by Ryan Trostle
Runestone, volume 10
Runestone, volume 10
by Ryan Trostle
It began with waking up on the hill next to the great-boughed tree, heralded by chasmal, hungry gasps like a life newly brought into the world. The man sat up slowly, greeted by a sea of more hills laid before him, decorated with fruit trees and shrubs, and a waving grass plain on the horizon. His first view was one of splendor, and rocky edifices protruded awkwardly from the ground, studding the verdant rolling hills. He had no idea where he was, nor did he possess a name, recollection of origin, creed, or relations to form any sort of identity with, and—excepting the natural murmur of the wind and the leaves—was decidedly alone. The nameless man rose, hoping to gain a better understanding of his situation, and felt the cushion of grass against his bare feet. He was nude, and though completely exposed to the elements, found no discomfort in the spring-like climate he awoke to.
I need a better view, the man thought, scanning eyes falling on a particularly tall member of the many brown formations. His grass-softened steps brought him to the rock, but quickly halted at the sight decorating its base. A mossy skeleton, aged bones bobbing through the ground, laid rising from the grass. Human bones! His shock, horror-born, bred hope. They’ve been here a while, but it means there were others here. It looks like he fell while climbing. The rock had irregular indentations and colorations, as if pieces had suddenly fallen off or shattered away. With the possible danger in mind, the man scaled the gritty surface, placing extra care in each grip and foothold, his fingertips wearing on the foreign, jagged texture. From the top could he see past the hills. The land was sequestered by cliffs insurmountable, the man’s blood running cold at their verticality and magnitude. There did not seem to be a break in the colossal boundaries, no means of traversing either through or over them. He was trapped. Though a grave revelation, optimism began its return when his gaze reached the plains, partitioned from his waking-place by a smaller wall of rock, a dense collection of the same monolith he was perched on. Lowland laid at the foot of the mountain range, the swaying expanse far larger than his view on the hill led him to believe and contained within it multitudes of small buildings. At the back of the pasture, standing much taller than any of the others, rested an elongated, amorphous structure. A castle of some kind? This, of course, was a welcome sight, and confirmed the man’s journey forward.
The plain was easily reached through a gap in the lesser wall-rock, the entrance a short distance from the mound the man started on. The limbs of the trees found along the way drooped heavy with their fruit: oblong, purple, and shiny. I’d better eat, the man thought, unknowing of when his next meal will arrive at his lips, and plucked the hefty fruit. He pushed it to his teeth like a child, juice spilling off of his chin and down his forearm as a delicate sweetness filled his mouth. He was satisfied. But before his palate could relish in the last bite, the same branch lowered with a new drupe just as turgid and tempting already replacing the last. The man was taken aback; it was as if the tree were offering him another. He ripped the thing off the branch before standing in wait and, just as before, a bud quickly grew into a blossom, then petals fell to flesh, the limb bearing a new, identical fruit. Astonished, the man picked two more—as no trees grew on the plain ahead—and gnawed on them as he passed into the clear expanse.
The new, long grass of the flatland swathed the bare man’s ankles like yarn. Now on the plain proper, he noticed eddies of crystalline water diverging across the land like veins. After a few hours of walking, he bent down to one of these streams and saw himself for what he could remember to be the first time. I’m a little average looking, he thought—olive skin, brown hair, brown eyebrows, dark eyes, and a peaceful face—but by what metric he determined such is a mystery. Subjectivity is innate. He was not particularly struck by his features, and thus was not particularly impressed, but the man found solace in the mere vision of a human face. How are you? I’m well, thank you! he smiled, the silvery mirage beaming back at him. I don’t even know what to call you. He splashed the liquid crystal on his face, drank from cupped hands, and stood, finding himself only an hour’s walk from the first vestiges of what he hoped to be civilization. I must have woken up in the morning, thought the man as the sun was just now beginning to dip, oranges oozing over the perfect blue. He shivered, the condition of his nudity manifesting a chill, and so he trod on.
● ● ●
He reached the houses before dusk and noticed them to be made of the abundant rock from the hills. The crude homes appeared more like piles of stones than proper houses, with an unhinged, makeshift array of planks or sticks laid in place of a door for most and a thin, swaying tapestry of grass for others. The man knocked on one of the huts with wooden slats. There was no response to his fist, nor to his words; all he could hear behind the flimsy scrapwood were the whispers of wind, finding their way through cracks and holes in the building’s worn walls. His soft heart made him hesitant to impose himself, but he was cold and its will quickly gave way to rationale and instinct. He lifted the assemblage of hewn wood and peered around it, the darkness inside pierced by the spear of light from its opening. There was no one to be found, and the absence of life gave rise to the first tremors of panic. There are so many more of these houses, thought the man, surely there is someone to be found in one of them.
And so the man repeated this process of knocking, announcing, and peering on six different hovels, but to no avail. The falling sun gave way to a pearlescent moon, and the air laid cold as he parted the entrance hangings of the seventh hut, the chill wrapping about the back of his knees as if to edge him closer—or ensnare him. Moonlight slipped through the man’s fingers and struck the interior, shimmering on white detritus below. Bones. Just as in the hills, here too laid a skeleton, daintily hiding beneath the husk of a tattered tunic. His eyes connected with the sunken orbits and he swallowed bile, his marrow replaced with the cold foam of the atmosphere. Are they all dead? Is there no one here at all? His shock, though, was dwarfed by a tiring desperation compounded from a day’s worth of walking and the sudden inclement climate, and so he decided to search the rest of the grassland in the morning. For now, he needed to be warm. With shaking hands the corpse’s loose garment was stripped and given a new body. I’m so sorry, the man lamented, this is so wrong, I’m so sorry. The tunic was soft, given it was made from the stuff of the prairie, and fit him unexpectedly well. He was too disturbed to stay a moment longer, and as the curtain at the entrance made for little protection against the wind, he sealed himself in a doored hut for the night. There he laid, until sleep took him, gutted, guilty, and alone, except for the reeds, the distant moon, and the aged bones.
● ● ●
The next day started as early as the last and the man, having slept on the events of the night before, looked ahead with clarity and resolve. There are still so many buildings, he told himself, their number and concentration growing as he looked towards what he now could perceive to be a tower, still a ways off. With the whole of daylight ahead of him, the rested man endeavored to enter and inspect each hut, working closer to the grand column as he did. However, in his search, no living bodies were found. There were no voices to converse with or faces to remember, nor were there any signs of struggle, violence, or war. It was as if the bones and huts were just placed for the pleasure of torture, to tantalize and disappoint. Strikingly were only adult skeletons and the outfits that adorned them in life remaining, leaving nothing to be seen of past children or their remnants. Did they bury their children? I haven’t seen any graves. With every step forward the complexity of the huts’ construction grew, boasting roofs of wood or prairie grass and often an additional room. These more sophisticated shelters also contained increasingly more sophisticated interiors, with shelves of plank and stone lined with tools, woodcarvings, and, as the man entered a house of the final stretch closest to the tower, dried fruit.
This latest find breathed life anew into the man’s rib cage, and with a new warmth he craned his neck to the spire above. It was certainly the tallest monument standing, climbing about a third of the unscalable cliff, but it was unfinished. He could see, from the small grassy clearing around the structure, that the flat top was unintentional, a product of stone not yet laid. The tower was made of the same abundant material as everything else, and though they were both a dark earth in color, it clashed against the mountainous formation, which was an unnatural black. From this newfound distance, the dwarfed man could see that the tower almost rested against the cliff, spiraling upwards like an inchworm. It was the first time the man had been so close to the barrier, and found it to be unlike anything before seen, with regular ridgelike patterns stretching vertically, texturing its surface like metal cords. Sun did not shine on this northern wall, and the unnatural roughness beneath the man’s fingertips was chilling. He retreated, steps tracing back to the tower’s base, to its haply made arched doorway and the shade within. He pushed through the threshold with gumption and a final hope behind seeking eyes.
The tower’s walls enclosed the man without breeze or sun, a loneliness felt only the night before. A dead loneliness. He was in a vacuum of life, a liminal space undisturbed from the calls of nature itself, and even the grass underfoot hung limp like a sail bereft of the swell of sea wind. Though shaded, the interior of the tower’s base remained visible through randomly placed windows, blades of sun streams slanting through a stale darkness. They illuminated neither bones nor artifacts, and the floor was as verdant as the glade beyond the doorway, unlike the hardened dirt of the building’s contemporaries. Not far above the man’s head was a ceiling, a floor of the next story, and a wooden ladder facing him across the enclosure. He scaled it slowly, the dry wood soaking in the sweat from his palms, and looked up towards the bright sky gleaming through the tower’s unfinished top. Two stories were passed in silence, with only the creaking of the ladder breaking the stagnation like a whimpering animal. Each floor was identical to the last, and there was no mark of humankind to alleviate the growing anxiety of the quiet man.
The third story saw the end of the ladder and a new brightness as the clouds hung overhead. Scaffolding clung to brick here, its awkward limbs arranged haphazardly from base to open air. Distracted by these foreign sights, the man’s foot collided with a hard object on the stone, tripping him onto his face. He rounded, prostrate, and came eye to eye with the face from the stream, a pale visage glowing like a phantom broken loose from its glass prison.
The man started back, damp hands hurriedly pulling him across the stone beneath. He blinked once, twice, and yet the person on the floor remained in his vision, concrete like a furnishing of the building, as though he were an irrevocably placed extension of it. The motionless stranger laid parallel to him, eyes open yet peering into nothing, dried saliva tracing down his cheek, and head at an awkward tilt—a morbid sight in his frozen state. Gulping, the animate man crawled closer to him, realizing how identical his face truly was, like it was cast from the same mold of his own. Shaking and pale, the lucid copy placed his hand on the breast of the other and found him dead, the lifeless atmosphere of the spire reflected behind the body’s own ribs, a shell of skin and bone left without the animation of the spirit. He looks just like me! How is this possible? Did I have a twin? I’m alone here after all! The man’s frame was inundated with panic, his head spinning into nausea, and he fell back against the cool rock of the room’s edge, breathing hurriedly and deeply. He looked again to the sky, wishing for wings and pinion to offer an escape, or for some jokester god to show the solution to his suffering, to apparate out of water vapor and wind and reveal that this cruel scheme was a production of entertainment.
A few moments passed in silence before the man could convince himself to look again at the corpse with more than just terror. Though his chest was wracked with metallic pangs, his pupils eventually focused with a mind settled and an energy unclouded on the dead man. The two were unquestionably identical; apart from facial features, their hair length, height, and skin tone were also indistinguishable. The man lifted the corpse’s hand to his own, and found every line in the palm, seam in the finger, and bone in the knuckle to be a mirror image. We must have been twins to look so identical, how could I have forgotten about my own brother? He stood in disbelief, his thoughts composed but not quieted, and nearly leapt out of the tower like a cannonball when something struck the floor beside him.
A loose brick had fallen from the unfinished layers above, crashing near the pair and sending a loud, grating clap through the cylindrical building. He must have been up there building when he died, the man observed after calming his nerves once more, he fell just like the one from before. From the brick’s descent came a new beam of light to fill its place, a soft white hand reaching through the masonry and pointing at the floor below, illuminating a bound stack of pages as though it were handing it directly to the overwhelmed man. It was a journal of some kind, held together by the same grass clinging to his flesh. He thumbed through it quickly. The handwriting was the same on every page. He had time to write this much? Where was I, and why didn’t he come look for me? The latter pages were blank, and he opened the rough-hewn cover to the first, eyes wide and fingers shaking as he scanned its contents.
The pages ahead are a record of the lives brought into this world, this pocket untouched by whatever is to be found beyond its immortal barrier. If you are reading this for the first time, you must have come across a dead body, one likely looking identical to you. That is because he is you, and so am I, and so is the man behind every page you will go on to read. We don’t know how many there have been, or how many there will be; unknown generations of us lived and passed before this journal was even made. What is known is that this place keeps us alive—and keeps us trapped. It’s a prison. We awake on the hill, naked, searching for others with the sun on our backs, the cycle innumerous. I’m sure you’ve noticed the fruit; the flesh of the trees never ceases to regrow, the streams never run dry, and the season never changes. The rock is fragile enough to break with sticks, and new formations quickly appear after a few days. I’ve since learned to make paper from these infinite resources, and ink from fruit peel and burned wood, hoping to band our ideas and efforts together.
The man’s heart expanded like a balloon against his ribs, squeaking as it grew uncomfortably. His mind swarmed at this revelation and, as he remained standing by the corpse of himself, more questions arose in his anthill brain. Amongst the existential, the foremost was towards the signature at the bottom of the page. Did he remember his name? Is that our—I mean “my”—name? His hands turned with a nervous fervor. A chart was found next, an even construction of boxes spanning a page and a half. Filling each box was a name, a name of one who came before, each letter written in identical penmanship. At the very top was Jo, whose hands brought the relic into existence, then Ald, Rees, Lin, Dain, Kip, Mon, Lu, Jax, Yew, and Holm. Ten names for ten lives, recorded on a single sheet of paper. Fifteen more came after—Lex, Mod, Tham, Cap, Gimt, Fir, Blu, Dol, Sion, Wren, Olk, Red, Pol, Kist—and the man’s stomach shook with every new name swimming to the surface until he reached the end: Opie.
The man who met his end here, who lived and breathed in the past as another lives now, whose essence then stood replicated in another, was named Opie. Tears stung the living man’s eyes and he let out a long breath, acceptance slowly waning the tides of upset and astonishment. Bound to the journal was a thin, inked, blackened stake, charcoaled for the sake of the legacy, and the man took it between his fingers like a knight with his blade. He wiped the moisture from his eyes and beneath the enclosed name of his predecessor sought to leave his own mark on the record. He pondered, looking up to the circular-framed sky, the rock, and his own flesh and blood forever gone, and with newfound calm wrote “Pez”, joining the ranks of the echoes of souls he would never meet.
Though now better understanding the silent civilization surrounding him, Pez still tackled the weighty question of the construction beneath his feet and the loose-stone precipice of the late Opie. What would bring him to build such a thing? With confidence and a yet unquenched thirst to know more, he searched quickly through the compendium for the basis of this project, whether it be higher calling or whim.
The mountains, if you can even call them that, are indestructible. No amount of scraping with branches, edges, rocks, or tools produces even a scratch. I’ve dug for hours down with my hands, and the coils go on interminably beneath the earth. I don’t know if anyone before Jo managed to escape, but I don’t see how I can. I’ve lived like this for too long—I think it’s time to pass it on. I’m going to leave this book at the place we all started and end it. I hope my body isn’t too shocking to the new me.
Commentary on the cliffs’ indestructibility and his final words constituted Red’s singular entry into the journal, and Pez’s mind leapt to the pile of aged bones witnessed within the first moments of his freshly conceived consciousness. He continued on.
Red was correct, and the only way around the walls is over them. I’ve begun placing stones near the base in hopes of erecting some sort of vertical means to scale it. I’ll need a ladder eventually, too, and some way to adhere the stones from the hills, but I believe this to be the best option to deliver us from this enclosure.
The stones collapsed today and tore my legs, but this just means regular dirt won’t work. I’m glad it was now and not once the thing got to be too high. Mud will be my next venture, and if that doesn’t work I’ll try fruit peel or tree sap. I’ll use my own spit and blood if I have to. – Pol
The stones fell apart again, this time crushing some of my fingers, but I have found great success in the sediment from the stream beds. It’s not the same as the earth beneath the grass, it’s finer and stickier, and since using it the pile has been holding up nicely.
Pol continued his writings on the early vestiges of the tower, detailing the various ladder ideas he had and how to add more rungs to it, until his death. His profound strength of will radiated off the letters, and filled the space around Pez with a cathartic buzz, as though the ringing of his labors, the injuries and clatter of fresh rock, were bouncing from the stories below, from those first-placed stones.
Kist’s writings were far sparser than his predecessor’s and mainly contained information on the most optimal way to procure rock. The designs of necessary instruments and how to fasten them together as well as the best striking techniques were included. The rough, almost columnal formations of the hills seemed to grow like the trees surrounding them, sprouting from the earth at random and developing into girthy masses within five turns of the sun, according to Kist’s limited detailings. Jo was right, thought Pez, this place really is made for us.
Opie was absent entirely from the book’s pages, a broken neck claiming him before the time of most others, and Pez took in the sight of his passed incarnation again with a bruising pain and respect. The blue above burned like phosphorus behind the silhouette of Pez’s outstretched hand, the blanket of color interrupted only by the warden cliff’s omnipresent edge. He wondered what Opie thought while building their escape, what he thought before the rock meant to free him shattered his bones. He did not need to think long, or let his mind wander far, as the workings of the mind are intrinsically tied to the nature of the flesh. Pez’s ambitions and questions were but a star in the greater constellation of his lineage mosaically clustered, atomizing into a singular conclusion. He wanted to uphold the efforts of the ghosts laid before him and to live for the destiny of those who will populate after his own, when his consciousness dissipates into settled bones and dried grass paper.
● ● ●
Opie’s body was buried beneath the cloistered grassland of the tower’s base, Pez’s virtue guiding him as he would want to be laid to rest properly himself, sore for the remains yet lingering on the overworld. He traveled through the homes once again, on his knees raking fingertips through dirt and placing the bones, his bones, in their eternal tombs with the care of a nursing mother. He wondered at their names and the hours spent within the walls, their fears and resolves faded with the hopelessness of imprisoned time. The warmth of purpose spread more solidly within Pez in the placidity of the aftermath, after the dues paid to every piece of ivory.
So then he worked, acclimating to life by way of scripture, following the methods outlined for construction, the creation of fabric and clothes, woodcarving, fire making, and the drying of fruit detailed by his predecessors. On their shoulders did Pez’s soles find themselves, the new bricks laid supported by those of old hands, and the tower grew in his quiet determination. Solitude left little room for much else but work, but Pez was never alone, or at least didn’t feel that way. The wind in the grass rang with whispers, and the ever-growing boughs held faces within them—his face, that of a friend. Even the stony silence of the huts was broken by the imagined treading of Red and Pol, busy with chores; the hypothetical routines of Ald and Rees, for Pez always thought they would get along well; and, from the tower’s extending peak, Pez was helped by an Opie eager to participate in a calling left unanswered. No, loneliness was a taboo entity, like murder or theft, and the collection of departed life charged Pez’s tendons with a working spirit.
This zeal lasted his entire life, a life long enough to see the tower to the cusp of completion. Aged and stiff, the graying Pez descended the wooden ladder, now passing eight stories instead of three. It’ll only take one more. I’m sure the new guy can do it. He’s me, after all. At the bottom, he patted the earth of the now decades old burial, as he had upon every exit, and entered the hut chosen for a home. He picked up a freshly wetted charcoal stake, newly crafted, and pocketed it, the journal resting at his side no thicker than when he found it. He looked to the sky, breathed generously, and visited each hut with a tranquil smile, saying a few words in contemplation, working his way towards the hills. It’s funny how you know when it’s time. I wonder if they all knew? He passed a crystalline stream and spied his reflection again, wrinkles creasing his simple features framed by wild gray hair. How are you? This is goodbye, but it’ll be okay! There’ll be another you anyway.
He stood after drinking, and walked through the day, the sun warming his neck giving way to a river of stars, the celestial luster that has watched his every move since he came to be. His old joints put up with the ceaseless walking, tracing the footsteps treaded moons and lifetimes ago. They knew this would be his last journey.
At long last, Pez passed the wall of rock into the biome of slopes, panting from exertion but nonetheless pressing forward, the tree coming over a hill’s sloped horizon. He had made it. Leaning against the trunk, he slid to the ground in relief, and witnessed the blush of dawn’s fingers begin working their way over the cliffs, pulling the orange sun with them, in a sunset identical to all others—unceasing, yet inherently new. The tower looked like an adult compared to the infant it once was, and Pez knew the distance to the edge, to freedom, was but a few weeks’ worth of effort. He felt no remorse in leaving it unfinished, no regret in not seeing the outside with his own eyes. That’s for him to figure out. Sitting now, the journal was opened, and with the blackened stake did Pez pen his first and only contribution to its pages. He added a new name-box on the page after his own, a new frame for the new life coming, and followed it with a message:
It’s all yours
The journal was bound again, the stake newly strapped, and placed on his lap. Pez leaned back, head craned to the canopy above and arms painted with the soothing vestiges of morning sun. He inhaled the air as crisp and clear as the streams, felt the trunk supporting his spine, leaning on it like a son to a father for the last time, and exhaled his final breath with the wave of rustling leaves. Was it always this beautiful?
At his knees, a new body was conjured to form, rising from sod and sunlight and spring breeze and ignited to life by a breath just freed. His eyes shot wide, lungs spasming for air for the first time, gasping for the substance which there is all but enough of. His nameless face turned to the great tree and he retreated, frightened by a foreign old man with a book on his lap, leathered skin, and a smile on his face.
RYAN TROSTLE is a current junior at Boston University double-majoring in English Literature and Japanese. He is from rural Pennsylvania and entered university originally as a music performance major, playing the flute, before changing his field of study at the beginning of his sophomore year. Ryan’s experiences in all three disciplines have shaped and continue to influence his writing of both poetry and prose, and The Foundry will be his first published short story.