Footsteps at the knife’s edge

Sometimes I feel like I am walking on a knife’s edge at the end of the world, endless abyss falling away on one side, a world of possibilities on the other. I balance, teetering, vast horizon filled with stars, sound of water running and wind sighing. My feet sting and anchor me as I turn from the known to the unknown, and back again.

I remember walking on the edge of the world in late fall, the grass crunching under my feet, the air so cold and dry that my joints contracted, clawing my fingers in pain. Lights would wink out one by one, the leaves of the trees dead beneath me, and I would coil up in bed to sleep for hours, drifting, soundless, somewhere in a place beyond dreams. So many memories of that time are strange and disjointed, and I remember the peculiar green of the sky before a storm, the first snow, waking up to a silence so profound that the sound of my legs scraping across the sheets set off an avalanche.

Many of us end up here, on the knife’s edge, feeling blood and sweat and something else beneath our feet. Sometimes we fall, and someone is there to catch us, dragging us away from the edge, so we can sprawl side by side on the grass, fingertips just touching, gasping at what almost happened, darkness receding and sun creeping out, dancing through the leaves of the trees. The air is warm and balmy, so gentle that we seem to be floating, and the silence is companionable, broken by the thousand small sounds of life all around us.

Sometimes no one is there and we windmill our arms, falling off the other side, into the dark silence, leaving just an impression behind, a shadow, a ghost, an outline against the stars. We drift, caught in eternity, a trap, we see now, but it’s too late, and eventually the world on the other side of the knife forgets us, piece by piece, cannot remember the colour of our eyes, the precise fall of our hair, the sound of our laughter, the strange little things that made us into ourselves. We are instead drifting apart until there is nothing left, and we are absorbed into the blackness.

There is a tendency in this culture to demonise those who balance on the knife’s edge, to load them with expectations and attitudes and beliefs that buckle their backs and make their toes cramp as they scrabble for a grip. Society seems to think it is doing us some kind of service with this, as though without shaming, people will never be able to escape the grip of the edge of the world, that gravitational pull that exerts such power and control and, yes, sometimes seduction, the whispers in the night that speak of quiet and calm and silence and never having to think about it again.

Those who escape to the real world of light and colour and vibrant sound are praised as models, though they are ordered to tuck their scarred feet away where no one can see them, to refrain from speaking of their time at the edge of the world. It makes people feel uncomfortable to be that close to the edge of sharpness and darkness and eternity. They prefer that people perform happiness, even if doing so drags them inexorably back into the orbit of the edge of the world.

Those who fall are blamed. They were weak. Cowards. Failures. Had they only tried hard enough, they could have clung to the real world, could have valued life and the world and the people who left them behind. This shaming serves a sly, backwards, crooked kind of lesson — don’t be like the failures, they say, pointing to the shadows left behind by those who fall. Sometimes they are the result of guilt, of people who think that they should have tried harder, reached out a little longer, thrown a rope for someone to grab. It is human nature to put away things we do not like to face, and to do so as violently and firmly as possible, to turn away from them.

There is a sharp, bitter cruelty in punishing people who are no longer there to feel it, who surely don’t deserve it, who likely punished themselves enough, who felt the pressure and shame and burden and slid away into the void. It is cruel to those left behind, too, to those who witness it. Sometimes someone falls and there is nothing anyone could have done, and that is a terrifying and horrible and troubling thing but one we must face. Sometimes, yes, someone could have done something, and sometimes that path only becomes clear after the fact, when it is too late — and that path does not include using bodies and lives as object lessons.

You never know who is resting on the edge of the knife, but you would be wise to keep your hand out anyway. Your hand may mean more than you know, may be seen by someone who very much needs to see it, because the thing about the edge of the world is that it can feel so terribly lonely there, with silence tugging at your feet.

Today I remember Adrian, for he is no longer here to remember himself.