The cotton absorbs the tea’s bitterness, the paroxysmal pain. It engulfs him, fills him.
The last time Wind had known such pleasure, there’d been a needle hanging out of his seeping, abscessed arm. Then he’d received the Knowing Sky’s cryptic instructions. Prone, transfixed for what must have been days, he’d watched a terrible wind ravage the abandoned streets of Detroit, bearing with it three formations of clouds: Cirrus, Broken, Storm, and he had grasped his purpose — to gather the Clouds and ascend as a holy tetrad into the Endless Sky.
Minutes or hours pass — he can’t be sure how long — then suddenly the white void retreats, his hands materializing with the rest of his naked self, mouth stained with black vomit.
He hears… trickling water — a brook.
Several yards away, purling water shimmers, mossy stones cresting its surface like the spine of some long-dead dinosaur. He walks over and realizes as he comes upon her — Cirrus Cloud — that they are reliving a moment from their past.
The day he took her innocence.
She’s kneeling by the water, washing her face. Nude, lithe, lovely.
“My little Cloud.” His words are phantom limbs stretching out to turn her face up towards his.
She smiles, her mouth not fully cleansed of the tea. “My Wind! The Knowing Sky has visited me.” Her words, too, reach out and wrap him in soft, fading tendrils.
Visited you? he thinks.
“It told me you’d come, that we must find the others, and that… another has ascended with us.”
“A fifth? Who?”
“It did not say.”
“Well, come then. We must find Broken and Storm.”
She cleans herself, and hand-in-hand they wend along the brook. Before them a wall of spruce edges out of the pale mist. Soon they become lost in a forest floored and ceilinged with cloud, at once gaseous and solid, its spongy touch unnerving against his bare feet.
“So this, then, is the Endless Sky?” he says.
“No. It’s the tail of the comet,” Cirrus corrects him to his annoyance. “A relay station between Earth and the Endless Sky—”
He shushes her with a finger, and listens, scanning the woods.
A soft humming appears through the mist, a mesh of interlacing shapes.
They track its source to a form wandering among the trees — nude, clutching a basket.
Mushrooms, he thinks. Yellow morels, velvet foots. Salivating, his mouth fills with the remembered earthiness, his hands with the suppleness of her breasts.
“Broken Cloud!” he calls, his words giant, gathering hands.
She turns, dropping the basket, as he and Cirrus approach. “My Wind.” She smiles, mouth still stained.
They all embrace.
“The Sky has come to me!” Broken says.
“It’s visited you, too?” Cirrus clutches Broken’s arms.
She blushes. “It brought wonderful news. I’m only to share when we find Storm, when we’re all reunited.”
The Knowing Sky should have visited me, the Gatherer of Clouds, Deacon of the House of the Sky, he thinks, sourness curling his tongue.
They walk on together.
For the first time in fifteen years, Wind’s arm starts itching. Grasping the crook of his elbow, he searches the mists, wondering where Storm could be. The ground to the left slopes upward, and the sight of it stirs a memory — he’d taken the innocence of his most precious Cloud (the one who could rein in the others for him) on a mountaintop. He can almost make out Storm’s silhouette clambering up the incline before them.
“Ascend,” he commands.
They mount the slope, pace quickening, until all three are rushing up eagerly, whipped by tree limbs.
They find her on a cliff edge, facing into the distance, long black hair stretching down to her buttocks. Before her, before all of them, towers the Knowing Sky, its skin an azure sky tattooed with sun-limned clouds circling its anthropomorphic shape, head crowned with mesmerizing, filigreed antlers. A wriggling mass of nebulous sky language snakes from its mouth and into Storm’s face.
None of the others can hear/see what it says, but after a moment, the private communique disperses, and the Knowing Sky recedes into the whiteness. Storm turns around, smiling.
“Our journey’s nearly complete.” Her husky words caress all of them. However, they release early from Wind, lingering several seconds longer on Cirrus and Broken.
“This impertinence ends now!” he shouts petulantly, feeling foolish and ashamed the moment his words lash his precious Clouds.
Cirrus turns to him. “We’re one too many for the journey to the Endless Sky.”
“I’m with child.” Broken’s words are a tapestry.
“You told us yourself,” Storm continues, “that more than four would be blasphemy. The Knowing Sky said one of our souls must be sacrificed, sent back into the dying body. We must vote.”
“I … I was wrong. Yes, I’ve had a new revelation! Hear me, Clouds, for the Knowing Sky has visited me as well! Five is holy! Five is blessed! Five is pure!”
The Clouds stare at him, their eyes growing hollow — reflections of blue sky and rolling clouds scudding across their corneas.
He falls to his knees, crying. Desperate for a jab into his arm.
“We thank you for your guidance.” Cirrus’s words caress him.
“I’ll name him Prevailing Wind in your honor,” Broken says.
“Receive our judgment,” Storm says.
They begin to sing, their words no longer the soft clouds that had been so tantalizing to hear and feel, but rather gaseous fissures in space, puffs of nothingness that splatter over him, clinging icily to his skin.
Wind becomes aware of his body again, every muscle clenched, burning, the bitterness returned to his tongue.
Back on the prairie, at their ceremonial table.
Across from him sit his Clouds, heads angled towards the heavens, eyes vacant, throats black-stained, skin mauve; the table is littered with shards of ceramic cups and the dark remnants of the destroying angel tea.
As he clutches his arm, the wind stirs their gauzy dresses and howls.