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Rise then descend, p.1
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       Rise, then Descend, p.1

           Nick Stokes
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Rise, then Descend

  Rise, then Descend

  by Nick Stokes

  Copyright 2014 Nick Stokes

  This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit

  Rise, then Descend was first published in Crab Orchard Review, Vol. 18 #1.

  Table of Contents

  Rise, then Descend

  About Nick Stokes

  Other Titles by Nick Stokes

  Connect with Nick Stokes

  Rise, then Descend

  HE WALKS INTO the sky. He carries a basket of earth on his back. He follows the basket on the back before him. Second trip of the day and they don’t speak. Heat rises with them. Time for ten trips today. Up and down the ramp. Back and forth across the plaza, from borrow pit to Sun’s mound, rising. At least the engineer didn’t say today was a day to carry the red clay. Or the flagstone. It’s too early to wish he were a digger in the pit filling baskets instead of bloodying his feet. Shredding his shoulders. For now before the hotter heat and the higher sun, he is strong. He is chosen, along with those before and behind and those lighter and empty, descending. They are chosen to raise earth to sky and their people to the Sun by doing what cannot be done and rising and rising and rising. He stands atop the mound where he could not stand without a basket of earth. He stands where the holiest stand and sees what the holiest see – the day expanding westward across the mighty river, the hunters hunting in the flat woods, the hot eye of morning rising over half-day bluff, and past the old low southern burial mounds and the borrow pit sinking and the ever-buzzing marsh to where he can’t see. He empties his basket of black earth on top of the black earth of other emptied baskets and his earth makes no difference in the height of the earthen mound and yet day-by-day basket-by-basket the mound grows higher. The mound they build is the highest and they build it higher. A home for the Sun to bless them from. The heat is good. As he turns he tries to pick out his hut among the huts or his wife among the corn but he can’t because he is too high and not holy enough and sweat is in his eyes and he is not yet a grandfather dead in the sky. He climbs down basket-empty to climb up earth-full and do it again, more tired than before.


  He climbs up the steps. Fifth time today. If he makes twenty, he’ll’ve done 2000 feet. Or some-odd. Maybe he’ll do twenty-five. If the mound were as tall as they say it was once, twenty times’d net him 3000 some-odd feet and he wouldn’t have to think on twenty-five. Though then he might just do fourteen. All conjecture. Doctor told him to get some blessed exercise, and he figures that is about the one thing he can do in this swamp of not-knowing and being done-to and undone, so he is doing it, his own way.

  First plateau again. Bit of flat before another up.

  None of the tourists know he goes up-down up-down up-down all morning and afternoon if he feels like it everyday. Or they know the up-down, but then they go. He passes them while they climb, while they read signs, while they stand at the top looking for something to look at, while they descend. They smile and nod and go. When there is any they. This isn’t the pyramids. Rangers know of him. Must, here daily, like it’s their job. It’s their job. So what if they know. So what if they have a job. He has exercise. He had a stroke.

  Did the ancients use walking sticks when climbing the mound? He’s not sure what kind of man needs a walking stick to walk. You just move your feet one front of the other. An old man might need a walking stick. But he is not old. He is old, compared to how old people used to get. Maybe are designed to get. He wishes he were old.

  Doctor said to use the hiking poles. That they’d give him a more thorough workout. Okay. That they’d save his knees on the way down that blessed mound however many times a day if that’s the way he had to do it. Okay. He didn’t need to pay for knee trouble too. That they’d ensure he doesn’t fall. He doesn’t believe in insurance and what kind of man falls climbing a hill? But okay. He does the hiking poles. Pansy, but that doesn’t stop him.

  His tremors don’t stop him.

  Thirty-five some-odd degree rain blowing horizontal in his face doesn’t stop him. Climbing in a monumental refrigerator he built back when he built refrigerators doesn’t stop him. Won’t see nobody up here today, which the opposite of stops him. Can’t see nothing from the top. Doesn’t stop him.


  He walks away from the eternal fire and his council chiefs always hanging on the word he has yet to say like dogs begging a bone so he can stand atop his mound and look to where the chiefdom’s sway ceases and be unable to see such a distance and hear the ancients if they happen to have anything to say. If they happen to speak what they happen to have to say. Which they might; it is windy. The sun setting behind him as he looks east. Cornfields. Last of the corn on the stalks. Women bent under sacks. Unable to carry more. Will it last? Many mouths for many months. Red corn, white corn, yellow corn, blue corn for private storage pits and public granaries. For him. For the Sun. Sun first and last. Squash in the fields yet. They must clear more fields this winter and plant more come spring. First chill of fall in the wind. Feels good. Except it blows his hair into his eyes. He turns into the wind, walks past the coyote-eyed council to the western edge of the mound, and faces the setting sun. The new bigger sky circle a mile away below him, new bigger posts in a new bigger circle blessed today by the new bigger sky reader. Equinox two days away and its celebration and the preparations consuming them. The wasting of food they’ll wish they had come spring equinox. Let them eat too much and throw the refuse to the dogs, let the dogs get fat, let them forget themselves and remember Sun. Eat it before it rots. Not all the harvest will last the winter. They’ll need their dogs’ fat. Maybe it’ll be a short winter. Maybe they’ll smoke more than they eat. Later they will smoke until they are not hungry. Wind rushes in his ears pulsing like blood from a neck. Not steady like water in the river. Men and women carry firewood on their backs. Going farther and farther to get it. More people return at the end of the day than left in the morning and this is supposed to invigorate him. A day’s trip to collect a load of firewood. Collecting firewood has become a trade, not a task. And so many. The men doing it. They dwell on winter. Or do they not have other to do? What to do with all of them. They come offering themselves to the Sun. How to keep them busy. Doing, harvesting, building, offering. A dozen work through sunset building the west council chief’s new house. He knows they use the lumber of the simple homes raised to make space for the new house. He knows what needs knowing. The west council chief does not. The west council chief would not be happy. The west council chief is a fool with big ears and stunted children and ugly wives. But his grandfather. His home is built of better quality lumber by reusing the old than if they hauled in new. Children haul water from the creek in thick clay pots. The water keeps coming, always more water. People, streaming, pooling, flooding. His eyes are orange from the sun and dry from the wind. He shuts them. Dig a channel to direct their flow. Drain the swamps for planting. Equinox comes. They will be busy enough living through winter. And then. The first star. Red. The first grandfather who stood on a hill in the sky. Almost close enough to touch. His grandfather’s father completed Sun Mound. He will complete it again. They will build higher. Another level, on his mound. He will be higher. They will build themselves a mound and lift themselves higher and offer themselves. The land is flat; they will rise. He will rise. He is the Sun. He sees beyond his sway. He opens his eyes. The sun is set.


  Can see plenty from the top. It’s no mountain with its head in a cloud. Can see the same as atop a ten-some-odd-story silo. Better than if it was a ten-story office building planted in the middle of
other office buildings. Can see about like if it was a ten-story hill carved in relief by some god or glacier from the surrounding land it plowed flat by yoking itself to an unthinkable plow and lowering its shoulder and rendering the tractor obsolete long before there were tractors, flattening all other relief in a hundred-and-fifty some-odd square mile swath to cultivate some holy crop like corn or soybeans.

  Except this is a monument made by men in the American Bottoms and though he can’t see the Arch today he can see a few miles to the outer bank of the dump, the largest modern earthenwork structure in the county embarrassing the largest prehistoric earthenwork structure in the two American continents. Or maybe just one. Maybe just the one he’s on. Maybe it’s not called a bank. A levee. A shoulder. He knows nothing. He’s supposed to be walking. They don’t let you walk up the landfill, even though it’s filled, even though it’s where he belongs. So he walks up Monk’s Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic and World Heritage Site. He walks east along the northern lip of the topmost terrace to where there was once another terrace and a temple and perhaps a bit of the sun’s eternal fire long extinguished. Or so they say. He turns west and walks over his steps, which walked over his previous steps. He parallels the interstate below roaring in his ears louder than the wind blowing cold rain in his face so he sees nothing, he wishes as he walks, the cold wind and rain blinding him to the thousands of harnessed explosions a second hurtling and the muddy river of freight lumbering and the toy tires screaming on pavement. The rain blinding him he wishes leaving silence.

  But still what lies to the west is not silence but the dump. The new monument. Full, overflowing, no space for another plastic bag. Shredded tires and dead automobiles and plastic blister tomato packaging buried and raised toward the sun. Full fill but in the rain in his eyes they build it taller to exemplify their commitment, so someone else gets laid off; they are more inspired and faithful, so someone else gets laid off; they add to the monument, piling more and more spent goods, above all refrigerators and freezers and air conditioners, appliances that make cold, so someone else gets laid off. Appliances he used to make tower into the sky and fall and crash and pile in the bottoms along their angle of repose at the foot of the landfill tower. And so many of those appliances still work or could be fixed – he would gut and sacrifice a fifth for salvageable parts – if someone asked him and perhaps paid him or just asked his hands to hold still, that they make the air colder. The appliances of refrigeration rise, millions of rectangular mostly white or off-white or cream or occasionally night black or shit-yourself brown or catheter yellow or seashell green boxes stacked and rising and sometimes falling and still rising. The dump’s summit is now in cloud. The crests of its foothills climb the steps of his mound and lap metallically at his terrace, sheet metal clanking, power cords twining, sparks flying, compressors chugging, air chilling. He shivers warmly.

  He could climb higher than the highest terrace, but he is cold and he’s supposed to be walking and he should be working and it’s warmer down among the refrigerators and this is such an honor, to be offered the chance to be holy, to become a refrigerator or air conditioner or freezer, to make of himself a salable convenience unavailable to people a hundred years ago when everything was hot all the time and spoiled like lightning and life was miserable but dreaming of betterment was a life skill, a technological convenience now discarded like pottery shards. Now it is hotter but cold can be bought, if you have a job, or at least money like any privileged minor god or CEO. He better seize the bull by the horns and finally make something of himself: an offering of refrigeration. It’s what he worked his whole life for, to be a relief to the masses and eternal cold storage for the sun. A stroke of luck: the opportunity to be a refrigerator. He will be such a small warm part compressed into this large cold monument that he descends the steps, leaning on his poles to save his knees, and enters the cold sea of appliances.


  The water carrier carries a jar of water up the ramp before and behind other carriers of water, behind the carriers of the daily corn offering, white for north, yellow for east, red for west, blue for south, before the carriers of goods for the Sun: fine tri-notched arrowheads, shell beads, fertility figurines, delicate pottery, and gifts from faraway chiefdoms, and before the bearers of wood for the eternal fire. Everytime her brother returns home he asks, Is the eternal fire still burning? and everytime she says, It’s the eternal fire. He says, It’s the eternal fire because they feed it wood hauled by me from clear up on the bluff and offered from all four directions to the end of this world. She doesn’t see the difference. She says, Yes, if we didn’t offer the Sun wood, we would live forever or not forever but as long as we live in cold black darkness. He says, We’d be dead. She says, Yes, we’d be in the Land of the Dead. He says, The mound is growing shorter. Is not, she says. Perhaps the Earth is rising, he says. You have more breath than on most days, she says, you should’ve hauled more wood today. She thinks he is tired from the two-night trips to haul back wood and not used to working and disappointed he himself is not already hauling wood up Sun Mound for the Sun’s offering. He hasn’t worked a full season yet, but he wants to work closer to the Sun and bring home a more prestigious portion of goods, which is what he should want. He is hungry. But he has to do his time. She has hauled water and hauled water and hauled water, first for their house then for their Raven clan then for their Eastern Chief and she never tripped or spilled and they saw the reverence and humility with which she carried water and she moved up into vacated water carrier positions until she carried water for the Sun.

  A pot drops in front of her, shatters, splashes. The offering line pauses. A young woman steps out of line, faces her last sunrise, waits, and the line continues past her. The water carrier steps over the shards of a bird man in a puddle as she passes the ex-water carrier, who does not shiver in her wet feet. She stands with head up, with dignity, with empty hands, not shedding tears for this life or the spilt water or the pot that was worth more than she. She will be sent to the sky and serve the Sun well. There will be a new water carrier for the Sun on the mound tomorrow.


  Anyone ever skied down Monk’s Mound? Maybe the monks. Oh fuck it, he doesn’t say because his mouth doesn’t work as well as once upon a time and he doesn’t want to be the guy who talks to himself with a half-limp mouth, them monks were deader than dust back when kids used to sled down it. Aloud, he’d’ve said those monks, but in his head he has a dialect. He sledded down it, hundred some-odd feet of hurtle and scream, back when there was a subdivision just across Collinsville Road, when they were building the interstate, when the porno drive-in flickered with lightning bugs on hot nights. Maybe that was later. He doesn’t remember. All in the past. He doesn’t remember anybody skiing down. Nobody he knew would’ve had skis. Let alone poles. They weren’t upper middle class and they lived in the god-blessed American Bottoms of Illinois. People then didn’t need fiberglass poles to walk. He could be the first to ski down this mound. If he had skis. If he had money to buy skis. If he believed he could be the first to do anything on this mound. Summer sex among the mosquitoes: nothing. Thousands of people’d had sex on this mound, himself included, he thinks, and his wife isn’t one for sex. Anymore.

  All a long time ago.

  Anyone killed themselves on top? Course they had. Best place for miles. Next best option’s jumping into the river from maybe Eads Bridge or Chain of Rocks. The Arch’d be nice, but he doesn’t figure the windows open. This figuring your jonesing for a monumental structure, which you are, it’s why they’re there. He doesn’t know why you’d be killing yourself if not from a monumental structure.

  He laughs before he knows it.

  There’s the giant Amoco sign off Skinker by Forest Park.

  Indians would’ve done it. Might not’ve called it suicide. Did the Indians who lived here commit suicides they considered suicides? Sacrifice on a monument’s something else entire.

  He’s sacrificed enou
gh. Declaring bankruptcy and giving up their home of twenty-five some-odd years to the bank for nothing, for the good of the country, and moving into a one-bedroom shitbox in the nice part of East St. Louis. For example. He can’t tell if his mouth is smiling or not, damn thing. One side yes and the other no, he figures.

  Sacrifice is a word used to acquire meaning. But lots of reasons for sacrifice don’t have to do with meaning. Or they do, but in the opposite direction.

  He’s at the bottom of the mound. He turns around and goes back up because he doesn’t have else to do. Sure as shit not going back to that apartment yet. And this is good for him. What he’s supposed to be doing. For his cholesterol and blood pressure and his heart. Even though strokes are in your head.


  They pack the plaza inside the palisade. The palisade logs gleam. Logs not long peeled. Not yet weathered gray. The thousands undulate, push, flow like the mighty river against the mound and eddy off. He incorporates their energy until he is not he but South.

  North chants under his breath. East trembles like a child. West sways, eyes closed, a tree in the wind jostling East. He, South, floats.

  Spring. Warm breeze. Time to plant. Air thick with pollen and the murmur of people below. Two baskets behind him, one with flint from the south, one with blue corn. A raven painted on his face in blue and black. The mound to where they will be borne then buried gleams white across the plaza beyond the chief’s burial mound and the southern palisade. They will lie in the southern mound between below and above, in the middle, holding the directions together.

  Flames fly behind him and the people go silent. Redwing blackbirds swarm above. Four ravens perch on the ridge of the council house on the eastern mound.

  A great cry from the crowd and a yell from the Sun and North kneels and lays his hands on the block and the Sun chops off the hands of North who still chants unchanging as the Sun cuts off his head. West collapses. He is lifted and held by medicine men. East tries to run away but to where and why – they are on the mound halfway to the sky, the sea of hungry people below and the Sun above and all need sated and all deserve honor. East is held by medicine men and his hands and head chopped off by the Sun and his screams cease. West’s limp body is dragged to the block. His arms stretched out and his hands chopped off with the polished flint ax. His blood flows red and wet as the others’ no matter that he already vacated his body. Three medicine men lay West’s head on the chopping block. Two hold his torso so it doesn’t drag the head to the ground and one pulls his hair to expose and stretch the neck for a clean cut. The latter holds the head up after it is chopped off. The head’s neck drips but it looks not much different than before except dispossessed. The crowd’s chant strengthens. West’s other two medicine men lay the body on the litter for the procession to the burial mound.

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