An introduction to our new online issue, FALL OF MEN, inspired by the New York Review of Books.
by TOM MCALLISTER
There’s the word, pitfall, the one they take for granted, the one everyone says but doesn’t really consider the implications. There’s a pit, and then a fall. The pit is granted no agency. The victim gets no name. At the bottom of every one is something different, but it’s almost always deadly. But men hurl themselves into the bottoms of pits, out of anger, or fear, or spite, or all three. Boys are warned to stay away but they can’t help themselves. As soon as they find out the pits exist, all they can think about is what’s down there, what’s being hidden from them. They become resentful and cruel. Sometimes, they throw a girl in first, to see what happens. If she doesn’t come back up, they find another girl. Sometimes, they cover themselves in girls like armor. Sometimes it works, and they come crawling back up the other side, alone, and complaining about the scratches on their arms.
Nobody knows how they got there, the gators, or how they survive. They’ve been here for millennia, and they know so much more about how the world works than humans do. Some people are convinced they see a smile on the gator’s face but the gator has evolved beyond smiling. They float and they think about nothing. The gator’s patience is its most terrifying trait; its willingness to wait years for the right man to step into the pit and plummet right into its jaws. The man’s screams bring the pit to life and after the frenzy of snapping jaws and thrashing tails, everything returns to slow motion. Is it lonely at the bottom? That’s not even the right question. You’re asking all the wrong questions.
The problem with bottomless pits is there is no bottom. You fall for days and days, and just below you somewhere you can hear the screaming of the previous man; he’s screaming about how he didn’t do it, how he deserves better, how as soon as he finds his way to the surface he’s going to make everyone pay for this. But then he goes silent. It’s not the fall that kills you, and it’s not the hunger. It’s the pressure. The same pressure that turns coal into diamonds and grinds the bones of dinosaurs into nutrient-rich soil. It crushes you and then you keep falling anyway.
One day a man is walking innocently through the wilderness, and his front foot sticks in the ground, but he thinks nothing of it and steps harder with his other foot. When that one sticks, he stomps to try to get the ground to cooperate, and he sinks a little further in. He stomps harder, and, he doesn’t know it yet, but he will never see his own foot again. Quicksand is a pit but it is also land. Nothing about it makes sense. The harder the man struggles to escape, the angrier he gets, the deeper he sinks, but he can’t think of any other way. He thrashes his arms and screams and demands apologies. From whom? It doesn’t matter as long as they seem sincere. Nobody appears at the edge to grab his hand and pull him out. There are no vines miraculously dangling from a nearby tree, no helpful wildlife waiting to lift him to salvation. The only thing he has is rage and it’s killing him.
It’s not deep enough to kill him and it’s not enough to even harm him in the long-term and yet he lies there for hours, trying to absorb as much of the stench and filth as possible so that when he rises again everyone can smell and see the trials he’s been through. He can wash it off when he gets home, but he will not. If it can happen to him, it could happen to anyone. Think of all the innocent lives destroyed.
The snakes will not stop writhing, they roil over and around his body like hydrogen molecules churning within the sun. It feels like being groped by hundreds of hands at once. He lies there wishing they would just devour him but it will be hours of feeling their muscles slithering across every inch of his skin, and for one moment, he understands what everyone has been telling him.
The stones are millions of years old and they do not care. Their indifference to his fragility is the most upsetting thing. Sticks and stones may break your bones, and that’s it.
He’s running through a castle, leaping onto floating platforms and across gullies and off of the heads of his enemies, and with each second he feels more invincible—and, in fact, at times he is invincible, charging with the power of a shooting star through anyone who stands in his way, doing front flips and leaping twice as high as he ever could, and he feels himself radiating with an awe-inspiring energy—but the true invincibility always wears off at the worst time, and so he is mid-jump when the power leaves him, giving him only a second to look beneath him at the spikes, placed there by some sadistic architect, or maybe even by the Princess, who has set him up for exactly this fall. It’s his last life and there is no regeneration, there is no return to the checkpoint, there is just a black screen telling him it’s the end.
His bones will be preserved, and he will be put on display for thousands of years afterward, and though he had often daydreamed about his legacy, had in fact spent the last few years of his life working on his memoirs so that he could dictate the world’s memory of him, he knows the moment he feels the tar rising up toward his knee, his body inexorably sliding deeper in, that he has no control anymore, that everything has finally caught up to him, and he thinks: is this how the mammoth felt? Am I a relic, am I a tourist attraction, am I a cautionary tale, am I the last of my kind? He considers extinction and the future of his species and he knows there are probably thousands more years without him, but it’s impossible to wrap his head around the concept of a world in which he does not exist.
There are hundreds of girls at the bottom, already dead, and though they break his fall, he resents them for not having posted a warning sign at the edge of the well. He doesn’t realize there was a warning sign, there had been warning signs for miles, but it was written in poetry, a language he does not understand.
Sometimes in that moment just before the man begins falling, the millisecond between pressing his foot down and finding nothing, the last meaningful thoughts of his life are ones of self-pity: why did this happen to me? If this could happen to me, couldn’t it happen to anyone? Shouldn’t there be a system in place to help men avoid the pits? His final thoughts are that his life has been tragic, his death is a martyrdom. But think of all the pits he hasn’t fallen in. Think of how long he’s been running recklessly through the world with eyes closed and fists clenched, accidentally stepping over tripping hazards, tumbling just past the snake pits and the gator pits and the quicksand. Think of how he felt the heat of the magma bubbling up near his feet and then laughed it off with his buddies and then took one more step. Think of the people he’s plowed into and knocked into the pits and how he covered his ears because the screams were breaking his concentration. In his final moments, the condemned man begins, for the first time, to think about fairness, and only then does he realize: nobody cares. You are more disposable than you’ve ever dreamed. Millions of better people have fallen to the bottom of the pits before you. Only the earth survives.
Tom McAllister is the non-fiction editor of Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. He's also the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower's Handbook.