Sam looked up, squinting against the sun. They did the executions at night, just as the sun painted the sky red. Only they could turn beauty into terror. Only they could take a sight enjoyed by billions, since the very dawn of time, and turn it into pure horror. The French had their guillotine. They had their blood-stained precipice.
There were exactly two ways to get to the top. The first involved an elevator and a long fall to the bottom. It was never taken willingly. Even the guards who dragged the victim – the condemned – to the top, even the guards went with hesitation. It was a punishment detail, the modern equivalent to cleaning out latrines. Except latrines didn’t scream and beg and weep on their way down. Their blood-slicked fingers didn’t cling desperately to the platform.
It smelled nauseating enough to be a latrine, if rumors were to be trusted. It was said in hushed voices that the bowels tended to let go as the condemned reached the top. Supposedly some of the guards had fallen prey to the same foul terror. They liked this rumor, encouraged it. Such whispers only added to their power, fed into the fear that stalked the people, day and night. Ceaseless, unrelenting.
The other way up was better and worse. Better because it was taken freely. Worse because death was just as likely.
It was oddly permitted to climb to the top of the precipice. Family members, journalists, curious onlookers – they all had the right to scale the beast, and an equal right to climb back down again. The condemned had no such hope to cling to. Of course, it was a slim hope. The structure was just too high. The color of desert cliffs, it towered over the courtyard. Red ochre, that’s what his mother would have called it. Others were put in mind of another substance.
The climb taught Sam how it had come by its moniker: the way up was nearly as bloody as the way down. The metal sliced into his hands, drawing blood from the first grasp. He hopped back down, dug in his backpack, and pulled out thick leather gloves. He’d been prepared for the possibility. He just hadn’t expected to need them so soon. He wrapped his hands in blindingly white bandages, then dragged the gloves on over them. They wouldn’t last, not the whole way. He had two sets of replacements in his bag. He wondered if he should have brought more. He wondered if he would have the courage to change gloves part way up.
Likely, it wouldn’t matter. The precipice was more than a thousand vertical feet. He’d never make it. But the greater the risk, the greater the reward. That’s what they always said. And with this particular reward on the horizon, Sam had no intention of surrendering to his fear. He reached up and gripped the metal.
Wincing at the pain, he began to climb.
* * *
Sam recalled his ‘training’ for this climb. Ten flights of stairs in his work building. The climb to the precipice was more than ten-fold, but he had a mission. One could almost call it a purpose. The climb would take the better part of four days. A gruesome black market developed over the years on those stairs. Porters bought and sold transport. They also bought and sold information.
Sam reached the twentieth landing. It wasn’t more than an extra wide floor as the stairs curved back on themselves. A shrine of sorts was erected there for those unable to continue. Flowers and trinkets adorned an obelisk. No one would dare plunder that obelisk – they were protected. The best way to transition from a climb to an elevator ride was to ignore their rules. The trinkets were a testament to the spectacle of the climb. It only served to fuel the rumors and conjecture.
But, those rules said nothing about the porters, nothing about protection on the stairs.
“How’s the climb to forty?” Sam asked a sullen woman.
Her response was to hold out her hand. Sam placed a food chit on her outstretched palm. It was almost a day’s worth of rations. Had her hand closed on the chit, the deal would’ve been done. She raised her eyebrows. Sam rolled his eyes and placed another chit atop the previous. He had hoped to maximize their value on the lower levels. The woman raised her eyebrows again. Sam shook his head and reached for his chits, but her hand closed.
“You’ll be safe up to forty. There’s a great space to rest for the night on thirty-seven.”
Sam nodded and continued his climb. A porter brushed past him, calves rippling with what appeared to be minimal effort. Sam knew that level of ease could only be achieved from years of working the stairs.
* * *
On the thirty-sixth platform, Sam grabbed the railing – one more step. His arms and legs screamed out. Each flight took longer than the previous. The sun had already set and the night chilled everyone on the stairs.
One more level, he thought to himself. His rest would only buy him a scant few hours. He had to be up as the sun rose to make it to sixty. If he was lucky, he might make it to seventy. He knew his original plan of forty levels a day wasn’t going to happen.
Sam doubled over on the thirty-seventh platform. His legs were numb now. His plans to interview the denizens of the stairs abandoned with the rest of his lofty goals.
A woman pointed to him and beckoned. He staggered toward her and a piece of wood covering the steel grate. It was the most beautiful four-foot by six-foot thing Sam had ever witnessed.
“You made it.”
Sam detected a hint of disbelief in her voice. He collapsed on the wood. There was no doubt he would sleep deeply that night.
The woman knelt down and whispered in his ear. “There’s an easier way…”