the fighting was just two streets from my apartment. I gathered some clothes, a handful of entertaining books and some money, and sped back to her as fast as I could.

We spent our time lying in the field behind her house and letting the sky fall into our open eyes, harvesting clouds with our gaze. It had always been one of my favourite pastimes since childhood and I was pleased to introduce her to it. At night when I was sure she was asleep, I would surreptitiously move my few belongings to a room that was nearer to hers. By doing this one room at a time, I hoped to avoid any suspicion on her part. Photographs of her husband were everywhere and he was her constant topic of conversation. I began to find it wearing. The only time she relaxed this rule was when we were in the field, gazing upwards together.

In a time of intellectual and spiritual pestilences, the soul plague was the worst. It stole your most intimate moments and printed them up as someone else's novel, distributing it free on the street corners of the dirtier, angrier parts of your home town. Flights of Peserichens, broken free or released by panicking owners, migrated east. Meat prices rose as vegetarians abandoned their principles and sought greater amounts of protein per meal. The prison population soared into the millions. Within days there were reports of riots, fires and mass prison breaks. I realised that her husband might be affected or even freed, though I prayed he had been one of the many casualties that the hand-coloured news boards were reporting. Yet it was some time before I realised that my darkest wishes had been granted. It was a hot summer day and we had gone to harvest clouds once more. The field was dotted with daisies, standing out like white punctuation marks on a page-long green paragraph. We had lain side by side for some minutes when a movement caught my eye. I raised my head slightly and, away in the trees at the field's edge, I saw a face float before the leaves, wispily and wistfully. Although I had never seen him alive, I realised it must be her husband from the photographs. He must have died in the prison riots after all. Now our love was a haunted love; a more romantic affair than ever before. My body partly blocked her view of the trees and she evidently hadn't noticed anything. I resolved to say nothing and to carry on our love affair with an even greater intensity. After all, what harm could the shade of a weak man possibly cause us? "How many clouds have you harvested?" she asked me softly. I lay back down and looked straight up into a pure, cloudless, blue sky. "Oooh, lots," I lied and she laughed.

The clouds twisted slowly above us, reforming themselves constantly in the midst of their delightful airborne recreation. I fancied that our breaths would somehow rise up to become a part of them; or perhaps form a mingled cloud of their own, ascending to glide between the drifting white islands, searching out its own place. The higher clouds would sometimes race past, while those closer to the ground went by more slowly, like fallen blossoms turning slowly as they were swept downstream. On the hottest days of all, I would watch as the clouds came down to touch her nose and float around her ears, while her face held an expression as if she were floating up to their domain. I delighted in her delight and thought myself so lucky to have met her. In the midst of our reverie, I would often feel the desire to tell her of my feelings. Of how I could happily tear her beautiful clothes from her, releasing her from their constraints, and watch her roll among the grass and flowers before descending on her to press home my love. But courage always failed me and I was reduced each time to my solitary sordid fantasies of twisted, sweat-stained sheets. Sometimes, in my most desolate daylight dreams, she would be bleeding.

Finally, one golden sunlit day, I took my courage in my hands and suggested to her that I move my things into the room adjacent to hers. To be nearer her and to assure her of my constant attention. She seemed shocked, her dark eyes filling with something approaching fear. "Oh no, I don't think that would be right. My husband would . . . " I forgot myself in that moment and shouted at her: "He's dead. Forget him!" The look in her eyes told me immediately that sharing this near-certainty with her had been an unfortunate error. She seemed to visibly shrink into the grass, wanting to escape from both me and the truth. The clouds began to race above our heads as she turned her eyes from me.

She avoided me now. In the house I would sometimes be caught unawares by her fish eyes staring at me through the bannisters. I came to expect that every door I passed would suddenly creak closed a few more inches. I tried to ignore the fact that she had turned against me for daring to speak the truth that she had tried to ignore. Perhaps she thought me unkind to tear away any shred of hope that she had clung to. I concentrated on the day-to-day tasks of household management in a time of crisis. Some of the furniture would have to be broken up for fuel soon, for instance; given its lack of comfort, this would be a particular pleasure for me. I began to help myself liberally to the contents of the wine cellar. And when the bottle had finally won the battle between thinking and drinking, I was no longer able to help in any meaningful way. In one of my more intoxicated moments, I resolved that I would return to the city in the next few days, leaving her to her fate. She continued to cook for me, meals being left in the kitchen while she ate in another part of the house. I felt like I was being sent into exile.

In a last gesture of apology before I departed, I decided to re-stock the kitchen cold box for her. I descended to the cellar, knowing that fish was her favourite food. Removing the hooked pole from the wall, I began to delve into the shiny and mottled mass of fish in the chilled pit. Several of them had become stuck together and in some places the ice was quite thick. My breath formed clouds before my face as I hacked at the frozen mass with the pole. Finally it cracked and I was able to move several blocks of fish-filled ice aside. I hoped she would be grateful that I had performed this final task for her: this was no work for a woman. I heaved one last mass of ice aside, preparatory to removing it from the pit ready for thawing. There, previously hidden by the shining mass, I was met by an unexpected and horrifying sight. There in his tomb of ice and silvery scales and dead eyes was her husband. Or at least, what was left of her husband. From the look of him, he had not died easily. Obviously he had never been imprisoned as she had told me. His only prison had been the ice. Could the woman I loved really be a liar and a murderess? If so, why had she played this game of deception with me and then brought me to the one place where I might unmask her? I gave way to feelings of betrayal and bitterness. And there was the fearful prospect that I might be next.

I left her in that field, blue and broken, and went off to seek my own sort of oblivion. Perhaps the clouds would take her now. Back in the city, the provisional government had imposed order, supported by large gangs of armed, black-clad youths loitering on nearly every corner. Things were beginning to return to normal - the revolution had been thwarted and the spate of plagues and soul sicknesses was on the wane - and I felt it wise to bury myself once more in one corner of a large accountants' office. My job was to count beans, by the sackful, and I held a reasonably respected position. I was told by my boss that my role was a small but vital part of the working of the country's economy; he said he was glad to welcome me back after the recent unrest. He conveniently ignored the fact that my hands now shook so appallingly that my pages were spattered with random ink spots. The shops were, mercifully, beginning to fill with goods again and drink was easy to come by. Too easy, perhaps. Sometimes I could almost believe that I had forgotten her. But my constant childhood companions had not. I was being judged by those who knew me best. And found wanting. The days ahead are dark. Now the clouds are gathering.

Story Copyright © 2008 by Mark Howard Jones. All rights reserved.
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About the author

Mark Howard Jones lives in Cardiff and has had stories published in magazines, websites and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. His novella The Garden of Doubt on the Island of Shadows has been published by Manchester's ISMs Press. His new eBook Against The Wall can be downloaded free from

Screaming Dreams.

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