In the car, my son asked me why the clouds were moving in different directions. He was finally old enough to sit in the front seat and he spent every trip to the store straining against the seatbelt and craning his neck to stare out the windshield. I twisted my head skyward, too. It was a weird weather day, the air stagnant and thick on the ground but way up in the clouds the wind was racing, and he was right, some clouds were drifting east while others veered north and some even raced backward toward us.
It was something meteorological, something to do with air pressure and the jet stream and frontal systems. I don't know what all, and he was that sort of kid: you tell him the truth and you'll spend the rest of the day answering questions, driving to the library to check out stacks of books, getting online at home and helping him navigate Wikipedia. So I said, "Oh, honey, those aren't clouds. They're ships that the gods sail around in."
He gazed at me, his eyes huge.
"Yep, it's a nice sunny day out today, and they all felt like taking a cruise."
"Like the sailboats out on the big lake?" he said.
"Like the sailboats and motorboats and everything. Even big, big ships."
My son can't sleep during thunderstorms. Rain he loves, but the lightning and thunder terrify him. After I told him about the god-ships, we had a dry storm, sheet lightning sparking over the horizon and, when the system reached the radio towers, thick blue bolts arcing for long seconds. The air was hot and smelled like a car battery. My son usually cowers during these sorts of storms, hiding with a flashlight in a tent made from his blanket. But this time he knelt at the window, his elbows on the sill and his flashlight in his little fists like a scepter.
"Mom," he said. "Why are the god-ships fighting?"
I stared at him, clueless. I'd completely forgotten what he was talking about. My forehead hurt trying to figure out what to tell him. But he beat me to it:
"It's okay, Mom, I can handle it."
It's what he'd said when his father deployed. I looked out the dark window and saw the two of us reflected in the glass, and then we disappeared, replaced by a wide flashbulb of lightning. And then we were back. The glass shuddered with thunder. I knelt beside him.
"Honey, I don't know why the god-ships are at war. No one does. It's been going on for a long time."
"I know," he said. He laid his head sideways against the windowsill and sighed. Then he said, "Who's winning?"
"It's hard to say," I told him. "From underneath, all the god-ships look the same."
"Like you're underwater and looking up," he said. "Like at the pool, when you're in the big floatie raft and I'm underwater with my goggles."
Jesus, this kid.
"Exactly like that," I said.
"But I can always tell when it's you," he said.
"You must be smarter than me, then."
For a while the sky was clear, and sometimes my son would say he missed the god-ships but other times he would simply smile and tell me he was glad they'd stopped fighting. Then we had a rainstorm, a heavy downpour from a black sky, the gutters full and the street rushing. My son sat with me on the front porch; I drank coffee and I'd fixed him hot cocoa. He said, "If I went out and got wet, would the gods be sorry?"
"Don't go out in the rain, honey."
"I know, Mom. But it's like, I'm not in their war, but all this rain, it's like their blood, so if I got wet, it'd be like they got their blood on me. Would they feel sorry about that?"
I started to cry. I took his cocoa and set it next to my coffee on the porch railing and I crushed him to me. What had I done?
"It's okay, Mom!" he said. "I don't think they mean it. I don't think they even know we're down here."
What had I done?
He drew pictures of the god-ships, began making a book explaining how everything works. The cumulonimbus warships, the stratocumulus cruisers, the cirrus scouts. The high, cottony blankets of cirrocumulus were victory ceremonies. "Like the end of Star Wars." The low, heavy ceiling of an overcast day was mourning after a lost battle. "Like when Daddy's friend Mike came home." He meant in a casket draped with the flag.
Rainbows were peace treaties, but tornados were nuclear weapons. Hailstones were bullet casings and snow was just flotsam, exploded food sacks or shredded pillows from the berths. Hurricanes were whole armadas clashing, entire nations meeting in epic battles that would see flags fall and territory consumed. Fog was a sunken ship, fallen to our world and forgotten by the gods as their war raged on.
His teacher sent home notes praising his creativity, but she also sent home notes saying she was concerned by the violence of the conflict he described. "I know his father is overseas," she wrote one time, "but maybe there are happier subjects you could explore together at home."
I told him to keep drawing. I took his pictures off the refrigerator and framed them, started hanging them from nails I hammered into the walls. I took down all the old art in the living room, everything but the photo of my husband in his crisp uniform and his framed special forces patch, which I kept beside the light switch. With the walls otherwise bare, I made the living room into a gallery of the god-ships.
He never drew the gods. He only drew their ships. Once, I asked him why. He said, "From underneath, all you can see are the god-ships. Have you ever seen a god?"
I told him that I hadn't, but we would keep an eye out for one.
In the thick fog, my son grew quiet. He insisted on wearing all black on foggy days. "Like for Daddy's friend Mike," he said. I indulged him the first time, but the second time it was school photo day, and I told him he had to wear brighter colors. He refused. "Today is a funeral day, Mom!"
"But you don't even know the gods whose ship went down!" I was in his world now, completely.
"That's not the point. A ship sank. It's sad."
I couldn't argue with him anymore. While he was at school, I bought him six new outfits of all-black clothes, a whole week's worth if you counted what he wore to school that day. What else could I do?
One day, several weeks later, the fog was in again and we were at the playground. He was wearing the black shorts and t-shirt I'd bought him. The black sneakers. Black socks. I told him to stay close—I was going to lose him in the fog, in all that black—but he didn't want to play much anyway. "It's a sad day, not a play day."
We went for a walk together, leaving the play area and heading out along the park fence. He held my hand. Sometimes we would stop to look at the dew in a spider web or hold our hands in front of our faces to see how far we could see, but the fog was never that thick. Neither of us talked. We just walked the perimeter, side by side.
When we came upon the man lying on a park bench, his patchy beard and his tattered pants, his stained army jacket, my son squeezed my fist and pointed, and he whispered, "Mom, it's one of them!"
"Don't point, honey," I whispered, but he pulled me down to one knee and he kept on pointing.
"Look, look, one of them survived!"
"The battle, Mom, that's why his clothes are torn. The sunken god-ship. That must be the god-captain—he went down with his ship."
"Oh, honey—" but he'd already pulled free of my hand and was running over to the bench. I dove after him so fast from my one knee that I fell over, scraped my palm in gravel and ripped my pants at the knee. "Wait!" I shouted. "Don't go over there!"
But he wasn't that far from me, the homeless man on the bench just a dozen feet away at the most, and I could still see and hear my son. The man sat up at the same time I climbed back to my feet, like we were rising in unison. He looked at me and smiled, kept his hands to himself. He looked at my son. My son looked at him, then back at me.
"I'm sorry you fell down," he said. He was talking to the homeless man, I'm pretty sure. The god-captain. "I'm sorry this happened to you."
"Son, so am I," the man said.
I was already by my son's side, a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry he's bothering you," I said.
"No bother," the man said. "But now that you're here, think you might spare a dollar?"
My son was looking up at me. I fought tears as I looked down at him. "I'm so sorry," I told the man. "I don't have my purse."
The man only nodded, but then my son was digging in his front pocket. "I have my allowance money," he said, and before I could stop him, he was handing a crumpled ball of a dollar bill to the man. The man looked up at me, and I sighed and nodded, and then he took the wadded bill from my son and stuffed it into the breast pocket of his tattered army jacket.
"God bless you, son."
"You're welcome, Captain."
The man cocked his head and chuckled. He said, "I ain't a captain, son. I'm a full-blown admiral."
My son said, "Wow," the vowel long and breathy, but I was already pulling him away, walking him back toward the play area, the parking lot, the car.
My son said, "Mom? Why would a god-admiral need a dollar?"
I pushed him into the front seat, squatted in the open car door to help him fasten his seat belt, and then stayed there, a hand on his little knee. He looked at me, waiting for me to explain it all to him.
I said, "Once a captain—or an admiral—goes down with his ship, he's free from the war but he's trapped here on the ground. If he gets enough money, he can buy his own ship, just a simple personal boat, and he can sail away, up above the sky, and escape the war forever."
"Like, into space?" my son said.
"Like, into the Milky Way, honey. Like, into the stars."