People had chosen to construct their shelters in this impossible, vertical world. Fleeing what?

As Debbie unlocked a wrought-iron gate between the rock wall and a boulder, Jim saw it, in the distance above her hat, propped against the high cliff where a raven let go and flew into the sun—the entrance ladder. His breath caught, sound curdled. He nearly grabbed for Nola, who charged down steel stairs, marched forward in the swarm of kids. Jim took up the rear with the guy with the cane, who said, “My old man was one.”

“Was one?”

“Who built this trail in the 30s. Can’t get my fill of this shit.”

Nola stood by Debbie at the base of the ladder throwing its shadow onto the rock, H above H above H. He saw the cliffs, the sky, these people, in the lenses of Nola’s glasses. “Good question,” Debbie said. “I grew up by the ocean. I could swim at three or four. These people were undoubtedly born climbers, although we did find a crutch in the alcove just over there, and broken bones.” Naturals, Jim thought. Until they weren’t. “Fortunately we have a ladder.”

Did it move, bend into the sun? Debbie, lipstick bright red, showed a set of bone-white teeth. “If you are anxious about climbing, try to keep three of your appendages in contact with the ladder at all times. Of course, don’t look down.” Jim had given that same advice, nearly verbatim, dozens of times. “When you reach the top there is a platform. Go to the left through the crack in the wall and I’ll meet you.” Like Debbie, he had gone first up ladders, to show the ease with which it could be done, and to remove himself as an enabler should any visitor falter. They had to climb. Never had anyone been unable. But none of his ladders had been even a third this long.

Wind—well, more of a breeze—pushed at him. Below Debbie, Nola, calves flexing, scaled the flimsy construct of pine poles. What had she done last night at Gunter’s that added to their separation? She stopped feet from the top. Lifted both hands from the rungs. Swiveled. Shit. Cupped her fingers at her mouth, and yodeled. A long, coyote of a yodel against the powdered blue of the sky. “O-lay-ee-whoooo.” Before any sound came back, she crested the ladder and vanished. The group clapped.

“I scored the video,” the father of the girl in the Yellowstone hat said. She giggled as she climbed.

The older guy tucked the cane under one arm and up he went. That left Jim, dry mouthed, pulse throttled, staring at the dark streaks down the stone, wishing, just an instant, that he could have been part of this community that built its houses in these gravity-defying grottos, have learned to fly up these walls as a kid. He wished he had brought Phoebe here as a girl, had told her, “Look what these indigenous people managed. See the power in difference? See what need can do?”

He started up. The worn rungs held him like magnets. He yanked his hands and boots loose. Climbed. Goddamn it, he climbed. One, two, three. Five. The ladder above empty, the cliff stamped with his silhouette, he stopped. Blinked lids like awnings, his blood a cascade. He would not look down. He would not look back. “Noor,” he said, “Noor, I’m so sorry.”

“You can do it,” the old guy called.

Jim wrapped his arms around the hard poles. He wanted to keep going, he did. He could. Yes, he could. Or he could retreat. His throat squeaked.

“One hand at a time.” The old guy spoke slowly. “Just pretend you’re at home, on a step stool changing a light bulb. Come on.”

A black-beaded carpenter ant wandered straight up, past his fingers.

The breeze tasted of copper.

His knuckles might break through his skin.

“Dr. Candle,” came forcefully from above. Ranger Debbie. Not smiling now, what do you bet? “Breathe. One, two. Come on. Deep breaths.” Did the ladder shake? Was someone coming down? Nola? “I understand you’ve climbed many ladders just like this one. Think back on that. Think of this in small sections, each one a piece of cake. Come on, Dr. Candle.”

He heard an eagle’s sky-high whistle. A call that meant, This is mine. Scram.

He wanted to scram. He wanted to climb to the platform above, rush out and up, and keep going.

He wanted to climb to the platform above, squeeze through a crack in rock, strip the bandana from Nola’s neck, and see what marks last night had left. He wanted to know if Gunter would be waiting on the road ready to take her off to cruise America.

He wanted to look up the ladder and see Phoebe laughing.

He wanted to go down. Down the ladder. Then down an impossibility of stone. That’s where he wanted to live.

“Get the lunatic off,” someone said.

“Shut up,” the old guy said.

The rungs gouged at his ribs. His heart hacked back.

“Buddy!” A voice from below. The ladder trembled. “You’re fine. Just fine. Relax. I’m here to spot you, buddy. I’m coming up under you. You can climb down, I’ll be with you. Or you can head higher. What do you say?”

“Noor,” he didn’t say. He thought it, Noor. Noor, save me.

Right over his head, Ranger Debbie said, “Can you hook this around your waist?” A climber’s harness slithered over his wrist. “I’m with you.”

A hand from below clasped his ankle. “You’re safe, buddy.”

“I can’t,” he screamed. Then quietly, in a confidential tone. “Really.”

 

6

Three months later, the semester has started. Noor works as an objects conservator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Phoebe, on a new cocktail of meds, will begin weekend home visits at the end of the month. On a marble bench shaded by a towering black pine beside the Campanile, Nola eats a sack lunch with him. Their apples are crisp. Walks him across the quad to his building. They kiss. She lifts a hand. Turns. Under clouds, white and sheer and broken with crows.

The farm-fed students see only a bearded middle-aged man in tan pants and a plaid shirt in the well of the windowless auditorium. Nothing of what he knows. He clicks the remote and pictures on the wide, tall screen change.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 | Single Page