I WAS FALLING
by Addisyn Eggar
I was falling. Or I fell. Something tells me the passivity matters.
I awoke on the top of a tall, dark stone.
I stayed there for hours, trying to sleep. The wind whipped through my hair as I tried not to look down to the ground far below me. Tears sprung out of my eyes and dried in tracks down my face, their stream taken by the wind, the salt left clinging to my cheeks.
I thought about staying at the top of that narrow stone, barely fitting my curled body on its flat, frigid surface.
My thoughts came on a one-track loop:
It is so cold.
You must get back.
I fell. From where, I was not quite sure. When I thought too hard about it, a sick feeling came over me. It made my cheeks hot and my gut clench, like the feeling you get when your father catches you in a lie. I decided I needed to get out of the wind. It was so cold.
I peered down the edge, trying to assess where exactly I was. Mist twisted in tendrils around me and spread out below. It was impossible for me to see further than a few feet in any direction. I needed to get to Heilaga Jörð. I was not sure where it was or what it looked like, but I had been told I would know. The stone below me was nearly black, but it had many footholds and grips on one side. I stood to take in more of my surroundings. I cautiously turned in a circle and noted the craggy gray walls that rose in the distance on all sides. The pillar I was standing on rose through the middle of a deep basin.
I noticed, halfway down one side of the pillar (the same side with many footholds and grips) a bridge. It seemed solid. Made of oak and held together by thick black ropes, it led to the top of the north side of the basin. At least, that‘s what it looked like through the mist.
On the other side of the pillar, much closer to its top, was a staircase leading down to the opposite side of the natural cell in which I found myself. Something about the staircase seemed odd. It twisted and cut through the rock as if it was trying to cut the pillar in two. I clung to the rock, growing more frantic that I would never move from the precipice. It was at least 50 feet down to the south side, and on the north side, much further down to get to the bridge.
For a moment, I thought about jumping. Maybe if I jumped off of a side where I could see nothing, I would land on another pillar. Or maybe I would plummet to the ground. It would get me out of this situation, at least. I had fallen before. It was so cold. I needed to get back. My lips were cracked and bleeding. I couldn‘t stop picking at them.
I tried the north side. I inched my legs over the edge and gripped the top of the stone. To get to the bridge I would have to balance every move of my body and keep my hold. If I reached too far with my left foot, and my right hand could not maintain its place, I would slip. Every move needed to be precise and thought-through; there were many footholds and indentions though, perhaps I could slip and still keep my grip. I lowered myself more, my knuckles turning white from the tight hold I kept on the stone. My calf muscles began cramping from balancing my body weight. Everything in me screamed to let go, but I didn’t want to fall any more than I already had. I was low enough already.
Suddenly, I felt my foot land on a ledge.
I had not paid attention to the direction in which I was descending. Somehow, I had, like a poor man‘s Magellan, circumnavigated half of the pillar. I was on the south side at the staircase. My eyes tried to pierce the fog, but all I could see was that the staircase led down. It seemed warmer at the bottom.
It was so cold here. My feet had gone numb. I needed to get out of the basin. I knew Heilaga Jörð was not in this place. How could I reach it by continuing down? But I couldn‘t get to the other side of the pillar. It was too cold. I needed to get back to the bridge.
I was no climber, and I had lost all feeling in my hands. If I started to edge around the pillar I would certainly lose my grip. So, I began the descent to the basin floor. The fog seemed to whisper to me as I went. I thought I heard familiar voices urging me to stop, but the wind swept them away.
I had fallen. It was so cold. Now, my hands had started to crack, and blood dried between my knuckles.
As I continued down, the air felt warmer. Perhaps it was my body heating up from the physical exertion. Maybe the fog was something more–steam. As I descended the staircase, whatever was clouding my vision began to lighten.
I came to a point where the stairs leveled out. Black sand spread before my feet, and bright blue pools of steaming water dotted the landscape sporadically. Here and there I saw people soaking in them, the steam rising and curling into the thick fog above.
The Steamers had a glassy look about them. They were content, free of concern. They looked like they had not thought about anything in a long while. I recognized the look in their eyes from the one I had seen in my friends’ eyes at parties when they had too much to drink. It is the look of bliss and forgetfulness. I’d called them by this name then, though at that point it was in jest. These people were no laughing matter. The vacantness about them brought no comedic relief to my senses.
I wished for a moment that this was Heilaga Jörð, so I could rest and quiet the overwhelming thoughts that swirled in my head like the mist around me.. But, before I could entertain the idea of soaking in one of the blue pools, a figure appeared to my left. Startled, I looked to see from where she had emerged. Behind her, the stairs I had been following shifted and descended into the ground. Waves of heat seeped out of cracks in the stairs.
I stared at the lady before me. Her hair, the color of a moonless night, flowed past her shoulders. The odd light from the opening in the ground made the crown of it shine a raven-esque purple. She must have come from below, as the staircase was the only place from which she could have so suddenly appeared… and because she did not have the same look as the Steamers. She gazed at me with a highly aware, dark, and sharp façade.
“Where are you going? she asked me.
“Heilaga Jörð.” I replied.
“Then why are you here?” she sneered. “Those who seek that place take the bridge. If they‘re smart.”
“It was so cold. I didn‘t realize I had come down on this side. Surely there is a way there from here?”
“Of course there is. But most do not take it because it is warmer here, and gets warmer still below.”
“But it’s not Heilaga Jörð.That‘s what everyone is looking for.”
She directed my gaze to the Steamers in their teal pools, the water milky, the rocks starkly black against their shores.
“Look at them. Are they not content? If you wish to be like them, stay.”
“They look like they have forgotten something. Like they fell asleep and haven’t realized it yet.” I said.
“They have forgotten. If that is not what you want, you can come below with me. No one has forgotten there. It is warm. They sing. They dance. It would suit you, I think.”
“Is it Heilaga Jörð?”
“If you want it to be.”
I surveyed the lady before me. She was beautiful. But she looked sad–even scared behind her nightly exterior. I did not want to go where she went. I did not want to be like her. I remembered the friends I had like her outside of the basin. They all had her look. That bitterness that seeps through every pore but that they hide with sarcasm, mystery, or levity. People always see through those masks, but for some reason it is more comfortable to have it on anyway. My mother called me bitter once. I wore the masks too, but they were no match for the familiarity of a matron.
“Thank you, but I am going to go on. Do you know how to get out of the basin?”
She looked at me with flaming eyes. “Do not mock me. Anyone who knew how to get out would not be here. Those who take the path out do not find it with our help.”
With that, she turned and marched down the stairs, taking the new warmth with her. I ached to follow. But I had fallen. I needed to get back. It was so cold. My hair started to harden as the droplets of fog froze in its strands.
I walked between the pools, trying to understand what made people stay in them. They were warm, so I understood getting in, but what could entice someone to stay in this wasteland? It had a beauty—the contrast of colors was unlike anything I had ever seen—but there was no life. I knew that even the water was undrinkable. It was too bright and too blue.
I kept on, reasoning that if I reached the gray wall in front of me, there may be a way to the top. If not, I could follow the wall around the circumference of the basin until I came to a way out.
As I was walking, the cold started to hurt even worse. I needed a reprieve. Against my better judgment, I dipped my fingers in the pools for minutes at a time. I would stop and soak my hand for a second or so, then walk more. Then I would sit with just my feet in for a few minutes at a different pool. Sometimes I would try to talk to the Steamers, but they didn‘t offer much in the way of conversation and I needed to get back. It was so cold. My core was starting to freeze.
The whispers of the fog returned, but I could not make out what it was saying. I was tired of the noises. I lowered my head against the wind and kept on, trying to ignore the nagging mist. I went back to listening to the loop in my head.
It was so cold. I had fallen. I needed to get back.
I needed to get back. It was so cold. I had fallen.
I had fallen.
I had fallen.
Why had I fallen?
It was so cold.
Why did I need to get back? Because it was so cold.
It was so cold.
I ran into the gray wall.
It loomed before me. It rose into the fog, its top lost to the clouds. Then I heard the Voices.
I knew them. Each one struck me, pounding dully against my chest. They told me what I knew already. I knew it was pointless to carry on through the pools. I knew there was no reason to walk all the way around the basin. There was one way out and I had seen it from the beginning. The Steamers didn‘t know it because they had forgotten. I doubted the Raven Lady had ever seen the bridge. Or maybe she had and simply didn’t know what it was anymore. They told me I had gone the wrong way. They told me to turn back and run to Heilaga Jörð.
I began to panic as I stood in the chilly air at the foot of the looming gray peaks. They rose all around me. Behind me laid the deceptively inviting wasteland of lagoons offering relief from the cold but no water to drink. Even if I got back to the pillar, how could I possibly climb back up?
But I needed to get back. I had fallen. It was so cold.
I slowly turned around to face the path I had trod all the way to this dead end. The black sand sloped upward before me, the fog had thickened, and the wind blew back the frozen strands of hair from my face. The pools were more inviting than before. I stopped longer at each one, trudging through the sand in between breaks, slowing my freezing.
I could still hear the Voices on the wind, but they hit my chest with less force than before. They hit over and over, but with each blow I felt the impact less and less. I needed to get back.
To where? It was so cold. I needed to get somewhere. But why was I going against the wind? Surely I was just going where it was colder. I needed to get back. I needed to get out of the cold.
My thoughts looped and mixed with the Voices pounding on my chest until I could feel nothing. The cold seeped down into my feet until it felt as though my legs were attached to clubs that I kept pounding into the sand until my walk became a shuffle.
Then I was back at the pillar, one set of stairs leading up toward where I had started on my left, and the other set leading toward the warmth below on my right.
The Voices had not stopped pounding at my chest. I gazed at the pillar in front of me and felt the cold emanating from its peak.
I had fallen. It was cold. I needed to get back. Why did I need to get back? So I didn‘t freeze. So I could get out of the basin. The right staircase was warm. I wouldn’t freeze. The right staircase led underground. It got me out of the basin.
I turned from the pillar I had journeyed from and ran to the stairs leading to heat.
Relief swept over me. Sweet waves of heat washed over my frozen hair, my club feet, my numb hands, my petrified core. The Voices were no longer pounding at my chest. I continued down the stairs, step after step, until my foot cut a path through open air and I plummeted to the ground.
The atmosphere around me was smokey and dimly lit. Everything was still so numb, I hardly grimaced from my fall as I stood up, gawking at my surroundings. The Raven Lady sat at a table in front of me. I locked eyes with her and she smiled, welcoming me to the realm below. Behind her people sang and danced, all with the same sad, scared aura in their demeanor as the one I had noticed in the Raven Lady at our first meeting.
Something beside me moved and I turned quickly toward it in alarm. I found myself staring at a disheveled creature with the same look in her eyes as the rest of the crowd. Her hair hung in damp strands around her face. Her lips were cracked and bleeding. Her eyes looked sharp and frozen over. As I blinked, so did the creature, and for the first time I realized what I was seeing. I was the disheveled creature with the crazed look in her eye. I looked like the Raven Lady. I did not want to be like her.
The stairs were far above me. I fell to my knees, sure I would never get out. I needed to get back. I had fallen. I needed to get back. I had fallen. It wasn’t so cold down here. It was so cold upstairs, but I needed to get back.
As my thoughts began what I now understood to be a horrifying loop, another figure appeared by me. He wore round glasses, a tweed jacket with shoulder patches, and loafers. His hair was graying on the sides. He looked at me sternly, as if I was a child he had caught stealing marshmallows from the pantry when she had already been told no.
Painfully aware of my disheveled appearance, I did my best to look him in the eye and stand tall. He almost seemed amused at the effort, but the serious look of him outweighed all levity.
“Are you tired of this?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I replied, surprised by my certainty. “But I am here now. I can be warm. I can sing and dance. I know I fell, but so did everyone here. And it‘s not like I am going to keep on.”
“There is always somewhere deeper and darker. This is the top of the depths. They still descend further” the Professor warned, looking at me with a brow furrowed by stern concern. “You will always keep on if you are only tired. You must also desire.”
“What all here ignore and what all in the pools have forgotten.”
I continued to kneel, reflecting on what the Professor had said. I knew I was forgetting something. I had forgotten something. Something the Voices had been pounding on my chest to get me to remember.
I needed to get back.
Back to where?
I lifted my gaze to the Professor. “Heilaga Jörð. I want to get to Heilaga Jörð.”
His gaze softened slightly. “And how do you get there?”
“I go back. I go back to the bridge.”
I turned to look at the Raven Lady. She had found one of the Fallen and was dancing with him. She hadn‘t noticed the Professor. I wanted to tell her how to get back, she had said if she knew she would.
“She cannot know because she does not desire,” came the Professor‘s voice from behind me.
“She said she did. That if she knew the way out she wouldn‘t be here.”
“The Raven Lady desires this land more than anything else. If she did not, she would be somewhere else. All who are here have not only fallen, but chosen to stay. To end up in the depths is always more than the fall.”
I stood staring at her for a moment, full of sadness and fear that I could have been convinced so easily–that I could have been like her. Then I turned back to the Professor.
“How do I get out of this place?”
Straining my ears, I searched the dark for a sound distinct from the cacophony of noise coming from the rooms below. For a long while, I heard nothing.
Then, as if picking out a singular string amongst a web of yarn, I heard it. The Voices.
The Professor smiled at me for the first time, and began to walk away.
“The Voices will carry you. They have been trying to for a long time.”
The Voices began pounding on my chest like they had before, but this time the pounding wasn’t dull or muffled. It felt more like shards of glass slicing through my being. The more I listened, the sharper they felt. Soon, the Voices sounded with enough force that the stagnant air of the cave vibrated around me. The Voices swirled and echoed through the air, and their wind lifted me from the ground, carrying me up–out of the depths, past the pools, beyond the crags and footfalls, and onto the ledge I had fallen off.
I began my steep climb back up the stairs toward the cold air. The Voices did not leave me, and the more I listened, the more they carried me. They saw me to the foot of the pillar. They urged me up the staircase. They caught me as I slipped and clawed my way around the pillar to the right side. They supported me as I fought my way up to the bridge, and they blew me across and out of the basin toward Heilaga Jörð.