Cloud Herder

A man fights for survival in the desert. The first (short) story in the world of “The Forgotten Creatures”.  •  18:00 min read

 

Sand blasts forward, hurtling up sheer rocks into the yellowing sky. Ahead, a plane escapes. Whirring blades. Pitted metal. Open cockpit. The flying contraption, a gravity defying pile of airborne junk, lifts the sand beneath into a whirling trail behind. Lumis glances up at the rearview mirror dangling from the windshield, only to see his wake get consumed by a bigger storm. A sand storm. He tightens the scarf back over his nose, snug below his splattered goggles, before increasing speed.

But a shadow overtakes him, eclipsing the sun and darkening the cockpit. A bird. With a massive wingspan rivaling the Flyer, it passes over. Then drops. Free diving, frolicking, gliding, letting the wind ruffle its feathers. Lumis smiles behind his scarf.

“Showoff.”

It doesn’t matter; the bird can’t hear him over the engine anyway. And there were bigger problems at hand — like sand storms. Together, they turn parallel to the storm’s front and race toward hunchbacked hills rising ragged from the dunes. The Flyer dips between razor-sharp cliffs gleaming bronze. The sun’s light, obscured by the approaching storm, fades. The engine reverberates off the rock walls. Wheels retract.

The Flyer does not descend. They continue to hurtle forward while rocks on either side draw closer and closer together. His mind races back to every line of the preflight checklist. Brakes. Switches. Flaps. Cables. Hands tighten around the yoke as he pushes it forward again. Nothing. No resistance. Of course, it had to be the cables.

Lumis pulls back on the yoke. Still nothing. Did he snap the cable? His checklist was meant to prevent a situation like this from happening. Ever. After punching the useless yoke, he waves his hand up in the air.

“Hey! Hey, over here!”

The bird turns its head.

“It’s broken!” Looking ahead, the chasm narrows. Already, the wing tips were close to the chasm’s sides. “Push it down!” The bird tilts its head in confusion. Motioning up and down with his hands, he yells. “Now!”

The bird flies over the Flyer and flaps hard, forcing air down. His stomach drops as the seat seems to fall out from underneath of him. Lumis grips the cockpit sides and braces for impact before the bird flaps again. The Flyer slams to the ground, brakes squealing, metal scraping against rock, sparks flying. The bird maneuvers sideways, narrowly missing breaking its own wings, before landing.

The dust settles. But already, sand is blowing above them, trickling down into the chasm like an hourglass counting down the minutes — the minutes they need for finding cover. Lumis untangles himself from the seatbelt and grabs the emergency pack. If only he could move this metal junk of a beast before the storm overtakes them. With one rueful glance back at the Flyer, he follows the bird deeper into the chasm. Even with goggles and a scarf, his mouth feels dry and gritty. The sliver of sky above turns orange, then black. They’re out of time.

Visibility: gone.

Bird: disappeared.

“Cirrus! Cirrus! Where…”

Lumis freezes, looking in every direction, not knowing what direction he is looking in. He lowers his pack and stoops over it, hand fumbling inside until it brushes up against cold metal. It’s a rectangular box with a large lamp on one side and a handle on the top. He switches it on and light floods the darkness.

“Cirrus!”

Nothing. Behind him a shadow moves. He spins around to confront two light-reflecting orbs staring back at him. Lumis jumps, his back colliding into the rock wall. The lantern flickers between him and Cirrus.

“Next time, try to answer back, will you?”

Keeping one hand on the rock wall, Lumis works his way forward with head bent down, lantern held high, and Cirrus to his side. He almost stumbles face first when the rocks disappear from his touch. Shining the light to his left, he can just make out where the rocks end. From there, it’s emptiness. The moment he turns into it, the roaring subsides and a cave appears. Stumbling in, Lumis collapses into a corner in exhaustion.

“Hey, I would love to pat you on the head, give you a treat, and say ‘good boy’. But right now,” Lumis leans back against Cirrus’ side and closes his eyes, “I’m going to sleep.” For two weeks, they have not been able to find a cloud. Maybe tomorrow. Hopefully tomorrow.

His thoughts race forward to tomorrow’s uncertainties. What if the storm destroyed the flyer? What if he can’t fix the flyer? What if they’re stuck in the middle of the desert?

What if…

When Lumis open his eyes, tomorrow’s uncertainties became today’s difficulties. Stretching, he walks outside into the chillness, the morning light illuminating the chasm’s floor. The Flyer is covered in sand, but wedged tight and safe. Inspecting underneath, he finds the offending cable hanging loose, snapped in two during landing.

Lumis breathes out, letting the heavy weight of “what ifs” fall off his shoulder. This is bad, but it could have been worse. In the Flyer’s back compartment, he pulls out a repair toolbox. Inside, a replacement cable. Every disaster can be averted with careful planning, or at least met with prepared tools and supplies. As Lumis fixes their only chance at survival in an unforgiving wasteland, Cirrus watches on with half-lidded eyes from a sand drift.

By evening, the Flyer is repaired and the sand dunes around the wheels dug out. But even a grumbling stomach doesn’t stop him from mentally going through his checklist.

Tires? Check.

Flaps? Check.

Brakes. Check.

Cables. Check.

Gas level? Enough to get home.

On and on he circles the Flyer before jumping in with goggles on and scarf wrapped tight. Cirrus, tired of being cooped up, jumps into the air and stretches his wings before disappearing over the chasm’s edge. Engines revved, Lumis follows Cirrus’ lead and pulls back the yoke, sending the Flyer into the clear sky.

As they fly over the sprawling desert, the sun’s harsh white light softens into a golden glow. And there, surrounded by stunted mountains, a drop of an oasis, one drip of green paint on a never-ending yellowed canvas.

Lumis’ home.

Approaching, sunbaked clay and warm jasmine rises to meet him. Rows of trees, not much taller than a full-grown man, fly by with dizzying speed. Lumis engages the breaks and the Flyer skids to a stop. A hunk of dried bread rolls to a stop on the floor between his feet; he must have forgotten it in the midst of the emergency landing yesterday. Jumping to the ground, he knows Cirrus will appreciate this more than he will.

“Cirrus!” Wind carries the the crumbs out of his hand. “Dumb bird, where are you?” Lumis grumbles, but deep down, he knows he owes everything to that harebrained creature.

Walking by the trees, he peers down each row, looking for a tuft of feathers peeping out from the leaves. Then he hears a conspicuous rustling. And its not from the wind. Lumis walks down the next row and spots Cirrus tiptoeing on a slender limb, eating an ocjota fruit right off the tree.

“What do you think…”

Cirrus stops in midair, beak open, ready to finish the ocjota. Then the limb breaks, sending ocjota fruit, bird, and a third of the tree to a giant heap on the ground. Lumis stands there, hands on hip. Flapping wings, sheepish eyes, ruffling tail feathers — Cirrus crawls out of twisted limbs with ocjota juice smeared on his beak and grabs the bread from his hand.

“Crazy bird,” he mutters. But Lumis feels like he’s the one who is crazy, talking to a speechless animal who can only squawk.

He scans the horizon, hoping to see something. Anything. One wisp of water vapor floating by would be enough. Mirages is all he gets. Lumis — with Cirrus tagging behind — walks back to his house, a yurt made from animal skins stretched over slender poles cut from ocjota trees.

Lumis opens the flap to his house and looks back at Cirrus. Such an awkward bird at first glance. Gambling gait with those clawed feet at the end of the his wings. Walking on all fours. Always stopping the second a gnat flies by. Whatever insect, any insect, and Cirrus is off, chasing it down with snapping beak. But now, he stops behind Lumis with dejected head and downcast eyes.

“You can come in.” He pats Cirrus on the head. “But don’t think I’m happy about the ocjota tree.” Cirrus pounces in, oblivious to Lumis’ last statement of displeasure.

However frustrated Lumis still was, it did not last long. Without Cirrus, there would be no clouds. No clouds, no rain. No rain, no ocjota fruit. And no ocjota fruit means he is a dead man in a land so hard dry, his bones would have to sun bleach in a surface grave. His thoughts are broken by Cirrus’ pecking in his empty clay bowl.

“Okay, okay.”

Lumis lights the hanging lamp in the center of his house. He pulls out a bag of seeds harvested from last year’s crop and pours it into Cirrus’ bowl. Sitting on his bed, chin on fist, he watches the flickering light dance across feathers sheen, casting shadows of monster — not bird — onto the canvas behind.

Even with limited possessions, Cirrus takes up most of the available space inside, leaving little room for decorating, much less for Cirrus’ feather preening, miscalculated turning, and sprawling stretching. The temperature falls, and he gets up to make dinner over the fire. Chopping cactus flowers, mashing nuts, boiling beans. Each ingredient measured to the exact amount. The result: gelatinous soup yet light on the tongue and filling in the stomach. A little ocjota fruit also helps, cutting through the nut and bean’s heaviness. And as he lifts his own clay bowl to his mouth, he hopes for a better tomorrow.

 

 

A pale pink sun makes the early fog blush. The air is heavy with ripening ocjota, alluring Lumis and Cirrus out from the canvas flaps into a new day. Ocjota flowers are small, a delicate white wafting fragrance reminiscent of jasmine and lime, yet undercut by an herbal earthiness. The fruit is guava like in shape with plentiful seeds inside, surrounded by pink bright flesh. But they are not burgundy ripe right now; not yet. Today, they are fist-sized balls of red in need of a good rain and another week of sunshine.

Striding toward the Flyer, Lumis pats the weathered metal before walking around and checking his machine.

Tires? Check.

Flaps? Check.

Gas level? Low.

The fuel comes from pressed nut oil distilled in an elevated cistern, the rusting obelisk standing guard over his yurt. After hooking the hose and filling the tank — gravity pushing gas down the long rubber tube — Lumis climbs into the pilot seat and cranks the engine. Black smoke pours out as the whirring gears and pistons rev to life.

The Flier swivels, facing the long path ahead, and accelerates. Cirrus runs behind, flapping its massive wings for lift. Together, they rise and circle over their Dwelling before turning their sights toward the East. They pass the hills, sitting hunchbacked in a circle around the oasis, a fire of miniature red ocjotas from the sky. Minutes stretch into hours, cracked ground stretches into barrenness, yet the sky — a blue so pale it looks sick — remains clear.

The ground steams, the horizon blurs, everything in sight warps at second glance. Heat. It seeps into Lumis’ leather jacket, leather hat, and goggles. It plays tricks with the eyes, cruel games with the mind. He blinks. What is ahead is not a mirage; he can feel it on his tongue. Cirrus bristles with delight, then uncertainty. Ahead, massive white clouds grow to the atmospheric limit, soft towers brooding dark underneath.

These are no ordinary rain clouds. Lumis slows the engine down and looks up. He occasionally sees the lone wisp stranded, needing a push in the right direction, but never this.

This is a thunderstorm.

But it can’t be too bad, right? The trees are thirsty, the cracks in the ground growing deeper. Him and Cirrus haven’t been able to find a cloud in two weeks. They need the rain.

Given the signal, two fingers pointing ahead, Cirrus shoots forward. They try to circle the cloud line, but it’s massive. After getting on the other side, Cirrus stretches his wings out to full length and beats hard. The muscles bulge in his neck, the feathers whistle in the air, the entire firmaments shake. Cirrus is no average bird; whatever he is, Cirrus is impossibly strong. Strong enough to move clouds. Lumis struggles to steady his craft, moving out of the disturbed air zone. Lock engaged, the Flyer hovers at a standstill in midair. Out of his rucksack, he grabs the survey protractor and measures the change in distance of the shadows below. Seconds stretch into minutes.

The shadow creeps forward.

The clouds are heading toward the Dwelling. Given the thumbs up, Cirrus moves perpendicular to the ground and glides for a rest, floating alongside Lumis. The clouds rumble.

Growling.

Crackling.

It’s as if the friction of moving against the ground’s grain, forced into a new direction, sends sparks of lightening out from the disgruntled mass. The storm moves slow and Lumis decides to head back. By the time they land on the dusty strip together, the sun is descending from it’s afternoon zenith. The sky is clear, but in a couple of hours, droplets will spot the ground, moisten the dust, and clean off the Flyer’s dirty sheen.

Cirrus runs over, out of breath.

“Good job, boy.” Lumis throws Cirrus a crumbling biscuit. It falls to ground and breaks into disintegrating pieces.

“What’s the matter?”

Peering into Cirrus’ eyes, Lumis can tell something is off. Even the feathers on Cirrus’ neck and spine stick up, alert to the slightest disturbance of air. Tracking the direction of Cirrus’ troubled gaze, Lumis looks to the horizon. The storm has grown since they redirected it, becoming a monstrous billow laden with half an ocean, ready to unleash its heavy burden.

Arrival: less than an hour.

Lumis sprints for the house and tears inside, ripping crates open and emptying their contents. A snaking three-fold braid falls at his feet. Rope. Racing back outside, he tightens knots tighter and hammers stakes deeper to keep his home bound to the ground. Cirrus curls up in a whimpering ball below a fig palm, every frond frozen in the stillness. The bird watches Lumis scurry with hammer, more rope, and more stakes.

The Flyer. He almost forgot.

After Lumis bloodies his knuckles taking the rusty pins out, he folds the Flyer’s collapsible wings and unbolts the twin propellors.

The wind picks up, the sky threatens rain, and the wet air makes the flowers more fragrant. The entryway folds to his house flap in every direction, and the small fire inside glows brighter in the increasing darkness. Gray turns to black, gusts turn to unforgiving blasts. Lumis turns for safety inside.

In the center of his house, a small square is dug out in the floor, a dirt enclosure for his daily fire. Warmth at night, food for waking hours, companionship for lonely evenings — fire is a constant Lumis can rely on. But these winds whipping in every direction without warning are different, shaking off any attempts to be contained. This massive cumulonimbus is no small cloud astray, passive and willing to be led, ready to softly drizzle its water in a sun shower.

As he sits cross legged by the fire, hand on Cirrus’ back rising and falling in an uneasy slumber, Lumis feels a knot twist in the middle of his stomach. The tightening knot grows bigger, climbing up his throat until finally settling between his neck and chin. He tries to fight it, but it settles upon him like the dark clouds outside.

He jumps up and paces around the fire. The wind, searching every crack and opening, begs to come in. Metal clangs, lightening flashes, thunder cracks, ropes loosen, panic deepens.

There is nothing Lumis can do.

And is this not why he moved to this god-forsaken desert? As far away from civilization as possible, a place for him to make it on his own without anyone intervening? He relied on no one and owed no one anything; he brewed his own fuel, grew his own food, brought his own rain (with help, of course).

Lumis peeks between the flaps and assesses the damage outside. Every ocjota tree bends, their tops almost touching the ground. A gust almost knocks him off his feet. When he steadies himself, Lumis watches flower after flower, ocjota fruit after ocjota fruit, get stripped off naked limbs. He clenches his fist, ramming them down into the air.

“We’re going back out there.”

Cirrus shoots his head up, no longer in a sleepy daze.

“Don’t give me that look! If we brought this storm here, then we can turn it around before all hell breaks loose.”

He grabs his raincoat and buttons the front. Pulling the hood over this head and shielding his eyes with his hand, he steps out into the elements — wind and water against a mortal man and his bird. Together, bent down, they make their way across the exposed yard. Another ocjota tree breaks, its trunk splintering. The crack fills Lumis with new urgency and he pushes harder toward his Flyer.

Wings pull out, propellors bolt on. One nut slips in the rain, and he almost loses it to the mud. With the Flyer action-ready, Lumis climbs into the cockpit and cranks the sleeping metal hulk to life. Cirrus clambers behind Lumis, not daring to fly out quite yet.

A lightening bolt crashes into the fuel tank, turning the stolid container into an exploding ball of fire. Burning shrapnel pierce the yurt. In seconds, the wood floor inside combusts. Flames and rain collide in sizzling disarray. With gritted teeth, Lumis disengages the break and jerks the throttle down.

Broken ocjota trees fly by, row after row, lit by the burning glow that was once Lumis’ Dwelling. He fights the wind with white-knuckled hands on the yoke, barely able to keep the Flyer on the runway. Sliding over slick mud, they make it off the ground in one piece. The whole Flyer creaks with pressure, and more than once he drops altitude with stomach-churning consequences.

The burning wreckage disappears behind them.

From this elevation, Lumis thinks he might catch a glimpse of where the storm wall ends. But he can’t. All reference points below are obscured; stars and moon and sun above have disappeared. They are adrift in a barren expanse, not seen or known by anyone. Lumis tries to yell over the roar.

“Cirrus! Do you think you can do it? Cirrus, can you hear me?”

Cirrus can’t hear Lumis, much less Lumis hear Cirrus. With a dejected sigh, Lumis points the battered Flyer down to earth. But now, he is surrounded by the same gray mass in every direction — driving torrents of pure water, an ocean above sea level, tossing them along in disorienting circles. Hands tighten around the yoke as he pushes it forward again. Nothing. No resistance. The idle yoke sits uselessly in his hand.

There is nothing Lumis can do.

 

 

A ring of light grows on the eastern horizon, upward and outward until the sky is a gradient of blues. Fire strikes. A brush of orange signs the waking sun, still hours from rising.

Lumis takes all this in through broken goggles. His body aches to the marrow, his head pulsing with a dull thud, his clothes still soaked from the storm. Last night with all its nightmares feels a thousand years ago. He digs his fingers into the sand and struggles up. When Lumis turns his head, he sees his smoking Flyer. Propellors gone, window glass shattered, blackened metal twisted into grotesque angles — now it was a metal junk of a beast. He must have been ejected somehow in the crash. And survived. He digs his fingers into the sand again, this time with silent gratitude.

Where is Cirrus?

His hands grip the sand into a hard ball, but it escapes through the cracks between his fingers. He pulls himself up, despite shooting pain in his lower ribs, and limps to the wreck. When Lumis attempts to pull back the metal, the smell of searing flesh slams him stumbling back. Pulling himself back together while nursing his burnt hand, he pans the landscape. Not a feather or trace.

Taking a deep breath makes needles stab into his side, but he forces his feet to shuffle. Ahead, hills rise and draw him forward. Shadows shrink. Random tufts of grass cling to the ground, sucking whatever moisture might be found in the earth. But Lumis trudges on, unaware of his surroundings. Only one thought burns into focus: find Cirrus. By the time Lumis reaches the hills, the air, once heavy with cool moisture, has dissipated in the sun’s face. Only a feather swirls on the ground.

A feather.

Ignoring his body’s protests, Lumis lunges for the one evidence of Cirrus’ existence. He holds it with trembling hands, his ragged exhales coming out over cracked lips, threatening to send the feather into the wild forever. Lost. Lumis tucks his newfound item inside his jacket before moving up the steep hill’s incline. His steps drag slower than the sun’s weary ascent to its zenith. The sky is too bright. The sun glinting off the rocks is too bright. Blacks dots swim before him taunting. He bends to lap water up from a dirty puddle. It’s too warm. Grimacing, he sits up and sees a heap of feathers.

Cirrus.

Lumis stumbles to his side, trying to whisper Cirrus’ name, but nothing comes out. When he puts his hand on the bird’s chest, Lumis winces. It feels like blazing knives are jabbing into his raw flesh, searing through every layer of skin till it reaches the bone and consumes it as well. He holds his blistered palm, fighting back the nausea.

“No!”

Lumis pound his other hand into the ground. His fist slams into sand. Over. And over. And over. But the earth does not budge to his raging. He struggles up, head tilted to they sky. Then he yells. Yells at all forces seen and unseen, cursing luck, misfortune, and existence itself. But despite the defiance, only the wind sweeping sand into languid circles responds. He sinks to his his knees, but tears never moisten his crusted eyelids. There isn’t enough water inside him. Cirrus’ eyes are sand crusted too.

And they’re open.

Lumis bends down to Cirrus’ side, his head level with the bird’s face. “Cirrus? Cirrus! Can you hear me?”

The eyelids waver, then close. Lumis stretches out his good hand to feel Cirrus’ breath. He is alive. They both are. Barely. Lumis then checks Cirrus’ body for blood, but can only find a broken wing fractured in half. There has to be something he can do.

“Remember?” he whispers. “You’re suppose to answer back when I call.”

Lumis looks around. In the distance, a heap of metal sends a thin smoke signal into the cloudless sky. In the other direction, hills with sparse grass turn into foothills with sparse trees and more grass. Graying fern leaves floating like feathers tip the trees’ skeletal frames and slender, bone-smooth trunks. The shade: scant. But it’s still shade.

Steadying Cirrus’ weight on his shoulder, they descend together in inches, aiming for the closest tree. As they draw nearer, Lumis looks beyond. Blue giants billow from the earth, the haze concealing their details. Except they are not clouds; these are plateaus flush with growth, drawn into an infinite line in either direction. When they stop, the sun sets on the plateau, then slips behind it.

He puts his back against the trunk, chest heaving with exhaustion, his clothes soaked through with sweat. Staring at the dusky plateau, memories flood back in a torrential downpour. Had he already forgotten when he first met Cirrus?

When he found Cirrus, he was only a half-naked chick covered in tufts of white and gray fluff. Flapping alone, wing broken. Then, Lumis did not know what to do, but he went about it anyway. He half-smiled at the memory: bandaging the wing with crudely tied knots after the fourth time, cradling it in his arms by the fire, squeezing water into its mouth from a soaked rag. Those wide eyes, so trusting and thoughtful and curious. As the sun set that night, the evening sky caught fire. The wispy clouds delicate as feathers, wind-swept at dizzying heights, reflected the suns’ burning ember before night closed in.

“Cirrus,” he had whispered in the past. He gazed at the colors above, holding the bird in his arms. “Cirrus will be your name.”

“Cirrus,” he whispers again, now in the present.

Lumis takes his coat off and uses his knife to cut the leather into long strips. He had bandaged Cirrus before. And he would do it again.

When night snuffs out the light and coldness seeps back over the land, a man and a bird lay huddled together by a fire. An acacia tree overlooks them, and further up, the constellation of Kalnu, the winged creature. In the darkness pin pricked with light, the tip of Kalnu’s right wing shines immovable. The North Star. Hinged on the star, the bird circles an endless nocturnal journey in clockwork motion. Controlled. Predictable. Unending.

The bird below and the man beside him reside in the terror and ecstasy known as life. Midnight passes. Stars dance their orbital pattern. Dawn approaches. Soon, the glowing ball of gas will rise again. And when it does, the man and bird will wake and confront this thing known as “life”. Uncontrollable. Unpredictable. And with a definite end.

But for now, Lumis and Cirrus sleep.

 

If you enjoyed this short story, make sure to check out my other story, “Where Yonder Ends.”

You can also read more about how this story was created and the inspiration behind it here: “Lewis vs Tolkien: What Can Creators Learn?”