The Cloud Killer
To love her was to extend to remote contacts, to vibrate with far-off stars we never suspected. But her center . . . no, she had no center, just emptiness as in a whirlwind, that sucked me in and smothered me.—Octavio Paz
For the past 18 months, I’ve slept and eaten amongst some of the most abhorrent monsters in the world. To be categorized as one of these men is even more torturous than the idea of serving life for a crime I didn’t commit. But even if I had, the punishment is still too severe. The ruling was based on jury nullification, not justice. I was the first man ever convicted of this crime and the system made an example out of me. My case will be retried in less than an hour. Right now I’m at the courthouse, wearing a cheap suit and sitting in a holding room. I deeply dread the humiliation I’m about to face, and know the protestors are gathering outside the window. I can’t bear to look out and risk catching a glimpse of the empty sky.
I first saw the cloud two years ago. She was no more than a pinched-off wisp hanging below a large cumulus. She floated low, far from the blue, and aimlessly drifted into my garden. I didn’t want to seem rude, so I told her it was getting dark and I felt sleepy. “A house is no place for a cloud,” I said. But she followed me to the door. I was afraid to close it. When was all of her inside? A last trailing wisp of misty frill and the door softly shut itself.
I went into the kitchen and the cloud followed. In a few seconds, she turned from white to grey and appeared much bulkier. I grabbed a glass and opened the freezer. A mist leaked out and as it touched the cloud’s surface it chilled a handful of condensed droplets, turned them into frosty foam. The cloud was captivated. She moved closer and more droplets frosted. “Stay away from the freezer,” I said, slamming the door and shooing her. I brushed off the foam and left it melting on the floor.
The cloud floated beside me in the garden, drifted over my wilting begonias as a soft rain spattered from her. Flimsy forget-me-nots opened like small blue eyes. The cloud poured over my roses and buds bloomed as large as baby fists—a few burst—and the cloud sucked the petals into her funneling shape; then little pieces of the cloud’s funnel spun apart and became miniature funnels themselves, tiny dust devils bouncing off the pink heads of geraniums.
When the cloud returned to her original popcorn shape, my reflection rippled over her contours. Frightened and exhilarated, I dragged her into the house and locked her in the bathroom. At first she was quiet. Then she turned into a funnel and crushed the cabinet, shredded the shower curtain, soaked the floor in toilet water. One thing I won’t tolerate is my possessions being destroyed, so I shouted at her. She broke down, cried—fat raindrops fell. I felt guilty, exhausted. We collapsed in the hallway.
The weeks passed. We had happy moments. She turned bright orange at dawn and pink at dusk; she wafted with a train of mist behind her and the tiny droplets on her blunt edges glistened like pearls. Some days she was pale, thin, almost fog. Lines of blue sky showed through her like veins in a wrist. She wrapped herself around my shoulders. She glided and flowed serenely. When playful, she turned herself into cute animal shapes: a buffalo hovering above the stove, a sheep hopping over the bed, a giraffe nibbling on leaves. She impersonated starlets: a sedated Monroe, seductive Mansfield, or coy Bacall. I could stare at her for hours. Sometimes she performed fellatio on me with the tip of her funnel.
Then I’d lose my temper over something stupid. She couldn’t drift over the roof without me accusing her of wanting to stray. I took her afternoon showers as personal insults, like they meant she was unhappy and I was a failure. My feelings for her were so demented and strange that I lost control over them. During our worst fights, I’d confess the unnaturalness of our relationship and beg her to leave. But she wouldn’t. The fights grew more intense and she became physically violent. She followed me into town, hovering above my head and raining. She would separate herself into two clouds so she could make lightning and thunder. Once she shot a bolt across the room and shattered my drinking glass. I had to draw the shards out of my hand with tweezers. I tried kindness and I tried cruelty. Still, she refused to go.
One night when she was thundering loudly, an irreplaceable Chinese vase fell off the mantel and crashed into tiny pieces. I marched into the kitchen and pulled the scotch from the freezer. As she drifted into the kitchen I ignored her. I poured a stiff belt and gulped it down, then another. Tucking the bottle under my arm, I slammed the freezer door and headed to my bedroom, slamming that door as well. I sat in the bed, waiting to see her telltale fronds of frogginess coming under the crack of the door, but it didn’t happen. “And stay out!” I shouted loud enough for her to hear, and drank myself to sleep.
The next morning she was gone. She wasn’t outside either. Only birds and contrails occupied the sky. I drove into town. I looked for her inside the bakeries and delicatessens, gift shops and quaint restaurants. I searched the library, post office, train station, park, and I walked under the bridges and through the back alleys and I searched over the rooftops of every house for miles. It was long past sunset when I returned home.
Still unused to my new life alone, I tentatively wandered through my house. I couldn't get her off my mind. I tried taking a shower, but the steam it created reminded me of our moments of passion. Turned on the TV—just in time to catch the weather. I realized that I had eaten nothing all day. I went downstairs to the kitchen and disconsolately began boiling water for spaghetti, until little wisps rose from the pan like accusatory fingers.
I needed more scotch. Did I have another bottle? I opened the freezer. It was caked with snowy ice; I could barely see in. In my depression and stupor, it wasn't until my hand was halfway to the defrost button that I realized with horror what I was looking at.
Of course. She must have slipped in last night while the door was open. I stood there staring at her glittery remains.
I unplugged the fridge, then sat there on the floor watching her drip away. Then I saw the blurry bulge of a bottle emerge. In a fit of rage I grabbed an ice pick from the garage and hacked the rest of her out, dumping the ice in a bucket. I opened the bottle and drank deep, taking a savage joy from the cold her corpse had left in the liquor.
The next day, I felt surprisingly better. I remembered the water cycle pictures from back in grade school. Something like this was bound to occur eventually. Within a few days my memories of her were amorphous. Maybe it had all just been a hazy illusion. Still, fog in the mornings would give me chills.
About a month later, a police officer knocked on my door. He flashed a photograph of the cloud and asked if I knew where she was. At first I tried to deny our involvement, but people had seen us together. He wanted to have a look around. I waited impatiently as he searched my house. Finally he walked into the sitting room, the metal bucket swaying by his side and the ice pick clanking inside of it. “Mr. Lewis,” he began, “you’ll need to come down to the station for further questioning now.”
My trial started a few weeks later. A band of miserable protestors constantly chanted outside the courthouse. It was humiliating. During the trial, I cried several times. The prosecuting attorney made me sound like an abusive pervert. She asked how often I had sexual contact with the cloud, and if I felt a sense of control when I locked her in the bathroom. I kept telling her how I asked the cloud to leave and how she refused.
I explained the cloud’s violent behavior, how she ruined my collectibles, and how I didn’t know she was in the freezer when I shut the door. “It was an accident,” I kept saying. “Maybe even suicide.”
“Mr. Lewis admits it took almost six hours for her to melt,” the prosecutor told the jury. “Six hours. And what did he do during those six hours? He went downstairs and made himself dinner and then he fell asleep in a warm bed. The cloud had no such options. Mr. Lewis stole them when he locked her in the freezer and let her precious life melt down the drain.”
I was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life. My case has since drawn much attention from various civil rights groups. I heard of a woman who was recently charged for murdering a tree in Glory, Arkansas. The oak was rotting on her lawn, so she brutally took an axe to it. Another man stands trial for his questionable relationship with an ocean wave. Apparently she froze into a statue, which he gleefully sold to a restaurant. The waiter made ice cubes out of her and chilled beer bottles on top of them.
I’m scared. There’s a small window in this room, but I won’t look out. Most prisoners have serene moments of contemplation while musing on the sky; some can even imagine the possibility of freedom in that endlessly blue abyss, but this emotional luxury is no longer available to me.
The door opens. My attorney enters. He’s trying to look hopeful, but I can tell he’s worried. Two officers wait beside him. As I walk down the hall to the courtroom, I hear those miserable protestors outside. I suppose they like to think of themselves as young, political environmentalists who are out to save the world. They have no imagination. I can hear them chanting loudly: “Cloud Killer! Cloud Killer! Cloud Killer!”
Jennifer Koe lives in Salisbury, NC where she owns a used bookstore. She also runs a prison book project and writes book reviews for the local newspaper. Her poetry and prose have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and have most recently appeared in The New York Quarterly, La Fovea, Culture Magazine, and Margie. She is currently working on a novel.