The Dream Of Climbing

by Jens Alfke ⟿ April 17, 2017

She was a worker, that’s all. A courier. Pick it up here, carry it a long way, drop it off there. It was a dull job, but it meant she didn’t have to think much, which suited her. And everyone she knew worked the same job, so it was easy to share in-jokes and gossip and complain about the conditions.

Her people had no vehicles, no roads, no pack animals. But they knew all the trails throughout the valley and the forest, kept them clear and well-marked. They had a far-flung civilization, and their city depended on resources from the outside, so there was always food being carried in, and always a need for strong workers to haul the heavy loads.

She never looked up. She kept her eyes, her senses, on the trail ahead. Often the trail was crowded, and the view was just the person in front of her. She never looked up! Why not? Until one day something in her mind lifted her eyes, and she noticed the blue as never before. Stopped for a second, lost her rhythm, and the worker behind her collided and cursed.

She began to wonder what it was, this blue, how far away? And why did no one ever try to reach it? They didn’t even climb trees, just trudged upon the surface looking straight ahead. And she was lucky to get out at all: in the warrens of the city where many spent their lives, it was dark and the blue was hidden. What were they living for? She gathered and carried food. Others prepared it. Others built the city ever larger. More and more babies were born, to be sent to the trails or the mines. Her country began to seem like a giant machine with no purpose.

The lure of the sky consumed her. She learned to keep her step and watch the trail with her peripheral vision, while focusing on the heavens. She identified the types of clouds, and the phases of the moon. She learned to recognize birds and flying insects; not just the dangerous ones but all kinds, and for them she felt a burning envy.

She found ways to escape the city after curfew, and explored by night. There were so many trees, standing tall and straight like green spears, but she had no idea how to climb them. There was no one to teach her; no one knew. It wasn’t done! So she just reached high and grabbed, and pulled herself up. The bark was very rough and scaly, and after some practice it was easy to climb, wedging her feet into cracks and reaching upward.

She could go only so high before vertigo consumed her; then she would close her eyes and hang on, shivering, head pounding, trying to forget the terrible view down. Reopening her eyes, she would focus only upwards, gazing at the stars that seemed no closer than before. Then when she felt ready she’d lower one foot at a time, trepidatiously retracing her steps back to the ground, and run home in defeat … but still ready to go out and climb again the next night.

One day while working she could stand it no longer; her brain burned to climb, so despite being on the clock she darted off the trail when no one was in sight and headed for a tree she knew. She went to the side away from the trail to avoid being seen (but who would be looking up anyway?) and began her ascent.

It was both better and worse in the daytime. Better, because she could better see the hand- and foot-holds, and because she climbed up into the spectacular blue. Worse, because the view downwards was so much clearer. But she resolutely kept her eyes up and ahead and kept climbing.

She had no idea how high she was now. Did the air feel thinner? Her head ached and her vision felt blurry, but her climbing was now as rhythmic and automatic as her walking, and she kept going. The sky looked the same but the trunk was getting narrower…

Finally the trunk dwindled and stopped, and she could go no higher. The tree was swaying up here, in the wind and with her weight, and she clung desperately to it. She bravely opened her eyes again and even looked down — the view was incredible. She could see so far, even though other trees blocked part of the view. In the distance she saw the hill of the city, and beyond that were towering mountains no one had ever seen. Arching above it all was that eternal blue dome of the sky, so infinitely big and far away that it remained unchanged. But up here it reached down to her level, not just an arc above, and she could see distant shapes flying at her height between the trees. It was all infinitely beautiful. It was worth the climb, it was, and worth the inevitable reprisals. If only she could tell them all, convince them to come out and look up and climb! If she could change their minds and turn this regimented society inside out, away from the city and its dark tunnels, toward the air and the sky — if they could learn to build wings and fly! But oh, if only this terrible pounding in her head would stop!

Her trembling head burst open, and out of it a green tendril peeked. Her body continued to cling while the tendril grew, reached upward, and as it caught the wind tiny spores tumbled out of it and flew across the valley, raining down to the ground below, dusting it with her dreams.

(Further reading: Dicrocoelium dendriticum, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.)