The Cloud Factory: A Fable

Photo by Łukasz Łada on Unsplash

Jenny had insomnia. It was infuriating — she was so tired she couldn’t keep her eyes open, but as soon as her head hit the pillow, her thoughts kicked into overdrive and she was wide awake. She tried everything to go to sleep at a reasonable hour, instead of uncomfortably and hour before her alarm was set to go off. She tried good screen hygiene, not watching TV or using her phone or her iPad for hours before her bedtime.

It didn’t help.

She tried yoga, herbal teas, light evening meals instead of heavy dinners. She tried cutting caffeine out entirely, with disastrous results; she fell asleep at her desk, which is not a great way to keep a job. She tried cutting sugar out of her diet, and while it did help her loose some of the jiggle in her middle, it didn’t help her sleep.

She finally tried hypnotism with a somewhat shady therapist on Fifth Avenue and it did help for a little while, but gradually the time she was awake when she should have been sleeping started increasing again.

She missed dreams the most. One day, she told the hypnotist, Dr. Brown this, so during her session, he asked her to imagine and describe having the dreams she was missing. She was surprised to listen to herself talk about those old dreams, most of them about flying. On the bus home to Squirrel Hill after all her session, she passed the Cloud Factory and imagined what it would be like to glide into Panther Hollow and through the factory’s clouds, what it would be like to be free and happy, heart and body soaring.

The Cloud Factory sits in Panther Hollow on the edge of Oakland. It looks like a factory, of course; it’s gray and has silos and towers and one giant brick chimney that the clouds come floating up out of into the sky above. In the winter when the warmth and moisture from the cloud works inside the factory hits the frigid dry air, you can see the clouds dispersing quickly, shrinking, but still managing to puff upwards to join their sisters and brothers traversing the land. In the summer, the clouds seem to grow as they emerge from that big chimney. Watching thunderheads form above the factory in a sunset is awe-inspiring.

What most people, including Jenny, didn’t know is that the Cloud Factory also makes dreams. As air and moisture are pumped through the machinery of the cloud works, they are infused with dream seeds. The dream seeds can and do grow into any kind of dream; of course, it all depends on the dreamer. The seeds are planted as clouds disperse in the wind or are evaporated by the sun or when it rains or snows or sleets. They are so small, dreamers don’t notice them coming into their hearts and minds to be watered with emotion to bloom in the night during sleep.

As she lay awake in the dark that night, waiting for sleep for the third or fourth time, Jenny decided to imagine the dreams she could be having. She started with the dream she had imagined in the doctor’s office and on the bus that afternoon, the flying dream. She pictured lifting off from the sidewalk in front of the house she rented an apartment in, and the widening birds eye view of the house, the street she lived on, and Squirrel Hill. She decided to fly to The Point, where the three rivers meet in downtown Pittsburgh. Of course she followed the familiar bus route downtown, unable to imagine getting there as the crow flies. Once at The Point, she flew up the twisting Monongahela River to Homestead, to the old steel mills, then back downtown and up the bank, up to Mount Washington, taking a deep dive down the Incline track back to the rivers, back to the Point. Jenny got so carried away taking this out-of-body flying tour that she didn’t even notice when she finally gave in to sleep and could not distinguish between her imagined dream and the actual dream.

She works on one of the top floors of the US Steel building in Pittsburgh. It’s lunch time, so she and two of her work mates take a series of elevators to the basement, where there is a restaurant. One of the workmates, Deb, wants to look at an art exhibition that’s displayed on the right hand side of the grand stair case that leads from the bank of elevators to the cafeteria, it’s by an artist she knows and she’s used some of the art in one of her work projects.

They go closer for a look and while Deb and the other work mate are crowing over the details in the piece, Jenny gets bored. She discovers that the mitts she’s wearing, which have an inflexible board on the palm side, will actually help her float up in the air if she pump my wrists the right way and hard enough. She goes higher and higher. She glides. No one thinks anything of this and neither does Jenny. While she’s occupied with flying and her work mates are occupied with art, a small group of terrorists come out of the elevator bank and down the stairs toward them. The women notice them threatening them and quickly go through a door at the bottom right of the staircase.

The room on the other side is a mirror of the room they have just left; kind of a grand foyer, but instead of a staircase, there is a series of desks arranged on platforms, like NASA control centers in the movies, except that this is the control center of a government intelligence agency. The people in this room know that the women have just narrowly escaped terrorists and do their best to hold the terrorists off, but in the end, they have to break open a window at the foot of the desks and so Jenny and her co-workers can escape. They’re thrown down onto an air conditioning block overlooking the street. They carefully jump down — Jenny glides down with her mitts that let her fly — and go into the street, where lunch-time traffic is snarled and people are starting to gather to look at the spectacle unfolding from the building the women just came out of, which is now swarming with soldiers in army green, some of whom have belayed down on climbing ropes from higher up in the building.

Jenny and Deb cross the street to a large bronze memorial fountain. There are kids playing but also some of the kids and parents are starting to panic at what’s going on in the building the women just came from. Jenny decides to glide down into the fountain and skim the water so the bronze design of the fountain/statue is between her and the building. Deb follows her somehow, and then Jenny is helping Deb fly and glide. They fly further away and go higher, avoiding electrical lines coming off of huge transmission towers. Some movement of the terrorists down below make it essential for Jenny to go from downtown to her ex-boyfriend’s in Oakland, where he is living in a house after moving out of theirs and has recently broken up with another girlfriend. Jenny flies over The Hill district and skirts the edge of a ravine, making her way into Oakland. She passes the Tower of Learning — almost at the ex boyfriend’s house — and then startled by something, she woke up.

Jenny almost canceled the next appointment she had with Dr. Brown. The trick of imagining herself flying was helping her sleep most nights, and aside from the expense, she didn’t like the man’s office, a Fifth Avenue walkup with dingy brown and orange carpet and furniture from the last century. But she went anyway because in the end, it was easier to show up than it was to call and cancel.

Dr. Brown was not, in fact, a doctor, but a licensed therapist and hypnotherapist who was recommended to Jenny by a friend in therapy. The friend had been in and out of therapy for years and Jenny trusted her opinion, especially when the friend had said she was all talked out and just needed some tools to help her move on and that Dr. Brown had really helped.

Jenny told Dr. Brown about her waking dreams, about how she had been flying around the city and into sleep. “How often are you able to fall asleep using this method?” he asked.

“Almost every night, just a few nights when I was stressed out about deadlines at work when I tried and it didn’t help.”

“I see. When it did help, how realistic were these dreams? That is to say, were your other senses awakened during your relaxation exercise?”

Jenny paused for a moment, thinking. Other senses? Now that she thought about it, she did remember smells, like the smell of the river as she skimmed over it. “Yes, a little bit. Why? Should I try focusing on that more?”

“Yes, awakening your other senses, imagining what you might touch or feel or smell or hear will likely deepen your relaxed state, allowing sleep to come even more easily.”

Jenny walked nervously down Schenley to the bridge. She looked back toward the Cloud Factory down into the dark depths of Junction Hollow, noting the railroad tracks shining here and there in the light and all the pavement, like a dark river beneath. The buildings huddled on the edge of the Hollow all had a sinister industrial look even if some of them were neoclassical; they still could have been mistaken for 19th century factories. She waited for a break in traffic and crossed to the other side of the bridge where she could see the railroad tracks glint behind the lights from Phipps Conservatory and down past part of the lake glittering in the moonlight. Here: she wanted to fly from here, just like in her dreams.

At the end of the bridge, she climbed behind the anti-jumper fencing and quickly shuffled closer to the center, where Junction Hollow flattened out at the bottom. If it hadn’t been in the early morning hours on a Monday, she would surely have been stopped by one of the many college students or campus police or even Pittsburgh police, but she was lucky and the streets were deserted.

As in her dreams, she fell forward in a graceful swan dive and instead of continuing to fall, her body caught the air as she fell through it and she glided forward and down, like a hang glider. She banked left and glided out over the lake. Flying was every bit as exhilarating as it was in dreams, but there were some discomforts, too. She would need to dress a bit more warmly and get some goggles, but she wasn’t going fast enough for the wind to take her breath away. She knew no one would believe her without her showing them — if anyone had seen her jump from the bridge they would have been horrified and then incredulous. But she knew one person who would understand: Dr. Brown.

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