Kaltes Cloud-Shaper



Many years ago, a rabbit living on a hillside discovered that by looking at the clouds a certain way she could become one of them. Kaltes found the technique difficult at first – it involved looking askance at the clouds at an ambiguous angle, mainly through the left eye – but once she got the hang of it, she knew she would never forget.

On days that were neither all the way cloudy nor entirely clear, she could stare up from the long grass in this odd way, and without any transition become whichever cloud caught her fancy. When she wanted to return to Earth, she drifted down like a pattern drawn in rain. If the cloud had looked like a turtle, she would come down as a turtle; likewise if it was a flatiron, or a plow horse, or a snake. As her skill improved, she learned to push the shapes of clouds, so that she could transform any way she liked. Thus, she played about on her hillside in many different forms. But when she went to sleep, her new shape evaporated, and she woke once more a rabbit.

Kaltes liked to become a human girl, to whom cloud-like thoughts and feelings came naturally. The Wind himself made love to her; he was another who could change at will. When he thought himself into a man, the two of them would play and dance together, high in the sky, only coming to Earth when the mood took them. Then they lay together in the grass, laughing and taking their pleasure, until they fell asleep. When she awoke he was always gone, and her own body back to its animal shape.

One day she was passing through the grass, grazing in the usual way of rabbits, when a fox pounced out from some bushes downwind. Before she had time to think, its jaws were around her head, ready to crack her skull. But at the sound of a man's footstep the fox's jaws froze, and a shadow fell across them both. By his gun, she knew this man to be a hunter. The fox streaked off, a mere red break in the grass, and gunshots rang after him.

The hunter ran toward the place where the fox should have been, but the fox had disappeared. He took off his hat and looked right and left, which made his reddish hair swing around his face. Only Kaltes saw that the fox had evaporated. She was surprised that someone else knew her trick. Perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad idea to get out of the way of the frustrated hunter herself. She turned her eye to a passing cloud, in that most particular way, and felt it lift her into the sky. 

The hunter eventually gave up and left. 

Kaltes wanted to learn more about the fox, so she shaped the clouds into her favorite form and rained herself down to the Earth, within sight of the fox but out of his reach. There he sat in the form of a man, pinching flowers off with his fingers and putting them up to his eyes, as if he never had seen such things. It took a moment for her to feel sure of her form as a woman. Then, as her footstep swished through the grass, he turned to face her. He said, “That's an odd looking dress.”

“It is?" She always wore whatever the clouds themselves chose to provide, usually some sort of white dress; rabbits, after all, haven't much fashion sense. Today her collar was shaped rather like a boat, and the skirt resembled some frilled sort of bird clinging to one leg, but the waistline came down in a pleasing V. The fox held a brown laugh in his eyes. She glared at him, and said, “I happen to like it.”

“I suppose it will do. On a fair woman, with hair like sunlight and eyes as blue as the sky, any dress would do well enough." 

Kaltes wondered what the fox meant by such flattery. He might look like a man, but he still smelled like a fox.

He reached over to stroke the white frothy fabric over her leg, and she had to admit that the dress looked more like cloud than the kind of covering people wore. The fox himself wore a plain dark suit, similar to what the hunter had worn, though she couldn't help noticing how nicely it fit him. 

His face may have changed, but the expression in his eyes hadn't. “You know, you would look perfectly fine without any clothes." 

"You're playing with me, fox. I've watched women, and they always wear something. You yourself, with your fine clothes, have copied the man who hunted you."

His lips twitched as a fox's never could, and he said, "I have never yet met another who had the skill to change.”

She pinched his sleeve, examining it. “Nor have I, except for the Wind.”

“That's true enough – I should have said, except for that trickster Wind." He was no longer smiling.

“Don't you like the Wind?"

"I dislike the way he plays about with my scent, telling both my prey and my enemies where I am."

"Well, I like him." She moved her hand down over his. Somehow its reddish color warmed her cool, white skin. “The Wind has shown me games, games you and I might play, if you will promise not to hurt me.”

“I will not eat you, rabbit, at least not now. Show me your games.”

Kaltes and Reynard – that was his name – shared a hollow in the grass under the full moon all that night. They made love until both of them were exhausted, then slept in one another's arms. When they awoke in the morning they were still, to Kaltes' amazement, a human man and woman. 

They stayed together for many days afterward. They tried to behave the way humans would, though each of them had different ideas about the details. It was the end of summer, so they found berries and nuts at the edge of the forest. At first they remained in their place on the grassy hillside, but the sun burned their skin when they forgot to wear clothes. So they retreated to a little cave up the hill, a place well hidden by trees. Kaltes liked herself as a young woman, and rejoiced each day when she woke up next to her lover. 

They were not entirely happy. The first hint of trouble came one day as they sat together at the edge of their private woods. They had stone seats now, because Kaltes insisted humans should not only wear clothes but keep them clean. She was chewing happily on a stalk of grass, when Reynard suddenly sprang into the meadow, and came up with his suit jacket skewed and a mouse in his mouth. He crunched on the thing and let a little blood drip down his chin, which Kaltes noticed he had neglected to shave.

As the days went on, Reynard spent more time running about, grasping at prey with bare hands, snarling when he missed. He never caught any rabbits, though whether this was out of respect for her or from lack of skill she couldn't guess. At night he came to her as if famished, never letting her rest, and she would be too tired the next day to do much more than nibble at snacks and nap.

And yet they were happy enough in their cave among the trees. One time when Reynard raided a hen house, he brought her a real dress stolen from the clothesline, and she found she liked it better than the one made of clouds. Another time he brought her a mirror. She was afraid of it at first, but once she understood that the woman inside it was really her, she used it to help her make her hair into pleasing shapes and discover new expressions to wear on her face. 

They barely noticed as the full moon waned, disappeared, and gradually re-emerged and fattened. The morning after the next full moon, Kaltes awoke to find herself again a rabbit, and her lover gone.

Now that she knew there were ways to stay in a human shape, she was no longer satisfied with the life of a rabbit. Something inside her had taken to people's ways, so that she disdained the life of a naked animal. She sulked as she went about her business, and went up into the clouds whenever the weather was right for it. Soon she ran into her old friend, the Wind.

“Where have you been, pretty rabbit?” he asked, idly pushing the clouds around her into something like a cage of white roses.

“For an entire moon I've been living as a woman, along with a man who is really a fox." She started to wriggle and writhe, forming herself into a woman with long, pale hair.

“So you've discovered a few more tricks, ones you don't really understand." The Wind puffed with a gust of laughter. "Didn't your new friend want to stay with you?”

“Not really. After a while he was always off on the hunt." The rabbit in her said this with indifference, but the woman she had formed of herself felt something stick in her heart. "We didn't change back into animals on purpose. The Moon did it, at the full of her cycle.”

“That's my sister's way. She likes things measured and tidy.”

Kaltes pinned a tendril of cloud on top of her head, trying to mimic the way she had worn her hair as a woman. “The Moon is a girl? She is your sister?”

“Of course. In fact, she looks a bit like you." He parted the rose bars of the cage to stroke her face. “Would you like to rain yourself down to Earth and play with me?”

For some reason, today this idea did not appeal to her. As a wild creature she hadn't been particular about these things, but instinct told her real women didn't just spread their legs for any man who asked. Besides, even if her body went with Wind, she'd be thinking about Reynard. “If I keep playing with you, I will always remain a rabbit. Wind, you are a true friend, so I hope you won't be angry. But the life of an animal no longer makes me happy.”

“It's no matter to me. There are plenty of other clouds." He sounded a little offended, but as always his mood shifted quickly. “I suppose I can tell you how to get what you want. Would you like to be human the rest of your life?”

“Yes!" She clutched the muscular arm he had formed for himself.

“Here's what you do. Rain yourself down as a woman, and find a man who will marry you. It's no good playing around with foxes; you must take a real husband, one born human. You do make a fetching woman, so you should have no problem. Go into his house, eat the food he gives you. Share his bed and bear him children. When you live the true life of a woman with one who is truly a man, your human shape will stay in place.”

“And then I'll go find that fox again, and--”

“No!" The Wind took her by the shoulder, and pulled her to him in his strongest grasp. The remains of the cage of roses blew away like so many feathers. “That is not the way of married women. Once you find your husband, you have to stay with him.”

“Oh.” She turned away from him, trying to picture herself as a wife, but the only husband she could imagine was Reynard. “I'll try to do as you say.”

The Wind let her go and shrugged. “I suggest you try hard. I've told you what I know, the rest is up to you." He left with a storm in his eye that didn't show in his words.

Kaltes drifted until she came over a solitary house at the top of a hill, and rained herself to Earth in the form of a woman. The red-haired hunter, coming out of his lonely cottage after the rain, found in his yard a breathtaking girl with golden hair and eyes like the sky, wearing an oddly-formed white dress. 

Of course he fell in love with her. She was not attracted to this man; his fleshy face and thick body looked ugly to her, compared to her slim, handsome fox. But the red of his hair, at least, reminded her of her lover's fur.

They married, and she stayed to live with the hunter. She never went any more up into the air. She ate the man's food, and soon she learned how to prepare it, and to keep the kitchen garden that supplemented what he caught hunting. Every winter she bore him a child, and in spring he added rooms to the house. He built her a porch, too, to let her have a bit of outside air. Between her kitchen, the garden, the house and the children, she kept very busy. Kaltes worked hard to mold herself to domestic life. She kept her husband satisfied. This, she knew, was the price of remaining a woman.

It wasn't until seven years later, at midsummer, that she again saw the fox. The children were in bed, and husband and wife sat out on the little porch, rocking in their chairs and watching the longest day fade into the shortest night. They heard no rustle in the leaves, only crickets chirping in the still summer air. Both of them became aware at the same time of brown eyes watching, studying them from the edge of the bramble patch. 

“A fox!” the hunter said, not too loud. He stood from his chair in a swift, smooth motion.

“A fox!" She stood too, a wild smile on her face. When he gave her a puzzled look, she straightened out her mouth, and said in a more subdued voice, “A fox.”

“I'll get my gun." Her husband turned his back and went into the house.

“No,” she said, but not loud enough for him to hear. Still standing, she took a step, and then another, toward the fox. “No,” she repeated. She thought about her children. But they were human, while she... “No.”

She was in the grass, halfway to the stationary fox, when the hunter came back out with his gun. The fox hadn't moved, had not so much as twitched his ear.

“What's the matter with you?" The hunter hissed at his wife with subdued anger. “This is my yard, and I won't have foxes about. We can't have that wild thing troubling the children and the hens. Get back in the house before you scare it. I'm going to blow its head off.”

Kaltes turned to the man, her husband, and said simply, “No.”

She drew closer to the unmoving fox, and her husband grew alarmed. “That animal will bite you! Get away, get away!”

Kaltes turned toward the man, and said, "Can't you see? It's time for him to bite me, to take me in his mouth." She set her back to the man, and took the last few steps to the bramble thicket. There, she knelt on the ground. She reached out both her hands to the fox, slowly, until she was touching the tip of his nose. The hunter fired his gun into the air, and both Kaltes and the fox ignored it. The fox allowed her to pry open his mouth, gently, and slide her fur across the points of his teeth until her head was entirely in his mouth. They remained that way for a still moment, she with her head tilted sideways, so that her left eye was turned up to the clouds, and he with his sharp teeth gently bearing down.

Gunfire exploded then, and this time shots flew in their direction. As the Hunter reloaded he called, "Where's my wife, fox? What have you done with my wife?" He didn't seem to notice the rabbit that lay bleeding in the grass. 

Kaltes couldn't count how many bullets hit Reynard, or how many hit her. Soon the fox's jaws went slack, and both of them fell into a puddle of blood in the dirt. Her mind told her to run, but she found her hind legs unable to move, as she lay with her forelegs around the fox's neck. Her entire attention was focused on the single cloud above, a cloud of a shape she remembered.

They never again came down to Earth. They still live the ever-changing life of clouds, chasing each other across the sky. Kaltes sometimes lets Reynard catch her and chew her to bits, until each of them, laughing, assumes a new shape.