From the author: Adyahksa Samahita left India as an aspiring writer and returns as an acclaimed but jaded darling of the literary world ... and a writer who has run out of stories to tell. Out in the countryside of Uttar Pradesh, he meets someone or something that challenges everything he thought he knew about writing and life. This story first appeared in Amazing Stories and was later anthologized in Best Erotic Fantasy, edited by Cecilia Tan.
He was surprised how little it had changed. Home. It was the way his heart remembered it: the green of fields, the mottled hides of goats, the far purple mountains, the pall of fragrant smoke. It was air pollution to the civilized denizens of New York, but Uttar Pradesh had never been civilized by Western standards and might never be. That had bothered him for a time. Then he had simply accepted it. And when new acquaintances, learning his origins, made patronizing remarks, he would smile urbanely and agree with words like ‘backwater’ and ‘anachronism.’ “But of course,” they would say, falsely ingenuous, “that’s what gives your stories their charm.”
He hadn’t recognized that as condescension at first. That realization, like his cynicism, was painfully won. This, too, was painful—the village-boy-made-good-and-powerful-and-wealthy, coming home to his father’s funeral.
“Adyahksa,” his mother told him, “he was so proud of you. So proud. His youngest boy, a great writer. A name.”
Ah, yes, but not the name his father had given him. Not Adyahksa Samahita—Controller-of-His-Own-Destiny, Poised and Well-Founded—too difficult, his agent had said, for the Western ear and eye. So he was Kavi Samahita—a Writer, Poised and Well-Founded—and people expected him to be Japanese.
“When you were born,” his mother said, “your Uncle Narmada saw your future.”
“Yes, Amma,” he said; it was a familiar story.
“’Yo yacchraddhah sa eva sah.’ That’s what he said: whatever is his faith, that he becomes.”
“So proud,” she repeated, her eyes misting. “He wanted to tell you himself, Adya.”
And so, his karma came home to roost. The relatives gathered—scores of them, it seemed—and all with the same refrain: He was so proud. He wanted to tell you. Unspoken were the words: Why did you wait so long to come home? Why did you wait too long?
He could not explain that, even to himself. He’d had the means and the opportunity, had even swung through Agra on an international book tour. It was his brother, Josha, who explained it to him, unawares, as he spoke of his younger brother’s books.
“I’ve read several of them, of course,” he said. “And I think they are very good, but...they change.”
“Change? How, change?”
“The first stories were...lovely, delightful. But the later ones...it’s as if a different man speaks.”
“A different man does speak,” Kavi said. “A grown man. Not the boy who left here.”
“Yes,” agreed Josha. “That is exactly so.”
And that, Kavi thought, as he climbed the rolling hills behind the village, is why I did not come home. I was not the one who left. Adyahksa left and Kavi returned.
But even Kavi Samahita was seduced by the green hills and the brindled goats and the great, spreading trees. There was one tree in particular, at the crest of this very hill, where the boy Adyahksa had lain down in the grass and stared at the sky and daydreamed. He had named it Asvattha, imagining it was the Tree of Life spoken of by Avatars and saints.
It was still there, he discovered, long before he reached the spot. It was huge, with a trunk as big around as the legs of four elephants (one measured everything large in elephants when one was a boy in Uttar Pradesh). It stood at the verge of a grove that covered the top of the hill in a thick, verdant blanket. Young Adyahksa had seen giants sleeping peacefully under the wool of titanic green sheep. Best not to wake them, he’d always thought, and so, he’d climb most secretly to the top of the hill and let his body gently into the grass beneath the great tree. There, he had given birth to his first stories, reached up and plucked them from the Tree as others surely must have done before him.
He was swept by hunger then—for the past, for the boy who abandoned the goats to daydream in the warm grass. He stood beneath the Tree at the outermost reach of its great branches and longed for the descent of those simple, ingenuous tales—tales he had left behind him, somewhere between disillusionment and discontent. He recalled he had once found them in clouds. Great, billowing clouds—white and majestic, dark and rain-filled. He craned his neck and squinted a little against the sun. If he laid down upon the grass, if he reached up into the Tree and contemplated the clouds, would he find the stories there?
He dropped to the ground, careless of his expensive clothing—it could be cleansed of the dirt of Uttar Pradesh—and lay back, hands behind his head, watching the pageant of cloud-form. Sheep—they always came first, bright and bouncing—followed, today, by their darker cousins. There was wind high up; he could see it stirring in the heavy underbellies of clouds sponge-full of moisture. These became dragons and dolphins and great, undulating sea creatures.
He began to see other things in the clouds: ships under full sail and wonderful, terrifying animals. He saw upside-down oceans upon which the Sun, burning whitely from behind, seemed like a wave-lapping moon.
A breeze wriggled into his shirt and caressed his skin with damp fingers; a lover wearing a perfume of jasmine and rain. He was slipping into contentment, rolling back the years, finding the impressionable Adyahksa beneath the urbane Kavi, when he saw a truly amazing formation just above the horizon.
It was a vast face. A woman’s face. A very beautiful woman, he decided. A rani. No, a deva—an angel. He smiled—a dreamy smile that hadn’t touched his lips since...when? Since the first time he had fallen out of love? He recalled a golden-haired woman with a glittering name. A woman with fair skin and a dark heart.
The smile slipped. He lunged to retrieve it, pulling the cloud face to him with a dreamer’s eyes. She was beautiful. Her skin was pewter with a wash of blue. The color of Krishna’s skin—or so Scripture said. The smile deepened. Surely, she was of the Kessapa line. A daughter of saints, a descendent of the Avatar. That made her better than a princess or a rani or even a Broadway songstress.
He studied her as she wafted toward him. Her hair was blue-black and sprinkled with pinpricks of light and beneath her broad, gleaming brow, unblinking eyes of pearl scanned the ground. Did she see him there beneath his tree? Of course, she did. She was a deva. She saw all things beneath her. Would she deign to stop, to speak to a lowly boy of Uttar Pradesh, when the whole world was hers?
Perhaps she would pause, study him as he studied her. She was slowing, he realized, and pressing lower. Through half-closed eyes, he watched her lips, full and dark; his half-dreaming mind pretended she would bend down, put those lips to the earth and kiss the spot where he lay.
He dreamed of Adyahksa and his Cloud Girl. In his dream, she floated to earth on the backs of cloud horses—whites, greys and dapples; the horses that had drawn Krishna’s chariot. When she neared the earth, the horses dissolved, depositing her upon the grassy hill. Without hesitation, she stepped into Adyahksa’s arms. She was soft to the touch, but her body had no substance and no warmth. He willed her to embody and thought she took substance in his arms. But he had no sooner courted the thought than she pulled from his embrace, shaking her head and shedding tendrils of blue-black hair. Her lips formed a single word, “no”...but she smiled.
Heartened, he turned aside and walked with her. They didn’t speak, though he dared to reach out and take her hand. It was cool and felt like dampened silk. Enough, he thought, that she walked with him. At length, they reached a stream and the Cloud Girl stopped. Turning to face him, she pointed upward and laid one cool hand on his shoulder. Her lips moved, but he heard no words. She smiled again, and shook him.
No, that was not her voice. Who called him? He frowned and turned to look.
The face was his brother’s. Pallid clouds gathered behind his dark head, making his expression unreadable. “The procession!” he said urgently. “Come, Adya. It’s time.”
He leapt up, surprised momentarily at the fine cut and quality of his clothing. Yes, of course—he was Kavi again. And he would now join his father’s funeral procession. He glanced at the sky as he and Josha made their way to the village. He scanned the clouds for the face of his Kessapa maiden, but she was not there. Nor would she be ever again, he knew. Still, he left the hillside with reluctance, praying—if there was a prayer left in him—that the afternoon would pass swiftly.
It was not his first funeral. One of his uncles had died when he was nine or ten, and he had been among the mourners. He had mourned, too, for the young man, just married, who had lost his life to a disease that, anywhere else in the world might have been a “nuisance ailment.” His uncle had been a friend, someone to trust with boyhood confidences, someone to encourage him in his daydreaming—to his father’s chagrin.
He recalled the pyre—his fear of it. The leaping flames had formed an impassable and terrifying barrier. They had forced him to understand the finality of his uncle’s leave-taking. Today, it did not take a funeral pyre to make him understand that his father was forever beyond his reach.
His mother would deny that, of course. She believed in something beyond the physical—a reunion of souls. He had, too, once. But no longer; so the funereal flames singed his soul, making it blink and tremble, and somewhere deep inside the man, a small boy cringed in terror and shed tears of loss.
It was a relief when night fell and the household curled itself for sleep. His mother retired early, her face drained of everything but age. There were still guests in their parlor, chatting quietly, wondering how long the poor old woman would last without her husband, speculating on whether she would move to the city to live with her oldest daughter.
The idea disturbed Kavi. What was this place without Mother? Not home. If she was not here, he would have no place to return to—or at least no place to imagine he would return to. He sought out his brother to ask what arrangements were made for the family lands and feeling vaguely guilty that he had not discussed it with his mother. But his brother brought him face to face with a young woman named Sudha Mohandas.
Did he not remember her? Josha asked. They had played with her brothers as children.
He did remember. He had once daydreamed about her, up there on his hill. He had imagined a wedding and a melding of fortunes, for her family was very wealthy. She had seemed exotic and beautiful then. Now her hair was merely black, her eyes only brown, her skin, too pale.
He forgot what he would have asked his brother, excused himself, and went to bed.
He dreamed. He dreamed of funeral pyres and dark smoke that billowed into the sky to become the cloud-face of a beauty of the Kessapa line. A woman whose hair was the blue-black of a raven’s wing; whose eyes were pearl; and whose skin was the color of a rain-filled cloud. She was fragrant and cool and elusive, but Kavi wanted her to be warm and near and solid as the Asvattha Tree—the Tree of Dreams. And since it was Kavi’s dream, he willed her to substance and she complied, metamorphosing into a woman of flesh and blood who came into his arms.
He took her in a savoring embrace, drinking in her beauty and her warmth and her fragrance. But as his embrace tightened, those things faded. She faded with them. No, worse than that—she writhed horribly apart, limb from limb, hair from flesh, dissolving into a dark vapor and leaving sorrow like a dew on his heart.
Kavi was a man well-practiced at manipulating his dreams, but though he labored through the night, he could not bring the Cloud Deva back.
In the morning he talked to Josha about the family lands. “What will mother do now?”
“You haven’t asked her?”
He shook his head. “There didn’t seem to be...an appropriate time. Cousin Parva thinks she ought to live with Lila in Agra.”
“Do you think she ought to do that?”
“I don’t know what she ought to do, Josha. Only what I hope she’ll do.”
“And that is?”
“Stay here. Keep the farm. It’s not as if she’ll be alone. You live so close, and there are her friends, the hands. She could even get someone to come and help with the house.”
Josha looked amused. “Why should she need help with the house now? She never has before.”
“Well, perhaps she doesn’t. I was only thinking...she might get lonely.”
“As you said, I’m right down the road with Bandhul and the children. Her friends are here; she’s never lived anywhere else. If you’re afraid she might get lonely, why don’t you stay for a while? Better yet, why not come home for good?”
“Josha, my life is on the other side of the world. My agent is in New York, my friends...”
“I’m not naive, Adyahksa. I know that many writers—successful writers—live half-way around the world from their business. That science fiction writer—Clarke—he lives in Sri Lanka, doesn’t he? Why can’t Kavi Samahita live in Uttar Pradesh?”
“Maybe I can stay for a while, but...”
“But a backward hole on the butt of the Himalayas affords a poor lifestyle.”
“It’s not a backward hole.”
Josha laughed. “Ah, now he’s defending it! No, you’re right—you couldn’t live here. What would your American friends say? They’d probably think you’d gone savage—reverted to a little shepherd boy.”
“I don’t care what my ‘American friends’ say. I just can’t see re-adapting to this life. Maybe I will stay for a bit. When I leave, I can hire someone to stay with her.”
Color crept under Josha’s dark skin. “She doesn’t need that,” he said. “A stranger living in her house. But you living here would amount to the same thing, wouldn’t it? Perhaps you should leave.” He turned on his heel and disappeared into the house, leaving Kavi with a burning face and an uneasy conscience.
He climbed the hill. He would sort his thoughts; he would order his feelings. When he was done, he would talk to his mother, get a sense of what she wanted him to do. Perhaps, she would like to live with him in Manhattan.
Under the Tree, he found it easier to think. He thought of what he would say to his mother, of the offer he would make her. He told himself that was the most realistic alternative, that he really did need to go back to New York, really must live there, really wanted to live there.
At length, his thoughts were interrupted by clouds. It was inevitable and it was why came here. He let the clouds have his thoughts, shape them, even as he shaped the clouds. He realized almost immediately that he was looking for her—the Cloud Deva. It was absurd. Clouds were random, changeable; wind and pressure and water could never produce the same effect twice. Yet, he watched for her with a boyish expectancy, waited as the saints had waited for their miracles.
He grimaced. He might as well expect to see the Lord Krishna Himself, riding down out of the sky in Arjuna’s chariot. He might as well expect—
He sat up, his eyes locking on a formation near the horizon. It was the same face, he’d swear it. The same enchanting, inhuman face he’d seen the day before, and the moist currents bore it toward him. Smiling, he lay back in the grass with his daydream.
In his dream the village boy, Adyahksa, wooed and won his cloud lover. He told her stories; she told him about her family. She was truly a deva, the wealth of the all worlds was hers.
“I have wealth,” he told her.
“You think you have wealth,” she replied and her voice was like the pale whisper of wind chimes touched by the merest breath—faint and sweet and inspiring such longing, Adyahksa nearly cried. “What is wealth?” she asked him.
“You are wealth,” he answered. “I am wealthy if I have nothing but you.”
“Do you love me, He-Who-Controls-His-Own-Destiny?”
“Yes,” he said. “Stay with me here on the earth.”
There was no answer.
Kavi focused on the pewter face floating serenely above him, much closer now. “Stay with me,” he whispered, and watched as the mass of cloud pressed closer to the earth, closer to him. Her face filled his vision.
She will kiss me, he thought. His eyes swam, unfocused—she was too bright, too vast to take in—he closed them, readying himself for the touch of her lips. The kiss took him, vibrating in every cell, in every fiber. Unexpected, orgasm jolted him from head to toe, from body to soul. A cry leapt from his throat. He had never uttered a sound beneath a human lover.
I love you.
“You think you love me. What do you love? What is her name?”
He moaned, quaked, sweated upon the ground. Someone watching would have thought him the victim of a seizure, or the recipient of a revelation.
“Who are you? I don’t know your name!”
Kavi sat up and glanced around, anxious that someone might have heard him. He tugged at his sweat-soaked shirt and smoothed back his damp hair. A name. She had to have a name. He knew who she was, he reasoned. He had created her.
He got up, brushing away grass, chagrined at the damp stain at his crotch. The sexual charge had spent itself, but in its stead was a building desire to put Adyahksa’s daydreams into words. He hurried down the hill, already rehearsing the opening of the story.
Yujyate, that was her name, he decided. It meant ‘yoked’ or ‘united,’ and was a product of Adyahksa’s wishfulness. She was a deva, princess of a spirit kingdom, a daughter of the Lord—of Krishna—by His wife-lover, Radha.
Yujyate was of an age to wed, but rejected every suitor who came to her.
“You must marry, daughter,” her Lord Father told her. “The Kessapa line must prosper, or blessings shall cease to rain upon the earth.”
But Yujyate saw no blessings in her selection of divine suitors. “They are uninspired, Father,” she told the Lord. “And they are uninspiring. How can Your blessings continue with such as these to oversee Your realm? Could such a marriage produce an Avatar? They have no creative power; their words are bland as unseasoned rice, their thoughts as pale as water. I will not have any of them.”
“Then what will you do for a husband?”
“I will scour the earth,” said Yujyate, “arrayed as a cloud, until I find a man whose thoughts are bright and true and whose dreams are delightful.”
The stage was set for the entrance of the shepherd boy, Adyahksa. For Adyahksa’s fanciful dreams would win the heart of the divine Yujyate, coaxing her to earth. They would marry, she would give him all delights and make his life heavenly.
Really, Kavi thought, sitting back from his work. And they all lived in Samadhi ever after. He rubbed his eyes. He looked at his words and didn’t believe them. God, had he ever? Yes. Yes, he had once. Hadn’t that happy ending been what he had pursued, first to Agra, then to the United States? His stories had been redolent with it. He was a believer. A believer in his ability to create; a believer in what he created.
He still had confidence in himself, and in what he wrote, but belief? He wasn’t sure he’d call it that. And the stories had changed. Subtly, at first, as he had changed, then more sharply. He’d told himself his style was maturing, that he was finding his voice—the voice of Kavi Samahita. Now, he forced himself to honesty; in finding Kavi’s voice, he had lost Adyahksa’s. The critics had noticed it—so had the readers—even Josha had noticed it. And though his books sold well and drew critical acclaim, he knew he was no longer unique or fresh. He wrote with mature cynicism, like any number of other writers. Adyahksa had been silenced.
He picked up his pen, then threw it down again with a grunt of disgust. He couldn’t write these stories anymore. Kavi put aside “The Boy Who Loved Clouds” and sought his mother.
“Don’t stay for me,” she said. “I won’t be alone. I have friends. I have Josha and his family.”
“But Amma, this house—it’s a big house—“
She smiled with not a little pride. “Yes, it is a big house. A fine house. And your grandfather built most of it himself.”
“But all alone—“
“I won’t be alone. I have grandchildren. I have friends.” She paused to look at him. “Do you have friends, Adya?”
“Of course, I have friends.”
She reached over and patted his hand. “You used to say your stories were your best friends. You remember? When your father would fret about you being lonely, you would say, ‘Father, my stories are my friends.’” She shook her head. “You worried him. But you did so well in school, how could he complain?”
A smile tugged at Kavi’s lips. “He was vocal enough about my performance in the fields.”
“Well,” she said, “you did lose several of his best goats. But, he easily forgave you.”
“Amma, did he read my stories?”
She nodded. “He didn’t always understand them, but he read. And he was proud. I read them, too, you know. I like the old ones best. The ones you wrote when you were in school.”
“Have you read anything recent?”
She nodded. “Bandhul brought me a magazine with one of your stories in it. She said it had won an award.” Her expression said she didn’t understand how that could have happened, then shifted to concern. “Are you happy, Adya?”
He laughed. “Of course, I’m happy. How could I not be? I write for a living, I am a modestly wealthy man, I am respected by my peers and loved by my readers.”
Her mouth puckered and he could feel her preparing to quote him some hoary proverb about true wealth. He put his arm around her. “Amma, I’m fine; it was you we were discussing.”
“But do you have friends, Adya?”
He understood, suddenly, that she was not asking about friends of flesh and blood. She was asking about his writing. He chose to misunderstand. “I told you, Amma. I have lots of friends.”
She let it go. “So do I. I don’t need you to be here for me. I certainly don’t need you to hire someone to be here for me. But Adya, if you need to be here, then I welcome you home with all my heart.”
He stood upon the crest of the hill, beneath the branches of his Tree of Dreams and stared out at a cloudless sky. Do I need to be here? Do I need to run home to my quaint little village when things get to be ‘too much?’
Many of his friends had places like that—rustic little bolt-holes where they would renew themselves and from which they would return to speak in glowing terms of the ‘simple life’ and the ‘simple people’ who lived it.
He smiled at that. Simple. Rising at dawn to feed stock; long days in the fields—plowing, planting, harvesting, winnowing, herding; doing that through drought and monsoon and cold and earthquake. So simple.
But life in any city had its own complexities; a million tiny, mundane, daily disasters that put insulation on the heart and soul. Perhaps that was what those world-weary seekers after the simple life really sought—a place where they could strip off the insulation, where they could wear their naked souls without fear of disapproval.
Even his stories were insulated now, and he had to admit he no longer thought of them as friends. But the story he had tried to write this morning was a travesty. The simple, ingenuous words squawked in a parrot’s voice—utterly false. If he stayed here, wrote here, would that change?
He eyed the empty sky with frustration and longing. There were no stories up there today. He returned to the house.
His dreams were no kinder than the sky had been. He brought his cloud lover to earth again and again, straining to take her in his arms. She eluded him. He used his cleverness to trick her into descending. But in his arms she rent herself asunder, leaving him alone on his dark hilltop under the sentinel Tree.
He woke exhausted, hearing thunder. Galvanized, he rose and dressed; the storm would bring clouds and clouds could bring her. Had he not been so tired, he might have laughed at what he was thinking—doing. He was not so ignorant as to believe he could find yesterday’s face in today’s clouds. What he had experienced yesterday could certainly be attributed as much to a stressed and overactive imagination as to the play of wind and water vapor.
Knowing that, he dressed and dove out into the moist morning. It wasn’t raining, but the dark clouds that scudded overhead trailed veils that reminded him of funerals. Too giddy for grief, he hurried uphill.
The breeze was strong at the crest of the hill and the great Tree trembled at it, expectant. He paused beneath the outflung branches, quivering in harmony. Seeing the Tree with the eyes of Adyahksa, he perceived a portent: she would come. The Tree knew.
Kavi lay in the grass, hands behind his head, watching the clouds flee dog-low across the sky. There was no gold in them today, only unremitting pewter and silver. The grass smelled especially sweet, and he could even make out the fragrance of the trees that marched along the hill to his left. Sweet. All of it. The rush of wind, the silken scrape of expectant twigs and branches, the gossip of leaves.
It was easy to be Adyahksa here—difficult to be Kavi. In his sleeping dreams he was always Kavi. That was probably significant, but he allowed the significance to be lost on him as he lost himself in the clouds.
There were elephants in the clouds today, and sleek, black pirate ships, and Chinese dragons with silver eyes. All were in motion and foment; there was nothing of the placid or the meditative. He began to fret. Would she come in weather like this? Could she appear on the leading edge of a storm?
He laughed at himself. How pleasant to shed the years of experience to live in the mind of a naive youth. How easy to believe it might always be so...as long as he stayed upon the hill, beneath the Tree. He couldn’t do that. Nor could he carry Adyahksa’s memories back down the hillside to spill them into a notebook. What tasted fresh and original and exciting at the beginning of the journey seemed ludicrous at its end, as if.... He sat up and gazed around. As if Adyahksa lived at the top of this hill in the shade of this Tree and nowhere else in the world.
He glanced at the Tree’s sturdy trunk; it was clear of graffiti. He had seen trees in which people, passing, had carved their initials or names. They did this, he reasoned, because trees, unlike human beings, are virtually immortal. He had never carved his name in the Tree of Dreams; perhaps it had carved its name in him.
He lay down again, pondering the idea of cutting from the Tree a small bit of wood. Something he could touch when he needed the memories to flood his mind. Perhaps, in that way, he could recapture his stories. Perhaps he could reacquaint himself with old friends.
It was as he pondered this that he saw her. He knew it was her—Yujyate—even though she appeared as never before. She was just a wisp at first, torn from the underside of a great, black whale of a cloud, and he watched her with only passing interest. But then the warp and woof of eddying wind caressed the wisp into something else. It took a maiden’s shape, curvaceous and graceful—garbed first in a flowing sari, then in the dress of a warrior, then in the sari again. Her head bore a crown, then a battle helm.
Now, he thought. Now, I shall be able to finish the story. He smiled, sliding back toward Adyahksa. See how she flies to me. How constant she is. No human lover could be so faithful. How she must love me.
And fly, she did, as if wings adorned her heels and helm. Dropping below the belly of her whale-cloud she spread her arms and they became as wings, bringing her ever-closer to her waiting lover.
Adyahksa’s heart filled. Theirs would be a wedding such as the world had never seen. All the gods would attend, all of creation would witness it. The bride would wear a wedding dress of clouds and a veil of sun-sequined dew. And he would write. He would fill pages with bright words and the words would fill hearts with longing.
She was before him, floating just above the ground. Her eyes were silver in her pewter face, her lips, like black pearl and, from beneath her crown, locks of truest black swam in currents of moist air. If he could only draw her down, if only she would stand beside him.
“Yujyate,” he murmured, sitting up. He put out a hand. “Yujyate.”
“You call me that,” she said, her voice like the whisper of rain, “because you seek to place the yoke of union upon me. I am Yukta—union with the Divine.”
“Whatever your name, I love you,” said Adyahksa.
“I am not a deva,” she said, “although you are not wrong in saying I possess the qualities of a deva.”
“Whatever you are, I love you,” answered Adyahksa.
“I am not the daughter of Krishna and Radha,” she said, “although you are not wrong in saying I am a child of the Avatar.”
“Whatever your family, I love you,” answered Adyahksa. “Tell me, Yukta, do you love me?”
Her great, silver eyes did not blink and her black-pearl lips curved into a smile. “I have always loved you.”
“Then come to me. Live with me and be my wife. Set your feet upon the earth and take on a real form. Let me hold you.”
“Why can you not?”
“I have shown you.”
“You’ve shown me? How have you shown me?” The words had no sooner left his mouth than he understood—the nightmares. “You would dissolve?”
“I am a creature of daylight and spirit, Adyahksa,” she said and he shivered at the sound of his name on her lips. “If my feet touch the earth, I cease to be.”
He felt as if his heart had melted in his breast. He hadn’t anticipated this. In his imagination the fairy tale would end with her descent to earth, with their union. “There must be a way,” he insisted. “There must be a way we can be together.”
Her head tilted slowly to one side. “There is a way.”
“Tell me,” he demanded, coming to his knees in the grass. “Tell me how I may have you.”
“I am not a possession, One-Who-Controls-His-Destiny.”
“No, no, of course not.” He reached for her. “Tell me how we may be together.”
“You must come with me.”
His eddying world slowed to a stop. His blood stilled in his veins. “How?”
“You must come with me,” she repeated, and began to withdraw upward, toward the steel-bellied clouds.
Kavi leapt to his feet. “But how can I? What form would I take?”
“You would take a form befitting your station.” She continued to withdraw from him while his panic and desire grew in bizarre, painful tandem.
“I would die?”
He thought she laughed. “Are you now alive?”
“I don’t understand—“
“You understand. I cannot exist in your world, but you can exist in mine.”
He rejected the idea with every fiber. And in that rejection, he tried to shake himself from the daydream, willing it to end. It did not end. The Cloud Deva still floated above him against the rain-filled sky. He still shivered in the grip of some strange, fearful passion. Surely, I sleep. Fear hovered at the back of his mind. If he was not asleep, what did it mean?
“Stop,” he said. “Wake up. You’re dreaming.”
Above him, Yukta laughed softly—a sound like the trickle of water over rock. “You do not dream,” she told him. “At night, you dream. Your dreams are full of yourself. Full of Kavi.”
“Who are you?” he demanded. “What are you?”
“You know who I am,” she said, and evaporated.
He stared at the place she had been and did not wake up. Rain fell, tossing sequins among the leaves of the great Tree, pattering at his face, soaking his hair. Still, he did not wake. Finally, he left the hilltop and walked home through the rain.
He had intended to return to New York at the end of the week. He canceled his airline reservations and stayed. He told his family he needed the break. That was true. When pressed, he also admitted that he was in search of that loveliness his brother had found lacking in his most recent stories. That was also true.
He didn’t speak of clouds or daydreams or hallucinations. He didn’t try to explain why a man who knew better was hungering for the impossible. It was the stories, he told them. The stories he could bring down from the hill.
He went there every day, but he brought nothing back. The clouds stayed high in an azure sky, ignoring him. His daydreams were flat, lifeless; his nightmares were turbid pools of hunger and impotency.
When he was a week overdue, his agent cabled to remind him he was scheduled for a book tour in ten days. He barely glanced at the message.
He tried to write. He finished “The Boy Who Loved Clouds,” but the new ending, in contrast to the old, was dark and cynical. In it, Adyahksa, realizing his union with the cloud maiden was impossible, hung himself from the Tree of Dreams.
He disgusted himself. What utter tripe! Of course, the critics would find it morbidly satisfying, and his literary friends would say, “How sage.” But to Adyahksa, it stank of fatalism. I would never, he thought, and he realized how personally he was taking this story, as if he really was seeking the Maiden—seeking Yukta.
He paused over his pages, awash in a sea of untamable words. “You know who I am,” she had said and, suddenly, he did know. She was the Story and she was Adyahksa, having found the Story. She was maya, the power of creation, the lovely, the delightful.
And if I surrender to her, he told himself, the Story will surrender to me.
He understood, as he climbed the hill, that this entire experience was but a play he had staged for himself—a metaphor. The Writer had lost his unique perception, his imagination, his maya, his stories. And now, by making a symbolic gesture of surrender, he would regain those things he had lost.
He reached the crest of the hill and stood beneath the spreading branches of the great Tree. He threw his arms wide and looked up at the fleecy clouds and shouted, “Yukta! I am ready!”
The only answer was the whisper of wind across the grass.
“Adyahksa surrenders!” he proclaimed. He turned slowly, arms still outstretched, searching the sky. Nothing.
He stopped his turning, lowered his arms. If this were a story, what would he be expected to do to draw the deva to earth; should he fall to his knees in abject surrender? He tried that, but the clouds remained sheep-like, letting the wind herd them northeast into the mountains. Finally, he lay down as he always did, hands behind his head.
Movement began almost at once in a mass of iridescent pearl that hung nearly overhead. He gazed up into the soft whorl, expectant. It was like a funnel cloud—something of Oz and National Geographic. But it was glistening white, and out of its belly slipped an un-funnel-like shape—the thing he called Yukta, the daydream, the wetdream, the metaphor.
The cloud gave birth, he thought, watching. She was dazzling in a thousand shades of white and silver, subtle gradations of hue he had never imagined. She descended toward him like an angel from depictions of something Christians called the Rapture.
I have never been a Christian, he thought, irrelevantly. I wonder if a one-time Hindu can experience this Rapture. And he wondered if it was like Samadhi. But that was irrelevant, too, since he had never experienced that, either.
She drew closer to him. Like a bride. Arrayed in radiant purity. And I will be her husband. Already he could feel the sexual excitement building in him like a hot storm. Would she kiss him again? Would she bring him again to a preternatural climax? He quivered with anticipation.
She covered him where he lay—face to face, all but blinding him. His passion arced to meet her. How would it feel to couple with her—to meld with that bright, cool flesh that was not flesh?
“You know who I am?” she asked; her voice was the sound of water rushing from a spring.
He smiled. “You are my stories.”
“I am more than that.”
“What do you think will happen if you take my hand and follow me into the clouds?” she asked, tilting her radiant face skyward.
He followed her pearl gaze up into a well of glory and gasped at the sheer beauty of it. He said, “I will surrender to the Story and the Story will surrender to me. I will find my voice—my own voice, not the voices of those around me—and I will write stories that will amaze even the gods.” That sounded good, to mention the gods. He would remember it when he wrote this all down, later.
“You are right in believing that,” said Yukta, “and you are wrong in believing it.”
Wonderful! A riddle! “How can that be?”
The gleaming head tilted slightly, a gesture he found endearing. “It is as you say, but you will have no voice to find and you will have no hands with which to write.”
“Is this a riddle?”
She held out her hand.
“I would make love to you,” he said, want swelling.
She sighed; a sweet breath of wind passed gently over him. “You made love to me often, once. After a time, you only pretended. The words still came, the gestures were still made, but there was no love.”
Of course. If she was the Story, that was undeniably true. “Now there is love,” he said, and rose and stepped toward her.
She embraced him. He felt the misty coolness of her on his skin. He raised his own arms to return the embrace and his senses exploded. More intense by far than the orgasmic frenzy excited by her imagined kiss, this swept him upward, outward, inward all at once. He was lifted, reeling, from the solid earth, flung upward into a roil of cloud, tumbled in eddies of vapor.
He had body-surfed once in Hawaii. This was like that; this was totally unlike that. He was sundered and united; shattered and gathered up again. Pieces of him rained like shards of bright glass from up and down. He heard the rush of a great wind; he heard nothing.
NO! he thought or shouted, or did neither. This isn’t what I imagined! I’m hallucinating! Dammit, I’m hallucinating! Anger rose within him, hot and swollen as the lust it replaced. He wanted to scream himself awake, but in a thunderous moment, all sound, sight and sensation crescendoed and evaporated and he was left, numb, blank, motionless, emotionless and silenced.
He was swimming. No, he was not. There was movement, but he could not describe it by saying, “I am walking, running, swimming, flying.” He was simply in motion. There were veils before his eyes. No, he was eyeless. There was sight, but he could not describe it by saying, “I see.”
I can’t see.
He roiled. There was someone with him. Yukta.
Yukta, she agreed.
Where am I? What am I? He lunged after familiar fear, but memory of fear fled swiftly. He was disoriented. Yes, that was the right word.
You are in my world. You are a son of the Avatar.
I don’t understand.
He was (somehow) directed to turn his attention downward (was it downward?). He wanted to perceive veilessly and the veils dissipated. Color. A vast greenness. Shapes. Shadows. A tree. A tree on a hillside of verdant, breathtaking green. A King of Trees that rose above its nearby neighbors like a giant.
A frisson of excitement coursed through him like lightning in a cloud. The Tree of Dreams.
He could see them, then, hanging like heavy dew from every leafy limb—dreams, stories, visions, imaginings. And around him, in shifting veils of mist, lived more of the same, each unique, each sparkling or fragrant or melodious. They fell like rain from the sky. They lay like dew upon the grass. They rode to earth on beams of sunlight. They traveled on temple chimes and on the clanking of cowbells. There was nothing that did not contain them or was not adorned with them.
If only he had known! If only he had seen them.
Why is this place so blessed?
Laughter rippled around him. It is no more blessed than any other place. Nor is it any less blessed.
He digested that. He had lived for stories. He had left here to seek them. Then he had returned here to seek them. All the while, he had been surrounded by them. He might laugh at the absurdity of that, if he had a voice. Having none, he became laughter.
In the world below, beneath the great Tree, a man lay. It was Kavi, lying beneath the dream-laden boughs, his mouth open, dreaming.
What is he waiting for? he asked.
For a breeze to shake loose the dew. For a cloud to carry it to him. He is waiting for you.
As I waited, he realized. As I waited for you.
Clumsily, he willed himself (what was self?) to descend toward the dreaming figure on the hill. He saw the face he had once called his, saw the lazy eyes open and the lazy smile spread and he felt the hungry, curious mind reaching up to grasp him. He was fully conscious of it then, of what he contained, of what he was. He was a cloud full of rain. He had only to shake the rain free.
When rain fell, children caught the droplets on their tongues; so Kavi-On-the-Earth caught imaginings as they shook loose from Adyahksa-In-the-Heavens.
The earthbound creature sat up, producing a cloud-white pad of paper and a pen. And he began to write.
Adyahksa-In-the-Heavens was amazement. Words filled the bright pages. Stories filled the bright mind. He marveled.
I did that?
You helped him do that.
Then...am I stories?
This dew of dreams is the stuff of creation—pakriti, it is called. You are the mist that scatters the dew and the wind that spills it. You are the word ‘Be.’ I am also those things, for we are now one.
And is it like this everywhere?
There is no place that is not full of dreams.
Then may I go—?
He moved over glittering buildings—great, angular mounds of diamond, wrapped in ribbons of light and dappled by pools of darkness. He came closer and the lights resolved into streams of cars and street lamps. The darkness resolved, too, into empty lots littered with refuse and dominated by crumbling piles of stone.
And everywhere were dreamers, storytellers, songmakers. Some knew they were that, others didn’t. Some tapped the dew of dreams on occasion. They lapped it from the air, let it fall on their tongues and spit it out again onto paper or into the airwaves or onto canvas.
But many saw only the hemming buildings and people and bright lights. They heard only sirens and loud music, the shriek of brakes, the angry bleat of horns, the chatter of tongues. The lights made them blink; the darkness made them cower. And as they walked teeming streets and silent corridors or sat alone in cafés or townhouses or shattered tenements, the dreams, unseen, surrounded them. They trod upon them in stinking alleys, they ignored them in the subway, they strolled beneath them in Central Park.
Even now, Adyahksa could feel curious, hungry souls turning outward and inward all at once, wondering where the dreams were and how they might be found. All they needed, he thought, was someone to show them. A little breeze to shake down the dew.
Adyahksa became contentment, then; he became a smile that, if you stood in Central Park at that moment and looked skyward with a hungry soul, you might have seen, lingering like a Cheshire cat’s above the tallest buildings. Perhaps you saw it and knew it for what it was. Or perhaps you thought it was only a cloud.
This story originally appeared in Amazing Stories & Best Erotic Fantasy Anthology.