Ever since he’d been a child he had heard the stories. Out beyond the village and the hills there was another world. The sun shone brightly there and you could watch it rise and set. There were streams and waterfalls and tall green forests. There were mountains, some of them capped with snow, as high as the blue sky.
“Fairy tales,” his father told him.
“People cannot accept that this world is all there is,” said one of his teachers. “They desperately want to believe our existence is much more than what we see. So they invent a heaven on earth. They fill it with strange colours and glittering rivers and magical beasts. But no one has ever seen such a place. It is a fantasy. We must learn to live in the real world.”
“My son, “ smiled his mother, “all that you need is right before you. School. Home. Work. Food. Sleep. There is nothing else. But this is more than enough.”
“But haven’t others gone to look and see if this other world exists or not?” the boy asked.
“Fools have gone looking,” replied his father, “as fools always will, instead of putting their hands to decent labour. They chase their pots of gold. But nothing has ever come of it.”
“We know of 237 people who have gone looking for this second world,” responded his teacher. “None of them returned. Not one. They perished in a barren wilderness.”
“My son,” answered his mother, “you are almost a man. Put these thoughts aside. Be a horseman like your father. Or a teacher like your uncle. You are too old for nursery rhymes now. Fill your head with the things that are real.”
He grew up and went to college and took several degrees. But even after he had begun to teach he stood for hours and gazed at the thick clouds. They covered the horizon no matter which way you looked. The sun emerged from them at ten in the morning and vanished behind them again at two in the afternoon. They were charcoal grey and impenetrable. Mountains are there but you cannot see them, went the childhood rhymes, sunrise and sunset but you cannot see them, animals with horns but you cannot see them, waterfalls and lakes but you cannot see them.
Once his mother and father and his teacher were dead - “The hole in the ground is the wonderful finality, it is the greatest reality,” his books said - he pulled on his sturdiest boots, filled his largest pack with food and bedding, strapped a knife to his waist, took up a stout oak staff and made his way at night towards the clouds. He had to elude the many soldiers and police who guarded the way to the clouds “in order,” the law said, “to save people from themselves,” but he was successful, even though there were many more guards than he had been led to believe. For a month he travelled over a rough boulder-strewn landscape, often having to hide from patrols mounted on horseback - one officer was even calling out his name - but in time he reached the edge of the cloudbank and began to pass through it.
It was cold and dank for days. Once in awhile he thought he was following a trail but at other times there was nothing and he tread on bare rock. His food ran out. Water grew scarce and tasted like mud. There was no colour to the world. No light. He thought of turning back. But which was the way back? Suppose he was walking in circles? What would happen to him if even the muddy water no longer oozed out from the stoney ground? He emerged from the cloudbank when it was night. Stars were all over the sky like water drops. There were too many for it to be his own land for they stretched from horizon to horizon in front of him, with no clouds to obscure their light. And he was high in the sky. Higher than he had ever been before. Tall jagged shapes rose up all around him like arrowheads against the starlight. On several of them white glistened.
“I know what you are,” he said, “but I am going to sleep first, and then wake up, and then I will be sure of it.”
The light on his face made him open his eyes from a dream of thick grey mist. He jumped to his feet. It was impossible that the sky should be so blue, the sun so bright and so close to the horizon and the clouds near it so thin and so striped with purple and red. It was impossible that the mountains should be so large and their peaks so sharp and the snow on them so white. Near him there was a bush of red berries. Birds with blue wings ate them so he ate them too. Further down the rocky slope on which he stood silver water gushed from a hole. He thrust his head under it.
In time he made his way to the foot of the mountain he had been standing on. After a few days he found other villages and the people in them greeted him warmly. They had all come from his world. He did not recognize any of them but some had known his father and his mother and his brothers and sisters. They showed him waterfalls and lakes and deer and elk with great antlers. They showed him eagles and hawks and larks. They showed him fruit orchards they had planted that stretched for miles - oranges and grapes and peaches and pears.
“But this is wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Far better than anything in the nursery rhymes. The people back home have no idea. I must go back and tell them what I have seen.”
“Don’t you think others have tried?” one man told him. “They will not listen to you. They will not believe you.”
“No one has come to the village in my lifetime and tried to tell us about these things,” he protested.
“The guards kill them,” a woman spoke up. “They kill them if they catch them trying to leave the village and they kill them if they catch them trying to come back.”
“I cannot believe that!” he cried. “Our own people would not kill us! How do you know this?”
“Because I survived the attacks,” a young girl said to him. “They slaughtered my family at the edge of the clouds on our way in. And when I tried to return to the village with two of my friends and tell them about the elk and the waterfalls and the sunsets they killed them too.”
“They will not kill me,” he answered.
A few days later he climbed a mountain and went down the other side into the clouds. The trip through the charcoal mist did not seem so long this time. When he came through to the other side he hid by day and travelled by night and eluded all the mounted patrols and all the guards. He showed up in his classroom early one morning and stood smiling as his students walked in. They were delighted to see him.
“They told us you had been killed in the clouds,” the students told him.
“No,” he responded, “as you can see I am very well. The clouds were good to me. They let me pass through and they revealed the secret world that lies beyond them. Look.”
Out of his pack he pulled oranges and clusters of purple grapes and three yelow pears. There was an eagle feather and another from a red-tailed hawk. A small antler a deer had dropped and a great rack that had fallen from a bull elk. “Animals with horns,” he said, “but you cannot see them.”
The substitute teacher had been standing at the back watching all this. Then he slipped away and returned with the school principal and four guards with heavy swords at their hips. The principal smiled.
“You should have told me you were back,” the principal said, “so I could have welcomed you properly. Listen. The mayor is anxious to see you and hear your tale. Yes, please bring all these artifiacts with you. They will be invaluable. You can show them to the students again tomorrow.”
But there was no tomorrow. The students did not see their teacher again. “He vanished in the night,” the principal told them. “He died in the clouds.”
“What about the grapes and the feathers and the horns?” asked one girl, putting her hand up.
The principal smiled sadly and shook his head. “All fake. All made out of pottery and turkey feathers. I am afraid the clouds drove your teacher mad.”
School went on, work went on, life went on. The cloudbank clung to the horizon in all directions. Some said the teacher really had gone back into the clouds and disappeared. Others said the guards had killed him and buried his body and his artifacts. Still others said he was locked up with other crazy people far away from the village behind a string of brown hills. Soon no one talked about him at all.
But at night when everyone was asleep one boy who had been in the classroom that day would pull a small deer antler out from a box he hid in his bedroom. He would light a candle and turn the antler over and over in his hands. It had fallen from the teacher’s pack. A small nick showed where the boy had cut it with his pocket knife. Not clay. No, the antler had not been pottery or clay or turkey feathers. It was real, and the animal it had come from had been real and the boy knew that the world the animal lived in must be real as well. The antler had not been made by the hands of any man or any woman.