“There is no shortage of air,” the voice tells me. “Still, your oxygen levels are depleting. Can you hear me? Hello? Hello!”
It starts upon waking: something about the light, maybe—its hue, its weight—beckons me to climb, and while I’ve become quite proficient at keeping my head above the hole, there’s a sort of allure that draws me down and down.
So down and down I go.
Throughout the morning I notice—like the slow recognition of a familiar melody drifting from unseen speakers in a café—my surroundings change. This happens in real-time, so it’s difficult to comprehend unless you’ve experienced it yourself.
It’s the sudden realization that something feels wrong.
Not the kind of wrong that makes you want to turn and run, or the kind of wrong that summons sweat to your forehead; but the kind of wrong that makes you grit your teeth and furrow your brow and wish you could crawl back into bed and unmake this day, unmake this feeling, if you could, unmake every word you’ve spoken in the last several weeks. Every conversation unravels and twists. Every emotion amplified. Every thought diffracted.
Squeezing. Choking. Strangling.
It makes you question. Makes you curl. You wilt from the inside out.
It is the realization that you can’t.
It is the realization that you didn’t.
It is the realization that you are.
Or that you aren’t.
Or that everyone else is…
There are a million different things I might realize in that moment, and wherever the Plinko board between my ears decides to let my train of thought fall, I’m gripping the ladder with both hands now, phoning in a smile for the concerned passersby. Yes, hello, quite good, alright, how’s the family, great, thanks, I’m fine, see you later.
The world rises gently, inaudibly, imperceptibly at first. The disorientation wears off and my waist is gone now, shadows already soaking my naval, spreading like blood from the corner of a tissue up and up, and I don’t even feel a thing, I’m fine, I promise. How are you?
It is here that acceptance happens. Or, perhaps, a kind of weak acceptance. “It’s happening again. I know it. I guess I’ll just have to___.”
And down and down I’m going, unable to stop, but knowing all the while where this ladder leads. That pallid, alien light shrinks above my head. Fading, flattened kindnesses and well-wishes echo down all around me, sliding around the jagged walls, bouncing, echolalic in affect, a cantorial refrain that resembles the sound you hear when you slowly lower a phone away from your ear while someone screams through the speaker.
And still my foot searches for the next rung, there it is, and my hands are atrophied, oily. It’s no great effort to let the brain follow the heart.
By lunchtime, I’ve made it back into the mines, and not much has changed since last I visited. Someone’s left a lamp, but no matches. There’s a book, but no light by which to read. There a pen, but no paper. There’s a heart, but no body to carry it.
The gang’s all here.
And the ladder doesn’t move. Here’s the damnedest part: the goddamn ladder just sits there, leading wherever it leads. Because for the life of me, at present I cannot fathom where it might go. My hands ache; my feet throb. Better just to rest here a bit. Best to sit down a while. Catch my breath. It’s so hard to breathe now…
There was a voice, I remember. Before. What was it saying?
No shortage of air.
That’s right, okay. That’s good to know. The air is fine.
I’ll just lay down and sleep a while. Maybe when I wake up, I’ll be…
If I climbed up now, what would the world look like?
I’m sure nothing has changed much.
I’ll just stay down here a while.
Let my eyes adjust.
[I love you.]