What I thought was mist I figured out to be smoke about two days down. It reeked of sweet and rot and sat heavy, like a calm ocean. I dusted the inside of my pod with chalk to drown out the smell as I slept, hanging by a strong cord lashed around the pick that I lodged in the dry shale of the cliff. My throat hurt in the morning but it was better than bringing up the previous day’s marching bread.
I split my pod a fraction when the first beads of sun filtered through the cracks in its shell. Felt cold air on my lips and breathed deep through my mouth. My forearms ached to split and sharp pins stabbed my feet. I readjusted, felt blood run back through my legs and stuck my head out into the air.
There was no wind; it had stopped a short distance after going over the edge. The smoke was almost flat and stretched out to the grey-blue horizon. Above me dust bowled over the edge, whipped and drifted down. I turned in the pod and craned my head back, remembered each grip and plotted the way back up. I didn’t look down.
“Up.” I said. The word was muffled and stopped short. I wasn’t sure if I said it.
I rubbed blur from my eyes and swung the pod around. I cracked the shell open further, got my left foot on a solid jut, right foot braced inside a vertical crack, hands holding the cord lashed to my pod. I swung left and got my left hand on. I eased the pod back out of my way, still gripping the knot.
I looked up, dust drifted down. I held my breath and let go of the pod. The pod scraped back across the shale, it sounded far away. I saw the seal open on the pod, the supplies hanging loose inside. I swore and the word dropped. I breathed in.
Dust caught in my throat. I tried to stifle a cough and reached for the cord that I was supposed to attach to my belt. Cursed myself, coughed, my legs shook. I grasped the cliff with my right hand and caught a loose piece of shale under my fingernails. My right foot slipped and my fingernails tore. The right side of my body swung out, my left foot lost an inch of the ledge and then slipped.
I hung by the tips of my fingers for a second, saw the pick lodged above with wide eyes. I reached and dropped.
I saw sky then smoke, my eyes squeezed shut. Gravity pulled my stomach in a circle. My back hit hard rock and I spat upwards. I felt something crack beneath me. I coughed in dust and rolled onto my side, drooling out the side of my mouth. I curled up. Dust drifted onto my face. My hand was wet and the tips of my fingers were numb. Cold bit into my legs. I tried not to move.
Air wheezed in and out of my lungs. I thought the ground was shaking; it was blood pumping through my temples, my heart beating the ground. I opened my eyes, saw the jagged ledge dropping off a few feet in front of me, rolled onto my back and saw my pod hanging desperately a short way up the cliff.
My hands still felt numb so I used my elbows to drag my back up against the side of the cliff. The ledge shifted slightly as I moved, splinters of rock shot upwards. I tried to be careful.
The sun cast a red morning glow as it rose higher above the smoke, but the rays couldn’t seem to reach me. I was freezing. I looked at my right hand, it was a red mess. I strained my neck and looked up at the pod again, banged my head against the wall, groaned and closed my eyes.
I heard a voice.
“You are not moving, moving.”
The echo drifted around, darted in and out of my ears.
“You are alive, alive.”
I opened my eyes, saw nothing but sky and smoke. The voice still seemed on the edge of hearing, high pitched and frantic but distant.
“Who’s there?” I said, “Where are you?” I spoke loudly but my words dropped.
There was silence. Dust drifted down from above.
“I am Ledge, Ledge.”
I frowned, stuck my finger in my ear, yawned to try and pop them.
“I’m hearing things.” I said.
“You are hearing, hearing.”
I cocked my head, frowned. Tried to figure out where the voice came from. It sounded lower down. I leaned my head over the ledge.
I smelled eggs and gravel, saw a shape in the shadow of the ledge. It spun, slapping on the rock. I snapped my head back.
“You are climbing down, down.” Ledge said.
I leaned back against the wall, wiped blood on my breeches.
“Not anymore.” I said.
I heard slapping below, a crack.
“Why stop now, now?”
“There is so much further you can go.”
I wiped more blood on my tunic, tried to tear off a bit off cloth to wrap my hand. My fingers slipped and bled more.
There were bandages in the pod, I could see a stream of beige cotton hanging down. There was still no wind. The cord hung below the pod, I tried to gauge the distance, my vision blurred. I rubbed my eyes and got blood on my face.
“You are alive, alive.”
“Yes I am alive.” I said, I felt angry but my voice sounded small.
“But you are hurt.”
I shuffled closer to the edge. My legs started shaking, I readjusted, leaned my torso over.
There was more slapping below.
“I can help…”
I reached out for the cord, put blood spots on it with the tips of my fingers.
I pushed myself back, the cord swayed slightly. I closed my eyes. Exhaled.
I was back in the forest, brown leaves and grass. The undergrowth crumbled as I walked. Red flickered between the tree trunks. My stomach hurt, growled. I pulled up my tunic, saw teeth splitting the bottom of my gut. Saw the campfire.
The ground tilted, swung down like a trapdoor. I skidded through the crackling grass, leaving streaks. I grabbed for branches as I fell. They snapped, already dust and splinters. My hands were bleeding.
I jolted forward on the rock. There was a crack below and splinters of rock rained down. The sun had risen higher; the light was grey and glaring. The air was still cold.
I sat in silence for a moment. Looked around, tried to see a bird or tree branch. Anything alive. The smell of the smoke seemed worse, I looked down into it. I tried to find a gap, see through to below, gave up.
“You are alive, alive.”
“Yes I am still here.” My voice rasped. There was slapping below, retreating.
“You are coming down, down?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t know.”
I felt faint and emotional. On the edge of vomiting. I breathed through my mouth.
The blood on my right hand had crusted over, dust in the wound. I pushed down with my left and got onto my knees. Walked on them to the edge, trying not to make a sound. My kneecaps crunched against the stone.
I reached out for the cord again, pushed it slightly but couldn’t get my fingers around it. I saw a point of rock just out from the edge. I breathed slow through my mouth, felt my heart start pounding again, tried not to look down. I got my left leg over the edge, facing out from the cliff, fumbled around until it was on the rock. A pebble dropped.
“You are moving, moving.” Slapping from below.
“I don’t think I’m going anywhere in a hurry.” I said, my voice squeaked and the words dropped.
I breathed slow again, leaned my back against the cliff and reached out. I got my fingers around the cord. It felt like the whole cliff swayed with me. I looked up at the pod, to the bandages hanging dead below it.
I swung the cord a little, heard the scrape of the pod’s shell. The bandages shifted, rolled forward slightly. Cold sweat beaded on my face. I jostled the cord again, the roll half hung out of the pod.
I felt pressure inch across my ankle, like tiny worms. I looked down, saw very long, pale fingers slipping around the top of my boot. A thin wrist extending back under the stone, knotted with wiry muscle, only one bone in the forearm. My breath caught in my throat.
Ledge pulled with incredible force, my right thigh twisted and my breeches tore on the stone, I came off the ledge completely. I gripped hard on the rope, saw the bandages fall beside me. Ledge pulled and I swung violently, my legs went under the shadow. A cloud of flies burst out from under me.
Ledge slapped around and pulled again. Both my legs went numb and needles shot up my spine. My left hand dragged raw down the cord. I tried to kick, not sure if my legs were working. Ledge’s grip loosened and I swung back out of the shadow.
I reefed my lower half out, Ledge’s arm came out with me, it seemed way too long. Its pale skin hit the sunlight, went red and bubbled with blisters. The arm shot back under the shadow and I heard violent slapping. I pulled up with my arms, scrabbled my legs against the cliff. My left hand started to slip, I found a foothold and leapt.
The jagged stone of the ledge stuck sharp into my armpits. I pulled with both of my arms, scraped my tunic to shreds. I threw myself back onto the ledge. It shifted slightly. I couldn’t hear anything and the sun glared in my eyes, nearing the cliff-half of the sky. I breathed. My right hand was soaked.
I tried not to pass out.
The campfire glowed crimson, the trees around were sepia. The wind blew dust off them. Rows and rows of logs lined around the fire, wet ash around the stones containing it. Children and their parents sat on the logs. Hunched over silhouettes. They dripped; no skin on them. Sacks of meat. They ate and laughed.
I tried to remember the last time I wasn’t hungry.
I was woken by the wind. A breeze whistled up the cliff, then howled as it buffeted me. I peeled my eyelids apart like they were glued shut. The sky was darkening. The sun sat halfway across the edge of the cliff. The smoke glowed red out to the horizon, billowed and rumbled. I couldn’t smell anything.
“You are alive, alive.” Three slows slaps from below.
I coughed, then wretched.
“Yes I am still holding on.” I spat, “I feel great.” I could barely hear myself against the wind.
“You are coming down, down.”
I tried to lean my neck back but it felt locked in place. I closed my eyes. Felt tears stinging.
“No I am going up.”
“I can help, help.”
The voice circled me with the wind, far away then very close. I gasped, breathed.
“I am sure you can.” Tried to moved my head again, rested on the cliff.
I thought about how far down I was. My hand throbbed. I gasped.
“Things are not good up there.” I said.
“Things have gone wrong.”
“I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t hungry.”
I felt my face contort. I tried to keep my voice calm.
“I don’t want to go back.”
“The thing about Hell is,”
“Once you’ve been there, it is always behind you.”
“A thin ledge,”
“Just waiting for you to step backwards,
The sun slipped behind the cliff, the red light faded to blue.
“You are coming down,
I wiped my forearm across my eyes. Lifted myself to my knees.
“Yes I am coming down.”
I heard slow slaps from below, they reached the edge furthest out from the cliff.
“I have been down before,
“There are things
You have not seen.”
“I cannot see.”
I saw thin white fingers inch over the edge like worms.
“All that’s left of me
Ledge flipped up onto the stone. Another pair of hands slapped down. It flipped over again and again. I saw a flash of a mouth splitting its body, chunky white teeth spotted with brown. I heard yelling from far away, it circled around with the wind, grew high pitched.
I tried to swing my right arm, Ledge’s fingers wrapped around my wrist, another hand circled my throat. Ledge pushed me up against the cliff, its mouth snapped at my stomach. Splinters of teeth stung my skin.
I kicked into Ledge’s middle and its mouth clamped on my boot, crunched my foot. I stamped down with my other foot. Ledge let go of me, scrabbled backwards and around like a dying spider, slapping on the stone. I pulled myself to my feet, drool strung out the side of my mouth and into the wind. I leapt for the rope.
I caught it with my left hand, swung out and then dragged back against the cliff. Heard the slapping stop and then start again. I hung below the ledge, smelt eggs and gravel and heard the buzz of swarming flies. I swung my right hand up further on the rope. The rope dragged on bare flesh but all I could feel was wet. I pulled upwards, the pod was very far away.
My vision faded out for a moment. Sepia and blood. I came back. Almost there.
The rope went taught and pulled away from the cliff. I leapt and caught the bottom of the pod, my belongings rained onto my head.
I looked down. Ledge was tugging on the rope, the pod swung back and forth. I pulled myself up, got my legs in the pod. They seemed swollen and my breeches were soaked red. I got my hands onto the top part of the rope, pulled myself up.
The rope stopped tugging and dropped slack. Ledge slapped its hands onto the cliff, flipped over itself up the wall.
I held onto the pick with both hands and stamped down on the pod. The top cracked. The slapping got closer. The pod blocked my vision. I stamped again and it broke loose, fell down and grew small. I couldn’t see Ledge.
I looked up, saw the top of the cliff two days up. Saw fingers like worms wrapped around a jut. Ledge flipped over, hands slapped the stone, wrapped my ankles and pulled. Scabbed over eyes and tufts of human hair filled my vision, then teeth as its middle split. I tasted people meat on its breath, a taste I never could get out my mouth. I wrenched the pick out of the cliff and rammed it into Ledge’s middle. Ledge flailed and we fell.
My vision tumbled over. I saw the blue horizon, the smoke billowing red below. We slammed down onto stone. I landed on Ledge.
The stone cracked beneath us and gave way. Gravity pulled my stomach down and then up. Ledge caught on a break in the cliff, my arm wrenched but I still held the pick. Ledge tore and showered me in milk and rotten eggs. I hung by his rags.
I heard only my heartbeat and the howl of the wind. I looked down, the smoke billowed very close, red lights flashed. Ledge’s rags inched downwards. I looked up, saw stars and the cliff. Dust billowed over the edge. I spoke and my voice dropped.
I wasn’t sure if I said it.