“That one looks like a dinosaur,” Marci said. Like kids, we were laying on our backs, looking for clouds that looked like animals.
“Which one?” I asked.
“There,” she pointed. “Like a T-Rex.”
“Damn, how do you do that?” I asked. “I mean, it’s even got the teeth and the little arms and everything.”
“It’s no big deal,” she said sarcastically. “It just takes a little thing called imagination.”
“Hey, I’ve got imagination.”
“Oh yeah? Prove it.”
“Fine,” I said, staring up into the swirl of shapes, looking for something recognizable.
“Okay, that one,” I said. “That one looks like a turtle.”
“You can’t keep picking turtles,” she scolded playfully.
“It’s cheating. Turtles are just round, maybe with a head and a couple appendages. Any random blob could be a turtle.”
“Well this one is actually pretty detailed,” I argued, “exactly like a snapping turtle.”
“Then where is it?” Marci asked.
“It’s…well I saw it just a second ago.” The sky above me had returned to chaos, nothing but meaningless shapes swirling around at random. “I guess it must have gotten all spread out.”
“It’s like us,” she said softly.
“There’s a cloud that looks like us?”
“No, we’re like the clouds.” My silence indicated my lack of understanding. “They’re water droplets,” Marci said, “right?”
“Just a bunch of water droplets, barely anything at all. But then they get clumped together into a shape—a dinosaur, a fish, a blob, whatever. But suddenly they’re something. And then they spread out again. Whatever it was goes back to being just water droplets.”
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I said, finally understanding it.
Marci sniffled as though she was starting to cry. I knew I should say something to her, but I just didn’t know how to deal with it. And anyway, I was lost in my own thoughts. Looking beyond the clouds, I saw the sky and realized that it’s just a bigger cloud. Our whole atmosphere is one big cloud of gas that’s stuck in place because of gravity. Beyond that, there are stars, bunched together in constellations and galaxies—just bigger clouds. Those galaxies form into clusters and then superclusters—clouds billions of light years across.
But they’re still just clouds. It’s the same with the dust that we’re all made of. Each atom is a swirling cloud of particles, and those are made up of even smaller clouds of particles. Who knows how small it gets? It’s clouds of turtles all the way down. Of course, it works the other way too. If all the substance that we’re made of and that we build our lives on is just a bunch of clouds, then maybe the clouds of galaxies make something even more substantial. As my friend Jordan mused in a college philosophy class: “Our entire galaxy could just be a molecule on God’s ass, and we’d never know.” Then it’s turtles all the way up, because maybe that being lives in a galaxy that’s just a molecule on some even bigger entity’s ass.
But even if the theory were true, it wouldn’t matter. It’s still just clouds. Around and within those clouds is emptiness. The fluffy cotton ball shapes that Marci and I watched were nebulous enough that a sparrow could fly through them. The opaque sky disappears without the sunlight, leaving us in darkness. The brightest star-filled sky out in the country, far from city lights still has more darkness than light. In our very bodies, two adjacent atoms may be separated by a void so wide that their particles will never come into contact. Sooner or later, every cloud comes apart. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
It’s easier to joke about it or to simply avoid thinking about it. But the truth doesn’t go away. It’s always there, just waiting to insert itself. It’s the emptiness just beyond the sky. It’s the silence underneath words. It’s the darkness of a period. It was the emptiness between me and Marci at that moment while we lay in the grass right beside each other. each wandering through our own separate thoughts.
It’s the end.
Eventually everything will end—the heat death of the universe—the point when all the tiny pieces of the universe finally stop drifting and come to rest. No more movement. No more change. Just nothing. At least that’s the theory. But who really knows what forces drive the clouds of the universe? All I know is that I am here now. A cloud of dust has come together for a moment as it moves from chaos to chaos, from nothing to nothing.