All in all, Jim felt that the world was pretty great.Sure it wasn’t perfect. Bits and pieces here or there could probably do with improvement and not everyone was as happy as they could, but that was life, wasn’t it? Things could certainly be a whole lot worse, but they weren’t, so Jim at least was content with his lot.
He wanted for little and what he did want for was only ever a short wait and a small amount of work away, which somehow made it all the sweeter to receive. His problems were few and easily rectified, his friends many and easily entertained. By all accounts he had nothing to complain about, and the world itself seemed simply to burst with joy every time he woke up to greet it.
This began to grate, after a while. Jim didn’t notice when it started, but one day he simply realised that – as great as life was – he wasn’t and couldn’t be satisfied with it. Of course, he had no real idea of what he would be satisfied with or what he should strive towards, but that didn’t stop the feeling from growing. In rather the way a cut doesn’t really hurt until you see it, now that he had noticed he simply couldn’t ignore it.
There had to be more! There had to be a challenge or a struggle that had some depth, had some deeper meaning beyond distraction! His easily entertained friends thought him confused and distressed. They did their best to comfort him, but he would not be mollycoddled. He had something to find, though he knew not what, at least not yet.
His search was clumsy. He had never had to really search for anything before now, and hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to even start. But he gave it his best all the same, boldly going forth and trampling all in his path in his search for something – anything! His search was for the most part utterly fruitless and also exhausting, but it gave him an odd feeling of fulfillment and purpose. He felt like he was doing something, because he hadn’t yet succeeded. This drove him on.
It was only a matter of time before Jim came a cropper. In his aimless wanderings and clueless blunderings it was inevitable he would find something to capture his interest and push him out to investigate further, and this he did. Clues were to be found in the outside world, he discovered. Clues to a deeper meaning in life. This filled him with wild desire. Putting on his best life-affirming-quest coat he launched off beyond his domicile, seeking the places he had learnt about, and the answers they contained.
As it turned out they contained no immediate answers, but rather a hatch. It took Jim some time to even find the hatch, too. Hidden beneath scrub and debris the rusted, forgotten hatch took him by surprise. It looked utterly unlike anything he had ever seen before. Jim’s life – Jim’s world – was one in which things were clean, functional and obvious. This was not clean and not obvious, though it did – after much heaving on Jim’s part – turn out to be functional, and it opened up for him.
Jim stared down the hole he had opened up for himself. It was stark and foreboding, the ladder set into one side simply a set of iron rungs that stretched on downwards into the darkness. Jim could not look away. Fear clutched his heart, but it was a fear tinged with curiosity; something he had never felt before.
He didn’t notice that his feet had moved onto the ladder. His mind was so lost in the possibilities of what he might find down below that he only really realised he was heading that way when he was already halfway down the whole. He was startled, pulled from his reverie, but after a moment to recover he continued down. He felt committed now, turning back would be to admit defeat!
Things got dark quickly, not to mention dank. Jim shivered in the cold and squinted in the gloom but carried on downwards, feet finding the next step where his eyes could not. Sometimes, the rungs would give and his heart would leap, or else they would simply not be there. This slowed him, but did not stop him. He wondered if he would ever reach the bottom. If there was a bottom.
There was, and he did. The ground felt firm and there was light again, but it was grey now, and did not fill him with the same enthusiasm that the sunshine he was familiar did. He shivered again, though this time it wasn’t on account of the cold.
Looking around, Jim began to have misgivings. This didn’t appear to be the sort of place that would give his life any meaning. Or at least, any meaning he would want. Things were gloomy and confusing. Things were unfamiliar. Jim started to feel a little bit frightened, and cast an eye back towards the ladder.
But no! He couldn’t give up now! He had learnt nothing! He had learnt less than nothing, in fact; he had learnt that there were things to learn! And to leave without learning those things and go back knowing he had left them unlearnt was simply ghastly. He couldn’t do that to himself. Girding his loins and tightening his belt he put on his bravest face and put his best foot forward, quickly following it with his second-best foot.
He discovered in short order that this was a world utterly unlike his own. The people were gloomy here, and seemed to do their best to shut themselves in. Though he was obviously a stranger and obviously lost they went out of their way to ignore him and go about their lives, doing things he found inscrutable. The sky – such as it was – loomed low and heavy and the sense of pressure and of being crushed was unbearable. It got much worse when Jim found (quite by accident) what it was everyone did here.
Everyone down here lived solely to support those above. At first Jim wasn’t sure what this meant. Maybe it was metaphorical, maybe he was missing something – his mind could not wrap itself around its literal meaning, and refused to accept it. At least at first. His mind could not hold out against the relentless and rising tide of the facts however, and though it brought a tear to his eyes and he himself to his knees, he had to accept it.
This whole level, everything on it and every person he saw as he wandered dumbly through it, was dedicated to maintaining the quality of life as it was above. There was nothing else to it. Mechanically, their toil and their labour made the life he had been living possible. He’d had no idea. There had been aspects to his world that he had never fully understood – how things worked sometimes, where they might come from – but he had never given them much thought. Now he knew, and he wished he didn’t.
The misery was abject and all-pervading. Surviving on scraps, every resource and every moment was bent towards making Jim’s life and the life of his easily-entertained friends not only possible but comfortable. Jim was horrified. Why had no-one told him?
Wracked with guilt and confusion Jim wandered for hours. He knew that he was hopelessly lost in the physical sense, but he felt that it gelled well his greater, less-tangible sense of being lost and so stuck with it. He passed mobs of downcast, bedraggled workers and buildings that were being repaired almost as quickly as they were mouldering to rubble. It was all just so overwhelming.
So wrapped up in all this misery was Jim that he failed to notice the second hatch until he literally tripped over it. Rolling onto his rump and rubbing his wounded shin he looked to see the culprit and baulked slightly on seeing that it was, in fact, a hatch. Looking around he found that he had somehow wandered into another disused, forgotten corner bereft of people – seemingly the natural habitat for hatches.
Horror gripped Jim’s heart. Such a hatch could mean only one thing, no amount of denial would make that go away. His options narrowed in his head even as he tried to count them, leaving him with but one by the time he got a grip. He could only go down. Seeing it there meant there was more for him to know. Horrible, life-destroying knowledge beckoned. He knew it would ruin him further, but continuing on and knowing there was yet more hidden from him – always lurking beneath the surface – would be worse. He would be a hollow shell of a man either way, but being a hollow, ignorant shell edged out simply being hollow. Opening the hatch, he wearily descended.
This was a course of action he regretted. The ladder gave way near the bottom and he fell the rest of the way, receiving quite a nasty bump on his arrival and – worse – ruining his only known route back up. It was hard to feel too torn up about this though, as the environment he found himself in was so crushingly depressing that it drove all thoughts other than complete gloom clean out of his head.
By comparison, the layer above had been an idyllic world of joy and his home layer might as well have been a mythical land of milk and honey. This layer was beyond anything he’d seen or even dared to imagine. The people barely looked alive, and the architecture and even the bare landscape itself seemed to have been made to amplify their suffering. Edges were sharp, materials rough, the soil and water bitter. Even the air scratched at his lungs, as though breathing had been decided somewhere along the line to be something that shouldn’t be enjoyed.
Jim didn’t even need to wander or see much beyond the obvious to know immediately that this layer’s sole purpose was the support of the one above, and in turn his own above that. He could feel the truth of this in his bones. The gravity of purpose pressed in on him from all sides.
There was another hatch. Jim didn’t find it for a while, but that there was one was obvious. He didn’t mean to find it, but when he did he couldn’t deny that it was what he’d been looking for. He didn’t even think about it for a moment. Hauling it open, he went down again.
It didn’t take long for Jim to lose count of the layers. Hatches followed hatches, the light grew dimmer and the people more and more downtrodden. At some point they stopped really looking like people at all, and then some time after that it became difficult telling them apart from the world they lived in. And all of it for the benefit of those above. The agony of existence was palpable, even the merest flicker of joy or meaning for life absent. These layers were foundations and engines for those above and that was all, and onwards it went, ever down.
All that drove Jim onwards was the hope – the slim, reedy hope – that maybe there would be an end to it somewhere. Logically, there had to be. It could be a long way away, Jim could accept that, but there had to be an end. That the layers went on forever simply couldn’t be the case. Jim had to reach the end, had to know the sum-total of all the suffering needed for life to work.
There was no end. Jim never accepted it, and died trying to reach it. His body could not keep pace and gave up on him at the bottom of yet another ladder. He left innumerable layers above him, and an infinity of them below.