Written 27 February 2007
When Cloud was born, he was a tiny thing. His mother had been afraid that he would break when the doctor picked him up and put him in her arms, weighing little more than a large puppy and his skin slightly blue from being so moon-white, and she hardly dared him touch him in case he would shatter.
(There were two reasons she gave him his name. One, for his wide sky-colored eyes and sun-yellow hair and the softness of his baby skin—and because he was all that was left of a little girl’s dream of future happiness, now torn and tattered almost beyond recognition.)
When he got older, he never seemed to get any stronger. He was a sickly child, prone to bouts of nausea, the doctor claimed, from the strong presence of mako in the Mt. Nibel reactor. He would spend days at a time trapped in bed, too weak to get up, and he was so thin, so pale—
His mother cared for him patiently, lovingly, but deep down was a little seed of resentment that she had given up so much for a child that would never become anyone… Then her son would throw his skinny twig-arms around her knees and look up at her with solemn blue eyes, and her heart would twist with guilt.
She was not blind to the way the rest of the town treated her son, because it was the same way they treated her, only with less subtlety, more bruises. Lying awake at night, alone, or when she gently rubbed salve over Cloud’s wounds and scrapes, she would dream of flying away somewhere (anywhere) where the laws of cruelty that governed the world were no longer an immutable reality.
She refused to think of the man that fathered her child.
As Cloud got a little older than before, his bouts of sickness became less frequent, less severe, and he would spend long hours climbing all over the nearby mountains, desperate to prove that he was not helpless. And it was this that got him into trouble, because when Tifa crossed the bridge that she was not as familiar with as he was, and the ropes snapped, she fell.
So the boy’s mother pulled out the handgun she had not used in many years and aimed it unerringly at Tifa’s father, the man who dared hurt something of hers. Cloud lay still on the ground, curled into the smallest defensive ball he could manage, bruised and bleeding and tear-streaked, and it was like seeing her own heart on display for the rest of the town to stare at silently.
Touch him again and I’ll kill you.
She carried him home herself, her thin frame hardened by years of carving out a life in the harsh Nibel mountain range, and hating how his shoulders and knees dug into her arms. Then she carefully put him back together, physically. When he finally woke up, the first thing he did was give her a small smile and a tired, Thank you, Mum, and his mother hoped he did not see the tears in her eyes.
(She had never been able to fully suffocate that little seed of anger inside of her no matter how hard she tried, and she knew that her son was not blind, that he could sense it was there and it hurt him—but this was her child and he was all she had left in the world.)
She remembered the first time Cloud saw the General.
It was a grainy, black-and-white photograph in the town’s single newspaper, depicting a man in dark leather and pale hair standing stiffly behind the most powerful man in the world. She had been making dinner, her son skimming the paper and stumbling over the larger words at the scrubbed wooden table, when she heard a soft breath of surprise. His sky-blue eyes were wide and fixed, and he held up the front page with the sort of wonder children like him usually reserved for things like sunsets and wild animals.
(Maybe, for Cloud, that was what the General was.)
“Mum, who’s this?”
She told him. She said he was the most revered man in the world, a hero.
“…He doesn’t look very happy. Do you think he’s lonely, Mum?”
She said that men like him are never lonely, and set the table, please, dinner is ready. Cloud handled the battered plates with care, and she watched him with another twist of the heart. She had never met the man, but right then, she hated the General, because he was the first step in losing the last remains of her little-girl dreams.
(Perhaps it was inevitable; the General was everything Cloud was not, every sunset and every wild animal a child’s mind could conceive, and children were known for chasing after impossibilities. Cloud had always had such a vivid imagination.)
The day came that her son left, and though she had known it would happen the moment she saw the expression in his eyes when he looked at the newspaper, she could not help but feel that she was losing something she had never really understood, but was still very precious, forever.
When the town came tumbling down around her in bursts of flames and screams, she stared silently at the fallen angel that had stolen her son (battered remains of a childhood dream) until her lungs froze from the ashes.
Cloud’s mother used to wonder, when she called and called and he never came, and she would go searching for him only to find the boy sprawled in the meadows and staring up at the sky, what he would dream about. She observed him, once, and for hours he silently lay in the summer grass and watched the clouds twist into new fantastic shapes so far above him.
She wondered, nowadays, that with all the strength of imagination that came from the mind of a lonely little boy if he could have imagined the sort of future that his life would take.
She was his mother, and like all mothers, she possessed the uncanny instinct of knowing when her offspring was endangered. She no longer needed this instinct when all she could hear was his screams, echoing in the Lifestream, wrenched from his delicate throat like macabre music; all she could see was his small, nude form restrained on a steel table as needles and knives and all manner of things made him burn, and bleed, and his back arch into unnatural shapes. Mother, he choked, cried, Mum—but she could not merely point a handgun and make it all better, not this time, and the knowledge of her helplessness made her scream alongside him.
Now, she could only watch as he retreated into the dreams that had kept him company as a boy (just like she had, when the real world had taken the innocence of a little girl). Slowly the sadness and hope and hidden anger that had once been so integral to him was stripped away as he curled inside himself, hiding from the world in a place where the sunsets were always beautiful and the animals had no teeth or claws (or swords).
She could only watch as his mind and his body were violated again and again, in the name of science or in the name of racial purification, how his sanity came to rest solely in the only man that had ever shown him kindness. She saw how he slept alone at night because physical touch could send him into terrified paroxysms, and that the death of each person he tentatively came to care for eventually carved his soul into empty stone.
And still, still, he followed the fallen angel across the world and back, unable to let go of the last remnant of a childhood that was the only thing keeping him tethered to his humanity.
I never understood him, she said to the man with warm grey eyes that glowed with mako and reminded her of a wolf.
You gave up, the man said, and shook his head slowly. But Cloud can’t, not as long as he has something to prove.
I once dreamed of him, she murmured, and her words were echoed in the fluidity of the Lifestream, and I dreamed that we were happy.
That’s why they’re called dreams.
When Ultima was finally swung for the last time, she was the only one that saw her son’s tears. And it was then she realized that the resentment and bitterness towards a misbegotten little boy she had tried so hard to hide in life was gone, and in their place were sorrow, and regret, and relief.
Cloud’s dreams had died, so she opened the Lifestream and her arms to him (the way she had not been able to before), where the sunsets were never the same twice and the angels had pink ribbons or wolfish grey eyes; and where he was not a failure or a disappointment, but simply her son.