Painting Clouds
A. Merc Rustad



No one looks at the sky anymore. It’s a red, shapeless ruin: the dying sun spilling radiation in its final days.



I paint with clouds. Bird shapes are my favorite: suggestions of wing, a hint of beak, dusted edges like wild feathers.

A swan was the first avian I saw when I was born. The second thing I saw was the human child sitting beside the bird, feeding it corn kernels.

My siblings, fellow cloudweavers, all specialize in different shapes — we collaborate and mold the textures of air and rain, cold and heat. The sun and moon are pallets to tint our canvasses.

But now the sun is dying. People no longer look at our art, our gifts, and as they stop looking, our clouds thin and fade. We grow weaker, less aware. Without our mediums, our art, what are we?

Too many of us are lost, drifting into nothingness outside the atmosphere.


Little children imagine wonders. They inspire my brush. Their laughter energizes my flourishes, their smiles stay in memory for eons, a well to draw on when needed.

When they point and look for shapes, I craft the clouds and send the bird-shapes into the sky.


“We’ve been offered sanctuary on another world,” my sibling tenth-of-three tells me, drifting along on the radiated wind. “One lush with clouds and two moons! There are other weavers there, who shape light and sound. Cousins, maybe.” Tenth-of-three flutters in excitement, and I clasp my sibling close.

“What are the children of the surface like?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll see,” says tenth-of-three. “Our new home has sent us a great sail, made from a thousand newborn sunbeams.” Tenth-of-three creates boats and waves, and often I let my bird-shapes glide over the sails.

I gather the few threads left to me. I will be sad to leave this world — I have never known another home, while many of my siblings who came here when the world was born have seen other planets.

“Come, ninth-of-one,” my sibling says, and pulls me up towards the waiting ship.

And then I see the child: a tiny girl, gray as fifth-of-ninth’s frothy storms. She stands on a hill of rust, a scrapyard that was once a skyscraper, one hand shading her face as she peers into the sky.

I shape a sparrow, tiny wisps of white, and she smiles.

Tenth-of-three tugs me, and my sparrow unravels.

A bigger child pops from the rubble and pulls the small girl down with whispered cautions — “Don’t stare, you’ll burn your eyes” — and she’s gone.

My hundreds of thousands of siblings glide towards the waiting ship. Tenth-of-three wraps about me.

“There will be others to smile,” tenth-of-three says.

I turn for the ship; when I look back, the child is not there.


The ship is a membranous network of wings and eyes, rippling in vast layers above the earth. Most of my siblings are aboard now.

I hesitate outside the portal to the ship.

The little girl has not returned to her rusted hill. I wonder if she still exists. If anyone still exists.


I have little energy left, but still I hesitate outside. Within the ship, fifth-of-nine sends me a whisper that there is light and moisture and beautiful cloud patterns to revive us and sustain us until we arrive at our new home.

“Who will watch us as we fly?” I ask.

We are cloudweavers. We are here to bring joy. To give art, to create, is the noblest of purposes. I know this is true of humans as well. They erect great sculptures and paint on sand and cloth and glass to share their wonder and their joy with each other.

I do not want to abandon this world if there are still small eyes who look up in hope of seeing the clouds.

“We will watch each other until we arrive at our new home.”

Just as I am about to follow tenth-of-three, I see her again.

She’s alone, and sits on a clay hill far from the rusted skyscraper. She stares up at the sky, but her eyes don’t move. Is she looking for me?

I pull all my remaining clouds into my hands and brush them in wide, bold strokes: a heron, a sparrow, a penguin, a shrike.

The girl doesn’t smile yet. Perhaps she hasn’t seen them. I can be patient. These clouds are for her.

“Come away before it’s too late,” tenth-of-three cries. “The ship is leaving! It can’t return once it breaks the atmosphere.”

I shape a flock of swans to see my siblings off. Perhaps there will be another ship, in time. “Not yet.”

While one child still stares up at the sky, I will paint the clouds.


“Painting Clouds” © A. Merc Rustad
A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Escape Pod, Shimmer, Cicada, and other fine venues. Merc likes to play video games, watch movies, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad, or their website: Their debut short story collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, is out from Lethe Press in May 2017.


“Ghost Swans” by Fran Eisemann.  Stock used: Swan in flight,, Swan in Flight, 2 , and Swan – Lift Off, by   Matt Hoskins, UK.

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