Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Step 6: The Earth, Flattened

This is a serialized writing prompt, explained here: 7 Steps for the Lonely Writer.  
Today's prompt is: CONSPIRACY THEORIES.
Step Six. The Earth, Flattened.

It was on step nine thousand exactly that he joined the cat on the other side of the giants’ valley.
    He looked back. Even from behind, her statue was so lifelike he wanted to stop and call out to her. Beautiful, he muttered, more to himself than to the cat.
     I suppose, replied the cat with a hint of boredom in its voice. But you do not want to join the giants. Wasting their lives fawning over the image of a woman... They are no better off than the partiers whose bonfire we passed.
     He looked away from her statue and down to the cat, which had already padded off. He had given up trying to decipher all the enigmas this feline spoke.
     He stepped away from the valley, away from her.
     Nine thousand, one. Nine thousand, two. Nine thousand, three...
     The clouds were but a memory, chased away, perhaps, by the giants; now the sun, bright and brazen, was unforgiving. It rose to its place in the sky impossibly fast, so it was no longer in his eyes—but it was oppressing all the same.
     Nine thousand, five hundred, twenty-seven. Nine thousand, five hundred, twenty-eight.
     Time followed the sun’s swift trajectory and passed like water through a sieve. The numbers, the steps, they all blurred together and sped up and skipped around and—
     Nine thousand, five hundred, twenty-seven. Nine thousand, five hundred, twenty-eight—
     Was his mind playing tricks on him? Or had he miscounted?
     He did not care.
     The rolling hills on this side of the valley were still intact, obscuring what lay ahead, and he wondered if these also contained hibernating giants. If he placed his hand on one’s grassy surface, would he feel it breathing? Would he feel its heartbeat?
     As he followed the cat around a bend in the path, he saw something on the other side. He squinted in the harsh sunlight. A crowd of people, no larger than the group of partiers, but this one seemed subdued—and none of them looked intoxicated, thankfully. They huddled together, their heads bowed and practically knocking into each other, like they were swapping gossip and paranoid of eavesdroppers. Which he supposed he was.
     As he and the cat approached them, their whispering floated to him on the still air; it was as heated and harsh as the sun, more hisses than whispers. One of the group noticed him and pointedly shushed the group. They turned to him as one.
     The one who had spotted him, a weaselly man with ferrety eyes, looked him up and down with suspicion and said, “Where’d you come from?” and again before he could answer, “How much did you hear?”
     The entire group shared a similar slightness in build, almost malnourished, sickly, and they all wore the same strange white cloth wrapped around their bodies like gauze. He noticed blotches of red seeping through bits of the fabric; maybe they were bandages. The entire group stared at him, sniffed at him, shifty and distrustful.
     I came from the wall, he said.
     “The wall?” repeated the weaselly man with ferrety eyes. He seemed to be their spokesman. “You came from the wall?”
     Yes, he nodded.
     At this, the weaselly man must have believed him, for his eyes opened from their constant squinting, in amazement, and utter shock was writ on his face. “Then...” he sputtered, glancing conspiratorially at his companions, “then you must have seen it!”
     The wall? he asked, wondering where the cat had gone off to.
     The group snickered amongst themselves, a bit too patronizing for his taste. The weaselly man said, “No, no, not the bloody wall! You’ve seen it.” The man looked about theatrically. “The edge of the world.”
     Excuse me? said he.
     “The edge of the world, the edge of the world, the world’s edge,” the group chanted excitedly amongst themselves. The weaselly man skittered over to him and nudged him over to the rest, inviting him into their huddle; he flinched, not wanting to be touched by someone whose skin weeped from countless wounds, not caring that they were bandaged. “The edge of the world,” the man said, grinning madly, “is just beyond that wall, son.”
     He stared around in disbelief for a moment, wondering if he’d rather be accosted by the partiers than by this crowd. Then, taking in their eager yet earnest faces, his judgments fell away. Who was he to say they were wrong? All he’d seen from the opposite side of the wall was the flick of her yellow dress, and hadn’t he believed giants were a myth only hours before? Anything, he supposed, no matter how absurd, could be possible. Couldn’t it?
     He smiled kindly at the people surrounding him, and they beamed back.
     “Did you see it, son?” the weaselly man asked him.
     I’m not sure, he responded.
     This did not arrest their enthusiasm. “Tell us,” the man said—practically sang it—“tell us exactly what you saw beyond the wall.”
     Well, he began. He wondered again where the cat had gone off to, and if he should follow it, if he was wasting precious time. I saw, he said, just above the wall... I saw her go over the wall. Yes, I saw her climb the wall and I saw her dress disappear over it.
     He smiled at them, expecting excitement, but their faces fell.
     “Her?” asked the man, echoed by many of his companions: “Her?” “Her?” “Her?
     Yes, her, he said. You know, the woman whose statue—
     “You... know... her?” the man seethed, his cheeks caving in and blowing out like bellows. The man was furious, and he saw that the man’s companions were as well.
     He backed up. Yes, he said, almost defiantly. What’s wrong with—
     “She keeps the truth from the world, boy!” said the man, advancing on him. “She doesn’t want us to know what’s really out there! She is our enemy—and so are you!
     As he backed further away, he heard a distant Mew! from behind the conspirators and knew that was his cue to run.
     “Get him!” screamed the mob.
     He ran. And he counted.
     He yelled, Nine thousand, nine hundred, ninety-one! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Nine!—
     He cycled his feet in the air, desperate to make contact with the ground, to scream out: Ten thousand! But the conspirators had caught him, had lifted him by the arms, and he was pumping his legs in futility. He saw the cat sitting on its haunches just ten yards away, watching as if they were performing some avant-garde ballet. He called out, Help, cat! and for the first time realized he did not know its name, did not even know its sex.
     Mew, it replied, and that was all. He would find no help from his feline companion.
     “To the pits!” bellowed the weaselly man with ferrety eyes, and the others chanted their approval.
     The pits did not sound like a place he wanted to go.
     He fought his captors with renewed vigor, rocking his body against their grip until he swung like an awkward pendulum. He kicked out, not at the ground this time, but at the shins of the nearest conspirators. His exertions were rewarded with shouts of pain.
     Let me go! he screamed. LET ME FREE!
     He did not let up his struggling. Relentless he was, kicking and punching and swinging and screaming. His vision burst into stars when he managed to connect his head with a woman’s nose with a satisfying crunch!
     And finally he was free. He felt his left side, the side on which the woman whose nose he broke stood, slip through the conspirators’ clutches—just barely, mere inches, but it was enough. He kicked his left foot down and it slapped audibly onto the springy grass.
     No sooner had the words parted his lips than his entire world ground to a halt.

To be continued...
Step 1. Ten Thousand Steps.
Step 2. A Companion.
Step 3. A Drunken Detour.
Step 4. The Hills Have Eyes.
Step 5. Her Graven Image.
Step 6. The Earth, Flattened.
Step 7. Back to the Beginning.
Step 10,000. Colla Voce. 

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