Mateus Goes Higher by Natalia Theodoridou
Mateus can no longer see the ground from the top of his tower. He calls it a tower somewhat pompously, as in reality it is but a crooked structure made of scavenged materials stacked higher and higher towards the sky. But what is he supposed to call it? A stack? Tower is good. It conveys its importance. Mateus balances on the platform of the latest level he has added and begins his descent to collect the materials he needs for the next. The brown cloud swirls around him and a sudden gust of wind blows dust into his face. Bits of sand make tiny scrapes on his goggles. He’ll soon need to find a new pair. He puts one hand on his bandana and holds it tightly over his mouth. In the little while it takes for the wind to die down, the sound almost drowns out the whisper in his ears: Higher. Go higher.
He contemplates the idea of towers on his way down. Towers can be so many different things. They can be fortresses and observatories. Transmitters. Monuments, clock-holders, and structural parts of a bridge. They can even be tests. Prisons. And platforms from where to dive or launch. Who knows what Mateus’s tower will be when it’s finished and its purpose is revealed to him. But it’s bound to be great. And so he has to go higher.
The moment Mateus’s feet touch the ground, his legs feel like rubber and his stomach turns. After days of living on the tower, with its soft, lulling oscillation in the wind, the sudden solidity of the ground nauseates him. He takes a few moments, leaning against the tower, until the earth stops behaving like the sea. Then he grabs his cart and heads out.
He’s cleared a large area that extends a couple of hours’ worth of distance around the tower, except for a big stack of planks that he’s left next to the base of the construction. For an emergency, he told himself, although he had no idea what an emergency might look like. So far he hasn’t run into anyone in his scavenging expeditions. But with the dust cloud that surrounds everything now, visibility is very limited. He could be a few feet from an army and have no idea that anyone was there. An army. Ridiculous thought. There are no armies any more.
He’s picked a direction that he’s signposted with glowing yellow rods so that he doesn’t lose his way in the dust. There’s nothing else around. The ground is worn asphalt covered in so much dust you could mistake it for a dirt road. His cart’s wheel is whining. He might find some grease to put on it, if he’s lucky. But first he needs to find wood, nails, more metal rods. Bricks and stones are less and less useful the higher he goes; they make the whole structure unsteady. Precarious balance. He’s no architect—Mom loved reminding him of that every time he set out to build something, anything—but he can tell when a tall building starts tilting. The whole way the whisper keeps nagging at him, persistent, unrelenting. Higher. Go higher. But I’m on the ground, he wants to reply. I’m on the damn ground. Go higher. Go higher.
A small pile that starts being discernible a few meters outside the radius he’s already cleared turns out to be a goldmine of semi-rotten planks, broken window frames and black refuse bags. Mateus tosses the refuse bags aside; they feel squishy and emit a faint putrid odour—he’s not eager to look inside. He loads the planks and frames onto his cart slowly, carefully. He’s cut himself before on a rusty nail. He’d really believed that he’d get tetanus and die that time. But the fever went as it had come, one day in the faint dusty light of the sun.
On the way back, he takes a few minutes to sit down and eat some beef jerky he’s brought with him. The ground feels oddly warm. His hands are dusty, hell, his whole body is covered in a thin ochre-coloured film, but there’s nothing to be done about that any more. He smuggles small pieces of food under his bandana and into his mouth, exposing his inside to the dust as little as possible. He chews every bite for a long time. He pretends he’s enjoying a meal in the park. Everything around him is quiet, all the sounds muffled by the soft dominion of dust. Except for the whisper, of course. Monotonous. Predictable. Invariably the same. Go higher.
It’s dusk when he arrives back at the tower. He unloads the contents of his cart into a large rectangular canvas. Then he ties the corners together diagonally around his shoulders and starts climbing the tower, relieved to be leaving the unsettling undulation of the ground.
His muscles tremble under the weight of his building materials. Climbing the tower this way takes everything he has and more, every time. He times his movements to the beat of the whisper in his ears and he goes higher, and higher, and higher.
It feels as if hours pass before he reaches the top level. He unwraps himself from the canvas and collapses on the wooden platform, breathing heavily behind his bandana. He will go inside the little makeshift room he’s put together out of a piece of tarpaulin and some metal rods to sleep, but not yet. He will go in a little while, after he’s gotten some rest here on the floor, swaying in the dusty breeze with his tower. He feels it balance underneath him and he suddenly remembers that game they used to play when they were kids, he and his brothers, where you stacked wooden bricks one on top of the other, and then you removed some and put them on top, going higher and higher until the tower collapsed. But who won? If every time the tower collapsed in the end, what was the winner left with? Mateus racks his brain. He sees his older brother beaming over the ruins and detritus on their bedroom floor, and can’t make any sense of it at all.
He spends the next couple of days building the new level. The whisper is still there in his ears, urging him on. He pretends it sounds more satisfied today. He’s doing good work. It’s difficult to judge how high his tower has gotten now that he can no longer see the ground. But he’s doing good work. He’s sure of it. So he keeps going higher. The wind is getting stronger up here, and there’s more light. He may be nearing the top edge of the dust cloud he’s in. A little higher and he might even see some sun.
He’s on his way to the ground again with renewed enthusiasm about the prospect of seeing something other than brown all around him if he manages to escape the cloud. He touches his feet to the ground and braces for the familiar nausea to hit like a giant wave and then subside enough for him to be able to walk. When it does, he looks around, trying to decide which direction to go in today. Something feels wrong, though, the landscape seems different somehow. All the poles he’s planted around the tower are there, marking relative directions in yellow, green, red and blue.
Then he sees it and it hits him like a punch to the gut. His emergency stack is gone. His forehead breaks into a cold sweat that turns the film of dust that covers him into a thick paste. The whisper drills into his ears, pressing him to Higher. Go higher. He runs towards the blue poles, the ones closest to his former stack, but he can’t see well enough, he’s being careless and he stumbles and scrapes his knee on the deceptively soft ground. He pushes himself to calm down, to check the area more methodically, more meticulously, the way he’s done before, the way he’s accomplished everything he has so far, that’s gotten him this high already, nearly out of the cloud. He finds nothing. No being, no traces, nothing of use.
He decides to put it out of his mind as best he can, to focus on the whisper and its instructions, as wise and pressing as ever. He goes back to the tower to pick up his cart and ventures out towards the red poles. The dust is as thick as ever and the wind is rapidly changing directions, making the sand creep into every dimple of his body, every nook and cranny of his self. He pushes through and piles his cart as high as he can, not as picky about his materials as usual, he collects the tires he usually ignores and hoards every piece of wood he finds, even the rotten, disintegrating ones that he usually passes by in favour of the more sturdy ones. When the cart becomes almost too heavy to lift, he makes his way back to the tower, dripping muddy sweat.
The next few levels come into being faster than ever out of an exercise of pure will and determination. He never thought his hands could work so quickly, never felt so grateful for the nagging whisper in his ear before. Go higher. Higher. Go higher. No longer the crack of a whip, but a cheer.
He almost misses the moment the tower breaks the upper end of the dust cloud and emerges into the blue, blue sky. Mateus feels something burning the top of his head and he’s alarmed, about to douse himself with water, when he lifts his head from his work to look around, and he suddenly realizes that’s the sun on his head. That’s clear, dust-less air on his skin. He takes off his goggles and his bandana and gulps the air down until his lungs burn and his head feels so light it could double as a helium balloon. His eyes take a while to adjust to this new brightness and to so much colour, so much blue. His ears buzz from the rush of oxygen and the whisper is but background static. And then his vision clears and he sees another tower a little further, maybe a hundred meters away, poking out of the dust cloud a couple of levels higher than his own.
The shock makes Mateus fall back onto his platform and retreat as far as he can. Then something urgent rises in him and he finds himself back on his feet waving madly and wanting to speak, to shout, except he’s not sure he knows how any more. He’s rummaging through his stash for something to write with, something to write on, to send a message to this other creature he’d never imagined he would see again, that he was sure he had lost forever, when something hot whizzes past him, barely missing his right ear. He turns around. The flare that had no doubt been aimed at his head has landed on the platform. The tires have caught fire. Mateus quickly pushes them off, as far from the tower as he can. The whisper returns to his ears, accusing, oppressive. He stands at the edge of his platform to look at the person who shot him up here, above the cloud. He simply stands there at the edge of his own platform, looking back at Mateus. Then he lowers his head and sits down slowly, his back turned and sullen.
Mateus ceases his building for a while, spends the next few days and nights watching the other person get up, build, eat, drink, climb down his tower and come back up with coveted pieces of wood and metal sheeting. It takes a lot of energy for Mateus to ignore the whisper for so long, but this is important. He can’t let the other person out of his sight. He is in danger. The tower is in danger.
One night, the person doesn’t return to the top of his tower. Mateus assumes he must have decided to spend the night on the ground, maximize the efficiency of his trips. Now that the towers are so tall, climbing down and then back up again is no minor feat. But he doesn’t come back the next day, nor the next night, nor the day after that. Mateus is sure he must have perished. Reluctantly, he resumes his building. He goes higher. And higher. And higher.
Days pass, but the other one doesn’t return. Mateus decides to go look for him, or, if he’s gone, for his tower—perhaps dismantle it and use the materials for his own. He follows the blue poles in the direction of the other tower. He spends hours walking, certain now that he has covered more than the hundred meters he believed separated the two towers, but he finds nothing. There’s no person. There’s no tower.
Exhausted, he returns to the top of his tower above the cloud. The other tower is there, almost identical to his own, only empty. The whisper in his ears remains unfazed. Higher, it says. Go higher. He decides to take the night off, and continue building the next day. And so he does. And the next day. And the day after that.
The newfound sun has baked Mateus’s skin pink and he’s flaking, but he continues to work as fast as he can, stealing furtive glances at the other tower every now and then. It is noon when he hears the grunts. The other person is back. He’s sprawled on his platform, lower than Mateus’s now, panting and holding his ribs. He must have broken them somehow. Mateus thought something like this would give him satisfaction, but it doesn’t. He turns his back to the other person and continues his building to the familiar tune of the whisper in his ears.
Night comes and the other person is still laid out on his platform. He must be unable to move, but he’s still breathing heavily. Coughing occasionally. Pierced lung, maybe. Mateus is sitting at the edge of his tower eating beans out of a can and watching the other person’s chest rise and fall, rise and fall. He thinks of his brother again, his wide, victorious smile over the ruins of their tower.
He stands up. He pretends the whisper says Talk to him. But it doesn’t. It only says:
Higher. Go higher.