Have you ever talked to a cloud? I have. Once. Well, I guess I didn’t do much of the talking. But you know what I mean. Clouds are chatty that way. Not that I have a great sample size for that claim, or anything, but I’ve met a few other people who’ve talked to clouds and they all said that their clouds could go on for hours on end. I’d be willing to bet that most of them are like that. If you only got to talk to a person once in your entire life, I bet you’d have a lot to say, too. I’ve never been able to tell quite how long we talked. I don’t wear a watch, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the conversation lasted an hour and a half. But that’s never quite lined up, either. You see, I’d left for my walk around 6:00. In the morning, that is. It was late autumn, so the sun hadn’t risen yet. And by the time I came across the cloud, it was probably 6:30. The sky was still blanketed in dark blue, but bits of orange light were peeking out from the horizon. But I remember very distinctly that after the cloud had bid me goodbye, the sky was not yet completely orange. I digress. You haven’t come to hear about the sunrise. You must think I’m a cloud myself, with the way I’ve been chattering on. Anyway, as I said, I’d been walking for half an hour when my cloud found me. I wasn’t going anywhere special, just my normal path. I should mention, though, that I was walking on the right side of the road, whereas I normally walk on the left. On a whim, I decided to go down to the little creek. Usually I would pass it by. You may think that this was my fateful choice, the single deviation from my routine that led me to meet my cloud, but I don’t think so. You see, I had been to the creek a few times before with no incident. Even so, I doubt a cloud would reveal itself to any stranger who happened to venture down there. I figure I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. As I was saying. The creek. It had originally attracted my attention because I thought I’d heard ducks quacking from its general direction. But, as I approached the water, there were no birds to be found. At the time, I didn’t find this especially disturbing. What I was disturbed by, however, was the creek itself. In some spots, its shoreline was perfectly rounded. In others, craggier than a cave. I couldn’t remember if it was natural or manmade. Who on earth, given the opportunity to carve out a body of water, would make it so ungodly irregular? But, if it were natural, how could it possibly have come to look so disjointed? I wrinkled my nose. I didn’t want to look at the creek anymore. But I didn’t want to go back to the main path, either. So I just laid down. In the grass, where I had been standing. Even in the faint morning light, it hurt to look at the sky directly. I pressed my hands over my face, rubbing them back and forth slowly, slowly but forcefully, so forcefully that I could hear my eyeballs squelch as I pressed them a little bit deeper into my skull. But I was afraid I would inadvertently lose a contact lens, so I stopped. With my eyes still closed, I continued to lay in the grass for a while. At some point, I cracked an eye open. A cloud, orange with morning light, looked back at me. Well, I should say, I didn’t know it was actually looking back at me quite yet. There were a few others scattered around, but they were too wispy and small to merit much attention. My cloud, on the other hand, was impossible to miss. It was a cumulonimbus, I think. But I’m not a meteorologist or anything. It looked like someone had shot a beefy pile of shaving cream into the sky. (Whenever I tell this story, someone usually asks me what the cloud was shaped like. I say it was shaped like a beefy pile of shaving cream. And they say that’s not a shape. And then I say what do you want me to tell you, it was an isosceles triangle? And then they say no, like a fluffy bunny or a hamburger or something. And then I say it was shaped like a beefy pile of shaving cream. And then they say that’s not creative. But it really did look like a beefy pile of shaving cream.) I stretched my arms back above my head and yawned. As I lowered them back down towards my sides, I heard a voice. “Hello there,” it said. I sat up instinctively and looked around. No one was there. Not that I could see, at least. (Still no ducks, either.) “Where are you?” I said in response. “I’m the cloud right above you.” “Really?” “Really.” “Huh.” In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have believed him so quickly, but it had already been an unusual morning. “You can ask me any question, and I will give you the honest and complete answer,” the cloud said. “I’ll give you some time to think about it.” As you’ve probably gathered, I wasn’t exactly operating at full cognitive capacity. But I still stand by the question I chose. It had plagued me for years, and, as it turns out, there’d’ve been no other way for me to learn the answer. Isn’t that really the best you can do with an opportunity like this? “Will they ever actually clean up the Gowanus Canal? You know, in Brooklyn?” “The Gowanus Canal?” “Yup.” “Sure, I can tell you about the Gowanus Canal. The short answer is no, it won’t ever be cleaned up all the way. But I won’t cheat you out of a good story like that. “In the year 1872, a man named Jacob Henry Dixon emigrated from England to the United States. He soon settled in Brooklyn, near the recently built Gowanus Canal. He was unmarried and childless, having just graduated from university. Jacob was adored by his professors; he was a prodigious classical scholar. His professors did not know, however, of his secret passion for alchemy. Like most alchemists, he wanted to find the secret to eternal life–– the philosophers’ stone. Neither Jacob nor any other had discovered this secret, despite centuries of attempts by many different people. This was because, Jacob decided, the right natural materials were simply not available in Europe. Nor in Africa or Asia, where other alchemical societies had long existed, as well. Where else might they be? America. So there he ventured. But, before I tell you of his adventures in America, I must first let you inside the mind of our hero. “So how, exactly, did Jacob Henry Dixon come to be involved with the Gowanus Canal? Well, as I mentioned, he was a classical scholar. He had a particular fondness for Greek epic poetry. In fact, he took his copies of The Odyssey and The Iliad with him on his long boat voyage to America. One stormy evening, cooped up in his cabin, he decided to reread the tale of Odysseus and the sirens. (Stormy evenings were always dangerous in Jacob’s room, as he could not open the porthole to ventilate the fumes of his alchemical concoctions as they brewed.) Jacob took an unusual interest in the sirens, allowing himself, much unlike Odysseus, to become entranced by their sweet songs. Maybe it was fume inhalation, maybe the noted lack of romance in Jacob’s life, maybe sea sickness, even I do not know. But, alas, entranced he did become. In these sirens, Jacob thought, was the key to everything his life had been missing. One night soon after, he came to a revelation. Perhaps the sirens called to men because humans were truly meant to live in the ocean. Perhaps life underwater was the key to immortality. Perhaps the only way for a philosophers’ stone to be properly used was underwater–– thus explaining why no stone had yet been discovered. For the remainder of his voyage, Jacob could scarcely be seen outside of his chambers, too obsessed with his supposed stroke of genius to do anything but plan feverishly until he arrived at Ellis Island. “Why the Gowanus, in particular, of all the waterways in New York City? Well, principally, property was cheaper, since––like today––few people actually wanted to live near it. It was more of interest to factory owners than to individuals for its use as a means of cargo transportation. So, Jacob was unlikely to be bothered by neighbors as he performed his tumultuous experiments and tested them in the already-polluted canal. “After much self-experimentation––and many strange rashes–– Jacob Henry Dixon finally discovered his philosopher’s stone. A moderately dilute tincture of arsenic, he found, granted the user the ability to breathe underwater and a general invulnerability of the body. Of course, his projects had too short a timespan to prove that this was indeed immortality, but he had faith that his arsenic would prove true. “Jacob, despite his many faults, was an honest man, and felt that he should conduct a proper trial to certify his findings before he shared it with his fellow alchemists. He put up fliers in many a Brooklyn alleyway, calling for intrepid men and women to take part in a medical experiment. Soon, Jacob had assembled a cohort of 52 participants. After a few preliminary swims in the canal, he dosed them with his arsenic tincture and sent them to live underwater. After two years, all of Jacob’s subjects were still healthy, living in the canal full-time. In fact, they had constructed homes and community buildings on the canal floor, and several healthy babies had been born. Although Jacob had to send them down supplies from time to time––including, of course, the arsenic tincture–– the community was largely self-sufficient, and showed no sign of potential collapse.” At this point, I broke in with a question. “So, is Jacob still alive?” “Alas, he is not. He decided, most nobly, in my opinion, that it was unwise for him to grant himself eternal life. He figured that no matter how careful he was to get a new birth certificate every 70 years or so, some official would eventually catch onto him and his sirens would be left unprotected. So, aware that his experiment would likely outlive him, Jacob wrote to some of his old classmates from university who had shared his interest in alchemy, imploring them to come to Gowanus and help the project live on. Four accepted his invitation, and they had soon formed a trust to protect this community, which Jacob had taken to calling ‘The Secret Sirens of the Gowanus Canal.’ To his great surprise, one, William Lee Griffiths, was already living in New York, working as an aide to the city’s mayor. “William proved tremendously useful to the Sirens’ Trust, using his connections not only to clear the project with the city government, but to pass a public health bill declaring that arsenic was poisonous to humans so that the secret to immortality could remain with the five alchemists. Additionally, he obtained a license to dose the Gowanus Canal with arsenic regularly to keep the sirens healthy. As you may be aware, the canal, to this day, has a concentration of arsenic about 60 times greater than the purportedly healthy level, which Jacob and his colleagues found to be optimal for human survival. “Ever since, the sirens have been guarded by the descendants of the original trust members. No siren has yet died, except those few who have opted to return to land and live out the ends of their natural lives. Many new generations have since been born. They have established a civilization atop the canal floor, rich with a culture distinct from that of any other human society. “As for the current members of the Sirens’ Trust, they work tirelessly to protect the community in every way possible. Some work in local, state, and federal government, others as marine biologists, still others as sociologists, and so on. Together, they make sure that no operation to explore or clean up the Gowanus Canal probes too deep, and keep the water ‘polluted’ with arsenic, among other things, to prevent the public from swimming in it. That’s all there is to it.” The cloud went silent. “Well, thank you,” I said, not really sure of what to say. “You’re welcome,” the cloud responded. And, with that, it started to rain.
By Heather Thaler