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Endeavour’s Fall #6: Stairway to Albany

Dec 18, 2016




He dreamt of a stairway that reached from the earth up to heaven.

He saw the angels of God ascending and descending on the incline.

-Gen. 28:12, New Academy Translation


The rumbling of a loaded freight train shook Sam awake. He had fallen asleep on the metal floor of the Deacon’s locomotive near the warmth of the boiler grate. Now that the sun had risen, he could see the sentries posted at the gate to Albany. He stumbled away from them, across the main line to the banks of Norman’s Kill.

Sam slid down a slight rise by the rail bridge and washed some of the coal dust off of his face and hands in the cold river water. The bridge sheltered a rough camp of tents made of bits of wood and canvas. Sam could feel people watching him from the camp, and kept his eyes on the ground.

Sam followed the increasingly murky river towards Albany, climbing along the rocky bank and through muddy patches past more squatters’ camps until he arrived at a boardwalk in the crowded rift below Albany itself.

Steep ravines divide Albany into two worlds: one above, that, while still crowded and desperate, is well-lit with gas lamps, street cars and crawlers, and one below, where wastewater runs down from spouts and rusty pipes to join in the sickly yellow flow.

The foul air has nowhere to go to escape the humid depths of the rift. Neither do the people who live there. As he followed the boardwalk, Sam tried to picture himself as one of Newton’s ideal particles that never collide with anything. He stayed to the side and out of the way of the tangle of humanity.

A few of the buildings in Albany had dropped cages on lines down to the rift below. A crowd was gathered around one such lift. A sharp-eyed man, a manager, Sam guessed, selected and loaded three men into his metal basket. A steam engine up above puffed to life and hoisted them all up for a day’s work. The dispirited crowd moved on.

The pathetic scene struck Sam harder than he expected. He realized that his family was not very far from these conditions themselves. With a broken train and no way to pay the bank, they would soon have to move somewhere like this rift to look for wage work. Without Pa…

Sam walked further into the rift, looking for some way up and out. Soon the smooth stone walls of Fort Frederick loomed overhead. No one lived or worked directly below the Fort. Cobblestones covered the side of the ravine from the Fort walls above down across the Rift into Norman’s Kill. The sewers from the Fort were sealed with thick iron grates near the river. A long dark shadow floated overhead at the Fort’s mooring tower.

Sam finally found a stairway rising out of the rift to the streets above. A curlicue metal gate and fence guarded the entrance to the stairway. Inside the fence, wooden stairs hung by rickety chains from the establishment above. Sam slowly made his way towards the wrought iron gate.

The rough-looking bouncer tending the gate didn’t even look at Sam. He just elbowed him aside to open the gate for a blue-suited man who slipped the bouncer some coins in a quick handshake. Sam tried to slide through the gate behind the man, but the bouncer grabbed him by the collar as he passed.

“Hey there, rat! This stairway is for paying customers. Round-trips only! “

The bouncer tossed Sam back roughly into the crowd. The bouncer was already scanning the Rift for his next customer. Suddenly, the man’s bulbous face grew pale, and he spun around, closing the wrought-iron gate behind him.

The bouncer nearly rattled the stairway to pieces as he hurried up the stairs. Down the rift, a lift engine blasted out its steam and squealed its brakes to reverse the lift’s descent. A vendor wearing a burlap jacket scraped some rotting fruit into a box and disappeared into the crowd, leaving his makeshift stand behind. Amid the tumult, an irate man wearing a flowery shirt and waistcoat ran up and banged loudly on the locked curlicue gate.

“Meyers! Open up, you rascal! Let me up!” He shouted up the stairs.

A dark line of red-coated troops lined the top of the rift along the lower wall of Fort Frederick. An unseen sergeant barked an order, and the troops started marching, in formation, down the nearly-vertical cobblestone wall. It took a moment before Sam realized that lines ran down the Fort walls and attached to each marching soldier’s back. The straight red line of uniforms descended straight down the cobblestone wall to the floor of the rift.

With bayonets fixed, the soldiers formed ranks in each direction and cleared a space below the Fort. Behind them, thin lines slithered behind them and back up the wall. Then two large crawlers, this time fastened to chains above, clambered down to the waiting soldiers.

The crawlers strode down the wall and continued across the boardwalk into the deep running water. Soldiers climbed on the large flat backs of the machines, three abreast. Again a command rang out, and in unison, the machines and soldiers split, one line going up, and the other down the rift. Each formed a solid red line from wall to wall and across the river.

Sam’s eyes were glued to the troops. He rarely saw redcoats in formation. The crowd had already scattered. Suddenly, the staircase in front of Sam creaked and swayed again as the bouncer ran down the stairs.

The irate man in the flowered waistcoat was still pounding on the curlicue gate and howling. Sam rushed across the boardwalk, tripping and crashing into the man’s back just as the gate opened a crack. The two of them stumbled through.

The bouncer grabbed the man in the flowered waistcoat and pulled him to his feet. Sam was tossed hard against an iron railing and the stone side of the rift. His side ached, and most of him had slipped through the wide-spaced rails. The bouncer pulled the irate patron by the arm up the rickety stairway.

As Sam tried to catch his breath, the bouncer spun to face him from the top of the stairs.

“Rat! Get lost or I’ll throw you straight into the Kill!” The bouncer gestured angrily, but a glance at the approaching soldiers seemed to convince him that Sam was not worth the delay. He violently struck a lever at the top of the stairway and followed his patron into the building.

There was the burst of steam, and the stairway groaned. Sam realized that the entire contraption was going to lift off the ground, leaving him in an empty iron cage. Quickly he pulled himself onto the lowest stair. Then he held tight to a railing as it rattled skyward.

© J. O. Evans 2016. All Rights Reserved.