Heart of Clouds
by Valentine Bonnaire
The beach was deserted the day that Teenie Alexander curled herself into a small ball in the big pile of driftwood somebody had fashioned into a kind of hut. It isn’t easy for any girl to be thirteen years old — but it really wasn’t for Teenie. She hugged herself and pulled her sweater tightly around her. She had run away from home that very morning.
The whole village had been whispering about The Wave for many years. It was a prophecy that a wave would hit the shore and wash away all the people into the depths. The sea gods would have their revenge on the land one day. Maybe it had been a rumor about that wave, except nobody had been listening or paying attention to the news about the dead zones in the ocean. Except Teenie. She was worried all the time. Her mom had been talking about the wave all morning because it was on the news again.
Teenie had her little journal with her — the one she always carried around so that she could write down poems if they chanced to come into her mind. It was made from paper, with the most beautiful design of colored flowers embossed in relief. And she had her Waterman pen. That had been a gift from her dad, before he’d gone. He’d said to her “Teenie, you have a heart made of clouds, you know that?”
“Never forget that, okay?”
He’d said it gruffly in the way he always talked to her like it was hard for him to really tell her he loved her. That was just how men acted she thought. They were so quiet most of the time.
“Never lose that little twinkle in your eye,” he’d said.
He had gone south like the other men in search of work after that because the opportunities in the village had gone away and nobody had a job anymore. She hadn’t heard from him in months, but it seemed like years. Her parents didn’t get along anymore, at all. So Teenie was quiet most of the time.
If it was hard to understand her dad, it was even harder to understand her mom. She’d been sick for a long time with what the doctors had called a depression and they’d given her all sorts of pills for that and so mostly she just sat in a chair and stared out the window at nothing. She said little these days, not to Teenie or anybody else.
Her eyes looked glazed over in a way. Not with tears but with something else that seemed very far away. Almost as if she were disconnected from life itself. It was like the village where they lived had folded in upon itself and all was quiet too. All the houses seemed the same. Just quiet. Quiet like they were waiting for something to happen but nobody knew quite what that was going to be.
Teenie stared out to sea watching the waves break and crest as they sent their plumes of seafoam high. It was too cold to go in now, since summer had come to a close — but all she wanted to do was throw herself into the water and feel clean again. Clean like the sea made her feel every time she was around it. Every day the beach was different. It was a place where lonely people went, too. Like whoever had made the driftwood hut she found herself in.
The water sparkled brilliantly and the sand was twinkly too. She scooped up a handful and let it fall slowly through her curled palm, like an hourglass. Over and over. The morning breeze was fresh and sweet even if she was a little cold. It didn’t matter. She scanned the long empty beach for signs of life. Suddenly like magic a line of pelicans appeared, brown pelicans just coasting along and skimming the surface dipping their wings now and then. Teenie had heard that pelicans sacrificed everything for their young. If the mother birds couldn’t find food they would peck at their own breast in order to do so. Maybe my dad is like a pelican, she thought.
And then the strangest thing happened. Teenie was looking at the clouds out to sea just past the pelicans and all of a sudden she saw a heart-shaped one. There it was! Almost like magic. It was as if her dad was there with her once she saw that heart.
The little cloud moved off by itself until it was floating in the sky all alone. Teenie reached for her pen so she could draw it. Maybe she was going to be able to write a poem after all. It was like her dad had sent her a sign right in the sky. I love you, dad, she thought, as she started to sketch it. In fact she decided to have it take up a whole page in her book. If she drew it really large it was like she could never forget he was with her always.
Whoever had built the driftwood hut had taken their time and done a really fabulous job. It was just like a house in a way. Sometimes those pieces of wood traveled for miles up and down the coast in search of a place to land. They were all different colors too, and shapes and sizes, and some of them were studded with stones and shells and barnacles and things that had attached themselves while the wood traveled and bobbed in the sea.
This hut was perfect. Two huge weathered gray pieces of the wood formed the arch for the doorway. Other large dark brown pieces were propped together until it was like a circle in a way. Or like a teepee shape. Then, smaller light brown and golden pieces filled in all the way around until only the tiniest cracks let the air through. Wild sandy colored bamboo poles were laid over the top. It was a traveler’s sea hut and it seemed like it was just left there for anyone who would come by.
Maybe I can just live here forever, she thought. Maybe whoever built it wouldn’t mind.
Teenie had never exactly run away from home before but she knew some other girls who had. She was just lonely. That’s how much she missed her dad since he’d been gone.
Her mom never talked to her except to say “finish lunch” or “do your homework” or “it’s time for bed” — and Teenie had so many things she wanted to ask, especially since she had turned thirteen but she didn’t exactly want to ask her mom important stuff when she looked so sad.
And besides, if she told her mom how much she missed Dad it wouldn’t have done any good anyway because her mom was always telling her how rotten he was for leaving them and that he had never been a decent husband in the first place until Teenie just wanted to put her hands over her ears and block out the sound of her mother’s voice.
“I love my dad” was what she replied at such times.
I love my dad, I love my dad, I love my dad…
She wrote that over and over and over on the page where she had drawn the little cloud. I love you dad, she whispered to the sea and sky as a couple of salty tears rolled down her cheeks.
The cloud had dissipated while she had been crying and the pelicans were gone too. Little did she know that a boy had been watching her the whole time from behind one of the sand dunes. He was Devlin Underwood and he had built the hut all by himself, and for himself, and now there was a girl sitting crying inside it.
Dev didn’t really feel like he could interrupt her because he didn’t want to embarrass her, or himself, so he just watched from a distance. He watched her cry for a little while and then she wiped her tears away with the sleeve of her purple sweater.
He watched her tear a page out of what looked like a secret notebook she was writing in and he watched her fold the paper into a tiny little shape. She tucked it into the rafters, wedging it in tightly up in the pointed roof of the hut. And then he watched while she trudged down the beach, going north — back to the village he guessed. He had never seen her before. She looked sad, and he could tell by the way she was walking, because she was watching the ground instead of the sky.
Once she had rounded the bend where the cliffs made a fold and she was out of sight he made his way to the hut. He climbed inside and quickly saw what she had done with that piece of paper. It was folded into a bird shape — like Origami things are. It was a tiny peace crane. Dev sat looking at it for a very long time. He didn’t touch it or even try to see what she had written. He just liked the fact that she had known how to fold paper into a little bird like that.
I should leave something for her here, he thought.
It had long been Devlin’s habit to hunt for things along the beach. His dad had taught him so much about the sea and her moods and all the things she held inside. He’d taught Dev to build structures like the hut and which caves were safe to climb in along the shore and what kind of shells or sea anemones lived in the tide pools.
Dev decided to leave her a shell. He thought maybe she’d be back again and besides, it would look like the tide had washed it up, anyway. She’d never know who put it there. Abalone, he thought. Devlin loved shells because of the secrets they carried inside.
They were a little like people to him. Sometimes they could be crusty and scarred on the outside — but on the inside they were beautiful. Really beautiful. Dev liked to carry a piece in his pocket like a talisman from the sea. He knew about The Wave, but, he wasn’t scared. It was like the sea had always been part of him since he was little. It might be a big wave, but that was all it was going to be. Just a wave. Nothing more. His dad had taught him to be afraid of nothing in the whole wide world.
Off he went, up along the rocks on the hunt for a perfect shell for the saddest girl he had ever seen. He wondered why she had been crying in the first place. He cried too the year his mother had died. A lot. His dad had left him here in the village with his grandparents after that. They had had to leave the big city together because his dad was too sad to keep the house after that, so now Dev was a thousand miles from the place he’d grown up. It was even a different beach than the one he’d always played on with his parents.
School was going to be starting soon. Junior High. Dev wondered if he was going to see her again — the sad girl — or whether she was going to be in any classes he had. He’d kept mostly to himself since his dad had moved him to the village. It hadn’t been the perfect summer after all. Not just because of his mom but because he hadn’t made any friends yet. He spent most of his time skipping rocks and building forts and huts and watching the sea himself.
She could be a friend, he thought. Maybe she could be a friend.
He combed the rocks looking for just the right shell to leave for her. He wanted it to be perfect, mostly because she had looked so sad. The way she had looked was the way he felt inside the day his mother died…
It was a beautiful shell that Devlin placed inside the hut. Not too big, but the inside was full of nacre — so shiny and multicolored with swirling patterns of icy blue and pink and rose and green and darkening blue green that if you held it up to the sun in certain ways it changed color right before your eyes.
He scooped a tiny hollow in the sand toward the rear of the sea hut and placed it there. Then he took her little origami paper bird and put it inside, untouched. She’d be back, he thought. Anyway, he hoped she would. School was going to start in a week and he was hoping to say hello before that, if he could…
Teenie had not really run away, it just felt like she had. As she walked slowly down the beach towards the village she watched the sky flower into a slow sunset. It was fall and all the leaves were beginning to show the very first signs of turning. Apples hung from the trees like ornaments, and the scent of sharp pine and dusty oak was in the air.
She thought of the time she and her mom and dad had made a pie together. An apple pie — and it had been so delicious, so warm and good that she wondered if she was ever going to get to do that again. Teenie’s grandmother had taught her how to make that pie. She could do it herself, she thought. Maybe mom would feel better…
“Mom, remember that pie I made one time?” Teenie said, as she pushed through the little back door off the kitchen.
“Can I make another one someday?”
Her mom was sitting on the big sofa with a blanket wrapped around her. She was still in her pajamas — sipping coffee and watching the news on the television. Her eyes never looked Teenie’s way.
“Mr. Honeygarten’s garden has all kinds of apples, Mom.”
“Maybe I could help him pick some?”
“Okay, but you be careful if you go up on the ladder.”
Mr. Honeygarten lived at the end of the road in a very old house from a long time ago. He had lived there since he was a little boy and now he was a very old man. His garden was full of ancient trees that he had planted years and years ago — fruit trees and redwood trees and special roses that tumbled all along the old fence.
Every year after the rains the flower bulbs came back and he had given Teenie little bunches of daffodils or poet’s narcissus or bluebells all kinds of times. He was just nice that way. Two shy calico cats raced around and his old dog Melloman rested on the steps. He was golden and shiny and he had a white blaze of fur on his chest. He also had one blue eye and one brown eye and he never stopped barking if people came by. It was like he talked to you in a way, or like he wanted to talk to people.
“I could ask him, Mom, tomorrow,” Teenie said.
“We could share the pie with him.”
“No, Teenie, I don’t feel like having him over.”
Teenie’s voice trailed off. It wasn’t going to be any use trying to convince her mom to have company. It wasn’t going to be any use trying to convince her of anything. Her glazed eyes stared blankly at the television and the news droned on and on, endlessly.
Over at Devlin’s house his grandparents were making dinner — it was Dev’s favorite. Barbecued chicken and baked beans, with cornbread and a big salad. There was a chocolate cake too, that his grandmother had made, that afternoon.
“What did you do today, son?”
“Worked on the hut.”
“How’s it coming along?”
“Your dad called.”
“He wondered how you were getting along.”
“Tell him I’m fine, Grandpa.”
“Are you Devlin?”
“I miss mom a lot.”
“I know you do son.”
Devlin’s grandfather pulled a special ukulele he had hidden behind the couch out and handed it to Devlin. “I found this old thing out in the garage,” he said. “It was mine when I was a boy.”
“You played that?”
“I think that’s how I won your grandmother’s heart.”
His eyes twinkled as he said it. “That, or my old harmonica.”
The rich sounds of Devlin’s grandmother’s laugh floated from the kitchen.
“I really don’t think you need to give that boy any ideas, Jess.”
Devlin fingered the harmonica and tried blowing into it, except it just squeaked a little.
“Practice makes perfect,” laughed his grandmother.
“Practice makes perfect.”
“The two of you ought to have supper now.”
The big oval table shined in the light of the candlesticks. Devlin’s grandmother had made a beautiful centerpiece of tiny pumpkins and pine cones and russety fall leaves on top of a big white lace doily. She had baked the cornbread in the shape of little ears of corn, too, in her special pan. Nobody had as many cast iron pans as Dev’s grandmother. They were ancient. So many meals had been cooked in those pans nobody could even believe it. Some of them had even been her grandmother’s. They had been passed down to her as heirlooms, and so was most of the furniture.
Once upon a time Dev’s grandmother had studied pottery and so she had made the dishes and serving bowls herself. They were beautiful — all mottled and streaked with the various colored glazes she had mixed. She served the salad on a large round platter that was plum and blue with white streaks. The greens of the vegetables nestled like jewels against its shiny surface. Dev’s grandfather had grown the lettuces himself. “Tom Thumb” — they were called. Each one was a perfect miniature — like a flower no bigger than about six inches around.
Devlin carried the bowl of baked beans and the platter of chicken to the table. The beans smelled so rich they were almost like caramel. They’d been cooking for hours and hours until they had almost melted into themselves. In a way they were like candy, except they were good for you. The cake was waiting too, proudly, on her special cake dish. She’d decorated that too, with real pansy flowers from her garden and tiny candles.
“No reason every day can’t be a celebration, Devlin.”
That was something she had always told him, since he was a little boy, and it was something he carried in his heart from her, like a gift.
* * *
The next morning Teenie Alexander stood before the mirror in the bathroom looking at her face and hair. She had just brushed her…
(to be continued…)
Heart of Clouds ~ copyright 2009 ~ by Valentine Bonnaire ~ all rights reserved
I have already finished the novel and am in the process of editing and finding a literary agent — posting it here for feedback on themes.
It’s at 50,000 words.