The Boy and the Storm (III) by Lewis Brown

III. Cloudia

In the village below the castle, the people dressed differently. This made sense to Sascha, because they were different. Different in almost every way; from the tutors and servants who inhabited the west wing of the castle, from the Panzermen stationed in the barracks, and most of all, different from Sascha and his father.

But not beneath us, he would repeat to himself, later, trying to convince himself that he had always believed that to be true. Not beneath us. Just different. Although when he remembered how the thatched roofs of their houses were huddled so far below his bedroom, it was hard to be certain that he hadn’t sometimes looked down on them. They looked so tiny, after all, from the windows of the castle, although when he went down into the town and passed them in the narrow streets, Sascha sometimes felt uneasy.

It wasn’t so much the way the people looked, although some of the men had gaunt, unshaven faces which frightened him a little. It was more the way they changed when they saw him, their gazes shifting into the middle distance as any conversation died away. He had learned to ignore it, but every time he came to see Cloudia he would catch the eye of someone, sometimes by mistake, sometimes as a kind of test, and they would always shut him out, which made him wish he didn’t look so much like his father.

At the top of the longest, busiest street (Sascha didn’t know its name), there was a church. The church. It didn’t have a name, as far as he was aware, and he only had to look at it to be certain that it didn’t need one. The tall wooden steeple was the oldest, most vulnerable-looking building in the village, but it never showed signs of damage after a storm, whether by tender care or act of God Sascha never knew. It was there that he felt the least welcome, although he knew that if he tried to enter, no one would stop him. But still when he approached it, he could sense the averted gazes moving, becoming angry prickles on the back of his neck.

For a while the church had been a mystery to him – he couldn’t understand why the villagers resented him there more than anywhere else. He had even gone so far as to sneak down from the castle one Sunday morning while father was away, even though he was certain to be missed, in order to overhear a service, crouched beneath one of the rickety church windows. He had half expected to hear something frightening or dangerous, like unorthodoxy or anti-progress propaganda, not that he would have recognised either. But what he heard was no different from the prayers and services he sat through every week in the castle’s gloomy chapel.

After that he lost interest. It was just another way in which the people in the village were different, like the fact that they didn’t have alchemical timekeepers, or even clocks – they just guessed based on the height of the sun. The coldness of the villagers only bothered him when he let it, and some of them minded him less, like the old men, and the younger children not at all. And then there was Cloudia, and her parents, and her grandfather, who made enduring the other villagers’ hostility worthwhile.

“Oi, sourpuss!” He looked up, startled. It’s was Cloudia’s mother, sticking her head out of the upstairs window of their rickety house. “Brighten up. Cloudia’s got something to show you.” Sascha was about to reply, but she had already withdrawn and closed the window. He could hear her clattering around inside, which probably meant she was getting the big metal bathtub ready.  Sascha slipped into the tiny kitchen, and found Cloudia waiting there.

“Hi.” He said.

“Look.” She said, simply, moving towards him and opening her hands. Inside them was a tiny clockwork ladybird, with metal wings pierced with glass dots. “Granda hasn’t painted it yet,” she explained, “but it’s nice, isn’t it?” Sascha nodded.

“Does it fly?” They were both whispering, not because there was any real risk of being caught with it, but more out of excitement.

“Kind of.” She set about turning the delicate little key at the back of the device. It wound for a few seconds, then began to click impatiently, so she cast it gently into the air with both palms, and it hovered above them, wings working away so hard to keep it there that they were almost invisible.

Sascha’s eyes went round with amazement, even though he had seen the toys that Cloudia’s grandfather made fly before. Somehow there was much more magic in their brief and feeble flight than in any of the things his father’s lessons promised him. Then it’s whirring stopped, and Cloudia caught it deftly just as her mother came down the stairs behind her.

“I hope you told your friend to get that frown off his face.” She chided, mock-sternly. “Your father’s got a headache, your grandfather’s in one of his moods, and I won’t be outnumbered by grumpy men in my own home.”

“It’s okay, I showed him Granda’s ladybird.” Her mother sighed. Clearly the clockwork magic was lost on her, or perhaps just no longer exciting after a long day looking after ‘men that can’t look after themselves, and pigs that do at least try’, as she put it.

“If your grandfather ever made practical things in his workshop anymore instead of toys just – not that I don’t admire them, Cloudia – we might be able to sell some of it. Clocks maybe.” Sascha knew she was talking about the black market, and pretended not to listen.

“Couldn’t you sell some of the toy insects?” Sascha asked, wondering.

“No, he insists that they’re all for Cloudia. Threw a blue fit last time I suggested it. I don’t know how he still has the materials for them. Lord knows we won’t be able to afford any more once they run out.” Cloudia, looked up at her mother, smiling.

“Done venting, Ma?”

“Yes dear, you know it does me good.” She patted her daughter absentmindedly on the head and swept away to fetch a bucket.

“Did you like the ladybird?” Cloudia asked him, and he grinned.

“Yeah, I think it’s my favourite now. Apart from the dragonfly.” She grinned back, and brushed her hair aside almost unconsciously. The clockwork insect was there, pinned just above her right ear as always, although it was usually hidden beneath her straight brown hair to keep it from jealous or disapproving eyes. It was much the same as the ladybird, although it had been painted – tarnished blue, with streaks of green along its thin, frail-looking wings.

“What was it you were annoyed about?” She asked him, pulling on a thin woollen coat.

“Nothing.” He replied. The coat was in preparation for today’s adventure, except they probably wouldn’t go far from the village today. Sascha sensed they were both more in the mood for just talking. Cloudia was good at that – mostly she would listen, and Sascha would talk, but while he always said a lot more, somehow her words seemed to mean more, although Sascha wasn’t sure what it was that gave him that impression. “I was thinking about my mother.” It was Cloudia’s mother that had set it off, not that it was her fault. She was always so kind to him, and it made him wonder if maybe his father would be kinder if his mother was still around.

He cast a nervous glance in her direction as they picked their way across a stream. He was a little anxious to hear her reply, because she was the only one who he could ever mention his mother to. Everyone in the castle was forbidden to talk about her, even Mr Rothschild. She was looking down at her feet, long fringe obscuring her face, a sure sign that she was thinking.

“Do you remember her?” She asked, eventually. They had reached the woods by that point, and the tall trunks obscured them from the sight of the village.

“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Silence fell again, as he scoured his memories. “A little bit. I don’t remember her name, or what she looked like, but I think she used to tilt her head when she smiled.” That was it. That was all he could remember, and even that might be a figment of his imagination, and not a real memory at all. He scowled, but Cloudia was ignoring him again, once again vanished behind her fringe.

“Like you, then.” She said, eventually.

“What?” He stopped now, and she did too, both of them stood in the shadow of a large pine tree.

“You do that, all the time. Tilt your head when you’re smiling. Maybe you don’t notice it.” He considered it for a moment. She was right, it was something he did. The thought comforted him a little. So he wasn’t just like his father. He didn’t think about it too long, though, because Cloudia’s next question came quickly, and they had started walking again.

“Why isn’t anyone allowed to talk about her?”

“I don’t know. I think Father just doesn’t like it. Maybe he misses her too much. I don’t know.” He shook his head, unhappily. But again, he wasn’t given time to brood, because Cloudia asked her final question.

“Did she die?” He looked up, and met her eyes staring back at him. They were pale blue, just like ice, although they were never cold.

“I think so. I don’t know.”

Cloudia didn’t have anything to say about that, and neither did he.