What Will It Take to Hold Back the Sky?

"The Pile," a story by Karen E. Bender

pile of trash on beach

What Will It Take to Hold Back the Sky?

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The Pile

The sky was lowering slowly, the great blue weight of it, and we could feel the air being squeezed out of the world. The height of the sky was unpredictable—it appeared a little lower one day, the shadows longer, and the next day the sky had been cranked back up. Some people looked around those days and said, see? It will go back to normal, just wait, and others said, but look.

People had different reactions to the confusing descent of the sky. Perhaps the sky would not press down fully, perhaps it would remain where it was for the next couple years and then lift up on its own. Then we would be able to stand up more fully, the air would be lighter on our arms. But the sky was lowering slowly, bit by bit, when we weren’t looking. We tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, but we all knew it was. There was no knowing where it was going, but where it was going appeared to be us.

We went about our lives, appalled but trying to get through the day, dazed with hope that the sky would stop on its own, but the sky kept descending, inch by inch, and the shadows across the nation stretched out, unnatural and dismal and gray.

Many of us couldn’t sleep. Some of us were having problems with our necks from constantly looking up, gauging how far the sky had lowered today, and some of us glanced up so frequently our necks froze in place. Some of us found our backs hunching, protectively, in a posture of anticipation for the future, but it was obviously pointless, as our backs were no match for the sky. Others took the easy route and just toppled over dead with worry. Others ruminated about practical things, like whether it was time to redo the roof on their house. Some tried not to never think about it but the effort of not thinking made then gaunt.

Some said stop worrying, the lowering would stop at some point. Some said we could get along with it at this height.  But it was already brushing tops of mountains, there were reports it had crushed people who lived atop high mountain peaks. The sky cruelly lowered and crushed them and then lifted, leaving them flat and bloody.

Why didn’t they go down the mountain, said some.

How can you say that?

They didn’t have to stay there. Why didn’t they go?

Someone, I don’t know who, suggested building a pile. The word itself was aggravating and vague. A pile to rise up and stop the sky. What sort of pile? With what? What was the point? The sky stretched on for farther than we could see.

The idea caught on. Shut up and build one. Bring something of your own. Anything. Toss it on. We need a huge pile. Move.

Some people were excited by the idea of a pile. They brought everything they wanted to empty out of their homes. Old towels, shoes, end tables, chipped mugs, cribs, broken chairs. It was like a giant, disorganized rummage sale, but sadly with no sale element. The sheer size of the pile started attracting people. It appeared at first a mess and then official, and we craved being part of something organized, official.

What should we add to the pile? Some thought we needed sharp things. Knives, broken windows, handled carefully. Something that would scrape the sky and stop it from being lowered more, though we did not know if a sky was scrapable, as no one had touched it. People began to hurt themselves on broken glass, so this stopped.

There were debates, some polite and some heated, about what would be best to load onto the pile. Some felt bags of manure would be most efficient, but they made everything smelly, so that ended that. There was a theory involving bales of hay, and then old magazines, as everyone had old magazines they wanted to throw out.  It didn’t matter. Everything helped.

There was a general sense of panic. People started cutting off their hair and pushing it into the pile. Some began to up the ante by surgically removing parts of their bodies. A finger. A foot. Their bravery was applauded. Some people copied them, as though trying to appease someone, but no one was quite sure who.

It was only after people started offering up body parts that others handed over property. One man lifted his four-bedroom house off its foundation, hauled it to the pile, and pushed it in. Some people cheered him on, but few followed, and though some generous people offered him a couch to sleep on, others whispered they would not let him in their homes.

Go. Keep going. We needed more things. The pile was just about to brush the bottom of the sky. All our work was leading to something useful, it was almost there, we could see it.

What if it doesn’t work? Some of us said.

What do you mean?

So we build the pile and it brushes the sky and nothing happens. What if it doesn’t work?

People were tired of bringing objects from their homes, not to mention, hair, random limbs, purses, clothes they were embarrassed to have worn. They were sick of going through their closets and unloading everything. Their homes were starting to look bare.

There was, as we got closer, a feeling of doubt.  What if we have done all of this for nothing?

What’s the point?

The sky made a slight groaning sound, as though it was gearing up for something. We all jumped.

I’ve had it, said some of us. I’m tired.

It doesn’t matter.

I miss my chair.

Whose idea was this anyway?

The pile stood, a massive mess of offerings, and it was easy to just see it as that. A damned, stupid mess. A useless activity. A waste. It stood there, silent, holding so much anger and fear and hope. One could see why people would turn from it, now, just as it was brushing the sky, just now as its efficacy would be tested. It stood there, items rotting in the sun.  Hurry! shouted someone. One more thing. Everyone. Please. Find something.  Go! We could not see whether everyone was adding to the pile or giving up; we did not know if we were all capable of, at some point, having the same thought. We flung up tall ladders and we climbed higher and higher, and when they swayed as we perched on them, we tried to grab hold of the pure blue–but our hands closed over nothing. We opened our hands, closed them, but when we tried to grab the sky our hands held only air.Still, we kept building. The pile was smelly, slovenly, grand, full of hope. Go, someone shouted, please, come on, one more thing quick, a towel, a cotton ball, an SUV, anything! There was a creaking sound from above us, a shifting, and then everyone looked up.  

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