What I thought was a blanket of mist turned out to be smoke. Two days climb down the Edge — the smoke stung my eyes and filled my nose with the reek of sweet rot. 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 the fibrous shell of my pod a fraction when the first beads of sun filtered through the cracks. I felt cold air on my lips and breathed deep through my mouth. My forearms ached and sharp pins stabbed my feet. I readjusted, felt blood run back through my legs and stuck my head out into the air.
The smoke sat heavy as an ocean, stretched out to the red sunrise on the horizon. Above me dust bowled over the cliff, whipped and drifted down. I craned my head back 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 to face the cliff. I cracked the shell open further, braced my feet on cracks in the rock, hands holding the cord hanging beside my pod. I breathed deep, let go of the rope and grabbed ruts in the wall. My heart pounded in the brief second of free-fall.
I looked up, dust drifted down. The pod scraped against sharp stone. Dust fell around me and I closed my eyes, holding my breath. I still needed to hook the rope onto my belt, my safety net while I sealed the pod. My lungs burned. I breathed in.
Dust caught in my throat. I tried to stifle a cough and fumbled for the cord to attach to my belt. I cursed myself and 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. My body swung out, my left foot lost the rock.
I hung by the tips of my fingers and 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. Something cracked beneath me. I spluttered 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 didn’t move.
Air wheezed through my lungs. It felt like the ground was shaking, 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 were numb so I used my elbows to drag my back up against the cliff. The thin shelf I’d fallen on, like a sharp fingernail sticking out from the wall, shifted slightly as I moved. Splinters of rock shot upwards.
The sun glowed red as it rose above the smoke, but the rays couldn’t seem to reach me. I was freezing. My right hand 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 was on the edge of hearing, high-pitched and frantic but distant.
‘Who’s there? Where are you?’ I shouted, but my words dropped.
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. The voice was coming from below. I leaned my head over the ledge.
I smelt eggs and gravel, saw a shape in the shadow of the shelf. 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 scrap of 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 from its open shell. The air was still. The cord hung to my left. 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’m alive,’ I said.
‘But you are hurt.’
I shuffled closer to the edge. My legs shook. I readjusted, leaned my torso over.
More slapping below.
‘I can help…’
I reached for the cord, put blood spots on it with my fingertips.
I withdrew, 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 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 shale rained down. The sun had risen higher; the light was grey and glaring. The air was still cold.
I sat in silence. Looked around, tried to see a bird or tree branch. Anything alive. The smell of the smoke was worse. I looked down into it, tried to find a gap, see through to below.
‘You are alive, alive.’
‘Yes, I’m still here.’ My voice rasped. There was slapping below, retreating.
‘You are coming down, down?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’
I heaved, on the edge of vomiting. I breathed through my mouth.
The blood on my hand had crusted over, dust in the wound. I crawled onto my knees. Walked on them to the edge, trying not to make a sound. My kneecaps crunched against the stone.
I reached for the cord again, couldn’t get my fingers around it. I saw a spur of rock just out from the edge. I breathed slow, my heart started pounding again. 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 breaking.
I leaned 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, 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 hung half out of the pod.
Thin tendrils of pressure inched across my ankle. I looked down, saw long, pale fingers slipping around the top of my boot. A thin wrist extended from 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, pulled taught while gripping hard on the rope. I saw the bandages fall beside me. Ledge pulled violently and I swung 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 hands dragged raw down the cord. I tried to kick, not sure if my legs were working. Ledge’s grip loosened.
I reefed my lower half out, Ledge’s long and emaciated arm came out with me. 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 hand started to slip, I found a foothold and leapt.
Jagged stone bit into my armpits. I pulled with both of my arms, scraping my tunic to shreds. I threw myself back onto the shelf. It shifted slightly. 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 in sepia. The wind blew dust off them. Rows of logs around the fire, wet stains on stones circling it. Children and their parents sat on the logs. Hunched over silhouettes. They dripped, no skin on them. Sacks of meat. They ate and ate.
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 eyes open. The sky was darkening. The sun sat halfway across the edge of the cliff. The smoke glowed red from below out to the horizon, billowed and rumbled.
‘You are alive, alive.’ Three slow slaps from below.
I coughed, then retched.
‘Yes, I’m still holding on.’ I spat onto the rock. ‘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 am sure you can.’ Tried to move 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. 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. Ledge’s voice grew louder with every word, stabbing my eardrums.
‘All that’s left of me
Ledge flipped up onto the stone. A second pair of hands slapped down. It flipped over again and again. I saw a flash of a mouth splitting its middle, 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, crunching my ankle. 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, 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 myself further up the rope. The cord dragged on skinless flesh but all I could feel was wet. I pulled myself up, the pod was far above.
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 raining 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 were swollen and my breeches were soaked red. I got my hands onto the top of the pod, pulled myself up.
The rope 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, trying to drop it on Ledge. 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 from above. 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 flesh on its breath, a taste I never could get out of 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 thick liquid. I hung by its rags.
I heard only my heartbeat and the howl of the wind. I looked down, the smoke billowed very close, red lights flashed beneath. 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.
Samuel Maguire is a Brisbane author and professional bipolar-haver. His debut novel No Point in Stopping was published in 2018, and he has had work published in Stilts Journal, Scum magazine and currently works as an editor for Tiny Owl Publishing. You can find more of his fiction, poetry and brain-wrongs at his blog skydekkerix.com.