They’d counted forty dead—sixteen their own and the rest the enemy. The stink of death and smoke was heavy on the still, sweltering air. The jungle droned loudly, its eager night-voice building up as the sun burned beneath the treetops in the west.
Garrety removed a cigarette from the pocket of his shirt, lighted it and sucked on it disconsolately before offering it to McVries beside him. They passed it back and forth, oblivious to the corpses drawing thick clouds of flies, the radio resting on the grass between them waiting for their call to base to be made so that a dust-off would be sent to rescue them. They made no move to call base yet, though. They only stood smoking and silently recalling the past several hours, so unreal-seeming now: first the battle on the trail winding along the coastal plateau with the ceaseless voice of the Pacific murmuring to the south; this now-still place where their friends had been cut to pieces in the grass: Olson with his chest bullet-riddled and torn to shit; Parker with his face blown off, his fine blonde hair grotesquely untouched and brilliant in the gloomy air under the dense canopy of the trees; their Colonel, Stebbins, destroyed belly spilling his intestines into the grass as he sought fruitlessly to crawl to cover while holding his guts inside himself with one hand, like a butcher handling a bundle of sausages; and all the rest too, all dead after an unexpected encounter with a Jap patrol just as startled as they’d been when they’d collided on the footpath curving the plateau’s scenic rim and, now, just as dead as their friends.
Mostly though, their attention was riveted by the evidence of that other unfathomable happening of that strange, strange day: the giant cloud darkening the view of the open ocean before them. Immense and mushroom-shaped, it appeared suspended in motionlessness over the tiny distant island, plunging it into deepest shadow, as if somehow paused against the sky for them to study, and glean some meaning from.
McVries, staring at it, seeing ghost-armies swirling in its depths, said, “What was it?”
Garrety remembered the great silent flash of hours before, and then the concussive thunder that followed, so colossal it defied a man’s ability to articulate. He said, “It was a bomb.”
“But—it—I know—but…look at it.”
“…Yeah. I know.”
“Was it a…test? They do tests like that, I heard.”
“Do people live on that island?”
“Nothing lives there now.”
They digested the words.
They were silent. The excited buzz of flies surrounded them, the distant lapping of waves.
Then McVries said, “We don’t belong here, brother.”
Garrety said, “Where can we go?”
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They continued smoking and watching the cloud, thinking of the blinding flash and the visible ripple of the water pushed before it to slam onto the rocks at the base of the cliff on which they stood; and the gargantuan plume of fire and smoke rising upward from the tiny island to obliterate the daylight. They thought about these things, ignoring the strewn dead and the radio between them; and then each began to weep quietly while giving the other the respect of not looking at him, offering a false but necessary privacy with their sorrow. They were men, after all, and more than this they were soldiers with a duty to stay strong in this place; and if they needed a moment to pay their respects to their friends, and to nameless islands burned to oblivion, this was acceptable.
Minutes passed. The jungle’s night-voice grew louder. Monkeys brayed like lunatics in the green gulfs of the interior. Birds screamed, their voices like mockery from the trees. Deeper darkness crept in to steal away the remnants of the day. The giant cloud continued to hang in the sky, terrifying and fiery and darker than all.
The men turned to the Japanese soldier, the sole enemy survivor of the firefight whom they’d found crawling desperately among the elephant grass, bleeding violently from the bullet that had decimated his thigh; they stood looking down at him where they’d tied him to the base of the tree, mouth stuffed with a bloody rag, awaiting their attentions with hateful, dignified eyes. They’d forgotten about him after the flash and the thunder and the fire and the waves and the monstrous cloud.
McVries pulled the knife from the scabbard at his hip.
Garrety, observing the fury and dignity in the captive’s eyes, said it again, to McVries; to himself; to the captive man before them; to the jungle watching them in their great desolation beneath the shadow of the mushroom-cloud. “Where can we go?”
They looked from the Jap to the radio resting on the grass like a relic from another time, and its bankrupt promise of salvation. Maybe they were finished altogether with youthful notions like those. Maybe their long trek to base had been compromised long before they’d even set out that morning. They were only men, after all, trying to walk through a world that gave birth to calamities large enough to blot out the sun and moon.
Garrety unslung his machine gun, aimed it at the radio, and let off a short burst that blew it to pieces.
McVries stared at the smouldering wreckage, unmoved. Then he knelt behind the captive Jap and sliced through the rope binding his hands. He stood and said to the man, “It doesn’t matter. We’ll meet again soon. Go.”
The man spit the dirty rag from his mouth, struggled to his feet, crumpled a moment later with a groan, and then crawled off down the trail, watching them apprehensively over his shoulder until he reached the bend in the path that led off among the denser trees of the interior. The trail of blood he left in his wake gleamed in the dying light. It glistened through the torn fabric of his pants as he crouched on the trail, unmoving.
Garrety and McVries passed the cigarette back and forth, watching him curiously. They observed him for several minutes. The man’s posture was peculiar, kneeling on the trail and staring upward at something that was invisible from where they stood, especially since he’d hastened from them with such eagerness to be free again. Only when the sound of his frantic whispering drifted to them did the two men exchange worried expressions and, raising their weapons, slink forward to investigate.
What they found took them a moment to comprehend.
The ladder was a brilliant gold, inlaid with silver particles like celestial dust that glimmered in the moonlight.
They looked up its length, saw that it disappeared high among the canopy of trees, though inexplicably—impossibly—it wasn’t leaning on any tree trunk that they could see; rather, it was held firmly in place in the soil, at a perfectly vertical angle. Where it had come from, they didn’t know. It certainly hadn’t been there during the firefight. And its colour? Its brilliant gold and silver-frosted colour, so misplaced in that stinking jungle?
Garrety slung his gun over a shoulder and removed the binoculars from his pack. He placed the lenses to his eyes and, leaning back as far as he was able, peered upwards along the length of the ladder. He made small adjustments in his position, stepping this way and that to see beyond the obstacle of branches scratching out the sky. When he returned a ways along the path he found a good vantage on the plateau, where the trees were sparser, and saw that the ladder rose clear of the trees and continued upward, ascending as far as his telescopic eye could see. Literally, the impossible ladder disappeared out of sight into the moon-limned clouds miles overhead.
“Where’s it go?”
McVries sounded upset. Indeed, glancing to him, Garrety saw the fear in his friend’s face. He felt that fear, too. The element of ever-present danger that surrounded them when they were in the bush was one thing—it represented a known unknown. They expected it, lived in obeisance to it in order to preserve their lives as they slunk and sweated and fought and bled in the jungle every day. But the ladder was an unknowable thing; beyond logic; beyond understanding. And it had appeared in the wake of the abominable explosion that had engulfed the nearby island; almost, Garrety thought, as if in answer to it, though how or why that could be he couldn’t begin to guess.
Garrety could only hand McVries the binoculars and motion for him to stand just so, boots planted there and there. Because how do you explain a thing like that to a man?
He waited, as McVries looked, and gasped, and swore, and began and stopped speaking several times before, finally, lowering the binoculars to stare at Garrety with haunted eyes.
“I don’t know,” Garrety said.
McVries looked to the Japanese soldier, as if hoping to find an answer to the mystery in the enemy. The Jap only stared upward in total absorption and incredulity, unmoving, seemingly oblivious of the two Canadian soldiers.
Garrety motioned for McVries to give the binoculars to the Japanese soldier. He did. The man, torn from his rabid observation of the incongruous ladder, stared at the proffered binoculars as if he’d never seen something as alien in his entire life. Then, suddenly, meaning arrived, and with it a hungry look in his eyes as the man nodded vigorously and snatched up the binoculars. He looked into the sky. When he turned to the Canadians he was weeping.
He handed the binoculars back to McVries with a shuddering hand. He pointed up, and made a motion as of climbing, hand over hand. The look of entreaty on his sweaty features was impossible to not understand.
McVries also nodded.
Tears continued to stream from the Jap’s eyes. He placed trembling hands on the golden-silver rungs directly before his face, and pulled himself upward. He used his good leg to leverage himself up to the next rung, though a grunt showed his discomfort. Blood drops pattered from his thigh onto the ground beneath him. Once he’d attained fifteen feet along the ladder, he looked over his shoulder at the Canadians watching his progress. He carefully removed a hand from where it gripped a rung, and made a questioning motion toward himself: are you coming, too? They were no longer enemies, he and the Canadians. How could they be, after finding the ladder together and witnessing its mystery?
Garrety shook his head. McVries looked away to stare into the shadows of the jungle. He walked off, and Garrety followed, raising a hand in farewell to the enemy soldier clinging to the shimmering rungs above the steaming jungle floor. The man watched them go with troubled eyes.
The friends walked in silence, sharing another cigarette, listening to the sounds of the night surround them. After a time, they turned at a voice coming from the path behind them, instinctively raising their weapons. They weren’t particularly surprised to find the wounded Japanese soldier crawling in the path, a hand raised in greeting as he picked them out among the shadows.
They waited as he crawled to where they stood. No one spoke, except the great voice of the wilderness all around them. Then they set out together, still wordless, going slowly to maintain the crippled pace of the crawling man. They walked together for hours until they came to a crossroads. There the Japanese soldier turned to crawl along an even narrower path that sloped down steeply into a frond-shrouded ravine. The two Canadians kept to the original path, looking for their own place in the darkness.
PICTURE: Imagen de Michaela en Pixabay
Alexander Zelenyj is a Canadian-Czech author of speculative fiction, born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada in 1975. He is known for his cross-genre work in the areas of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His books include the short fiction collections, Blacker Against the Deep Dark, (Eibonvale Press, 2018), Songs for the Lost (2014 Eibonvale Press; digital edition 2016 Independent Legions Publishing), Experiments At 3 Billion A.M. (2009, Eibonvale Press), and others. His most recent book, These Long Teeth of the Night: The Best Short Stories 1999-2019 is a compendium of his short fiction published by Fourth Horseman Press.
For a more comprehensive bibliography visit the author’s website at alexanderzelenyj.com.
Zelenyj lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, with his wife and their menagerie of animals.