Christopher R. Muscato
Oma told me to collect mushrooms after the rains. Not the kind we foraged in the woods, nor those we grew in the subterranean fungi gardens. After each rain, I went out to collect the mushrooms that fell from the sky.
Oma loved to sit on the deck of our windmill home and watch the clouds, when she was well enough. And even sometimes when she wasn’t. I would bring her a blanket, and we’d watch shoals of clouds as they passed. That night, they were drifting over a valley in the distance. The people who lived there would have fresh cloud mushrooms in the morning.
“Why can’t the cloud catchers keep their clouds in one place?” I asked. “Then we could always have cloud mushrooms. And you could always have clouds to watch.”
Oma rubbed my hair. “Be thankful the clouds come as often as they do,” she said. “Be grateful for the mushrooms that rain from
Cloud mushrooms flavored many of our dishes. But we found more uses for them than just eating. Some we collected, cloned in agar, and planted alongside the wells and streams on our farm; their broad caps changed colors with the microplastics they strained from the water. Others were used to make mycelium cloth, or rope, or plastic. But certain strains couldn’t be replanted. They would only grow in clouds.
“Oma, you need medicine,” I said.
“The storm has gone,” she replied, her words strained. “We’ll have to wait for the next clouds to come. The doctor will be by tomorrow. He can help me until then.”
I shook my head. “If we kept our own clouds, we could have more storms. We could have more mushrooms. We could fly up and collect your medicine ourselves.”
Oma laughed, then coughed. “Some things aren’t meant to be tethered. A cloud is only a cloud because it is free.”
I fed her soup and put her to bed. Oma coughed through the night.
The next day, a doctor from the city arrived. He and Oma talked. Ear pressed against the door, I listened. Oma asked if there were any cloud catchers in town. The doctor said not to listen to those heksen. But I understood. His medicines were not enough. We needed the medicine that came with the rains. We needed cloud mushrooms.
The electric engine of our rotorcraft hummed as I pulled on the throttle, and it lifted into the sky.
Oma told me what it was like when there were no rains. The air had become too hot, too dry for clouds to form. There were those who tried to make it rain, but when it did, in singular eruptions, the water was poisonous, burning, acidic from all the toxins in the air. But then the cloud catchers learned to seed the skies with microscopic spores, weaving lace-like nets of hyphae and capturing moisture in mycelia. The fungi ate the toxins, so that the particles condensing along their threads would fall clean, and fresh, and good. Over time, the nets grew new varieties of mushrooms, adapted to their aerial habitat. The cloud catchers learned the uses of each, migrating with their shoals of little clouds, flying up to harvest earthy fruits from floating gardens.
Our crop duster groaned as I urged it higher, and higher. The winch hook rattled in the back.
Oma told me that once the clouds had been so large they filled the entire sky. The netted clouds with their mushroom gardens were not that big, nor were they as high as the clouds I had seen in old paintings, those great white fluffy mountains with peaks reaching into the heavens. Our clouds were more like small hills rolling through the troposphere. But I quickly learned that they were higher, and larger, than they appeared from the ground. Our rotorcraft crop duster creaked and sputtered, protesting the climb. Not until I burst above the clouds and set it to hover did it calm, resuming its usual atmospheric hum.
I peered out of the cockpit window. A cottony archipelago dotted the cerulean sea of sky. This soon after the rains, I could see the fine silk of hyphae nets within curling wisps of cloud. Brightly colored mushroom caps poked out from shimmering vapor, speckling the floating islands like paint spattered over a pillowcase.
I felt pride burn in my chest. I’d chosen a good cloud. This one had plenty of the medicinal mushrooms my Oma needed. All I needed was a place to secure the tether.
Oma told me that only cloud catchers knew how to harvest cloud gardens. But that was okay, because I wasn’t trying to take anything from the cloud. Not yet. I just needed to bring it back home. Once I did that, I could figure out how to secure it over our farm. I prepared to toss the anchor at a large knot of mycelium. I closed my eyes to calm my nerves, steady my hand. I heard the hum of the rotor blades. I heard the wind whistling through the hyphae net. And I heard a voice, asking me what I was doing up here.
The girl was perched atop a lengthy hoverboard, a wing without a plane. Wrapped from head to toe in mycelium leather, she glided next to my crop duster and lifted her goggles with a tilt of the head.
“You look too young to fly,” she said, scowling.
I scoffed. “I’m 14. That means I’ve known how to fly a crop duster for years. And you don’t look any older.”
“I’m a cloud catcher,” she shot back. “And that means I’m supposed to be up here. What are you doing in my clouds?”
“I’m taking this cloud back to our farm.” There was no point in lying. And it wasn’t stealing; cloud catchers didn’t technically own the clouds. I stuck out my chest. “It’s not fair that we have to wait for you to bring the clouds. Now we will have rains whenever we need them.”
Before the cloud catcher girl could say another word, I leapt up in my cockpit and tossed the cable hook. She screamed, told me to pull it back. I reeled in the line, and it went taut. I smiled, triumphant. It was secured.
Oma told me that clouds used to come to the earth, settling over entire villages until the sun melted them away. Clouds didn’t fade away anymore. They broke. That’s what the cloud catcher girl told me, yelling from her hoverboard.
“You can’t tether a cloud, you idiot!” she said, gesturing so wildly I feared she might fall.
“You’ve just never thought to try,” I retorted.
She shook her head. “Don’t you know anything? Only wind moves our clouds. If you try to tow it, the hyphae threads will break.”
I felt heat rising in my cheeks. I didn’t have time to argue. In my mind, I heard my Oma coughing. “I need a cloud. If it breaks, I’ll catch another one. I’ll figure out how and I’ll bring one home, you’ll see.”
The cloud catcher girl pointed at the ground. “If the net breaks, it will drop the moisture of the entire cloud on the village below! Do you want to flood your own people?”
I glanced over the side of my plane, then back to the cloud catcher. She glared, eyes burning with fury. But what made me hesitate was something else. Glistening in the edges of her rage was fear. True and honest dread. My throat tightened. I pictured my Oma’s face and knew she would not approve the risk. No matter how badly she needed her cloud mushrooms.
“Fine, I’ll untie it,” I grumbled. “But only because I want to.”
I flicked the rope. The girl shrieked as the net quivered. A curtain of raindrops tumbled from the sky, along with a few loose mushroom caps. I told her to calm down, that I’d try again.
“Don’t!” she shouted. I asked her what to do. She was silent, eyes wide. I gulped.
I had come to tether a cloud to me. Instead, it seemed I had tethered myself to the cloud.
Oma told me to compliment the cloud catchers on their leatherwork. They made mycelium leather of the finest quality, and they were very proud of it. Complimenting their craftsmanship was a sure way to put them in a good mood before bartering for the rarer mushrooms that could only be harvested from the clouds by hand.
I let the slack out of the line and programmed my crop duster to hover in lock with the cloud. There were several hours of battery time left on the rotorcraft, enough time to figure out another solution. The girl helped me inch out of my cockpit and onto her broad hoverboard, glaring all the while. I told her I liked her gloves, asked if she did the leatherwork herself.
“Why did you want a cloud, anyway?” she asked.
Clutching onto the hovering wing as tightly as I could, I told her about my Oma. I told her that the doctor’s medicine was not enough. I told her we needed cloud mushrooms.
Her grimace softened. The hoverboard slowed. “Are you telling the truth?” she asked.
I nodded, and tears formed in my eyes. I wiped them away, not wanting her to see. I hadn’t meant to be gone so long. I worried about my Oma.
The girl leaned on her hoverboard and brought it closer to a cloud. She pointed to a vibrant speck of red just visible through curling fingers of vapor.
“That’s what you need. I’ll help you get enough to last until the next clouds arrive.”
I had no words, nothing to say as she pulled a pair of extendable clippers from her bag and showed me how to use them. Together we skimmed the top of the cloud, snipping mushrooms from the ethereal garden. When the bag was full, she flew us back to her rotorcraft, and then brought me home. Finally on the ground, I found the words to sputter my thanks. She responded by wrapping her arms around me in a hug.
Oma told me to grind the mushrooms into powder, mix it with herbs, and steep the mixture in hot water with honey. I made her a cup of tea every hour. She drank it, chastising me in between sips for my recklessness. I did not protest the scolding.
A group of cloud catchers arrived later to return our crop duster, which they had managed to untangle from the cloud. I hung my head as I apologized under my Oma’s stern gaze. They inspected my preparation of the tea and said I’d done well. The cloud catcher girl was there too. As her people left, she slipped me a package tied in string. She told me she would be gone in the morning, as her people’s wind watchers expected the jet streams to blow their clouds beyond the mountains that night.
My eyes were on the horizon long after the cloud catchers left, watching the shoal of clouds shrink into the distance. Oma shuffled onto the deck and sat next to me, cradling a cup of cloud mushroom tea. She told me that some things break if you try to possess them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate them in the time we have. “It makes it all the sweeter to anticipate their return,” she said.
After my Oma had fallen into her first peaceful sleep in several nights, I opened the package from the cloud catcher girl. It contained a beautiful pair of mycelium leather gloves.
I would see the cloud catcher girl again, every time her shoal of clouds blew over our valley. And though I often felt that same aching desire, watching from the deck of our windmill as her people migrated with the winds, I never again tried to keep a cloud for myself. I went out after the rains to collect the mushrooms and remembered the lessons my Oma had taught me. Clouds were only clouds because they
Christopher R. Muscato is a writer from Colorado and a former writer-in-residence of the High Plains Library District. His fiction can be found in Shoreline of Infinity, House of Zolo, and Solarpunk Magazine, among other places.