Jacob's Ladder

The chiming chimney was doing it again. It clanged all night when it rained. This was because of the trees growing for twenty years beside the cabin that now overhung the roof. Rain running along their branches dripped onto the roof, but this wasn’t the issue, for the drops merely joined thousands of other drops hitting metal. It was their hitting the stainless steel disc at the top of the chimney that caused the clanging. It sounded half bell, half cymbal, or like a spade hitting a gravestone every five seconds. There was no peace for the living or the dead. Earplugs didn’t help.

Jacob managed to get some sleep when the rain let up, but still felt disorientated in the morning, like a banana spinning in a blender on low. He didn’t like disturbing the landlord but this was unbearable; it made the place unfit to live in and needed immediate attention. Jacob called him and left a voicemail.

That night the chimney chimed again. First thing the next morning Jacob went into his landlord’s workshop and looked around. There was an old metal ladder beneath a sheet, looking like a clothes drying stand, maybe ten feet long. It would do. What else? A clay pot? Some duct tape? He climbed the ladder, taped the clay pot onto the chimney top and hit the pot with a spoon to test acoustics. Rather than a clang there was a muted thump. Result!

Jacob slept uneasily. He shifted from side to side as if levelling himself. The chimney was fixed and he could hear the result of his handiwork – soft pats, not clangs. Why was he awake? There was something wrong. Something wrong about what he’d done. What was it?

As he moved from bum-cheek to shoulder-blade, and nudged the bed with knees and elbows, he realized something; that the ladder was strange. His need to fix the chimney was urgent and he hadn’t positioned the ladder safely. He should have leaned it against the roof at an angle of around fifteen degrees. Now he remembered. He had positioned it vertically. It wasn’t a roof ladder or rope ladder, it was an ordinary ladder. It should have toppled backwards but didn’t. In his annoyed, sleepy state he’d climbed up the ladder, completed the job, and climbed back down, without thinking. Why hadn’t he fallen?

Jacob decided to get up and look at the ladder, and pulled it out into the garden. Its weighting was strange, as if it didn’t need his support, so he let it go. It stood by itself on the lawn. He placed a foot on the ladder, which eased into the ground a little but stayed firm. He pulled up the other foot, so both feet were on the first rung, and found that the ladder was steady. He climbed to the top of the ladder and felt as if he could step off into the sky.

There was a latch at the top that he hadn’t noticed before. When released, he found that the ladder telescoped another ten feet. The stringers were strange though – they expanded as they emerged, and runners appeared automatically. There was another latch for further extension, then another, and another, and maybe more. Jacob realized that he was standing fifty feet up in the air. He could touch the stars, almost. He felt dizzy and climbed down, collapsing the ladder as he descended.

He got through to his landlord, who sounded drunken or stoned. “Oh, that ladder. That ladder! Old Charlie built tha rescue egrets. They hundred fifty feet high, upst a Douglas Fir. Mother had died. She’s tangled razor wire. So horrible. So horrible. Anyhoo, Old Charlie built it. I wenta save before other kills other. Long way up. Looong way. Charlie hold so long how? Go ask him tha ladder. Tha ladder.”

Jacob didn’t know what to make of this. Charlie’s lights were on so he wandered across the Lucerne Valley Road. There were sparks in his workshop so he was clearly up. “Oh, ladda, I forgettee bout tit.” He was really hard to understand. Was he drunk too? Was Jacob the only person who was sober? “I bild for resun. Sav eglets.” Then a long mumble that Jacob couldn’t understand. “Put back, awah now. No resun.”

Jacob said, “Thank you Charlie,” and went back across the road. He’d heard the guy was a genius and could invent anything. How had he made this ladder? Jacob decided to take another look. He stood it in the garden and telescoped the stringers continuously. They slipped out easily. After a while he lost count. Was he three hundred feet or four hundred up? He felt like a star in the sky. He could see everything. He was King of the World. He would market this ladder and make a fortune. It was almost dawn though; he had better get down before people saw him. It was tu riski to dat hap no se yu in it in oga es…

Old Charlie shook his head as he saw Jacob descending. Didn’t people read their Bibles these days? They should know about the Tower of Babel. Pride always leads to confusion and then a fall. He had built the ladder for a reason, to save orphaned egrets. That was its purpose, nothing else.

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