Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Cloud Gardener

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

The Cloud Gardener

(c) 2010

I first saw the Cloud Gardener in the late autumn hills above Munfrees. I had climbed to my perch high above the valley to survey my kingdom. The sun was warm that day, but an occasional tendril of chilly air hinted at approaching cold. Far out at sea a dark cloud bank sat on the horizon.

Below me, the Ahern brothers were clearing a field that had lain fallow that summer. One of them was wielding a scythe, both hands grasping the handles attached to the long wooden pole, his body flowing with the rhythm of the work. From my vantage point, the work was a sequence of colours. The sun reflected off the blade, and it looked as if a flash of curved light were cleaving the grass. The plants had begun to wither with the swift shortening of the daylight hours. Standing, the tops of the plants were yellow in the sunlight, but when they fell to the ground the colour shifted to brown. It was as if the light drained from them as they were cut. The exposed stubble was still green. The other brother followed a few feet behind and used a long-handled wooden rake to roll the cut grass into mounds. The Aherns’ progress through the field was marked by a growing arc of what from a distance looked like a newly mown lawn striped with rows of faded grass.

The scythe hissed as it sliced through the grass. Occasionally it would hit an exposed stone with a clang. Once the brother with the scythe paused to sharpen it, and the scraping sound of the hone against the blade carried clear over the distance. From time to time, they paused to smoke. Then they would rest their weight on their tools and talk in low voices, emphasizing whatever points they were making by pointing to the sea or toward the remaining uncut grasses. I think they saw the cloud bank out at sea and were worried that the approaching front might bring rain that would make it impossible for them to finish that day.

One of them stopped and walked over to the wall surrounding the field. He unbuttoned his flies and pissed against the wall. The arc of his water glistened in the light. When he finished, he shook himself and buttoned up again. When he rejoined his brother, he made some remark and both men laughed.

After a time, I tired of watching them. Their activities were too repetitious to hold my interest for long. I lay back and watched the sky. It was even less varied than the scene below me, but it was a blank canvas for my imagination. Overhead the sky was clear, but to the west there were high streamers, vapours almost too thin and tenuous to be called clouds, mere suggestions of white threads against the sky. They were evenly spaced as if they had been combed or raked. Perhaps the Aherns’ activities gave me that notion.

It was then that I saw the Cloud Gardener. He was almost invisible, nothing more than light of a different weight. He was dressed much like all the other farmers in the valley—an old cloth cap settled easily on his head, shapeless coat and trousers, a grey collarless shirt, heavy stiff shoes. He bent over and examined the clouds, following them westward to the approaching bank of clouds. He lifted the rake from his shoulders and rolled the cloud bank forward toward us. He worked his way down the row of clouds, moving them steadily toward the shore. There was nothing hurried about his movements. He had all the time in the world, he seemed to imply. If not these clouds, there would be more tomorrow or the next day. The sky was liberal with its clouds. The movements were practiced, familiar.

That night, I wrote the original version of my story of the Cloud Gardener. It was the first time I had written on a subject of my own devising instead of to a theme suggested by my mother or Aunt Alyce as part of my lessons. We had finished our tea, the dishes had been washed and put away, and the cloth folded and set atop the dresser. My mother had pumped the white gas lamp and then lit the mantle. The smell of the sulphur match and the burning mantle lingered in the air, as she put the glass globe in place and adjusted the flame so that it didn’t smoke. The lamp hissed. Candles burn silently, but those lamps hissed.

The three of us sat around the table. I remember clearly that my mother was reading, and Aunt Alyce was writing letters. From time to time, my mother would read aloud a sentence or a phrase that she liked, or Aunt Alyce might ask if my mother wanted to add a note to the letter she was writing. Other than that the only sounds were the turning of a page in my mother’s book, the scratching of Alyce’s pen and my pencil against the paper, the occasional creaking of a chair as we shifted our weight, the rain against the roof, and more distantly the waves breaking against the shore. So many of my memories of Munfrees in those days are aural. It was so quiet there and life so unhurried that even slight sounds occupied more of the air than they do now.

I opened my foolscap tablet and began writing. I had seen my mother and my aunt engage in that activity for as long as I had been alive, and the mechanics of it were familiar to me. I wasn’t allowed to use a pen yet. Fountain pens were still the most common means of writing then, and my mother and aunt probably feared (with justification) the results of any close encounter between myself and ink. I sharpened four or five pencils and set them out in a neat row to my right so that once I began, I would not have to stop to deal with a dull pencil or a broken lead. If my mother or Aunt Alyce found my behaviour surprising, they did not comment upon that in my presence.

That is one of the gifts they gave me—the dignity of allowing me to consider writing as something I might choose to do, or not. They might correct my spelling or my grammar or suggest ideas for me to consider, but they never derided my attempts to write. Nor did they praise them extravagantly. Unless they were assignments in the lessons they taught me, they never asked to see what I had written but waited until I felt my work was ready to be shown to them. They never even once remarked on my decision to use my initials rather than my full name when writing. To this day, I do not know why the young Patrick Ross Brennan transformed himself into another person when he became an author.

The Cloud Gardener
P. R. Brennan
October 21, 1951

The Cloud Gardener lives in an old stone bothy on a high mountain. He takes care of all the clouds. Every morning, after he has his breakfast and his tea, he picks up his rake and goes out to the sky fields to work. Some days he goes west and pulls the rain clouds in from the sea. Some days he pushes the clouds away so that the sun can shine. If a little cloud wanders off and gets lost, he goes after it and brings it back. When a bad cloud comes, he hits it with lightning and thunder and chases it off. Most people can’t see him because he’s invisible so they don’t know he is there and he doesn’t have any friends. That makes him very lonely.

One day, the Cloud Gardener was working near Munfrees helping clouds over the gate in the hills. A boy was climbing a hill to his secret place. Mr Garrity’s dog was with him. The boy was throwing a stick for the dog to catch. The dog is barking because he likes chasing sticks. The Cloud Gardener stopped and watched them. He wanted to join the boy and the dog.

He forgot to watch the clouds, and they began to drift about. Soon they covered up the boy and the dog, and they got lost. The boy couldn’t see the dog, and he called for him to come back but the dog was looking for the stick and he couldn’t find it because the clouds were thick and it was dark.

When the Cloud Gardener saw what had happened, he rushed about pushing the clouds back into place. The dog found the stick and he ran back to the boy, his tail wagging. The boy, who had magic eyes, waved to the Cloud Gardener and called out ‘Thank you.’ The dog also had very good eyes, and he wagged his tail and barked ‘thank you’ to the Cloud Gardener. That made the Cloud Gardener very happy, and he wasn’t lonely any more.

The End

I reread what I had written. I had just been introduced to commas and I added them liberally. I was quite satisfied with my effort. Then I closed the cover of my tablet and put it and the pencils away with my other school supplies. I pulled out the book I had been reading and carried it back to the table to join my mother and Aunt Alyce.

It would be another dozen years before I encountered Yeats’ lines

                                       A lonely impulse of delight
                                        Drove to this tumult in the clouds

There are times that poetry resonates immediately within, and those lines rang in me like a bell.

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