Ledges by Rick Smith.
The first sight you see is that of a great eagle, pursuing a fleeing dove through an insane turquoise sky, dotted with perfect white-puffed clouds, and the pinkish hue of God still lingering. The first sound you hear is a cold and hungry screech. The first taste in your mouth is blood; you’ve bitten a hole in your tongue. The first odor you smell is fear. And your first perception of your own flesh is nothing, then, an awareness of it as the heat cruelly and suddenly engulfs you.
A torturous brightness beats down upon you, forcing you to peek through the tiny slits between your eyelids. You hold up your hand to create a shadow so you can open your eyes without being blinded. And then you see the eagle’s talons wrap mercilessly around the dove’s neck and yank it from its path of flight. The great bird looks right through you in the second before it banks hard left, and then into a steep dive.
Your tongue has stopped bleeding, and though you don’t know it; you are thirsty. You struggle to your feet and look down, and immediately you feel yourself falling. You gasp for breath and throw yourself backward. You need to feel your back against the wall. You need to see what you’re standing on.
You’re standing on a ledge of limestone, oozing from a crack in the wall of a cliff. You’re standing on a globe that wears a skin of limestone ledges, and the globe is floating in a great and infinite nothingness made of blinding light. You cannot comprehend why the great ball of ledges doesn’t itself fall from under foot.
The cliff is not steep. It looks easy enough to descend or climb, though both directions appear endless. There’s plenty of room to stand and walk from this ledge to the next, in every direction, but if you get careless and do something stupid, like panic in the face of something cold and evil; you’ll fall and bounce down from ledge to ledge until your every bone is smashed to a gritty pulp. Eventually your bounce would evolve into a roll, and you would fall off the world very much like a tiny pebble would roll off a globe.
Existence is you, the ledge beneath your feet, a white-hot sky, and an eagle.
Somewhere out there, an eagle is eating.
Instinct tells you to move. Find food and water. Find something. Move!
You descend to the ledge below you, and then to the one below that. Your decision to climb down was never weighed. You never even looked the other way.
Your muscles begin to ache and your feet are bleeding. You’ve flowed downward like molten lava and you’re exhausted. Finally, and accidentally, you find water gurgling from a tiny hole in the wall. You drink. The water is hot, but curing and salubrious. You drink until you can drink no more. You’re afraid to leave this spot, for you know you will never find it again. All the ledges are unique, each bearing variances of size, shape, and color, but there are too many of them, and other than the blazing sky, that’s all there is.
You move on, but before your foot lands on its next step, everything turns black, but nothing is gone. The sudden blindness causes you to stumble over your panicked clumsiness and fall face first into the very solid limestone. It hurts like an explosion in your head. Your legs roll off the ledge, but you catch and hold on to the ledge before gravity sucks you away. You pull yourself back onto the ledge and cling to it, for it is life, and you can’t see anything. The intense pain in the middle of your face is a broken nose and several cracked or broken teeth. You don’t know what death is, but suddenly it scares you.
You lie still, and you hear the distant screech of the eagle. You wonder if it can see in this darkness, or if it is as trapped as you are. You swallow some blood and you spit some out. You are aware of the sound of your breathing and your heartbeat. A putrid aroma wafts into your nostrils. It scares you at first but then you recognize it as familiar, and decide it is only fear. As you lay there, cursing the darkness, you remember the heat, and even though it is gone, you are not thankful. You try to sit up, but you’re too exhausted, then you notice a perfect gray sphere, far away in the pitch-black sky.
Then you sleep.
The nightmares you wander through are preferable to the one you are living. You dream you are dying and you don’t want to wake up. But you do wake up, and when you open your eyes, you find the darkness more dark than the world beneath your eyelids, except for that perfect gray ball in the sky.
The brightness appears as sudden as it disappeared. You’re blinded again by the surprise of the bright-hot light. As you rub your eyes and wait for them to adjust, you feel the return of the excruciating heat. The eagle screeches. He is near. You see him flying away, searching for food. He was just below you. Maybe his nest is down there. Maybe he is a she and there are eggs in her nest, or a young bird—a meal—too small to defend itself. You’re hungry, so you seek the eagle’s nest.
You find the nest and there are eggs in it. You cannot see, nor can you hear her, so you steal her eggs. You crawl as far away from her nest as your hunger will allow; then you eat one. It’s wet and slimy and chunky. You eat the other while scanning the sky. You know she’s coming, and you hear her before you see her, and then, there she is—beautiful and angry. Her demonic, black and yellow eyes see nothing but you. You ate her babies. You are the demon. Her tortured screech pierces your eardrums. You underestimated her size. Her wingspan is wider than you are tall. She lifts her talons with intent to kill. She goes for your throat, but you grab her leg with both hands. Her claw is as big as your hand and every bit as strong. She pulls away, pushing off of your body with her other leg. You grab that one too. Her talons rip into your chest. You shake her as violently as you can. Her great wings flutter madly, beating both sides of your face. You try to slam her against the rocks, but she’s too strong. She bites at your face, but she’s out of position. If you could get your hands around her neck you could break it, or you could strangle her, but to let go of her legs would be fatal. She bites at your face again—coming closer. You try again to slam her against the wall, but you step off the ledge and fall. She tries to fly away, but you hang on. It almost feels as if she might fly away and take you with her, but at that moment, you are stronger, so she falls with you. You pull her down and under you as you slam into a ledge below. She spits her guts in your face as your weight and momentum crush her against the limestone. She broke your fall and you are thankful—not to her, but for her.
The impact knocks your breath away and you feel your chest might be broken. You lay still, heaving and bleeding, and then you think: how am I going to eat her? You hear blood gurgling in her throat as she gasps for a breath. You grab her but you can see she is broken. You relax your grip and roll off her. She lolls her head and peers into her sky, then at you. Using the last of her strength, she pushes herself off the ledge and fails at flying. She slams into the ledge below, then the ledge below that. She picks up speed and leaves a puff of bloody feathers floating in the air with every jarring bounce off the ledges. You watch as she rolls and bounces away, and though you don’t know it; she will soon fall off the world.
You find a hole of water and decide to stay there for a long time. You fear the darkness may soon come. You quench your thirst and wash your wounds. The cliff has been getting steeper the further you descend. You continue to scan the sky, for you know there are more eagles and other birds out there; you can hear them. You’re tired but you can’t sleep in the searing heat. You decide to move on, but as you rise on your battered feet; the darkness comes. You’re relieved. Now you can sleep. As you drift off, you can’t shed the feeling that someone or something is watching you. A bird of some kind lands on a ledge somewhere below you. You know it’s not an eagle, for the flutter of its wings suggest a much smaller animal.
As you stare at the perfect gray sphere in the sky, you ponder it’s existence, and your own.
You sleep and do not dream. It is a flawless sleep, black as the perfect nothingness that surrounds you.
A beckoning moan awakens you. It is the sound of your species—a male—calling out in the hard dead darkness. You wonder if you are still sleeping, but decide it does not matter. You listen and try to understand. He is down there somewhere. His piercing groan is angry and sad, and profound in its loneliness. You take a breath, open your mouth, and answer as loud as you can. You’re succinct; you want him to know you’re here, but you’re cautious, as he could be hostile. Everything is hostile. He doesn’t reply. Maybe you scared him. You call out again—desperate and bold. He shouts back at you, and you at him. Both of you scream at each other, but are so euphoric in your discoveries that any communication—other than the awareness that neither of you is no longer alone—is lost in a void of incoherent hollers. You stop and listen. You don’t speak his language and yet you understand him. You were not aware that you could even speak a language, and yet, he seems to understand you as well.
The harsh light suddenly pops back into existence. You crumble into a ball as you adjust to it. He invites you to come closer now that you can see. You must be more careful now. The cliff face now drops straight down, and then curves under you. You have reached the equator on this great globe of limestone ledges, and it is impossible to descend any further. You shout down to him, letting him know you can’t get any closer. Then you see him, looking up at you, poking his head out from the ledge just below yours. He laughs and his appearance startles you. You wonder if you look as hideous as he does. His face is burned and scratched, covered in dust and dried blood, as is yours. His nose is flattened and most of his teeth are jagged and broken. Both of you feel joy in the company of the other—an unfamiliar and elated intoxication—born from human bonding and the cure of loneliness.
He asks if you are hungry, and of course, you tell him you are. He tosses up a dead rodent, about the size of your fist. If you walk around to the other side, he tells you, instead of up or down; you will find these creatures in abundance. He tells you that the plants which grow from seams in the limestone produce tasty, edible berries, and that when you find water you should rub it into your skin, for it penetrates and soothes. He says the other side is not as hot, and food and water are more plentiful, and that there are caves as you climb higher, and some of these caves have water holes. He lets you know that your mistake, and his, was descending, and, descending the wrong side. He slithered down one ledge too far and can’t remember how long he’s been trying to climb back up. He says he’s been around this world a number of times, and has failed to find a passage to allow him a safe climb.
He asks you to help him and you tell him you will. You follow him around the globe as he shows you what he believes to be the safest spot for retrieval. You agree and assure him that you can lift him. His trust in you is absolute. His life will be in your hands until he gets a handhold of his own and can pull himself up.
Then you hear the eagle—the male. He shoots into the sky from beneath you. His screech is cold, calm, and wicked, and a half octave deeper than his dead mate’s. And he’s bigger. He banks wide and high, and then dives—because he can. He mocks you as he flies over your head and behind you. He’s coming back around, and this time, he will attack.
Now is the time, you say to the man below. You know that if you can get him up on the ledge with you, then you can both fight the eagle and win, but he is terrified of the great bird and is not listening to you. The opportunity is lost. You lift a rock and prepare for battle.
The eagle ignores you and goes after the man below. He grabs the man in his claws and is about to bite into his face when you throw your rock. It smashes hard into the great bird’s eye. He lets go of the man and flies away dazed and bloodied. You extend your hand for the last time. The eagle cries and then he banks. He’s coming back. The man reaches up. You grab his wrist and pull. He grabs into the rocky ledge under you with his other hand, but it crumbles in his grasp and he falls, almost taking you with him. He catches himself on the ledge below and hangs on, but the eagle flies into him and smacks him against the rocks with his powerful legs. The evil bird flaps its great wings whilst pulling at him, shredding his torso. You jump down and grab the man’s wrist just before he looses his grip. You hold on as he dangles off the ledge and the eagle slashes into him. Bloody shreds of flesh fall away. Absolute agony escapes from the man’s throat. You scream with him. Your grip is wet with sweat and blood and the eagle is pulling and slicing at him. You can’t hold him and he can’t hold on. He slips away. His tortured scream fades slowly as the void of infinity sucks him in. He becomes the very definition of “gone.” You wonder how long a man can fall. You knew him for only minutes, but your sense of loss is profound. The great bird lands on a ledge above you. He wants you to see him. He pierces the atmosphere with his taunting howl. You scream back at him, fully aware that he is the victor. You feel a pain from within. You curl up in a ball as best you can and teach yourself to cry. The eagle laughs at you as he flies away. Your sense of hate is born.
You realize you’ve made a terrible mistake. During your attempt to save the man, you jumped down to the level he had been trapped on for so long. The jump down was easy and sudden and done without a thought. And now you see to climb up will be formidable, if not impossible. The ledge up juts out, above and beyond. Not only do you have to jump up to reach it, you have to jump off the very ledge your standing on. If you miss: you fall = gone. You decide to walk around the globe as he suggested, hoping to find a safer spot to jump or climb.
As he said, it is cooler and the sky is not as blinding on the other side. Then you find what you believe is the is the best possible spot for the jump you must take. You are not the man who will run hopeless circles around this giant limestone boulder; you will climb it, and live or die from the top. This spot is your best chance, not because the ledge above is any closer, but, there are natural grooves and divots in the rocks, in places that will provide you step upon step, and with enough speed, you’ll hit the jutting boulder in stride and catapult yourself to the ledge above.
You haven’t thought about the coming darkness for a while, but now you do. You decide to do it now—jump—before it gets dark. You’ll be gone or you’ll be up there. You backtrack as far as you can to get a running start. You don’t know praying, but you do it anyway. You take what may be your final breath, and then you bolt. The first step is a conveniently placed stone, the second and third are perfectly placed divots in the wall, then you leap to the boulder—hovering, seemingly in midair. Then your tired legs spring you up and out to catch the ledge. You have enough speed and momentum, and you catch the corner of the ledge as your face pounds into the rock with all the gravity that God will allow. You quickly pull yourself up onto the ledge before you lose consciousness.
When you wake up it is dark and silent—not unlike the sleeping world you just left. It’s hard to tell the difference, but you decide you are awake. A giant limestone globe has just punched you in the face, banging your senses together so hard that you have to ask yourself what is up and down; stop or go; live or die; does it matter? Instinct has thrown a noose around you and is dragging you around by the neck.
There’s a pounding in your skull, nonetheless; you find yourself strangely content. The darkness is cool and soothing. Your head is laying on a gurgling hole, spitting out spurts of delicious, tepid water. You drink, and then you open your mouth and wish a meal would fall in. You open your eyes and look for light. You open your ears and listen for calling. You open your fist and wipe the wet from your bloody beaten face. And since you don’t know the difference and it doesn’t matter; you decide to sleep again.
Decisions are a gift.
The light and heat are back, and they quickly remind you of the misery in the world. You move and soon you find the shrubs with the tasty berries. They are plentiful, and the berries on the shrubs are actually nuts without a shell. You eat.
You feel invigorated, so you climb. Straight up. You don’t stop until you feel the world bending to your favor. You are tempted to rest, but you climb on. You find a cave inviting you inside. You approach with caution. You slip in. It is dark and cool. You hear something which persuades you takes a few more steps. You feel your toes sink in soft sand. It’s flowing water you hear. The sand turns wet, and then you walk into a cold shallow stream. You lay down to drink and cleanse yourself. You baptize yourself once and again. You don’t know if you can ever leave the water. You want to live here. Your sense of pleasure is born.
Something floats into your mouth. You’re about to spit it out when you realize it taste good. It’s soft and mushy and smells much worse than it taste. You enjoy its sweetness and search the black water for another. Nothing. You think of the man you once knew and wonder if he’s still falling. You’re glad your not him.
A sharp ping pierces your neck just below your ear. You slap at it and kill an ant. You don’t know an ant from a fish. The next bite stings your lip, and the next stabs the inside of your nostril. You get up and stumble out of the water. You’re bitten on your torso, hips, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, and toes. You don’t want to live here anymore. They keep biting. You leave the cave so you can see them. You have no ideas as to the concept of numbers or counting, but you know you have been attacked by a party of tiny biting creatures. As you are scratching the dead ones off your feet, you see live ones filing out of the cave in pursuit of you. They are slow, and you can easily crush them, but they keep coming. They don’t stop to retrieve their dead, nor do they render aid to their wounded, they don’t care about their dead or their wounded; they’re after you, and they keep coming. You can runaway, but you can’t fight them. They are too numerous and they are relentless.
You climb. And as you reach the ledge above, you peer into the sky, and though you don’t know it, you see the most beautiful sight you have ever seen. A light which can only be described as the opposite of bright darts across the fiery blue sky. It is black light, and it spits out tiny specks of colored magma as it burns an ash trail across the sky. It is big enough to swallow you and the rock you live on, but it passes over head. You watch as it leaves a giant scar in the sky and fades into forever. You watch the horizon, and it looks like the end of everything.
You climb and notice that the ascent is getting easier as you near the top of the world. You find water and drink. You find a dead rodent so you consume it. You sit and weep because you are what you are. And then you see God’s open eye peering down upon you. It blinks as he watches you. You are terrified, but as you stare back at him, your terror evolves to anger. You stand to curse at him, but can’t think of a thing to say, so you shake a defiant fist and challenge him to a fight.