From here the neat rows of apple trees look like corduroy covering the roll of hills. You can’t tell the leaves are lifeless from this altitude, only gray-brown. It’s January, but not winter. There are no seasons anymore, no storms or snow or wind. Not since the low clouds formed three years ago and never dissipated. Our daylight world is now perpetually dim, the sky covered in thick frosting. The only observable change is told by clouds: day or night, dully backlit or dead dark.
The little boy sees a school bus on the matte-black road between the brown hills. Headlights prick the gloom, but the very fact that something moves below invokes a delighted squeal from the child. Such enthusiasm grates on me, if only for the envy I feel; if I could only see the world again without a sense of loss, find small pleasure in something as simple as a yellow bus. Yet the face I show smiles at my passengers. They are having an adventure, despite the damp.
Rarely does it rain hard. Drizzles thicken and taper but are ever-present, constant like the temperature. Neither hot nor cold, the mercury is fixed in the middle; slightly warmer by day’s end, a little less when morning lights clouds. Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, it doesn’t matter, holidays need not be planned around weather anymore. Those who can still afford to travel needn’t worry about appropriate attire, nothing changes from pole to equator to pole–just bring a raincoat.
I pull the handle down and fire the burner. Flames roar up the mouth of the balloon. The little boy, one of two passengers, clamps hands over ears. His mother shouts, asking if he’s got sunglasses, but the boy says he cannot hear. As the child squints against the noise, his mother searches the pockets of his raincoat, finding the dark glasses.
When the burn stops, so too does the illumination inside the balloon. Where’d he go? the boy asks, meaning Icarus, the logo on balloon’s globe. Look quick, I reply with false gusto and punch the flames once more. The boy covers his ears again, straining to see up the hole as the winged man and the orange panels brighten.
Seen from the ground, clouds are a hard ceiling, but as we enter the overcast, there is no abrupt edge. All eyes shift to the landscape below, where there used to be infinite shades of green. Now the view is a sepia print, the flatlands, hills and the city beyond are brown and fading, the clouds making scenery dissolve. These two passengers, as all of them do, grip the basket and lean down to take a last look. The boy is on tiptoes, his chin barely clearing the edge, the hood of his raincoat dripping from the mist.
The boy looks for his mother when the world fades to gray.
Silence compounds upon itself until I break it. By rote I tell my travelers that we will reach our destination in six or seven minutes, feel free to have a cold soda or bottled water. After my announcement, with nothing to see but monotone cotton, talk is usually sparse. I like to think my passengers are waiting to see a perpetrator close up, expecting the clouds to explain themselves, admit they’re at fault. No one blames the warming planet, especially after it disappears from view.
The six minutes seem longer. As time ticks my two tourists become uneasy, eyes searching everywhere but down, waiting for the clouds to uncurtain. The gray softens, brightens and finally explodes to color, beyond anything that exists now on Earth. The hidden sky is the reason there is no ocean-blue or turquoise in an alpine lake; those colors are only a reflection of a memory of a time before clouds came. It is why people pay the price for Icarus.
Higher, the boy squeals, higher. But his mother isn’t paying attention. She’s caught in the rapture of color: blue sky and blinding sun above the uneven terrain of bright white clouds. She flips back the hood of her jacket to feel the heat on her face. I understand. It’s the one part of this job I look forward to, and the moment is taken from me by a tug on my pant leg.
I have to explain to the boy why we cannot go higher, about the myth of the man with feathered wings. He nods, not fully understanding, but his mother smiles at me. While I held the boy’s attention, she spent another minute wrapped in the color above clouds. Now she’s back, a mother again, reminding the boy not to look at the sun, even with dark glasses.
The boy is fixed on a shape in the clouds below. Doggy, he says, but in the quiet that follows I float a moment longer. For myself.
I take one more breath of clear blue.
DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon, where it’s probably raining. Luckily, water is beer’s primary ingredient. His stories and non-fiction appear in 40 publications, including Confingo, Page & Spine, Zetetic and Wild Musette. You can find more of his writing on his site and on Twitter.