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Descending


by stephen hastings-king


Once, in Former Times, there was an annual departmental reception for graduate students. It was summer: the receptions happened at a park. The reception also happened at a park, but, this time, in a park that included a gorge, Buttermilk Falls maybe, somewhere else maybe, but not Fillmore Glenn, that I'd remember. Anyway, I arrived after picking up new glasses, a pair of bifocals, my first, and I was wearing them for the first time. I remember how, at the reception, I looked down and found that my feet were bizarrely close. My torso had gone missing. I was a head with two legs.

At the time, I was descending a very long, very narrow and uneven stone staircase that had been carved into one side of the gorge. Next to it was a void that extended hundreds of feet downward. At its bottom were rocks and a trickle of water. Descending a long, narrow and uneven stone staircase next to a void brought with it an accelerated acceptance of being just a head and pair of legs. Any qualms I might have had were crowded out by that "What am I doing here?" and the "What the fuck am I doing here?" that I was saying, at different volumes, as if anyone was listening, and had been saying for the whole of the descent, already interminable as the last part of “Hey Jude.”

When I think back to that summer afternoon, the sense I give “What was I doing there?” is different from the sense I gave to it at the time because, at the time, I believe I had some grasp of how I came to be descending a very long, uneven and narrow staircase carved into the side of a gorge, next to a void, wearing a pair of bifocals for the first time. But now, I have no such grasp, if I ever did. When I cast my mind back, there is only a blankness, the explanation for which lay, I think, not so much with the passing of time (though there's been a lot of it), but, rather, with the nature of the memory itself. Sometimes, when I remember it, there is a railing that separates me from that void. Other times, there is no railing. I never know beforehand which version will pop into my head until it does. No matter the version, my fear of heights has increased exponentially. When there is no railing, it is absolutely terrifying. For years, every prospect that I might remember it has made me anxious—and that has crowded out any explanation I might have had for what on earth I was doing there.

But neither version of the memory has me pressed up against the wall of the gorge, which I definitely would have been had there been nothing but void over there, and that leads me to think, now that I think about it, there must have been a railing. Not that I'd have been able to hold onto it as just a head and two legs.

I remembered again earlier today while I was trying to descend a rocky and uneven trail that was covered in leaves up to the middle of my shins: I could not see what I was stepping onto; I was convinced every next moment would be the one that saw me tumbling over the tree roots and stones. But that hill in no way resembled the endless flight of narrow and uneven stairs that had been carved into the side of a gorge or the void that was right next to it through which I would fall until I hit rocks and a trickle of water hundreds of feet below. It wasn't summer either. I spent this afternoon of a cool mid-autumn day among erratics and monoliths. Also, I had a torso. But the association between then and now was powerful nevertheless, the memory vivid as a dream. There was no railing.
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