“Sometimes, I wonder just exactly how bad of a person I really am. Other times I wonder if I care.” –the journal of a lonely young girl, July 6, 2012
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
I walked along the edge of an abyss for a while. I’ll admit, I sometimes like to play the victim, but don’t let me fool you; I knew exactly what I was doing when I ignored the signs reading “DANGER – KEEP OUT” and climbed through the holes in the fences surrounding that pit. I mean, sure, it wasn’t my fault that my house was on the wrong side of the tracks, on cheap land, close to the chasm. It wasn’t my fault the city workers hadn’t kept up with maintenance along the fence, to keep curious, daring young girls and boys from climbing through it. It certainly wasn’t my fault that the people meant to watch over me were off in their own worlds, not there to keep me from wandering where I shouldn’t have been. But, it’s not like anyone forced me to go over there. It’s not like anyone forced me to peer down into the dark unknown and every day, dare myself to stare longer.
I didn’t really understand why I felt drawn to the shadows, but I remember feeling a reckless, nihilistic urge to jump in, to leave everything I knew behind and lose myself in that pit. I would always recoil, of course -I would always push that urge down- but it was still there, day in and day out, the desire to throw caution to the wind and jump.
One day, I came across an indentation in the ground in front of me, connecting to the chasm. It sloped downwards to a drop-off, but would let me walk further into the chasm without having to fall off the edge. I knew it was dangerous, but the temptation was too much to resist. I’d never seen that deep into the pit before. What did it look like? What was down there? I had to know.
I walked into the indentation, toward the edge. I kicked the sand at my feet down into the darkness as I leaned forward…and what happened next should come as no surprise to anyone who’s a little wiser than I was at the time.
The ground beneath me shifted and crumbled. I tried to leap toward solid ground but there was nothing to grab onto except sand and air and before I knew it I was clawing and grasping at the hard, rock wall that made of the side of the chasm. I was bruised and cut as I hit rocks and scraggly mesquite trees and weeds on the way down, every few feet.
After a few moments of terror I hit something solid. I gasped, winded at the fall, but after a few seconds I started laughing, relieved. Thank God, there was a cliff to break my fall! I looked up and saw that there was no way for me to climb up the way I had fallen. It was too far, too sheer. I’d never make it. Oh, well, I would just have to follow along the edge of this cliff for a while until I found a way back up.
I started walking.
After a time, I noticed there was a man walking beside me. I was surprised to see anyone else down here; where had he come from? I didn’t even hear him approach. I looked at him, and he looked at me back, sizing each other up as we walked. “Now, what are you doing here?” he asked me, breaking the silence. “Nice girls shouldn’t hang out in places like this.”
“I’m not a nice girl,” I said, continuing to hike down the narrow road. “I don’t think there are any nice girls, here or up there. I think they might all just be pretending.”
“You don’t say.” He paused for a minute, and we walked in silence. “Is that why you came here? You think it’s a refuge from all of that, up there?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what I think. I didn’t really mean to get down here, to be honest. I was just checking it out, and I kind of slipped.”
He laughed then, and for the first time, I wondered if this was the sort of person I should be talking to. His laugh is like that, making you wonder. “Isn’t that always the way?”
“I guess.” I started to feel nervous, but I told myself I was being silly. “Anyways, I’m trying to find a way back up there. Think you could give me directions, since you know so much about this place?”
“I could. Not that my directions would help you much, with all those strings pulling at you.”
“Strings? What?” I turned to look at him, confused.
“Oh, you didn’t know?” He pointed around me, and I looked at my arms and legs, completely normal, string-free. “You’ve got a real issue, there. Strings pulling you up, strings pulling you down. The tension will get to you sooner or later, you know that, right?”
Ooookay. Obviously, this man was insane. I stopped walking, turned to look him in the face. “Hey, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t really know you. It’s not safe to talk to strangers.”
He stared at me for a moment, and I prepared myself to run in case he made a move. Instead, he smiled amiably. “I understand. By all means, safety first! My turn is coming up, anyways.” He pointed at a fork in the road ahead, one that led to the left, and downward. “Best of luck finding your way! Of course, it might take a while. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into each other again one of these days. Anyway!”
We’d reached his turn. He waved at me happily as I kept walking to the right, already forgetting the weirdo who’d struck up a conversation with me as I walked, thinking about where might be a good place to start climbing. Why were the rocks here so steep?
I walked and walked and walked, until my feet ached and blisters formed, but with every step my surroundings only got darker. I tried to ignore the sinking feeling in my gut as the path I was walking got narrower and more uncertain, leading me down and down, further from the light. I couldn’t turn around and go back; there was no way back up to the surface that way, I’d checked. My only hope was to keep walking and hope I found some kind of way back up, down the road.
When I was on the surface, I had found a dark sort of thrill, peering down into the darkness of the chasm. Now, with the threat of falling so much closer, I tried to avoid looking as much as I could, but I still found myself glancing into the hole, the shadows, the jagged edges of rocks the light still reached -and I would have this urge to jump, to surrender to gravity. It was only getting stronger, the further down I went.
I shuddered. I had to find a way out of here.
It was a long time before I found my shot to crawl my way back into the light. The problem was, it was a long shot.
A rope. Long, old-looking, frayed….and on the other side of the chasm. The distance was just far enough that I wasn’t sure I could jump, and if I could, I would have to contend with the uncertain sandy ground that led down toward a steep drop-off.
I stared at that rope for a long time, trying to deny what I already knew in my gut. Then I looked at the space between where I’d been walking and the path on the other side, next to the rope.
I looked at the path behind me.
I looked at the path before me.
I didn’t want to do this, but the sinking feeling in my gut told me that I had to. I could walk for miles down the same path I had been on, but I wouldn’t get another chance like this. I was afraid of jumping, but I was more afraid of wasting away down here. I had to do this. It was my only chance at escape, my only chance to see the sunlight again.
I took a deep breath, backed up as far as I could against the wall, and before I could lose my nerve, I ran two steps and pushed off the edge, flinging myself toward the other side.
I came so close.
As it was, I managed to hit the opposite side, frantically grasping at the rocks around me as gravity started to pull me down. No, no, no, I thought as I slowly began to slip down the incline, thanking God and anyone else who was listening when I managed to grab a firmly planted rock and stop sliding. I stayed there, fearful, grateful, shaking as I clung to my handhold.
“There you are.”
I looked up; it was the man from before (out of nowhere again- how did he do that?), now giving me a knowing look. “Help!”
He cocked his head. “Can’t you lift yourself up?”
I tried, God, I tried, but I couldn’t do it; I was too afraid of moving so much I displaced myself from my already-uncertain handhold, and fell. My arms were shaking with the effort of holding my weight; my feet scraping the side of the wall, searching desperately for leverage. “I can’t!” I choked out.
“What a shame.” He peered over the edge. “Long way down, isn’t it?”
I glared at him, but then the rock shifted. I started to slip. I looked back up with utmost panic as he finally bent down and reached for me-
-only to shove me down, away from the wall, away from any hope of saving myself.
I was in free fall with his laughter in my ears, and I fully expected the last thought I ever had to be, Fuck that guy.
There were no plants or rocks to break my fall this time. I hurdled straight into the abyss I had spent so long trying to avoid, dreading impact.
For a few seconds, I was weightless, suspended in a strange sort of place between security and pain.
Then I hit bottom, and shattered.
I must have lost consciousness for a while, because I remember a long blur of darkness. When I finally did open my eyes, my first thought was, if I’m dead, why does it still hurt so much? I got one good look at the place I was in: dark and shadowy, illuminated only by a sort of half-light that didn’t reveal too much.
My head throbbed -I must have hit it pretty hard on the way down- and I put my head back on the ground and let myself sink back into sleep.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. -Psalm 23:4
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. -Dylan Thomas
When I finally woke up, for good this time, the first thing I noticed was a dull ache, everywhere.
I slowly sat up, despite the pain it seemed to cause to every single nerve in my body, and looked myself over, taking inventory of my injuries. Somehow, miraculously, I didn’t seem to have broken any bones. Every movement hurt, but at least I could move. That was good news. It meant I would be able to walk soon, as soon as the soreness died down; but, for now, just sitting up made my head spin. I had to lay back down and rest.
The only thing I was really worried might be injured was my head. It was still aching and throbbing like the rest of my body, but the worrying thing was that I thought I might have been hallucinating. I kept seeing dark shapes moving around out of the corner of my eye, hearing little whispers just soft enough not to be called sound.
At first I hoped I was just tired and imagining things. However, as I spent more and more time recuperating there, at the bottom of the pit, the hallucinations only seemed to get worse. The dark shadows grew form. The whispers morphed into words like my name, “it’s time”, “Listen!”, “Now.” I decided the darkness was just playing tricks on me; after all, humans aren’t meant to live in the shadows. I knew that the darkness was affecting my mind somehow, because how else could you explain the thoughts I was having -that nothing was worth it, that I may as well just lay down and die? That wasn’t like me. I knew those thoughts weren’t mind, couldn’t have been mine. I still felt a burning in my chest, demanding, get up. Take a step. Stretch. Recover. You have to escape. You can’t let him win.
I glared up into the sky, furious. I hated the man that had thrown me down here. I hated him. I hated him. I could not just stay here. I had to find my way back to that rope. Laying there in too much pain to move, I promised myself: come hell or highwater, no matter what I had to do or who I had to become, I would find a way back to the light.
It wasn’t long before I decided it was time to start making my way back up. It wasn’t so much a rational decision to look at my broken body and think, “Yep, I’m healed enough to start climbing!” It had more to do with the fact that I felt all my anger and restlessness was burning me up, choking me from the inside out. Whether it worked or not, I had to move. No one was going to come to save me; no one ever had- and for all I knew, some complete dickhead would come along and throw me down again.
I spent more time than I care to admit, in those first hours and days of recuperating, simmering with loathing at the man who’d done this to me. He was an evil son of a bitch, throwing a kid into a ditch and leaving her for dead, just for his own sick amusement. He probably thought it was hilarious that I was laying here in agony, having to will myself just to keep existing, to resist being consumed by the chasm I was in.
That was the other part of why I had to move: this pit was changing me. Slowly but surely, my eyes were starting to adjust to the darkness -and that was not a good thing. The shadowy figures were getting closer, the whispers growing louder, and with each passing moment it got harder to believe that it was all ‘in my head’, symptoms of a brain injury. I got used to feeling like I was being watched. There was this strange acidic quality to the air; I felt like I was dissolving in it. I would look down at my limbs and see with horror that they were fading, dissolving, and in my worst moments, I wondered if I cared.
And when I thought that, I would grit my teeth and force myself to rip that thought into tiny, little shreds. I would not dissolve. I would not cease to be. I would keep struggling, forever, no matter what, until the end of me; if I did die down here, I would die from the exhaustion of trying to climb those damn cliffs. Even if I tried to climb and fell again, I would keep going, even if I had to crawl my way back up. I would not just lay here and die! If I was gonna go down, damn it, I would go down swinging!
And so, one day, I forced myself slowly to my knees; then to my feet. I took a step, and another, and another, and hobbled my way toward the nearest cluster of rocks. I agonizingly lifted myself up, and started to climb.
I didn’t get all that far at first. The pain wasn’t such an issue after a while; I came to expect it, to accept it, to be able to come close to ignoring it. It was the damn voices that were a bigger issue as they grew louder and louder: “You’re worthless.” “Give up.” “This is your home now, forget the light.” “Join us.”
“Shut up,” I muttered, continuing to trudge along, looking for some kind of handhold. Sometimes the acid in the air would start to dissolve me again and I would have to will myself to remember that I had two hands and five fingers on each of them, that I was solid, a creature of the light. Sometimes the voices got to me, confusing me, convincing me that I really did belong there in the darkness, having my will to live slowly eroded. In those moments, my only solace was that if that were true, it wouldn’t hurt so bad to be here. Besides, if I gave up -if I stayed here- he would win.
I’ll confess, at times, a longing for the light of day wasn’t enough to keep me going. After all, it wasn’t like the world up there was all happiness and peace; I’d been kicked around and abandoned so often up there, I considered it normal, par for the course. It was bad down here, but it was bad up there, too. Sometimes a love for the light of day wasn’t enough to keep me grasping at the next rock and pulling myself up, inch my inch. At times I had do concentrate on that guy who’d thrown me down here, his smug face and self-satisfied attitude. My blood boiled. I couldn’t let him win. I would find my way out of here if it was the last thing I ever did.
Climb! I ordered myself. When my arms shook and I didn’t think I could keep going, between the pain and the acid in the air, I would tell myself, shut up, this is fine, this is nothing, I can do this. And lo and behold, I could. Slowly, I got better at climbing. I made more and more progress. I started to feel aches in my muscles instead of aches in my bones, as the days passed and I got better and better at judging which rocks would hold my weight, at being patient enough to stay suspended in the air so high up while I looked for a way to keep moving up. After all, I had already fallen so much further once. It wasn’t like another fall could be any worse, could it?
About halfway toward where I figured that rope to be, I came to the grim conclusion that if I had known, when I first slipped into the chasm, what I knew now, I could have just climbed back up from that little path I had been walking on. There were plenty of handholds, ways to drag myself back up, but I had just been too afraid of falling to use them. I hadn’t believed that I had the strength to lift myself up. Instead, I had been looking for an easy way out; but there wasn’t one. There was no easy way out of this place, and now I was paying the price for having ever thought there could be.
I would still slip, feel panic gripping me like cool ice water being poured through my insides. Sometimes I fell down a few feet. I got bruised and scraped and got so many scars, but I kept going. I was getting stronger, not just my body, but my mind as well. The voices and the shadows were still around, but I was getting better and better at ignoring them: “There’s no point,” one would whisper.
I would ignore them, scowling as I concentrated on lifting myself onto a rock jutting out of the side of the chasm.
There were still times I wanted to get up. I slumped on the top of a cliff or a rock, feeling like there was no point, like no matter what I did, I would never escape this place. I’d struggled so hard and for so long and look, I had barely made any progress at all. There was no point. There had never been a point.
You have to push. In times like these there was something that would rekindle the fire in my chest, a voice that would seem to rise up and manifest from somewhere in me. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard. No one has ever just handed you victory. You have to keep pushing toward the light.
“I know,” I would mutter to myself. “I know.” No one was coming to save me; no one ever had. I had to do this on my own.
I would take a deep breath, and keep climbing.
Finally. Finally. Finally.
I dragged myself up to the ledge I had been trying to reach, grinning widely for what felt like the first time since I had fallen into this godforsaken place. I stood up, feeling a soaring feeling in my chest as I grabbed the rope. Not that I had any idea how to climb ropes -but hey, I hadn’t had any idea how to rock climb, and look how far I’d gotten!
It took me a couple of tries, but I figured out how to wrap my legs around the rope and push myself up with the leverage. Slowly I made my way up, but I didn’t think about my arms burning- I only thought about reaching the sunlight above.
I made it, I thought, I made it, I made it, I’m almost there. I looked up, eager to see how close I was-
It was him.
The man who’d pushed me into the chasm. He sitting at the top of the ledge, next to the rope. Smiling at me.
I stopped climbing, shotgunning disbelief, horror, exasperation, and fury.
He frowned. “What are you doing? Don’t stop! You’re almost finished!”
My arms shook from the effort of holding me still, but I still glared up stubbornly. “You’re the one who did this to me!”
“Yep.” He stared at me, something between mocking and challenging. “Well? What are you waiting for?”
I gritted my teeth, furious. I had no choice and he knew it. I started climbing again, swearing up a storm.
When I eventually got to the top, I reached my hand up to grab the ledge, intending to lift myself up the rest of the way and either kick the guy in his shins or run like hell. Instead, he grabbed my arm and lifted me up the rest of the way, out of the chasm and into the sun.
I was in no mood to be grateful. I screeched and kicked as he set me onto the ground next to him. “Let me go!”
“Not yet. I’ve got something to show you.”
“I don’t care! I hate you! Leave me alone!”
Despite my protests, he forced me to lean over the side of the pit again, this time holding me firmly back from falling. “Look.”
“Let! Go! Of! Me!” He was strong. My squirming and scratching was achieving absolutely nothing. I kind of felt like an idiot, but mostly I just felt pissed off.
“Not until you look.”
Once again, I had no choice. I looked.
I could see the rope I’d used to climb here, and the rocks I’d used to get to that. But one thing I hadn’t noticed on my way up was what was on the other side of those rocks.
See, I could distantly see the place where he had pushed me into; a long way down, to be sure, and a hell of a climb back up. But at least I knew, that pit had a bottom.
I couldn’t see the bottom of the other side; the side I had been sliding toward when he had pushed me -not just down, I realized, but away from falling into a place that was so deep that it may not even have an ending. The darkness of that pit looked like more than just an absence of life. It looked alive. Just looking into it, I felt a chill. It was like the darkness was whispering to me, Give up. Give in. Melt into the shadows.
I stopped resisting, realizing that if this guy hadn’t pushed me, I would’ve fallen into that pit, the source of all the misery I had to overcome during the climb. And if I had fallen into that pit, I felt an instinctual certainty that I would never have been able to escape.
“Now you get it.” His grip released, and instead of hitting him or running away, I just sat down at his side, feeling dazed and confused. I looked at him, and for once he looked serious.
I waited for him to speak, but he just stared at me.
We sat there for a long time, him waiting for me to speak, me struggling with anger and confusion and hurt and trying to find some way to put them into words.
Finally I spoke. “You could’ve just lifted me up.”
“I could’ve.” He smiled again, but this time it didn’t look mocking. Just a small smile, almost sad. “But what would you have learned from that?
From out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
–Invictus by William Ernest Henley
“You see, everyone wants to get saved.” He went on as we sat together. I was still considering running away -maybe I should have ran, I might’ve saved myself a world of trouble- but my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to hear what he had to say for himself, so I sat there, listening dully as I stared down into the chasm I had spent so long fighting to leave. “Everyone wants an easy way out, but it doesn’t work that way. You won’t get very far if you don’t learn to save yourself.”
“What do you care?” I sneered, unable to hold in my anger. “You expect me to believe you did all this for my sake?”
“No. I mean, not entirely. I have my own reasons to want you to be strong.”
“You don’t even know me!” I burst out.
He stared at me. “Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about? You think you’re the first person ever to go too far, to end up down there? You think you’re the first person who’s ever had to climb their way out of darkness?”
“What should I care? I didn’t ask for your help. I just wanted to reach that rope. And I could’ve, if you hadn’t intervened.”
“Kid, I put that rope there.”
I stared at him, wondering if he was lying, but something told me he wasn’t.
He looked at me seriously, entirely unapologetic. “No one ever said life was easy. You were always going to struggle. But because of me, now you know you can survive.”
I scowled. This man was out of his mind. I had been put through hell by the whims of a lunatic. “Forget it. I’m out now, and I’m never going back.” I stood up and began to walk away.
After a few steps, I heard him walking behind me. “Hey, don’t walk away. I’m not through with you.”
I turned and hissed, “Well, I’m through with you. I don’t give a damn about you making me ‘stronger’ or ‘learning to survive’ or any of that shit. You had no right to do that. Now leave me alone!”
“What do you mean, I didn’t have the right? Don’t you get it?” He was still following me, sounding annoyed. “Anyone could have come across you back there. They could have done a whole lot worse than I did. You should be grateful I got to you first.”
“Grateful? I can’t even -stop talking to me!” This was it. I was losing my temper. How dare this guy put me through that, and then tell me I should be grateful? “I don’t want to hear anything you’ve got to say!”
“Well, not to be rude, but tough shit.” Apparently, I’d reached the point of No More Mister Nice Jerk. He grabbed me again so I couldn’t run, and forced me to sit back on the ground. “Look, it sucks that you didn’t get the luxury of knowing who I was, or what was happening.”
“But it turns out, you didn’t need it. You made it without knowing why I’d thrown you down there. You made yourself into what you needed to be to survive. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the changes?”
I glared at him. “I was kind of focused on not falling to my death, so no, I didn’t notice any changes. Silly me. Now let go of me!”
“Look at yourself.”
“I won’t let go until you do.”
I hated this guy, but I believed him, so I did it. I looked at myself, not just my body, but the rest of me, too.
I was covered in scars, scrapes, and bruises. But every one of those injuries had healed during the climb. My arms and legs were sore and tired and aching, but they were stronger. My body was leaner and fitter than it had ever been. When I thought about that chasm, I didn’t feel a grip of fear anymore. Apprehension, sure -falling is always painful, and God knows the bottom’s not a great place to be- but I realized, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I’d already crashed full force; I’d already proved that I could make my way back up.
And I realized that the darkness didn’t call to me- or if it did, I didn’t listen anymore. Down there, the option to give in, to stop existing, had been ever-present and inescapable. Down there, it was like that small urge in my head to jump into the darkness manifested as acid, constantly eating at me, forcing me to face it head-on just to survive.
And I did. Every second, I faced it. I survived.
And now, I didn’t want to jump in. Not even a little. That urge was gone.
“People who feel drawn to that pit usually end up going back again and again until they fall in,” he said, almost softly- like he could hear my thoughts and knew what I needed to hear. “If I had just lifted you out, one day you would have wandered back. You would have slipped again. You would have found yourself at the bottom, but with no reason to fight to escape.”
“You said I had ‘strings’.” I shook my hand and, after hesitating briefly, he let go of me. I didn’t run this time. “Strings pulling me up and down.”
“Mm. Yeah, I did. Can you see them now?”
“No. But I can see other things. Hear other things, too. Like people all around me, watching me, trying to talk to me.”
He nodded, like that was a completely normal thing to say. “You’ll get better at it as time goes on. But that’s a different story. The point is, you used to have strings pulling you back and forth -the life you’d known, that you thought you were supposed to have, and on the other hand, you’ve got that thing that made you keep going back and staring into that pit. You see what I mean?”
I nodded, slowly. “I think.”
“Now, all the strings are cut. Or, rather, most of them. I, ah, redirected a few.”
I frowned. “To where?”
He smiled. “To me.” He stood up, started walking, and motioned for me to follow. “Now, let’s go! We’ve got things to do!”
I scowled. “Why should I follow you?”
He gave me that same shit-eating grin that I was coming to expect from him. “Where else are you going to go?”
I scowled harder. “You’ve got to be the smuggest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
“Thank you.” He kept walking.
For a minute I considered refusing to follow. It wasn’t like I owed him anything. I could ignore his advice, go my own way.
But I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I had made my way out of the chasm, sure; but I was on the opposite side of where I had started, not to mention miles from where I lived. I couldn’t go back to my old life. I could never go back, and besides, I didn’t want to; I had only stayed there because I thought I had no other options. But now that I knew I did, I had no idea where to go, how to make it -and that’s not even taking into account the shadows and voices I still had hanging around. How was I ever supposed to deal with them if I had no idea how?
I took a deep breath and swallowed my pride. “Wait up!”