The day that Donna and Piggy and Russ went to see the Edge of the World was a hot one. They were sitting on the curb by the gas station that noontime, sharing a Coke and watching the big Starlifters lumber up into the air, one by one, out of Toldenarba AFB. The sky rumbled with their passing. There’d been an incident in the Persian Gulf, and half the American forces in the Twilight Emirates were on alert.
“My old man says when the Big One goes up, the base will be the first to go,” Piggy said speculatively. “Treaties won’t allow us to defend it. One bomber comes in high and whaboom—” he made soft nuclear explosion noises—”it’s all gone.” He was wearing camouflage pants and a khaki teeshirt with an iron-on reading KILL ‘EM ALL AND LET GOD SORT ‘EM OUT. Donna watched as he took off his glasses to polish them on his shirt. His face went slack and vacant, then livened as he put them back on again, as if he were playing with a mask.
“You should be so lucky,” Donna said. “Mrs. Khashoggi is still going want that paper done on Monday morning, Armageddon or not.”
“Yeah, can you believe her?” Piggy said. “That weird accent! And all that memorization! Cut me some slack. I mean, who cares whether Ackronnion was part of the Mezentian Dynasty?”
“You ought to care, dipshit,” Russ said. “Local history’s the only decent class the school’s got.” Russ was the smartest boy Donna had ever met, never mind the fact that he was flunking out. He had soulful eyes and a radical haircut, short on the sides with a dyed-blond punklock down the back of his neck. “Man, I opened the Excerpts from Epics text that first night, thinking it was going to be the same old bullshit, and I stayed up ’til dawn. Got to school without a wink of sleep, but I’d managed to read every last word. This is one weird part of the world; its history is full of dragons and magic and all kinds of weird monsters. Do you realize that in the eighteenth century three members of the British legation were eaten by demons? That’s in the historical record!”
Russ was an enigma to Donna. The first time they’d met, hanging with the misfits at an American School dance, he’d tried to put a hand down her pants, and she’d slugged him good, almost breaking his nose. She could still hear his surprised laughter as blood ran down his chin. They’d been friends ever since. Only there were limits to friendship, and now she was waiting for him to make his move and hoping he’d get down to it before her father was rotated out.
In Japan she’d known a girl who had taken a razor blade and carved her boyfriend’s name in the palm of her hand. How could she do that, Donna had wanted to know? Her friend had shrugged, said, “As long as it gets me noticed.” It wasn’t until Russ that Donna understood.
“Strange country,” Russ said dreamily. “The sky beyond the Edge is supposed to be full of demons and serpents and shit. They say that if you stare into it long enough, you’ll go mad.”
They all three looked at one another.
“Well, hell,” Piggy said. “What are we waiting for?”
The Edge of the World lay beyond the railroad tracks. They bicycled through the American enclave into the old native quarter. The streets were narrow here, the sideyards crammed with broken trucks, rusted out buses, even yachts up in cradles with stoven-in sides. Garage doors were black mouths hissing and spitting welding sparks, throbbing to the hammered sound of worked metal. They hid their bikes in a patch of scrub apricot trees where the railroad crossed the industrial canal and hiked across.
Time had altered the character of the city where it bordered the Edge. Gone were the archers in their towers, vigilant against a threat that never came. Gone were the rose quartz palaces with their thousand windows, not a one of which overlooked the Edge. The battlements where blind musicians once piped up the dawn now survived only in Mrs. Khashoggi’s texts. Where they had been was now a drear line of weary factory buildings, their lower windows cinderblocked or bricked up and those beyond reach of vandals’ stones painted over in patchwork squares of grey and faded blue.
A steam whistle sounded and lines of factory workers shambled back inside, brown men in chinos and white shirts, Syrian and Lebanese laborers imported to do work no native Toldenarban would touch. A shredded net waved forlornly from a basketball hoop set up by the loading dock.
There was a section of hurricane fence down. They scrambled through.
As they cut across the grounds, a loud whine arose from within the factory building. Down the way another plant lifted its voice in a solid wham-wham-wham as rhythmic and unrelenting as a headache. One by one the factories shook themselves from their midday drowse and went back to work. “Why do they locate these things along the Edge?” Donna asked.
“It’s so they can dump their chemical waste over the Edge,” Russ explained. “These were all erected before the Emir nationalized the culverts that the Russian Protectorate built.”
Behind the factory was a chest-high concrete wall, rough-edged and pebbly with the slow erosion of cement. Weeds grew in clumps at its foot. Beyond was nothing but sky.
Piggy ran ahead and spat over the Edge. “Hey, remember what Nixon said when he came here? It is indeed a long way down. What a guy!”
Donna leaned against the wall. A film of haze tinted the sky grey, intensifying at the focal point to dirty brown, as if a dead spot were burned into the center of her vision. When she looked down, her eyes kept grabbing for ground and finding more sky. There were a few wispy clouds in the distance and nothing more. No serpents coiled in the air. She should have felt disappointed but, really, she hadn’t expected better. This was of a piece with all the natural wonders she had ever seen, the waterfalls, geysers and scenic vistas that inevitably included power lines, railings and parking lots absent from the postcards. Russ was staring intently ahead, hawklike, frowning. His jaw worked slightly, and she wondered what he saw.
“Hey, look what I found!” Piggy whooped. “It’s a stairway!”
They joined him at the top of an institutional-looking concrete and iron stairway. It zigzagged down the cliff toward an infinitely distant and nonexistent Below, dwindling into hazy blue. Quietly, as if he’d impressed himself, Piggy said, “What do you suppose is down there?”
“Only one way to find out, isn’t there?” Russ said.
Russ went first, then Piggy, then Donna, the steps ringing dully under their feet. Graffiti covered the rocks, worn spraypaint letters in yellow and black and red scrawled one over the other and faded by time and weather into mutual unreadability, and on the iron railings, words and arrows and triangles had been markered onto or dug into the paint with knife or nail: JURGEN BIN SCHEISSKOPF. MOTLEY CRUE. DEATH TO SATAN AMERICA IMPERIALIST. Seventeen steps down, the first landing was filthy with broken brown glass, bits of crumbled concrete, cigarette butts, soggy, half-melted cardboard. The stairway folded back on itself and they followed it down.
“You ever had fugu?” Piggy asked. Without waiting for an answer, he said, “It’s Japanese poisonous blowfish. It has to be prepared very carefully—they license the chefs—and even so, several people die every year. It’s considered a great delicacy.”
“Nothing tastes that good,” Russ said.
“It’s not the flavor,” Piggy said enthusiastically. “It’s the poison. Properly prepared, see, there’s a very small amount left in the sashimi and you get a threshhold dose. Your lips and the tips of your fingers turn cold. Numb. That’s how you know you’re having the real thing. That’s how you know you’re living right on the edge.”
“I’m already living on the edge,” Russ said. He looked startled when Piggy laughed.
A fat moon floated in the sky, pale as a disk of ice melting in blue water. It bounced after them as they descended, kicking aside loose soda bottles in styrofoam sleeves, crushed Marlboro boxes, a scattering of carbonized sparkplugs. On one landing they found a crumpled shopping cart, and Piggy had to muscle it over the railing and watch it fall. “Sure is a lot of crap here,” he observed. The landing smelled faintly of urine.
“It’ll get better farther down,” Russ said. “We’re still near the top, where people can come to get drunk after work.” He pushed on down. Far to one side they could see the brown flow from the industrial canal where it spilled into space, widening and then slowly dispersing into rainbowed mist, distance glamoring it beauty.
“How far are we planning to go?” Donna asked apprehensively.
“Don’t be a weak sister,” Piggy sneered. Russ said nothing.
The deeper they went, the shabbier the stairway grew, and the spottier its maintenance. Pipes were missing from the railing. Where patches of paint had fallen away the bolts anchoring the stair to the rock were walnut-sized lumps of rust.
Needle-clawed marsupials chittered warningly from niches in the rock as they passed. Tufts of grass and moth-white gentians grew in the loess-filled cracks.
Hours passed. Donna’s feet and calves and the small of her back grew increasingly sore, but she refused to be the one to complain. By degrees she stopped looking over the side and out into the sky, and stared instead at her feet flashing in and out of sight while one hand went slap grab tug on the rail. She felt sweaty and miserable.
Back home she had a half-finished paper on the Three Days Incident of March, 181O, when the French Occupation, by order of Napoleon himself, had fired cannonade after cannonade over the Edge into nothingness. They had hoped to make rainstorms of devastating force that would lash and destroy their enemies, and created instead only a gunpowder haze, history’s first great failure in weather control. This descent was equally futile, Donna thought, an endless and wearying exercise in nothing. Just the same as the rest of her life. Every time her father was reposted, she had resolved to change, to be somebody different this time around, whatever the price, even if—no, especially if—it meant playacting something she was not. Last year in Germany when she’d gone out with that local boy with the Alfa Romeo and instead of jerking him off had used her mouth, she had thought: Everything’s going to be different now. But no.
Nothing ever changed.
“Heads up!” Russ said. “There’s some steps missing here!” He leaped, and the landing gonged hollowly under his sneakers. Then again as Piggy jumped after.
Donna hesitated. There were five steps gone and a drop of twenty feet before the stairway cut back beneath itself. The cliff bulged outward here, and if she slipped she’d probably miss the stairs altogether.
She felt the rock draw away from her to either side, and was suddenly aware that she was connected to the world by the merest speck of matter, barely enough to anchor her feet. The sky wrapped itself about her, extending to infinity, depthless and absolute. She could extend her arms and fall into it forever. What would happen to her then, she wondered. Would she die of thirst and starvation, or would the speed of her fall grow so great that the oxygen would be sucked from her lungs, leaving her to strangle in a sea of air? “Come on, Donna!” Piggy shouted up at her. “Don’t be a pussy!”
“Russ—” she said quaveringly.
But Russ wasn’t looking her way. He was frowning downward, anxious to be going. “Don’t push the lady,” he said. “We can go on by ourselves.”
Donna choked with anger and hurt and desperation all at once. She took a deep breath and, heart scudding, leaped. Sky and rock wheeled over her head. For an instant she was floating, falling, totally lost and filled with a panicky awareness that she was about to die. Then she crashed onto the landing. It hurt like hell, and at first she feared she’d pulled an ankle. Piggy grabbed her shoulders and rubbed the side of her head with his knuckles. “I knew you could do it, you wimp.”
Donna knocked away his arm. “Okay, wiseass. How are you expecting to get us back up?”
The smile disappeared from Piggy’s face. His mouth opened, closed. His head jerked fearfully upward. An acrobat could leap across, grab the step and flip up without any trouble at all. “I—I mean, I—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Russ said impatiently. “We’ll think of something.” He started down again.
It wasn’t natural, Donna realized, his attitude. There was something obsessive about his desire to descend the stairway. It was like the time he’d brought his father’s revolver to school along with a story about playing Russian roulette that morning before breakfast. “Three times!” he’d said proudly.
He’d had that same crazy look on him, and she hadn’t the slightest notion then or now how she could help him.
Russ walked like an automaton, wordlessly, tirelessly, never hurrying up or slowing down. Donna followed in concerned silence, while Piggy scurried between them, chattering like somebody’s pet Pekinese. This struck Donna as so apt as to be almost allegorical: the two of them together yet alone, the distance between filled with noise. She thought of this distance, this silence, as the sun passed behind the cliff and the afternoon heat lost its edge.
The stairs changed to cement-jacketed brick with small buttresses cut into the rock. There was a pile of stems and cherry pits on one landing, and the railing above them was white with bird droppings. Piggy leaned over the rail and said, “Hey, I can see seagulls down there. Flying around.”
“Where?” Russ leaned over the railing, then said scornfully, “Those are pigeons. The Ghazoddis used to release them for rifle practice.”
As Piggy turned to follow Russ down again, Donna caught a glimpse into his eyes, liquid and trembling with helplessness and despair. She’d seen that fear in him only once before, months ago when she’d stopped by his house on the way to school, just after the Emir’s assassination.
The living room windows were draped and the room seemed unnaturally gloomy after being out in the morning sun. Blue television light flickered over shelves of shadowy ceramic figurines: Dresden milkmaids, Chantilly Chinamen, Meissen pug-dogs connected by a gold chain held in their champed jaws, naked Delft nymphs dancing.
Piggy’s mother sat in a limp dressing gown, hair unbrushed, watching the funeral. She held a cup of oily looking coffee in one hand. Donna was surprised to see her up so early. Everyone said that she had a bad problem with alcohol, that even by service wife standards she was out of control.
“Look at them,” Piggy’s mother said. On the screen were solemn processions of camels and Cadillacs, sheikhs in jellaba, keffigeh and mirrorshades, European dignitaries with wives in tasteful grey Parisian fashions. “They’ve got their nerve.”
“Where did you put my lunch?” Piggy said loudly from the kitchen.
“Making fun of the Kennedys, like that!” The Emir’s youngest son, no more than four years old, salaamed his father’s casket as it passed before him. “That kid’s bad enough, but you should see the mother, crying as if her heart were broken. It’s enough to turn your stomach. If I were Jackie, I’d—”
Donna and Piggy and Russ had gone bowling the night the Emir was shot. This was out in the ruck of cheap joints that surrounded the base, catering almost exclusively to servicemen. When the Muzak piped through overhead speakers was interrupted for the news bulletin, everyone had stood up and cheered. Up we go someone had begun singing, and the rest had joined in, into the wild blue yonder … Donna had felt so sick with fear and disgust she had thrown up in the parking lot. ” I don’t think they’re making fun of anyone,” Donna said. “They’re just—”
“Don’t talk to her!” The refrigerator door slammed shut. A cupboard door slammed open.
Piggy’s mother smiled bitterly. “This is exactly what you’d expect from these ragheads. Pretending they’re white people, deliberately mocking their betters. Filthy brown animals.”
“Mother! Where is my fucking lunch?”
She looked at him then, jaw tightening. “Don’t you use that kind of language on me, young man.”
“All right!” Piggy shouted. “All right, I’m going to school without lunch! Shows how much you care!”
He turned to Donna and in the instant before he grabbed her wrist and dragged her out of the house, Donna could no longer hear the words, could only see that universe of baffled futility haunting Piggy’s eyes. That same look she glimpsed today.
The railings were wooden now, half the posts rotting at their bases, with an occasional plank missing, wrenched off and thrown over the side by previous visitors. Donna’s knees buckled and she stumbled, almost lurching into the rock. “I have to stop,” she said, hating herself for it. “I cannot go one more step.”
Piggy immediately collapsed on the landing. Russ hesitated, then climbed up to join them. They three sat staring out into nothing, legs over the Edge, arms clutching the rail.
Piggy found a Pepsi can, logo in flowing Arabic, among the rubble. He held it in his left hand and began sticking holes in it with his butterfly knife, again and again, cackling like a demented sex criminal. “Exterminate the brutes!” he said happily. Then, with absolutely no transition he asked, “How are we ever going to get back up?” so dolorously Donna had to bite back her laughter.
“Look, I just want to go on down a little bit more,” Russ said.
“Why?” Piggy sounded petulant.
“So I can get down enough to get away from this garbage.” He gestured at the cigarette butts, the broken brown glass, sparser than above but still there. “Just a little further, okay guys?” There an edge to his voice, and under that the faintest hint of a plea. Donna felt helpless before those eyes. She wished they were alone, so she could ask him what was wrong.
Donna doubted that Russ himself knew what he expected to find down below. Did he think that if he went down far enough, he’d never have to climb back? She remembered the time in Mr. Herriman’s algebra class when a sudden tension in the air had made her glance across the room at Russ, and he was, with great concentration, tearing the pages out of his math text and dropping them one by one on the floor. He’d taken a five-day suspension for that, and Donna had never found out what it was all about. But there was a kind of glorious arrogance to the act; Russ had been born out of time. He really should have been a medieval prince, a Medici or one of the Sabakan pretenders.
“Okay,” Donna said, and Piggy of course had to go along.
Seven flights farther down the modern stairs came to an end. The wooden railing of the last short, septambic flight had been torn off entire, and laid across the steps. They had to step carefully between the uprights and the rails. But when they stood at the absolute bottom, they saw that there were stairs beyond the final landing, steps that had been cut into the stone itself. They were curving swaybacked things that millennia of rain and foot traffic had worn so uneven they were almost impassable.
Piggy groaned. “Man, you can’t expect us to go down that thing.”
“Nobody’s asking you,” Russ said.
They descended the old stairway backwards and on all fours. The wind breezed up, hitting them with the force of an unexpected shove first to one side and then the other. There were times when Donna was so frightened she thought she was going to freeze up and never move again. But at last the stone broadened and became a wide, even ledge, with caves leading back into the rock.
The cliff face here was greenwhite with lichen, and had in ancient times been laboriously smoothed and carved. Between each cave (their mouths alone left in a natural state, unaltered) were heavy-thighed women—goddesses, perhaps, or demons or sacred dancers—their breasts and faces chipped away by the image-hating followers of the Prophet at a time when Mohammed yet lived. Their hands held loops of vines in which were entangled moons, cycling from new through waxing quarter and gibbous to full and then back through gibbous and waning quarter to dark. Piggy was gasping, his face bright with sweat, but he kept up his blustery front. “What the fuck is all this shit, man?”
“It was a monastery,” Russ said. He walked along the ledge dazedly, a wondering half smile on his lips. “I read about this.” He stopped at a turquoise automobile door someone had flung over the Edge to be caught and tossed by fluke winds, the only piece of trash that had made it down this far. “Give me a hand.”
He and Piggy lifted the door, swung it back and forth three times to build up momentum, then lofted it over the lip of the rock. They all three lay down on their stomachs to watch it fall away, turning end over end and seeming finally to flicker as it dwindled smaller and smaller, still falling. At last it shrank below the threshold of visibility and became one of a number of shifting motes in the downbelow, part of the slow, mazy movement of dead blood cells in the eyes’ vitreous humors. Donna turned over on her back, drew her head back from the rim, stared upward. The cliff seemed to be slowly tumbling forward, all the world inexorably, dizzyingly leaning down to crush her.
“Let’s go explore the caves,” Piggy suggested.
They were empty. The interiors of the caves extended no more than thirty feet into the rock, but they had all been elaborately worked, arched ceilings carved with thousands of faux tesserae, walls adorned with bas-relief pillars. Between the pillars the walls were taken up with long shelves carved into the stone. No artifacts remained, not so much as a potsherd or a splinter of bone. Piggy shone his pocket flash into every shadowy niche. “Somebody’s been here before us and taken everything,” he said.
“The Historic Registry people, probably.” Russ ran a hand over one shelf. It was the perfect depth and height for a line of three-pound coffee cans. “This is where they stowed the skulls. When a monk grew so spiritually developed he no longer needed the crutch of physical existence, his fellows would render the flesh from his bones and enshrine his skull. They poured wax in the sockets, then pushed in opals while it was still warm. They slept beneath the faintly gleaming eyes of their superiors.”
When they emerged it was twilight, the first stars appearing from behind a sky fading from blue to purple. Donna looked down on the moon. It was as big as a plate, full and bright. The rilles, dry seas and mountain chains were preternaturally distinct. Somewhere in the middle was Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong had planted the American flag.
“Jeez, it’s late,” Donna said. “If we don’t start home soon, my mom is going to have a cow.”
“We still haven’t figured a way to get back up,” Piggy reminded her. Then, “We’ll probably have to stay here. Learn to eat owls and grow crops sideways on the cliff face. Start our own civilization. Our only serious problem is the imbalance of sexes, but even that’s not insurmountable.” He put an arm around Donna’s shoulders, grabbed at her breast. “You’d pull the train for us, wouldn’t you, Donna?”
Angrily she pushed him away and said, “You keep a clean mouth! I’m so tired of your juvenile talk and behavior.”
“Hey, calm down, it’s cool.” That panicky look was back in his eyes, the forced knowledge that he was not in control, could never be in control, that there was no such thing as control. He smiled weakly, placatingly.
“No, it is not. It is most emphatically not ‘cool.'” Suddenly she was white and shaking with fury. Piggy was a spoiler. His simple presence ruined any chance she might have had to talk with Russ, find out just what was bugging him, get him to finally, really notice her. “I am sick of having to deal with your immaturity, your filthy language and your crude behavior.”
Piggy turned pink and began stuttering.
Russ reached a hand into his pocket, pulled out a chunk of foil-wrapped hash, and a native tin pipe with a carved coral bowl. The kind of thing the local beggar kids sold for twenty-nine cents. “Anybody want to get stoned?” he asked suavely.
“You bastard!” Piggy laughed. “You told me you were out!”
Russ shrugged. “I lied.” He lit the pipe carefully, drew in, passed it to Donna. She took it from his fingers, felt how cold they were to her touch, looked up over the pipe and saw his face, thin and ascetic, eyelids closed, pale and Christlike through the blue smoke. She loved him intensely in that instant and wished she could sacrifice herself for his happiness. The pipe’s stem was overwarm, almost hot, between her lips. She drew in deep.
The smoke was raspy in her throat, then tight and swirling in her lungs. It shot up into her head, filled it with buzzing harmonics: the air, the sky, the rock behind her back all buzzing, ballooning her skull outward in a visionary rush that forced wide open first her eyes and then her mouth. She choked and spasmodically coughed. More smoke than she could imagine possibly holding in her lungs gushed out into the universe.
“Hey, watch that pipe!” Piggy snatched it from her distant fingers. They tingled with pinpricks of pain like tiny stars in the darkness of her flesh. “You were spilling the hash!” The evening light was abuzz with energy, the sky swarming up into her eyes. Staring out into the darkening air, the moon rising below her and the stars as close and friendly as those in a children’s book illustration, she felt at peace, detached from worldly cares. “Tell us about the monastery, Russ,” she said, in the same voice she might have used a decade before to ask her father for a story.
“Yeah, tell us about the monastery, Unca Russ,” Piggy said, but with jeering undertones. Piggy was always sucking up to Russ, but there was tension there too, and his sarcastic little challenges were far from rare. It was classic beta male jealousy, straight out of Primate Psychology 101.
“It’s very old,” Russ said. “Before the Sufis, before Mohammed, even before the Zoroastrians crossed the gulf, the native mystics would renounce the world and go to live in cliffs on the Edge of the World. They cut the steps down, and once down, they never went back up again.”
“How did they eat then?” Piggy asked skeptically.
“They wished their food into existence. No, really! It was all in their creation myth: In the beginning all was Chaos and Desire. The world was brought out of Chaos—by which they meant unformed matter—by Desire, or Will. It gets a little inconsistent after that, because it wasn’t really a religion, but more like a system of magic. They believed that the world wasn’t complete yet, that for some complicated reason it could never be complete. So there’s still traces of the old Chaos lingering just beyond the Edge, and it can be tapped by those who desire it strongly enough, if they have distanced themselves from the things of the world. These mystics used to come down here to meditate against the moon and work miracles.
“This wasn’t sophisticated stuff like the Tantric monks in Tibet or anything, remember. It was like a primitive form of animism, a way to force the universe to give you what you wanted. So the holy men would come down here and they’d wish for … like riches, you know? Filigreed silver goblets with rubies, mounds of moonstones, elfinbone daggers sharper than Damascene steel. Only once they got them they weren’t supposed to want them. They’d just throw them over the Edge. There were these monasteries all along the cliffs. The farther from the world they were, the more spiritually advanced.”
“So what happened to the monks?”
“There was a king—Althazar? I forget his name. He was this real greedhead, started sending his tax collectors down to gather up everything the monks brought into existence. Must’ve figured, hey, the monks weren’t using them. Which as it turned out was like a real major blasphemy, and the monks got pissed. The boss mystics, all the real spiritual heavies, got together for this big confab. Nobody knows how. There’s one of the classics claims they could run sideways on the cliff just like it was the ground, but I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. So one night they all of them, every monk in the world, meditated at the same time. They chanted together, they said, It is not enough that Althazar should die, for he has blasphemed. He must suffer a doom such as has been visited on no man before. He must be unmade, uncreated, reduced to less than has ever been. And they prayed that there be no such king as Althazar, that his life and history be unmade, so that there never had been such king as Althazar.
“And he was no more.”
“But so great was their yearning for oblivion that when Althazar ceased to be, his history and family as well, they were left feeling embittered and did not know why. And not knowing why, their hatred turned upon themselves, and their wish for destruction, and they too all of a single night, ceased to be.” He fell silent.
At last Piggy said, “You believe that crap?” Then, when there was no answer, “It’s none of it true, man! Got that? There’s no magic, and there never was.” Donna could see that he was really angry, threatened on some primal level by the possibility that someone he respected could even begin to believe in magic. His face got pink, the way it always did when he lost
“No, it’s all bullshit,” Russ said bitterly. “Like everything else.”
They passed the pipe around again. Then Donna leaned back, stared straight out, and said, “If I could wish for anything, you know what I’d wish for?”
She was so weary now, so pleasantly washed out, that it was easy to ignore Piggy. “I’d wish I knew what the situation was.”
“What situation?” Piggy asked. Donna was feeling languorous, not at all eager to explain herself, and she waved away the question. But he persisted. “What situation?”
“Any situation. I mean, all the time, I find myself talking with people and I don’t know what’s really going on. What games they’re playing. Why they’re acting the way they are. I wish I knew what the situation was.”
The moon floated before her, big and fat and round as a griffin’s egg, shining with power. She could feel that power washing through her, the background radiation of decayed chaos spread across the sky at a uniform three degrees Kelvin. Even now, spent and respent, a coin fingered and thinned to the worn edge of nonexistence, there was power out there, enough to flatten planets.
Staring out at that great fat boojum snark of a moon, she felt the flow of potential worlds, and within the cold silver disk of that jester’s skull, rank with magic, sensed the invisible presence of Russ’s primitive monks, men whose minds were nowhere near comprehensible to her, yet vibrated with power, existing as matrices of patterned stress, no more actual than Donald Duck, but no less powerful either. She was caught in a waking fantasy, in which the sky was full of power and all of it accessible to her. Monks sat empty handed over their wishing bowls, separated from her by the least fictions of time and reality. For an eternal instant all possibilities fanned out to either side, equally valid, no one more real than any other. Then the world turned under her, and her brain shifted back to realtime.
“Me,” Piggy said, “I just wish I knew how to get back up the stairs.”
They were silent for a moment. Then it occurred to Donna that here was the perfect opportunity to find out what was bugging Russ. If she asked cautiously enough, if the question hit him just right, if she were just plain lucky, he might tell her everything. She cleared her throat. “Russ? What do you wish?”
In the bleakest voice imaginable, Russ said, “I wish I’d never been born.”
She turned to ask him why, and he wasn’t there.
“Hey,” Donna said. “Where’d Russ go?”
Piggy looked at her oddly. “Who’s Russ?”
It was a long trip back up. They carried the length of wooden railing between them, and every now and then Piggy said, “Hey, wasn’t this a great idea of mine? This’ll make a swell ladder.”
“Yeah, great,” Donna would say, because he got mad when she didn’t respond. He got mad too, whenever she started to cry, but there wasn’t anything she could do about that. She couldn’t even explain why she was crying, because in all the world—of all his friends, acquaintances, teachers, even his parents—she was the only one who remembered that Russ had ever existed.
The horrible thing was that she had no specific memories of him, only a vague feeling of what his presence had been like, and a lingering sense of longing and frustration.
She no longer even remembered his face.
“Do you want to go first or last?” Piggy had asked her.
When she’d replied, “Last. If I go first, you’ll stare at my ass all the way up,” he’d actually blushed. Without Russ to show off in front of, Piggy was a completely different person, quiet and not at all abusive. He even kept his language clean.
But that didn’t help, for just being in his presence was enough to force understanding on her: That his bravado was fueled by his insecurities and aspirations, that he masturbated nightly and with self-loathing, that he despised his parents and longed in vain for the least sign of love from them. That the way he treated her was the sum and total of all of this and more.
She knew exactly what the situation was.
Dear God, she prayed, let it be that I won’t have this kind of understanding when I reach the top. Or else make it so that situations won’t be so painful up there, that knowledge won’t hurt like this, that horrible secrets won’t lie under the most innocent word.
They carried their wooden burden upward, back toward the world.
© 1989 Michael Swanwick.
First appeared in Full Spectrum 2,
edited by Lou Aronica, Shawna McCarthy, Amy Stout, and Pat LoBrutto.
Reprinted by permission of the author.