It’s Not Safe Below
by Cheryl A. Warner
“Say it again, my dears,” the woman’s voice cooed.
“It’s not safe Below!” chanted a chorus of little voices.
“Where do we never go?”
The woman snuffed the light and left the children to their dreams.
Sandra peered into the gap between the pulley-man’s station and the floating platform. Below. It looked like a cake, each layer frosted with fog.
She could recite their names by heart, those who had disappeared Below. Great-Grandpa Charles, Aunt Greta, Second Cousin Henry, her brother Samuel.
She stepped out onto the platform, pulling her body against the center bar with all the terror of a newborn bird just learning to fly. Except Sandra wasn’t a newborn, and she had ridden the pulley every day since she was a babe swaddled in her mother’s arms. There were times when she had been curious about Below. Now, with her Dad sucked up by its faceless fog, she only had room for fear.
Once aboard, the pulley-man swung her across in three long pulls of his sinewy arms to Janet’s Tree. To get to Hendrick’s Tree or her Great-Aunt Eugene’s, she’d have to make two more pulley stops. Distances among the Trees were measured by the pulley-man’s arms.
Janet waited for her on the opposite side. She wore a tunic she had outgrown two winters ago, and her feet were bandaged heavily, but clumsily. Likely her older sister had done the job, her mother too bothered with babies to care for her reckless middle child.
As soon as Sandra stepped off the platform and into the Tree, Janet pulled her into a conspiratorial embrace.
“I found something,” Janet said, her voice breathy with excitement.
“Hmm?” Sandra murmured in response. Sandra had outgrown this game of treasure hunting when Janet had outgrown her tunic, but Janet never seemed to tire of it. The lure of torn balloons, discarded shoes and the occasional forgotten page or two from a book called her back to the game.
“Come on. This is big.” Janet caught Sandra’s hand and they were away into the Tree, dancing from branch to branch around Janet’s house. They avoided the main public pathway of branches that led to the next pulley stop and instead skirted close to the house. Janet’s house flopped among the branches like a bloated monarch wedged into his throne. New rooms had been stuck into narrow alcoves to accommodate new babies or elderly relatives. Janet’s Tree was known in the grove for being the smallest and the most populated.
Sandra’s toes gripped at the weathered bark of the Tree as she followed after her friend. Hunger gnawed at her stomach, bringing thoughts of her mother trying to get her younger sisters to sit down for breakfast. She should have stayed to help, but the thought of a snotty sister hanging on each arm as they wailed over their porridge made her cringe. Still, her mother couldn’t handle all the children alone now, not with Dad gone.
He had gone Below. Or they thought he had. But Below was forbidden, and Sandra’s mother wouldn’t tolerate anyone mentioning even the possibility that Sandra’s father had done such a thing. They all knew, though. She could see it in their faces, even the pulley-man’s as he helped her to the platform.
Her father had disappeared right after her brother Samuel. Sandra had watched Sam hang from a low-sitting branch of their Tree, for all the world believing himself invincible. She also watched him fall. It seemed like forever until the fog claimed him, his face betraying his terror and wonder and the surety of his own death. Sam’s face as he fell was sometimes all Sandra could think of when she closed her eyes.
When they woke the next day, faces still red with grief, Sandra’s father was gone. Among the Trees, there was only one place he could have gone where they couldn’t find him. Below.
Sandra knocked hard into Janet, who had stopped unexpectedly amid a forest of branches. Janet glared at her as she caught herself against a branch, then turned her attention back to something Sandra couldn’t see. They were at a low point in the Tree’s architecture with only Below beneath them. Together, they perched on a wide branch that was mother to many smaller offshoots. The house still loomed over their shoulders, but a canopy of hand-sized leaves hid them from anyone who might be snooping from the windows.
“Look,” Janet whispered. Sandra followed the direction of Janet’s outstretched hand where it pointed into the mist. There, hanging from the branch where they stood, was a rope ladder. Its frayed rungs descended into Below.
Sandra’s heart stopped, her quickened pulse dying like a pair of wings ensnared in a web. She fought down a queasy feeling at the sight of the ladder disappearing abruptly into the fog.
“Who do you think left it here? Sandra?” Janet shook her shoulder forcefully. “Do you think someone…used it?” Janet swallowed hard and her hand flew to her mouth. She could be wild, but the thought of climbing down into Below still carved fear on her heart.
“I…I don’t know,” Sandra stammered. In her head, she played the image of her father climbing down the worn rungs, one by one. She bent low on the branch, for the first time feeling its fragility beneath her. Her toes gripped harder. Steadying herself with one arm against an overhanging branch, she reached with the other for the fraying twine of the ladder. The threads scraped at her fingers.
“We should tell my mom,” said Janet behind her. “Or maybe Jack. He would know what to do.” Jack was the daytime pulley-man stationed opposite from Janet’s Tree, on the Center Tree. He got the most pulley traffic at the very center of their grove. The older girls in their school liked to sit on a high branch of the Center Tree and watch Jack pull, tittering to each other.
Sandra retreated from the ladder, bending herself closer to the bosom of the Tree. Her fingers burned where she had touched the rope. “No, don’t tell anyone about the ladder, not your mom, and not Jack.” Sandra watched the ladder. Only a few rungs were visible from this distance. For such a limp, harmless thing, she couldn’t believe how much she hated it.
Sandra pulled Janet into the Tree and away from the ladder before she could protest.
“Where do we never go?” her mother asked as she reached to snuff the candle.
“Below!” yelled Sandra’s sisters in perfect singsong. Her mother did not notice the single voice missing from the ritual that night.
Night shrouded the pulley cable. Sandra stepped onto the platform and reached up until her hand closed on the cable’s smooth surface. The platform lurched beneath her and she sounded a small squeak into the night’s stillness. Holding the cable tighter with both hands, she steadied herself. With one look back at her Tree, the house lost to its darkened depths, she stepped off the platform.
She pulled herself across, hand over hand, thinking of branches between her fingers.
About halfway through the journey, or two pulls of the pulley-man’s arms, she risked a look down into the night of Below. A diffused light always shined up into the grove from the fog, as if a second moon lay under the tightly packed mist. Sandra had a vision of her grove on the other side, hanging upside down. Her head spun with the idea and she pushed it away. She climbed on.
A baby’s cry erupted from within Janet’s Tree as she alighted on the outermost landing branch. That would mean people were awake. She hurried off, flinging herself among the branches.
The Tree was dark and shadowed, but she knew its landscape as well as she knew her own. In what seemed like one long intake of breath, she arrived at the ladder. Its length swaying in a gentle night breeze, she counted the rungs before they were lost to Below. Twenty-seven. Lowering herself to straddle the branch, she drew a kitchen knife from beneath the heavy folds of her tunic. Its blade was carefully wrapped in a tea towel decorated with ladybugs.
The knife poised above the first thread, she hesitated. The litany of names danced through her head again. This responsibility suddenly felt too heavy for her. For the first time since her father went Below, she felt like a little girl again, too innocent to the ways of the world.
Below did not look like a scary place in the night. The glow almost felt warm on the soles of her feet and downturned face.
The warnings of her bedtime recital forgotten, she found her foot on the top rung, her body slung over the branch.
She could just dip a toe in, she told herself. She could climb back up before the monsters of Below could get their claws around her.
As she descended another rung, her arms still hugging the fat branch, the fibers croaked angrily at her over the new weight. One more rung and the ladder pitched dangerously, arcing her body into the tree. Rough bark imprinted its contour onto her hands. Her muscles ached with the effort of holding on. Silent tears stained her cheeks from fear and pain. She descended one more rung in an attempt to steady herself. The ladder finally felt solid beneath her as if it accepted her now that she had surrendered.
She counted as she descended.
She didn’t look down.
The last rung above the fog approached. Wisps of Below entangled her ankles.
She waited for the claws and the teeth and the terror of it all to consume her. Instead, all she felt was desperately cold. Her arms rattled against the rope. This close to Below, she didn’t understand it any better than she did from the Trees. The mist still clung to its spot, opaque and formless.
Janet’s Tree above looked so very far away now. It appeared different, too, like a dark beast with hundreds of shadowed arms. She wondered whether she would have the strength to climb the twenty-seven rungs to get back home.
Instead, she lowered a foot into the abyss. And then another. The ladder did not end at the fog, but continued into Below. Cold clung to her, but she continued until the Tree had disappeared above and the world around her was formed of white haze.
“Where do we never go?” she whispered to herself. “Below!” she answered. “Where do we never go?” she asked louder. “Below!” she yelled into the void. She said it again and again as if the words could protect her. Something in the mist felt hungry and clinging.
Only the deep grooves of rope against her hands and feet oriented her to the up and down of this white world. Wherever she was, it was not somewhere.
She kept climbing down. Each step felt mechanical, like a wind-up toy sent into oblivion.
Her left foot reached out for another rung and met only air. She scrambled back up, the ladder swinging wildly. Risking a look between her feet, she saw the mist melt away just above her ankles. Several lengths below her stretched something solid. It was blanketed with crisp leaves.
Clinging to the ladder, she hunched down to peer into the world beneath her. A branch passed into view, and then another, but they were nothing like the great branches of her grove. They were small spindly things, although the bark looked much the same. Leaning farther, entire trees revealed themselves. All of Below seemed to be one large grove that stretched beyond comprehension. One of her Trees would fill the space where ten of these stood, however. They looked like the children of her Trees. From their parents, they had inherited the rough bark made for climbing, and the way the breeze shivered through their leaves at night.
It at once startled and reassured her to see familiar things in Below. The thought that perhaps this forbidden place could be a world in its own right, where other people lived and were happy, had never occurred to her. Did they know about her world? Did they call it Above, of all things?
She turned back to the ladder and the mist to see the view of her Trees from Below, and suddenly she was falling. Falling into Below.
As she fell, her eyes fixed on the trees above. The ladder and fog were gone. In the same moment, she came to realize that here, in this place, they had never existed.
The fall into Below was just long enough for her to already be crying big wet tears when she landed on her bottom among the leaves.
She wasn’t sure how long she lay there with damp cheeks, her head burrowed against her knees. Each tear seemed to enfold an eternity. If that was the new way of the world, she was determined never to stop crying.
Finally, time grew bored with her tears. Even the hem of her tunic, where the tears had pooled, had dried to a starched crinkle. She gathered herself to survey her surroundings.
She looked again to where the ladder had hung, but the vision of it slipped away from her like ice through buttery fingers. Above her spread only a thick leafy canopy, the trees clasping hands in a tight embrace.
Stretching her hand towards the nearest trunk, her fingers felt along the rough bark. Feeling it against her skin, instinct propelled her to vault atop a low-hanging branch. With the tree around her, her legs were steady beneath her. But there, she stopped. The next branches were far above her head. She was marooned.
A searing doubt wriggled its way into her limbs and turned them to mush. Climbing trees suddenly felt like the most unnatural thing in the world. She lowered herself to sit shakily on the branch, chin to chest in an overburdening of thoughts.
Casting her gaze up into the tree, she searched for help among the leaves. But they were only leaves, and the tree was just a tree. She thought she could recall a time when it had once been more. The idea flitted away with the breeze.
Heavy-limbed, she dropped down among the leaf corpses and dust. She did not think it was proper to climb trees after all.
Smoothing her tunic and noticing the dirty state of her feet, she tsked in irritation. No, she should not have been climbing trees.
Sandra set out through the grove. A memory called to her, and she sang a simple tune as she skipped along a path lit by the glow of yellow lamps.
“Where do we never go?
Oh, where do we never go?
About the Author
Cheryl A. Warner lives and writes full-time in Northern California with her two dogs and husband. When she’s not writing, she spends her free hours volunteering at the local library and rescuing dogs. She blogs about her writing and reading habits at www.cherylawarner.com.
“It’s Not Safe Below” © 2012 Cheryl A. Warner