I stood in the darkness, pondering the purpose of the towering barrier. Was it to keep something out or to keep something in? Both, said a voice. I spun around, looking for the source. I saw no one upon reflection; that made sense. I hadn’t asked my question aloud, so whoever answered it had to be inside my head. Had to be me.
It’d taken many days to reach the perimeter–what I presumed was the perimeter–of this territory. I lost count along the way. I started second-guessing myself on Day Eight. Or was it Day Nine? I’d run out of water two days earlier. Or was it three? In other words, on Day Six. That much I knew. A day or so later, I realized I had no sense of how much time was passing. As usual, I started walking soon after dawn. When I found myself squinting from direct sunlight in my eyes, it dawned on me it must be late afternoon, even though I couldn’t fill in the hours with memories of the terrain I’d crossed. In truth, it all looked similar, but I couldn’t even remember seeing that much sameness. I panicked at the notion I’d somehow reversed course and was walking toward the place I left behind. I stood there, still as a stone, until I was positive the sun had sunk lower in the direction I faced. Phew. I was on the intended path.
Soon the blurred hours became days. Had it been the day before, or the day before that, when I stopped experiencing time? It occurred to me to devise a system to help me keep track. I could mark the fabric of my rucksack with my knife first thing each morning. I could start with either eight or nine scratches and be accurate within one day. Then it occurred to me the number of days didn’t matter.
What mattered was to keep going.
I couldn’t have kept going much longer if it hadn’t rained that night. You think you know what thirst is? Or hunger? Maybe you really do know. I didn’t. I thought I did until I learned it for real. It defies description.
By the time it rained, my thirst had become so ever-present I no longer noticed it. As I lay on the ground, mouth open to the sky, I gagged on the first drops to reach my withered throat. I sat up and caught them on my tongue and absorbed them there and through my gums and cheek linings. I stripped off my clothes so moisture could soak into my skin. I collected a little pool in the palm of one hand and sipped from it. I sipped until I could swallow with ease, then cupped both hands and drank like I was receiving a gift from the gods. Which I was. Liquid manna. I opened my canteens and filled them the best I could with a funnel I fashioned from the cover of a paperback I’d brought along. I thought back to my decision to pack books instead of more food as if I’d been going on some recreational excursion in which I’d sit under a shade tree and read. A foolish choice that might end up saving my life.
By the time the rain stopped falling, I’d nearly filled both bottles. I balled my pants into a lumpy pillow and draped my shirt over me like a wet blanket. I was asleep within seconds of laying my head down.
When I awakened, I wasn’t that surprised to see the sun had risen well above the horizon. I felt cleansed. Purified.
For the first time in days, I remembered my hunger.
As fate would have it, I came upon food soon after I resumed my journey. A sprawling patch of asparagus. I snapped off the first stalks I saw and devoured them. Then I filled my rucksack with the youngest, thinnest spears I could find.
It went like that over and over. I rationed whatever food and water I gathered until I exhausted my supply, then continued until I seemingly reached–and exceeded–my ability to go without. Then it would rain. Then I’d find something to eat. Mostly plants, some of which I recognized as edible or thought I did, and some of which I took a chance on out of desperation. Occasionally I’d find insects crawling on the plants or rocks, and I’d eat them, too. If you don’t count those invertebrates or the birds–mostly hawks and vultures–soaring overhead from time to time, I never saw an animal. Not that I had the speed and strength to catch and kill one anyway. Or the stomach for it.
In any case, I kept going.
For the first few days of my journey, I thought about everything I’d given up. And why. Why I’d felt such an irrepressible urge just to go, to flee the safety and familiarity I felt there. To seek something else even though I didn’t know what. Try as I might, I could not identify what compelled me to abandon my comfort zone.
I searched for my memories. Maybe unresolved trauma lurked beneath my contented surface. My childhood seemed fairly normal. I had a (mostly) loving family and close friends. I did well in school. I entered adulthood oriented toward social and economic success. And I succeeded. I experienced setbacks as well as accomplishments, of course, like everyone else. I felt joys and sorrows. I grieved losses. But I got over them. Nothing explained my dissatisfaction. Yet there it was, gnawing at me from deep inside until it threatened to consume my soul.
After my first near-death from thirst, I let go of my past. From then on, with each and every step, I left my previous life, my previous self, further behind. And I felt grateful. My mind on the present. My eyes toward the future.
Now I’d reached this wall. Even though I’d stopped counting days, I knew I’d spent a lot of them on my trek. Spent them wisely, I believed, if I somehow managed to get to the other side of the barrier.
I looked at it, craning my neck to see the top. Way too high to climb. I walked up and touched it with all five fingertips of one hand. It wasn’t electrified; I realized a moment too late if it had been. I couldn’t tell what material produced the rough surface. I pounded on it with the side of my fist. It didn’t make a sound or give the slightest bit.
I wasn’t getting over or through it here. That was clear. I wondered how far it stretched. It couldn’t possibly go to the ends of my world. Why not? The voice asked.
Well, one way to find out. Or two, actually. Which should I choose? I’d initiated my quest as soon as the heavy spring rains ended. Peak summer heat would arrive soon. North.
It occurred to me to mark my starting point, in case, as I’d intuited a moment earlier, the fence ran in a circle. What if I explored the entire frontier without finding a way out? How long would a revolution take anyway? Assuming the fence did run, more or less, in a circle, and assuming the place I’d departed was, more or less, at the center–neither of which was at all certain, but they were all I had–I could estimate how long I’d walked to arrive at the barrier and plug that into a formula etched into my brain from my school days and come up with a general idea of how long it would take to walk the perimeter. Let’s say I’d wandered across barren land for forty days, which seemed realistic and felt right in my gut. Forty squared equals sixteen hundred. Sixteen hundred times a little over three equals about five thousand. Five thousand or so days. Around fourteen years. Whoa. Quite a commitment.
I laughed out loud when I realized my error. I’d calculated the hypothetical circle’s area. The formula for circumference merely doubles the radius instead of squaring it. Forty times two equals eighty. Eighty times a little over three equals about two hundred fifty. Less than a year to trace the entire outline. Assuming I didn’t find a way out before then.
In the fourteen years, I’d calculated with the original formula. I could investigate every inch of the realm in which I imagined being enclosed. That is if I could do it in a manner that avoided covering the same ground more than once. But why would I even consider that when my goal was to escape my confinement?
It occurred to me there was no reason to mark my starting point. If a survey of my circumscription brought me back to the same spot, my best option would be to begin a second lap, hoping something had changed along the boundary in the interim, or I’d notice an opportunity I missed the first time around. Going in circles beats giving up.
Just keep going.
The going along the fence seemed easy in comparison. The sun shined on me in the mornings, warming me after the still cool and sometimes rainy nights. By the time temperatures climbed to unpleasant levels, the barrier had shielded me from the sun’s intense rays. That improved conditions for plant life as well. A wide variety of vegetation grew at the base of the wall. I had plenty to eat and drink. The occasional sight of a rabbit or groundhog, which I’ve heard is quite tender and tasty, never even tempted me.
None of the plants had managed to grow into or through the wall, as they sometimes do. It showed no signs of cracking anywhere. Nor had I spotted anything that might help me scale it.
I kept going.
After a few weeks, I started hearing voices outside my head. At least, so it seemed, I couldn’t make out what they said, and I never saw anyone. I’d swear I felt their presence, though, like shadows trailing me. Ghosts from my past. My dead grandparents. My parents. Teachers. Friends and lovers. My younger self. I should say selves since I recognized more than one earlier version of me.
The fence did curve east, but in such a gradual arc, it took a long time to convince me. My lingering doubt stemmed in part from my imperfect knowledge of the sun’s shifting path across the sky. Once the solstice passed–which I estimated to happen about two weeks into this second phase of my journey–I knew the sun would (appear to) move toward the equator. As days went by, I observed such a shift occur, most notably at sunrise and sunset, but I couldn’t determine the exact cause. My location likewise changed from day today, and I had no idea how much was latitude and how much was longitude. Had I initially walked due west or perhaps a bit northwest or even southwest? What if the fence ran straight but in a northeasterly–or even northwesterly!–direction? And how would the sun’s route overhead change if the fence rounded in either of those directions? Trying to get my mind around the complexity of the situation confused me.
As I sat with my back to the fence one morning, the sun rose off-center to my left enough I could no longer deny reality. I opened my rucksack and took out the pebbles I’d collected along the barrier, one each day before I set out walking. I’m not sure why I decided to keep track of time again. Perhaps I wanted some bearing in the absence of an earthly one. Some framework for my existence. The tiny stones took up so little space and added so little weight this system made more sense than marking the bag with my knife.
I counted the pebbles—exactly forty.
If the assumptions upon which I based my calculations were correct, I’d covered nearly one-sixth of the loop, and that meant I was now traveling more east than north. That felt right in terms of my internal compass, which I found reassuring, even if I hadn’t trusted that compass on its own. I found another implication of my realization quite a bit less comforting. Then again, just because I’d yet to discover a way to escape my predicament didn’t mean I wouldn’t come across one further along. But part of me understood I wouldn’t.
Accept it, said the voice in my head.
And that’s what I did. The keep going part anyway.
I turned my open rucksack upside down and dumped the contents onto the ground. My collection of pebbles had grown too heavy to carry. And too many to count. What was the point?
Not like I needed the space, though. I hadn’t come across any edible plants in a week, and I’d consumed the last of my reserves days ago.
Between the sun’s present path across the sky, the cooler weather, and my impression of a significant decrease in daylight hours, I suspected I now walked along the opposite side of the area from where the wall first obstructed me. Heading south for winter like a migratory animal. A winter, I would be hard-pressed to survive, even if I found sufficient food and water.
I sat against the fence and looked at the empty canteens that had fallen from my pack with the tiny stones. If it didn’t rain in the next day or two, I was a goner. But I held onto hope. The heavens had provided so far.
I watched the sunset through half-closed eyes. The ghosts who’d been following me materialized like a mirage on the plains stretching–endlessly, it seemed–before me. A breeze carried their whispers toward me in a swirl of murmurs. As my lids fluttered, I had an epiphany. I’d adopt a new method tomorrow, assuming I didn’t die in my sleep. I reposed in joy at this profound reorientation, my sudden awareness that the structure around me might prove to be no barrier at all.
Maybe the way out is to go in.