I was told once that our world is the very bottom of a bottomless pit and what we commonly think of as the sky is the very top of the bottom, the beginning of the end.
I didn’t believe it until I saw a man materialize from a dark cloud, falling through the air like a drop of rain. On his descent, two birds circled his head and I could hear them tweeting like madmen. Time slowed and it felt as if I had passed a significant portion of my life watching the man tumble, but finally he plunged with a brackish-brown splash into the sludge waters of Lake Filth, the whirlpool where we send our refuse round and round until it sinks deep into the guts of the land to forever be forgotten. I’m the Guardian of the lake and when it backs up, I must jab and comb through the filth to make sure we are not washed away by a surge of our own muck.
The birds landed on a fence near me, chattering to one another. One was black with a white shine all over as if she greased her feathers, the other, the black of her feathers was broken up by gray. They looked like crows and they laughed like crows. Say, I said. What was that all about?
The two crows twisted their heads toward me and twitched a bit and then they turned to one another.
What do you suppose he means? Shine asked.
I’m not entirely sure, Gray replied. Perhaps we should ask him.
Do you think he means Lokus?
Lokus! Shine flapped her wings and hopped about on the fence. At first, I thought he was one of us she said, Look at the peculiar looking bird. Didn’t I say that? Gray nodded. Then we got closer and I realized he was one of you people, a different type of featherless monstrosity than the featherless bird I thought he was.
Remember you told him to flap his arms? Gray said. They laughed again like crows.
Told us to call him Lokus the Wise.
What did he say? I asked. Why on earth was he falling?
Gray twitched her head toward me and said, Who can be sure why you featherless fools do the things you do, but here is what he told me:
Jonas the Wise, the Chief Wiseman, the wisest of the Wise Council took his final breath. And it was such a powerful breath you could feel it shudder across the land. He lived a long and wise life. Every day of the mourning period, cloths of black stayed draped in every window. Every woman I saw was veiled and every man wore dark glasses to hide his tearful eyes. Forty days! After the fifth day, I said to my wife. This is enough. After that she hid her face from me. But can you imagine? And I admit, I was mean to her. I joked about her tears, told her of the ugliness of her puffy tear-stained face, and when she got upset, I threw my mug at her and locked her in the cellar. Can you blame me? The people and their ridiculousness. It was all so annoying. But when the King nominated me for the Wise Council, I wept too. There I stood in the Public square: Jonas was wiser than us all, I said. And I don’t expect to match his wisdom, but I will use the goodness, honesty and decency I have already accumulated to try. The viciousness came almost immediately. But his wife is locked in the cellar! someone cried. No, that is not true, I replied. Let us go and see! another called. Lokus is a good man, my neighbor said. I don’t know him to have ever locked anyone in a cellar. Just yesterday he loaned me money and rice. Another neighbor screamed, Let us go and see! I stormed from the Public Square, rage causing my eyes to redden and swell. Do these people have no understanding of the world? I thought. Had my wife not gone to the cellar, she would have hurt herself as hopped up on emotion as she was. Do they not understand that it is now my responsibility to cook and to take it to the cellar for her consumption. I’ve done so nearly every day she’s been down there. When I returned to the Public Square, two other women were now accusing me of locking them in cellars. I remembered them vaguely from long ago, from a time when I was a different man. I stood on the stage and wept, then I spit and shouted curses. Finally, I said: These are lies! When I am named to the Wise Council, I will raise my wisdom in destruction of all who have stood opposed to me! The crowd stood silent as I left the stage. Someone yelled, Let’s look in his cellar now! A voice responded, But did the King not send a guard to look at his house from a safe distance? They found no evidence of a woman in the cellar. I was too disgusted to keep listening, but I couldn’t turn away. I heard one of my defenders talking to the crowd: Let’s say he did lock these women in a cellar—and I believe he is innocent—but if he did, that was years ago. It says nothing about his wisdom today—
I walked away from the Square, needing a break from the emotion. As I walked I heard the heated cries of debate continuing behind me. I felt I was losing the people all because of those who, for no reason at all, hated me so viscously. That’s when I met the two scoundrels. They said their names were Sloku and Klous. I should have known these women were liars, their names were just my name with the letters transposed.
We can help you, Sloku said. We know you are a good man, but you’ve been cursed. You need your spirit washed.
My spirit? I replied.
Yes, Klous chimed in. After we finish with you it will spread across the land and everyone will again know you are a good man.
The volcano, Sloku said.
What about that old volcano?
We’ll tell everyone it will soon blow, Klous said. And you will travel to it as a public service to speak to it to calm its nerves. Only a wise man can calm the anger of a volcano. When it doesn’t blow, it will prove to even those most angry that you deserve to be on the Wise Council.
But you must jump in, Sloku said.
Jump? But won’t that kill me?
Aren’t you not just a good man, but one of the best? Klous asked. I nodded. Didn’t Jonas quiet the volcano this way so many years ago? If you are a good man then nothing in the volcano can hurt you. This will end the curse and your soul will be clean and the people will again love you.
I remembered vaguely that Jonas had spoken to the volcano many, many years ago so I agreed to the walk. Forty days cutting a path through the brush up the volcano while the people agreed to debate and vote only when and if I returned. But you and I know, dear birds that I won’t return. The scoundrels Sloku and Klous knew it all along and they took the riches I gave them to help me clean my soul. I waved to them and then I jumped. They were right, though, the volcano did not kill me so I fall.
The birds were now hopping over one another and flapping in the air, laughing at the misfortune of the falling man. So now, I said, he is at the bottom of the bottom in Lake Filth. What an ending.
Ending? Gray said.
You think this is the bottom? Shine asked.
Well, isn’t it?
Of course not, Shine said and the birds chuckled like crows. We go on forever. The worlds are infinite and so is the fall.
Rion Amilcar Scott’s short story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky, 2016) was awarded the 2017 PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Rumpus, among others. The World Doesn't Require You, his sophomore story collection, is forthcoming from Liveright in Summer 2019.