The screaming began, as it always did, from above, from far away, from someone falling off the summit, or maybe being pushed. No one knew.
Lori was cutting a pattern for a new skirt when the screams reached her. She tried for a second to ignore them, but her hands shook and the metal scissors slipped off her fingers down to the counter. The blades were still tangled in the fabric—a pale paisley—and muffled the clatter. All she could hear was the screaming. It always took so long to come.
Every five years or so someone would get it into their fool head that they could climb the summit. They would make the long trek up the cliff-side and then a few days later they would fall, or be pushed. And their loved ones would have to watch as they plummeted down. Worse, the folks in the lowest cliff town never discovered bodies. There ought to be heaps of bodies, at least bones, bits of clothing. But no. Nothing.
Lori picked up the note Koel had left her and held it tight in her fist like a good luck charm. She stepped outside and strode past the tiny cultivated strip of her family’s yard down to the rocky expanse that led up to the cliff’s edge. Jake Alberts greeted her but didn’t take his gaze from the sky. He was in jogging gear, still sweating. Mrs. Alberts trundled outside with binoculars for him, her own pair bouncing against her heavy chest. Martin the mailman waved from down the way, his round face inappropriately jovial. Their neighbors on the other side, Jacky and Olive Plover, stood stock-still, binoculars already in hand.
Koel had only been gone a week but his note was already worn to the softness of an old dollar. “I’ll come back,” it said. “I just have to see.” A week, and now the screaming began. The whole town had expected it, had looked at her with pitying eyes when they’d found out. Now they all stood outside, just as she did. And now they all raised their binoculars, just as she did.
No one knew who, or what, lived on the summit. Tradition said it was a god. Or some aspect of a god. Once, in the 70s, the town on the lowest ledge had pooled their money, rented a plane, and flown it above the mountain. The plane had crashed, only increasing the mythology. The pilot had survived and said there was nothing, nothing on the summit, nothing but a flat surface, strangely smooth, like a stage. But then why did everyone fall? Young climbers with no reason to jump, with the skills and equipment to remain steady. Some even with a lifetime of experience climbing between ledge towns as traders or travelers. Still they fell.
Tears gathered at the bottom of the binocular lens so Lori had to stop and wipe them. Still he fell. Such a long time coming.
No doubt it was him. The same scraggy blond hair, the red and white flannel shirt, and baggy jeans. His coat was gone, his gear. That felt … right to her, though it made little sense. She saw him how she remembered him, how he was. His voice, now, she could hear his voice in the scream. It was closer, closer, one long wail that suddenly dropped in pitch as he passed their ledge. Then it was like an echo, a hollow shout as he fell past the last two ledges. Then. Nothing. No final shriek, no thump of impact. Just silence.
Lori’s mother came and rubbed her back, asked if she wanted coffee or a nap. She nodded to the coffee, shook her head at the nap. “I’m going to watch them all,” she said and stumbled back into the house. Her mother followed her and used a tablespoon to scoop grounds into the coffee machine. Lori was gathering a box of tissues, a blanket, a chair.
“You know you don’t have to—”
“I’m going to watch them all,” Lori repeated.
Her mother nodded and poured water into the machine. “Go on. I’ll bring it out.”
Lori nodded and lifted the chair with the blanket and tissue box balanced on its seat. The letter she still clutched in her other hand, the binoculars still hung around her neck. She placed the chair where she’d been standing before, about ten feet from the fence at the edge. A few other folks remained, friends of Koel’s mostly. They nodded to her but didn’t want to talk any more than she did.
Her mother brought her coffee and stood beside her, looking up.
Lori looked down at the letter. Then back at the sky. It would be getting dark soon. She sipped her coffee and pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders.
Then Koel’s screaming began again.
Lori entered the Plovers’s shop and nodded to Oliver who sat knitting a black scarf. Oliver looked her over, suspicious, then nodded back. Lori passed the bulk shampoo and the seed mix, the scythes, and the shotguns, over to the corner with the harnesses.
Lori’s younger sister had died when Lori was ten. Pediatric stroke. Lori had been on a field trip to another of the ledge towns. When she returned, her sister had already been two days dead. She’d been afraid for years after. Afraid that she was next. Koel had held her when she cried. She’d known him that long. Longer. She picked up a pair of sunglasses, an oxygen mask. Now he was gone too.
She’d watched him fall fourteen times. Fourteen. A new record. Twenty-one if you counted them all. Not everything that had fallen looked like Koel. There’d been a spider the size of a cat, something like a large, green ribbon, a piece of a brick wall, a box wrapped in brown paper, a wizard in blue robes. All of these had screamed with his voice, though.
No one knew what to make of these things. They never did.
But she didn’t feel fear at this loss. Only anger.
Her sister had been taken, had gone where she couldn’t follow. Her death had been inexplicable, an unsolvable mystery. Koel had left on his own, had left a trail she could follow, a question she could answer.
The little foot pedal on the trashcan was broken, so Lori pulled the lid up by hand and pushed Koel’s note in among the cold, sopping coffee grinds. A week had passed since he’d fallen. She’d held onto his lie long enough.
Her father was in the basement, carving chess pieces from rosewood. She sat on the dirty stairs, watching him. He was rubbing at the eyes of a knight with a piece of fine sandpaper, a record of Mozart’s violin sonatas spinning softly in the corner. It was so cozy here, in this house, with her family. The ledge towns had been self-sufficient since the eighteen hundreds and as time passed their lives only became more comfortable through the work and ingenuity of the people and their leaders. They wanted for nothing.
Except she had wanted Koel. She had made the mistake of falling in love with a man crazy enough to try for the summit. Cruel enough.
Her father looked up from his sanding. A thick, black beard covered most of his face but even so, she could see the curve of his frowning lips. Chagrin. Sadness. He nodded to her, looked down at the knight and continued sanding. He could tell what she was thinking.
“That boy was bad to you.”
Lori sat on the stairs, unmoving, letting him talk.
“He knew. He knew what would happen. What he was putting you through.”
“He didn’t know what would happen. None of us do.” She considered the gear in her room. The secret purchases that she’d asked be kept quiet but knew would spread by gossip anyway. Might as well beat the rumors. “I’m going.”
“Where?” The sanding slowed.
He held his head steady, didn’t look up at her, didn’t react. Rubbed at the knight’s eye. “Going to make us go through that too?”
She shook her head. “I have to know.”
“You know.” The record had started to skip. He set down the knight and the sandpaper, walked to the record, and lifted the needle. In the sudden silence, his voice was heavy. “Everyone knows.”
“What? That God pushes them? Fine then. Let him push me too.” She stood. “I love you, Dad. Tell Mom I love her too. I’m leaving now.”
“Can’t face her, huh?” He kept his own face turned away.
It was never any use to lie to him. “No. No, I can’t.”
It was falling into night as she left, but that was for the better. She had friends. They would try to stop her. If her mother found out in time, she would try to stop her. Only her father was smart enough not to waste his breath. Not that he didn’t love her. At times, it seemed he was the only one who did love her, the real her.
The first part of the journey would be easy. The trek between her ledge and the highest ledge, she’d made dozens, maybe hundreds of times. It was an easy climb, a kind of rugged path of stairs had been carved into the rock, punctuated at a few points by stone ladders with belay clips and safety ropes. Still, it would take a couple days.
In the darkness, the mountain looked like one endless shadow through which she moved, a shadow herself. A shade. A ghost. She didn’t doubt she was climbing to her death. Koel had been confident: he was special, an exception, a hero, a superior person. The normal arrogance of a smart and talented young man, a man whose engineering had created a new system of supply lifts between ledge towns. He’d made them all better, more comfortable. A hero.
She hadn’t believed he would survive. Not overtly. But she’d kept the letter until the end. A part of her had wanted to believe. Now she laughed at herself.
What would she find up there? God? Koel? A surface of ice so slick even a well-trained climber couldn’t hold on? But then why fall again and again? Why a spider and a wizard screaming with Koel’s voice? Some kind of magic, some kind of god would be the one to kill her.
No better way to go, she supposed.
When she reached the highest ledge town she spent the night. Probably a mistake. But she would be sleeping on rock or in harness for the next few days and wanted one last night in a bed.
Not that she got the rest she wanted. The acquaintance she stayed with spent the whole night trying to convince her not to go, and in the morning, she awoke to find the door to her room jammed shut with a chair. She climbed out the window.
The path to the summit was disguised, blocked off with a heap of stones. There were signs misdirecting her. There were even traps. Overt bear traps meant to frighten more than anything, to say “this way leads to death.” They were easy enough to avoid.
She thought about Koel while she climbed. They’d been in love since they were kids. Had a mock wedding when they were five. When her sister had died he’d held her. When he was awarded the town’s highest medal of honor, she’d been the one to open the wine. Maybe that was why he’d taken her love for granted. Why it had been so easy to leave her a note and go. He’d talked about it before, of course, but everyone talked about it at one point or another, just to guess what might be up there.
But she was through with guessing.
Numbness. The cold started to sink deeper into her bones by the fifth day. There was a little snow, but not much. The air was thinner here, and though she was more acclimated to it than someone from the lower two ledges, she still needed her mask, her air. The going was slow. Every step forward she made more careful than it needed to be. When climbing vertically she secured herself twice over. If some of the folks who’d made this climb had slipped, she wouldn’t be one of them. She would see what the summit held.
The little bit of exposed skin around her eyes stung, and even with her sunglasses on the world was white bright. The numbness became a thing in itself, a blanket around her heart and her mind. Exhaustion became its own reward.
Another day. She pulled herself over another boulder, unharnessed herself, repacked her ropes and belays. Looked up.
But there was no more up.
Only a sloping path, curiously free of snow, leading to a raised circle of white stone.
She sat panting for what felt like an hour. It was warmer here. She tried unhooking her oxygen mask. She could breathe. She took off her sunglasses, pulled down the hood of her coat. Finally, she stood and approached the circle. It was only raised a few feet. She pushed herself up onto it.
The view was magnificent. She could see even the faraway city, the sprawling land of yellows and greens, other mountains in the range, white and peaked below. Haze of thin air and clouds close like friends. And heartbreakingly blue sky everywhere, everywhere.
It was warm in the circle. The feel of a pleasantly heated room. She set down her bag, took off her gloves, her coat, her many layers. It could be she was freezing to death. There were always stories of folks who became so cold they felt hot and started stripping layers, dying in their underclothes in the snow. But. There was no snow on the platform, no ice. She couldn’t even see her breath.
She spent hours looking at the view from all angles: the vein-squiggles of rivers, the fat green of forests, the unnatural squares of farmland. The sun yellowed into gold into orange, now only three fingers from the horizon. Odd, it seemed from so far up the sun might never set. But she didn’t want to climb down in the dark. If she wasn’t going to fall off the summit, she sure as hell wasn’t going to fall descending. She turned back to pick up her gear.
A young man, no older than twenty, stood before her, his hands clasped behind his back, an expression of kind curiosity on his face.
At least, he first appeared as a young man. In the next few seconds he … shifted. For a half-second he seemed taller than her, for another shorter; one moment wrinkled, the next barely a babe. But it wasn’t him who was changing. Somehow she could feel that it was her perception changing, not the man.
The man bobbed his head in greeting, a dark intensity in his small eyes under thin, low eyebrows. The impressions, the different appearances flickered around him like a cloak, but she could still see the man as her first impression of him.
“Greetings.” His voice was thick with an accent she’d never heard, one that made her think of gallantry and cruelty.
“Hello,” she said, after examining him for a minute. He didn’t look dangerous.
He tilted his head. “Have you come to fall?”
“No.” She took a step back. “Are you … going to push me?”
He chuckled as if a child had just asked if the moon was made of cheese. “I attempt to stop those who come to fall.”
“I don’t want to fall. Can you stop me from falling?”
His expression was so serious, yet a corner of his lip raised into a smirk. “Depends what part of you you’re talking about.”
She took another step back. The platform was wide, maybe twenty feet across. She tried to back toward the center so he couldn’t push her.
Curiosity lit his face again. “You’re afraid of me.”
She nodded. No point arguing.
“Yet you came to me voluntarily.”
She took another back step to the center of the circle. “Koel.”
“He was my … he was my …”
The man laughed again, this time a full gale of laughter, wild and soothing at once, like rain rolling across the mountains. “Oh, that stubborn man. I didn’t know he was your property.”
“Action has no superiority over inaction,” the man said, taking a step forward. Lori felt transfixed under his calm, confident gaze. “Man, as you know, is not especially preferable to woman; “yes” is not inherently better than “no”; white holds no desirability over black. And up is not superior to down.” He took another step toward her. “Yet here you are, another drawn inexplicably, inextricably upwards: a plant in a darkened room reaching to the light cracking through the floorboards.”
He looked out at the expanse of earth all around them. He said, sadly, “Up only means that when you fall you’re less likely to survive.”
“You are going to kill me.”
He finally unclasped his hands and pointed at the side of the circle opposite the one she’d come from. Though she hadn’t seen it before—would have sworn it wasn’t there before—a path appeared to lead down the other side of the mountain. “No, you’ll be leaving on foot. Most of you at least.”
As he spoke she barely heard him, felt her knees going weak from climbing, from trying to understand this strange man. She let herself slide into kneeling. Harder for him to push her then.
He gave her a compassionate smile. “You’re still afraid of me.”
She nodded. “They say … some say that God lives on the summit.”
“My job is, fortunately, more limited than His. I have only one task.” He squatted before her, gazing at her with iridescent eyes. “My job is to restore the rightful ruler to your world.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. She meant to jerk away, but his touch was so gentle, so loving she leaned into it instead. “You were conflicted if you should come here,” he said, his calm, confident voice rising and falling like a song. “You wondered if you should follow Koel. A piece of you wanted, needed to know what happened. Another piece was angry at him. Wanted to forget.”
“And now, a piece of you is intrigued by who, by what I am, and another piece of you is terrified.”
His indistinct face was strangely beautiful so close to hers. Innocent and dangerous.
“The piece that is afraid.” He touched her cheek with his cool hand. “Introduce me.”
She frowned in confusion, but his hand on her skin did something and her eyes blurred, watered. She squeezed them shut and wiped away the tears. When she opened them, the young man was looking at a woman about her own age, with dark hair and a blue shirt like hers … everything … like hers.
Lori pushed herself to her feet, not looking away from the simulacrum, the perfect mirror image of herself. She found herself thinking stupid things: she needed a haircut, that shirt didn’t fit quite right.
The figure was talking to the young man, too quiet for her to hear. He turn and nodded to her, gracefully inviting her into the conversation. “She says her name is Terror.”
Looking into her own eyes … she couldn’t move. But she felt no more fear. Only awe.
“She believes it’s her job to keep you alive.”
“Who … what is it?”
Terror crossed her arms and frowned.
“A piece of you,” the young man said. “A piece that, like a mother bird faking a broken wing, attempts to distract the world from the weaker parts of yourself by feigning weakness herself.”
Lori looked at it for a long time, then held out her hand. The image held out its hand and gave her a surprisingly firm handshake.
“I can touch it!”
“I’m right here,” the woman said, annoyed.
“Sorry! But …”
The young man nodded. “She cares about you, you know.”
Both images of Lori looked in surprise at the other.
“But you’re hurting her, Terror. You’re keeping her from loving other pieces of herself.” He gave her a challenging look. “You know the one I’m talking about.”
Terror shivered visibly.
Lori herself felt anger rising in her chest, taking her over. “This one is a coward.”
The young man brightened. “Ah, there is our second guest. There are usually two.” He leaned over and touched her cheek. She gasped and her eyes watered again.
When they cleared, a tiger stood before them, swishing its tail in rage. Yet Lori felt nothing other than curiosity.
Terror cowered. “See! If I leave she will devour us all.”
The young man looked at her with compassion. “No one is asking you to leave. When you fall, you will only change.”
The piece looked to the edge, then back at the man. “But the tiger …”
The tiger sat, its tail still swishing. It said, “We must get back on track, this fear is a distraction!”
It had her voice. Her exact voice. Lori shook her head and looked to the serene young man. “I’m going mad. I’m crazy, aren’t I? It’s the air. The mountain. You.”
The man smiled beatifically. “On the contrary. You are going sane.”
Lori just kept shaking her head.
“Look at the tiger. Tell me how you feel toward her.”
Lori looked instead at the ground, the unnatural smoothness. This was madness. She swallowed, then looked up at the tiger and felt … affection.
“It is a piece of you that has been working tirelessly. Working to protect you from being overwhelmed by terror. Working to protect a weaker part of yourself.”
The tiger raised an eyebrow at her.
“I am going mad.”
The young man stepped in front of her, seemed for a second taller than her, looking down with his dark eyes. “Is it madness, this?” he murmured through his thick accent. “Is it not more madness to claim that you are one whole, one Lori, solid as a wall, when you disagree with yourself all the time?” He touched her cheek and behind him, another figure appeared, a child. But the man remained in front of Lori, rubbing the tears from her eyes. “Or will you try to pin these pieces down? Name one the heart, another the head?” He kissed her forehead. “Do you wish to dissect your dreams? Or let them free?”
She breathed slowly. He smelled like a forest, like a river. Bright and earthy. She looked up into his big eyes. “Free? You said … Terror … had to jump. To fall.”
He took a small step back, smiling at her. “No. They have to do nothing. But if they wish. If they realize the pain they cause you, they will want to change. So you see I am no god. This is my only power: to allow them to jump lets them change faster than they could otherwise. I have pulled them from you. After they fall, they will return again inside you, healed.”
She looked past him. “Who is the child?”
“It’s you, of course.”
The man walked to the child and leaned down, whispered in her ear. Lori recognized her from family photos. Herself at age ten. Gangly and awkward. All knees and elbows. She was crying, holding a stuffed rabbit by the ear. Mr. Bunbuns.
She’d been ten when her sister had died. She could feel the grief radiating from the child. Her parents had whispered their sorrow to each other in their room; she’d knelt with her ear against the worn wood, unable to hear. She’d cried to Koel when he’d come to visit. He’d looked at her strangely, hugged her, held her. Let her go. Said nothing. Waiting for the pain to pass like it was an affliction, an illness to weather. Every night. Kneeling on the cold floor, ear against the door. She could never make out what her parents were saying to each other. She used to whisper to her sister when she’d been alive, used to make hand signals at her in the dark when their parents had hushed them. Her bedroom became her own. Horribly silent. Kneeling, one arm against the door, one arm around Mr. Bunbuns, his limp body splayed across her thighs, his head lolling to the side against the door as if he were listening too, trying to listen, straining, reaching and praying into the silence that she could at least hear what they were saying that she could at least hear the conversation even if she couldn’t be a part of it but no, no, never, only the whisper of voices too far away, untouchable, unknowable, unreachable.
The child turned and looked up at her, big eyes rimmed with tears.
And that was enough. She strode over and lifted her up in her arms, holding her tight, whispering into her ear anything she could think, simple comforts—only words, but letting her in, letting her whisper back sorrow and pain, letting her speak.
They kept whispering until there was nothing left to say and then she just held her, just held her until she felt something fall beside her feet. She looked over the child’s shoulder and saw Mr. Bunbuns on the ground. She set the child down and moved to pick up the toy, but the young man stopped her.
“Wait. I believe she is done with him.” He knelt and ran his finger along the ground. There the earth opened into a small hole. A shallow grave.
The child nodded and confidently picked up the stuffed animal, cradling it. She walked it over to the grave and set it in. The grave deepened, lowering the bunny, and then closed up again, leaving no trace.
Lori stared, dumbstruck, but the child looked up at her and smiled, walked back, and took her hand.
The man’s eyes twinkled. He looked to the tiger and Terror. “You see how little you have to fear from her or for her.”
He looked to Lori, this being more beautiful than she could quite believe was real. “After all the pieces have been freed, you will walk a new path.” He gestured to the path on the other side of the mountain. “You will lose what was, but gain what will be.”
A wash of hope filled Lori’s chest, a joy at all that could be. All that was possible beyond what she had known.
The tiger tilted its head in acquiescence to the man, but said, “There are still things to discuss.”
“Only go when you are ready, my friend. It is not pleasant to fall. But you will come back free.”
Terror nodded, breathed in. “I’m ready.”
The set was nearly finished. Only two pawns to go.
Lori’s father had taken his work to the kitchen table since she’d left. The kitchen stank of varnish and wood. The sanding was all done. He’d lacquered them all but this pawn and one more.
His wife had raged at him when he’d told her Lori had left, but after a week, she’d accepted it. Another child gone. She sat now opposite her husband, sewing the skirt that Lori had been working on when Koel had fallen. Paisley. They both had binoculars around their necks. Lori’s father dabbed another coat of lacquer on the pawn.
The screaming began, as it always did, from above, from far away.