On the third day we began to lose hope. There’d been that initial despair when we’d woken up, confusion blanketing the abject terror, but once we’d come to the situation, realized that it was indeed just a simple stone room with a staircase, no hidden doors or tunnels, the filled rucksacks in the corner meant for us, we’d shucked off the confusion, the rage, the despondency, and realized that the only thing we could do was climb the stairs.
So we climbed.
We even had a gung-ho spirit, led by The Mate, the rush of adventure and the getting-to-know you anticipation, the flush of physical exertion. The Nurse made a joke about our asses getting bigger with exercise, then The Thief commented on The Nurse’s ass, and even though it was sexist we all laughed. The Technician, who wasn’t a Technician but more of a Tinkerer, was the first to try the nutrient bars, declared them fit for consumption, if a little dry. He tried the water in our canteens when no one else would, pretended to choke, causing The Writer to gasp. He also figured out what the waste baggies were for, even laughed as he described it.
It was an adventure, then. We climbed, and talked, and filled each other in on our backstories. The Thief lied, and The Writer went on too long, gave too many details and secondary characters, so none of us really listened to her. We climbed without attending to the the world, the setting a background loop we ignored. We got blisters after a few hours, but The Nurse pierced pussy ones—purulent ones, said The Writer, less chance for vulgar misappropriation—and bandaged them with torn cloth.
The Mate had summited mountains, many mountains with long fantastical names, and bragged that this, what we were facing, was nothing: steady footholds, visible trail, sufficient supplies, no threat of blizzard or avalanche. All we had to do was put one foot ahead of the other.
Not ahead of the other, said The Thief. Above.
The light came from above. But not really above. From in front of us, and then behind us, and then around us. Sourceless, it enveloped us like sickness envelopes the afflicted. Once the silence set in, all we could do was see the light, absorb the light, obsess over the light.
The Technician, who wasn’t a Technician but more of a Tinkerer, pointed out that there were no light fixtures. No electrical cables. No windows or skylights. A chamber this massive would require military-grade floodlights for us to see anything. I’ve seen those before, in Brazil, said The Mate. He told a story about rebels and gunfire that culminated in a local deputy getting beheaded.
We’d round a corner, expecting a lamp or window on the other side, only to be met with the ghost of reflected light. It was a quiet, cloudy light, as though passed through a dome. The Mate thought it was artificial, not a skylight. The light just is, said The Writer, but she’d started saying weird things like that, and we ignored her.
After hours—hours?—the light dimmed, slowly, imperceptibly at first. Gentle, like a sheet was dragged across its source, then a comforter.
They’re telling us when to sleep, said The Mate. They’re giving us a schedule.
Who’s they? asked The Thief.
The Mate flourished his hands through the air, then more forcefully as though we didn’t get it. You know, they.
It never got fully dark, more like the dark at the far end of a parking lot, in the dimlit liminal zone between the street lights and the storefront. A few awkward moments as we rolled out our sleeping bags, arranged them in ostensibly random alignment whose purposefulness was made all the more obvious by our attempts at nonchalance, away from certain people, next to others. The Mate started to relate another adventure, but was interrupted when The Thief asked The Writer to tell us a story: she was a writer.
But she couldn’t, said she couldn’t, she didn’t have any more stories, and we fell into inky, exhausted sleep before The Mate could start again.
The second day, after we’d woken to the reality that we were still there, the stairs still staring at us—stop making that joke, we told The Mate—we made a more forceful effort at cheerfulness. Trying to ignore what we were doing. Trudging up stairs. Endless stairs.
The stairwell was wide enough for three of us to walk side-by-side, but we stopped doing that after a few hours that second day, once our conversations began to loop back to the stairs themselves. We trudged mostly in a line, dragging our packs, dragging our own expectations. We had nothing else to do but drag, and step. There were stairwells every so often, at which point the stairs reversed course. The distance from each seemed to be random, some stairwells within sight of the previous one, some not coming for hours on end. The Technician, who wasn’t a Technician but more of a Tinkerer, tried to keep stats to measure our progress, but we had no metric on which to base the measurements—Time? None of us had watches. Distance? Whether horizontal or vertical, we had no windows, no objective point at which to start, and no tool with which to measure. Number of stairs? We couldn’t keep an accurate total, everyone disagreeing and numbers seeming to lose hold of reality after 10,000, plus The Thief always lied about his count, gave figures so impossibly big or small that they mocked our earnestness with their absurdity.
The logistics of this stairwell don’t make sense, said The Technician, who wasn’t a Technician but more of a Tinkerer. A stairwell this tall, at distances this spread out, couldn’t be supported by the physical properties of any known building material.
The Thief needled him. But it could be attached to some greater building. Or it could be some new lab-created building material. Or it could be underground. Or we could actually be walking parallel, in some kind of skewed gravity vortex.
Maybe we’ve been in a skewed gravity vortex our whole lives, said The Writer, and only here are we free from it.
Everyone told her to shut up.
The Technician, who wasn’t a Technician but more of a Tinkerer, examined the walls, began scraping off flakes every hour or so, looking for inconsistencies, for weaknesses. No variation. Never variation. Once, as we rounded a stairwell, we came upon a scratch mark in the wall. The Nurse said it was from us, that it had the exact same pattern as his other scratches.
The Mate said it was impossible, we’re moving upward, there’s no system of physics that would allow us to return to a previous point if we kept going upwards. Just a coincidence.
Somebody’s fucking with us, The Thief said.
The Writer, for once, stayed silent.
Placed just as sporadically as the stairwells were the faucets. Jutting out of the wall, a thin exposed pipe ending in a faucet like you’d attach a garden hose to. Spraying out a clear, crisp water with an aftertaste of blood. We didn’t trust the first one we saw, appearing on the second day after we’d all finished our canteens, everyone refusing to drink despite our gummy mouths and stomach cramps, but The Thief said he’d rather die poisoned than dried out and stuck his mouth right on the faucet. None of us wanted to use that one after him, but one by one we did, drinking the same way, barely a drop spilled when we were done.
After another day The Technician, who wasn’t a Technician but more of a Tinkerer, tried to dismantle one, found it welded to the wall. He tore a bit of cloth that he jammed into the pipes, intent on stopping it up. We’ll float our way to the top, he said. But the water shut off by itself after he’d dammed it, and the next three faucets we came to didn’t work.
The fourth did. We didn’t try to mess with them after that.
We hoped for a door. A chasm. The Mate wanted a chasm he could jump over. Said he’d set some state record in school, could prove it if we came to a chasm.
He kept saying the word. Chasm. The Writer, as we tried to sleep later, whispered it loud enough for all to hear.
On the third day we began to lose hope. We’d exhausted our supply of nutrient bars, and even more alarming, waste baggies. The Writer and The Nurse and, oddly enough for a man who claimed to have sailed solo across the Great Ocean, The Mate refused to just go on the floor, and their blockage had slowed our pace to a near-crawl.
But then we rounded a stairwell and came upon another pile of rucksacks, filled with nutrient bars and waste baggies. The Writer called it a Deus Ex Machina and started crying again, but no one listened to The Writer. It meant we had no choice but to go on.
We were cramping up so bad we couldn’t go more than ten, fifteen minutes without stopping. When we stopped to rest, The Thief would tell stories. Places he never could’ve been. People he never could’ve met. The Nurse would interrupt and tell him that it wasn’t anatomically possible to cut out someone’s rectum, but still he talked. He’d talk, and he’d talk, and sometimes his stories would get so violent and bloody that we’d cut him off, walk up a few stairs in disgust.
I’m just telling the truth, he’d say. Not like this story will end any better.
The Mate tried climbing the walls but couldn’t get a foothold. He kept jumping up, slipping down. Before The Thief could make a comment, The Nurse patted The Mate on the shoulder, told him it was a good effort. She said she was glad someone was trying something. Making effort, instead of tearing it down. The Writer said that humans were meant to be ambulatory, not ascendant, and we pushed onward.
The Mate and The Nurse slept together that third night. It seemed a mismatch, The Mate with his tinny bluster, his obsessive commitment to competence in all things, and The Nurse so ugly, yet with a sumptuous, gentle bearing that rounded the pointy chin, smudged the skin blemishes. The Nurse was everyone’s favorite.
Maybe that’s why, the night The Mate and The Nurse slept together, their sleeping bags jigsawed at the far edge of the stairwell, maybe that’s why The Thief stole rations from The Nurse’s pack. To show her how much of a favorite she was. To warn her that, by giving herself to one of us, she no longer belonged to all, and that there would be consequences.
The rest of us saw it happen, saw him sneak, not even sneak so much as bumble, purposely wanting to get caught. He dug through her pack, pulled out a few nutrient bars, knocked over her canteen. The Nurse probably awake as the rest of us, wondering like us why was he doing this, what was this proving?
If you bind with him, you loosen the rest of us, he was saying but not saying as he shuffled back to his own sleeping bag, dropping a nutrient bar along the way.
He could’ve broached the topic in a better way. But maybe that’s all The Thief knew to do. To steal.
We woke up to shouting, The Mate yelling at The Thief, The Thief grinning in return. The lights were on, startled to life like us.
The Mate was screaming about the nutrient bars, about protein distribution, but he kept going and The Thief kept grinning and it became something else, The Mate now arguing about the treatment of prisoners in island nations, the effects of climate change on mountaineering tactics.
The whole time, The Thief just kept smiling, Oh yeah? Oh yeah?
The Mate doubled back to his original point. That kind of selfishness will get us killed. One is not more important than the whole.
You’re stealing from her, you’re stealing from all of us.
And if this is some kind of juvenile attempt at flirtation, if you’re trying to get her attention, you’re climbing the wrong stairwell, pal.
The Thief stopped grinning. His expression turned sad, the knowing grimace of inevitable disaster. I’d rather throw myself head-first down this hall than share a sleeping bag with that cow.
The Mate, two steps above, kicked The Thief in the chest, sprawling him backwards, first into one stairwell, around which he careened until he hit a wall and twisted down another flight, a comically loud and long crashing of his pack, his bones, three minutes worth of slapstick, until a final loud crunch and moan.
The Writer wanted to turn back but The Mate grabbed her, told her he’d throw her down the stairs, too. We never go back, he said. Always forward.
The Nurse hovered on the stairwell, motionless as we walked up, until she was out of sight, and then The Mate rushed back down. He held her close and whispered to her for ten minutes before she slowly began walking back up, two steps behind him, and when he stopped to let her catch up she stayed put, only resuming when he did. She climbed two steps behind him after that, as The Thief’s groaning lasted another day, echoing up to us in garbled pleas that seemed to grow stronger the higher we went. We all pretended not to hear, but The Writer kept crying, trying to muffle her sobs in a way that made them much more audible.
The mood accelerated. The Thief’s moans stayed with us even after they were gone, soaking the air, making every step heavy. We stopped talking, the words too much to carry. Our burden, heavier than the rucksacks. The stairs kept rising to meet us, the stairwells no closer or farther apart, the mind-crushing, inevitable sameness of everything more exhausting than the physical activity. Nothing to latch our minds to. Not each other. The Mate attempted some half-assed conversations, but kept an eye on The Nurse the whole time, talking to her even when he wasn’t.
The Nurse gave herself water poisoning. She didn’t eat the whole day, instead hid her nutrient bars, filled her canteen again and again. When we stared, she said she was dehydrated, and that water would help with the exhaustion. Only thing she said all day. We thought it was excessive, the five, ten minutes she took over a spigot, eventually ditching her canteen and drinking straight from the spout.
But The Mate said it was good practice, stay hydrated. It was water, what harm could it do?
That night we woke to her convulsions. She spasmed out, making jittery mouse noises, and then drooled as she sighed. She was probably alive the whole time we fussed over her. We looked to The Mate, but he sat, said nothing, already resigned. The Writer tried some weird CPR but pushed on the wrong part of her torso, near her throat, and after a few minutes, The Technician, who wasn’t a Technician but more of a Tinkerer, said she was dead.
She’s dead, he said. It’s not worth the effort. We covered her body as best we could with a deconstructed rucksack and didn’t look back as we moved up to the next stairwell.
We didn’t climb that day, instead shuffled off to different parts of the stairwell, flitted into and out of sleep. The lights seemed to brighten and dim at random. We woke up and found The Technician, who wasn’t a Technician but more of a Tinkerer, on his knees. He, too was dead. Not worth the effort. He’d used a torn strip of canvas from his backpack that he’d knotted around his neck and attached to the water spigot, then leaned into the strip, strangling himself. At any point, he could’ve leaned back, taking the pressure off his windpipe, saving himself. He didn’t. He died facing us. The slightest noise would’ve woken us, but he remained silent.
He was very efficient.
The Mate stopped sleeping after that. We’d all pretty much stopped sleeping, but he made a point to not even lie down, to stand the whole night, as though what was coming was a tangible threat, a monster in the dark that could be fended off with shouts and blows. The next morning when we spoke, he looked around as though following the flight of a bird, couldn’t focus on our faces. Then he told us he figured it out. We were going the wrong way.
What wrong way, we asked.
We have to go down.
He was angry we hadn’t figured it out ourselves. We have to go down. It’s all been a test, but I figured it out. Where does gravity push us? How does rain fall? If you let something go from a height, where does it naturally migrate?
But those all result from the same force, The Writer said.
He didn’t listen to The Writer. Follow me, The Mate said, and set off back down the stairs. The true test in life is not how we rise, but how we fall.
We watched him walk down, the darkness growing around him with every step.
A pinpoint of light extinguished, said The Writer.
Then we walked on.
The Writer said something. We’d stopped. We were always stopping now. She said it again. If you remember nothing else, remember we were the last. She peeled off her rucksack and threw it down.
There wasn’t much else to remember, and no one to remember it to, but she kept making the point. Words and pictures, words and pictures, that’s what lives. She danced her fingers through the air as she spoke, tracing something unseen. Tracing words and pictures.
She sat, and then she lay, across a step, no stairwell, no faucet in sight. She was done.
The artifice is stripped away, she said. Ideas only survive if there are those to receive them. In the end, there can be nothing more dramatic. It’s all artifice.
She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t going to move.
I took her nutrient bars and waste baggies but left her canteen. She told me, as I began climbing, to keep alive the words and pictures, to ensure they lasted. They could climb long after we couldn’t.
No dramatic irony, no greater purpose, nothing appropriate in the fact that The Artist should stay alive last. I keep walking, keep climbing. I only make a few stairwells each day. The food I come upon, cowering piles every few days, is still enough for the whole group. I have sustenance to survive weeks, months. My legs have grown past cramping, now pulse with a mechanized energy—one-two piston pumps propelling me upwards faster than before, unencumbered. My mind has even begun to adapt, to notice the details of the stairs, seeing pattern, angles, lines, seeing art everywhere.
If I had my brush, had my canvas, I’d paint.
An outdoor scene. A prairie. Never been into landscapes but that’s all I’d want now, golden wheat, a dark blue sky fading to white the closer to land it got. No trees, no animals, no atmospheric anomalies. Nothing to break the sightline from the viewer to infinity. Big brush strokes, clear signs that a person made it, that I made it, me living in the canvas, in the field itself.
The scene would be flat, flat beyond imagination. The flatness would extend far beyond the eye’s limit, far beyond the distance canvas and paint should allow, flatter than the plane of each stair I climb, upon which the infinite prairie could rest.
With each step, I’m destroying an old prairie, creating a new one.
Words and pictures.
|Copyright © 1999-2018 Juked|