Ladder to the Stars

by John Vicary

The woodchimes echoed into silence and Crane was beginning to think that no one was home when, at long last, Mrs. Beaver pulled open the door. “White Crane!” she said. “It’s so good to see you. Please, come in.”

Crane dipped his long neck and stepped under the lintel. The Beavers’ usually tidy den showed signs of carelessness: newspapers littered the floor, stray coffee mugs covered various armrests and tables. Crane even thought he detected the lingering odor of spices from the Mutter Paneer he’d shared with the Beavers last week; remnants of the meal were still visible on plates stacked in the kitchen sink. He cleared his throat, hesitant to offend the fastidious Mrs. Beaver. “How are you? Have you been well?”

“Not at all!” Mrs. Beaver twisted her apron in her claws. “I’m so glad you’ve come. I can’t talk sense into him. I don’t know what to do! Maybe he’ll listen to you.”

Crane blinked. “What seems to be the problem? The last time I spoke to Beaver he was just fine.”

“It was all for show!” Mrs. Beaver said, her eyes filling with tears. “He didn’t want me to tell you, but he was fired from the dam.”

“Fired!” Crane snapped his beak a few times. It was the last thing he’d expected to hear. Beaver had been a lifelong employee at the dam; he was hardworking and loyal, and he loved his job. This would no doubt have sent him into a bleak mood. “When did this happen?”

“Two months ago,” Mrs. Beaver said. “He thought it was a clerical mistake, but it wasn’t. He won’t come out of the garage. He’s been in there for three days, without food or water or sleep. He’s building something. Oh, Crane, you have to talk sense into him. I think he’s gone crazy!”

Crane nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. Let me speak with him.”

Mrs. Beaver just nodded and waved in the direction of the back door. Crane stepped through the house, careful not to tread on any broken glass, and made his way to the outbuilding at the back of the yard. As he approached, he could hear muttering and muted thumping.

Crane knocked, and the sounds ceased. “Beaver? It’s me. I’m here for our Friday night visit.”

A pause. “Is it Friday already?”

“It is, indeed,” Crane said through the door.

A grumble. “Time flies, doesn’t it?”

“It’s hard to keep track sometimes,” Crane agreed.

“Don’t patronize me!” Beaver shouted. “You’ll be talking to me in that tone of voice because you heard the news from the missus, I suppose. Well, I don’t need your pity.”

Crane nodded, even though Beaver wasn’t there to see it. “I’m not here to pity you. I’m here to see if you want to go out, have a drink, maybe play some pool?”

“Can’t.”

“Fine.” Crane thought a moment. “We can stay here. Will you let me in, at least?”

“Can’t.”

Crane frowned. “Now, that just won’t do. Listen, Beaver, you’ve scared your wife half to death. Can’t you just let me in, let me see you? It doesn’t have to be anything more than that.”

“You’re going to say I’m crazy, too. Everyone does.”

“I’m your oldest friend. Course I think you’re crazy!” Crane said, hoping for a laugh. He heard a small chuckle, so he went on. “I promise I won’t think less of you, whatever it is you’re doing. I’m here to help.”

“All right.” The door opened. Beaver clutched his tail, his eyes darting from side-to-side. “Hurry in if you’re coming!”

Crane scurried into the dim garage. The air was thick with sawdust shavings and piles of wood. “Mrs. Beaver said you were making something.”

“What does she know?” Beaver asked as he slammed the door shut again and threw several sets of deadbolts.

“It looks like something to me,” Crane said. “I’m just not sure what.”

Beaver sucked his tooth. “You inspired it. It’s a ladder to the stars.”

Crane’s beak fell open. “A what, now?”

“I knew you’d think I’m crazy!” Beaver shouted.

Crane flapped his wings. “No, no, I just don’t quite understand. I’m not an architect, I’m an aviator. You’ll have to explain it to me.”

Beaver narrowed his eyes, searching for signs of deception, then visibly relaxed and continued. “I’ve been working for two days on the rungs,” he said, pointing to a large stack of spindles. “I made the rails first, so now I just have to assemble the pieces, and up she goes!”

“Up she goes,” Crane repeated. “That’s really something.”

“Do you think so?” Beaver asked.

Crane cocked his head, considering. “I do. I can’t say I understand the whole idea, but it’s quite a project. What can I do to help?”

Beaver held up a rung. “See these notches? They fit into the slots here in the rails.”

Crane worked in silence for awhile, assembling the ladder and trying to gauge his friend’s mood. He held up a rung to the light. “This is good work, Beaver. I haven’t had a single splinter, and the wood dovetails together perfectly. It doesn’t leave so much as a mark!”

Beaver nodded. “Custom job, you know. It’s got to be sturdy to get me all the way to the sky. I weigh nearly four stone! Can you believe that?”

“We are getting older now, certainly,” Crane said. “Why, just last week I chipped my beak. The thing is, in all these years I have never heard you talk about anything like this. Why the sudden urge to climb? I thought you were happy on the ground.”

Beaver clicked his claws. “Things change, you know.”

“I know, my friend. I am just trying to understand what has changed for you,” Crane said as he fitted another rung to the rail.

“I wasn’t fired from the dam,” Beaver said without looking up from his work. He kept stacking the rungs into place. “I left.”

“But why?” Crane asked.

Beaver didn’t pause in his efforts. “I have tooth rot.”

Crane frowned. “Well, get a treatment. Get it drilled. Get a set of dentures or whatever it is you have to do.”

“It’s incurable,” Beaver said.

The sound of wood hitting the floor echoed through the garage as Crane dropped his piece and paced. “Then that’s a shame, and I’m sorry. But you have a lot of things you can still do. The kits live in the lodge next door—”

“It’s terminal,” Beaver said.

Crane stopped pacing. “What?”

Beaver stared at the unfinished ladder. “I haven’t told the missus yet. I found out a couple of months ago and I just … couldn’t. I guess I sort of freaked out, you know?”

Crane swallowed over the lump in his throat.

Beaver rubbed his head. “I know I have to tell her. I just wanted to do this first. I don’t have a lot of time left, and I know she won’t understand. She’ll want to make me lie in bed and feed me porridge, which is nice, but it isn’t going to help. Nothing is going to help. So I have to do this first.”

Crane blinked. “I’m still not sure I understand. Why do you want to build such a tall ladder? I thought you were afraid of heights.”

“I want to see what you do,” Beaver said. “You talk about flying over the fields every day; you say that my pond looks like a puddle from way up there. I can hardly believe it! I listen to you talk and I imagine what it must be like. I don’t want to miss it. Not for another day.”

Crane bent over to retrieve the rung he’d dropped. “I didn’t know you listened to me talk about work.”

“At first I just heard the words, like when I’m blowing off steam about when one of the canals we’re digging won’t run straight. But then I started wondering how different it must look to you, how little I would seem. My den would hardly be a speck from way up there in a the blue. I started imaging the pond and the run-off, the trail of rivers and streams like a network of veins under the skin. When you talked about cutting through a fog bank I could feel it on my whiskers, and I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ Why shouldn’t I get to see what you do? I had it in my mind for a long time, and then I realized the time would never come if I didn’t do it now,” Beaver said.

Crane sighed. “Then do it we shall. It’s almost complete. Another hour should see it finished.”

Beaver nodded and they worked side-by-side until the last piece was in place. The ladder had long since exceeded the length of the garage, and they’d had to open the door to accommodate for it. It stretched out into the night, its twin beams running parallel on the ground.

“What do you say?” Crane asked. “Are you ready to give it a try?”

Beaver opened his mouth a few times, but in the end simply answered, “Yes.”

The weight of the ladder was formidable, but Beaver had anticipated it and rigged a pulley system to help power the lift. Crane helped stabilize it as Beaver hauled a rope, and it rose into the clear night sky, a skeleton tower that reached as far as Crane could see.

“Well, what do you think? Will that give me a crane’s-eye view of the world?” Beaver asked.

“Could be,” Crane answered. “Are you sure about this?”

“I’m going up,” Beaver said. “Now.”

“Now?” Crane bobbed his head a few times. “Don’t you want to wait until morning?”

“I don’t want to wait for anything,” Beaver said. He planted his claws on the first step. “Are you going to stay and watch?”

Crane nodded. “Of course. Be careful up there.”

Beaver grabbed hold of the rungs and began to climb. Crane watched him as he ascended slowly at first, then gathered speed. “Be careful!” he yelled, worried that Beaver would lose his grip and fall to the earth, but Beaver didn’t seem to hear. He just kept going up, up, up, until he was speck against the night sky. He’d risen above the den and past the treeline. He was higher than anything around. “That’s far enough!” Crane shouted. Mrs. Beaver would never forgive him if anything happened. But still Beaver climbed.

The moments ticked by in silence. A faint bluish tinge gathered in the east, and Crane knew it was nearly dawn. He looked up, but Beaver had disappeared from view. Despite their best efforts, the ladder wasn’t that high. He must be at the top by now. Crane waited, but there was no sign. Anxiety burbled in his gut. Crane waited another moment, then in a powerful downdraft took flight. In the lightening sky he let the ground fall away and traced Beaver’s linear path upwards.

Beaver was perched on the uppermost rung, his claws clutching the rails. His face was relaxed into contentment as the stars faded and dawn approached.

“Is it everything you imagined?” Crane asked, hovering.

Beaver blinked. “Oh, no. How could I have imagined all this? Everything looks so small from up here. Do you know I worked at the dam every day since I was a kit? I can’t even see the place now. It’s as if it doesn’t even exist. I could stay here forever.”

Crane smiled. “You have to come down sometime. We all do.”

“I guess. Just let me look for one more minute.” Beaver sighed and watched the edge of the sun break over the horizon. “I won’t forget it, you know. I’ll never look at things the same way again. Now that I’ve seen this, my mind will always be here in the clouds. You’ll remember me when you fly past here, okay? When you’re on your migration to the grasslands next fall, you remember that I built this ladder high enough to see the whole world, even if it was for just a second.”

“I won’t forget,” Crane promised. He didn’t know why, but he felt like crying. He watched the sunrise with Beaver. He’d seen it countless times, but he’d never stopped mid-flight to study it before. It was prettier than he remembered. Crane blinked to clear his eyes. “Now, let’s get you home. The missus will be worried.”

Beaver took a last look at the sky before he turned and made his long way back down to earth.

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