A gasp escapes your mouth as you shuffle a few feet forward on the dusty path, your arms straining against their load. It’s bulky form obscures your vision, and the angular, illogical lines strain your hands as you try to find a more comfortable way to hold it. The thought doesn’t even occur to you anymore, to put it down for a moment. You know from previous experience that you wouldn’t be able to.
Sky a troubled grey, dirty chalk of the path set in a dun field, there isn’t much to be said of the scenery. You look around, again, at the people alongside in the queue. It’s true, the mass you struggle with nearly blocks out all sight ahead – in fact, it towers a good few feet above your head – but, if you shift just there, and balance the weight against your hip for a second like that –
From around the side of the load, you can just make out the people immediately ahead of you. Their own objects, their presence just as obligatory as yours, look like they’re smaller, that they’re easier to manipulate and transport.
The man two spots ahead of your own, he can manage it with just one hand, though the arm that holds it strikes you as oddly stiff. He shifts, looking out into the barren middle distance, and you see what it is he is carrying – a block, about half-a-metre cubed, remarkable more than anything for its colour. The object is a mix of red and white, run through in irregular striations ten centimetres wide at points. The combination reminds you of a mint candy, the sharp division between the different bands, the concentration of the shade, but the sight of it leaves you faintly nauseous. Looking at it compulsively, drawn to it, you realise that you’ve seen the colours before – the white is the tint of brittle bone, the red that of raw meat. The bands themselves don’t look as if they’re composed of these materials, they both display a uniform sheen, smooth, maybe porcelain? You notice the hand that carries the object – too static. Wrong colour. Matte. Plastic. Startled, you pull your head back behind your own load.
Ahead, some unknown distance away, you can hear swells of noise, periodic. It is as if a great host raise their voices at once, then abruptly cut off. It is not a sound that carries with it an emotion, no victory yell nor shout of terror. Appropriately for this place, it simply is. Lacking more characteristics than the necessary, it simply is.
Flowing, congealing, with the queue, you clear more of the unremarkable, identical path. Always forward, sometimes a curve, but always forward. Like a tide, the tiredness you feel pulls in and out. There are times when your arms are set to shuddering, the struggle to keep the object aloft overwhelming all other consideration. At times like these, you nearly cast it aside, unburdening yourself in a dramatic and self-conscious single act. Even then, though, you know it would be impossible. It’s been tried before, why would it be different this time?
Those are the worst times, where you’re pushed to the breaking point, with every part of your body, your mind, enveloped in the struggle. And always, at the base of it, you know that it will go on and on, unending. Mercifully, the very severity of these moments is sourced from their rarity. More often than not, you experience a mild uncomfort, a burning in tired muscles and a nagging in the back of the mind. It is during one of these periods, more bored than driven, you decide to snatch another glimpse of your fellow travelers.
You have little desire to see the broken man and his strange cube once more – even in the depths of your boredom, you have little interest in the frightening oddity of that sight. Instead, you focus on your most proximate neighbour, a woman, directly ahead of you. To your surprise, she doesn’t appear to be carrying anything at all. In fact, though you’re not quite sure how to describe it, you get a sense of a sort of…absence…about her. Outwardly, she seems like anyone else here in this non-place – she walks at the same pace, eyes ahead, she is dressed in the same drab grey everyone else is. You’ve come to another slight curve in the road. Brought on by no discernible geographic feature, the road curves nonetheless. You can see others ahead, all of them have their own objects. The woman ahead of you is aberrant in her lack of a carried thing, something that sets her apart from the rest and consumes her attention.
Watching her more carefully now, you notice that she does seem to be weighed down by something – she periodically stumbles in her steps, her body looks like it has been pressed down, shoulders sloped, head lolling with tiredness. You realise she is carrying that strange nothingness, that absence, just as physically as you struggle with your own burden. You’re not sure what brought it on, you certainly uttered no sound, nor can you think of what else may have drawn her attention, but the woman in front of you turns her head, just as you’re looking at her. Only for a moment, a single motion in fact, does she look at you. Through you. Startled, you stop in your tracks. Luckily, this is during one of the intermittent ebbs in pace, and no one bumps you from behind. It takes several seconds to register what you just saw – the blankness of the woman’s expression, it was total. A complete lack of animation left it neither at rest nor showing any emotion you had a name for. All the right features were there, two eyes, nose, thin-lipped mouth, but it was more mask than face. There was no life in the eyes, no movement to nostrils or twitch in the mouth that might signal some inner awareness. Nothing. You were glad that the frozen thing was only directed at you a moment. Without knowing why, you found the lack of animation disturbing.
It looms ahead of you. The goal of this long slog, coming up at last. A set of scales, monstrous in proportion, big as a building. Inornate, they are of this place, belonging, as implacable as the passage of time. You can see the people ahead, each placing their burden onto the receiving dish. With the movement of the balance, the crowd beyond the scales lets out their deadened bellow, clipped short before it can swell to a roar.
Though the pace is unhurried, it is soon time those immediately ahead of you to test their pieces, their offerings. The plastic man approaches, ascending the graven stairs to the dull brass dish. The dish is huge, wider in diameter than the man is tall. Shallow, it hangs at about the man’s shoulders, forced up by the weight of the other arm. You look at the load of the other arm, the counter-weight exuding mass. A solid block of cast iron, larger than an automotive, rust flaking at the edges of its pyramidal form. Despite the way you’ve seen the man struggle with his strange cube, there’s no way it’ll shift that immense measure.
And yet, lifting it with clear effort straining his face, he heaves the white and red thing into the dish. Quickly, smoothly, the balance shifts. The brass dish closest to the man, the three slim chains supporting it gone taught, lowers, lowers, until it is just below the man’s midriff. It dips a moment, descending to his knees, and then bobs back up to its position below the waist. As it comes to rest, the crowd beyond the scale’s pedestal open their mouths in unison, and the anticipated, momentary, shout issues forth. Three nondescript members detach themselves from the larger group, gaining the plinth from the other side. The plastic man picks up his cube, and the others assist him with it, all four making their way down onto the path and off towards the horizon. Before he passes out of view beyond the crowd, you can see the change in the man’s expression – he still struggles with the unknown weight of the cube, but it seems less, as if the assistance of the others makes an easier going, despite the awkward manner of travel.
The woman with the inert face is the next to climb. Despite the scene that played itself out moments ago, you still doubt anything the woman has will shift the weight of the pyramid. If she herself feels similar doubts, nothing about her body betrays it. She sets her feet wide to gain leverage – she is short, about two and half feet shorter than the earlier man – and lifts the nothingness she’s carried all this way with both arms. The scene would be comic, absurd, if not for the seriousness to which all present attended it. The moment seemed to hang as she strained against this invisible weight, looking as if her arched back might break under the effort. Finally, she gained the lip, spilling whatever it was into the dish. Unlike the previous weighing, where the equilibrium was determined sedately, casually, the shift here was violently immediate. The iron pyramid shot up, as if it were the dish holding nothing, and set to swaying. The chains supporting it showed evidence of the tension they were under – it was clear that the counterweight did in fact have a ponderous mass. And yet, the opposing dish, empty to the eye, scraped the hewn pedestal beneath the woman’s feet. The customary yell is issued, perhaps a sliver longer than the last. This time, five of the nondescript, genderless individuals join the woman on the platform. Together, they gingerly lift the absence from the dish, which raises as they relieve the weight. Together, negotiating the steps down, they struggle off into the distance.
With the events that have run up to your own weighing, the comparative difference between your load and theirs, you approach scale with a degree of confidence. As you’ve already held your object at waist height this long time, it’s an easy enough job to tilt it into the dish. The relief as you set it down, even for the few moments of the weighing, is immediate and stark. You stand back –
and nothing happens. Not entirely true. As you look in disbelief at the scale, you see it shift, late, ever so slightly. Several centimetres, if that.
You look out at the crowd before you. The customary cry is absent. The faces staid. Not menacing, but neither are they merely neutral. The nearest to the scale lifts a hand, pointing to the right. You follow the appendage, noticing for the first time the road that runs perpendicular to the main. It bisected the road just after the scale, and, unlike the path you’d trodden this long while, made of some crushed unknown, white stone, this second road was dug into the ground, about a foot. It explained why you didn’t notice it before. Looking down at it now, from the added height of your vantage, you understood the unvoiced command of the pointing individual.
Stretched out along the road, much more intermittently than the ones who took the main route, were solitary figures, struggling along with the burdens that, you can only assume, were likewise refused. A sense of unfairness rises in your breast, but only for a moment. There is no one to complain to here – the crowd will not hear it, and the scale is as impartial a judge as ever there could be, even if it does behave idiosyncratically.
Stoically, you hoist your burden once more, descending the same set of stairs you climbed moments ago. As you set off down the sunken path, you can feel the old pains rising anew, the tired muscles returning to their accustomed ache. The object you bear is no lighter now, you reflect. But neither has it grown heavier.
Dialogue – Commons
Elpis: Your face is of great length, friend of mine. What disturbs you so?
Achlys: The lower orders – I feel the bile rise in my throat at the thought of them, rage chokes my vision at their mention – how I hate them!
Elpis: Come now, they are but men and women as any others. What matters their pecuniary position? Whether a man possess many things or but few, is he not still a man? If a woman shouldn’t direct great hosts, is she not still as much a woman?
Achlys: It is not their material possessions that I take umbrage for, no, it is their inborn weakness that causes me strife. Mewling creatures little better than beasts, they ought to be silenced entire!
Elpis: Friend, you go too far! Such pronouncements, without nuance or art, how can they catch evasive Truth? You, of all, should know better. Is not every man a universe unto himself? Every woman distinct, monadic and isolate? How can such broad statements, flat and lacking care, catch all the manifest peculiarities of individuals?
Achlys: Are you unable to determine the hollowness of your words? Your good-naturedness blinds you to the obvious. I’ll grant you, you may find an assortment of different qualities, a roster of interchangeable traits, as you cast your eye over these teeming hordes. But – as a set! – they are the same. What matter it that one should differ from the next in the superficial, when they all of them are afflicted by a low bearing, gaze eternally cast into the dirt? When they, aggregately, have no love of learning, revelling in mysticism and ignorance? So what if one should have short hair and the next long, or one digs ditches while her neighbour prefers filling them?
Elpis: Without conceding the position – I still feel, still trust, that you sell them short – if things are as you say, that the hoi polloi possess some characteristics in common, why assume that these are in-born? Is it not just as likely, perhaps more so, that they are subject to them, moulded from birth and in no way deficient in fundament? This being the case, would it not be more appropriate to vent your hatred on the structure that provides the die?
Achlys: This cuts to the root of it – we know, given centuries of fact-gathering, of theorising, of proof, that that is the case. And yet! Who acts against their own interests more often and more faithfully than these, even in light of this knowledge? Who blithely disregards the better choice in favour of the expedient and the mesmeric at every opportunity?
Elpis: You talk of proof, and yet, what proof have you that this, this imperfection, this too is not product of the circumstances they find themselves in? All humanity is fallible, for they are but arms-length from their animalistic brethren. More fruitful, I think, is to see what has been thus far achieved, and what is still possible, waiting in the wings for its day to come! Do we not find ourselves in an era of plenty, with the ability, material and intellectual, to vault into the heavens themselves, leaving behind earthly limitations?
Achlys: It is true, ours is a peculiar moment – never before has there been such vast heaps of wealth, such easy plenitude. And I answer you – never too have such vast discrepancies lain between the possessor and the possessed! And where have the mighty schema gotten us? Terra itself chokes on the effluvium of industry! In full knowledge of their fore-coming doom do the people of the earth toil on, self-centred and self-focussed. They run to their deaths, as wanton as the leech that bursts from gorging, rupturing at the seams. Worse, for they at least have no ability to know better!
Elpis: My poor friend, you speak as if the day were later than it is. The horizon is overcast, it is true. Foolish to deny that. But, our vantage is situated. I ask you, when does the future not appear cloudy? We do not have the power of omniscience; our vision is delimited. Night has yet to fall, so why speak as if the clock is spun down already? Especially when there is much work to be done? The Great Game isn’t through yet, and – who knows? – there may still prove to be some way of up-ending the hourglass. Time enough, perhaps, to change the parameters and free your lower orders of their forced enfeeblement.
Achlys: Go forth, and savour disappointment all the greater when the moment comes. I will hold to my doubts.