Saturday, 11 September 2010

Sticks

A long path led away from the town and up a steep climb; not the most well-trodden of paths especially the further it went, but still far from unwalked. It continued on up to the top of the climb and, while the path became fainter and fainter as the climb progressed, its existence could still be discerned, even if fading as it progressed to little more than the steps themselves - that is the steps and path became one and the same.

A man appeared in the town, seemingly more used to urban living, not the most physically imposing or impressive, glasses beneath which greedy, bird-like eyes darting about him. He had a kind of carnivorous look of trying to extract some inner marrow of whoever he was talking to, though given the nature of himself and his staccato, disconnected attempts at conversing, I don’t think he was having much success with the locals in that line, though you never know, maybe he was penetrating them to the core.

He came across the path one day, by chance or however, and it seemed he grew very excited by it. He was soon to be seen coming and going from the town, and on his goings carrying bundles of long pointed sticks, atop of which he had managed to tie flags, and it turned out he was sticking these flagged sticks into the ground at regular intervals, or at least what was probably meant to be regular intervals, up along the ascending path. Back he would come to the town and then away again with another bundle atop his obedient if not very sturdy back. He had the look, it was said, all this time of someone who’d been awaiting all his life for something special, some great moment, and now it had arrived, and so now there he was merging with it for all he was worth.

With word of what he was doing when I next went along that walk I expected to see it indented from start to finish with his flagged sticks, and indeed for some distance it was heavily scoured. The sticks though tended not to be much in the way of being particularly upright, instead at odd angles to each other creating a haphazard rhythm, while quite a few were already perilously close to toppling over outright and a few having already done so. At times the sticks departed the path and struck out at some tangent for a few yards before these digressions coming to abrupt halts, occasionally one or two sticks then making unconvincing looking efforts to bridge and rejoin the apparently re-found path a little further. Maybe he thought he was effecting some short-cuts or, unused to such uncivilized terrains, his eyes simply found it difficult at times, say of fading light, to discern what was path and what not.

At first the disfigured vista seemed to me a bit amusing but then I began to get annoyed at the thought and sight of this wild, quiet place being made look ridiculous, and by this stupid outsider - not that his being an outsider probably made any difference, though of course only an outsider would have behaved like this in the first place.

Walking on after a while just where the incline began to get a bit more serious I came an end of the sticks, and a few yards further on lay the very man, stretched out and gasping, still with a couple of sticks in the bundle tied to himself. I’m afraid he didn’t provoke much in the way of compassion in me, he’d be all right in a while, but I could hardly just walk on, much as I might have wished, and so having asked him was he all right, to which he was unable to reply, I stayed by him a bit, and with the help of a drink of water he slowly began to recover himself.

“Are you feeling better now?”
“I am improving. It is the same every time.”
”What is?”
”This is as far as my body goes. I cannot go myself any further. But you, you don’t think you could . . .”

In short what he was telling me, while not losing that greediness to his look though with now I thought an added tone of some secret comradeship, that his path-marking was coming up against something of a brick-wall and that being his body’s collapsing in exhaustion somewhere around this point. The walk was bad enough, but with the weight of the sticks added to the load . . . But me, might I not wish to involve myself: to mark out the rest of the path? ‘I’m afraid not.’ He seemed to find this incomprehensible - not to be a colleague in this great work - but rather than explain myself,  I said good luck and headed off up the path.

I came across him similarly stretched out and gasping over the next few days, back or forward a few yards from the same point, but usually back a bit: the weight of the added sticks he’d added to his pile and having to carry the entire already attained distance presumably too much for him. He didn’t ask me again to help him, but added to his embittered looks me was some latent pleading along with, deeper again, some uncomprehending sense of betrayal, whatever mystery about which he must have thought we were in league.

I suppose you had to admire his efforts with these flagged sticks, at least in theory you did, but in practice to be honest I didn’t. He failed to ever manage to get much farther with his sticks along the path, and soon, these limits to his endurance unsurpassed, he disappeared altogether. In his absence quite a few more of his sticks toppled over.

It wasn't the end of things though and soon enough other men, diluted versions you could say of the first, began appearing. And why? To see The Sticks for themselves (their pronunciation somehow included the capitals). Sent on their way up the path, they were as excited about what they came across as the first man had been, and in their own ways turned out to be just as busy – this time not sticks but maps, measuring tapes, graphs, cameras . . . If in the midst of their activities someone happened to walk past them heading off up the incline, out past the limits of the sticks, these men wouldn’t it seemed even notice him. Even if said hello in passing he still wouldn't appear to register.

Their activities proved endless. You might think they’d soon enough exhaust all they could do but there was no end to distances and angles of and between sticks that could be measured. Incidentally any stick that in the meantime fell was left where it was and no more interest paid it.

As time went on the fame of the original man and his sticks, and some of the later men, grew and grew. No mention though ever seemed to be made of the path.

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