The Rogers Ladder

"Mornin' Guvner" by Danno Van Groll
“Mornin’ Guvner” by Danno Van Groll

On July 4, 1895, Linnie Rogers became the first woman to climb Devil’s Tower. The information board at the park explains this and also that Rogers was wearing knee-high boots and navy blue bloomers at the time. On a book in the gift shop, there is a drawing of Rogers, with her husband and another man, the ones who built the ladder she climbed, the first ever to make the ascent, two years earlier.

Rachel turns the book over and over in her hands. One hundred years after Linnie Rogers’s climb, Rachel’s five-year-old daughter, wearing blue polka-dot shorts and yellow jelly shoes, was killed in a car accident. Rachel’s husband, David, had been driving. But David was all right; David stands now beside the maps, planning their hike, talking with one of the park rangers. This is an example, the kind that Rachel reminds herself to look for: David is careful. The accident was not his fault. The accident was the fault of another driver, and everything in the process that followed Maddie’s death confirmed that. David proceeded correctly through an intersection. Everyone said Rachel was lucky. At a higher speed, a slightly different angle, David might be dead, too.

After the accident, David said he wished he were dead, wished that it were him, and she couldn’t disagree with him, and he was glad. When he said he was glad, she didn’t hate him as much.

She tries not to hate him. She knows she loves him. She has always loved David, since she was a little girl herself and David was her brother’s friend. David and her brother are still friends. She still loves him. She simply also hates him more than she has hated anyone, more than she hated the other driver, who is now in prison, who is serving a sentence, who was sorry, so truly, actually sorry that she thinks she forgave him, forgave him and actually meant it. But not David.

Her therapist says anger like this is normal. Rachel doesn’t think it’s normal at all. It doesn’t feel normal, on her skin, in her bones. It’s been more than a year. They haven’t had sex in that long. It’s not because she doesn’t want it. Her body wants it. Her body wants sex and another child, and some days, her skin feels so electric she can’t stand it. It’s that getting that close to him, putting her hands on his body, makes her fingers want to turn to claws, makes her want to gouge and bite. David doesn’t know this. David tries to be kind. He puts his hand on her back, rubs gently. He masturbates in the shower. So does she.

On this trip, they are trying to reconnect. They are trying to try, and this is why they’re here, in a National Park in Wyoming. They were supposed to go to Disneyworld. Maddie would have been six, old enough to enjoy it. She would have worn a princess costume. She would not have liked this. Maddie was nothing like Rachel as a child. Rachel had loved streams and forests, turning over rocks to see what lived beneath. Maddie cried when her hands were dirty, was afraid of bugs. Rachel and David had gone climbing when they were dating, scaling indoor walls and boulders and a few actual cliffs in New York. From the visitors’ center, she can see two brightly colored bodies dotting the rock-face, but they’re not here to climb. They’d talked about it, said no, maybe not this time, and she thinks it’s because neither of them could say for certain what they might do eight hundred feet up.

David’s fingers brush hers as they leave the center, and when she doesn’t step away, he takes her hand. She wants to fly up the nearest tree, but she locks her fingers in the correct curve around his. After a dozen steps, she’s not sure how to let go. Their bodies feel like stone.

In the day’s fading light, they walk the paved path around the rock. They say hello to all of the other walkers they pass, but they don’t say much to each other. David points out squirrels. When they reach a rise in the path and a break in the trees, where the grasslands roll away from this rocky anomaly, Rachel says, “What a view.” They both look up at Devil’s Tower and imagine the view from there.

It’s too easy to remember the time she did slip, climbing in New York’s Shawangunks. She was roped in correctly, and David caught her, and she remembers laughing. She remembers the bouncing spring from falling to fine, the easy gotcha, the way her hands fit themselves to the rock again. She doesn’t remember the bloom of sweat everywhere, the freeze and panic from almost. She sees it in David now when he’s driving. They don’t go through that intersection anymore, but sometimes any four-way stop is too much, too familiar. For David, it was not almost. He lost his daughter when she lost hers. Theirs. It wasn’t his fault.

Rachel says that to herself every day. She says it to herself as they walk safely and easily around the monolith, and she says it out loud. She squeezes David’s fingers, and when he squeezes back, it’s so tight it hurts. When her fingernails dig into the back of his hand, he doesn’t flinch or pull away. His eyes drift closed, calm, and yes, she loves him.

At their campsite, they make a fire, but they barely tend it, don’t bother with the marshmallows they brought. They watch the moon rise instead, and the moon is a white sun, brighter than David says he ever remembers seeing it, bright enough that they don’t need a lantern in the tent, bright enough that David must see her reaching for him before their bodies touch. She is trying to try, and she wants this, wants his mouth on her neck and the heat and the sharp-soft sinking. His cheek is wet before he presses it to her thigh. She’s stopped knowing when she’s crying.

She’s not crying when she leaves the tent, leaves David, asleep, and she is glad for their love-making, glad in some way she doesn’t understand anymore, and that’s why she can’t stop walking, can’t turn around when she only meant to go as far as the campground bathroom.

The approach to the tower is closed, a bar across the road, but she ducks under it, keeps walking until she’s standing before the boulder-field at its base, the rock silver-flecked in the moonlight, and she keeps walking, stretching her legs across the wider gaps, steadying herself with her hands. The stone is cool and the middle of the night feels more like morning than anything, her thin shadow keeping pace.

She scrambles around the tower’s base, the looming wall giving her something on which to lean, even when her path takes her too far away to touch. She finds the ascent points the climbers were using for the many named routes—Soler and El Matador and Burning Daylight—and she keeps circling until she finds the sloping chute she remembers from earlier. She stands on the bent stone and tips her head back, far enough to feel like she might fall, far enough to see where chunks of rock have loosened and tumbled down. If gravity pulled one down now—but it doesn’t. The night remains still and bright and the tower waits, huge and impossible.

The Kiowa legend said seven little girls climbed a boulder to escape from bears, and for their prayers and in pity, the boulder grew, lifting the children away from the beasts. The bears’ claws raked the rock into these bundled columns, their back feet gouged here, too, curving and caving the stone. But though the girls were safe from the bears, they were too high up to come down again. The stone grew and grew until it set the children in the sky, seven bright stars in a tailed diamond. The visitors’ center had a picture to show it, the Pleiades resting behind the Tower’s shoulder. When Rachel looks, she sees the stars, and she tries to imagine the girls, safe. For a moment, she can’t imagine anything at all. All she can see is what she can see: blue-white moonlight and gray stone and the black cracks snaking up. Somewhere above her is the ladder Linnie Rogers climbed. She’d seen its old bones from the path. Rachel tries again, but the little girls won’t come to mind. They’re only stars, and they’re so far away.

The sloping stone lets her scramble a few yards up, high enough that she’s looking into the shadowy trees, and it’s already high enough to be dangerous. Her fingertips curl around a protrusion, and instead of steadying her to plan a route down, they pull her up. The back of her brain says yes, it’s only another sort of ladder here, easy up, easy down, and it is. She splays her legs to brace here and there. Once, she pushes her hand into a crack, crooks her fingers to wedge in her flesh, and she pulls herself up another few inches. It hurts less than she remembers, and for that reason, it’s easier. She does it again and again. When she thinks to look over her shoulder, she’s all at once gasping for breath, higher than most of the aspens.

Somewhere near, though she can’t see it for the shadows and the bulging columns, is the ladder. It’s not whole anymore, can’t possibly be safe, but Rachel wants to put her hands on it. She could wrap her fingers around the stakes, as dry and as smooth as bone, and now she can imagine: holding a match to it now, how fire would snake upward, painting the rock with living orange and then soot-black, the red seam of embers glowing. Her skin would burn. The rock would grow too hot to touch. She would have to let go. But the ladder isn’t at hand. She will go on.

Imagining falling is easy. She knows what it feels like, and she knows there’s no rope to catch her. She has to trust the thin rubber soles of her shoes, the strength of her fingers, the integrity of the rock. One knuckle oozes raw and red. She wipes it on her shirt, tries to keep her hands dry, and she thinks of her daughter, how Maddie would have cried, not only for the pain but for the broken surface, the irremovable mar. The marks on her shirt would have seen Maddie wriggle out of it completely. Rachel rubs her cheek on her shoulder and stabs upward. Something in her says, still, let go. But if she can do it, she can do it at the next handhold, another three inches up.

Rachel wonders if Linnie Rogers had the same thoughts. The visitors’ center placard said nothing about that, nothing about what it was like to create an attraction, a spectacle, nothing of what it felt like to watch her husband and his friend ascend two years before she did it herself. A crowd of people had gathered; vendors sold drinks and there was a band. People spread blankets to watch the two men’s climbing, and their possible fall to their deaths. People must have watched Linnie Rogers watching. Rachel wonders at what point she said, out loud or in her own skull, yes, I will do that, too. Or was that simply another part of the spectacle? After the first woman climber, droves more people came to Devil’s Tower.

Two months after Maddie’s funeral, Rachel knelt in her garden bed, pulling weeds or pulling carrots or the new shoots of something that she shouldn’t pull, she couldn’t tell, and David knelt opposite, digging onions and beets. She felt the muddy slip of her dirty fingers on her wet cheek. She felt her chest heaving. And David was looking at her, watching her, and he said you are so beautiful. She spent an hour cleaning the dirt from beneath her fingernails. She didn’t say thank you. She didn’t make the salad she was going to make. Beyond her, the startling moonlight is giving way to dawn-light, faint gray edges, and if there are more climbers today, they will soon start roping in.

In the same year that Linnie Rogers climbed the tower, she shot her husband in the head, an accidental ricochet that somehow didn’t kill him. He seconded her story, saying it was an accident because Linnie Rogers wasn’t the type to fail if she intended to kill someone, and they went on with each other. Rogers wasn’t perfectly fine, seemed addled somewhat, but he and his wife lived longer than Rachel would have expected for people who did these kinds of things.

The bottom of the Rogers Ladder isn’t where it had once been. The parks service removed the bottom hundred and fifty feet to keep people from trying to climb it; it wasn’t safe. Rachel wants to touch it, just to put her hand on one rung. She wants to see if it holds.

She reaches the broken top of one hexagonal rod, and it’s broad enough that she could rest there. She could sit there and wait and someone would see her and then someone could help her down. David is probably looking for her now. But she inches and scrabbles and her knees are bleeding, too. She doesn’t know if she’s grateful that her body wants to try here, that she’s snatched at each ledge and anchor and pulled. It would be easier if her fingers would simply give, if the rock stopped yielding holds. It doesn’t. She keeps going, and she reaches the ladder’s surviving tail.

The ladder is made of ash pegs hammered into one of the tower’s long cracks and held together with a strip of wood on one side. She curls one arm around the brittle-feeling lowest rung, her feet jammed into the narrow crack that once held the ladder’s bottom part. She looks down. It’s a long way, and everything in her is so tired. She has only to loosen her arm, unjam her feet. She thinks she wouldn’t even have to let go—she’d only have to keep climbing. Eventually, the ladder would give. It would have to. The rung she’s holding feels as light as bird bones, dry and ready to snap. Her bleeding knuckle stains the wood dark, and in the pale dawn light, the color becomes color: there red on wood-bone-brown; below, gray rock and soft lichen green. Dark blue smears of shadow, like Linnie Rogers’s bloomers, like Maddie’s polka-dotted shorts.

Maddie’s blood had been on David’s shirt. At the hospital, Rachel had seen it, dark red flecks on his right sleeve. David’s skin hadn’t been broken anywhere. He’d only had bruises on his chest, across his stomach, a concussion from hitting his head on the window. He said he should have been hurt worse, how could he not have been hurt worse if Maddie—if Maddie—and then he wished and she wished, too.

Rachel uncurls her arm and reaches for the next rung. Her arms are limp and it’s difficult to unwedge her feet, to press one sole sideways enough to get purchase and lift. All of her weight is on the ladder at once, and for the first time, Rachel thinks she is frightened, but the rungs continue to hold.

She makes herself go upward, and one rung does crack and splinter under the push of her foot, but her hands’ hold is solid, and she watches a fragment of wood fall and skitter, tiny sounds that should feel louder. She doesn’t know what sound she would make. She doesn’t think she would scream. What would she call out? She presses her face against the stone, her forehead and nose, and every muscle trembles. When she falls, what will her sound be?

From the boulder-field below, she hears her name. Rachel, Rachel. It would have been easier if she’d simply made a mistake, earlier. Experienced climbers have fallen from Devil’s Tower. She doesn’t think those people knew before it happened. It was an instant, not an inevitability. People said that about Maddie, trying to comfort her and David. It was an instant. She didn’t suffer. Her face hadn’t even been turned toward the oncoming car. She didn’t even see it. Rachel has been gauging the distance of her fall since before she started climbing, has known the lack of practice in her fingertips, the uncertainty of her route. Rachel. She can’t make her fingers unclench.

David is surely looking for her now, circling the campground and maybe calling into the empty women’s bathroom and maybe walking this way now. Maybe he has gone to the rangers’ station, and soon they’ll see her here. It would be less embarrassing, maybe, to let go, or even to try to work her way down. If she fell while trying to get down, maybe that would mean something else, something different, something better.

She thinks of David in the tent when she left, a bite mark on his shoulder because she couldn’t stop herself, because he said yeah, okay even while she felt him wince. His hair is long enough to cover his eyes again, the first time since he was twenty-two; his barber keeps asking him how he’s doing. David is too polite to tell the man to stop or to go somewhere else; he just lets his hair grow, doesn’t go as often. She dug her fingers into his arms and he buried his face against her neck, and they hoped together—but there they both were still, and for a moment, all they could do was to hold on.

The grasslands behind the trees, the ones she couldn’t see until she was up this high, are painted yellow, and the cool, blue shadows from the moon are gone. Rachel wedges her foot into the ladder’s crack, tucks her shoulder against the rock and leans. Gravity is everywhere, pulling down one stray leaf and the sweat on her neck, but where it touches her, it settles her more firmly into the tower, and she can flex open her hands, lick the blood from her knuckle. The skin around the wound comes clean, and she’s not holding on anywhere. The rock cradles her close and she lets it. She hears her name on the air, the sound lifted and echoing, David’s voice, real, not memory, and she gathers breath to answer.


by Holly M. Wendt

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