I stand above the void, toes curled tight against the damp black edge. Drops of water hitting the rock walls echo for far too long, but worse still are the drops I know are falling and never hit a surface. You’re lost, I tell myself, for the thousandth time. There’s no going back. My brain screams at me to look back and follow the thread tied to my ankle, the thread that winds sideways and upwards for a mere one mile before it breaks into daylight. But it’s not the daylight of freedom. This is my choice: here is my freedom.
I debate climbing along the precipice’s edge until the thread runs out of length and I’m forced to cut it, but that would be another two miles of just walking. Not worth it.
Crash! goes another drop of water.
The cavern is collapsing.
That isn’t true: boulders fall in caves all the time, and nobody cares about a single mistake.
Now that really isn’t true.
I click my flashlight off and am swallowed in instant darkness. The damp edge of the cliff is growing lukewarm under my clenched bare toes, and I force myself to relax my body. Knees bent, head lolled forward. I think I start to sway a little—I can’t really tell with no visible reference point, but my heart is beating faster like it knows I’m in danger. You’re lost, I think, trying to bury the thread deep in my memory. This is the safest place for you to be right now.
I must have been swaying after all, because I feel the rock scrape backward against my feet, air rushes past me, and my stomach lifts up inside me. Falling.
With a jolt of terror I remember the thread. It’s one thing to fall into a bottomless abyss, but another to have your foot snapped off once a thread runs out of length. I have to cut the thread—scissors—where did I put them? I can feel the flashlight in my side-pack, but I can tell I’m falling face-first. If I open the pack now, I’ll lose the flashlight and probably the scissors too. Don’t know why I’m planning as if I’ll need the flashlight, but I guess that’s just how I am.
I have no idea how fast or far I’m falling, but every microsecond makes the end of the thread whip nearer. About a minute of freefall is all I have—for two miles of thread—but all sense of time or space has vanished, and there is only that pulsing thought of the thread running out, and I don’t know how long I have. My heartbeat is out of control. I’ve got to bite the thread—I start a mad aerial dance of plunging and kicking, trying to reach the thread behind me, but every wild grasp meets thick air. Worst is the mirage-like brushes of thread against my fingers, taunting me. I’m holding my breath—breathe, breathe, you idiot, why can’t you think? Ankle! I take a gulp of warm air and hurl my knees toward my chest, feeling my precious ankles. There’s the thread. I grab it and thrust it up toward my bared teeth, but suddenly there bursts a deafening pop and crack, and everything goes black.
I wasn’t a good kid. At least that’s how it always felt. See, when most people steal something, they have a reason. Granulated sugar for birthdays, firewood for when there’s not enough solar power. Maybe they snatch their neighbor’s satellite setup to find a lost sibling. Robbing the local banned-books geocache is understandable—everyone misses Shakespeare, everyone gets it. Even if you’ll get mugged afterward for not sharing—you knew the consequences, and you’ll get mugged with sympathy.
But I didn’t have any reason at all, at least no reason I knew about. And anyone who stole ten thousand birds for no reason at all could not have been a good kid.
And I wasn’t. There was that time when I was ten. Nightly lockdowns hadn’t started yet, but I was at my friend Taylor’s house and we lost track of time for the 8:35pm curfew. I had to stay the night, and then the air was too bad the next day for me to go home. I remember clenching my fingers against the back of a leather couch the next evening, staring out the window at the huge bulletin board on the street.
Air quality, extremely hazardous.
It made no difference to stare at the glaring updates: one mockingly ticking forward, the other stubbornly at rest. I stared and clenched my fingers anyway, calculating whether I’d be able to run home in two minutes—now in one minute—if the index magically changed to very unhealthy. Taylor sat quietly beside me, but of course I had to stay a second night. When I finally got home the next day, Farfar told me that he had failed as a grandpa. I know he said other things too and he probably asked if I was alright, but as soon as I climbed the stairs down to my room, the memory of any other remarks just condensed into that one statement.
At twelve I lost the lamp Farmor had painted, with a picture of the three of us—I’d taken it outside for some reason. Some reason meant careless—thoughtless—and Farfar said he was glad he’d only taken me instead of my brother and sisters too, because it wasn’t worth the disappointment. When he calmed down, Farfar said we all make choices, but those choices determine our character. He apologized that I was crying, and pointed out that the picture meant even more to him than it did to me.
A year later I had to pick my trade, and I told Farfar I wanted to paint pictures. I said I could learn to repaint the lamp I lost, since I remembered it well enough. He didn’t say anything that time, but his look was enough to send me straight to botany.
When I was seventeen, I accidentally killed one of Farfar’s oilbirds, those precious cave-dwellers he’d been gathering and raising for decades. I’d descended into his cave from curiosity, but I went stupidly at dusk when they were about to swarm out to hunt. Farfar was so secretive about his birds, and I didn’t even know they were nocturnal—I wasn’t even supposed to know the location of the cave. So then of course I wouldn’t tell him when the screeching carr, carr! calls began and thousands of brown-feathered creatures flocked madly over and around my head, and I swung out my hand and for some reason it was holding a rock, and a bird fell to the ground, my hand still holding the rock.
But then I did tell him. I don’t know why I did. But it certainly didn’t feel like a choice. Was killing the bird a choice either?
Ten years later and Taylor was still living alone, and I was still living at Farfar’s. I guess some semblance of a rebellious streak might have begun that time when I was seventeen. I started visiting the oilbirds every week or so, between botanical research and coffee rations. It’d be nice to say that I loved the birds, and that I felt sorry for them eating only the synthesized plant stuff Farfar gave them plus whatever they could find outside. But no, I just went every week and tried to figure out how to revive their natural food sources for no reason.
After all, I didn’t like them. The only time I was slightly appreciative was toward their babies: they were too fluffy not to feel a small twinge of delight. But the oilbirds’ hooked black beaks always seemed to be scowling at me, and their yellowish eyes made me scowl back at them. I thought it was creepy how they hovered to pluck the rare fruits they found, and the very fact that there were thousands of them unnerved me. Who has a family that big? Who would want a family that big? I was perfectly content with just Farfar, who always seemed so pleased at every grant I won, and who told me I was a good listener. I never talked in our conversations, but I liked listening, and I never knew what to talk about anyway.
So with my neutral-dislike for oilbirds and neutral-favor toward Farfar, I didn’t have any reason to steal the whole tribe, did I? But gradually I noticed that my research tended away from reviving their natural food sources, and toward what used to make oilbirds migrate to different caves. And then I noticed that my research started to shift away from that, and toward the hormones that make birds unattracted, per se, to another species or to an environment. And then I noticed myself starting to synthesize those hormones. Synthesizing—just like Farfar synthesized the birds’ plant feed. As if it were destined to be.
The oilbirds probably didn’t know what hit them, when they woke up and their home for decades suddenly stank of sorrow or death or whatever the hormone mixture smelled like to them. All I know is that they were gone quicker than toilet paper, and after only a couple lab tests of samples from the cave walls, Farfar placed the credit squarely on my shoulders. I took it.
Every once in a while throughout the trek to the banishment cave, I tried to remember whether I had put myself in exile or Farfar had. I had sneaked a three-mile thread into my pack, a thread bought at 6pm from a sketchy sidewalk character warning the banished about some bottomless pit, warning the banished to have an escape plan. Of course I didn’t believe in such a tale, but he got my money and I got his thread. That thread stayed in my pack as I hiked alone over the hills and far away, and it stayed tied to my ankle as I descended alone into the darkness and far away.
Deep in the cave’s belly, I listened to drops of falling water, gradually coming to believe that they sounded different based on where they landed. For some reason, the thought burst into my head: the birds were safe. They found a better cave. But for me, right then, the rock burned cold under my feet, and I kept almost stumbling or slipping from snags and small puddles.
You’re lost, I told myself, for the thousandth time. There’s no going back. My brain screamed at me to look back and follow the thread tied to me, to find its origin and cut it and start over.
Was it too late to choose?
Or had it ever been an option at all?