Volume 13, Issue 6: Pictura
Between Moon and River
The hill rolled slowly up toward the sky and swiftly down to the cliff. Where I stood, I could look up between the trees to where the green crest of the hill joined the heavens. The bold afternoon moon hung upon the horizon. I could look down to where the hill pitched off into a canyon, and across to the swell of green that rose on the other side. I could smell life.
The grass, the sky, the leaves of trees riding in and out of sunlight on the back of a warm wind, flashing. All things were blue and green. All things were warm and alive. All but the stark face of the moon and the crisp distant smell of deep water.
I began to wander down the hill. Past trees and rocks my feet went, sinking into the turf. There were clouds in the sky. They moved and swirled and made the sky, in a way, more real than any sky I had ever seen.
I did not like the moon. It sat on my shoulders, looming. At times it would be on my left, and then I would turn to wind down the hill, and it would sit on my right. Perhaps it was its barren face. Perhaps it was its inappropriateness. I did not like the moon. I would not face it. It did not merit my worship, not at midday. Toward the smell of deep water, toward the canyon, I walked. The moon, my burden, came behind me on my back.
I walked down the green slope, and felt my body. It clattered around me. My leg reached out and with a crash the earth would pull me down. Then I would feel. Each time I stepped off the slope into the air and each time I fell to the ground one step away, somehow managing to catch myself with my feet. Every step rattled my body. Every step began wonderfully and ended in mortality. And so I made my way down, every step a fall, discovering that I, like the rest of the world, was made of something.
I fell closer and closer to the canyon's edge but still it was distant. Despite the many times I fell from the sky and landed on a foot, despite the many small distances that I traveled through these falls, I seemed no closer to my goal. And then, with my body clattering and the moon bouncing on its back, I knew impatience. With my impatience came innovation. If only I could fall longer each time. And so I strode. As I stretched my leg further away from the slope, I found that I was pulled down a greater distance. I stretched my legs toward the sky and traveled down. But my impatience grew. My body desired to know. It desired to know the way down to the canyon, the swiftest way. It desired to know what might lie beyond its lip.
And then I leapt. I had stretched and fallen, stretched and fallen. Now I stretched my leg off the slope, into the sky, and pushed. I pushed with my remaining leg; I pushed with my body. I pushed with all of my soul inside. I pushed everything into the sky, knowing the earth would pull me back, because I was made of something. The earth would pull me back, and down, and I would get somewhere. Closer to the canyon, I would fall, and then I would know.
I did. I felt my body. I felt it with the earth. I felt it with the rocks and trees and wind. I felt it fall, tumbling. The lushness that I had felt was now feeling me. And then I felt air. Wind and smells surrounded me. And again, earth pulled. Down I fell into the sky, bouncing off the earth. Then I did not bounceI fell free.
The earth would not release me for long. Opening my eyes where I had landed, I saw the moon above, no longer set in a sky where it did not belong. The ceiling was dark now and narrow. I was in the canyon.
The moon stared down at me with its cold, heavy light. It weighed on my eyes as I stared back. I could not meet the sky's one eye for long, and I sat up quickly. I had been lying on long grass beside a narrow path. The grass had chosen thick, moist earth for its home, but the path beside it looked hard and packed. It was bare of any growing
thing and scattered with stones. I lay between the path and the canyon wall. Bordering the other side was space, air, and a drop deeper into the earth's body. I slowly found my feet and, with them, found the path.
When I first looked down from my ledge into the very bottom of the canyon, I could not see. The moonlight seemed to stop with me and shine no farther. I could not see, but I could smell. A cold, sharp, lifeless scent climbed up to me, and I tried not to know it. I tried to pretend that I could not smell anymore than I could see. The cold drove me away from the cliff. I found my long grass, and I slept, hoping that the moon would leave.
When I woke, it was because of the heat. The sun was back in its sky, its force rattling between the canyon walls and down onto my face. I had slept long in the shade of the canyon, but the sun had found me, though the moon had not left me. It sat, once again, on the horizon. Outshone, outweighed, it refused to leave the day to the sun's rule. It lingered in the brightness, waiting for the sun to spend itself.
The moon was before me, but I turned away and left it on my back. With the canyon wall high on my left, and its true depth on my right I stepped onto the path and joined the sun in looking down into earth's belly. The canyon faded far below, far enough to seem bottomless. But it was not. The bottom was there.
Small, but clear, a black river ran. I could feel the air on my face moving with it. Again, I could smell the cold. Even while the sun blazed, a cold moon rode behind, and the river ran beneath. It ran through rocks and pools enormous, small from where I looked. It slid over falls like oil, and heaped itself against the cliffs. An artery, but not of life. Despite its perpetual crawling, it could only be decay. A twisting cord strangling its victim.
I looked from river to moon. I had not liked the moon, but now I hated it. It was as if the moon had wrapped the river tight and lingered on to watch the death. I left the edge but I could not go far, not from the moon or its river.
When I heard the footsteps, I had not been sitting long and was glad for the distraction. They began a long way off, and for the first time I wondered at the length of the canyon. Its magnitude claimed the infinite. It had no beginning. But it lied. It could only be as long as the throat it throttled. I gloated in that, until the footsteps
A man came running, and I watched. His head looked to his feet and then up and across the canyon. He ran on, coming toward me, with eyes on the other side, then his foot slipped and they found his feet again. He was a tall man, slender and hollow, and his skin shown with sweat under the sun. He ran with an easy motion, but the path was rough. If his eyes had been free to watch his way, he would have run very quickly, but they were forever wandering to the other side. I thought he might be wanting to cross, but he could not do it by looking. He came on toward me, growing larger as he came, and I prepared myself for speech. But I did not have any with him. While
he came on I followed his eyes to the other side, and found surprise. There were women.
There was a line of women and another path, and all were going the other way. Two of them were beckoning to the runner. And for the first time I heard voices. I could not tell what words they used, but the sound was sweet. Their heads were back and they had shaken out their long hair. Behind them passed other women. Women with small, distant, sad faces, and women with laughter in their limbs. Women of grief and joy, all moving. The two that beckoned the runner were almost stopped, slowly stepping, always facing us, and calling.
I did not know what they desired, or what they wanted the runner to do. I looked back to him. He was nearly to me when he jumped. The women both stepped toward the edge and called, gathered themselves up as if to jump for him, and didn't. Instead he threw himself out into the air, and gave himself to the earth's pull.
I ran to the edge and watched him fall. His limbs were quickly small, and grew smaller as he flew. Death awaited him in any landing. Water and rock alike awaited his body. His swift flight ended in the shallows of a distant rapid. I stood and stared. I had never seen death. I was not moved, and that frightened me. I was not even angry when I looked up to see the two women laughing, still looking down to where their victim had plunged, and slowly moving on.
I would have stood long on the ledge, staring down at death, if I had not heard more footsteps and the voice of a man crying out. I turned, and from where I stood, looked down the canyon and saw many small figures moving along the path and toward me. They were not close together, but distance made them so. Over their backs loomed the moon; its pale umbrella, fending off the blue of sky, hung above their march and approved. I did not understand the moon's approval, nor the running of the men. But one came closer, yelling, and I again watched.
He did not once look down to his feet and never stumbled. His chest was broad, but his legs were short beneath it. As he ran he kept his face toward the women. He did not seem to be looking or speaking to one in particular, but he smiled and laughed for them all. He shouted poems about their beauty, and sang snatches of love songs to any who would listen. And for a while, no one woman would. He received glances only, and the women ran on.
But there came a girl, young, and not beautiful, who looked on him. She was running slowly and stumbling on the path when she saw him. When she looked, he called loudly to her. He asked her to be his sun, that he could be her moon. He contorted his face in false agony and blamed her love. His mouth never stopped its calling, and his body its posturing. All the while she slowed and watched him. Soon she was calling back. Her voice was sad in its small passion, professing largeness. It was hard to make out, but it found my ears. She told him of how long she had waited, and how she had never loved. She spoke of how his love filled her and wept that they could not touch.
He and she kept calling on until both had sworn to jump. They cried that they would fall, but in each other's arms. And so they turned to throw themselves out over the cold running death beneath.
And she did.
He had moved to jump and when she had, he stopped. She stretched her arms out to him as she fell, but he would not go to her. His face sat blank upon his shoulders; he could not make it weep or laugh. She fell while screaming out her love, and he stood empty, watching death. When she had gone, he finally turned, and ran on, no longer calling to the other cliff, no longer turning his head from the watching of his feet.
I heard him tell himself that he had slipped, as he found his way past me. He muttered on and I watched his back as he traced his way along the path. But before he was no longer in my sight, I saw his foot slip and he did not catch himself. He did not seem to try. His body tumbled beyond the lip that formed the path's edge, and I knew
he would not reach the water. He found death on rocks, and it grieved me that I was glad. I turned again to see another coming and wished he would not bring the moon.
All day, if it can be called a day, I watched running people leap and fly into the earth's thick skin. All day I heard the faint calling of women and the loud calling of men and still I did not know why they ran. I watched men leap for women, baited to their deaths. I saw five at once jump for a girl who would not even turn her head to hear their calls. I finally saw a man and woman jump and fall, but find each other in the air. But when they did, they could not forget their falling. They clawed and pushed each other down, to ride the flight to death on top, and in the end, before the end, they pushed themselves apart and made the trip alone. Each still angry with the other until the river caught them both. They shared in that embrace.
At times the cliff was only run by men alone, at others a crowd all ran tripping on heels, rocks and feet. I saw men thrown off by their friends, and two men fall in fighting. I found a rock, and sat and watched. I watched the running and the lying, the fighting and the foolishness. I watched men and women die.
I grew more angry as I watched, and I always blamed the moon. It sat as well, and watched the same race. Men ran with death behind them, but they only ran until they met river.
Three men came, and all three jumped. Two found women in the air, the other flew alone. But he grabbed and caught at another falling pair until they fell in three. The two men fought while they flew, and the woman fell away. She called to the first that she had grabbed, but he fought on. They reached a falling, bending river, all three alone, with nothing in their hands. All three were wronged, and all three died.
I finally saw two men running by themselves. The man in front was always calling to the other side. But the second runner was silent in his race. His head was down to guide carefully quick feet. The first caused many across the river to look, for he was strong and his words were as smooth as the thick water he was yet to drink.
The smoothness of his voice did not fail in its song. A girl, younger than most runners of the other side, soon found herself addressed and liked the sound. She was not long in jumping, and I knew well before what was to come. Her professing lover laughed loudly at her fall, and began calling to the other side. But something happened that I had not yet seen. The second runner, careful as he had seemed to be, looked up, and when he saw her left to fall alone, he jumped, not out, but down. He chased her fall, and chased it well. Those two met the river's arms wrapped in each other.
It was then that I began to wonder at this game. This race had seemed so much despair, so much death and so much moon, and yet that man was one I loved for what he'd done. I hated others, but he alone had left me wishing for his strength and his resolve, but without his death.
I sat and thought for long, while runners wound their way past. Toward the moon on one side, and away on the other. More runners ran, but I did not see them jump. They ran and watched and waited for their time.
Only one more jumped where I could see. He had come with head held high, and a woman in his eyes, he called to her and called in truth. He swore that he would jump and asked that she would follow. When he did, she did. They grasped each the other and both looked down and laughed. I did not know their laughter. They flew to death, but did so laughing, and it seemed they fell the longest. I watched them all the way, to where they met a deep, dark pool. And in that tiny splash, I knew they were laughing at the river. Their running had ended, and their falling was fast, but still they had not been afraid.
Again I sat as runners passed, but my eyes were on the moon. It wound the river tight around the throats of men. It sat, pale death, above its dark brother and all men ran between. But they had laughed. I stood and stared at that cold eye and, for the last time, put it on my back. I once more began my falling, from foot to foot, falling towards another fall. A fall had brought me into this crack, and a second fall waited for me.
I ran to it, laughing.