Up as Crosswise to Down

She built the world from the top down. She built her life as the schools taught her, as a house hung from a floating roof. From the sky, she plucked bread and lowered it in the toaster, until the government outlawed bread. And at that point, she stood in line at the commissary for her ration of soy and corn, and she stirred it in the aluminum pot on the electric range, and she mooed as a cow might at the thought of such food.

When her skin blistered and her head swam, and the soldiers dropped by daily to beat her because her boyfriend ran off with the rebel militia, she concluded she didn’t know how to live at all. With several days worth of clothes peeled over her skin, a packet of matches in her coat pocket, and a few baggies full of soy and cornmeal, she ran away to build a new world from the ground up.

If she ever heard from her boyfriend, she would send for him. But she knew she wouldn’t because her contacts claimed he was slaughtered with so many others in the battle at the tarmac. Alone, she slipped over the border and trekked up the mountains where the soldiers never patrolled. With a bureaucracy the size of the world, the soldiers couldn’t manage the altitude or the deep woods, as well as the oceans and states.

But this isn’t a story of political unrest. This is a story of a woman who needed to learn to live. From childhood on, she learned what was necessary in the high apartment where her parents raised her. She learned music and reading and writing–later, she learned theoretical physics at the university. She learned that bread appeared in the box in the kitchen, that produce grew from bins at the supermarkets before they were closed due to rationing. Then, she learned that soy and corn appeared in burlap bags at the commissary.

Now, she relied on her extra clothes to withstand the thinning air as she walked higher and higher. Although she intended to reach the rumored village that nestled deep in the pines along the northwest trail, either it didn’t exist, or she missed it. And somehow, after the first snowstorm of autumn hit, when she knew she would die without help, she managed to light her first fire deep within a bank carved out by the roots of a tree.

When the weather died down, and the snow settled around her, she climbed out of her bank, and she knew she would die if somebody didn’t help her, send her bread from the sky, and pop it into an ethereal toaster. Her energy ran low. She could drink the snow, but she couldn’t eat the plastic bags that once held her cow-feed. Instead of bread, she stumbled on an old hunting shack, which should have been long since abandoned due to the laws prohibiting guns and hunting–the same laws that criminalized living in these mountains. Why then did she find non animal tracks leading from the door and into the woods? Why did her nose detect a whiff of wood smoke?

She forced her way inside and realized it wasn’t abandoned at all. A heap of dirty blankets waited on the bed. The hearth still glowed from fire, where a kettle hung, filled with the lukewarm broth of cooked animal. She gagged at the smell of it–she hadn’t eaten meat since she was nine, since her parents could no longer afford to buy it. An axe and shovel leaned against the wall near the stone fireplace.

She huddled by the coals of the fire, and she waited. But several hours passed and nobody returned to build the fire higher or stir the pot. So she rose from her huddle and took hold of the axe, and she took it out to chop wood. She threw her shoulders and arms into the task, but it seemed an impossibility to cut clean through anything, especially in the snow, and finally, she dragged the splinters, chunks and bark back to the shack.

She stirred the pot and peered in and couldn’t tell what kind of meat waited in the cloudy broth. She ate it, anyway, from the long-handled spoon that hung from a nail. She choked it down because she was starving. When the afternoon turned shadowy, and she had difficulty reading her watch in the darkness, she wrapped herself in the heap of blankets, and she fell asleep by the coals.

She didn’t sleep long. The door banged, and a dog rushed in and barked and pranced around her. When she dared look up, a gun barrel stared her in the face.

“Please,” she whispered because the soldiers had taught her to plead quietly.

The man with the gun spoke in a foreign tongue. He yelled in the direction of the dog, who whimpered and curled up in the corner away from them.

“I was looking for the village. I got caught in the snowstorm,” she whispered.

The man lowered his gun. He was a big man, old, dark, and his facial hair hid his face. A pair of dark eyes peered at her from the bush of his eyebrows. He grunted, and then he left her.

He built the fire higher. The next day, he forced her to build the fire for him. He accomplished this by shoving her in the direction of the fireplace. And because this isn’t a story about love or even a story that has an end, but a story about a woman who had to learn to live, don’t be offended that the man forced her to cook, as well, to skin and gut rabbits, to mix the ashes in the stew, and brew pine-needle tea.

Eventually, she chopped wood, too. She set traps and collected potfuls of snow. She learned to live because she had to, for a someday when the world was sane, and she could reenter, not from the roof down, but from the place where work was an altruistic beast that consumed man and woman alike–a beast without sex or race that only discontinued its consumption when there was nothing left to devour.

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