The following is from Jamie Duclos-Yourdon's novel, Froelich's Ladder. Duclos-Yourdon is a freelance editor. His short fiction has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Underneath the Juniper Tree, and Chicago Literati, and he has contributed essays and interviews to Booktrib. He lives in Portland. Froelich’s Ladder is his debut novel.
It was a June morning in 1871 when Froelich disappeared. Dawn had erased the stars from the sky, and a rosy shoal of clouds was swimming toward the coast.
Not until he woke did Binx, the younger of Harald’s two sons, first notice a difference.
The ladder was light against his back. Yawning, Binx examined this sensation. Even without ballast, the ladder continued to move, its stiles tilting in the breeze as a result of natural elasticity. But this morning it vibrat- ed with uncommon vigor. As he experienced a muscle spasm under his right shoulder blade, like the fluttering of a trapped bird, Binx assured himself that Froelich was still asleep, safely anchored by his elbows and knees. This was a plausible explanation; he had good reason to believe it. And yet . . . something felt different. Even as he was slow to wake, Binx remembered how it normally felt when Froelich was sleeping. He remembered how it was supposed to feel.
Fully alert now, he considered his options. Gordy was due shortly with breakfast. Still, that left minutes to kill, if not longer. So on this morning, just like every other morning, Binx braced his hands against his knees and supported the ladder with his back. He tried to construe its weight not as a burden but as a comfort. Despite his suspicion that he was talking to himself, he relayed a message up the rungs:
Froelich, he said, I’ve been meaning to tell you. The other day, Gordy came around with a feather he’d found. He said he didn’t know what bird it belonged to, but it must be huge, this bird, since the feather was twice as long as his arm. I didn’t tell him it was a frond—just an ordinary deer fern, you see? I said it was a condor feather—and he believed me! I said you’d seen them nesting in the double-rungs and that he should look out for bird poop. He hid under the wood tarp, he was so scared!
It was a fabrication, meant to provoke a response: Gordy knew the difference between a leaf and a feather. Gordy could fix a wristwatch, play a game of chess, and even speak a little German. People only treated him like a dunce because of his bare feet and his drawl, and Gordy was disinclined to correct them. Better some kind of fool, he always said, than any kind of threat. That was all well and good, but for someone as large as Binx the connotation of being stupid was most unwelcome. Anyway, the tarp had blown away the previous summer. They’d been using damp logs ever since, knowing how the smoke must irritate Froelich, and how there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Binx wasn’t delusional—he knew that no one was listening. Still, his uncle had been a constant presence since before he was born. When they were kids, Binx had made Gordy practice tap with him, so he could someday communicate via the ladder. They’d pounded their feet on the schoolroom floor while their teacher droned on about history and math. Even after Binx grew too large for the schoolhouse and had to wait outside on the lawn, Gordy had relayed information by stomping his heels. Not long after turning sixteen, when Binx had replaced Harald under-rung, Gordy also quit school, claiming to be bored and determined to become famous. But Binx had known the truth: without his brother to provide basic services, such as cooking and cleaning, Binx wouldn’t have lasted a week. The ladder was balanced in the center of the meadow, far removed from any amenities, and Binx could not avail himself beyond arms’ reach.
Since there was nothing better to do, he resumed his weary banter:
What’s the weather like, Froelich? I’d ask if you can see rain, but that joke never gets old, does it? Surprise—you’re all wet! Hope you weren’t eating! Or reading! Or sleeping! Hey, you know what else is funny? Rot. These pants are practically falling off my body. It’s not so bad during summertime, but have you ever tried mending your own clothes? Try holding a piece of hair between your thumb and finger and stitching a seam—that’s what it’s like for me! Better yet, try having a conversation with a piece of wood.
By the time Gordy arrived with their breakfast, the better part of an hour had passed. “Morning, Binxy,” he said, failing to acknowledge his brother’s despondency. Gordy was dressed for town, from his bowler cap to his red suspenders. The only thing missing were socks and shoes.
“I hope you’re hungry,” he continued, “because Miss Sarah has labored under that assumption.”
In his hands, Gordy was carrying a tidy parcel. When he unwrapped the linen napkin, Binx saw it contained bacon, eggs, and bread, as well as a jelly jar of lard. As was her habit, Miss Sarah had provided a triple ration: one for Gordy and two for Binx, commensurate with his size. It was a tempting sight, to say the least, and Binx’s stomach rumbled again, but a fleeting detail nagged at him.
“You went all the way to Miss Sarah’s farm? Why not Luther’s?”
Gingerly placing the eggs on the ground, Gordy stoked the fire and grinned. “That’s a good question!” he said, picking a fleck of dirt off the bacon. “I can see the early hour hasn’t affected your brain. Me, I get some of my best ideas before it’s even light out. A darkened sky is like thinking with your eyes closed!”
The smell of rendered lard was making it hard to concentrate. Still, Binx persisted: “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Didn’t I? What was the question again?”
“Miss Sarah’s farm. Why’d you go all the way—”
“Oh, yes! Did you know she’s got a cousin visiting? Hiram, his name is. A reporter from Philadelphia. Well, he was a reporter. But since he’s here, and the job’s back there, I can’t imagine he’s a reporter any more. Not that there’s a shortage of stories to be found here in Oregon. Even in Boxboro—”
Pursing his lips, Gordy flipped the bacon on the skillet, hissing and flinching when it spat grease.
“Too provincial?” he said. “But what good is news, if not news of oneself? You can write about the Pope in Rome, but I’d rather read about Luther’s barn—wheth- er or not he’s patched that hole. Or if the late thaw will mean hungry bears, or—”
“The answer’s no, d—n it, just like last time and the time before. Don’t you ever listen?”
Tipping the contents of the skillet onto two plates, Gordy tossed the bread in last to fry. “Just for conversation’s sake, do you know what an article could mean for us?”
“Shame?” Binx snorted. “Embarrassment? Do you want to be the butt of every last joke, or for people to learn how Harald died?”
“Attention’s not always a bad thing, you know. And not just local attention—national attention. Traveling dignitaries. How’d you like to meet Johnny Appleseed?”
“What I’d like to meet is my d—ned breakfast. Give it here!”
Grunting with frustration, Gordy surrendered the plate—tending to the bread, and shoveling a handful of eggs into his mouth. Binx gave his brother an exasperated look as he too wolfed down his meal, nearly twice the portion allotted for Gordy. The day Johnny Appleseed stood under the ladder would be the day that Gordy met his idol.
“You’re an idiot,” Binx said.
“Well,” Gordy mused as he gnawed on a piece of bacon, “I respectfully disagree. And I don’t see why you get to decide. Shouldn’t we ask Froelich?”
It was only with some difficulty that Binx managed to swallow. “We can’t.”
“Because he’s gone.”
“Uncle Froelich. He’s missing.”
It took a moment for this concept to sink in. “What d’you mean, missing?” Gordy asked, the look on his face changing from wonder to bewilderment.
“I mean missing from the ladder.”
“I don’t know—yesterday? The day before that? I only realized it this morning.”
“He’s probably just ignoring you.”
Normally, Binx would’ve agreed. Froelich’s feelings could be easily hurt, and playing deaf was his favorite punishment. But today that wasn’t the case.
“Not ignoring me,” he said, shaking his head deliberately. “Not here.”
Then Gordy did the only natural thing: he stared straight up into the sky, even though it was pointless. The ladder kept rising beyond the tallest tree, where it became lost in the leaves. On a good day, they could distinguish clear up to the four-hundred rungs from where they were standing, but Froelich hadn’t ventured that lower than the hundred-rungs since they were kids.
In all of recorded history, Froelich’s ladder was the fourth tallest that had ever been erected. The tallest, of course, had been Jacob’s ladder—which, even if it was fictional, had still been conceived of by man, and therefore had to be counted among his many accomplishments. In truth, neither Gordy nor Binx had any idea how tall the ladder was—not precisely, anyway. Froelich claimed the Very Big Tree had never ceased to grow. He claimed never to have seen the top of the ladder, suggesting it might be infinite. When Binx reminded him that Harald had carved the other end, and therefore the ladder couldn’t be infinite, Froelich had given the tap equivalent of a shrug.
Gordy turned to face the far side of the meadow, taking in the lean-to, the wood pile, and the lonely fulcrum—shaped, to Binx’s eye, like an abandoned ax head. Not finding what he was looking for there, he began to pace around the foot of the ladder, inspecting every inch of dirt.
“What’re you doing?” Binx asked him.
“Checking for footprints.”
“Footprints? Whose footprints?”
“Froelich’s, of course! Who do you think?”
For a moment, he departed from Binx’s field of vision, circling around to the far side of the ladder. When he reappeared, Binx cleared his throat.
“Let me understand this. You’re searching for Froelich’s footprints . . . on the ground? You think maybe he climbed down to the double-rungs, over me, and then walked away?”
“Also, scuff marks.”
“You think maybe he climbed down while I was sleeping, then scuffled with someone?”
Refusing to meet Binx’s eye, Gordy muttered, “Anyway, that’s what I’m looking for.”
“Brother,” Binx said. “Quit it—there ain’t any footprints. The only possibility is that he fell.”
“Has he ever fallen before?”
“It only has to happen once.”
“Still, where’s the proof?”
“I don’t need any proof! He’s gone—I can feel it. Try sitting down for a minute. Take some deep breaths until you start making sense.”
Grudgingly, Gordy obliged. “He’s probably just napping.”
“In the middle of the day? It’s too bright out.”
“Well . . . what if he did fall? Where’d he land? I don’t see any Froelich-shaped holes in the ground, do you?”
When Binx craned his neck to demonstrate his limited range of motion, Gordy protested, “But why now? It hasn’t rained in weeks. So, what—maybe he got poached by a cloud? Shouldn’t we at least check? You say Froelich’s missing from the ladder—shouldn’t we know for sure?”
“And how do you propose we do that?”
“Climb it ourselves, of course! Just to see!”
Binx began to shake his head. At the same time, Gordy clambered to his feet.
“No way,” Binx grunted. “No, sir.”
“Yes! It’ll be easy!”
“Easy? Easy for you to say! You’re not the one holding two people on his back—if Froelich is up there. Which, by the way, is against the rules, holding two people!”
“Given the situation, I think we can suspend the rules. Now, if you’re not strong enough to hold us, I can get the fulcrum . . .”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Binx snapped. “Of course I’m strong enough to hold you. Look, it’s past noontime already—it’ll be dark before you’re ready to come down. And don’t say you can sleep up the rungs, because you can’t.”
But Gordy had planted himself in front of his brother, resolute and erect. In his undershirt and suspenders, Binx thought he looked like a candy cane, and briefly considered saying so. He further considered whether they’d be having this conversation if Harald were still alive. But then he’d be the one holding the ladder, not Binx.
“You can make all the arguments you want,” Gordy reasoned, “and some of them might even be right. But don’t pretend like everything’s normal when it’s not! Sooner or later you’ll want answers. Is he up there or isn’t he? So how long are we going to stand around, trying to come up with a reason? Anyway, I’m not done with Hiram. If you won’t ask Froelich, I will.”
The wind shifted directions then, carrying with it the scent of honeysuckle. Binx’s plate was empty, and the forgotten bread had since charred in the skillet. Inhaling deeply, he scratched his elbow by rubbing it against a rung. Who would suggest that things were normal? Was spending your whole life in the shadow of a ladder normal? With a neck like a plow horse from bearing the weight? If things were normal, they’d be throwing more wood on the fire, using the soggiest, smokiest logs they could find. More than anything, he resented that Froelich (wherever he was) would deprive him of this one small pleasure: choking their uncle on toxic fumes. Looking toward the heavens, Binx sighed.
“Three points of contact at all times,” he said. Gordy clapped his hands and doffed his cap. “Be sure to climb with your legs, and not your hands. Don’t think in terms of up-and-down, but—”
“—forward-and-backward. I know, I know!”
As he came around to the other side, Gordy poked his toes into the small of Binx’s back.
“Fine,” Binx said, clutching the stiles with both hands. “Remember how we used to practice on trees? And that one time, when I fell on you?”
“Brother?” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Less talking. More climbing.”
At first, it was fairly easy to hear each other speak, but then the wind picked up, plucking their words from the air and making it necessary to communicate via tap. Gordy had fallen out of practice, rendering his vocabulary uncharacteristically blunt.
Cold. More cold than expected.
Maybe socks would help?
I’m surprised there’s even time for you to complain.
Shouldn’t you be at the top by now?
Shouldn’t you shut up?
When they were younger, Harald had allowed them climb to twice his height. Binx, formerly the more adventurous of the two, had sneaked even higher, ascending past the treetops; but this was before the bloom of adolescence, when his size and weight would’ve betrayed him. He could recall the view from on high, like a dream he’d been snatched from. The thrill of defying gravity remained just as tantalizing.
On the lower rungs, where the spiders spun their fusty webs, the wood was more absorbent, minimizing the risk of sweaty palms. Farther up it could be dangerously slick. Each rung possessed its own identity, and Froelich had continued to decorate them all, scratching odd scripts and patterns over the years. Binx expected that Gordy would find himself distracted as he made his way higher and higher.
How’s the view? Binx asked. From the double-rungs, one could see over the forest and toward the horizon. When he reached the hundred-rungs, Gordy would be awarded his first glimpse of Boxboro, more than a mile away.
I can see Miss Sarah’s farm, he replied. Do you think Froelich ever watches us?
Binx had entertained this thought before: that Froelich must observe their daily interactions, or else be privy to their secrets, should he be intrigued. It was a disquieting idea, that some remote witness was observing everything. Even more distressing was the notion that he could, but might choose not to—that one’s day-to-day existence might not warrant attention.
I couldn’t say. Any signs of him yet?
Not yet. Should it move so much?
Binx could feel the resulting tremors as Gordy hooked an elbow over a rung and rapped against a stile, faithfully maintaining three points of contact. From the ground, the stiles appeared to be perfectly stationary, but up high, where Gordy was continuing his ascent, the swaying became more pronounced, with all the attendant creaks, groans, and shifts in equilibrium.
It’s because you’re bigger than Froelich—not to be rude.
Do you think maybe you should come down?
I’m not coming down. I’m fine.
Then concentrate on climbing, Binx admonished his brother, willing him hand over hand, rung over rung, despite the frequency of the oscillations. Were Gordy to allow himself a peek (not down, of course, but backward), any view of the meadow would be obscured by the trees. From the hundred-rungs, the residents of Boxboro would be hard to distinguish, making the town appear to be deserted.
Gordy? It’s windy!
That’s the slipstream, Binx replied, remembering what Harald had told him. Make sure you hold on tight. How about Froelich? Can you see him?
No. Wait! Let me ask this guy. No—he says no.
Ha, ha, very funny. Okay, let’s make a deal. If you haven’t found him by sunset, you should come down immediately.
Here’s another deal—you put on a dress and I’ll call you Binxerella. There’s lots of clouds up here. I thought you said they didn’t fly this low?
Binx frowned, while a shift in the breeze filled his nose with burnt toast. It had been a late thaw that spring, meaning less pollen than usual. Hungry cloud calves, separated from the herd, might’ve descended in search of food, but he couldn’t recall anything of that nature from previous years.
It’s not normal, he admitted, thinking of what Gordy had said about Froelich being poached. How big are they? Can you see?
Maybe if I climbed a little higher.
From where he was standing, Binx couldn’t see Gordy, not even the soles of his feet. He could only imagine the series of mistakes that would ultimately lead to his fall. First, as the stiles swayed, Gordy would begin to climb on a downbeat, rather than wait for the following oscillation. The resulting momentum would cause his feet to slip, which would inspire him to rely more thoroughly on his hands and shoulders.
Gordy? Don’t worry about the clouds. Make sure you’re holding on.
He’d require a free hand with which to respond. Gordy’s second mistake would involve releasing the rung, in order to rap on the stile. Thus, while assuming he was maintaining three points of contact, only one point of contact would actually be secure. During the ladder’s next oscillation, when the momentum shifted in gravity’s favor, his feet would suddenly vanish from underneath him—and, just like that, he’d be dangling by one hand.
Gordy—what’s happening? Why aren’t you talking? The air gets thin up there. Are you dizzy? Disoriented? Don’t answer that. Just grab the nearest rung and take deep breaths. Gordy’s third mistake, as dictated by the previous two, would be to rely exclusively on his upper body—not that he’d have any choice. His one hand wouldn’t be strong enough to support his weight. Maybe, if he’d spent the previous month in training, the situation would be different, but the point was moot. When the ladder swayed in the opposite direction, it would casually fling him into the wide, blue sky, like a fisherman casting bait.
Gordy? Binx tapped. Just hang on, brother. Everything is gonna be okay.
From FROELICH’S LADDER. Used with permission of Forest Avenue Press. Copyright © 2016 by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon.