Make Me Something That Looks the Way I Feel
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“The Invention of Clouds” by Becky Mandelbaum
I was ten years old when I invented clouds. I did it for my little brother, who was sick at the time and had nothing better to do than study how the light lived and died outside his bedroom window. I had invented a spider for his windowsill when he first became ill, but our mother destroyed it as soon as she discovered it there. “What on earth is that?” she said, painted fingers trembling as she approached the spider with a tissue. My brother loved watching the spider spin its web and suck the guts from its prey. (I thought that was a good trick, the web and the gut-sucking — there was nothing quite like it at the time.) Sometimes I’d toss a fly into the web, so my brother could watch the spider spring into action, wrapping the poor critter into a perfect mummy burrito. It reminded us both that life and death — however ridiculous and unfathomable — were happening all around us. No matter how important we seemed, we were exactly as common and fantastic as anything else: the pill bugs in our mother’s garden, the one-eyed jester in the bathroom woodgrain, the great red storm in Jupiter’s eye.
After the spider, I tried to invent a kind of winged kitten the size of a nickel, but I did a poor job and the result was a lifeless puck of fur, eyes backwards, wings where its throat should have been. Luckily our mother never found it — I flushed it as soon as I saw what had happened. She would have thrown a fit, told me to knock off my shenanigans before anything else got hurt. (What she didn’t know, and never would, was that I would one day invent her second husband, a man who would love her far better than my real father ever had.)
But back to the room where my brother lay coughing. It was always cheerful outside then, before clouds, the sky an endless page of cartoon blue. We were in the very peach-pit of summer, a terrible time for a little boy to be ill, and the sun was as constant as my brother’s fever.
One day we were sitting together on his bed, watching alphabet noodles drift across his soup (this was the sort of neutered activity available to him), when the idea for the clouds occurred to me.
I can tell you that the idea is never the hardest part. The hardest part, I have learned, is relinquishing your personal life until the project is finished. I knew this particular venture would mean less time reading books or playing cards with my brother, but I also knew it would all be worth it to see him smile.
In the end, it took me four months. By then my brother had become only a shadow of himself, his frame so small and withered it was like seeing our beloved cat, Grape Jelly, wet for the first time. As it turned out, they were both very small underneath themselves. Each morning, my mother would pull a shirt over my brother’s body as he sat in bed, skinny arms raised in surrender. He never complained. Even when my mother gave him his cherry-flavored syrup in the awful plastic medicine spoon, he would swallow the liquid without even wincing. Perhaps he thought the medicine would save him — I guess, looking back, I believed it might save him, too. We were hungry to believe.
On the day of the big reveal, we were sitting in his bed, looking through a photo album. We had paused on a photo of our old dog, Toast, and I asked if we should pull back the blinds. By now it was late autumn. As a consolation for all the new darkness, the trees wore magnificent outfits. But Benjamin couldn’t get out of bed, so sometimes it bothered him to look out on all the beauty he may never again be able to touch. This time, however, I insisted. When I opened the blinds, he sat up straighter than I’d seen him sit in weeks.
“Do you like it?” I asked. I remember his lips were very pale. He said, quite matter-of-factly, “It looks the way I feel.” And then: “They’re wonderful.”
They really were spectacular, drifting up there like so many great white ships — dangerous, temporary, melancholic. As a collection, they spoke of everything the bright sunny sky could not. One of the lower-hanging pieces looked for all the world liked mercury, and I recalled the days when Benny and I had broken open our mother’s thermometer and rolled the silver magic between our thumbs.
How many times, playing together, had we discovered entirely new corridors of magic? There was the time we made a rainbow by running a magnet over the television. The time we opened a dead sparrow to discover the speckled egg she’d never laid. Even then, on the first night with clouds, we understood that soon there would be no more magic between us. For one of us, the world would close its blinds. The carousel we’d come to love and rely on would cease to spin. For the other, somehow, it would continue on as ever — tinny music playing long after the unicorns and tigers had bowed their painted heads. Our mother would take to lying down for days at a time. Our father would become a refrigerator, shelves laden with expired milk and meat. But for now there was only the brand new sky, my gift to Benny. For days it felt like we sat there watching, until suddenly it was raining and there was only one of us.
About the Author
Becky Mandelbaum is the author of Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2018 High Plains Book Award for First Book. Her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Originally from Kansas, she currently lives in Washington and teaches at Hugo House in Seattle. Her first novel is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.
“The Invention of Clouds” is published here by permission of the author, Becky Mandelbaum. Copyright © Becky Mandelbaum 2018. All rights reserved.