purple cars either

Jeremy Nelson Puffberg – “Puff” to his friends – was a small silver cloud hovering quietly over High Park in the west end of Toronto. It was a sunny, dry, late summer Sunday, and Puff was feeling lonely in this patch of sky. The nearest other cloud was miles away. Even if Puff had wanted to get closer for a chat (or a friendly bump), there was hardly any wind, and the wind there was wouldn’t make up its mind, bobbing Puff left, then right, then forward, then back, at right angles and diagonals, sometimes spinning him slowly round but more or less sending him precisely nowhere at all.

“Seven,” he said, seemingly out of the blue. Puff was counting orange cars. Some days, when he found himself stuck like this, he’d look down at the streets below to see how many orange cars he could count. He once got up to a hundred and thirty-three. That was still his personal record. But that had been up above Mexico City. Toronto was no Mexico City. Not when it came to orange cars. It was already well on into the afternoon and he was only up to seven. Walter Solinsky – a friend of Puff’s, a bigger, greyer cloud – said you can’t count trucks or vans. Puff disagreed. Trucks or vans counted.

Just then the sky began to rumble, and a small dot quickly became a moth, a bird, and finally an approaching aeroplane. At last, thought Puff. The plane’s wake might push him somewhere new, maybe somewhere other clouds had gathered. Or at least somewhere with more orange cars. The previous April, getting tired of his reflection during a slow mosy over Lake Ontario (where there are practically no orange cars at all), the wake from a thundering 747 had nudged him into a jet stream that zipped him east across the provincial border and clear across Quebec, before finally depositing him – winded but delighted – over Bonavista, Newfoundland, where he’d passed a pleasant spring. There weren’t a lot of orange cars in Bonavista, but at least there the seagulls would fly up and tickle your belly. Toronto gulls were, in Puff’s experience, slightly self-absorbed.

The plane whooshed right through him, and at the last moment he decided to sling an arm over the left wing and hang on for a bit of a ride.

He’d done this a few times before, peering into the aircraft’s cabin and staring at the people inside. He was fascinated by these tiny, upright creatures, clumsy and relatively feeble and yet able to command the flight paths of giant metal birds. They were too small to examine when rooted to the earth, where they walked, drove, straddled horses, rode rail, paddled and sailed. But every now and then, every very occasionally, they packed their bags, took their seats, cleared their throats and flew.

They didn’t seem all that excited about getting airborne, though. They slept, they read, they stared straight ahead; they watched tiny television shows on tiny tv screens. To spy their graceless yawning faces, you’d swear that they were unaware they were soaring through the sky. Eventually, inevitably, their boredom bored him, and Puff would return his focus to the ride, enjoying the six hundred miles an hour breeze. Puff never knew where a plane was heading, but it was always a shortcut to somewhere. And after a spell – usually where there were other clouds around – he’d let go, catch his breath, float about, and mingle. He saw the world that way. One night he'd hitched an iron wing from Montreal to Paris. Moscow to Geneva one afternoon. And one ambitious Tuesday he'd winged it from Beijing to Timbuktu (which had required two rather harrowing mid-air connections).

But when Puff stared into the cabin of this particular plane, he was startled to see someone staring back at him, and staring so directly it seemed almost impolite. Puff had seen people pointing their eyes out of windows before – but then they’d adjust a hat or a tuft of hair or tighten a sinking tie, and he’d realize the window was only serving as a second-rate mirror. The eyes on this girl, though, seemed to reach out; it began to feel like their eyes were holding hands. Puff breathed deeply several times and said, "Wow.” And much to Puff’s surprise, the girl said wow right back.

When clouds talk with one another across vast distances of sky, the only way for them to have a civilized conversation is to silently mouth whatever needs to be said; the alternative would be to engage in a thunderstorm, but then you wake up the neighbourhood and everybody has to know your business. All clouds, as a result, are tremendous lip-readers, and Puff was no exception. So that even though the wind outside the plane was yowling and the girl was tucked inside the pressurized quiet of the cabin, Puff could clearly see that she'd said wow. The question was, had she said so by coincidence? Or was she a lip-reader too? “Kangaroo,” said Puff, at random. And the girl said kangaroo too.

“What’s your name?” asked Puff.
"Miriam Mangojarum. What’s yours?”
“Is that your full name?”
“No but my friends call me it.”
“What’s your full name?”
“Jeremy Nelson Puffberg.”
“Have you seen a woman up here?”
“A woman?”
“Her name is Mrs. Mangojarum. Alice Mangojarum.”
“No. I don’t usually see people up here. Although, I did once. A man stepped out of a plane. I said hello but he seemed like he was in an awful hurry to get somewhere. Just zipped right past me. Then, couple of thousand feet lower, he opens his gigantic round wing and glides down. As if he had all the time in the world. I tried not to take it personally. But as far as a woman called Alice Mangojarum goes, no, I haven’t seen her. Who is she?”
"She’s my mum,” said Miriam. “What are you staring at?”
“Nothing. What are you?”
“What’s your favourite fruit?”
“Hail’s not a fruit.”
“It is if you're a whale. What’s your favourite fruit, Miss Mangojarum? And don’t say mango.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m not going anywhere, I’m coming. To Toronto. Me, my dad and my sister who’s older than me by three years and who everybody says looks like my mum but I don’t think so. A little bit, maybe, around the middle of the cheek, but that’s about it.”
“No kidding,” said Puff with a hundred-foot grin. “Want to come out and play?”

But Miriam Mangojarum’s father told her not without a parachute young lady, and when they asked the stewardess the stewardess said they were all out of her size. So Miriam and Puff made faces at each other instead. Miriam’s father asked her what was so funny and she said nothing. He leaned across her seat, squinting his eyes at the brightness, and said what are you looking at? She said, “Jeremy Nelson Puffberg,” and he dove back into his newspaper with a dignified harrumph.

Miriam said she planned to grow a mango tree in her new back yard but that everyone told her mangos don't grow in Toronto. Puff said obviously they don't know the first thing about mangos. Miriam said her mother once planted a mango tree, and that in her suitcase was a seed from that tree. Then Miriam's father told her to sit back down this instant and to fasten her seatbelt. The plane was beginning its lazy landing, its path now a series of giant circles looping gradually groundward. Puff didn't want to let go. If it were up to him, he'd have clung to the plane all the way down to the runway and sat atop the bus delivering Miriam Mangojarum to her new home. He'd have taken up residence in her backyard, like an overgrown poodle, where Miriam and her friends could play hide-and-seek in his misty billows, and where on hot days he’d be an airborn pool they could wade through to cool down.

But as every cloud knows, the lower you go, the heavier becomes the air all around you, and if you go too low you get squeezed into cloud juice before falling to earth as rain. Still, Puff struggled to let go. As the plane circled lower he felt the pressure from all sides. He began to turn a darker shade of silver. The clouds above looked down with alarm, praying he’d have the good sense to let go.

He did. And slowly he floated back up to his regular altitude, desperately trying all the while to keep track of Miriam Mangojarum's plane as it entered the vortex of all the other planes getting set to land. He struggled to stay with it, but once it reached its parking spot the passengers were funneled directly into the airport, where they couldn't be seen, and then out to waiting taxis and buses and cars where, from a cloud's-eye view, it was impossible to tell them apart.

For three years Puff hovered over Toronto, dodging the gales and currents he used to globetrot on. For the first year, while he couldn’t yet see low enough to tell one person from the next, he thought that maybe with bouts of concentrated long-distance staring he might, over time, improve his range. But over time all he accomplished was a pair of sore eyes. So that by the second year he’d started wing-hopping outbound planes, hoping to find another lip-reader, to ask, “Do you know Miriam Mangojarum?” and if the answer was yes, to ask where she lived and then to pay an overdue overhead visit to his mango-loving friend. But lip-readers were hard to come by. The few that passed through said no, they’d never heard of Miriam Mangojarum. Walter Solinsky said I’m sure you’ll catch a break but Puff was beginning to wonder.

And then about three years in, a plane arose from Pearson and the lip-reader, a boy, when asked, replied, “Yes! I know Miriam Mangojarum! She goes to my school!” But before Puff could ask for directions, the boy's older brother – who objected to the glare on his laptop screen – shut the window. Puff hung on til the plane began its descent over Denver International but the window never reopened.

Puff shuffled back to the skies over Toronto. It was hard to hurry when you're shuffling, but he tried. Where was a good strong wind when you needed on? When he finally showed up, Walter Solinsky said that’s a tough break but Puff said no, at least I know she's down there somewhere. Walter suggested they count orange cars. Puff said nah, he wasn’t really in the mood. Walter said what about purple cars? Puff said purple cars either. Walter said okay but if you get any heavier you might rain yourself right out the sky. Puff's face lit up. The next afternoon was a humid Sunday. The air was thick. Puff got darker. And heavier. And happier. And before Walter could say, hey wait a minute -  Puff had rained himself out of the sky.

Three years earlier, shortly after moving into her new home, Miriam Mangojarum had planted a mango seed in the yard. And for three years nothing happened. “I told you,” said her sister more than once.

But on this particular Sunday, as Miriam helped her father with the gardening, a rain began to fall. Miriam and her father sought shelter under the awning of the garage. Miriam noticed that their neighbours weren’t getting wet and said it’s only raining on us. Her father shrugged. A bit odd, he agreed. But these things happen. That autumn, a tree sprouted virtually overnight in Miriam’s backyard. And by winter its branches were heavy with fruit. To this day, in pretty much any weather, Miriam can be caught reading a book in the crook of its branches. And if you’re looking for mangos that flourish in the snow, it remains – as far as anyone knows – the only place to go.