Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Swing at the Edge of the World

Authors note: This is the start to an unfinished short story. I am already working on many edits and additions, but I wanted to share it as it first came out of me. Please respond in the comments with what you took from the story as is, what questions you have unanswered, and any other critique or commentary. Enjoy!

Nestled on a small flat piece of land a couple kilometers long in the middle of the Andes, Baños de Agua Santa (commonly referred to as Baños) serves as the last outpost of civilization for those wishing to experience the vast mystery of the Amazon. Travelers from the far reaches of the world come to this place, and generally no further, to get a taste of the greatest deep wilderness left in the world. A tourist can find any number of rental stalls, trek guides, and trails  to show them whatever controlled piece of Ecuador’s hinterlands they desire. All of this can be followed up by a relaxing massage, a comfortable nights sleep, and a long soak in the natural thermal spas.

To the west of the mountains lies the relative comfort of civilization. Larger, more urban areas pollute, farm, mine, and begin to tame the world around them. It may not be much compared to more populous parts of the world, but cities like Quito sprawl out over the Andean foothills, coastal ports benefit from the trades of the world, and even the Galapagos draw their own fair share of touring bucket listers.

To the east though, lies South America’s heart of darkness, the Amazon. Even in its heavily logged, abused, and threatened state, the sheer magnitude of what lies unknown in the unreachable depths looms over any outsider confronted with it.

If you leave the main city of Baños, either by car or 4x4, and travel south a kilometer or two, you may find La Casa del Arbol (the Tree House) perched on a precipice overlooking a deep valley followed by the daunting peak of Tungurahua. The Throat of Fire dominates the landscape south of Baños and not just by its height. The volcano is still actively erupting, having sent plumes of ash miles in to the air semi regularly  for the past decade and causing evacuations of Baños and the other surrounding communities. The same volcanic activity that makes Baños so comfortable most of the time by providing thermal springs and rich soil threatens to destroy everything in its domain with sudden maleficence.

La Casa del Arbol is a seismic reporting station, established to monitor the deep groans of the earth. Someone along the way, likely desiring something a little more interesting than waiting for an indeterminate amount of time for something unpredictable to happen, decided to build a swing. Not just any swing though. This place called for entertainment beyond the terrestrial delight of a childhood playset. The Tree House already perched on the edge of a cliff, the only appropriate oscillation would be to tempt the fates at the cliffs edge. This swing must carry its passenger from the Bath’s edge out over the great expanse that lay between Baños and The Throat of Fire. Remember that this is not the type of place that safety is of terribly much concern, either. Two long ropes, a board to sit on, and a horizontal metal pole to swing from La Casa would suffice. Thus The Swing at the Edge of the World was born.

Its not hard to imagine why such a place would appeal to the adventure seeker that has already found their way to the edge of the Amazon. It is another way to taste the great abyss, to swing towards and over death itself without leaving the tether of safety tying the rider back to reality. Imagine then, what a surprise it was to William’s friends, when, as the swing finished decelerating at the height of its journey, William did not do the same.

It’s not entirely clear what happened. Whether a unnaturally focused gust of wind got a hold of him or the tree cast him off in some supernatural anthropomorphic fit, all that mattered now was that he was aloft. He continued to rise for far too long, even the impossibly steep slope immediately below the swing was soon behind him as he sailed up toward to the Throat of Fire. It even appeared that he might eventually summit the mountain, should he continue at this vector.

The first moments of his flight were both forceful and serene. He felt as though he were sprawled out on a wall of feather pillows being pushed by a rocket ship higher and further out into the vale. His thoughts were not coherent, but tremendous elation and freedom coursed through his veins. This was the physical equivalent of a child understanding their own sentience for the first time. A new sense of self overwhelmed him and his delight carried him. Anything was possible as he was the master of his own flight. He understood freedom for the first time as he no longer required even the Earth’s permission to do as he pleased. He could do anything he wished.

That realization of control forced William to consider who he was leaving behind. He turned his head and saw his friends struck with fear and wonder. His mind leapt to his poor mother who birthed him only to lose him into the wilds, he thought of the comfort of ignorance that he could never regain. As he lingered in that moment, the air around him turned hot. It was as if the Throat of Fire itself was inhaling and he was caught in the draft. The sulfuric currents began slithering around his limbs like a hand of serpents pulling him still upward.

Upward? Perhaps it seemed that way at first. William was still moving forward and an inexplicable pace but his upward trajectory had ceased where the warmth of the pillowed rocket had given way to the grasp of the ashen heat. His longing for ignorant comfort soon turned to a fight for self preservation. He kicked and squirmed, fought and grasped, flailing along his destined arc that terminated at the base of the mountain.

Soon he felt he could tame the tongues of fiery heat that had ensnared him. He began to feel the currents move in response to him as he plummeted. A jealous spark gleamed in his eye as he pushed the air around him, giving a new found delight and a hatred for all that had left him behind. How dare his friends tell him about that dreadful swing. How dare his mother have let him go on this trip. They’ll suffer now for their inconsiderate allowance. His demise will teach them to tempt him with the freedom of will he’d so recently come to embrace. The hard earth grew before his eyes and he longed to smash against it. For some reason his mind went back to his first moments on the swing.

He then remembered the shadow of a voice that had crept into his mind as he had started to bend his knees, lean this way and that to build up his initial momentum on the swing. There was a question posed by that shadow. The shadows voice had a raspy finish, perhaps it had choked on the ash of Tungurahua. What was that question? What had he responded to? The voice had started with something about the tree, but William was struggling to remember. Why was there no harness! That’s what it had asked. William didn’t know couldn’t answer, but the voice seemed to know. The ignorant would hold on and no harness was needed. They would never know the freedom and adventure of risk. Only the ignorant keep holding on. They are enslaved by their fear. To swing over the Edge of the World and return wasn’t to taste freedom, but to defy it.

...Let go…

...Taste and you shall know what has been hidden from mortal man…

As the clouded memory of that encounter returned, William realized that the freedom to choose was not the inherent power to control. Try as he might, all of his flailing, all of his sisyphean effort was in vain. The cold earth continued to draw still nearer. He knew a new freedom, it was true, but he also saw his own, unenviable fate. He relished those last moments, free at last to embrace the unceasing pull of gravity, free from the great anxiety that is survival.

As is so often the case, his last thoughts as the inevitable approached reverted to his family. He was taken back to a long forgotten memory in his room. His childish, demanding voice had begged his mother “Can I, please?”. She had wisely responded “You may”.

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