The Cloud Knitters
In summer, Mum and I collect cottongrass from the moors. Mum plucks their fluffy white heads, storing them in her knitting bag. When we get home, she adds a big old handful of magic before closing the bag up tight and leaving them to their transformation.
As Autumn approaches, she opens the bag. Autumn is a time of change, Mum says, and people aren’t comfortable with change, even when it’s necessary. So every year we start slowly, creating a cloud here and there, cooling the world one grey sunshade at a time. It’s a delicate process.
This year I watch the cloud-yarn drift and shift about the bag, damp as peat bog and twice as clingy. It’s ready, no, eager, for Mum to cast it onto her needles and knit it into clouds.
I pick up Mum’s needles and hold them out to her, but she shakes her head.
“It’s time for you to start knitting the clouds.”
I gulp in a big breath. “But I do the fire.” I have already laid the fire, setting the wood so the heat creates a current that carries our clouds up the chimney.
She shows me her hands, inflamed with arthritis around the knuckles. “You must. Look -” and Mum attempts to light a match. And can’t. She hands the box to me. She takes up the bellows as I put the flame to the kindling.
With trembling hands, I take up the needles and try to cast on. The cloud-yarn slips and shivers out of my hands.
“Coax it,” Mum says, “so’s it wants to slip round that needle.”
Mum usually sings as she knits, but my voice isn’t one to soothe anything. I loop the yarn around my fingers, stroking it like a kitten. It purrs. But then I lose my grip, panic, and yank. The yarn leaps from my needle and rushes up the chimney, carried by the heat rising from the fire Mum is stoking.
The windows turn dark. A sudden downpour pounds the roof. In a moment, the sky is blue again.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Gently,” says Mum. “Don’t make them nervous.”
I cast on another cloud. This one goes better. I get the cloud-yarn securely hooked around my needles. But when I try to slip the needle under a loop, it shifts away.
“I don’t think it likes me.”
“You’re new. It needs to get used to you.”
I keep knitting, and the cloud rages, crackling tiny bolts of lightning sharply over my knuckles. Finally, it is a decent size, just right for an early Fall day, although it is gritstone-grey instead of sheepskin-white. I hold it up to show Mum.
“Not bad. Now let it go.”
I cast off. The cloud tugs and tangles itself. Finally free, it floats over to the fireplace and shoots up the chimney on a warm draft.
Mum and I look at each other, then out the bright window. I’m hoping I got it right. Is my cloud delicately drifting, providing just enough drizzle to prevent the last of the roses from wilting? Will it nudge the leaves toward red and gold, with gentle rain that lets them hold on longer? Will it coax children into coats, persuade squirrels to store nuts, let the swallows know it is time to take flight to warmer lands?
Hailstones the size of cherries bounce against the glass. I wince. The shower lasts only seconds, but leaves a crack in the corner of the windowpane.
“No bother,” Mum says. “Have another go.”
My hands shake now so that the next mound of cloud-yarn growls as I lift it from the basket. If it had teeth, it would be nipping at me. It wraps tight around my hand until it burns with cold.
“I can’t cloud-knit!”
“You can. It takes time.”
My fingers are cold-stiffened and hard to bend. Is this what Mum feels all the time? Sometimes she winces just doing the buttons on her cardigan. I can’t leave this up to her. I have to get this right. But the ball of cloud-yarn tightens itself around my thumb. I yelp. .
“Easy Honey. Go slow. Coax it,” Mum says.
“Please,” I whisper to the cloud-to-be. “Help me make you right.”
It growls again, but not quite so strongly this time..
“Don’t you want to fly?” I ask.
It plops down into my lap and tries to jump to the floor. I don’t want to frighten it, so instead of scooping it up, I corral it with my arms and very slowly bend over it. I add my condensing breath to its dense wet mass, and lower my voice to a whisper.
“I know it’s a big change. This is new for me too. I’m scared. But I’m going to keep trying. The birds and animals and farmers, all of us, need to know the season’s change is on its way. Your cloud form will do that for them”
Cloud-to-be stops growling.
I hold up the knitting needles. “Let’s give it a try together?”
It floats slowly up and loops around the needle. It holds out a soft tendril to me, and I carefully wrap it around the other needle. I barely breathe as I knit, concentrating on every stitch.
The cloud doesn’t come out perfect. It’s streaming instead of fluffy. And instead of soft white it’s streaked purplish-pink.
I cast off and nudge the cloud towards the fireplace. Its leading edge loosens. I hold my breath. Will it break apart?
“It’s alright,” I say. “Just stay above the fire and let the heat carry you up.”
Cautiously, the cloud rises to the top of the fireplace and hovers there. Mum tickles it a bit with her fingertips. It shivers, then scoots up the chimney.
Mum and I rush to the window. The sun continues to shine down. Did my cloud not make it? But then it comes into view, pink-edged and gorgeous. Its shadow ripples over our garden and moves on, out into the world.
Mum hugs me.
I look up to her. “Mum, I’m a cloud-knitter!”
“The Cloud Knitters” © Han Whiteoak, first published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on October 20, 2022
Han Whiteoak is a speculative fiction writer living in Sheffield, England. They have a degree in physics, a passion for the Peak District, and an incurable habit of borrowing more library books than it is possible to read during the loan period. Their short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Pseudopod, The Sunlight Press, and Metaphorosis. Visit their website www.hanwhiteoak.com or Twitter @hanwhiteoak.
Illustration: Background photo: “After the Rain” by Burtn , Bernhard Seigl, Salzburg, Austria. Lead pic by Fran Eisemann, stock from Pixabay