Bourbon Penn 5

The Rustic Ladder

by Daniel Ausema

Sometimes, I still dream of the old ladder from the manor, dream splinters into my hands, and I wake up with a smear of blood on the blankets where I'd clenched them. The smell of that room — of that ladder — dissipates slowly as I push myself out of the dream, away from my earliest memories of the manor. A smell of leather knick-knacks and wooden carvings. A smell of disuse and abandonment, but not dust, never dust. A smell of citrus from the cleaning bucket my mother used.

The ladder was decoration, prized for its rustic charm, I suppose. Pure kitsch, though it seemed enigmatic to me at the time, a mysterious part of that upper-class world we only ever glimpsed. Rough wood and bits of twine binding rungs to uprights, it leaned against a wall in the downstairs sitting room, where the upper tips of the ladder had worn a shallow groove into the wall they leaned against. The owners seldom used that room, but my mother kept it spotlessly clean, just as she did everything else. It stood between the books of distant places. I couldn't read then, but I saw pictures of towering church spires, obviously old but somehow not so weathered with age as the old colonial buildings I knew. These fit the image I had of a place called Europe. There were others of airplanes, of the assembly lines of factories, of engines filled with dizzying gears.

I didn't go every day to the manor with her. I can vaguely recall spending days with my aunts and cousins, by the river or playing in the dirt yard beside our cluster of homes. There were lizards in the trees, that much I remember. I must have been with them most days, but they've only left a slight impression on me. Much more striking is the impression of those days when, for whatever reason, my mother had to take me with her.

I would help. Even children could be expected to clean, to work, when they grew up in our neighborhood. Rich children had the luxury of learning to work later in life — if ever — but we were working as soon as we could wrap our fingers around a broom, as soon as we could grasp a rag and control how we moved it over a surface.

But then when I'd done what I could to help, while we waited for sheets to dry outside or the slippery water on the floors to evaporate, I could go down to that silent sitting room and stare at the ladder.

I imagined what world it would take me to, if I only dared climb it.

• • •

In the year that the flying people came to our town, I seemed to go to the manor more often, sometimes with a younger cousin in tow. Why was that? What could the flying people have to do with that? I wonder if one of my aunts had an affair with one of them. I'd like to believe that, but maybe it was something far more prosaic, that some of them hired her to clean or cook for them, and my cousin would have been in the way there.

They'd come out of the sky one day, their skin as dark and rich as the wood of the area's prized rosewood trees, a rare local variety whose wood was valued in cities far away, places of legend and myth to me. Their feathered wings gleamed silvery in the sunlight. They'd come to the town before, my mother said as she continued with her work, but I stared. Were they Americans? Russians? Each was as mythical to me as these flyers. But they didn't speak to me, and I found myself at the manor more frequently.

I must have shown my cousin the ladder. She was smaller, and I remember her stepping onto the first rung. I wanted to scream at her to get off. It was my imaginary country that the ladder led to, my adventures that awaited on the other side. What if she climbed it and disappeared from sight, leaving me behind? What if the ladder disappeared with her? I think even more frightening was the possibility that she might climb to the top and not disappear, not see any strange land and shadowy doorway.

My mother saved me from my fear that time, swooping in, plucking my cousin from the ladder, and scolding me for letting her touch the fragile decorations.

We got back to work, finishing what was expected of us with no extra time for idling before my mother finished her work. And we returned to our homes, passing from shiny floors and perfectly watered plants, beneath the flitting shadows of the flying people, beyond manicured yards and the neighboring houses that stood off the short stretch of cobbled road, past the tracks for a train that had never come to our town, to our cluster of huts and dusty yards.

• • •

What land did I imagine there, beyond the ladder? It changed as I grew older. In later years, it was filled with beautiful people wearing little clothing and with food that no one had to work for. It was what a boy my age was expected to dream about. But earlier, my imagination was not quite so prescribed by the people around me.

I dreamed of waterfalls, not the little ones that cut into the swamp around us, but glorious falls of colored water pouring into a bed of jewels. Animals jumped from that water: fish with crayfish claws; animals like those I'd later discover were otters, though I'd never heard of them at the time, that spoke in perfect couplets; wildcats with unicorn horns and the tail end of a piranha.

I imagined food even then, food that I didn't have to work for — how could anyone from my background imagine anything less? — but in those dreams, the food was strange and wonderful itself, not only in its being free. Tables were spread in the middle of the forest, and fruits from distant lands grew straight from the plates. Soups simmered in their bowls, materializing as I watched, filled with nuts and roots and heady cheeses. All the foods we never prepared in our house but knew of from neighbors who had attended a fancy dinner once. I ate dark beans that tasted of butter and spices, a hint of cinnamon, an explosion of little peppers. Eggs of curious birds that had been whipped and baked into perfect creations of air and flavor.

I didn't imagine other children then, or even other people. Was I so selfish? So shy? Self-sufficient? Maybe it's the way of all children of a certain age to not realize their need of others. I was alone in a land just for me. I could run along the branches of impossibly vast trees, slide down sturdy vines, swim in water that was never too cold, that tasted of fruit juices when it splashed in my mouth.

What need had I of playmates?

• • •

The train tracks we lived beside had been built by an optimistic city leader some time before I was born. They cut across our town, ending just beyond the farthest buildings at either side. On the one end, it extended into a swamp, and the city hadn't wanted to build the foundations until they knew exactly where the line would go next. On the other, it met the river. The city knew that if a train ever came, it would arrive from the larger town across the river and a little ways down, so they could have put in the bridge with confidence, but I suppose that was when they lost faith in the project.

So the rails rusted slowly without maintenance, and I loved to walk along them, balanced on one rail or the other. Paired by the crossties, the image of the tracks reminds me today of that ladder, but I don't think that occurred to me then. I certainly never created imaginary lands beyond the ends of the tracks, though I must have dreamed of the larger cities that the line might one day connect us to.

Once I walked the entire length of the track, balanced on one rail, never once touching down.

A child from a city brought roller skates with her when she moved to our town. The dirt streets gave her no place to use them, but she would take them to the train tracks and skate down the rails, one foot in a skate, while the other wore a sandal to push with. I stared at her sliding along, and the next time I imagined the world beyond the ladder, she was there. Or rather, the land had an entire people with wheels on their feet, and rails criss-crossed the land to give them a road to anywhere they wanted to go. I tried to memorize the labyrinth of rails myself so I could follow them when they disappeared, but I was lost, balancing around bigger and smaller circles but getting nowhere.

I suppose I could have imagined that I knew such things as well as they did, my imaginary beings who moved without maps, but my invented world didn't work that way. It bound me — in ways that were different from how the real world bound me, but no less so despite that fact.

Ever after, the skaters spun at the edges of my imagination, crossing it occasionally, but they were never the focus of my world, even later when I wanted not just any skater but that specific girl from our town to appear before me, talk to me as she never did in real life, befriend me.

For a brief time, she sparked a rage in our town for home-crafted skates, and the boys and girls performed tricks up and down the metal rails. I was an embarrassment at such things and even abandoned my habit of walking on the rails until the fad died away.

• • •

Cleaning is tedious. When it's your own house and you have the option to clean something or leave it for the next day, it's very different from cleaning someone else's messes, dusting the shelves of someone else's home.

They had so many knickknacks to clean around, such a tremendous variety of decorations filling the rooms. At the time I longed to bring the same sense of things to our house, wanted to own items just like those. One day, I promised, I'd have a room with little statues of saints and indigenous gods from every continent, of matted and framed prints, of footstools shaped like porcupines or more exotic animals. And a ladder. Or the ladder, actually. I didn't know how I'd get it away from the manor, but somehow I would carry it to my own house, no matter how humble.

It wasn't until much later that I learned how tasteless that décor really was, expensive perhaps, but not fine. They were the trinkets of someone trying too hard to impress with their money. And part of the need to impress became the very visible presence of hired help to clean.

When some visiting governor crossed the river for an afternoon coffee at the manor, they made sure my mother was cleaning in the rooms where they'd be meeting. I couldn't be seen, of course. It was one thing to see the maid, but to see the maid's child working would have brought shame instead of pride. So I worked in back rooms and hid in closets to hear what they might say.

They led their visitors through one hallway where the floor was still damp, where my mother was meticulously cleaning the window panes on the south-facing wall. Just as they had told her to do at that time, of course, but when they came in, they yelled at her and sent her to another room. I stayed to listen and heard them complain about the lack of good help, heard them tut-tut about the dust on the windowsills she hadn't gotten to yet — though even that, I knew, was minimal, because my mother kept the entire house amazingly clean — heard them speak of ancient days, better days, when the manor was a grand sight and the governor's own grandfather had visited and spoken highly of the people there.

They moved down the hallway and out of earshot, speaking of future visits, of ways they could help each other.

I determined to embarrass them. I left a trinket out in one room for them to step on, but my mother swung through and picked it up just before they entered. I pulled a sheet down from a bed and was carrying it to a balcony overlooking them when my mother again stopped me and pulled me away.

"What are you doing?"

I tried to explain as well as I was able at the age that they had complained about her work, and I wanted to get back at them.

"It won't work. You'll only reflect bad on me."

Her accent was probably rougher than that, I suppose. I'm so far separated that I forget sometimes, but I know she said something about reflecting. It made me think of mirrors.

I promised not to mess anything else up, and then I went directly to an upstairs bathroom and found a hand mirror. I spent the rest of the day hiding on balconies and in adjacent rooms, flashing sunlight into the governor's eyes as they spoke with him. I giggled when he would squint and look away, with one hand over my mouth as I ducked behind a banister or wall.

They never knew, and my mother never heard anything from them about it.

• • •

A train full of goods came one summer; it must have been two years after the visits from the flying people. It wasn't that the tracks were completed, just that the train pulled in once a week regardless, its cars becoming shops. You might expect such an impossible train to carry exotic items, animals from lands as imaginary as the one beyond the ladder, foods from far to the north or south or across the ocean in other tropics, spices that would make our food into something completely different. But no. They sold the exact same foods and goods as the weekly markets had always sold, typical foods of roots and beans and local fruits; sugar in bulk, brown with molasses and unrefined; green coffee beans waiting to be roasted.

What they did was sell these same things for less. Impossibly less. For one summer, everyone in the town ate like the people from the manor, or at least how we imagined they must eat. Everyone except the local merchants, who lost all their business.

I would run to the tracks first thing in the morning to watch the train materialize and the silent train people unload. Might there be something new and unusual this week? Something that hinted at other lands? If I could find proof that places like Europe and Russia and America existed, then I thought it would equally prove that my own imagined land was possible. I studied the boxes, covered in writing I hadn't learned yet to read. I examined fruits that became familiar only after I'd taken the time to look. It almost seemed that the goods took shape because I watched, that the identical box might be opened in another town with another child watching, and turn into something else, something typical of that other place.

If true, perhaps that explains why I never in those ten weeks or so saw anything that didn't belong in our town, nothing that our regular merchants hadn't put on offer, occasionally at least. Maybe our imaginations were bound by what we'd seen, and what we'd seen forced those goods to follow the same paths.

Then the train stopped coming. Summer ended, and we were left with our former merchants, gaunt families who'd struggled to survive the summer. Some had left their past of trading behind, taken up farming or labor. Most resumed trading, but there was a weariness, a wariness to their transactions, and every bit the townsfolk had saved through the summer with the train's fine food was drained away by skittish merchants unwilling to sell their goods as cheaply as they once had.

It was a hungry winter. My stomach still murmurs when I think of that time.

• • •

I left town. Everyone does and no one does, and the same is true for me. I left it, and I'll never leave. Out here no one believes in flying people or trains that come without tracks, though they're a fact of life in a town like ours. And certainly no one believes in another world at the top of a rustic ladder.

I've built ladders out here, cut the wood exactly as I remember it, lashed it with the same kind of rough twine. I've climbed them as they leaned against walls, against fences, against trees. Nothing awaits me at the top of these imitations except for the views.

But this... Surely it's the same one, the ladder from my childhood. It looks smaller, as everything does years later. A bit more ragged too, its lashings rubbed bare and looking ready to give, but it feels surprisingly sturdy. As I reach up I catch sounds that don't belong in this second-hand shop, noises of food cooking, of people dancing, of skates on metal rails. A train sounds. There was never a train in the world I imagined beyond that ladder, but it seems right that I'd hear one now. That world has developed even as this one has, and a train is a fitting presence now.

I hear a child's cry, too. There is pain there, no less than here, people for me to help, ways for me to be meaningful as I have long since ceased to be here. It's not escape from pain that I want, though, so I accept that cry, welcome it into my imagined world. When I climb on the first rung, one of the workers warns me to get down. At the second rung he repeats himself and begins to wend his way toward me. The shop is cluttered, its aisles too narrow, so I'm not afraid that he will arrive before I can escape.

The noises grow louder, the shop man's words dimmer as I climb. Impossible mists swirl around my head, and I break the plane at the top of the ladder. I remember defining a plane in geometry in later years, when I actually attended school. Definitions of planes and lines and points, of how to know if two planes were parallel, if two shapes were similar or congruent.

The plane I step into is parallel to the plane of the floor, extending out to infinity, no curves for our round earth, not even bent by the curvature of gravity. And the space itself is similar to the one I'm leaving, similar in the geometrical definition, though not congruent, its angles like the angles of the familiar world, but with everything grown bigger and stranger, broader, more mysterious, full of life that our home can only imitate in miniature.

The ladder disappears beneath the blades of grass at my feet.

Daniel Ausema has a background in experiential education and journalism and is now a stay-at-home dad. His fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including Daily Science Fiction, Kaleidotrope, and The Drabblecast. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.