There is a question. A single question leeching on the deepest, darkest part of our minds. Tucked away, trying to hide. But it’s there. We can’t escape it, no matter how hard we try. Because it stares down at us every single day, every single life. Always there, looking down at us, hiding half the world from our eyes. Towering above in the sky, the stone face of the Wall glares down with cold unwavering silence. And what it hides flutters around our thoughts like moths circling a flame, staring in wonder but never able to touch it without crumbling into ash.
The Gunman makes sure of that. His work is displayed across the Wall’s roots for us to see, a carpet of bones picked dry and scorched white. They are his creations. His children.
I look at them in wonder. Some look in terror. Others respect. Different, but all the same: a warning. If we approach the Wall, we will fall still in decaying sleep, joining nameless dust crumbling to ashes. The Gunman, atop his perch in the sky, holds us back, under a shadow as old as memory itself. Back from what? That is the question.
Everyone has their own answer.
Ailah sees vast forests of lush, swaying trees, leaves dancing in the soothing wind. Kinah dreams of a city vast and endless, its towering stone structures rising to meet the clouds themselves. Akel describes a glittering blue ocean, filled with great wooden ships bearing flags of every color. The priest always dismisses our follies:
“Beyond the Wall, only the ones judged worthy by the Gunman may live. Whether it is in this life or in your next, eventually all will find their way into Paradise.”
I sit and listen. Any story paints a better picture than the nothingness that surrounds our side of the Wall. An endless scape of shifting, searing sand stretches out past the stumps of dried mud structures we call home, bathing in the glow of a burning sun above. To dare the rough, loose earth that is swept dancing with the wind was beyond question. Your soul, lost in the sands for the rest of time, would never cross the Wall, never be reborn for a chance to be judged worthy by the Gunman. Which is worse? For souls to wander endlessly or be snuffed out by the Gunman’s rifle? The only choice we have is to survive under the Wall’s shadow until called to the other side.
And survive is all we do. I keep watch of bony livestock scrounging the brittle dirt for the smallest crumb of leafy green. There’s no point really. Weak little legs would perish immediately out in the desert. And yet we stand squinting at the dust-coated animals, or digging dry earth in hopes that seeds take root to bear small, shriveled fruit and vegetables. Many nights we simply stare into the flames, watching them dance instead of us. The fire always dances. It is free from this world, able to come and go as it pleases. We are not. We are trapped here, held back from Paradise by the Wall. My life is everyone’s life. We must look like scurrying little ants to the Gunman, speeding along to die over and over again until he deems us worthy to cross the Wall.
I wonder how long he’s been up there.
Only once have I heard the blast of fire that erupts from the Gunman’s weapon when someone is foolish enough to disobey his only rule. I was still very young when my friend Miel’s father, head burning too hot under the sun, thought he might outwit the Gunman during the dark blanket of night. Maybe he saw himself as a shadow, or a small fly buzzing harmlessly around. But the Gunman knew. He always knows. Miel’s father collapsed before he’d touched the Wall, bright red spilling from his stomach.
The sound the weapon had made still lingers in my mind. A mighty roar, echoing through the clouds and desert. Its power was overwhelming.
Miel remembers too. Out in the fields he holds his stare on the stone curtain spreading across the horizon, eyes fixed on the top. I see something in his eyes, a hate buried in fear of the Gunman’s wrath, waiting for its moment to pounce. Hopefully it won’t. For his sake.
But if I look hard, the same look is in everyone’s eyes. Eyes that when young sparkled and gleaned are now eroded into dull, dry things. Though we show respect for the Gunman, give offerings of fruit and vegetables to the basket dangling from the Wall’s summit, and never approach the Wall, hate is in everyone. We do well at hiding it. The Gunman may see everything we do, but even he can’t see our thoughts. If he did, the visions would scream and tear, demanding to be let across the Wall. They’d shout:
“Why aren’t I worthy to pass the Wall?”
“Why is the Wall here?”
“Why is Paradise cut off from us?”
“What is behind the Wall?”
The single question. It has many forms. But they all drive us in a single direction.
How lucky those must be who have made it over. How perfect their lives are now. With the Gunman to their backs, free of the wastelands that surround us in a prison of emptiness. Do they still remember us? Do they remember the desert and sun? The eternal shadow of the Wall? Or the aching, crushing feeling of every day, held at bay by the sliver of hope that this life will be the one that is worthy. For them, it was. For us, only the Gunman knows.
Sitting under wrinkled dry trees, Miel and I watch the sun creep under the horizon. The smears of purple and red and orange filling the edge of the world are almost enough to forget about the Wall, even if only for a moment. Against the splendor of colors, the pale stones fade away into shadows. We see dreams in those lights. Figures free, swimming in the open sky above the deserts with graceful twists and turns. They must see everything. Our small lives amidst the sands. The Gunman on his perch. Paradise beyond the Wall.
Miel sees his father dancing in their company. A lost one reaching out for a hold on the Wall, only to be dragged down under the curtain of night. He talks to me about the Gunman. Whispers curses and threats. The ring of the Gunman’s weapon is the loudest sound in his head and it spills through vengeful lips like water escaping a cracked bowl.
“I wonder,” he began once, “what if the roles reversed. If we stood watch of the Gunman and judged him. Would he lie on his back, helpless, like us for once? Or would he beg for mercy, like a beast for its next meal?”
“The Gunman has always been the judge. It’s his word or nothingness.”
“But imagine if one of us were Summoned. Up there, on the Wall’s peak, standing without the Gunman’s weapon bearing down. Could he be defeated? Could he be cast down, so all of us can enter Paradise?”
I was silent.
“You know we deserve it, Ekial. How long have we been trapped under his Wall? How long have we suffered for something we don’t know about? It’s time to end it.”
“You speak the impossible. No one can scale the Wall without his permission.” I didn’t need to add more.
“I know. Only the Summoned. And I say, if either of us are Summoned in this lifetime, we must bring down the Gunman. Instead of passing by, ignoring all the suffering he’s caused, we let our people have what they deserve. Leave him with nothing to look over. He can rot in these sands, rot as we have, forever.”
We made our pact there, as the inky night finally blotted out the sky. If we were Summoned, we would fight. Was the Gunman possible to overthrow? The answer was unknown to us, though we swore to try.
But will I? The fire that burned in Miel’s eyes was inspiring, but the Wall casts its shadow of doubt over that tiny spark. It could be wiped out in a moment, a single burst raining down from the sky. And then, nothing. No more chances to be judged worthy. Not a chance for Paradise. Just endless sleep under the Wall. Sleep without dreams. I don’t know what I could do against the Gunman. What I would do. He has looked down at me every day of my life, every day of my father’s life, and his father before him, longer than anyone can remember. He is the judge atop the Wall. What hope would I have against him?
I’ve never had much hope. The priest says it is possible to see into past lives, see where you went wrong, know the sins that kept you from Paradise. I cannot. I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting under the Wall. This may be my first life, or my hundredth. Each one fading away in the memories of the Gunman’s eyes. I look up at that Wall, the emptiness it covers us with. And yet, what else is there? Nothing surrounds us like a cage; it is everywhere, with no escape. Not even death. I may be here another hundred lives, but eventually I may be worthy. Eventually I will cross the emptiness of the Wall and arrive where worthy lives descend. I’ve never had much hope, but that hope is the only thing out in these wastelands. The hope of being Summoned.
Such hope can endure for years, the faintest of whispers that keeps one foot moving ahead of the other no matter how tempting it may be to collapse in exhaustion and end it all. And at last there came the moment when that whisper might be fulfilled, when without warning, on a day like any other, the Sign for a Summoning was received. As always, it came within the offering basket, descending from its point of origin so terrifyingly far above. The priest retrieved the carrier and brought its contents back for all to behold: a single, gleaming bullet.
A silence heavy as death gripped the entirety of the village as the object was held high for everyone to see. The piece of metal was dull, grim, and lifeless in the fading light. Its contours and ridges held dreadful suggestions of its intended purpose, and despite everyone’s curiosity, no one, including me, could look at its shape for more than a few moments before glancing away in fear. I shuddered at the thought that this thing, once in the presence of the Gunman, was now here among us.
The priest spoke, “The Summoning has again been laid upon us! The Gunman has chosen someone that is worthy in his eyes!”
Life ceased. No one moved, spoke, or breathed. As the priest retreated to his hut, the world had become so incredibly small. Everything depended on what the priest saw dancing in fire and smoke. The Gunman sent his wishes with that bullet, to be read in smoldering ashes. Only the priest could interpret, only he could see. Every eye focused on that hut, every mouth sounded out their name, every mind saw themselves scaling the face of the Wall and emerging into Paradise.
The sun had set when finally the priest appeared outside. A mass of bodies surrounded him in an instant. Miel and I glanced at each other before turning our gaze towards the priest. In his hands rested the bullet, just as lifeless and twisted as it had been during the day. The old man breathed slow, facing the ground before facing our question.
“The Sign has shown me a name. A name that has been deemed worthy of entering Paradise. Forever more will this soul be free, free to join our ancestors in the greatness beyond the Wall. Step forward and claim your entry,” he pointed, “Ekial.”
Nothing else existed as the priest placed the bullet in my shaking hands. Not the eyes, some glaring, some praising. Not the faces, some proud, others fallen. Not the stars above, the sand below, or even the towering Wall. Just that pointed bullet shining against my flesh.
Sleep would not come that night. Swarming in my head was the question, louder than ever before. I didn’t know what was behind the Wall. I didn’t know what I would find when standing above the world. From Paradise in all its glory to oceans of fire breaking the earth itself, there could be anything. All I knew is that I’d be facing it alone.
I remembered my pact with Miel. More than anything I wanted the strength to carry it out. But looking at the bullet in my hands, the thought grew madder and fainter with every passing moment. The power in this weapon frightened me. The thought of standing before what once held it was terrifying. Miel should have been the Summoned. His rage may have stood against the Gunman. Not mine.
When at last I stood facing the Wall with the sun creeping into the sky, staring up at its impossible heights with the bullet clasped in my hands, a realization came to me. I looked back at my village, all my friends, the people I had known my whole life. No matter what happened, I would never return to this place. The priest put his hand on my shoulder and urged me forward. Taking a deep breath and dropping the bullet in my pocket, I slowly approached the Wall. The closer I got, the more the carpet of bones grew beneath my feet. My heart raced furiously. The Gunman had Summoned me, so he would not fire down. But the bones crunching under my feet followed me the whole way. Never had I been this close to the Wall. I was entering his domain. His kingdom.
The Wall rose before me. The mass of dark gray stones seemed to rise up forever into the sky. Uneven and jagged, they formed a twisting staircase leading up the rocky face. Reaching out, my fingers closed around the brittle surface and, with an anxious pull, I dragged myself up. I climbed and climbed and climbed. The sun moved overhead as I ascended into unknown skies. My muscles stretched and ached, suspending me above the world below. Sometimes a small ledge jutted out of the Wall, enough to give a chance to rest as the hours dragged on. Up and up and up, farther than I would have believed possible. Looking down, the village was just a few spots on the desolate stretch of a desert that seemed to never end. I could see further than anyone else, and yet I still saw what I had seen my whole life: nothing.
The world in the sky was strange and alien. Small insects scuttled along the rough stones, disappearing into tiny holes at the sight of my approach. Icy wind crept along the Wall’s surface, grabbing with long thin fingers, vainly trying to tear away the smallest grain of rock. The clouds, so small from down in the village, were huge flying monsters now, twisting into a thousand different shapes through the sky. The sun beat down on my back with furious intensity, as if it knew that I shouldn’t be here. Cold, thin air surrounded me like a prison, and my breathing grew short and sporadic. I had to make it to the top. The Gunman was waiting for me there.
I did not know how far I had climbed when a ledge mercifully appeared above, this one forming a small cave within the stones of the Wall. Arms and legs crying for rest, I pulled myself in and curled up, weak and tired. My strength gone, my breath short, I lay exhausted in the shelter, letting the wind whip at my hair and clothes. How far was there left to go? It could be a few feet more, or another day’s worth of climbing.
I thought about everyone back in the village. They would be looking up at the Wall day and night, no one able to sleep, eat, or work. The fire would dance unwatched tonight, alone in its existence. Just like me up on the Wall. But here was different. In the village, the night was quiet, peaceful, broken only by the rustle of dried leaves or the patter of footsteps. Here, the only sound was the moaning wind as it swept along the endless surface of the Wall. It never stopped, never slowed, never gave up. The drone lulled my aching body into sleep, even as the hard, brittle stone dug into my skin.
Daylight greeted me when I awoke. Had a day passed? Just a few minutes? I lay looking at the clear blue sky, numbness consuming my body. It seemed a lifetime to crawl back out onto the Wall’s face, to grab hold of the snaking staircase. Inch by inch, minute by minute, the stone surface ever around me. I dared not look down. Hugging the rock, I stopped. A wave of weakness rolled over my body, as if all my strength had tumbled down the Wall to its death. Numbing pain surged in my head.
I was alone. Alone, weak, pathetic, fragile. About to stand against the Gunman. Impossible. No one could. How had I ever thought I could? My promise to Miel shattered, raining broken words down through the clouds. Like those before me, I would crawl meekly past the Gunman for whatever fate awaited me beyond, bowing my head like a scolded beast. But there was no strength left in me. No strength to continue.
Leaning back against the nothingness behind me, I looked up towards the sky, ready to embrace it like a long lost friend. I almost surrendered completely, about to fly, when I saw it. Above me, in clear sight, was the summit of the Wall. It had stopped. Within my reach. And there the Gunman sat, waiting for me to emerge broken and empty in his presence. But something changed then. Something ignited in my veins. Miel’s words came rushing back:
“Instead of passing by, ignoring all the suffering he’s caused, we let our people have what they deserve. Leave him with nothing to look over. He can rot in these sands, rot as we have, forever.”
I knew what I had to do. He wouldn’t have the satisfaction of seeing me beaten. I would make it. Grasping the rock with new-found strength, I clenched my teeth and heaved myself upwards. Faster than I thought possible, the gap between me and the top of the Wall began to shrink. Almost there. So close. So close. Fire burned in my eyes. Fire that would consume the Gunman. Images of every face in the village rushed through my head, urging me on, shouting, hands outstretched to tear the Gunman down from his throne, letting him fall and be consumed below in the garden of bones he had grown for so long.
Wrapping my fingers around the lip of the last ledge, a deep breath filled my lungs. Here I was, at the top of the world, the Wall plummeting down below until it met the tiny dots of the village.
This was for them. For every soul that’s been waiting for years beyond number to cross over the Wall. For every soul broken below and every soul forever lost in the desert. I would not fail. I could not. I pulled myself over the ledge and stood atop the Wall, ready to face the Gunman for the first time.
Ready, until I saw what was there.
No terrible, vast, supreme entity came down with fury upon me. No booming roar of a voice that would break the sky itself. Nothing but a man who sat dead still on the top of the world. An old man, older than ancient, his skin worn down like rough leather, the last remaining strands of wispy hair fluttering in the wind. Dull, dark eyes barely saw me, barely moved as I stood before him. Hunched over as if an immense weight was crushing him, his gaunt body made not a single movement. Neither did mine. Who was this man? He couldn’t be the Gunman… could he?
The moment dragged by, broken only by the rushing of eternal wind. His eyes met mine, filled with an incredible sadness and loneliness so powerful I nearly collapsed. My throat was dry, my eyes watery. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. The man’s arm lifted, slowly and shaking, until he pointed behind him, off into the distance beyond. I realized I could see what lay beyond the Wall.
The question would be answered.
Hope filled my heart, more hope than I’d ever known. Stumbling forward, my breath caught in my throat, I gazed out to what wonders would fill my sight, what dreams would become realities.
And there was nothing.
I did collapse this time, falling to my knees, every ounce of strength and hope utterly vanishing. Below me, on the far side of the Wall, stretched an endless wasteland, from horizon to horizon. No wondrous city, no rolling green fields. Just another world made of sand. The tears flowed freely down my face now. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. I don’t know how long my frozen body sat there, completely destroyed and broken. It was over. Everything was over. Everything I had ever thought, believed, and dreamed, over.
A gnarled, skeletal hand rested itself on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw in the man’s eyes an understanding and sorrow that had no need for words. It was all there in his ancient, sad eyes. And then I knew. Knew what he was. He had been just like me, a Summoned. Scaling the Wall, believing something glorious to be waiting on the other side, only to have that comfort ripped away from him atop the world. My story was his, and his story was the ones before him. Hope had led us here, had driven us, had forced us to keep going on so that one day we may stand here and look out to what was promised since before time can remember.
But now, standing on the Wall, I saw it was hopeless. There would never be a day to enter the Paradise beyond. It wasn’t there. Nothing was there. The only things left in this world were the village and the Wall.
The man turned me around and pointed again, towards the side of the Wall I had come from. There it was, resting like a predator waiting to strike its prey. The gun. Long and deadly, it sparkled black in the bright sunlight, like it was a blot of space the sky had forgotten to color. I slowly approached and lifted its weight, my hands trembling. The touch was cold and hard, just like the bullet I had received. Reaching in my pocket, I pulled the piece of metal out and held it in my hands. Both objects seemed to attract each other, to want to be together, two parts of a single dreadful force. Without thinking, I loaded the bullet into the gun. It seemed like the right thing to do, the only thing that made sense anymore.
An eyepiece was attached to the gun’s barrel, and pressing my eye against it, my village appeared in swelling clarity. Life continued as normal down below. Never again would they see me, say my name, remember my face. In their world, I had passed into Paradise, leaving them behind for something better beyond, something that soon they will join as well. My face glistened with tears, but I was glad for them, glad they still had their dreams, their hope, their Paradise. They were better off than me. I had nothing left, no dreams, no hope, just an empty world that stretched endlessly in all directions.
And then I saw him. Running over sand and bones, eyes set to climb the Wall. Miel. I wanted to shout, scream at the top of my lungs for him to stop, but he wouldn’t hear me. He reached the Wall, grabbing hold of its rocky surface in an attempt to begin his own climb. Then I realized: Miel cannot see what I’ve seen. No one else can. They need to survive, if for no other reason than just to live, to defy the hopelessness of the world. If they knew the truth, they would lose their hope, and crawl into the shadows around them and simply cease to be. They would die. And then, there truly would be nothing left. The world would be empty. Lifeless. There was only one thing to do. My last trace of hope disappearing, I pulled the trigger.
A fiery crack shattered through the air. It echoed from far down in the village, all the way up to the highest cloud in the sky. Shaking the world itself. The ringing in my ears gave way to silence. A terrible, absolute silence. My friend, Miel, lay dead among the bones, ready to join their ranks as one of the nameless sleepers under the shadow of the Wall. A child of the Gunman. A child of mine. I turned back to the man. Only a brief nod escaped his stillness before he laid a tired head on the cold stones and fell into peaceful, unending sleep.
I stood alone in the empty sky, with nothing but the Wall and gun as companions. To those below, I had entered Paradise, my soul finding peace in the lands beyond. Yet here I would remain, perched like a vulture in the sky watching with keen eyes those who still believed, who needed to keep believing. No one else would learn the answer, the answer to the question that would doom them all to nothingness. Until my time came to an end, no one else would climb to this lonely peak where the truth was spread out on all sides. No one else needed to know. There only needed to be one Gunman on the Wall.
© 2015 by Aleksander Volkmar
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