By Nathan Heath '18
The great green water tower that haunted the murky forest was never to be climbed, I had been told since the earliest days of my childhood. But my adolescent restlessness still encouraged me to venture out into the woods and hunt for its soaring legs among the trees. All the conscientious parents and neighbors in the rural Vermont neighborhood had ordered me to keep my distance from the aluminum giant, and every local stranger I encountered would offer playful counsel to avoid it altogether. But any discerning adult ought to have understood that sanctioning a child’s freedom would do nothing more than incite mischief. So, on a humid August afternoon, in the company of two spirited accomplices, I set out to transgress.
The three of us were boyish and active, old enough to analyze the cost of our act but young enough to favor the benefit. Weha, who was no older than fourteen, and Matthew, two years his junior, walked ahead of me as we navigated the tangle of dirt roads that led to the forbidden forest. As the leader of our company, Weha held the reins of maturity by way of age. A brilliant and rebellious tactician, he had engineered the adventure to mark the inauguration of my life as a teenager, and it was incidentally Matthew’s job to spoil it. Matthew, inversely, was boorish and uncivilized, not quite as bright as Weha, and filled with a zest for disobedience. As we approached the wooded boundary, Matthew elbowed his way to the front of the party and cast a backward glance at the road to inspect for observers. We stopped and turned to look. The air hung in hot, sticky folds around us and a cicada hummed in the faraway trees: perfect placidity. When no footsteps were heard from the road, Matthew spun around and dove into the brush; we followed.
The gravel disappeared behind us, replaced almost instantly by a twisting facade of vines and saplings. In the snaking shadows, the air was cool and moist, and the birds chanted an eerie dirge. We followed a small stream up a hill and into a hazy clearing, where four tendrils of green metal rose from the ground in front of us. Above us in the leafy canopy soared the threatening tower―proud, formidable, dark. Matthew, spooked, turned to Weha and suggested, “Maybe you oughta climb up first and tell us how it looks.”
Ever the chiseler, however, Weha deftly deferred the task to me, citing some obscure “birthday rule,” and with feigned enthusiasm, I picked my way through the thinning shrubbery to the ladder. I grasped the cool metal and stared straight up at the sky; there must’ve been hundreds of rungs between me and the top. I exhaled with purpose and started upward.
My friends seemed to grow impatient as I climbed, because halfway through my ascent, the ladder below me began to vibrate with activity. I looked down, trying to force my eyes away from the whirling ground and onto Weha, who now rested several rungs below my feet. I paused apprehensively,
“Are you positive this is strong enough?”
“Of course!” he panted. “Now climb.”
I advanced a rung. “Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure. Now climb!”
I mounted another rung. He followed me up the ladder impatiently and turned to holler down at Matthew after I had reached the final rung―I was alone at the summit. The view was spectacular: I was standing in the treetops, peering out over a meadow of leaves that shimmered in the breeze. To the right, through a gap in the canopy, I watched the sunlight flicker across the turquoise lake. It was a spellbinding scene, and I did my best to savor it even as Weha and Matthew shattered the serenity with their thunderous arrival. Turning to me, Weha grinned, “So who’s going in first?”
Weha shuffled over to a hump in the roof and hauled open the metal hatch. I peered into the darkness: it was a sepulchral interior―plain, deep, and terrifying. Inspired by audacity, however, I skirted my fear, threw off my shirt, and dropped straight through the narrow hole into the water.
I sank to the tank’s floor, fifteen feet below the water’s surface. Enveloped in an eerie silence, I opened my eyes to survey the surroundings: total darkness. Grappling with the cold, I searched for the light that should’ve been seeping through the opening above me, but found nothing. Frantic, I sprang upward and broke the surface with a splash. The hatch above me was shut. I was sealed in this pitch-black cell, and in the foot of breathing-room around me, I inhaled sharply. In the miles of anonymous water below, a host of vicious creatures lay in wait, eyeing their fresh meal. The blindness had eroded my sense of reason, and as I began to tire in the water, I cried for help. Only nine seconds had passed since I had entered the tank, and I was already struggling to breathe in the frigid air. The water’s icy fingertips crept up my arms, numbing my shoulders and neck. The footsteps above me had ceased, and I prepared my surrender to the inky sea: “What a shitty way to go,” my mind teased. “Sure hope you discover obedience in the next life.”
At last I sighed and stopped treading, suspended in the tank for a brief moment. The water around me did not stir. The air did not breathe―it neither tightened nor released its grip on me. “Perfect placidity,” I thought.
My eyelids had begun to droop as the hatch swung open, drenching me in sunlight. I coughed and turned to the opening above, allowing myself to be dragged, half-conscious, from the water. I shuddered, catching sight of my blue toes. My eyes closed.