Authors: Jamie Duclos-Yourdon
Gordy dropped to his knees and faced Gak, but she doubted that he saw her. His eyes were wide, his gaze turned inward, and the tears he wept mixed freely with the dirt.
Far above them, someone was watching. Or, if not watching, in a position to observe.
happened to Froelich during the day of his disappearance, that he would’ve vanished into thin air? Nothing as drastic as Gordy’s original notion—no scuffle at the hands of an angry mob, nor any Froelich-shaped holes in the ground. On the morning he’d gone missing, Froelich had awoken before dawn with a splitting headache. As a rule, he was constantly under the weather, which made sense, considering he was constantly exposed to the weather. Simply put, Froelich was nude. Though he’d been fully attired when he’d ascended the ladder, that had been many years ago. Over the course of time, it had all come off. He’d grown tired of being presentable—and for whom, exactly? The birds? First he shed the socks and shoes, to gain a better grip on the rungs. His shirt he discarded on a bright, sunny day, and his pants after a poor night’s sleep. Finally he climbed out of his undergarments—borne on the breeze like a petulant cloud.
rungs, the elements could be unstable; consequently, the changing weather was his favorite topic. Froelich liked to ruminate on how the wind could play tricks with his ears. Without any landscape to influence it, a gust could travel for thousands of miles without interruption. Froelich had reported hearing uproarious laughter, or even weeping. He’d been audience to distant symphonies and stray bits of conversation. Of course, it all could’ve been in his head, the product of acoustics and loneliness. The man was subject to tempestuous rain, at any time and coming from any angle, often wit
hout warning. Hail storms, unobstructed sunlight—it was a regimen that no physician would prescribe.
As such, Froelich was constantly under the weather. It was for this reason that he kept a seasonal garden somewhere in the hundred-rungs, cultivating tiny fissures in the wood: pennyroyal, wintergreen, and yarrow, herbs for every ache and pain. Thinking, on that fateful day, that he had a fever, he’d decided to chew some ginger root. Unbeknownst to Froelich, the source of his torment had been an inner-ear infection. To further compound his error, he’d mistakenly climbed up instead of down.
In climbing argot, forward-and-backward was different from up-and-down. A person suffering from vertigo (as the result of an inner-ear infection) might have experienced dizziness, nausea, and spatial distortion—and while he might not have walked backward, say, instead of forward, Froelich, disoriented, had thought he was climbing down instead of up. After a little while, he’d even begun to wonder if he’d entered the two-hundred-rungs. If so, why didn’t anything look familiar?
Having already come this far (and nowhere near the two-hundred-rungs), Froelich had failed to diagnose himself. Indeed, he’d forgotten all about his headache and his herb garden, and had decided he must be dreaming. After all, what did a person dream about, when he spent all his days on a ladder? He dreamed of climbing, of course.
Soon he’d reached the three-hundred-rungs, whereupon the clouds resided. It was common knowledge to the residents of Oregon that they received a disproportionate amount of rain; accordingly, their clouds were larger and fluffier than elsewhere. Denser, too—more thoroughly saturated. Certainly, they traveled in larger shoals, especially during the migratory season. It was rare for Froelich to climb so high as to see them, but there’d been talk, once, of collaborating on a lithograph, under the title “Whales of the Sky” (Froelich would’ve dictated while Binx transcribed). From the research Froelich had conducted, he knew that clouds molted. He knew that they migrated east and west between breeding and wintering grounds, and that they primarily ate pollen. Because they lacked teeth to aid in digestion, and because their stomachs were semi-permeable, they mostly abstained from eating meat; however, should a cloud chance upon a wounded animal, it had been known to take advantage.
In all likelihood, the cloud that poached Froelich had been a hungry and isolated calf. Why else would it have sunk so low, when clouds rarely ventured below two thousand meters, for fear of getting mired in the soupy atmosphere? To the cloud’s eyes (sightless appendages, able to register only heat and density), Froelich must’ve resembled a molted bird, incapable of flight, or else a hatchling, having recently escaped from the nest. In either case, the cloud had entombed its prey.
Froelich, still feverish, had surrendered himself to it. Indeed, when a person spent all his days on a ladder, what did he covet above all else? The chance to lie down, of course. The thought of a bed had consumed him since his initial ascent, and not just any bed: specifically, the bed that Harald and Lotsee had shared. Froelich had obsessed over every detail—whether it was a mattress of straw or feathers, whether their blankets were burlap or wool. Of course, Harald had tried to assuage him via
, professing his great love for Lotsee while never once apologizing for his actions. But Froelich had refused to come down until the affair was called off. A year had passed, and Gordy had been born. Another year had passed, and Lotsee had died while birthing Binx. She might’ve thought that marrying Death would postpone the inevitable, and perhaps it had; but just as those under-rung had to enter into life, so too did they exit it, occasionally in the same messy turn of events.
It was in his compromised state that Froelich revisited those bygone days. When his fever did finally break and he returned to his senses, the first thing he became aware of was his position: supine, like a swimmer buoyed by water. Slowly, it dawned on him that he wasn’t holding on to anything. Paddling his arms and legs, one hand emerged from the belly of the cloud, where the air was shockingly cold. Turning his head, he saw a blinding white light.
Am I dead?
Frau Holda, have you mistaken me for an unbaptized babe? Granted, my a— is bare and my feet are wrinkled, but didn’t you notice the hair on my face, not to mention elsewhere? When we were young, Harald and I would share stories about you—how you rewarded the meek handmaiden with gold, but slathered the lazy one in tar. Harald was enthralled by the Wild Hunt, and how you’d ride ahead to warn travelers, but I had my own questions about Walpurgis Night. Were you there, too, Holda, among the other witches? If I reached out my hand to you right now, would I touch your distaff? Not to abandon the old traditions, but wouldn’t a broom be more comfortable to ride upon?
Froelich looked to the side and caught a glimpse of the Earth. All at once, he felt alert—neither feverish, dreaming, nor deceased. More so than your average person, he possessed a unique appreciation of height. From this distance, he knew he wouldn’t survive a fall. Where he presently found himself, there was hardly enough oxygen to breathe.
D—ned stupid cloud!
D—ned stupid, hungry cloud!
If a seagull could pierce a cloud’s surface with little effort, what damage could a grown man do? Indeed, it was for this reason that clouds were reluctant herbivores: not by choice, but of necessity. While Froelich punched, gnawed, and kicked at its interior, the calf produced a mewling sound, like an infant bleating for its mother.
Oh, you don’t like that? I’ll tell you what
don’t like—being snatched from my ladder like a babe from its crib! Is that what you thought? That I was some tender morsel to be carried off and consumed? Well, let me inform you, cloud—this babe was weaned on splinters and nails!
Shredding another clump, Froelich accidentally removed too much. Suddenly, his support eroded. As the cloud’s canopy sagged, his pelvis tilted and his shoulders slouched up around his ears—and for one queasy-making moment Froelich and gravity became newly acquainted, before his frantically grasping hands snagged a piece of hail and he was able to pull himself to safety. Even then, he didn’t let go, hugging the rough sediment for all he was worth. His hands were shaking and his toes
were numb. His bladder had unceremoniously purged itself.
Despite all his days on the rungs, Froelich had never worried about falling before. Whenever he’d considered the inevitability of his death, it had been in the most abstract terms. Now he was forced to recognize the immediacy of his situation.
, he allowed,
I let my temper get the best of me. Forgive me, cloud, for being so rash—just as I will forgive you for trying to eat me. It’s not easy to fend for oneself, is it? But now we have each other, for better or worse. Let’s see if we can’t resolve this situation amicably, and to everyone’s satisfaction
Aside from his newfound (and circumstantial) compassion, something else had resulted from his tantrum: by the slightest of increments, Froelich’s cloud had sunk in the sky. This was not inconsequential. From the port bow of his vessel, on its current, westward trajectory, Froelich could see the Pacific Ocean. Would that he were traveling east, he could attempt landfall, but his cloud was pointed west. With the forest giving way to pastures and marshland, he would soon be over water, at which point there’d be no recourse. What he needed to do was to reduce the cloud’s altitude. This could be accomplished, he thought, if he sloughed off a little at a time; too much, and he’d risk compromising his safety. Poking his hand out the top, he released another tuft into the breeze.
Just a dollop,
he assured the cloud, while also attempting to pet its flank.
Just a smidge. Not so much that you’ll miss it, but enough to get home for dinner
My hero’s tale doesn’t end here, cloud—not smashed to pieces against the Oregon coast. So once more—just a dollop, just a smidge …
the end of the first day, Binx was so hungry that he ate bugs. This was only after he’d polished off the remains of Miss Sarah’s breakfast, and even after he’d gnawed on a pine cone. It wasn’t that he was opposed to eating insects; Froelich, he knew, often augmented his diet with June bugs, dragonflies, or crickets—anything he could get his hands on. It was that, for a man of Binx’s size, such modest portions only made his hunger worse. His stomach seized upon the promise of nutrients, and rightfully demanded more.
Beyond the cate
rwauls originating from his gut, his state of mind had made him overly sensitive. It was as if his body were a dreadful symphony, each singular discomfort acting in concert with the others: the crick in his neck sent pangs down his spine, to where his back felt constricted by an invisible corset. The swelling in his feet and knees pulsed in time with his headache—exacerbated, no doubt, by his appetite, but caused by the shafts of light cleaving through the trees.
Most disheartening was the mishap with the commode. In Gordy’s absence, there’d been no one to empty the pot. Even stretching as far as he could, Binx couldn’t distance it any farther away than a yard; thus, from his height, he’d had little choice but to stare down at its contents. Even if he were to shut his eyes (all the better to combat the light), the stench had been overpowering. For all these reasons, and to make himself feel less helpless, he’d attempted to nudge it with his foot and had succeeded in tipping it over. At once, the smell had worsened. The sight, if possible, had become even less palatable. With a bellow of frustration, he’d kicked dirt and nettles over the affected area—not that it had improved his situation.
When evening came and there was no one to light a fire, the forest sounded more savage than he’d ever known. Typically, Gordy slept in Lotsee’s cottage, snoring loud enough to affect Binx’s sleep. But now, trying to doze without it, Binx found that he missed the sound. In all these years, they’d never spent a night apart. As he continued to listen, rodents skittered through the underbrush, while owls conspired with one another. Off in the distance, a downed limb crashed through the tree canopy, followed by a second and a third, giving the impression of a drunken giant staggering home.
Hours before the dawn it unexpectedly rained. One moment, Binx was quasi-asleep, dreaming of goose-feather pillows; the next, he was soaked to the bone, his clothes clinging to his body and his feet bobbing in his shoes like pieces of cork. As suddenly as the storm had arrived, it had passed—every living thing, Binx included, equally stunned and affronted. His teeth began to chatter. Shortly thereafter, his entire body was ravaged by quakes, the muscles in his back clenching even tighter than before, while the stiles swayed perilously above him.
So it was, at first light of their second day apart, that Binx found himself tired, sore, and feverish. Though the rain had washed the earth, there was still a stain where the commode had tipped over. As a thick layer of fog carpeted the meadow, it suddenly occurred to Binx that Gordy might be dead. There was nothing to substantiate this idea, just a feeling of dread that came over him. If he’d been abandoned, he’d likely starve to death, or even die of chill. Without Gordy and Froelich, Binx was alone, save for this stupid ladder weighing against his back. Why was he even holding it up, if not for his uncle at the very top? He needn’t starve, not with Miss Sarah’s farm only a short distance away. He didn’t trust his thoughts to be lucid after his phantasmagoric night, but didn’t it beg the question? If Binx weren’t supporting the ladder for Froelich, then for whom was he holding it? Himself?
While still exploring the contours of this thought, he heard a noise from behind him: twigs snapping underfoot and branches being shunted aside. Binx felt a thrill of relief. It was Gordy, safely returned! But after a moment’s hope he soon realized his folly. Gordy, who always walked barefoot, wouldn’t make such a racket. What’s more, he’d never approach from Binx’s rear, where he knew he couldn’t be seen. Twisting and turning his head, despite the pain that it caused him, Binx tried to gain a better perspective, but could see no farther than the upturned commode.