The Ladder

 Sina Kian

 

There wasn’t much in the house. Just some furniture, linens, and old ceramic mugs; a box TV and a remote, a study with a little desk and some files, and a printing calculator almost the size of the landline telephone. There were a few coins under the cushions of the couch, though curiously one of them was currency from Croatia and I hadn’t known my father to travel abroad. I left the coins where they were. I remembered being a kid, pretending every new thing was a shipwreck. I always wanted to be a deep-sea diver, someone constantly discovering. That was the thing about the house, why I stopped going. I often found myself remembering the things I wanted so many years ago.

          It was a simple property, two structures on a plot of flat land. The first was a two-story family house that sat at the end of a walkway connecting the house to the gravel road where I had parked. The grasses were long and unruly. The wildflowers that my father spent his days yanking out of the ground had finally, after all these years, prevailed. Then there was the shed, about thirty yards from the house. It had an old layer of red paint, peeling off, and gray roofing shingles. The door was locked. The lawyer said I could break it open, but I didn’t know how. “Is there anything in there?” “It says a toolbox and a deer head.” “A deer head?” “That’s what it says.” I paused. “Did he hunt?” “It doesn’t say”, he replied—then added, “I wouldn’t know.”

          The sky over the shed was open and blue and the yard stretched out as far as I could see. There wasn’t so much as a tree to mark one part of the property as distinct from another, and the nearest neighbor was about a quarter mile down the road. The lines were all manmade, even the line between my father’s last day and everything that followed—the paperwork and funeral, the calls, the blinking red light of the answering machine for which I didn’t have a password, all the coming and going—what I came to know as the bureaucracy of passing, the chores and choir of grief. 

          Out another twenty yards there was a shape in the grass the size of a body. I walked towards it as though I were wading through a marsh, having no idea what might be out there. It was just a ladder. I didn’t understand. It wasn’t high enough to reach any of the windows on the second floor of the house, and didn’t seem to have any use or reason to be outside. The shed itself was only one story high with a fairly low ceiling–it wouldn’t have taken more than a step or two to reach the top, and my father was a tall and able man even in his old age. As I approached, green lacewings and grasshoppers fled in every direction. One with a yellowish underbelly stubbornly held its position on the ladder. I kneeled to look at it and saw the shine of its beady eye just before it flicked its legs and vanished. I sized the ladder up and checked again and again for some sort of extension, something that would let it reach the roof or at least the second window of the house. There was nothing. I tossed the ladder back on the ground. I could feel a sudden impatience about the smallest things, and here I found myself frustrated by the ladder that had no place or purpose.

          For a long time my father taught me that growing up was learning to shrug things off. He’d say it when I scraped my knees, when he touched the wounds with rubbing alcohol. Later, as I was sitting on the grass, I remembered many years ago the time I caught, somewhere near that spot, a moth that had been eluding me as it turned this way and that, flying from one part of the yard to the other. Were the days really as bright as I remembered them? Did they last as long? I remember the moment I caught it. I could feel it on my palm, holding still just above the pulse of my thumb. I wondered if it was scared. I uncupped my hands to make an opening—wider and wider, as though releasing something much bigger than a moth. I saw, instead, something I never contemplated, that I had crushed it—the streak of its chalky brown color across my palm. The afternoon sunk into that moment, into the body of that little thing. I felt uneasy even after I wiped my hands on the grass, even after all the color was gone. I started to walk back to the house but didn’t want to see my father, didn’t want him to know, even though it had been years since my mother passed. I walked around the field, this way and that. Eventually I went home and washed my hands and sat on the couch, trying to think of something else. I washed my hands twice more. I didn’t notice that all along the sun was moving. I didn’t notice all the shadows of all the grasses going in a circle. Then it was the night. I must have been ten, maybe eleven, but I knew that something had happened, that I had somehow grown a little older.

          I shook the memory and got up and took the ladder over to the shed and did what suddenly felt obvious. I climbed it and stood on the roof and there I saw a yellow blanket that had been nailed down. I smiled—it was a clever place to get away in a place where there was no one to get away from. The landscape was still flat with varying shades of green as far as I could see, yet when the wind passed through it made the grass look almost like a tablecloth, something that could be pinched with two fingers and lifted. I lay down on the blanket and looked up at the sky and all I saw was a long stretch of blue curving from one horizon to another, and in that moment there were no clouds and nothing that could be the shape of my father, no banal reassurances about his life, no suggestions about what he was or what the world was or what I was to him or what I ought to do, and it was then that I remembered how he’d always tell me, I think in warning, that “we become what we confront”—there on that yellow blanket I saw how tempting it was to find ourselves confronted with something so big and so beautiful as the silent hum of the color blue, and I remembered what the priest said, that a man like that was bound to ascend. As I fell asleep I felt a slight breeze and it was warm but only faintly so, a fleeting warmth that reminded me of other things—the grasshopper that disappeared into the yard, my mother, the moth, my father. Just then I had the sensation of falling, and lunged up, finding the sky just as it had been moments before, and just as it would be for hours, for the rest of that long afternoon, until the sun went down, red and orange—brilliant even in its passing: navy blue, darker, stars.

Sina Kian’s short story, “The Stork and the Fires,” appears in the current issue of  The Georgia Review.


image: Vincent van Gogh, Shelter on Montmartre (detail), 1887