A Short Flight from a Tall Tree
I would like to thank Dr. Stanton for his macabre tale of mayhem. It was by no means a pleasant story, but there are stories that need to be told regardless of how pleasant they may or may not be. I do not believe that “pleasant” and “good” necessarily overlap.
I have a story of my own, and it also is not entirely pleasant, though its unpleasantness is of a different variety than that of Dr. Stanton’s account. I believe my tale should be told, if only because I have seen enough questioning eyes looking in my direction as I sit in our club, and I believe those questions deserve some answers.
I would appreciate it, Dr. Winstrom, if you would allow me to proceed without interruption. I am telling the story, and this time you are not going to stop me. I am well aware of your opinion of my tale, and I don’t care. I believe the others in attendance want to hear it. See? See them nod? There now. You can let me speak. No one will make you believe it, and I do not believe it will harm you to hear it.
Unless you believe my condition is contagious. Then perhaps you would wish to keep your distance
Ladies and gentlemen, you need not back away! ‘Twas a mere joke at the good doctor’s expense! Come back, come closer, and I will share my story with as few digressions as I can muster.
Now, the first thing you must understand is that there is a mountain near a vast plain in northern Africa, and very close to the top of that mountain is a tree that has long been dead, and that has absorbed the essence of the mountain on which it rests so that it feels more like stone than wood. There are no other trees in the area, as the altitude is so high that the air is too thin and cold to allow for significant plant growth. And yet somehow, at some point in time, this tree grew to a tremendous height, greater even that redwoods or the mountain ash, and the constant winds at that height have somehow failed to bring it down, or even weaken it.
The tree, known as the Mirkanthol tree, stretches a full six hundred feet above the ground, its trunk ramrod straight to the top. There are branches on it, not many, but enough to make it clear that this is a tree and not some sort of telegraph pole.
Now I will tell you what you truly need to understand, and that is that if you are able to climb the full height of that mighty tree, and you are able to steel you nerves despite the fact that clouds are passing beneath your feet and the people you have left behind on the ground appear to be no more than insects, and if you are then able to stand firmly on one of the topmost branches, and let go of any supports, and hurl yourself into a leap from this lofty perch, then a simple thing will happen.
You will fly.
How do I know this? The same way anyone knows anything of worth. I experienced it.
Ah, so now even Dr. Winstrom is interested. Or perhaps he just wants to hear me speak more so that he can come to a more conclusive diagnosis about what he believes is my condition. I am happy to reward all of your curiosity by telling the tale, with the following caveat—what I will relate is precisely what happened. Any perceived oddities in my report must then be blamed on reality, and not on my faults.
I first heard of the tree from a former club member, the eminent explored James Thorberlin. He was at a difficult point in his ever-tempestuous relationship with fellow wanderer Edmund Parn, and I believe he told me of the tree to gauge my possible suitability as a traveling companion. Unfortunately, he reconciled with Parn shortly after our conversation, and our potential joint expedition was nipped in the bud.
I soon determined, however, that I did not need Thorberlin’s help to reach the Mirkanthol tree, so I organized an expedition of my own. Three of us—Horace Glaskill, Eugenia DeWitt, and myself–left London on a fine April morning on the long journey that would bring us to Kenya.
The details of our travels through the Dark Continent are not central to my story, save one: As we continued, Glaskill was inflicted with an illness so severe that he was forced to stay behind in Marrakesh. This loss was a serious blow to our expedition, but he so strenuously insisted that Ms. DeWitt and myself continue on that we vowed to bring the journey to a successful conclusion in tribute to our stricken comrade.
Once we arrived in Kenya, we engaged the services of two local guides, Asram and Kendit, who were thoroughly engaging fellows. Asram had a ready smile and friendly greeting for everyone, and his skill with people paid substantial dividends. While Kendit was quieter than his more verbose compatriot, he had an unerring sense of the land and could invariably find the fastest way to traverse any given landscape, even ones he had never traveled in his life.
With the able assistance of our guides, we soon made it to the base of Mount Sayandero. I was astonished to find a village there that did not appear on any maps. Asram and Kendit referred to it as a “base camp,” but it was considerably more than that. A road that had been packed by the passage of many feet led through two rows of wooden buildings, which were built in a style that resembled Spain far more than Africa. There was much activity in the road—wagons being unloaded, travelers coming and going, and people milling about outside to soak in the abundant sunshine. In our short walk through the village, I heard at least five languages being spoken.
I was delighted to find that this “base camp” had inns with available rooms. We were privileged to spend our final night before the climb in the comfort of the Climber’s Rest, associating with others of our kind, rather than sleeping alone on the hard ground.
After a passable supper, Ms. DeWitt and I fell into conversation with other guests of the inn. Much of the attention was directed at Senor Juan Carlos Miranda, who claimed to have been at the peak of the Mirkanthol tree just three days earlier. While he had a plethora of advice for those planning an assault of their own, his character was somewhat cavalier, and I quickly decided that his advice may not be trustworthy.
“Let me explain something to you,” he said, in remarkably good English for a man who claimed he had never set foot on British soil. “When people are at the top of the tree and they look around and do not jump, it is usually because they are afraid. But they are not afraid of what you think they are afraid of.”
“What do I think they are afraid of?” I asked.
“You think they are afraid of the height. You think they are afraid of falling. But they are not afraid of falling. When you climb the tree, you have heard from others that it works. You believe that people will fly when they jump off. That is why you are making your climb. So, if you make it to the top, you are not afraid of falling. If you do not jump, you are afraid of something else.”
He fell silent, stroking his tiny black mustache, clearly waiting for a prompt. Finally, Ms. DeWitt obliged him.
“What is it they are afraid of?” she said, and perhaps I was the only one who heard the dry note of skepticism in her voice.
“They are afraid,” Senor Miranda said, “of the city.”
“What city?” Ms. DeWitt asked.
“The city of the air,” Senor Miranda said. “The city that can only be seen, and only be reached, from the tops of the Mirkanthol’s branches.”
“I have never heard of such a thing,” I said.
“That is because those who see it do not often speak of it. They are afraid of it, and they are ashamed. But I have seen the city, and I have felt the fear, and I do not believe there is any reason to be ashamed of it. Having fear of something that unnatural is, in my view, utterly rational.”
“What is it about it that is so unnatural?” another explorer, a nervous young man named Flynn, asked.
Senor Miranda smiled. “Aside from the fact that it is floating in air? Everything. Everything is wrong. From the building materials so black that thy absorb all light near them to the architecture that twists the materials of construction so hard that you can practically hear them screaming in pain, the city is a blight that will never escape your mind, even of you glanced at it for only a moment.”
“You do not seem overly disturbed by what you saw,” Ms. DeWitt said.
“Only because I am one of those souls who have it on their demeanor to laugh right to the edge of the grave. And beyond, should I find a way to mange it.”
Though we questioned him further, Senor Miranda did not offer any more details about the city, preferring rather to speak in foreboding generalities that were atmospheric but, for the purposes of our expedition, unhelpful. I soon decided that it would be in my best interests to retire for the night, and no sooner had I stood than Ms. DeWitt rose and took her leave as well. There was a curious expression on her face when she did so, as if she had recently indulged in a large meal but remained hungered.
I hesitate to describe what happened next, in that it falls into the category of things a gentleman does not discuss. I am aware, however, that it is also in the category of things in which Dr. Winstrom and his ilk are inordinately interested, and so I will touch upon it briefly.
Ms. DeWitt caught me in the hallway between our rooms and made it clear that it would be preferable, indeed more enjoyable, if we spent this night in the company of another rather than alone. I certainly had no qualms about spending time in Ms. DeWitt’s charming company, and I invited her into my room. The night proceeded on its course, and we eventually indulged in activities of the sort that men and women often engage in when together in an especially dark and foreign night.
When I woke the next morning she was gone, and when I encountered her preparing our supplies for the day’s climb, our relationship resumed exactly as it always has—she gave me a quick glare on the one occasion that I tried to call her by her Christian name to let me know that such increases in familiarity were unwarranted.
It was a fine day for hiking—the sun was uninterrupted, as it tends to be in those climes, the air was not as oppressively hot as it had been a few days earlier, and it grew cooler as we gained altitude. Asram and Kendit were in good spirits, and they chatted cheerfully in their musical native tongue, with Asram occasionally switching to English to inform us about some interesting fact or land feature.
I thought briefly of Glasskill, waiting for us back at the Climber’s Rest, and hoped he would find enough to occupy himself while we climbed. I would miss having him along, but since it ultimately had been his choice to stay behind, I did not concern myself overmuch in regards to his plight.
After a half-day’s hike we took a break for a brief tinned lunch, and then proceeded onward. The second part of the hike was more difficult than the first, to the point that we occasionally had to climb up sheer faces as tall as twelve feet before we could continue on more level ground. Conversation grew more limited, though I found myself asking after Ms. DeWitt’s well-being often enough that she eventually became short with me and informed me that should a situation arise that might require me to attend to her, she would let me know, and that I could otherwise assume that she was fine.
After a long afternoon of climbing, we stopped for a well-deserved rest. Neither Asram or Kendit had ever been to the tree before, but from the information they had gathered they believed it was perhaps two more days’ journey ahead. While the day had been physically tiring, it was far from the most demanding day I had experienced in the field. If the other two were like this, we would be at the tree with few problems.
That night I remained awake in my tent perhaps longer than I should have, and I lay there wondering how Ms. DeWitt was doing and how she was reacting to being in the field. She had retired to her tent early, however, and did not emerge for the remainder of the night, further confirming the impressions she had given me that the events of base camp were to be left behind us.
While the following two days presented us with a variety of inconveniences, none of them were so significant that they deserve to be mentioned in this account. And so it was that three days after our departure from base camp we arrived at the base of the Mirkanthol tree.
The tree was a marvel. The finest English carpenters could spend their entire lives perfecting the art of cutting a board to be straight and true and still never approach the perfect linearity of the Mirkanthol’s trunk. And while boards seldom stretch longer than twenty or thirty feet, this ramrod-straight trunk, which was as thick as an entire London city block at its base, stretched to a height of nearly six hundred feet. To look up at the distant thin branches swaying mightily in the mountain gusts was to experience vertigo even though one’s feet remained firmly planted on the ground.
The tree was vast and seemingly solid and not given to rot, yet there was not a single leaf on its entire length. What’s more, it was free of bark, possibly due to the effects of the winds and the many climbers. What was left was a pale gray, like bones that have sat in a surgeon’s locker too long.
While I had been surprised to see the small town that had grown up at the base of Mount Sayandero, I was even more amazed to see that a makeshift outpost had taken root at the base of the tree. There were no permanent buildings here, but several tents, including some large enough to house several families, or a single large harem, depending on one’s inclinations. Though it was dark when we arrived, there was plenty of life and light in the camp–a woman stirred stew in a cauldron over a fire while loudly proclaiming that her creation would give climbers the extra energy they needed to teach the top of the tree; two men with lyres sang a song that seemed to recount the previous day’s attempts to reach the peak; guides engaged in last-minute negotiations with their employers and, if their efforts failed, publicly solicited new work for themselves, and a band of olive-skinned people dressed in riotously bright fabrics sold exotic climbing gear guaranteed to prevent the user from plunging to his or her death.
We naturally ignored most of the gathered throng—we would be a sad group of explorers indeed if we had not packed everything we would need for the climb before we left England’s civilized shores—but I nonetheless enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm in the gathered crowd. Indeed, I was quite tempted to stay up with these good-natured folk and enjoy myself into the wee hours of the morning, but we had previously determined to embark on our ascent at the crack of dawn on the next morning, so with regret I erected my tent and retired for the night.
I was awakened at some time in the middle of the night by Glaskill, who poked his head into my tent to inform me that Ms. DeWitt seemed to be missing—or at least, that she was not in her tent. Alarmed, I quickly dressed and made my way through the camp, loudly inquiring after Ms. DeWitt and ignoring those who complained about the volume of my efforts. I eventually encountered Asram, who held up his hands and entreated me to be quiet.
“Be calm, be calm,” he said. “Ms. DeWitt, she is all right. You can go back to sleep.”
Naturally, his assurances did nothing to appease me. “I will not go to sleep until I see with my own eyes that she is safe and unharmed!”
Asram shook his head. “That will not happen. Better that you just go to bed.”
“If you know something about her, I insist you tell it to me!”
“I have nothing to tell.”
The argument continued in this vein for a time, and proceeded to intensify to a point that I became abusive enough to witness the removal of Asram’s customary smile from his face. He approached me, arms raised, and instinctively I covered my face with my arms, blocking him from my sight. First I could not see him, then I could not see anything.
Then it was morning.
Given the previous night’s activities, I was surprised to arrive at the base of the tree feeling refreshed and energetic. Ms. DeWitt also seemed quite vibrant, though she quickly made it clear that she would entertain no questions about where she had been. That left us only to discuss business, which was just as well, since we were soon fully engaged in the task of ascending that mighty spire.
Three other teams started to ascend at the same tome we did, and I was dismayed to notice that by some awful stroke of chance, my longtime rival Leonard Starkness was in one of those groups. The trunk was, however, quite broad, allowing each group room to work in isolation from each other.
Since we had the proper equipment, the climb was initially quite simple. The metal spikes on our boots dug securely into the wood, and similar spikes on our gloves created handholds for us. We felt so comfortable that we did not even use ropes for the first fifty feet of the climb. Eventually, however, caution and common sense got the better of us, and we started digging pitons into the tree and belaying rope so that if we happened to lose our grip on the tree, our fall would not be too great.
The use of traditional climbing techniques slowed us somewhat, but still we made good progress until we reached a landmark—the first tree branch, which was as thick as a luxurious brougham. When we had spotted the branch from the ground, we had decided that its broad, horizontal stretch would provide a fine spot for a break. Quite ready to rest at that point, I climbed to the top of the branch ready to sit and enjoy a bit of our trail rations.
I was quite surprised to see that not only were there others here, but there was a small structure, a hut not unlike the one I had slept in for many months when I dwelt among the Hottentots. An old man who wore only a white cloth that twisted around him in a variety of ways, sat in front of the hut, keeping an eye of the carcasses of four large birds that were roasting on spits over a fire pit. Eight other individuals, unfortunately including Starkness, sat around the pit.
“Come! Come sit!” the old man said in a strange, high voice. “There is plenty for all, or there will be!”
Asram and Kendit immediately rushed forward, but I hesitated. In my experience, strange men perched in isolated trees are not to be immediately trusted.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am Thomas,” the man said. “Welcome to my home!”
“And you live here?”
“Of course! What finer home could you imagine?” He swept his hands to indicate the vista around us, and I was forced to admit that he had a point. Mount Sayandero rose to our right, sweepingly majestic, its dark gray rock disappearing into snow at its peak while stray, wispy clouds wandered around it. To the left, foothills flattened into plains, and we could see for miles, huge expanses of yellow Savannah occasionally broken by green foliage or blue water. I could even see distant gray dots that were wandering elephants.
“But how do you survive?” I asked. “How do you eat?”
He offered me a gap-toothed smile and pointed at the roasting birds.
“The tree provides,” he said.
I looked around and saw that there was indeed a fair quantity of birds spread across the tree, hunting and pecking for hidden insects.
“But what kind of life is it, spending all your time on a lonely branch?”
He spread his hands. “It is the best kind of life!” he said. “Every day I get to greet new faces, hear of their adventures, and offer them advice.”
“And what kind of advice do you offer?”
Abruptly his smile vanished, and his round, jovial face seemed flat and serious. “I tell them to leave,” he said. “I tell them to go home. I tell them that what they think they want is not what they really want. That they should never climb to the top of this tree.”
“Why on earth not?” Starkness interjected.
“Because to reach the top of the tree is to fly, and to fly is to reach the city, and to reach the city is to lose yourself.”
“And how did you come to know that?” Starkness asked.
“Because I have been there,” the man whispered.
“And you lost yourself?”
“But you seem just fine,” I said. “Content, even, here on your branch. So if you lost yourself, or a part of yourself, it clearly must not have been too serious.”
“I don’t know what it was!” the man said, his voice so loud that several nearby birds fluttered into flight. “Perhaps I was a businessman, perhaps I was a husband, or a father, but I don’t know! Whatever I was, is gone! And if you visit the city, you will lose whatever you are.”
By this point I had come to the conclusion that the man was clearly crazed, but I could not keep myself from asking one more question. “What made you lose yourself?” I asked. “What did you see there?”
“I saw . . . I saw . . .”
Then he fell silent. He was staring straight ahead. He had stopped rotating his birds, and their skin started to smoke.
He stayed that way for several moments before Starkness leaned forward and began turning the spit.
“Just because our friend’s mind is not as functional as may be desired does not mean good food should go to waste.”
While his attitude seemed callous, I could not deny his practicality. Soon, his group and mine were devouring the roasted birds while our host continued staring into space, mouth open, on the verge of a next word that he could not utter.
There was no conversation during the meal, save for some unintelligible jabbering between our guides, but once we had finished eating and were preparing to resume our ascent, I turned to Starkness.
“Do you think there is anything to his warnings?” I asked.
“Do I put any weight on the words of a man who believes perching in a tree is a good life? Of course not. But I know how much even the lightest shadow frightens you, so I will not be surprised when you flee to the base of the tree and seek the safety of the known.”
I moved my chin up a touch to place my jaw in a firmer set. “I have no intention of abandoning my expedition,” I said. “I was only asking if there was a reason for increased caution.”
He waved dismissively at some of the small birds that were flying around. “We have more to fear from these birds than we do from the illusions haunting this man’s mind.” And with that, he turned and led his party in a continued assault on the tree.
Not wishing to be bested, I did the same, climbing the tree with a renewed vigor. While Glasskill kept leaning toward me and muttering remarks to the effect that perhaps I should not be so driven to chase Starkness, I ignored him and instead was driven by the light that had kindled behind Ms. DeWitt’s eyes. I had seen her eyes light like that once before.
My fervor pushed us up fifty, one hundred, one hundred fifty more feet, but eventually physical fatigue returned. There were more and more branches the higher we climbed, which was convenient in that it provided hand and footholds, but also made climbing more difficult in that we had to wind our way around these obstacles and often twist our bodies into uncomfortable and awkward positions. I did not know how much time had passed since lunch, but my arms burned and my stomach growled, which was a clear indication that the time for rest had arrived. There was no single, broad branch for us all to gather on, so we spread out over several nearby limbs and enjoyed a ration of water along with shortbread and dried meat. There was little conversation, as we were primarily engaged in eating and catching our breath. Additionally, the speed of the wind had increased at this height, making no perch seem solid as branches were constantly wavering beneath us. The sun was past its peak and becoming more orange, and I began to have some concerns about reaching the treetop, which I still could not see through the tangle of branches above me, before dark. I had been so confident that we would be able to climb 600 feet in a single day that I only had the barest of contingency plans should we be caught on the tree at night. Still, plenty of daylight remained, and I believed we were more than halfway to the top.
At that moment I was confronted by an astonishing sight. Four people emerged from the tangle of branches above, skittering across the tree as easily as monkeys or squirrels. They had no ropes, boots, or climbing equipment of any sort, and they were all young, likely in their teens. Yet they were fantastically agile, some of them climbing with their heads pointed toward the ground, all of them moving quickly. They wore only brightly colored loincloths, which revealed lean, sinewy limbs. Two of them carried packs on their backs.
They filled the air with chatter as soon as they saw us, their words swirling around us on the wind.
“Hello sir! Welcome sir! Fruit would you like? Syrup made from this tree and biscuits you can dip in it? Rub your feet, sir? Tell your fortune?”
Ms. DeWitt availed herself of the foot rub immediately, and one of the urchins managed to climb below her, perch her shoes on his head, and begin rubbing. Glasskill, who was often subsumed by curious twists of thought, decided he would have his fortune read. Unfortunately, the method the urchin was going to employ was palmistry, and since she could not locate Glasskill’s hands, there was little she could do with him. Seeing the disappointment on the young woman’s face, I decided to indulge her, and indicated that she could read me if she liked. She smiled broadly, quickly scurried to me, and clasped my right hand in two small, calloused extremities. Her eyes lit up as soon as she saw my palm.
“Sir! she said. “There are good things I see here! You will make it to the top of the tree!”
I could not find much in that prediction that impressed me, as she might have read as much from the determined set of my brow.
She continued. “And you have a tremendous future ahead of you! I can see it! You will become whatever you have the vision to become! A true self-made man, sir! If you can conceive it, you will be it!”
While her prediction had the vagueness characteristic of all mystical chatter, I was pleased that my drive and strong will shown so clearly that even such a one as this tree urchin could see it. I gave her a few coins, which seemed to please her, and she scurried away.
She had not traveled more than fifteen feet, however, when she turned and gave me a look that I found to be entirely inappropriate. There was a sneering haughtiness to it, condescension even, though she turned away again so quickly that perhaps the expression was just a trick of the light or of my imagination. Whatever it was, it left a bad taste in my mouth, and I brusquely informed the others that it was time to continue our journey.
We climbed more as the sun sank, until we reached a location that is certain to make Mr. Pritchett look at me with his well-practiced skeptical expression. We found, perhaps a mere fifty feet from the top of the tree, an astounding structure. Initially all we could see of it was its underside, a broad expanse of planks that entirely blocked our view of anything above it. It seemed that such a structure would be far too heavy to be supported by the tree at this point, but it was connected to every branch at that level, and their collective strength was apparently enough to hold it. Glasskill remarked that it was curious that we had not seen this structure from the ground, or, more to the point, from our previous resting point not far below, but these wonderments meant little in the face of the undeniable bulk blocking our progress.
A cursory examination revealed what appeared to be a trapdoor in the planks near the tree’s trunk. Having few alternatives, we made our way to the door and pushed it. It would not budge, and there was only a thin space we could use to attempt to wedge it open. Nothing we stuck into that space had any effect.
Frustrated by this unexpected delay, Ms. DeWitt abruptly did what we probably should have done the moment we had seen the door—she knocked on it with three sharp raps. After a few seconds, we heard wood scraping on wood, and then the trapdoor fell open (nearly hitting poor Glasskill on the head). A rope ladder then descended from the opening. Seeing no reason why we should not climb it, we ascended one by one.
The interior of the building in the tree was astonishing. Lit dimly by several tasteful ensconced oil lamps, and appointed with tasteful, burgundy-and-gold furniture, the room we entered bore a more than passing resemblance to the sitting room of our club. Dozens of questions whirled through my head. Who constructed this place? Why, in our inquiries about the Mirkanthol tree, had no one ever mentioned this place? Given that the interior was so luxuriously furnished, would it be safe to assume that food service was also available?
There were others scattered across the room, relaxing on various sofas and divans. I immediately recognized them as members of Harkness’ party; indeed, no sooner had this realization come to me than I saw Harkness himself, leaning back on a leather sitting chair, arms folded across his chest, smirking at me.
I was quickly distracted from Harkness, however, by a woman in a uniform someone similar to what a nurse would wear. Her features were primarily distinguished by her complete lack of a face; despite this apparent handicap, she spoke to us in a calm, soothing voice.
“Welcome,” she said. “I am Julia. I congratulate you on your arrival at the Lodge, and I would like to ask if there is anything I could do to be of service to you.”
A number of possibilities leaped to my mind, but Ms. DeWitt spoke before I verbalized any of them.
“What is this place?” she said. “How did you get here?”
Despite the edge to Ms. DeWitt’s tone, Julia’s expression, predictably enough, remained unchanged. “You are at the Lodge,” she said. “We arrived here the same way you did—through persistence and hard work. We are here to make the end of your journey easier.”
“How do you mean?” Glasskill asked
The woman tilted her head in an expression I could not interpret. “I mean that the difficult climb that brought you here is complete. When the time is come, you will walk up stairs to the top of the Lodge, then a brief ladder ascent will bring you to the top of the tree.”
“’When the time is come’?” Glasskill repeated. “The time is now! This is what we are here for! Take us to the top!”
Julia turned her head, as if looking at something behind her, then turned back to us. “I’m afraid that’s impossible,” she said. “There will be no more ascents today. We will take care of you until the morning, then you may finish your climb.
The members of my party shuffled our feet and glanced back and forth at one another. We had in no way expected the current situation, so we were unsure of how to react. We then fell back into the characteristic posture of those in difficult circumstances who are offered hospitality—we accepted.
“Where will we be staying until it is time to make our climb?” I asked.
Julia beamed. “I would be very pleased to show you to your quarters. Once you are certain they meet your needs, you will be free to relax in our common room, or to avail yourself of our dining services.”
Hearing no contrary words from my party, Julia turned and showed us to our rooms. The rooms were more what one would expect to find in a genteel wayside inn rather than at the top of a tree in the African wilds, unfussy but cozy. Glasskill and I received a room to share, as did our guides, while Ms. DeWitt received a room of her own. Once we had secured our belongings in our rooms, we returned to the common room to mingle with the other guests. Asram and Kendit joined with other guides who were present and engaged in rather riotous conversation with them, while Ms. DeWitt retired to a corner to inscribe some thoughts in her journal. Glasskill and I sat in a pair of comfortable armchairs that were, I realized too late, positioned far too close to Lawrence Harkness. Once I saw the sneer he directed toward me, I realized I was trapped, and I determined to face Harkness like a man.
“So once again you are behind me,” he said.
“Neither of us has reached the treetop yet,” I said coolly.
“True. However, given that my party and I arrived at this place before you, I can only assume that they will allow me to make the ascent before you. Simple justice demands that it be so.”
“You have been led astray by your assumptions before,” I said. I was thinking in particular about his encounter with the Great Eagle of Reykjavik, where his assumption that a large bird would have both the inclination and the strength to carry a full-grown human had left him stranded on an icy rock ledge for three days, while my party proceeded to recover the Crystal Tears Gem without interference from him.
He reacted quickly. “It is craven of you to refer to that incident!” he said. “I made no assumptions! I proceeded based on known facts, facts that only changed due to the physical and emotional damage you and your band of barbarians inflicted on the bird!”
As all of you no doubt know, it can be quite difficult to contain high spirits while on a mission, particularly if nothing of note has happened for a time. Thus, it is true that members of my party assaulted the eagle with various slings and arrows whenever it came to view. Crediting those actions with a complete change in the bird’s demeanor, however, both underestimates the mental fortitude of that noble creature, while also overestimating the accuracy of my compatriots.
“I am confident you will find a way to fail here,” I said, “and I am equally confident that you will once again find a way to blame your failure on others.”
Harkness stood. He was trembling with rage, but when he spoke his voice was level.
“If I were you, I would not be fooled by the walls that currently surround you, presenting an illusion of safety. There are many doors and windows around the exterior of this building. And outside each of them is a drop of several hundred feet. If you decide to sleep tonight, I would advise you to not do so too soundly.” With that, he stalked away.
My fellow wanderers, I would like nothing more than to report that I laughed off Harkness’ threat and thought nothing more of it. That sort of devil-may-care attitude is something I have always admired but never possessed. Though I of course had no illusion that there was any affection between myself and Harkness, I had not thought things were so dire that we would be threatening each others’ lives. Yet Harkness’ words stood as firm proof of my error in his regard.
Glasskill, bless his heart, did not ease matters by leaning forward with an air of urgency. It seemed he immediately sensed and understood my concern.
“We will sleep in shifts,” he said. “If Julia is to be believed, our exertions on the morrow will be a small matter, so we will not need a full night’s sleep to help us accomplish them. Your safety is paramount.”
I attempted an insouciant wave of my hand. “You don’t take Harkness’ threat seriously, do you?”
“I do,” he said. “Given that you saw the look in his eyes I would expect you to take it seriously as well.”
I had no reply to that. Left to our own devices, Glasskill and I sat about the common room for a time, lightly sipping on the brown, nutty liqueur our hosts had served, and reminiscencing over our many past shared experiences. Glasskill occasionally rubbed his hands gently, but other than that his extremities showed no sign of extended discomfort.
Soon, Ms. DeWitt had finished her journal entry, and she joined us for a fine meal made of an assortment of meats and fruits that were delicious but unknown to me. I repeatedly asked the servers in the dining hall what it was that we were eating, but the only answer I received was “imported goods.” Despite its strangeness, the meal enlivened my spirits, and my anticipation for tomorrow’s climb grew. Ms. DeWitt, wearied by the day’s long exertions, retired for the night, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I decided to seek out Julia and ask her what the next day held in store for me, but I could find neither her nor any member of the staff. Indeed, though I uncovered many interesting hallways and nooks in the building, I saw no sign of any of those who worked there.
Eventually I found myself on a curious and spectacular balcony. The floor of it was made entirely out of small, interwoven branches that were still growing from the tree. Though I feared the floor would not be strong enough to support me, a few moments of cautious maneuvering showed that, while flexible, it was adequately strong. On either side of the platform were thicker branches at exactly the right height for sitting. I perched on one and enjoyed an extraordinary view. To my right was the snow-capped mountain, an anchoring mass whose white top glowed in the powerful moonlight. I fancied that the moon appeared larger than normal, thanks to my efforts to climb so much closer to it. The moon was surrounded by stars the likes of which the fog-bound denizens of London’s streets can only imagine. There were hundreds, thousands of them twinkling through the bare branches above me, and there was even a kind of white mist, the connecting thread of the universe, visible between those celestial bodies.
At one point a passing meteor caught my eye. It glowed fiercely red in its anger at being consumed by the air around it. It was clearly hurtling through space at a great speed, yet it appeared almost motionless to me, and its dissolution seemed to take forever. How much of a core did it have, I wondered. How long could it survive against the forces pulling it apart?
I soon had my answer. The red fire flickered, faded, then died. There was one last bright burst, then the meteor’s fire was gone for good.
That was not, however, the last remarkable sight I was to encounter that night. For in following the path the meteor, my eyes found more lights, and they were not the lights of the stars. They were yellow, orange, and red lights, flickering in the way of open flames. They were in a ring, and in the middle of the ring were two more lights, two pinpoints of red, small and hard to see, yet once I had perceived them I felt them burning through me, and I believed the afterglow of those lights would be with me every time I blinked for the rest of my life.
I could not keep staring at those lights. I dropped my head and looked down, past the edge of the balcony, down the long trunk of the tree, to the distant, hard ground. I thought about Glasskill falling that distance, about the terror he must have felt, and the impact from any branches he might have hit in passing. He might have broken them as they fell, and they might have broken him. Nothing until the ground would have stopped him.
I feel no embarrassment in admitting that I shed a tear at that moment for my fallen friend.
When I looked up again, the circle of flame with the piercing lights in the middle was gone. In its place was an emptiness, a circle of blackness blocking out the stars behind it. By watching those stars, I could follow the slow glide of its movement. I knew at that instant what it was—it was the place holding the circle of flames, and it was the city that, if my flight went well, I would be able to reach. Now that its torches had been extinguished, or perhaps hidden from my view, the city was nothing more than a void that sucked in all light around it. For the first time, I questioned the wisdom of pursuing this journey to its ultimate conclusion.
I felt quite lonely at that moment, and I certainly was in no mood to remain on that balcony. I had few options for companionship, so I went to the only place I could go.
I’m rather embarrassed to state that by the time I arrived at Ms. DeWitt’s door, I was not in an ideal state. I was quite tired from the day’s exertions, and my melancholy remembrances of Glasskill combined with the unnerving site of the city aloft made me not entirely coherent or dignified when Ms. DeWitt appeared in the doorway, looking weary and rather put out.
“Mr. Fry,” she said. “I had assumed you, like me, would be enjoying some much-needed rest. Instead I find you banging on my door at a wholly inappropriate hour. Is something the matter?”
“No,” I said. “Well, yes, I suppose there is, but it is not an emergency.”
“It apparently is urgent enough for you to wake me.”
“It’s not … I had thought, Eugenia …”
“I have asked you before to not indulge in such familiarity with me!” she snapped.
“I’m sorry, I truly am. If I could just come inside…”
She closed the door until I could only see one eye and half of her nose. “You certainly may not! It is entirely inappropriate!”
“But Ms. DeWitt! There was a time, only a few nights ago, when we gave one another comfort, and I thought…”
“’Gave one another comfort’? What on earth do you mean?”
“Before our climb! In that town at the base of the mountain! You and I, we…”
“I am absolutely certain that I have no desire to hear the end of that sentence. I do not know what delusions you are harboring, Mr. Fry, but I suggest you keep them to yourself and do not go about shouting them in public hallways in the middle of the night. We have a climb to finish in the morning, and I intend to be ready for it. Good night.” With that, she shut the door.
I was in quite a state. I had no desire to go back to my room, as I did not feel the least bit tired. But there were precious few other places I could go.
Given the lack of alternatives, I eventually found my way to the common room, which, given the lateness of the hour, was deserted except for one other figure who sat in a far corner, shrouded in darkness. Only his mouth became visible when he inhaled, and the glow the embers in his pipe bowl emitted a bit of light.
I sat at the opposite end of the room from this gentleman, but not long after I sat down there was a steady procession of footfalls that indicated the other gentleman was not inclined to leave me to my solitude.
He sat opposite me. I did not look at him.
“I’m not sure I understand this all,” he said. “I don’t know everything that is happening. What is clear to me, though, is that if you persist in attempting to leave me behind, you will eventually succeed.”
I protested that I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“It seems that there has not been a step of this journey where you haven’t tried to leave me behind,” Glasskill said. “No matter how many times I put myself in front of you and speak with you, you eventually convince yourself that I am gone.”
It wasn’t my doing, I told him. He was my most trusted companion, and I would never wish to leave him behind.
“Perhaps I don’t fully understand what is happening,” he said. “Perhaps this is not your doing. But if I don’t understand the ‘how,’ I can certainly see the ‘what,’ and that is our eventual separation. Something is pulling us apart.”
The words echoed in my head as I sat alone in the common room. I stayed there for a long time, finally retiring to my room for a bit of sleep as first traces of light appeared in the east.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt as if I hadn’t slept at all. I also felt quite lonely as I gathered with my party. Asram and Kendit remained far more interested in speaking with other guides than talking to me, and Ms. DeWitt studiously maintained a certain distance from me, both emotionally and in terms of actual physical proximity.
Once we were assembled, we were not entirely sure of how next to proceed. I had not seen Julia since the previous evening, and I had no idea how to find her or summon her. It was quite possible that she was not even the right person to talk to, but I had not conclusively identified other staff members of the Lodge aside from the busboys, and I was quite certain they would be of no help in the current situation.
We ended up in the common room, where I was dismayed to see Stark and his party already assembled. I quickly turned to Ms. DeWitt.
“Perhaps we should find another place to wait,” I said.
“Really?” she said, too archly for my taste. “Why?”
“Due to the simple fact that I do not currently wish to be in this room.”
“I really think you’re being childish,” she said. “You can be in the same room as him. You don’t need to talk to him.”
“I would prefer to be somewhere else.”
She looked at me with more than a trace of condescension. “What is it that happened between the two of you, anyway?”
I responded like a rifle shot. “He stole. . . ,” I started, but then realized that those words were not the proper ones to express what it was I was feeling. I started again. “There was an occasion upon which he. . . ,” but that sounded entirely too roundabout to suit me. I launched upon a third effort. “It all began when he nefariously. . . ,” I began, but found that the swirling fog of wrongs drifting through my head would not resolve themselves into any one incident.
It seemed the enormity of the enmity between myself and Stark was too large to be simply expressed. So I settled on something conclusive yet appropriately vague.
“He knows what he did,” I said.
Any reply Ms DeWitt might have had was cut short by Asram’s pointing arm. “She is here!”
Sure enough, Julia has entered the room, and she was walking toward Stark. Urgency overrode any other concerns, so I led my party into the common room.
“Good morning,” I said, perhaps too heartily. “We are ready for whatever you have in store for us!”
Julia smiled, her milk-maid-fresh face radiant. “Good morning, Mr. Fry. So good to see you.” She then turned so that she was somehow looking at both Stark and myself. “I’m sure you gentleman are eager to make your ascent, so I will not waste any of your time.” She turned to Stark, and my heart dropped—but only for a moment. “Mr. Stark,” she said. “I regret to inform you that we have determined you are not ready to make the climb. I’m so sorry.”
“This is outrageous!” Stark said. “Who are you to decide this for me? Who is this ‘we’ you are talking about?”
“We are the ones who have been authorized to make these decisions,” Julia said.
“You have not been authorized by me, and I’ll be damned if I am going to allow a solitary woman to keep me from the treetop! Men! Packs on!”
Stark’s team stood, placed their packs on their backs, and proceeded to the nearest staircase. Julia watched, her equanimity indicating that their actions were of no concern to her. Stark and his men disappeared up the staircase, but no sooner had they done so than they emerged from a hallway that I had supposed led to the kitchen. There was clear surprise on their faces when they saw where they were, but this quickly turned to grim determination as they returned to the staircase and once again climbed it.
There was a longer delay this time, perhaps half a minute or so, before they emerged from the hallway leading to the dining room. Stark, seeing us in front of him again, grew furious.
“This is witchcraft!” he shouted, pointing at Julia. “You may summon whatever devil-powers you have at hand, but it will not stop us. Undo your spell now and perhaps we will forgive you your misdeeds once our climb is over.”
“I have no power to undo what has been done,” Julia said. “And you have no power to overcome it.”
“We shall see,” Stark said and, in a change of tactics, turned and re-entered the hallway from which he had just emerged.
It took him only a few moments to emerge from a hallway I had never noticed before. He did not so much as glance at Julia as he walked through the room and tried another path.
This time he was gone for nearly five minutes. I had started to think that perhaps he might have succeeded in circumventing Julia’s enchantments when there was a rustling behind one of the tall green curtains hanging near a large picture window. There were a few moments of thrashing, then Stark and his men emerged, red-faced and muttering.
This continued on for over an hour, to the point where Stark’s men abandoned him and found chairs in the common room, watching as Stark went in one passage and emerged from another. There was a time when he seemed to emerge directly from a wall, an experience that only served to make him angrier.
After a few more attempts, something in him snapped. He emerged from the same stairway he had repeatedly attempted to climb and charged Julia. He was unarmed, but he had a clear height, weight, and strength advantage over the diminutive woman. Several of us stepped forward in an effort to intercept him, but only Asram came close, and he was brushed aside by a brusque sweep of Stark’s arm. Stark strode on, clearly intending to do Julia harm, but she stood still and unflinching before him.
Then he stepped through the floor.
His right leg stepped forward, part of a long stride, but instead of hitting solid wood it hit nothing. Stark pitched forward, his face surprised, his arms flailing behind him, but the floor continued to provide no resistance. His knee, his thigh, his hip fell through, then his torso followed. His arms shot forward, attempting to grab anything solid, and his hands came quite close to Julia’s feet. In fact, I was certain that his left hand passed directly between her feet. Yet where her feet found solidity, his hand found nothing. It passed, opening and closing in futility, through the floor. Then the rest of him followed, and he was gone.
The rest of his party had jumped to their feet in shock and alarm, yet they were clearly wary about duplicating Stark’s charge. They stared at Julia with a combination of menace and fear, but she spoke before any of them could assemble a thought.
“Your compatriot is fine,” she said, “though his fall may have left him entangled in the trees branches. It might be best if you went after him and lent some assistance.”
Stark’s companions continued to glare at Julia, but none of them seemed to have an alternate plan. They needed a leader.
They shuffled forward to the now-open trapdoor, and one by one they filed down it. When the last one departed, it slammed shut authoritatively.
Julia then turned to me, smiling as if nothing unpleasant had happened. “Mr. Fry!” she said. “I believe that the way is now cleared for you to proceed.”
I then felt the sensation with which we are all familiar. It is that thrill, that surge of energy that makes us do what we do. I had made it. I was on the threshold of a tremendous coup, and it was exhilarating. I could have flown at that moment, magic tree or no.
The smile on my lips threatened to stretch my cheeks to the ripping point. I turned to my small team. “Packs on!” I said. “It is time to finish our journey!”
“Oh, no, Mr. Fry,” Julia said. “They will not be coming with you. The invitation is for you and you alone.”
I must admit to a feeling of residual shame for the speed at which I accepted Julia’s decision. Looking back, I perhaps should have fought more for my companions’ right to see the journey through to its final conclusion. At that moment, however, all I could think of was that I was finally going to reach my long-sought goal. Julia walked toward the stairway, and I followed.
We ascended to the floor where our rooms were, then we climbed higher. We passed hallways I had not encountered on my wanderings of the previous night, and I looked at the closed doors there and wondered what they hid. Julia, however, was setting a brisk upward pace, so I had little time to contemplate the things we passed.
After ascending two or three more stories, we arrived in front of a plain, weathered grey door. Julia opened the door, then stood to the side. Bright light hit my eyes—the door led outside, where the sun was shining. I blinked a few times. On the other side of the door was a sturdy-looking ladder going up.
There I stood, in front of the means by which I could achieve my great goal, and for some unaccountable reason I hesitated. I looked at the ladder, then looked at Julia.
“That’s what I have to do?” I asked. “Climb that?”
I looked at the ladder again. It seemed sturdy and well made, though I could not be sure how it was anchored to these lofty branches. It all seemed simple enough. Yet still I did not move forward.
“Why me?” I said without looking at Julia.
She said nothing.
I tried again “Of all the people who were in the common room this morning, I am the only one who is here. Why?”
This time she replied. “Because you are ready for them.”
I almost asked whom she was referring to, but then I knew. The people of the city. Those who had lit the torches I had seen the previous night. The fact that Julia was telling me that they were waiting for me did not inspire action on my part.
I don’t know how long I stood staring at the ladder. However long it was, Julia endured it patiently and silently. I told myself that what I was feeling was not fear, that I had done quite well to even reach this point. Then, after some time, I took a step forward without even realizing that I had decided to do so. I suppose the primary reflexes that guide my life, the ones that inspire discovery and progress regardless of the cost, kicked in and moved me forward. I grabbed the solid, smooth wood of the ladder.
The air outside was cool and thin, and I started gasping for breath after ascending a mere three rungs. The branches were very thin here, swaying with the slightest breeze, but the ladder remained in place. So I climbed. The breeze drifting off the mountain snow chilled my hands, but sweat coalesced on my forehead due to the effort of the ascent.
The view from the ladder was tremendous as the plains in front of the mountains spread out for miles. I could see movement here and there, giraffes and elephants making their way to shade and water. The sun sparkled off a distant lake, and here and there I saw isolated buildings. It was splendid, through the wobbling branches prevented me from fully enjoying the scenery. I had avoided looking down, which is my custom whenever I climb ladders, but I took a moment to hazard a glance at the lodge for a bit of reassurance. I received none, however, because the lodge had vanished. I knew it had been there, as I still held the ladder they had provided for me, but there were no other traces of it. My party, and the supplies they carried, had clearly disappeared with it. I was on a mountain, near the top of the tallest tree I had ever seen, and I was alone.
Looking down was doing me no good, and so I looked up. I saw two things. First was the top of the ladder, a mere twelve feet away. The second was the city.
It was floating near the mountain, and perhaps that was why people on the ground did not see it, as it blended quite well with the surroundings. The base was a grey-white that could blend in with the mountain rock, the snow, or even the clouds depending on its position and the way the light struck it. I have called it a city, for that is what those who told me of it called it, but in truth it was little more than a floating village, a collection of perhaps twenty stone buildings, none of them more than three stories tall. They were perched on a kind of disk that looked like it had been torn out of the ground—it was far thicker in the middle of the base than on the edges, and the rock was rough and pitted. I could not see any human activity in the city.
The buildings themselves resist description. They were black, non reflective, as if you were staring into a blind spot. Any shapes I could discern in them did not conform to the Euclidean norms to which our eyes are accustomed. I could see no doors, no windows, just lines and curves that caused a stabbing pain in my forehead the longer I tried to follow them. The appearance was both hideous and appealing—my mind was repelled, but my native curiosity told me that the shapes and forms were so unique that they demanded further study. There was no question that I would need a closer look.
I returned my gaze to the ladder and climbed the last few feet. Soon, my head was above the top of the ladder, which meant that I was above the topmost branches of the tree. The air was cool, the breeze was bracing, and the feeling was triumphant. There were many people below, either attempting to achieve the feat I had just realized, or crawling downward in defeat from having failed. Only I was here. I may not have been the first, but I was the only one there at the moment.
Yet despite my triumph, I was caught in a bit of a quandary. What was I to do next? Getting one’s feet onto the topmost rung of a ladder is a tricky endeavor in the best of circumstances, and being at the top of a mighty tree while perched on swaying branches is not the best of circumstances.
I kept my hands on the top of the ladder and moved my feet up one rung. I bent my knees and let my hips fall to the level of my feet, so that I was hanging on the ladder like some sort of chimpanzee. I could take another step up, but then I would practically be dangling upside down, and I did not know how I would then stand. I had seen circus performers rise to their feet from such a position, but I lacked their agility.
I pulled myself up so that I was erect, my hands near my waist. This seemed better. I took another step upward. My feet were one rung from the top, but I was bent in an upside-down “v.” I held that position for a time and wondered if I was high enough. Perhaps, if I jumped from here, it would be close enough and I would fly.
Then I thought again. When one is pondering jumping off a 600-foot-tall tree, one takes all the precautions one can. Only a jump off the very top would suffice.
I took a deep breath, leaned slightly forward, and let go of the ladder. The topmost rung met my legs just below the knee; that and my own balance were the only things steadying me. As I came upright, I kept my arms spread for balance. I did not feel steady in the least. But I did not fall.
I felt a tremor pass through my right leg, and I knew I only had a few minutes to act or the opportunity would be lost. I inhaled deeply, held the breath, then stepped up, right leg first. It was a simple step, but it seemed to take forever, and there were at least half a dozen times where I believed my balance was lost and I was about to fall, but each time I jerked myself back and stayed on the ladder.
Then my right leg was on the top rung. My arms were still outstretched. I hadn’t breathed in what seemed like forever, so I took a few quick breaths, and even that minor motion seemed too violent. Then I shifted all my weight to my right leg, and took the final step.
It went wrong early. I was learning too far left, so when I tried to raise that foot my balance was entirely wrong. I waved my arms to compensate, but with only a single foot in contact with anything solid, finding my center was difficult. Yet somehow I managed it, steadying myself as my left foot came up—and the top of my foot hit the bottom of the rung. I lunged forward, and there was no catching myself. I could wave my arms as long as I pleased, but I was not a bird. They would carry me nowhere.
There was only one thing left to do. I was off-balance, but my right foot was still on the top rung. My leg was slightly bent, so I pushed off. It was awkward and graceless, but whatever powers there were governing the affairs of the tree must have counted it as a jump. For at that point I was no longer falling forward. I was flying.
What a feeling! To be free from the bonds of earth, to no longer be pulled down by that force that restricts us from the day we are born! It was buoyant and freeing, and I felt every care I had, both about the climb and about any other part of life, falling to the ground. My troubles might still remain in the pernicious grip of gravity, but I did not. I hovered above the tree, I laughed aloud, and I had no desire to ever touch the ground again.
I knew, though, that I could not simply stay still. The flight was of limited duration, and the city was still distant. But how would I approach it without any sort of propulsion?
I no sooner started pondering the problem than it solved itself. Apparently, thinking of a destination was all I needed. I was in motion, flying toward the city.
My pace stayed comfortably slow as I briefly experimented with turning from side to side, but then, when I was a good three hundred feet from the city, there was an uncomfortable lurch in my flight, as though gravity were struggling to reclaim its hold on me. It would be a long fall from this point, so I had no more time to experiment. I glared at the city, thought about speed and urgency, and immediately the pace of my flying increased. I kept my eyes focused on the city ahead, and it rushed toward me. I had no idea how much time I had, but there was no sense in wasting it, so I flew in a direct line (though I must admit that at one point I executed a kind of rolling spin for no other reason besides the fact that I could). I aimed myself at the middle of the city, at the barren square where I assumed I had seen the lights the previous evening, and moved ahead with the wind sharp in my face.
It was at this moment that I realized I was not entirely sure how I would land. Should I attempt to land on my feet? If so, how would I keep from having severe impact on my legs? I could perhaps attempt a tumbling landing, perhaps a graceful somersault, but my acrobatic abilities are not such that I could be confident in pulling off such a maneuver. I’m rather embarrassed to say that I failed to come up with an adequate plan before I arrived at the square, and my landing was a kind of sideways sprawl that resulted in a bruised shoulder, hip, and a twisted ankle. The ground in the square was a grey cobblestone, which made for a painful impact.
I lay on the ground for a few moments, long enough to realize I was battered but unbroken, and so I stood. I felt absurdly heavy, the weight of every inch of my frame hanging gracelessly. I almost collapsed back to the ground due to the sudden pull of gravity, but I managed to stay on my feet. I tried a jump, to see if there was any way to recover the ability of flight, but I was barely able to put any air between the ground and the bottom of my feet. I was stuck.
There was no one in sight and no sign of life in the buildings. I began to wonder how I was expected to leave the city—I had assumed there would be natives who were knowledgeable in the ways of the city, particularly in the leaving of it. Unfortunately, there was no one nearby.
I took a few shuffling steps forward, then stopped, turned, and took a few more steps in a different direction. There was nowhere to go, as the buildings around me gave me a distinctly negative impression—I felt quite certain that it would be inadvisable for me to wander into such buildings alone, even if they were completely uninhabited. Their darkness were even more blinding than direct sunlight—I simply could not look at them, which may have been for the best.
Feeling rather helpless, I looked back to the tree. It stood there, tall, bare, and impassive, and I saw no trace of the Lodge in the top branches. I squinted at the top, hoping perhaps that someone else was about to jump from it and join me, but I saw no signs of movement there at all. I was on my own.
As I considered various paths of action, I was interrupted by motion. To my left, one of the dark buildings was interrupted by a somewhat less-dark rectangle. It appeared to be a doorway.
I stared at it, my stomach sucking into itself. I wondered might come out of the building, hoping whoever it was would be friendly. Or would perhaps know a way back to the ground.
I quickly remonstrated myself for my lack of courage. I was here as a representative of the Wanderers Club, not some poor lost tourist in search of directions. How could I think of leaving this city when I had not discovered anything about it? I squared myself toward the doorway to be ready to face whoever was coming out.
There was a whirl of darkness, then the doorway was filled by a giant cloak that possibly hid a human form under it, though it was very difficult to tell what there was beneath the massive folded bulk of it. The cloak was hooded, and where one would expect to see a face there was only darkness. The cloaked form moved out toward me in a slow glide. The only sound in the entire city was the scrape of the heavy black cloak over the dusty rocks. I maintained my ground, though the form made me more nervous the closer it came. Its bulk was considerable, and there were odd ripples under it as the form approached, movement that was something like the undulation of pendulous flesh under clothing, but it was in the wrong places, and the movement came and went too quickly to be the shifting of flesh.
I hoped that as the being in the robe came nearer, I would be able to catch a glimpse of the face in the hood, and for a time my hopes were in vain, as the oval beneath the black fabric remained dark. The being, however, seemed as interested in seeing me as I was in seeing him, and two long, thin hands emerged from the folds of the robe to push the hood back a bit, and the outlines of a face appeared to me. The details were difficult to perceive, but its shape seemed long and thin, with a long, pointy chin whose end I could not see as it disappeared into the robe’s folds. He had a prominent brow, meaning his eyes remained nothing more than two black circles in the shadows of his hood. His head was very still, turning only when his body turned, as if he had no mobility in his neck. His hands had disappeared into his robe again—if they emerged holding a large scythe, I would not have been the least bit surprised.
He stood quietly for a moment, and I wondered if he was waiting for me to speak. I could not think of the appropriate words, possibly because the thinness of the atmosphere in the city was keeping my mind from getting the air it needed to cogitate properly. The robed man continued to stand silently over me for a time, to the point that I began to feel awkward. I shifted in place, cleared my throat, then looked up at the man so as to say something and proceed this conversation forward, but the man chose that moment to speak.
“You are welcome here,” he said, in a voice so quiet I had to lean forward to hear it. “I know that your journey here has been difficult. I appreciate your sacrifice.”
I started to say that exploration was my vocation, and thus I did not believe that I had sacrificed anything, but I could not bring myself to say it. Standing there, it seemed like I had, in fact, lost something, though I remain hard-pressed to define just what that was.
The fact that the being had spoken to me and did not seem to be at all hostile emboldened me, so I replied.
“Thank you for your welcome,” I said. “Could you perhaps inform me as to the name of the city to which I have wandered?”
The being was silent again. It seemed his head was pointed slightly downward, so perhaps he was thinking, though about what I had no idea. Just when the silence had been long enough that I despaired of getting an answer, he spoke.
“You may give it whatever name you feel is appropriate. It is of little matter. It will not endure.”
Those words got my attention. “It won’t? Why won’t it? What’s going to happen? Is the city endangered?”
The man did not answer for a time. I waited, and eventually enough time had passed that I was confident that no answer would be forthcoming.
“Can I ask, then, for your name?” I said.
The man ducked his head a bit. “You may call me Lokchthurr.”
I was not sure I would be able to replicate the being’s pronunciation (and I’m certain I am not saying it correctly at this distant time), but I did not have the will to ask him to repeat it.
At that moment, a wind kicked up from the snowy peaks of Sayandero and blew through the town. It had a cold edge to it, and I shuddered. The breeze was not strong enough to move the heavy fabric of Lokchthurr’s cloak, but the strange movements below it seemed to increase. A hand emerged from the robe near his chin, quickly rubbing below his mouth, and then disappearing again. Curiously, it seemed that the fingers were stubbier than the ones I had seen on the man’s hands previously. And though I could not see Lokchthurr’s face well, I thought a look of revulsion passed through his eyes as his chin was scratched.
I then decided that I had been motionless in this town square for long enough.
“I appreciate you emerging to welcome me to your city. I would like to take this opportunity to see more of what you have here. Would you escort me into one of your buildings?” I said this because I believed it to be the proper next step of exploration, though I remained unconvinced that I truly wanted to go inside one of those utterly foreign buildings.
“No,” Lokchturr said, and naturally I started to want to enter the buildings more as soon as he denied me the opportunity.
He did not reply, but the pace of the undulations under his robe increased yet more.
I drew myself up to my full height. “I am a member of the Wanderer’s Club,” I said, “and exploration is my mission. I will explore your city whether you escort me or not.”
The movement under Lokchthurr’s robe was now at a furious pace, as if he was hiding several small animals that were scurrying frenetically around. The hand that had scratched his chin appeared again, but it did not stop at the bottom of his face. It climbed up his head, the fingers pulling it as if they were little feet, and as it emerged, instead of seeing an arm attached to it, I saw was nothing. It was a hand that ended at the wrist, and a stump of bone stuck out the end.
I reflexively stepped back from Lokchthurr. He did not allow me any separation, though. He stepped forward. For the first time I saw his eyes, but barely, for they were dark as night, and the only reason I saw them is they reflected a bit of light, like a pool of tar. He leaned forward as he approached, and as I moved away I stumbled a bit and fell to one knee, which allowed him to loom over me as he approached.
“You will not enter any buildings,” he said, and his voice made the mountain wind seem like a tropical breeze. “They are not for you.”
“Then why did you allow me to come here?” I said. “If you were not going to let me explore, why did you allow me to arrive?”
The man smiled, and the expression revealed no teeth. At least, I do not believe they were teeth. They were broad and rounded, and quite yellow, like long, neglected fingernails. He was so close that I could hear the sound the movement under his robe made, a constant rustling and a light pitter-pat, pitter-pat from all over his body.
I pushed myself backward even more, and I was sitting now. The stones were cold beneath me.
“If you will not allow me to explore,” I said, panic creeping into my voice, “then you will provide a way for me to return to the ground.”
Lokchturr’s smile became broader, his cheeks gathering in hundreds of tight wrinkles around the corner of his lips. “Yes, I will,” he said. “After we have taken what you have come to give.”
Those were the last words he spoke that I understood. The next noises he made were unintelligible, guttural sounds with a rasp that I felt behind my eyes. At first it was just coming from his throat, then it was coming from all around me. I looked at the buildings, but still could see no sign of life in them. But I heard it. There was a chanting that grew louder, a low tone that shook the stones beneath me. Lokchthurr stood tall, taller, then even taller, until his cloak was almost entirely stretched out and he towered over me at a height of 12 feet or more. He stretched his arms out, and though I could not see them under the cloak they seemed impossibly long while also bending in places they should not bend. He remained stretched for a moment while the chanting continued, then brought his hands forward to the front of his cloak. The noises from the building had grown louder, and there was an urgency, a passion to them that made me want no part of what was inside.
Then Lokchthurr pulled open his robe.
I do not know what he looked like. I do not know if he even had a body under the cloak. All I saw were the hands. Dozens of hands. Maybe hundreds of hands. Writhing, swarming, climbing over each other and whatever substance Lokchthurr had. Some of them looked recently severed, with blood running down the side of them. There was a moment, a brief moment, when the light hit them and they stopped, frozen in place, like insects or guilty children. Then they burst forward. Some of them flexed their fingers and jumped, covering amazing amounts of space, rushing toward me. Others scuttled over each other, ran to the ground, crawled over the stone with horrible clicks. I scrambled to my feet, but I must have been stunned by the hands for too long, for they were upon me almost immediately. The first hit my foot and crawled to my ankle, tugged on my pant leg, then took a solid grip on my ankle. I shook my leg, trying to fling it off, but it had a tight grip. I bent over to swat it off, but two more grabbed on to each arm. One jumped up and slapped my face. Its touch was cold. I recoiled, then half a dozen more were on my legs, crawling up me. My stomach clenched, I swung my arms, but there were many of them, so many, and they were all climbing up, up. Soon one was on my head, perched on my face, covering my view, leaving five numb spots where it made contact with my flesh. My arms were too weighted down by other hands to swat it off. More crawled on me, there were hands on top of hands on top of hands, and they became heavy, dragging me to my knees then pitching me forward. I made no contact with the ground, I only fell on hands, but this did not dissuade them in the least. They kept crawling, and there were more and more on my head, at first rubbing like some kind of massage, but then digging, clawing in, scraping past skin and into bone, putting pain everywhere, and I think I closed my eyes but I couldn’t know because the hands had already blinded me, and I continued to twist and writhe but it had no effect because there were so many of them, so many. I could see nothing, feel nothing but their touch, hear nothing but the pitter-pat of them running all over me. The pain in my head increased, becoming sharper and deeper, until I saw a blinding white light that was replaced by complete and utter darkness.
Had there been any rational part of my mind functioning at that moment, I imagine I would not have expected to ever wake up again. But I was too maddened by pain to properly anticipate my own demise, so that when I in fact did wake up, it was neither with surprise nor relief, but rather disorientation. Where was I? More importantly, where were the hands? My arms suddenly flailed, attempting to brush off any hands that might be on me. They contacted nothing that was not myself.
Wherever the hands may be, they were not near me. Not crawling on me, not sitting near me. Once I was certain there were no hands in the immediate vicinity besides my own, I took a more careful look at my surroundings. It seemed quite familiar, and it did not take long to place it—I was in one of the rooms of the Climber’s Rest. In fact, it might have been the very same room I had stayed in before my journey to the Mirkanthol tree.
I was sitting on a bed, my legs under the covers, and I was dressed in my nightclothes. A quick look around showed that my belongings had been carefully placed around the room, and there was light making its way through the curtained windows. It was daytime.
I felt quite well rested, and I couldn’t locate any injuries from the mauling Lokchthurr’s hands had given me. I walked over to the room’s mirror and found no evidence of the assault. There was a fingernail-shaped scar over my left eye that I was certain had not been there before, but it looked months old and could not have been delivered by the hands.
For all points and purposes, this was the end of my journey. None of my party was in the Climber’s Rest with me. I eventually found Glasskill in Tunisia, where we met briefly and decided to continue on our separate ways (a decision I regret but seemed unable to avoid). I did not encounter Ms. DeWitt until I was back in London, and I saw her from a distance at Picadilly Circus. Our eyes met, and we both smiled at each other, but the foot traffic was such that we were taken in different directions and could not locate each other to say hello. It was comforting to me to see that she seemed well, and that was sufficient. I did not seek her out in order to hold an actual conversation, and she did not seek me out.
Asram and Kendit I never saw again.
And so here am I, returned from my great journey. There are those among you who might ask why, upon my emergence from the Climber’s Rest, I did not attempt another assault on the Mirkanthol tree. While I had lost my party, that had never stopped me before—indeed, there was one other time, my legendary quest for the … the … well, hang it all, I can’t remember the particular quest, but the records are in the archives, easily accessible to anyone who wants to look it up. It is a quest where my entire party abandoned me for various reasons, and I was able to form an entirely new party on the fly and finish the quest. Resourcefulness has never been an issue for me.
The simple fact of the matter is that once I emerged from the Climber’s Rest, I fully intended to return to the tree, but when I took a step in that direction, my desire to climb it again vanished. It was not that I was too weary to make the climb, or too nervous about the results of such an effort, but rather that I could not remember why I might have wanted to undertake such an effort in the first place. We are members of this club, you and I, because it suits us to be so, and because we enjoy doing what we do. If I am not enjoying a mission, or if I do not feel that certain strong compulsion to attempt a certain exploration, then I will not do it. When I walked out of the Climber’s Rest, I found my desire to climb the Mirkanthol tree was gone. So that was the end of that quest.
So I am here, planning my next mission. I have vacillated between many options, but none have yet grabbed my attention. Sometimes I retire to our archives to re-read some of my accounts of my previous journeys to see if they inspire ideas for a new expedition, but they stir no feelings or strong memories. They simply sit on the page, seeming as if they are events that happened to someone else.
The end result is that I will abide here for a time, and I do not find that to be an unpleasant outcome. I enjoy the fellowship of all of you, truly I do, though I see how you look at me sometimes—do not think that I am oblivious enough to overlook that. I realize that I do not always recognize all of you, even some of you who claim to have known me for years, but how can you blame me, for my head is full of the wealth of a lifetime of journeys, and the limitations of the human mind are such that if I am to retain the memory of my past triumphs there are other things I must forget. Since all of us here share these same priorities, can you, can any of you blame me for my choices?