Long ago, they set fire to their homes. At the end of winter, when the snowdrifts began to deflate and the dead trees began to breathe in the changing air for the first time, they would all stand outside their homes and start a fire in the middle of the village. The homes were so close to one another; a family of homes that kept each other warm, that it never took long for the fire to spread. And while the homes fell into it shouting with glee at the spectacle, everyone stood outside and watched as breath floated into the smoke, and a mixed cloud settled over it all. The sun would peek its head over the side of the lake to watch, for it’s not every day people gather at dawn to watch a great light other than the sun, and nobody would notice the sun rising because before their very eyes rose the corpses of what had given them shelter from the snow beasts and warmth from the icy skies of winter, up in smoke.
And when the flames got to their highest, when the sun was nearly chased out of the fresh spring sky by this fire, they would climb the trees that circled the village and settle into the nest- boats. The nest-boats were made in the dead of winter, of bundles of grass and twigs, of leaves harvested from the previous spring, twisted and woven together until they formed a small, hollow boat. These boats were stored in the branches of trees, waiting for winter to close. And now, as the village burned, they climbed into the nest-boats that sat in the branches and pushed off, out of the trees, and while there were a few terrifying moments in which it seemed like they would plummet into the ground, the rising smoke from the fire always caught the airy bottoms of the nest-boats, filled the leaves woven throughout with hot air, and pushed the boats high, high into the air. One by one, they sailed out of the trees and were risen like smoke by the fire, until they all floated above the burning village. Hundreds of them, bobbing in the low morning clouds, feet and knees warmed by the fire far below. They gained slow inches of air, and the thin clouds thickened, and still the hot air trapped in the crannies and nooks of their boats lifted them until they broke free and sat atop the clouds. And most people don’t know this, but there is no difference between riding atop clouds and riding atop an ocean of water. Clouds are water. And they were sailors. They were navigators. When the skies of winter opened up at spring, they rode them, and now set sail off to find a new mountain, a new valley, a new forest in which to build a village. Until next winter.
He had been rowing with his people all day, the sun on their faces and a few towering clouds that reached above the others swimming by. He dipped his oar in left, right, left, right, and then he dipped it left, and then left, trying to match his pants with the swell of song all around him. Suddenly, while he was trying to fill his lungs to burst out an especially loud note, he yawned, and involuntarily reached up to cover his mouth – an instinctual reaction that served him well on the ground during winter, where cold air could rush in and freeze his tongue when he yawned. He covered his mouth, and stopped rowing for a second, and the front of his boat caught on a bump in the cloud and he tipped forward, too surprised to scream or even gasp before he was plunged into a wide, wide world of white and wet.
He turned over once, twice, and felt cold, wet air shoot into his nose and out his mouth. His people had one rule when they traveled through the sky: Stay above the clouds. The clouds were dangerous. They were air but not air, water but not water. Water floated, so the rules of up and down didn’t work here. He tried to think, but for a few minutes all he could do was try to hold on. He felt his fingers digging into the twigs and leaves that wrapped around him, and as he flipped end over front, he saw a shower of leaves streaming out as his boat began to come apart. He smelled fire, close and screaming, and heard the sound of a thousand men stomping the ground, the way they did in the winter village when the herds of snowmoose would come to steal their food. He was buffeted and buffeted.
He tried to clear his senses, but he couldn’t figure out what he was seeing, what he was hearing, what he was smelling, and what he was feeling — he was feeling an intense cold that started at the top of his neck and spread down, coating his arms and chest and stomach and legs. He couldn’t feel the boat anymore. He noticed vaguely that it was not white anymore, but gray, growing to black.
He thought he felt water, but it was the cry of a lost bird instead. He felt water dripping from his eyelashes and soaking into the wood, but every drop was a cry for help. He was spun around in the cloud, and the cloud got denser and began to coalesce around him, and he got the sense that he was falling, but he wasn’t sure.
Then, the cloud was wrapped around him, just around him, and had broken up into masses of solid, angry water. He fell with them, clinging to a few scraps of what remained of his boat, and tried not to look at the ground. He knew which way was down now. It got closer and closer, and he saw that it was trees, a carpet of them, waiting for him.
The ground was rushing closer and closer. Because all feeling was gone from his legs, he could imagine that he was standing on the ground, and that spread beneath him was an endless sea of tiny trees.
Closer and closer to it he fell with the broken cloud that had trapped him. Nearer and nearer to what could be death, far from his village, far and far and farther from his people, far from the one sea he knew how to traverse.
Then, he realized that it was just another sea. I know seas, he thought as he grew close enough that he could count branches that poked up, reached toward him in waves that seemed unwilling to yield to the wind. My people know seas, he thought as he clung to the last few leaves that remained from his ruined boat. I can sail this sea, he groaned as the branches tore into him, pulling his hair out and dripping his blood, like a coroner’s rain.
Slowly, his skin stitched itself back together, but there were traces of his fall that would never leave. A long, dark line ran up his arm to the base of his neck from where an ash tree tried to half him, and there was a portion of his scalp, roughly the size and shape of a juniper leaf right at his temple, where hair still would not grow. But he’s learned to sail this new sea. He moves through the trees and has learned to renounce white and blue, for green is now his favorite color. He missed his people and his village, but nobody had ever told him that there could be so much at the bottom of the sea. People who didn’t live as he did, who didn’t chase warmer skies and didn’t make it their business to build fires to fly them across the heavens. He’d been warned not to go into the clouds, but now that he was beneath that and another sea, at the lowest of everything, there was nothing to be afraid of. He found new people. Not people that would sail away with him when the urge to do so came back – and it did – but people who would be there if his skies got cold again.
Zachariah Crutchfield is a junior in Columbia College studying Political Science and MESAAS. He believes that a successful pun is one that elicits any emotion, be it delight or disgust.