Today’s the day. All my life I’ve been trapped here at the top of this tower. Never able to leave. Never able to talk to anybody. I don’t even know why I’m stuck here. My jailers don’t like to show themselves. I merely wake each morning to find the pantry stocked and my clothes laundered. It’s like they don’t want me to know they’ve been here, but I know. I’ve been watching. I’ve been waiting.
My prison at the top of the tower is made up of four parts. I’ve had enough time to learn every fibre, every seam. First there is the kitchen and larder, the place they frequent most. Every twenty-six days they sneak in and replace the stores with fresh supplies. I’ve never been able to catch them at it, but no matter what mess I make, on the dawn of the twenty-seventh day everything is back to normal as if nothing ever happened.
The second part is my bedchamber. I’ve tried more than once to stay awake and catch whoever is keeping me here, but no matter how I play it they always do the other three sections first and then finish the job as soon as my back is turned. I don’t know if they make me sleep or not, just that they always manage to complete their works without me seeing them.
Next is my bathroom and privy. This room is a bit different from the rest. I think it might be where they get in. Always the water stores are fresh and heated. Regardless of the weather outside. If I feel the need to bathe, I always find a fresh bath drawn and waiting for me. Like they knew I’d want one. Sometimes I’ll come back and find the door locked from the inside, and I’ll hear running water, but when I try the handle again it opens easily with no one inside.
And lastly there is the library. The largest of the rooms. I’ve read many books in the years I’ve been here, but no matter where I turn I will always find something new. They are subtle with this room. If I leave a book out that I am reading, it will still be in the same place when I return, but if I merely drop a book and leave it, it will be neatly put away at the end of the twenty-sixth day. I don’t know how they can tell the difference but they do. I have also found that when I finish reading, any books I disliked will be gone with the next rotation, whereas any I did like will have found a place of prominence amongst the shelves.
Each room has a window, but only the library has a view. The windows in the other three rooms are tiny and show little more than the sea of trees beneath my tower, but the one in the library opens onto a small terrace. The only place I can step outside my tower prison and view the world outside. From there I can look down upon that the vast field of trees and imagine what lay beyond them. On a clear day, if the wind is right, I can even smell the ocean. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking I’ve never been to the ocean. I wouldn’t know what the ocean smells like, but it’s nice to imagine it is.
I look out and all I ever see is an endless ocean of trees stretching on forever. I’m going to escape this tower. I’m going to go find that ocean. I’m going to see the world. They might try to stop me, but I will find a way out of this tower because trees are not all I see. Far off at the very edge of my horizon stands a building. I can only see the utmost tip sticking out of the forest and only on the clearest of days, but I know it’s there. I’ve studied it countless times through the ancient spyglass I keep on the sill. That’s where I’m going to find people. That’s where I’ll find my freedom.
I’ve been planning this for I don’t know how many cycles. My keepers don’t like to be seen but I know they watch me. They only come every twenty-six days, but at least one stays to draw my baths. They leave whichever room I’m in until last. They repair everything to as it was at the start of each cycle. But what I have noticed is that they never seem to go out on the terrace. If I leave anything out there, it will stay there until I bring it back in. Maybe they know what I’m planning. Maybe they know it won’t work. But I have to try.
Every couple of cycles I’ve been carefully removing bits of towel, sheet, and curtain. Trying not to be obvious by spacing it out across the cycles, by not taking from the same place twice. I moved a couple of chairs out onto that terrace and they’ve never moved them back. Carefully under the guise of reading, I’ve been unravelling my pilfered fabrics and refastening them into a sturdy rope. A rope that I’m sure will help me reach the ground. Now all that’s left is to act.
It’s the first day of a new cycle. My rope is ready. Tied off and weighed down with a chair full of the thickest books I could sneak outside. Only one more thing that needs to be done. I stretch and move towards the bathroom the same way I’ve done a thousand times. If my timing is wrong, I’ll have to call the whole thing off, but luck is on my side. I hear the water before I reach the door. The door is locked and my watcher is busy. Now is my chance.
Spinning sharply on my heels, I dash for the terrace. Wrapping the end of my makeshift rope tightly around my waist, I check that the end is firmly attached. I climb over the terrace edge and swing down the side of the tower. Grasping the lip of the jagged stone that form the wall, I lower myself as quickly as possible. I take care to find my footage in case my watcher cuts my rope. Slowly but surely the ground beneath grows ever closer until finally I can set foot upon the earth which has so long been beyond my reach.
Unbinding myself from my tether, I look back at my prison in triumph. Even if they appear to take me back this very instant, I will be heartened in the knowledge that for one shining moment I was free. That is something even they cannot take from me. If I can do it once, I will find a way to do it again. Even if it takes a million million cycles, I will be free. Of this I vow.
The grounds abreast the tower are strewn with the countless items I have thrown from my terrace, in rage or in boredom, for however many years I have been imprisoned here. The freshest of which should be a larder sack filled with the provisions I’d deemed necessary for my escape, thrown three cycles ago. There was every chance of their discovery, either by some savage animal or by my wardens. I’d left the care of my provisions in the hands of fate. If they’re truly gone, then I shall make do without. It is but a small price to pay.
I find my supplies safe and unhindered in the shade of a nearby tree. I know the best chance for my escape is expedience, and yet I find myself compelled to look back upon the tower that has been my cage for these unknown many years. The straight needle of the spire’s slate-grey stone stretches high into the heavens, broken only by the pathetic frailty of my single braided rope trailing down its side. From this vantage, the rooms that were my world looks so tiny and distant. A mere hole in the stone no larger than my hand. I see no other openings anywhere on the structure.
Mayhaps the entrance is on the other side, but I have no time to look. It is likely my watcher is already aware of my escape and signalling for the others to return. If I wish to remain free, I must keep moving. Hoisting my supplies, I turn and put the tower from my sight. The forest stretches on before me and it is with a light heart that I turn my back to my former prison and take my first steps into the wider world beyond.
I proceed forward, moving towards that distant structure on the horizon. I take joy in the myriad of new sights and sounds that surround me. From above the forest is nothing but an endless carpet of unchanging green, but viewed from below, as is a man’s rightful place, the forest is a plethora of variation and life. Each tree is unique and alive. Every stone has a long and ancient story that is its and its alone. I can hear the quiet trickling of a small stream that I have crossed many times so far. I fear I shall never tire of this world that has been denied of me for far too long.
The tower is far from view as I prepare to bed down away from my chambers for the first time in memory. In a small clearing along my chosen path, I stoke a tidy fire and prepare myself a meal of salted meat from in my sack. The others may well be on their way, returned from wherever they dwell throughout the cycle, but this does not concern me. If my jailers wish to retrieve me, they will have to show themselves to me. I will not hide. For tonight, if no other, I will rest a free man.
The sun rises and the smoke from my dwindling fire raises exotic shapes in the predawn light. My captors have not yet come for me. It may well be that they dwell solely within the tower and I need fear no reprisal. They would not touch the things I placed upon the terrace after all. I may be truly free of them. But this is a dangerous thought. I have only escaped but one night, if I allow myself to believe this speculation, it may well lead to my downfall. I need to keep moving. What is to happen will happen. I can ask no more.
In my confinement, I read many stories about lands and worlds beyond my tower. I know not how many were true nor how many were mere fictions intended to confuse should I endeavour to leave. My captors are crafty, of this I know. I do not believe they would gift me with the knowledge to defy them lightly. I have learnt many things that have been tested these past few days. I know how to divine direction using the sun and shades, and despite the twists and bends of the forest, I have been unwavering in my course. I will reach my intended destination, and yet it is strange that I have yet to see any animals in my journey.
The days and nights fall into routine as I continue my trek towards that distant structure. I know not how many days it will take, but each day away from my tower marks one more day in which I walk free. There has been no sign of my pursuers, but I grow more certain that they are there. On the occasions when I’ve had chance to look back, I am sure that I’ve seen a dissonance amongst the shadows. My keepers were never careless when it came to hiding themselves from scrutiny. If they are there, they are waiting. For what I do not know, but they are waiting.
Again I smell the ocean. The scent drifts to me from back the way I came. I falter in my footsteps, tempted to turn back and seek it out, but I feel that this is nothing more than a trick of my masters intended to lure me back to my cage. The scent arises despite the wind. The breeze is blowing towards me, and yet the scent reaches me from behind. I redouble my steps, more determined than ever to reach my destination.
The nights grow cold and my provisions are half gone. I have been walking for fourteen days and have no means of determining whether the structure is any nearer. From above the world looks flat and unchanging, small and easily overcome, but from down here distance is a thing of weight. I do not know how far I must travel, only the direction in which it lies from my observations within my tower. What appeared as a straight line from afar, in truth is a serpentine weave through the trees. I have been mindful of my path for fear that I may alter course and miss my goal completely.
The sun and its shadows are my only companions. I have seen no wildlife within this forest. My books have told me of countless wonders that live amidst the trees, and yet the only motion I’ve seen is from the wind and the trickles of water. My watchers still refuse to show themselves. I know they’re out there but they may as well be figments for all the comfort they bring. I am as alone now as I was in the tower. I pray that what I shall find at the structure will be an end to my isolation.
I have found a sign. It is old and weathered. The letters are faded. Nature and her elements are slowly reclaiming this ancient signpost, but the message is clear enough. Turn back now. I know not if it was placed by my jailers as a warning or as a threat, or even if it was intended for me at all, but I will not be cowed by some unseen hand. If they wish me to turn back, they shall say it to my face. I will be watchful for other messages, but I will continue my course nonetheless.
I have reached my twentieth day of travel. My provisions are beginning to run low. I have found no further signs or markings, and my pursuers, if they are truly there, have yet to make their move. I have looked back many a time in the hopes of catching the merest glimpse, but they are too wily to be discovered so easily. There was a time while fording a riverbed when I thought I heard the footsteps of my followers on the gravel behind me, but I cannot be sure. I have taken to camping in the clearings for longer intervals in the hopes of drawing them out, but still they lie in wait.
Twenty-two days into my journey and I have caught my first glimpse of the structure I’d seen from my terrace. It stretches up into the sky, towering over the trees. I can only see the upper limit as of now, but I expect to arrive there within a few days. My efforts to force my pursuers into the open have been without result as of yet. Either they are confident that they will apprehend me before I reach the structure or they have no fear of what I may find there. Neither outcome bodes well.
The structure has revealed itself to me in its entirety. A feeling of dread has settled into the pit of my stomach as I gaze upon the building a day or so hence. I do not know what to make of this unprecedented vision. I am confident that I have been moving in solely one direction. I can think of no point at which I might have been turned about. Maybe this is another trick set to deceive me by my crafty captors. If so they have exceeded expectation, for before me stands a building of similar design and purpose to the tower from which I departed so many days before.
As I venture closer, the building resolves itself into near perfect facsimile of my former prison. From this side, all I can make out is the thin sliver of window of the style viewed from the bathroom within my tower. Until I am able to look upon the outstretched terrace on the other side, I will not know how fully this replication stands. I have been travelling for twenty-six days now. A full cycle since I left my tower. The thin staples that remain of my provisions will not last another journey if I have indeed been turned around. I will have to enter this new tower and acquire more.
Their cleverness has outdone them this time. Finding no visible entrance to the tower from the side of my approach, I was forced to navigate a path around the structure. I expected to find a terrace jutting out in the same manner as the building I left behind. What I did find was an identical field of discarded miscellanea to the one beneath my tower. They have put great effort into their fakery. Right down to a reproduction of the makeshift rope I used for my escape. If indeed this is somehow my own tower then I shall simply resupply and set off again in a different direction in defiance of their treachery. I will have my freedom no matter how long it takes.
I test the rope, it hangs as firmly as the one I remember. Easing my weight onto it, I scale the ragged stone side of the tower. The familiar path of lips and crevices between each great stone allows for easy purchase as I climb. If their plan is to trap me here by removing the rope once I am inside, I shall endeavour to scale the wall without it and let my fate be whatever should follow. They must do more if they wish to keep me here.
Dragging myself over the lip of the terrace, I brace myself to be set upon should my jailers choose now to reveal themselves. None step forward and I allow myself to stand. It seems they are content to let me be the one to cage myself. Nonetheless I draw up the rope and coil it upon the terrace floor should I need it.
The room I find myself in is identical to the one from which I departed. A library of same design and intent. Shelves of books surround me on all sides. I easily find my favourites in their accustomed place. On the sill beside that ancient spyglass lay a book I’d started afresh prior to my escape. It is marked to the same page on which I’d left it. It would appear that my captors have played their hand well and returned me to the place from which I’d left.
I check the remaining rooms, but it is as I feared. Every room is as I left it. Everything is in its place. It is as though I never left. This is beyond mere subterfuge. I must resupply and set off at once. Even if I am to mark the path like some fairy tale character, I will leave this forest. I will reach the ocean beyond. They might have deceived me once, but I will not for the same trick again. I shall lay waste to the surrounding wood and find my way out across a river of ash if need be. They will not stop me.
I load my larder sack and retreat to the terrace. I gleam my spyglass and after a moment’s consideration, I hoist it to my eye. Off in the distance lies that same tantalisingly illusive structure. Having seen it from without, I recognise the same distinct spire that adorns the tower in which I stand. Lowering the glass, I consider this conundrum. Could this tower merely be a duplicate intended to trick me? My keepers are far more devious than I gave them credit for. Each cycle brings a reset of the majority of items within my apartments. It would be no mean feat for them to reproduce whatever details they’d need to trap me.
Leaving my provisions on the terrace, I take up the rope and cinch the spyglass to my waist, ensuring it will not fall. I consider the arduous path before me and begin my climb. The blocks approaching the spire offer less purchase along the pitched surface. I am unsure of my rope’s firmity should I fall from such a height, but I ascend nonetheless. I know not how far the duplicity of my masters extends, nor whether there is one tower or two, but from this vantage I shall see the game board in its entirety, and I will find a way to beat it.
The slant of the roof increases until it forms the central needle at the tip of the spire. Fastening my bonds to the needle, I draw my spyglass and locate that distant tower. In every respect it is the same as the one upon which I stand. It is no reflection, for the side that faces marks the opposite side of my tower. I can discern the thin aperture of the bathroom window. There are two towers then. Exact replications intended to deceive me with their symmetry. I could wander between the two for an eternity and never know the difference.
The slightest of movements upon that distant spire draws my eye and I refocus the glass. I near lose my balance from the shock this new twist brings. Standing on the roof of that distant tower is a man. The first other being that I have seen in I cannot remember when. He stands with his back to me balancing himself against that central needle of his own tower. Something beyond my own horizon holds his gaze for I can just make out the spyglass, so like my own, that he is clutching to his eye.
If only there were a way to gain his attention. It may be that he, like me, fears himself alone save for our unseen captors. Alas until he should turn and gleam my own tower, there is precious little I can do. Even if I were to make journey to his tower this instant, there is little chance that he might remain by the time I arrive. Whatever it is that holds his sight is likely to have attracted him onward long before I have crossed the lands which divide us. To be separated forever by the horizon and the turn of one’s head, could fate truly be so cruel?
I watch impatiently for some sign that the man might grow weary of whatever unseen marvel enchants him so, but he remains steadfast in his study of the world beyond my horizon. Despair is but a tired brew, it is only from fear that I have continued as long as I have. The fear that the moment I cease my looking should be the moment he turns to me. That my opportunity will vanish with one act of imprudence. But I have waited long enough and it would seem the man is not soon to finish his vigil. Perhaps he never will.
I begin to lower my glass, contemplating the ways in which I could hoist a signal at top this tower should he ever look my way, when I glimpse the distant man lowering his own. No sooner had this registered than I brought mine back to bear. Immediately I see the man raise his own once more. What could this mean? Fearful of the notion that darkens my mind, I brace myself against the needle and free one hand from the glass. I flag my arm through the air beside me and am dismayed to see the man do the same. A top that distant tower, his movements mirror my own, and I his.
Uncertain of what will greet me, I turn in place and find the thing of which I feared. Upon the distant horizon and to my back is another tower of same design and purpose as the one on which I stand. Braced against the spire is a man with his back to me staring out across the horizon with his spyglass high. I see now the perfection of the prison they have built for me. I count no less than eight towers whichever way I might face. Atop each one stands a man, always with his back to me, looking out over some distant horizon. Over an endless forest to endless towers.
There was never a way out and there was never any ocean.