13 Ways of Looking at a Cloud
Fiction by Char Tourtillott
1.) Observe the young person inside the passenger seat of an old red beetle riding down a creamy asphalt road. The driver, my sibling, is a 14-foot-tall giant with an obsidian braid pinned to their spine and fingers crafted from salmon hue quartz and moss that grip the wheel. And the young woman whose hair is chopped at the shoulders, sits with frail hands dry as desert bone, fidgeting in her lap. They are not the most exciting pair that I have seen over the last millennium, but one with the braid is my blood, so I watch on. The passenger studies my kin’s features vigilantly as they concentrate on the road ahead; I feel the heat of her gaze— props to my baby sibling, for I would have dug my teeth into her neck the moment I felt pressure on my skin.
We don’t enjoy interfering with the affairs of our otherly relatives, but every now and then we get a case as such; which then another is forced to step in and oversee this tedious dynamic. So here we are. The young’in forces the saliva swelling inside her cheeks down to wash the taste of instant waffles from this morning's breakfast away; she stops fidgeting to hug her stomach and lean into the seat. These back roads furl and bend as if it wants you to throw it all back up.
I pick at my gums with a spare rib of a sapsucker.
Riding inside our cars can make one feel like ascending 100,000 feet to the top and gashing the space which separates us from the Creator—or god, in half. Which is precisely the idea. The giant continues to drive, they glance over to you after a giggle slip from your lips. The beetle, giant and you continue to travel deeper into the boondocks. Every mile the cloudscape looks different. Some are sky scraping billows of cotton feathers, and some are marble sculptures carved by amateur, hollow hearted artists.
I indulge on those types for brunch.
You look back over at the giant, who drives with one hand sticking out the window. The wind makes the fat hanging from their arm wiggle. You raise your eyebrow at the giant. Thom. “Stop staring,” they snap. You nod and avert your eyes back onto the road. The bypass is taking you further into unfamiliar terrain, yet every corner taken, the landscape becomes intimate; variegated woodlands embrace your presence.
Thom the Giant begins to pull off to the side of the road and comes to a stop. With sweat dampening your shirt, you shift in your seat and face Thom.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“I could sure go for a cinnamon roll.”
Thom hops out from the buggy and trots to the trunk, carrying a sheet full of steaming naked rolls. You jump out of the car and watch as they stretch their neck towards the sky, and you marvel at their effortless swivel as they harvest. Every bun comes back and has a good slather. Thom offers one to you. “Did you know that your ancestors were resourceful bakers?”
They give away more information than any of us have ever done— willingly!
2.) The friendship lives on. And you almost consider Thom to be your relative! Which we are, but that realization is often lost within the darkest nook of blood memory. After the ride, the quality of life shot through the roof; your skin absorbs the sun, and you’re not see through. You enjoy eating vegetables now. Back in the day, you were notorious for uprooting nōhkomaeh’s garden; you destroyed the squash with malice and offense. That’s the old you. Days, months, and years have passed by since the initial cinnamon roll, but every morning since then, when daybreak cracks the sky, you taste its sweetness alive and lingering within the back of your throat. It’s a part of your routine to suck on your cheeks for a taste of magic.
This woman loves these reminders.
Every road is now reminiscent of that special drive; your calves lead you down streets that want to be that creamy path, but simply don’t have the same magic. Plenty of these trails exist, for you have practically jogged all of them, and now the one in front bewitches and you know this because your calf muscles burn and your tongue is heavy with the flavor of white pine pollen; coating your tongue with a film-like substance. You’re staring hard at the blacktop, watching the ruckus within the cracked concrete. There are 100,000 eyes blinking back at you in unison. With each stride, you slip deeper into a somniative headspace. Runner’s high or am I high? -- just kidding. I’m four years sober, I’m not high. You crouch down, grab the tips of your shoes, and peer down into the other universe, only for it to pull you down into the belly of the black eel.
You’re wedged into the mold of Earth now.
The cement begins to seep into your pores. Fight harder. The difference between up and down, forward, or backward is unclear; attempt to crawl anyway. Suddenly, there is a sting in your chest. You look down and notice moss digging into your flesh, then you hurl into the sky, colliding into billows of white balls, and you go higher until you almost see The Great Veil. Thom grabs the fat on your back and draws you back to them. They catch you and cradle you in their arms. “The clouds are The Great gatekeepers of The Veil. You’re not ready for all that yet.”
In my opinion, she was ready.
3.) You like going to places that are familiar. Like nōhkomaeh’s house. You spent most of your childhood beneath ribbed skies with Miss Lottie drinking semi-sweet cedar tea with maple cakes. Something like those cinnamon rolls, only richer. After she passed, her chubby cheeks, hooked nose, and thin lips found a home within you. Every time the rim of your glasses drop to the tip of your mushroom cap nose, Lottie reappeared. The pressure of sharing your face with nōhkomaeh’s didn’t settle well in your chest, so for years you avoided your reflection until one day, Thom held a pocket-sized mirror to your face to show where a piece of kale was stuck between your teeth. Memories of your childhood were pumped back into your body while the two of you stood outside Yorkie’s Salad Bar. From inside the mirror, nōhkomaeh was staring back at you with a gummy grin.
You remember looking at Thom, then their mirror, and nearly falling over.
“What the hell you do that for!” you hollered.
Thom staggered back and snapped their mirror closed. “You had some kale stuck to your teeth,” Thom said.
“You could have just said something!” Thom threw their head back and laughed.
“I’d rather you see it for yourself, than have me point it out,” they said.
It was a silent childhood for the most part. Nōhkomaeh lived near Upper Bass lake, inside a purple shanty cabin with a green deck hugging the 100-year-old foundation. At night, the smell of marsh blends into the humid air; the choir of crickets sing into the zero hour. It’s a lot of stimulation, and so visitors do not come around to these parts. Mom and dad never really did, either. You had a brother, but Beau passed away. He doesn’t cross your mind often. Maybe once a month. You’re lying on the grass now.
I gnaw on birch bark fibers to de-bloat.
The spring clouds shuffle past your canvas above, and all you want to do is sink into the ground. You think that maybe if you sink further into the soil, it will take you back to being a spirited 12-year-old at nōhkomaeh’s house. You close your eyes, and the image of your brother is pasted in front of you. A silhouette. He turns and you can see his face. You’re watching him press his cheek against the sky, then his forehead. Both of you stare back at each other. Beau vanishes with one blink. As you squeeze your eyes shut again, you do not see him. It’s just a gorge. You roll over to your side and avoid looking at the clouds. They swallowed your brother and will not spit him back out.
They don’t need to.
4.) You’re quite ripe in age. 30 years of trotting through bone trembling trenches. But you prefer to be here. It has taken a couple of years and a few dozen fumbles, yet you finally realize that the deck of cards you were given in the early days can be reshuffled and can play in your favor. What you assumed was cemented in your timeline was actually stapled, and you can easily rip out what no longer holds purpose.
This seasoned life has left purple blisters on the surface of your brain, but they don’t tickle or sting. They are benign balls of dark liquid that sit directly on top of the surface, absorbing the slime your brain pumps out. You never knew they were inside you until one afternoon while you and Thom were scouting for morals and the two of you came up empty handed after a 12-hour hunt.
Thom placed a finger on the crown of your head and pushed down until one little bubble sprouted up from your scalp. You almost fainted when they held it up in front of you. “Moral mushrooms smell these lumps and burrow back into the Earth. You’ve been scaring away the goods,” Today, Thom screws off your scalp and looks upon your pink and purple mottled brain. “You have quite the dry brain...no wonder you can’t seem to shoot a deer...mmh, I bet this tastes good,” they say and poke a blister.
“That stings! Also, watch it, pal...you’re lucky I’m letting you unscrew my head, which I didn’t even know was possible,” you say.
“Sorry. Don’t tell all your friends. I only have so much glacier water left to sew you up,” Thom replies.
The two of you sit under a grand White Pine, Thom resting their back against the bark, and you rest against their body.
As you allow yourself to sink into their tender flesh, you recall the first time you actually met your best friend.
That same feeling of tickling sunrays on the fuzz of your arms and wholeness floods back to your mind. But this time, you know that there will be no plummet. Thom continues to pick the blisters from your skull, until finally standing up. “The old ones used to use the clouds for ointment,” Thom grows into the sky and pulls down a handful of fluff. They massage the pieces of clouds along your skull before re-attaching your skin. “I do feel a little better,” you admit to Thom.
“There is no power in allowing a storm to roil within.” he declares.
A beautiful moment that almost made me swallow my tongue.
5.) Evenings are hard. There are no clouds, only a hundred million irises piercing the outer cabin walls. ‘Come outside and stare at me’ they tease, but you don’t budge because every time you move, a stinging prod travels up your knees and paralyzes you with fear — too afraid to even consider moving. Restless nights have left you feeling drained and useless; like that time you were at sugar camp with Thom, and they had trusted you to carry a whole pail on your own and you tripped on a pebble and spilled a week’s worth of sugar maple on the ground and soaked your shoes.
They almost made you suck on your damp socks for the sake of savoring the drops. With no more blisters infecting your head, you figured that this was the beginning of a new leaf but ever since that day, you don’t feel put together. Earlier this week you even thought about stealing.
You think about jumping in your 2016 Subaru Forester and driving it right into the same tree your best friend served you a cinnamon roll in front of. Because ending it all sounds better than allowing your memories to bleed all over the place.
Tonight, as you lie in your bed staring at the crumbling walls, you first take note that it is time to fix your house, and that things are getting bad again. These are the storms that Thom doesn’t intervene with. After hours of resistance, you step outside and walk along the trail looping around the boundaries of your property overlooking the lake. The glow from the April moon illuminates the straggling trilliums which sit just a few feet from the lakeshore; those are your favorite flowers, and they look alien as they radiate under the moonlight.
You look around at your land, yes, your land, and start to wonder if anything, or anyone will stop you from hanging yourself on those tree branches. Because right now, the stock-still waters and silent wilderness behind you seem to offer a lot more than this life, something richer than the borrowed air in your lungs.
Beau, Miss Lottie, mom and dad are on the other side of the moon and that’s where you wish to be. You walk over to the Oak tree hunched over the lake and dig your nails into the bark. All around you, things come to a pause, and it listens to you bellyache at the soft outlines of constellations. Tears blur your vision, but still take note of the gyrate white limb stretch across the skytop. From behind you, Thom yawns and throws a clump of seaweed over your shoulder. “They can hear your thinking,”
She believes her thoughts are as quiet as a farting fish but to listen is to have a thousand quills pierce the inside of your ears.
6.) Thom gets under your skin. Sometimes they add onions to the wild rice baked dish, and sometimes they leave a trail of dirt and grass at the foot of your bed when they stay overnight. But it is only when they talk to you in the language that was once yours—still yours—but you find it hard to claim, that really makes your skin boil off your bones. Jealous, and the burden of that weighs down on your chest to an inevitable snapping point. You are with them once again, on the same serpentine path that you both first rode on years ago—you cry from time to time because you can’t believe that they stuck by your side for so long.
Regardless of the envy which taints your heart, you love Thom. They are your greatest teacher. With the midwinter breeze trickling in from the cracked beetle windows, you lean back into the passenger side and snack on your blood orange.
It’s like sitting inside the belly of a heavy fire; your cheeks are red from the heat blasting through the vents, but outside temperatures have dropped dangerously low, so you’re thankful for this other worldly warmth. Frozen grounds bring the people together. You both are going to the winter roundhouse, and while you are excited, you sit in silence in the passenger seat of the beetle. “Ānahkwat,” Thom breaks the silence. You scratch the back of your neck and glance at your best friend through the corner of your eyes. Thom is never the type to repeat what they said, and if they ever did, it was something different from their initial words, and most of the time, never made sense.
The trill of their voice echoed inside, and you feel anxiety fester in your gut. They repeat themselves over and over like a broken record until you tap their shoulder. “What are you saying?” you ask them.
Thom flashes a pink grin. “That’s their name,” You both pull up to the roundhouse and jump out of the beetle right away.
“What does it mean?” you ask.
“It’s their name. The clouds. Our relatives. You should call them that now that you know better,” They don’t walk in with you into the elementary school gym. Instead, you watch as Thom takes a sharp turn right, and dips into the thicket enclosing the building.
7.) You look forward to every community gathering now. Present for every roundhouse with a dish to pass, and a chortle to help heal. When you help dish out the meals, and your hands accidentally brush against the hands of a grandmother, you smile to yourself. Moments like that have made your Earth bounded time bearable. Thom does not come with you anymore, for the late days in December and early January are reserved for a giant to rest. A good grazing period is needed for the first instructors. They don’t sleep often, and the weeks following are special, reserved for celebrations within the giant community. The flicker from their torches dance in the sky when the temperatures are subzero. Somewhere deep in the northern woodlands, where ice is black and snow bites back, is where they celebrate and dance.
It is said that traditionally, they are not supposed to cross the Great Veil, but Thom is different. Thom finds being in the presence of humans amusing and useful.
You remember listening to stories that nōhkomaeh spoke when you were a little girl. The old people learned how to pray with pollen and glacier water from the giants somewhere back in the beginning. Since then, people celebrate the intelligence that was shared by the giants with a low burning fire that is supposed to be done by every family in the village. Decades have passed and now it all makes sense. You used to wonder why Miss Lottie left a flicker of flame burn when she went to bed. It was a ceremony that was important to nōhkomaeh and you never actually understood why until now. The first initial meeting with your best friend was actually years before you entered young adulthood. You were 12 when you saw Thom in the woods behind Grandma Lottie’s house.
You were feasting on honeysuckle petals when Thom presented themselves. Their skin was coarse like leather and had hair black as river rapids. “Hey,” you said to the stranger. They blinked and shook their head. “Pōsōh?” and you frowned. “What’d you call me? Who are you?” Thom stepped closer now and glared at your face. Both of you have the same wide nose and are coated with copper dust. You matched the stare and they bowed. “Niatowak sakanah.” Thom said and slipped back into the grove as clouds from the east rolled in.
8.) Others look past Thom. Your people have not seen a giant in over 10,001 years and here you are with one. Still, no one seems to look up from their devices to take notice. Thom really only needs to be seen by you. You often think, I wish they could see my best friend. The two of you harvest ripe raspberries in the fields of North Village. The first berry you pluck ends up in your mouth. Its juices leave your tongue tart, and so you suck the side of your cheeks. Thom is deep in the bushes, scouting for every succulent bulb of pink juice. “The clouds look like disks today,” you say, and Thom stops. They straighten out their spine and extend their torso up into the sky. Thom grabs a cloud and squeezes it between their thumb and finger. The clouds, in unison, shriek and shatter. Thom sinks back beside you in the bushes. “Those are the clouds we want above us while we gather.” they declare.
9.) You live alone in the same cabin that Grandma Lottie has lived in since she was a young woman. It’s a matriarchal territory and her willow is the shack’s historian. There are some mornings when the willow will sing its song for you, and those are the days where the rain falls hot and heavy from friendly grey clouds. The soil that you churn every spring is the same as it was 100 years ago. Some days, when you are out in the field and you have your toes curled into the ground, you can still feel nōhkomaeh’s presence.
You look around at the breathtaking landscape and shudder. Because you know that you are not alone, but you still long for some kind of conversation or company. So, you look up at the sky and scream at the dancing white ringlets to come down. “Say something!” you holler and throw a pebble into the sky. It swallows the pebble, for you don’t see it return. You sigh and continue to prep the garden.
10.) Your time with Thom is coming to its end. You know this because now you drive the beetle, and Thom is the passenger. Because Thom does not move their mouth to speak anymore, and now you can only hear what they have to say inside your head. Because their onyx braid is white as snow. Because everything they think is omāēqnomenīwīwāēhnen. Their voice is a sweet lull that makes your ears ring. You are both driving on a dirt road now, in the interior of traditional territory boundaries. They requested that you drive to this destination.
As you drive the beetle, you look over at your best friend every now and then, and tears gloss your vision. “Kaya,” Thom says. Their jaw moves in a smooth motion saying your name. This is the first time they have said your name out loud. Ever. “Kaya, did you know that the clouds have a maple flavor?”
“Can you harvest it at any time?” Thom shook their head. “You collect the clouds syrup during a full moon in the summer. And it’s only good if the sky is bleeding red in the morning, and purple in the evening.”
11.) Cinnamon rolls. They remind you of your early womanhood when you maneuvered through the days with half a soul, a mottled heart and speckled brain. These days when you suck on your cheek, you don’t get much except a throat coated with saliva. The sweetness of that one cinnamon roll you ate a long time ago has faded from your mouth but continues to live on as a crease in your brain. Healthy scalp now. No more purple blisters. As you sit on your patio set, watching a family of foxes' trot through the yard, you look up at the sky and know that your brother still has his cheek pressed against a cloud, looking down at you. Being friends with Thom has led you to believe that the separation of you and them is a silk thread swaying in a cold breeze. It’s all here. Your hair has maintained its deep hue and the creases along your mouth grow deeper each year. You smile a lot. Basking in the morning sun reminds you that it is almost time for you to see the Veil.
12.) Thom crossed over for good now. It was a big deal when they arrived at the cabin on an early morning, around the same time they picked you up in that beetle years, and years ago. They stood in the doorway with a birch bark suitcase with multiple pink Kirby emblems quilled on the surface. You looked Thom up and down and jumped into their arms. They held you for what felt like hours before they melted away. When you finally opened your eyes, sun rays pierced into your eyes, and you could hear your heart drumming within your ribs. Your body sang Thom’s travel song.
You still hum the beats and songs they shared with you over the years. You weaved them all into one, cohesive melody that makes you float while you walk along the spine of the concrete snake, that same spine that had once attempted to pull you down. But you keep your gaze fixed ahead of you. When you look above, bulbs of thick clouds speckle the sky. You glance down at your Applewatch, then go back to the sky and take note that those bulbs are now disks. Thom still communicates with you, despite being in another world.
13.) You can speak your tongue now. And when you say their name, the clouds split and bounce in the blue. Right now, you are standing on a ledge which overlooks the dells — an old battle site where The Serpent and the Thunderbird fought. You smile to yourself as you recall the time when Thom told you how they watched that grand battle in their youth, and how they almost got in between the brawl. You chuckle. As you stretch your limbs towards the sky, you release a loud wail. While your voice has grown brittle with age, the sky still splits into two.
Char Tourtillott is from the Menominee Indian Reservation located in Northeastern Wisconsin, where she spent her youth in the fields of Middle Village and inside her mother’s garage. Char began school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2016 and majors in Creative Writing with an emphasis in fiction. She graduates in May 2022. She resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her sister.