Saturday, July 29, 2023

“Believe Nothing Said by Clouds” • by Beth Cato

“Believe nothing said by clouds,” Grandmother had told Asteria many a time,
to which the girl gave her most sincere nod, the sort she granted the preacher each Sunday when he inquired if she’d been a good girl that week. She had practiced that nod in the mirror along with various smiles. Asteria was not permitted to carry pocketknives as did her brothers, but at age ten, she had come to understand that wit and false smiles were her weapons and armor on playground battlefields and elsewhere.

Along the steep green slopes of the Dales, some days the sun shone bright as a day without school, while on others, the ridges were so high that clouds had no need to descend to drench the world in deep gray mist. As she had more frequently walked the worn cow path between home and Grandmother’s domicile, she had become increasingly aware of the cloud that often lurked around her. Therefore, she was not surprised when after several weeks of its hesitant behavior, it finally spoke.

“Oh child, how sad it is to be scorned while your mother tends to your newborn brother. How sad to be exiled to your grandmother’s house for the day.”

Asteria stiffened. Despite Grandmother’s warnings, she had hoped that when the cloud confronted her, it wouldn’t be as unkind as her peers who loved to mock her for both her maturity and her delight in all things imaginative and magical.

“I don’t find it sad at all,” she said in a lofty tone. “I like it better at Grandmother’s. I suppose you’re to offer me a better alternative?”

The cloud was slow to speak again. “I did intend as much.”

“Well, go on, then.” Asteria trudged along.

“Within this cloud, magic lingers in the modern world, and from here you may cross to fairy realms full of delectable delights the like of which you have never known.”

Magic! Fairies! But Asteria refused to be gullible. “Is there piccalilli? Because I cannot stand piccalilli.” She made a face of revulsion at the very thought of the chopped mash of vegetables and spices.

“I don’t believe so?” With more confidence the cloud continued, “There’d be foods you liked, plenty of them.”

“What else?” She had intended to make brief, clever repartee to discourage the cloud’s advances, but instead her curiosity was piqued.

“You could visit the fairy court, meet the queen herself! Dress up in luxurious silks, dance away the nights—”

“Holding hands with others is gross and unhygienic.” Or so others said of her touch.

“Then you needn’t dance. If you like the outdoors—”

“If you know the peculiarities of my home life, shouldn’t you know if I enjoy the outdoors?”

“If you like the outdoors,” the cloud repeated, irritation in its tone, “you can explore a wilderness unspoiled by humankind. You may select a horse of your very—”

“Are there palominos?” She stopped atop the ridge. Distant sheep bells clamored from within the gray. “I read an illustrated book about American cowboys and palomino horses, and I have never seen a horse of that color here. I would like one, very much.” Genuine yearning crept into her voice.

“…I imagine we could make that happen?”

The cloud’s uncertainty fizzled her enthusiasm to vapors. “Tell me, what do you get out of granting me this new, magic-filled life? You offer me dancing and horses, but you probably want me to wash castle windows and muck out stables most of the time.”

Children were like that, too, full of bold promises of ‘I’ll be your friend’ only for it to be some grand joke.

“You wouldn’t—this is not—”

“I’m not stupid!” Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What do you get out of convincing me to come? A commission or something, like a shop clerk?”

The cloud stayed silent.

“Wait!” she called, hoping that her company—however dastardly its motives—hadn’t departed yet. “Your job isn’t an easy one, is it?” she rushed to add. “I mean, Grandmother says lots more people used to live in the Dales when she was a girl. Hard to tempt people when there’s nobody about.”

She heard a sigh. “Those that hear me must be open to the possibility of magic,” the cloud said in a most subdued manner. “Some children never do. Most adults cannot.”

“Other kids around here don’t believe at all.”

“I know.” The cloud sounded quite morose.

Asteria couldn’t bear for it to be so sad. “Well, I’ll never stop believing in magic!”

“I’ve heard that before.”

Asteria looked up the foggy path as she came to a realization. “You talked to my grandmother ages ago, didn’t you?”

The reply was another sigh.

“She still believes in you enough that she warned me to not heed your lies.”

“But she doesn’t talk to me beyond grumbling that I make it hard to drive. I’m only doing my job.”

“Your job’s the problem, cloud. You’re trying to bait people into a trap. Which is never going to work on me, by the way.” Not even for a palomino, not with fairy tricks involved. “If you just want to talk, though…”

“You… you would like to talk to me again?”

Grandmother’s house emerged spectral through the mist. “Your company on my walk has been nice, actually. Despite the whole entrapment thing.”

“If I succeeded in that, I wouldn’t get to chat with you again. I’d rather… I’d rather have someone to talk to, I think.”

Grandmother had meant well by her advice, but Asteria didn’t believe the cloud to be lying when it spoke those words.

“See you later, then!” Asteria smiled at the cloud in a way she had never practiced in the mirror, then ran the rest of the way to Grandmother’s door. Already, she looked forward to her walk home.


Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a far distant realm. She’s the Nebula Award-nominated author of A THOUSAND RECIPES FOR REVENGE from 47North (June 2023), plus the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy from Harper Voyager. Her website includes not only a vast bibliography, but a treasure trove of recipes for delectable goodies. Find her on Twitter as @BethCato and Instagram as @catocatsandcheese.

Beth has been a contributor to Stupefying Stories ever since her story, “Red Dust and Dancing Horses,” first appeared in issue #5, eleven years ago. Issue #5 is out of print now, but if you enjoyed “Believe Nothing Said by Clouds,” know that her next story for us, “Monsters of the Places Between,” is in Stupefying Stories 24, which is coming out next week. Watch for it!


Made in DNA said...

Clever. Morose clouds. LOL.