Cloud Kingdom (2005)
Fifi flew into another cloud.
He emerged five frenzied minutes later, flapping frantically. His eyes darted around for direction as if still lost, and his feathers were soaked by the mist. He was a mess.
Louder than his thumping heart, he could hear the other birds jeering at him. He hung his birdie neck in shame, and burrowed his beak in his chest. It wasn’t his fault he flew into the “Bad Clouds Zone,” where the mist was thicker than any other place in the forest. Usually no one would come anywhere near here, but this time he just got lost.
He sighed loudly. Of all the birds in the Cloud Kingdom, he must’ve been the dumbest. All the birds could dart in and out of clouds fine, and always maintained a sense of direction. But whenever he flew, it was as if a cloud would suddenly appear in front of him, catch him in its arms, and tauntingly spin him around and around. Oh, how he hated clouds!
He wished he could live somewhere else, away from these clouds. His great grandfather, Big Bird, had once told him that beyond this cloud forest, there were plains far and wide, where birds can fly free, without worrying about stupid clouds. Where the sun shone bright, rather than being caught between the trees as it did here. In fact, there were places called “deserts” where usually not a cloud was in sight! It was his lifelong dream to go there.
He soon got his wish. One morning, when the birds were chirping their morning chanting, they were interrupted by loud sounds that were foreign to the Cloud Kingdom. They flew towards the sounds, hiding amongst the trees and clouds. They saw people driving heavy machinery through the forest, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. They saw people slashing plants and chopping trees. They saw their homes fall, one by one.
“What are they doing, Mother?” Fifi asked timidly. His mother’s tears overwhelmed her and she could not speak. All she could do was hold him close.
“They’re cutting down the trees, Fifi.” Answered Big Bird.
“Because they need the land to grow food, and they need wood from the trees to build houses and cities.”
“But that’s our food! That’s our home, and our world! If they take it away, what are we going to do?”
There wasn’t anything the animals in Cloud Kingdom could do, but watch as their beloved forest shattered in front of their eyes. As the trees fell, the forest’s canopy was removed, and sunlight poured through. The heat dried up the mists of clouds, which could no longer suppress evapotranspiration. The delicate ecosystem was destroyed, and all those that depended on it died. The Cloud Kingdom was no more.
Most of the animals fled. Those who could run, ran; and those who could fly, flew. But there were many who could not. Amongst them was Fifi’s family. Fifi’s mother was extremely sick from prolonged dehydration, and Big Bird was too weak to fly. Fifi watched his mother’s health deteriorate day after day. Like the animals witnessing their Cloud Kingdom evaporate, he felt helpless watching his mother’s breath becoming fainter.
For the first time, Fifi need not fear clouds. He got his wish, and felt the rays of the sun. But now, the only moisture he felt was from his silent tears.
One day, his mother whispered that she wanted to hear the story of Cloud Kingdom one last time. Big Bird nodded, and told of a time long ago, when Super Big Bird had first stumbled upon this forest. He was young and wanted to travel far and wide. He went to bushlands, grasslands, jungles, deserts, and even cities. He met many animals and saw many things, but he found they were all similarly engulfed in their selfishness and ignorance. Animals hunted one another for their own survival, and they all lived in fear and discord.
Seeing so much suffering and egoism, Super Big Bird began to believe that this was the natural way of things. He decided to give up his pursuit for peace and harmony. On his trip home, a ferocious hawk attacked him, wounding his right wing. In his fright, Super Big Bird flew towards the mountains, and soon lost the hawk amongst the clouds. At first, Super Big Bird thought he was in the Heavens, but later realised that the ‘clouds’ were merely mists due to the altitude of the forest. He found a quiet spot in the pocket of a tree to rest and heal his wounds. He was thirsty and weak, and knew he would die soon.
To his surprise, a green tree frog suddenly appeared. It hopped towards him, and he instantly backed away. But he was too weak to fend off the frog, and screamed in agony as the frog wrapped its slimy fingers around his right wing. He scratched the frog with the sharp claws on his feet, but the frog persisted. Finally, the frog stopped. Before it hopped away, Super Big Bird was sure he saw a faint smile under those bulging eyes. He looked down and gasped. His wounds were carefully sealed by the frog’s moisture, and he had stopped bleeding.
His next visitors were a bird and a howler monkey. The bird – who was naturally painted with twelve brilliant colours – carried water in a tree pod, and the monkey brought various fruits for Super Big Bird to eat. For six days, the bird and monkey came, along with other animals with their own gifts. Under the protection of the tree, and kept cool by the moss, Super Big Bird soon recovered his health and strength.
In his calmness, he began to see the life of the forest, and hear its orchestra. He felt the animal’s warmth and nature’s coolness. The peacefulness soon eroded his initial pessimism of the viciousness of the world. He settled there happily, and became a part of Cloud Kingdom’s interdependency.
“And that,” concluded Big Bird, “is the end of the story. Or more accurately, the beginning of our story. For you see Fifi, the interdependency of Cloud Kingdom lies in the interactions of different animals and their environment, as well as the relationship between the past and our present. All actions create an effect, and peace can never be gained through selfishness.”
Fifi nodded as he looked around at the ruined forest. His eyes rested on his mother, who had fallen asleep from heat exhaustion. Then his eyes lit up.
“Great grandfather Big Bird, I have an idea! Like the colourful bird who helped Super Big Bird, I’m going to find water for Mother too!”
“Oh Fifi,” replied Big Bird slowly, “It’s no use. I have thought of that already, but the sun has dried up all the springs.”
“There must be a way!” Cried Fifi. “We mustn’t give up!”
With that, Fifi flew away in search of water, despite Big Bird’s calls of hopelessness. Fifi searched far and wide through the forest, and as Big Bird said, all the springs were parched. All around him, there were dead animals and trees. Plants and flowers had withered and perished. He could feel the sun burning his back and squeezing out all the moisture within him.
Then it struck him: “Bad Clouds Zone!” – the place where the mist was thicker than any other place in the forest. He remembered the interdependency of the forest and flew towards the place as fast as his tired wings could take him. If that place had the thickest clouds, it must have the most moisture. If it had the most moisture, it would take the longest to dry up. If it isn’t dried up, there must be…water!
When Fifi reached Bad Clouds Zone, he was surprised to see the bustle. Animals were hurrying to and fro, and on closer observation, Fifi realised they were bringing in sick animals, while others were carrying healthier animals away. Although there were no more clouds, the place was still relatively moist. The animals had built a small shelter from dead twigs, and had successfully burrowed into the ground for water.
Fifi told them about his mother and great grandfather, and they quickly followed him to find them. His mother was very ill, and gulped down the water from the tree pod. A spectacled bear carried them back to Bad Clouds Zone where the animals took good care of them. Fifi’s mother gradually regained her strength, but did not leave the forest. She stayed to help all the other ill animals, while Big Bird kept them entertained with his stories. Fifi helped carry the healthier animals away from the forest to safer places. Sometimes he would fly into clouds of mists, and sometimes it would even rain upon him. In those times, he couldn’t be any happier.
Cloud Forests do exist. Currently, there are 605 Cloud Forests in 41 countries, mainly in Latin America. The problem of deforestation is real. The aforementioned spectacled bear and howler monkeys are endangered species dependent on Cloud Forests for their habitat and survival (and Big Bird is exclusive to Sesame Street).
(Written for UNIBUDS Annual Magazine 2005)