The overcast sky appeared to have permanently settled in - there would be no relief from the gray any time soon. I walked back inside from the balcony and a strange memory bubbled up in my mind - it was the clouds that had reminded me. I sat alone on the couch as a college football game ran across the muted TV and I explored the story that was unraveling in my mind:
That girl, that extraordinary girl.
I hadn't seen or thought of her in years, but that bleak sky penetrated a shadowy place in my head and jarred the memory of her loose. She would never live here where the sun hardly ever shined I concluded. Where was she now? Far from me no doubt - way out of my reach - and probably always would be. I barely knew her but I missed her and her fascinating stories just the same. I hoped that i would see her again someday. I sat there alone, thinking of her, trying to remember her peculiar name...
Karamel Karen lay with her companions in the waving field staring up at the long white race cars streaking upside-down down the blue track. She had been there for hours, searching the sky for something, her small body cradled in a form-fitting bed of soft Gabber Grass, when Poofers started yipping excitedly. Karamel grinned happily as a white celestial body reflected on the glass of her dark blue eyes.
They had spotted her magic cloud.
The three of them, Karamel Karen, Poofers - her white dust-mop puppy - and Oinkers - her miniature pot-belly pig - jumped up and headed for the emerald green river that wound through the burnt yellow field like a patient crystal snake.
The source of the river was in the 90 million mile-high Craggy Mountains where for hundreds of years the giant king Trontastic lay dead. The scorching sun melted the jewels of his enormous crown which then flowed down the mountainside through the crowded thick forests of Ghost Trees, past the homes of gnarled trolls and darting pixies, over the mounds of copper rocks, and eventually to the vast yellow fields of Gabber Grass where Karamel Karen and her friends walked toward its banks.
They reached the wooden dock that stretched out into the river and climbed into the bobbing red Hippo Boat tied to the end. Poofers stood in the bow, his front paws on the railing, his back paws on the seat, his eyes pointing upward following the magic cloud as it raced away. Oinkers sat deep in the long, shiny boat, grunting at Karamel that he couldn't see anything.
"You'll have the most amazing view when we catch our cloud," said Karamel.
A spike of light passed through a hole in the silver magic cloud that the three were chasing, and shone on Karen's little frame. It was the light of the sun, a force that had stayed with her always and watched over her since her birth in the Frog Forest of Foozleburn. She was never specifically aware of her constant overseer, but she had always felt the comfort of something special in her life.
"Oh stop Oinkers. We are almost there."
The river picked up speed and the red Hippo Boat shot rapidly down the green current. Poofers' tiny tail hurriedly wagged as they approached Cloud-Catching Canyon where thousands of Puckering Pelicans lived.
On the other side of the canyon in the village of Weller where Karamel Karen and her friends lived, it never rained. Never. Before they could reach Weller, all the clouds were sucked from the sky by the Puckering Pelicans who liked to eat the Crying Carp, the enchanted fish that swam in the waters of the clouds.
Karen had lived in Weller ever since leaving the Frog Forest shortly after her birth. She lived there for the sun, for the warmth and the happiness that she felt while under its glow. What she didn't know is that the God who lives in the Sun, the one who had watched her since birth, was in love with her, unconditionally. He passed his love down to Karen through the light beams that shone from his eyes. His love was the warmth on her skin and the happiness in her heart. He could not love her sufficiently if the clouds blocked the path to her and she could not feel his love under an overcast sky, so their relationship was eternally happy in cloudless Weller. Karen was never consciously aware of their special union; she was simply happy, and never really questioned why.
But the Sun, and that one Love, while certainly very important, were not the only things in her life, so Karamel Karen often went back to the Frog Forest of Foozleburn to visit her friends and family there.
And she always traveled there in the only possible way: atop her magic cloud.
The Sun God had created the cloud for her so she could travel to the forest of her birth safely. Now and then, when he spotted a frown on her pretty soft face, he would create a new cloud for her so she could go see her friends. Whenever she would feel this longing, Karamel Karen headed to the fields of Gabber Grass with Poofers and Oinkers and together they would look for the cloud. And they always found it.
"Yip! Yip! Yip!"
"I see it Poofers," Karen answered. The river wound into the canyon and it was almost time to catch their cloud. "Look for Boris."
"Oink," said Oinkers.
Boris the Pelican was a great friend of Karamel's. He was a giant Puckering Pelican, becoming so big from eating hundreds of Crying Carp everyday. Boris spotted Karamel's Hippo Boat and swooped down toward it. The magic cloud was now just overhead and several Puckering Pelicans had noticed it; they wanted to suck it from the sky. Karamel, Poofers, and Oinkers hurriedly leapt from the boat onto Boris' back. Boris looked back at his passengers, always enjoying the softness of Karen's skin on his smooth white feathers, and said "Hello Karen. Hello Poofers. Hello Oinkers." They said hello as the bird rose high above the river, over the canyon walls, and into the clouds.
Thousands of Puckering Pelicans flew all around them, sucking in clouds and swallowing Crying Carp. Boris flapped his giant wings and powerfully propelled them toward the white cloud with the shining silvery outline. Two other pelicans were rapidly approaching, drawn by the brilliance of the cloud with the belief that the fish inside would taste extraordinary. Boris flapped harder and got above the cloud as the others closed in. "Jump my friends," shouted Boris above the noise of thousands of flapping wings and screaming fish. The three leapt and landed on the soft bed of the cloud with a cushy bounce. Boris peeled off as the magic cloud whisked them away from the other pelicans toward the Frog Forest.
"Oink, oink, OINK!"
"I told you Oinkers," said Karen as the three marveled at the view of their world: the Craggy Mountains towered magnificently on the horizon, the orange waters of the Octopus Ocean churned far off to their left, the fields of Gabber Grass were filled with herds of miniature Gobbo Giraffes, millions of the purple and green spotted animals running across the yellow fields, the Vines of Vasser-Va-Vim hung down like tangled hair growing from the billions of Izz Islands that floated in the sky hundreds of miles above their heads. The magic cloud swiftly sped toward the Frog Forest of Foozleburn as the three oohed and aahed at a beauty one never tires of.
Karamel, Oinkers, and Poofers spent three wonderful days in the forest, playing with friends, laughing with their families, and swimming in the black, warm waters of the Pooker Pools. When it was time to return to Weller, they climbed a towering Ghost Tree and waited for another magic cloud. When the Sun God sent one, they jumped on and swam with the Crying Carp as they cried, raining tears down upon the lands between the Frog Forest and Weller.
"Oink, oink, oink oink oink!"
"I know you don't like this part so much," Karen softly said to her sensitive friend, "but you should try to have fun with it."
"Yip!" agreed Poofers. He liked the adventure and wagged his little tail excitedly as he swam with a fish.
When they neared the Cloud-Catching Canyon they could hear the flapping wings and excited squawks of the Puckering Pelicans. Getting back was always a little more challenging, and sometimes unpleasant. They continued to swim with the fish and waited.
Soon, a loud noise, like a kissing bird with big wet lips, filled the air. "Hold on!" cheered Karamel as a Puckering Pelican began sucking in their cloud. All the Crying Carp began swimming ferociously against the current, but Karen, Poofers, and Oinkers just closed their eyes and took in a deep breath each as they shot downstream toward the gaping beak of the giant bird.
They landed with a thunk in the bottom of the bird's hanging beak and held onto each other as the Puckering Pelican flew back down to the emerald river winding between the canyon walls.
"Is everyone ok?" asked Karen as they bumped along in the pouch of the pelican's mouth.
"Oink oink," said Oinkers.
"Yip!," said Poofers.
"Wonderful," said Karen, "I'm super happy." She patted her fluffy dog's head and scratched Oinkers' scruffy chin.
As the bird slowed down for landing, Karen, Oinkers, and Poofers began making a loud racket. Karen sang a song, Oinkers oinked, and Poofers yipped continually. The pelican was shocked at the noise coming from his beak and he gasped. In the moment that his mouth was open, the three friends climbed to the rim of his beak and leapt out into the green waters of the rushing river where three Blipper Beavers were swimming in circles awaiting their arrival. Karamel, Oinkers, and Poofers rode on the backs of their three friends down the current and out of the canyon toward their home of Weller. The Blipper Beavers swam to shore when they reached the village and let the three off their backs and onto land. They all waved goodbye with smiles on their faces, the beavers showing their big buck-teeth.
Oinkers and Poofers raced ahead of Karamel Karen back toward home while she slowly, thoughtfully walked along. She welcomed the cloudless skies of Weller, glad to be back from the grayness of the Frog Forest. She felt the warmth of the Sun on her slender neck, and in that warmth, a question: "Did you have fun, my love?"
She looked up with a smile on her face, squinting slightly against the shining light, and whispered to no one: "Of course, of course. I so love my life. I am so grateful for my friends, for my family, and to always travel so safely on my amazing Magic Cloud."
The sun shone brighter as the Sun God beamed his love-light down on his sweet girl, "Anything for you, my dear," he whispered. "Anything for you."
Chicago, Illinois - November 2006