Clouds in the Shape of Dragons

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Today I am washing dishes as Nova Scotia fog drifts behind the glass of the window above the sink. My five-year-old son, with trembling lip and downcast eyes, tells me that he’s the one—not Girl—who put pennies into the computer. “I wanted to tell you the truth, Mama.”

“That is very, very bad for the computer,” I say. “But thank you for telling me. Thank you for being so brave.” He shakes and sobs as I hug him. “Breathe,” I tell him. “Just breathe.” His chest rises and falls, rises and falls, and then it seems a terrible weight unmoors from him. Seconds later, he is zooming around the house with his sister.

“We are dragons!” he shouts. “We fly and shoot fire!”

*   *   *

I am 14 or 15, lying in tall grass next to a boy who is both my friend and also the son of my stepfather’s friend. The son of a Presbyterian minister. It is summer in Alaska, in the months before he will move away. I am certain that we will always know each other.

Lying on our backs in the grass in this way, we are invisible to all but the clouds that move across the sky above us. “I used to do this when I was a little kid,” he says. “I’d try to find the shape of animals in the clouds. A tiger, an elephant, a winged beast.”

I know he wants to kiss me but he is too kind to take what has not been given. So we hold hands and watch the sky. I tell him, “I wish I were a cloud. I wish I were free.”

Years later, I will write him a letter and tell him a secret and he will not believe me. And then for some time after, he will write to me again and again but I will never never never reply. I should not have told; he should have believed. I still don’t know which is true. I still don’t know.

*   *   *

Twenty-four years old and in my first few months of a new life in Japan, I have been sitting for three hours with a stone in my hand at the edge of Lake Ezu in Kumamoto. I am working out metaphors, a single unmoving cloud overhead. I think,

regret is a stone
turning slowly
in the hand

a stone is a story
turning slowly
in the mind

a story is a stone
turning slowly
in the heart

When at last I throw my burden into water, the cloud shatters and then reforms. As I walk home afterward, it occurs to me that it is not people who haunt us—only moments of encounter.

*   *   *

I am 30 and walking a one-lane road between rice paddies nearing harvest, when the breeze shifts tall grass and I know that I am not alone. The grass shifts again and I see them full-on—a half-dozen women’s heads lashed to poles. The farmers—I understand this a few seconds later—have fashioned scarecrows from scraps of cloth and mannequins, probably throwaways from a nearby salon. Stylish black hair flutters in the breeze. For a long time I cannot move. None of us blink.

When I get home, I find that my husband, in his fourth month of cloister at a monastery in the mountains, has written me a letter. He is a new monk, or unsui—clouds and water. He writes, I must be supple enough to flow and form and reform and disappear. He tells me the story of koi who don’t know they are wise and powerful dragons.

I want to kiss him. I am lonely. I wonder if we will ever be brave enough to have children. I wonder if I would be a bad mother.

*   *   *

It is a year ago, not long after moving to this new country, and I am driving my son home from school when he shouts, “Look, Mama! Dragons!”

“What?”

“The clouds are shaped like dragons and the dragons are eating the clouds!”

“Just a minute, Sweetie,” I tell him. “There’s a lot of traffic. I need to pay attention right now. I need to pick up your sister.”

“Now the dragons are eating the dragons! Mama, look! Look! WHY DON’T YOU LOOK?”

Because I want to get it right and know that I can’t, I tell him, “Sweetie, calm down. Listen, I’ll stop. Right here. I’ll park the car and you can show me.”

“But hurry, Mama! Look!”

I slow down, pull over, shut off the engine. Cars zoom past us one after another. Above everything, clouds move across blue sky. “Okay. Where are they? Show me.”

“I can’t—they’re gone now. They’re all gone. THEY ARE ALL GONE!”

I look at my son’s tear-streaked face in the rear-view mirror. I look at the dashboard clock and then the slowing line of cars filling up the road next to us, hemming us in. I look back up at the sky. I think, What do I do now? What do I do? What do I do?

My son sniffs, takes in a breath. “Let’s just breathe, Mama. Let’s just breathe.”

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