Story Excerpt


by Michael Swanwick


“Oh, and I should warn you that Aunt Céline is going to make a pass at you.”

“What?” Most of Wolfgang’s attention was on the road. Its surface was slick, and it wound through a forest of misty trees, twists of pale water vapor that faded indistinctly into the surrounding night. “Excuse me, you said what?”

“She’s hit on all of my beaux,” Judith said. “Well, almost all. The ones she didn’t, I always found out later there was something wrong with them. In retrospect, I probably should have run them past her before going to bed with any of them.”

“Wow.” The sign for I-87 floated out of the darkness and Wolfgang took the ramp. “I guess I’d better hope for the best, or we’ll have to call off the wedding.”

“You’ve got nothing to worry about, handsome.” Judith patted his thigh. “Trust me.”

They drove on in silence for a bit. The interstate was more heavily traveled than the Parkway had been, but straighter and better lit. A bridge rose up before them, and they crossed over a deep chasm caused by a fold in the cloudbanks. Down at its bottom was a bright ribbon of roads and buildings where the surface was flat enough to build upon. “Aunt Céline sounds like quite a character,” Wolfgang said.

“Oh, I told you about her! Céline was the family scandal. She married a man thirty years older than herself—”

“Harmon Anderson, I know.”

“—and I forget how many billions richer. Then, when he died, she spent years defending the estate from his children by the first two marriages. She fought them down to scorched earth. There were headlines. But no one can deny the good she’s done with that charity she founded.”

“You’re proud of her.”

“Darling, who wouldn’t be? Wait until you see her place.” Judith leaned forward and turned on the radio. A scatter of clacking notes of light jazz led into Terry Gross’s voice:

Today on Fresh Air: Is the Cloud trembling on the brink of a rainstorm that will dissolve our world beneath us? Some scientists say yes. I’ll be talking with Dr. James L. Stafford, who—

Wolfgang flicked off the radio. “We don’t have to listen to that. I mean, Christ. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, right?”

“You’re nervous!” Judith crowed in delight. “My big bad woof is nervous about meeting the family.”

“Don’t be absurd. I’ve faced down the best the Department of Justice could throw at me. Families are nothing.” He shifted into a higher gear and gave the Jaguar a taste of speed. It wove around and through the traffic. Meanwhile, the cloudbanks swelled up and up and up and the road went with them. Far above, at their peak, shone the bright skyscrapers of New York City.

*   *   *

The door opened onto a comfortable haze of conversation and laughter. A string quartet was playing Bach. A valet took their coats.

Before they could plunge in, a tall woman in an Issey Miyake gown swooped down upon them. “Judith!” she cried, adding after an almost imperceptible pause, “and you must be Wolfgang. How delightful, come in, come in.” With hugs and air kisses, Céline drew them out of the anteroom and into the suite. “I don’t think you’ve been here since I redecorated? Let me show you around.” She took Judith by the arm and led her through the penthouse, Wolfgang tagging after. This room had a variety of features and the tapestry came from Spain and hello, it’s been so long, you know Judith, don’t you? Guests loomed up and melted back into the party.

They drifted through the library, the media area, and the spa, their brief confrontations with a famous cinematographer, his jailbait companion, and a politician on the way down dissolving to nothingness the instant they turned their backs. Wolfgang could not help reflecting on how good Céline looked for a woman of her age. Her vivacity was a part of it, of course, but so was her gown, cut low to show off her freckled breasts. They looked as if they’d been sprinkled with cinnamon. Small silver stretch marks showed at their tops, so he had to assume they were natural. It was easy to see why her late husband had been moved to acquire her. Wolfgang could vividly imagine those breasts naked, beginning to sag but not so much as to be a problem, could picture himself cupping them in his hands, could all but feel their warmth and weight on his palms.

“. . . should warn you that Radford’s in a sour mood,” Céline was saying.

“Oh, Radford!” Judith cocked her head and launched a dismissive eyebrow. “Nobody takes him seriously.”

The tour wound up where they’d begun, in what Wolfgang now learned was called the commons. A table had newly materialized with hors d’oeuvres to one side, sushi to the other, iced oysters in the center. The caterer—or, no, Céline would have a full-time cook, surely, so this would be another servant—stood by it in respectful silence. On the wall opposite was an oil painting that Wolfgang had somehow failed to notice when he came in. Now his eye went straight to it.

“But this is—” He stopped. “Surely it can’t be.”

“It isn’t.” Céline went close enough to the painting to touch it and he followed. Swirling colors threatened to swallow him whole. “The final version of Cloud is in the National Gallery. But Turner painted eight oil sketches in preparation for it, more than he ever did for any other painting. They were all based on the very latest scientific measurements—some would say the first accurate measurements—of its dimensions. This one was the least highly sought-after because he set it at twilight, whereas the Cloud we most cherish rests in a flat blue sky.

“Yet of the lot, this is the vision I personally esteem the highest, save for the final painting of course, and not just because it’s the one I happen to own. If you look at the bottom edge of the Cloud, there to the right, you’ll see a faint but definite glow that’s only suggested in the other versions. Incipient lightning. Sunlit as they are, the others can no more than hint at what is explicit here—Turner’s frame of mind when he painted it. He thought we were all doomed. No, he was certain of it. You have only to look at the sketch to see. We are doomed, all of us, and our world as well. Knowing this, Turner nevertheless created a work so profoundly beautiful as to be a reprimand thrown in the face of God: Though you destroy us, still we are capable of creating this.”


“Indeed.” The slightest tinge of mockery showed in Céline’s expression. “Wow.”

Mercifully, new guests were announced just then. It was Judith’s great-aunt Leah and her husband Marsden. By the time the introductions were over, Céline had disappeared.

*   *   *

While Judith popped into the powder room, Wolfgang sized up the party. Nonentities, mostly, save one man: Older, craggy, a little too firm of jaw. Kettledrums rumbling in the distance, Wolfgang went over and introduced himself.

“Radford Anderson,” the man said. “Don’t bother to be impressed. I’m only here to visit my late brother’s money.”

They shook. Anderson had the hands of an ogre. Wolfgang couldn’t help admiring them. “You’re little Judith’s fiancé, aren’t you? What are you in?”

“Acquisitions and mergers.”

“Good at it?”

“I do my best.”

“Have we met before? I feel like I know you.”

 “We haven’t. You’re famous, I’d have remembered. You just know my type: Sincere handshake, firm eye contact, smile a touch too ruthless. Ambitious young man on the way up.” Wolfgang twisted his mouth in a self-deprecating way. “If we’d met, you’d have forgotten me ten minutes later.”

“You’re honest, I’ll give you that. Maybe I could find a place for you in my organization. How much are you earning now?”

“Honestly, I’m not looking to change employers. I’m only here to get a sense of the power dynamics of the family that I’m marrying into.”

What might have been a smile creased Anderson’s face. “You’ll do fine,” he said. It did not sound like an endorsement.

“Radford!” Céline cried. “We have to talk about your daughter.” She took his arm. “You’ll excuse us, Wolfie dear.”

Wolfgang watched them dwindle away.



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Copyright © 2019. Cloud by Michael Swanwick

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