Above The Clouds – Chapter 1


Faithful Jin pads his way across the camp to the balloonists’ quarters. He pushes strips of hanging door aside, feeling the cascade of scales scitter-scatter across his arm. A half dozen boys sleep huddled together inside. He pauses for a moment and when none stir, he steps into the oblong hut. Walking with soft feet, his hands reach out in the dim light for the dividing wall. Finding it, he walks sideways until he finds the second hanging door. He stops and brings his palms and fingers together. They are mirror images of each other as he is a mirror image of the sleeping boys.

The hanging scales part in the center and Jin peeks his head inside. The room is filled with the snoring slumber of eight girls. He runs his eyes over their blanket-covered bodies and sets about how to find Kara within this tangled tumble. He’s never snuck into the balloonist’s hut before, never faced the problem of waking one without waking all.

Which one is Kara?

After a moment, a solution comes to Jin. He creeps into the room and pulls back the bottom of each blanket, exposing feet hanging off their shared mattress. A faint sparkle catches his eye, and he stops at the third set of toes. Kneeling down, Jin looks closely. They are green, purple, iridescent even in the dark. Yesterday, in the idle hours aloft, the two gathered up dead shake beetles from the bottom of the balloon, husked their shells and crushed them into a pigment. While Jin scanned the clouds, Kara went about the business of painting her toenails.

His fingers curl around her left foot. He presses his thumb into the calloused underside of her big toe. He squeezes once, twice, three times. He waits for her to stir. When she doesn’t, he repeats the pattern over and over until a half-hearted kick stops him. Kara is up, her eyes still dull with sleep, her brown hair frizzed out in all directions. She recognizes Jin at the end of her bed, signals for him to be quiet, and then points him out of the hut.

They pull hoods over their heads and walk away from the dreaming world of camp kids. It is the pre-dawn hour, the time of the early workers who are readying the camp. Soon hundreds will flood from their beds and set about the business of launching the mighty gas fisher fleet.

Jin leads them out of the warren of huts to a group of people on the edge of camp. Dozens of cloaked children huddle around a bonfire in the frosty morning. They await the arrival of the grassland caravan carrying today’s bundles of fuel. These kids are all stove tenders tasked with stoking the clay ovens whose fires feed the camp and whose smoke fills the great fishing balloons.

Shake beetles buzz about the blaze, savoring the heat on a chilly morn. Kara and Jin do not speak. Doing so could reveal their presence to Edda and Lonni, the stove tenders assigned to their balloon. They are somewhere in this group, indistinguishable in appearance, but recognizable in voice.

Kara and Jin dance through the crowd, stand with heads bowed on the edge of conversations listening. Edda’s voice cracks and cackles when she’s excited. Lonni speaks in a low, slow tone and answers “Ya think?” to most things he hears. It is Jin who finds them. The boy’s senses are sharp, and he can tune out distractions. He points them out to Kara. She sneaks behind them and blows a cloud of the iridescent beetle shell pigment on each one’s shoulder. It will be easier to avoid them now.

The caravan approaches. Dozens of men and women stooped low from huge sacks on their back materialize out of the void. They’ve walked miles overnight carrying pellets of dried grass, brush, and dung which will be burnt in the stoves. They come from the edge of the valley near the gaslands. These are infrequent visitors from very far out. Their arrival is the reason Jin woke Kara. Someone special lives among them and Kara wants to get a message out.

After greetings, bundles are shifted from one group to the other. What a single elder can carry for miles, takes two children to bring inside the camp. As Edda and Lonni load up, Kara points at water buckets. Jin nods, picks up a pair of pails and the two circulate amongst the tired traders.

A woman sits on a rock far from the fire chatting with others. She has two satchels crisscrossing her chest. Long crimson earrings hang from her ears, they reflect traces of light in the shadows. She is different from the rest, the center of attention. Kara starts out towards her, Jin stumbles after, water spilling from his buckets.

Kara scoops a cup of water from Jin’s pail and offers it to her. The woman takes it, thanks her with a big smile and then drinks with a steady hand.

“It’s unusual for a camp kid to decorate themselves,” she says, tapping Kara’s toe with her own.

“There was no fish, no wind yesterday,” Kara answers.

“Cloud dead.”

Kara looks at the woman in surprise. “You’ve been aloft?”

“No. I’ve just heard the term. I’m Toni.”

She holds her hand out, fingers covered in rings like a townswoman. Kara shakes it, bends a bit at the knee.

“I’m Kara and this here is Jin. You’re not like the other people.”

“I do a different business than them, but I live in the grasses like they do.”

“More than that. You decorate yourself.”

“Advertising dear.”

Toni takes the satchels off her shoulders, places them on the ground. She reaches into the larger woven one and pulls out a radiant necklace made up of three rows of dragonfish scales that taper into a triangle.

“I make jewelry. This piece is for a client in town.”


“I can’t say.”

“No need to. I’ve only ever seen something that fancy on a guildmother.”

“Thank you for the water Kara and Jin. It was nice meeting you.”

Kara looks up, her face flush. Was this woman dismissing her? Had she said the wrong thing? Jin reaches down for his pails, but Kara stops him.

“Toni, it seems like you know many people. I was hoping to get a message out.”

“To whom?” she asks.

“The camp still remembers Starholder. I’d like to meet him.”

“You would be disappointed to meet him.”

“So, you know him!”

Toni laughs, to her Starholder is just a man among the grasses.

“Of course, we all do. He’s a dung collector. Spends his days in the gaslands picking up fish poo for the pellets. Why do you want to meet him?”

“Because he’s been carried away. He’s been above the clouds. I want to know what is up there.”

“What have they told you?”

“There’s only trouble above the clouds.”

Kara looks into the sky. There are no clouds, there is only the cloud, the ever present, all-encompassing cloud that blocks the heavens and hides the great schools of fish from view.

“They are not wrong. It only brought trouble to Starholder. Thank you for the water. I must be going to town now if I want to reconnect with the caravan on the way back.”

“Wait please. Will you carry my message?”

“As repayment for the water.”

“I want to follow him above the clouds again.”

“I will tell him that there is a girl in the gas fisher camp who paints her toes, falls upwards, and dreams of the world above the clouds. He’ll be happy to know he is remembered, but don’t get carried away. His eyes are on the ground now, not up in the sky.”

“Thank you, Toni.”

They part ways. Toni setting off in the direction of town, almost an hour away. Kara and Jin turn back to camp. Daybreak is creeping across the land, burying the shadows of the night. At a crossroads, they turn onto the hard-packed road that runs from the camp out to the edge of the grasses. They are joined by others, the road filling with the business of camp, sleepy eyed kids on their way to their stations hoping that their stove is already lit, that someone has warmed the porridge, put a few cooked fish on the communal slab.

The morning is still, there’s no breeze and the sharp smell of pellet-burn hangs in the air. They pass Station One on the right side of the road. Station Two is on the left two hundred twenty yards from them. The alternating pattern repeats for three miles. They are assigned to Station Eight, the midway point of the fleet. Kids run past them, but Kara and Jin are in no hurry. There’s nothing they can do until their balloon, connected to the stove by a long trench in the ground, fills with hot air and is ready to take flight.

Jin keeps his eyes on the clouds as he walks. He studies eddies and ripples within the omnipresent cover. They are currents which funnel and concentrate insects the little fish feed on. He’s only ten years old, but he sees things that others cannot. He has a gift for when the fish are close above, when to open the shake bug traps and lure their prey down from the hidden safety above.

“The clouds are going to give today,” he says. “The gutters will work until they are sore. Guildfather will be happy. Perhaps he will give us sweets.”

“I’ve not seen him in days. Is he even here to give us sweets?”

“Where else would he be?”

“In town, living well off of our labor.”

“There will be so many fish today that he will appear from wherever he is. He’ll have those fat happy eyes and call us all his darling chicks.”

“What do you see Jin?”

“I see a rolling. The cloud bottom is not flat like usual. There’s an enormous school pushing down as they pass. Perhaps a large enough school to attract the dragonfish.”

Kara looks at Jin and tussles the boy’s hair. This morning’s talk of Starholder has him worked up. No one has seen a dragonfish in camp since Starholder was cast out years back. Guildfather’s shimmer balloon is the kids’ only proof that they are even real. To see that balloon aloft, dragonfish scales reflecting ruby red over the land, is to marvel that such creatures live above them and to wonder what other magic exists among the clouds.

“If today is going to give us a dragonfish, then we need to hurry to our station and help get things ready. We’ll need to tell Lonni and Edda to build the fire strong and fill the balloon tight so that it can hold all the fish we catch in our nets. I don’t want to be pulled back to the ground because there’s not enough air in the envelope.”

Kara walks faster, and Jin breaks into a jog to stay a step ahead of her. Everything is a competition between them. It makes the day go faster, sharpens Jin. He’s marked to be a pilot one day, when he’s grown enough to handle the sandbags that control the height of the balloon. Behind the ovens, the oldest, largest kids work to pull the enormous canvas balloons from their storage sheds. They unfold them and stretch them out until they are flat on the dirt. Next, they take large poles and lift the bottom section of the balloon envelope off the ground. This is hard work, unappreciated, but taking as much skill as Kara’s command of the gondola. Once raised, they tug and shake the canvas giving it shape and room for hot air to enter. At last the balloon is ready for inflation and they attach the long exhaust pipe from the stove.

Kara feels a buzz from the early morning rhythm of camp. She is connected to a community. She is connected to the land. She is right with the place assigned to her. All of that changes aloft. There up in the gondola, she wrestles with impulses and thoughts she does not quite understand. Up in the sky, a voice tells her to cut the tether rope and float away. It is strong and persistent, whispering to her while she tries to fish. Aloft is a place she wants to call home but is unable to imagine how one lives there. None of the other balloonists have similar thoughts. She’s learned not to talk about the voice. Should others tell the Guildfather, he would surely ground her. That is why Starholder. It is said that he cut his own cord, that he carried himself away. She has to speak with him. Someone needs to tell her what the voice means. She knows it is not bad, but she also knows she’s not ready to listen to it.

Balloons, once white, now dirt beige take their shape along the road. Jin watches their own, with its pointed top corners rise above the support poles. The older boys haul nets from the sheds and begin to untangle them. He will climb the rigging soon. It is his job to attach the gondola, the vent, and net lines to the balloon. First, they must eat. He hands Kara a bowl and they approach the stove.

“Lots of fish coming today,” Jin says.

“Ya think?” Lonni asks.

“Don’t think. I’ve seen it in the clouds. If you stacked all the fish you’ve ever seen on top of all the fish you’ve ever seen, you’d have an idea of how many are in the skies today.”

Edda looks at Kara. They are the same age, and came to the camp at the same time. Sometimes, when Kara doesn’t want to hear from the voice, she lets Edda go up in her place and tends the flame below. Today is not one of those days. She knows Jin is right. The sky will speak of fish today.

“You better put more pellets in. He’s getting better at reading the cloud. We’ll have our hands full today.”

They finish their porridge. Neither will have fish in the morning. It is said to be bad luck to carry dead fish up with you. Kara and Jin keep to this superstition along with the others. In a camp with few stories and little interest in history, it is these acts that give them a culture and sense of belonging.

It’s grown hot near the stove and Kara takes a step back. The balloon fills fast now. She can see the grounded face of it rising over the top of the stove. Soon it will pull itself up into the sky and Jin will get her set for flight. Kara needs to attend to the shake beetles. They are kept covered in the ground where the cold makes them quiet and docile. She has to pull two traps worth from the pit and warm them near the fire.

Kara scoops oodles of beetles from the pit and drops them into two deep wicker baskets. There are thousands in there, listless, unaware what is in store for them. She tries not to think about it, but almost all of these bugs will be dead from exertion by the time the balloon descends. “Lonni, a little help here,” Kara shouts.

They haul the baskets near the stove. The beatles have a rattle in their bottom which they shake to make a loud call. On the first really hot day of the year, the grasslands echo with the sound of billions of bugs rattling in the heat. Just as it gets so loud it hurts, they all take to the skies and fly up towards the clouds to find a mate. Waiting for them are the fish who hear the feast coming from their side of the sky.

Kara opens the lids and eyes the bugs, still asleep from the chill of the pit. She’ll continue to monitor them, moving the baskets towards or away from the fire. The trick is to get them ready to rattle, but not make any noise until they are released into the echo chamber of the balloon canopy. “We’re going to be busy today.” Jin yells down from the balloon, now looming over the rest of the station. He has three ropes tied to his waist and pulls himself across a series of small poles that are sewn through the canvas and attached to the frame inside the balloon.

“Ya think?” Lonni asks. No one answers, but Kara gives Jin a big thumbs up. Looking down the road, she sees the Station One balloon take to the sky. Its canopy is filled with hot air from their stove, making it lighter than the cooler air all around them. Station One always lifts first, not out of any sense of tradition, they are just closest to camp and have the easiest time getting ready. Kara checks the shake bugs, sees the inside of the baskets are now squirming with motion, the reflection of identical iridescence scurrying up and down. She wonders if they have any idea what’s next. She wonders if they know they are doomed to die inside her balloon. If they knew that she was their killer would they do anything about it?

The first balloon dumps sand from its ballast bags. The grains scatter across the sky. Freed from the weight, it shoots higher into the sky. Balloons two and three follow. Kara brings her baskets close to the flames of the stove. Their time is soon.

“Make sure they are nice and toasty,” she tells Edda.

On the backside of their station, the balloon is fully inflated. The wicker gondola hangs below, with a large net wrapped in a square underneath it. Kara tugs at the six ropes tying the balloon to the ground. A thick three-inch knot of rope runs from the gondola to the tether winch cemented in the ground. Kara walks around the gondola, checking the lines, making sure everything is secure and that nothing will snag. As much as she trusts Jin, their lives are at risk each time they ascend. No one has ever survived a fall from a fisher balloon.

“We are ready,” Kara says.

The ten kids assigned to Station Eight gather together in a circle. They join hands and recite the balloonist’s prayer.

“May the winds welcome you with softness. May the clouds bless you with their warm hands. May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter and sets you gently back again into the loving arms of the Valley.”

Kara and Jin step into the wicker gondola. The basket is four feet by four feet, just enough room for the two of them and their shake beetle bait. Lonni and Edda lift the baskets and pass them inside. Kara and Jin sit on the baskets. Lonni then runs to the stove and retrieves a hot stone from the fire. Using tongs, he places it onto a metal platform that sits between the gondola and the balloon. When the time comes, the shake beetles will be placed on top of it until they echo and are released into the canopy.

With that complete, the six-ties holding the balloon are released and they start to rise into the sky. Kara watches the tether rope uncoil from the side of the gondola. That peculiar feeling of being lighter than air overtakes her. The balloon rises in the sky, five hundred feet, a thousand feet, two thousand feet. The station getting smaller and smaller underneath, the rose- and cream-colored clouds swirling above. As they rise, the eddies and currents come into focus. Kara feels the presence of fish above, a giant mass prowling the sky, hungry and ready to act.

The balloon halts twenty-five hundred feet in the sky, held fast by the tether cord from rising any higher. To their left are the seven balloons that launched before them. Below on her right, the balloons of station nine and ten are in ascent. Jin opens a trap door in the bottom of the gondola, the large support pole in the center of the basket falls below and opens. He unties a few knots and their net spills open like a giant upside-down umbrella underneath them.

As center balloon, it is their job to set the first shake beetle trap. Jin is a patient cloud reader and can keep the fleet waiting hours until he feels the time is right. Today though, he is ready and expresses impatience that the entire gas fisher fleet is not yet aloft. On the horizon holes in the clouds form and a black mass dips in and out of the puff.

“Dragonfish?” Jin asks.

“It’s too far off to tell. Most likely a school chasing itself into a ball.”

The rest of the fleet reaches the ends of their tethers and drops their nets. Each balloon is shaped like a trapezoid with the long side at the top and the narrow side at the bottom. They are two hundred feet across and a hundred fifty feet high. It is a wondrous sight to witness all sixteen stretched across the sky, nets unfurled beneath them.

Jin nods to Kara and she takes the first shake beetle basket and places it on the hot stone in the platform. The basket begins to stir and scurry, shaking and filling with noise as the beetles are whipped into a frenzy. Jin climbs up onto the side of the gondola, holding onto the rigging, ready to pull the basket open. The noise builds and builds until it is a constant pulsing drone over which no words can be spoken. When it reaches a crescendo, Jin tears off the lid and ten thousand beetles stream from the basket and fly directly up into the balloon.

They quickly plug their ears up. The rattling of the shake beetles is echoed and amplified inside the balloon, reaching an ear-splitting volume. Jin closes the envelope opening above them, trapping the beetles inside. Each balloon in the fleet follows Jin’s lead until the sky reverberates with the feverish pulsing pitch of two hundred thousand beetles.

Jin darts from one side of the gondola to the other while Kara makes space by putting the full basket inside the just emptied one. It’s a delicate dance made urgent by what is about to come. “They are coming from the north,” Jin shouts and points. A massive murmuring ball breaks through the bottom of the cloud cover. It darts up and down, scales shimmering silver, purple, blue. The school is sometimes in full view and other times disappears completely back above them. The fish never approach head on, they always dart and dip as a giant school until they get close to the bugs and break to feed.

“My God, there are so many,” Kara says.

“I told you.”

“I’m worried for the balloon. She might not be able to take such a battering. Let’s get below.”

Jin crouches inside the gondola as Kara pulls two hard wicker covers over the top of the basket. They are covered now, protected as much as can be from what is to follow. Peering out from peepholes in the side of the basket, they watch the flock pull closer and closer to them.

Short of falling or getting carried away, a large sustained breakout is the most terrifying thing that can happen aloft. There’s a moment when the school pulls close to the bugs where they lose all cohesion as a flock and a feeding frenzy ensues. In a breakout, all the fish make for the shake rattle and dive bomb their way to the sound.

Kara feels the first thud of a fish hit off the balloon. A second, third fish, and then hundreds hit them at once. The sky blots out and the entire balloon is pushed off center by the power of the onslaught. Stunned by the impact, the fish fall unconscious from the sky and land in the nets below. Fish land on top of the basket, fly with full force into the sides of the gondola. Tapered noses get stuck between the wickets. Kara and Jin hold each other tight, trapped in the sky as a thousand fish slam with full force into the balloon.

It is impossible to hear, to think, and it is dangerous to act. The balloon is listing though, losing altitude. Kara cannot tell if the canvas above has been ripped, or if the overwhelming size of the school has pushed too much hot air out, or if the weight of the fish in the nets is pulling the balloon down. They are blind in the darkened quarters. They cannot hear anything over the shake of the beetles, the thudding of the desperate fish. The gondola basket is angled downward, she can feel them losing altitude. If the rigging broke, they could be ripped out of the sky and fall to their deaths.

Jin opens the trap door. They need to get as much sand ballast out of the basket as possible. Kara opens bag after bag and pours it out the hatchway. The balloon keeps tilting down at that dangerous angle. The net below them is straining with fish. More fish than they’d ever caught before and then double that. The thudding begins to slow down. Kara, needing to understand what is happening to her balloon, opens one of the top covers and peers around. A fish slams into her head, forcing her briefly back below. She pushes the hatch open but keeps her head inside. Some rigging ropes have snapped, but the key ones holding the gondola and nets to the balloon are all intact. The balloon is ripped in places, but still holding enough hot air to keep them afloat. What is the matter? Why are they dropping out of the sky?

Kara gathers her courage and pokes her head out of the basket. A fish flies into her shoulder, stabbing it, pushing the top of her body over the edge of the gondola. Head hanging over, she looks down below and sees her station mates furiously pulling on the winch, hoisting them down from the sky faster than she thought possible.

“Jin, you need to scramble up into the envelope and release the top vent. We need to dump the shake beetles, or the fish are going to dive bomb us on the ground.”

Jin nods, places his hands on Kara’s shoulders as she pushes him up into the balloon where he grabs an orange rope. It opens a flap on the top of the balloon and creates a suction effect. Shake bugs pour out of the balloon and fly towards the clouds, pulling the attacking fish away from them. The loss of hot air pulls the balloon down from the sky even faster. They are no longer being pulled at an alarming rate; they are flat out falling. Kara closes her eyes and braces for impact. The balloon slams hard onto the ground and the gondola basket is thrown against the mass of fish in the nets below them.

“Jin, Jin, Kara, Kara!”

It is Lonni, scrambling under the canvas to find them in the mess of fish, canvas, rope and wicker. More of the station kids follow and pull at them. The second beetle basket overturned and everything underneath the collapsed canopy is a mess of bugs and fish.

“Over here, over here!” Jin’s voice calls out.

They find him wedged between the bottom hoop of the balloon, above the gondola.

“Kara’s under there, open the basket top.”

The kids pull the top open to find the bottom of the basket has been blown out. Beneath it is a pile of fish. Edda spots a clump of brown hair and pushes fish aside. There’s Kara, bloodied, unconscious but breathing. They pull her from the wreckage and Lonni sets off sprinting to find the camp doctor.