From the author: Sisyphus has long since given up on the impossible task of rolling a boulder to the top of a hill in his private, personally-tailored hell, content to stay trapped there forever without giving the gods the satisfaction of seeing him struggle in futility. But one day, another woman appears in his hell who is assigned the same boulder-rolling punishment—and she claims that she’s found a way to complete the task.
When I awoke, I heard something moving.
At first I discounted it. Sometimes the rocks settle in the night. The arm of Eris is long, and can reach into even this private eternity, where she draws cracks through the stones at her fickle leisure. I have awoken before to see two smaller rocks where there once was one.
The sound kept going.
I sat up. I could not place the source; echoes leapt from wall to concave wall.
I stood and walked among the same-as-ever hills: six in a honeycomb pattern, with a seventh at the center. Each almost vertically steep. Each covered in dead earth, and thousands upon thousands of painful stones.
I circled the base of a hill. Nearby stood some of the 2,000 boulders, resting in the rocky valley where I had left them last. The hand of Eris never touched those stones.
I passed boulder number ΠΔΠI, stepped over a sharp rock, and rounded the base of another hill, and there she was.
I watched her. She turned in a slow, bewildered circle, looking above her at the hills and looming wall that enclosed my world, or perhaps the white and sunless sky beyond. Her manner of dress was unfamiliar to me.
She noticed me and jumped.
She spoke in a language I did not know, then dropped her eyes to my nudity and trailed off in confusion. The clothes had moldered from my body over the countless years, but I had no reason to care.
I waited. She raised her eyes and tried to speak with me again, but I still could not understand her.
This hallucination was tame. "Boring," I said to myself, and walked away.
Night came—the white sky turned black, and the place grew as dark as the heart of a burial mound. I lay on the painful ground in silence, waiting for sleep to take me, while I listened to her frightened sobs echo from the wall.
When I awoke, the sky was white again, and my hallucination had not left. She was standing atop the center hill and turning round again, trying in vain to see what was beyond the encircling barrier.
She noticed me and cupped her hands about her mouth. She shouted something.
I turned and walked someplace else.
Perhaps a week later, as I sat on a numbered boulder, she came up right beside me and said something that sounded like a demand. I glanced at her and stood to move away as usual.
Her expression turned dark and menacing. She raised a hand, and in it, I saw a sharp rock.
She threw it and it struck me in the stomach.
I grunted in pain and surprise. She stamped her foot, and her shoe cracked on the ugly earth. I turned to move away again, more feebly this time, when she moved back into my field of vision. She struck her chest with a fist and spoke again. She repeated this.
Then she pointed at me.
I touched my stomach. I was bleeding. Madness can conjure many things and sustain them over many days, but not like this.
She took a step closer and touched her chest. "Eliza."
I cleared my throat. I had yearned for this, once, with what little I had, but I now felt ill-prepared. Uncertain, I set a filthy hand on my naked skin. "Sisyphus."
She nodded, gravely. Eliza bent over and picked up a rock. She held it out to me and tapped it inquisitively with a finger.
I stared at her.
She gestured with it, fiercely.
"What is it that you're trying to do?" I asked.
She roared in frustration. Chest strike: "Eliza!" Point: "Sisyphus!" Shake rock: glare at me.
I sighed. "Rock," I said.
"Rock," she repeated.
Satisfied, I turned to move away.
A barrage of painful stones rained about my calves. I jumped away, bewildered, while agile Eliza circled around me. She blocked my path. She held up a pebble, in demand.
"Pebble," I said.
"Pebble." She rolled it over in her hands, thoughtfully, then picked up another rock from the ground. "Rock. Sisyphus."
I grudgingly took a seat on boulder number XHHHΔII and awaited another question.
Eliza worked hard to unreel my language from my rusty tongue. Practicalities came first: dirt, hill, wall, sky, person. Man, woman. Parts of the body. Eliza was not shy about my nudity, and repeated the word "penis" with scholarly concentration.
After our short lesson, she went away from me, muttering words.
She was not gone for long. When she returned, she wanted to know the words for the parts and colors of her clothing.
This went in cycles: words, retreat; words, retreat. She was a fast study for a woman, though she overreached herself and forgot much. By nightfall, I had exposed her to hundreds of words, but when I pointed to things to test her she could only recall perhaps forty.
The cycles of lessons repeated, and soon grew more complex. We used pantomime for verbs, and we used a stone to draw pictograms in the dirt for the many objects we lacked here. I scratched out my alphabet and taught her to read and write.
I never tried to learn Eliza's language. Remembering my own words—laughter, sun, house, family—was painful enough.
One day, as we each sat on a numbered boulder, Eliza asked me, "Are we dead?"
She asked this as if she already knew the answer, so I did not mind saying, "Yes."
She nodded. "How did you die?"
I tried to think of a way to answer her that would not invoke questions she could barely ask and prompt answers she could barely understand. "A man killed me."
She nodded. "A man killed me too."
I glanced at her. "Really."
"Yes. Why do you look alarmed?"
She looked down at her boulder (boulder number XII) and ran a finger over the edges of the X. "The man who killed me—his name was Zeus. I have a feeling. Did the same man kill us?"
I scrutinized her distracted expression. Something within me stirred—a tremor of the old cunning those monsters had all been so afraid of.
"Sisyphus? What is it?"
"Zeus is not a man. He is a god."
Eliza stopped tracing the numeral. "What is a god?"
"More than a man."
"Now you look ill."
"No. Nevermind." I stood from my boulder as if I had somewhere to go. "Eliza—it is difficult."
I watched her. She just sat and regarded me, her hands curled patiently in her lap. "Why did Zeus put you here?" I asked.
"Because..." Her brow knit. "Yes, it is difficult. Because I am..." She tapped her head.
I swallowed, then spoke in a knowing whisper. "Because you are too intelligent."
She nodded, guessing the meaning of the new word from the context alone. As would be expected. "Yes."
"I'm taking a walk," I said. I left her there so I could react to his sickening insecurity in peace.
Another day, as we sat on the top of the tallest hill, Eliza asked me, "Why do the boulders have numbers?"
Her question startled me. We had been staring at the top of the encircling wall for twenty minutes in silence, each lost in our own longing for a face, almost any face, to peer over from the other side. "Pardon?"
"I said, why do the boulders have numbers?"
"I thought I already told you."
"If you had, why would I be asking?"
I looked away at a different part of the wall. "It's a long story."
"And I don't have the time?"
"You ask too many questions."
"I think it's important. Isn't it?"
I said, "It's part of my punishment."
I didn't look at her as I spoke. "I'm supposed to roll any numbered boulder up a steep hill. This is my punishment. From him."
"From the god who killed you? Zeus?"
How I hated that name. "Yes."
"I can be free if I get one to the top."
"Of any hill?"
"Yes. But before I can get to the top, the boulder always slips or I always drop it."
She nodded. Her eyes got that far-away look as her mind slipped beyond the great wall, or to some place within. Eliza looked like this often, usually before she asked a nosy question, and I had a feeling that I knew what was coming.
She asked, "What if you make a little hill out of the littler rocks, and roll a boulder to the top of that one? Does that count?"
I sighed. "No. I've tried it."
"What if you roll a normal blank rock to the top?"
"What if you scratch a numeral into a blank rock first?"
"Tried that too. Eliza, I've tried everything. If what you've told me about the passage of time is true, I've had 3,000 years to think of different ways to do it and none of them have worked."
"Maybe you haven't found it yet."
I snorted. "I told you, he put me here for my intelligence. He was jealous of it. If I can't think of a way out, then there is none."
"No. He put me here so I would be frustrated. But I refuse to play his game. I quit trying long ago."
Eliza's far-away look returned to our hilltop with sharp and sudden focus. She searched my expression. "Oh?"
"Are you happy?"
"Are you happy? Are you really beating him?"
"What are you asking me?"
Eliza stood and brushed the dirt from her odd garments. "Nevermind. Do you think that if I rolled a boulder to the top of a hill, I would be free too?"
"I suppose. I hear that people with similar punishments are put in similar places. But I've never had anyone in here with me before, so I don't know. And anyway, there's no way out—it's a trick."
Eliza began her climb down the steep hill, moving backwards on her hands and feet. "I'll see about that."
"You're wasting your time!" I called down to her, but she ignored me.
I snorted again. Let her feel frustrated. She'd figure it out for herself eventually, after growing weary of being made a fool of.
At first I watched her. I took some pleasure in it. She could be a terribly uppity woman, and I figured that some years at the task would wear her down until she was ready to admit that I was right.
She began with the classic approach: roll up a boulder and trust that, this time, it won't slip. This occupied her for many, many weeks. Then she tried a systematic approach: try to roll each boulder up each hill, to see if, in one combination, there lay an exception.
"I've tried that," I told her, but she wouldn't listen.
She tried keeping track of where each boulder slipped on what hill, to see if there was a pattern anywhere. She tried positioning boulders partway up hills while rolling up others. She tried rolling up two at once, creeping up each one a few inches at a time, or three at once. She tried building a chain of them up the slope of each hill, hoping that the mass of the others behind the one at the top would stop the foremost boulder from rolling back. I'd tried all these things, and told her so, but she was too obstinate to do anything but see for herself.
I grew irritated with trying to dissuade her, and instead I watched her scratch her records all over the great wall in her unreadable language. When she grew tired, we spent our time as we always had, in instruction and talk.
Despite her mule-headedness, I grew to like having her around. I won't lie: the isolation had hurt me badly, and the monotony had hurt me worse. Her presence unthawed my soul. I began to be interested in her accounts of the world above, and in the wild and fantastic ways Man had changed while still remaining much the same.
I wouldn't call my emotion for her love, however. Death irons out all physical need, including desire. And anyhow, she was too much like a man.
On the morning that Eliza tore a gash in her forearm, she tried the last solution.
I was idly stacking stones atop each other when I heard her cry out. I looked up, to the slope of one of the outer hills, to see a boulder caroming down a rocky path while Eliza stood near the top and clutched an arm to her chest. "What fool thing have you tried now?" I called out.
Eliza didn't answer me. She bent her head further into herself.
I stood and made my way over. I climbed up the hill, on my hands and feet near the top, sliding over scree and scraping my palms. "Are you all right?"
Eliza sat down, still clutching her arm, and started to cry.
I sat next to her in silence. I did not know whether to feel sympathetic or alarmed; Eliza rarely wept. "Let me see."
She curled it closer to herself. "As if you can do anything for it!"
"I'm sorry... I was just curious."
"That's all it is to you!" she cried. "A curiosity! Nothing I ever do matters to you—it's just some piece of entertainment for you to mock!"
"Not from now on," I said. "Didn't you say that you were trying the wedge technique with the last few boulders today? You're out of options. There's nothing else to try."
"To hell with your negativity," she said bitterly, as she squeezed her arm. Blood was soaking through the tatters of her odd upper garment. "And to hell with your superiority complex and arrogance. There's a way out of here. Somehow."
"Eliza," I said gently. "I don't say these things to be hateful. I say them in the spirit of truthfulness."
She spat on the ground by my feet.
I was too surprised to speak. She stood and stumbled down the hill.
I let her be for the rest of the day. I had needed time to come around when I had reached this stage, myself.
The next morning, I awoke after Eliza as usual. I found her sitting atop the center hill, her favorite place. She was facing the tallest hill as if watching it.
I climbed up and joined her. "How's your arm?"
She rubbed the flawless skin. "It healed in the night. Like everything else does."
"I thought it would."
"Sisyphus, I've been thinking."
"About what I've been doing wrong with the boulders."
"Maybe you're right," she said, "and maybe you aren't. There's one last thing I can try. Though it should've been the first."
"Trust me, you've tried everything."
"I don't know. I think I might've been wrong about this, and in a fundamental way."
Her face soured. "I know what that look means. Forget it—you're obviously not interested. Let's change the subject."
"Yes, let's. Tell me again about skyscrapers."
We had a short chat. Eliza then excused herself, and climbed down the hill to pace along the inside of the great wall. Over the years, she had worn a track into the earth doing this. I watched her, then grew weary of it, and took a nap.
The next morning, I found her sitting atop the tallest hill, facing the wall. Her eyes ran over the stones, as if she were trying to make out writing that had faded with the eons.
I followed her gaze but saw nothing. Her lips moved slightly, as she half-spoke to herself.
Eliza sometimes did this when she thought hard. I let her continue at it for some minutes. When she refused to come out of her trance, I cleared my throat.
She turned to me and scowled. "What, Sisyphus?"
"I was busy."
"I'm sorry. It looked to me like you were staring at the wall and talking to yourself."
"I would say I wasn't talking to myself," she said archly. "But since you claim to be the smartest man who ever lived, I guess you can't be wrong."
"There's no need to be rude. I didn't know I interrupted anything important. It's not as if you were actively rolling a boulder up a hill."
Eliza rolled her eyes. "Can't we talk about something else?"
"Certainly. Could you tell me more about television?"
I found Eliza in the same place on the following morning, sitting on the top of the tallest hill and facing the wall. This time, she was looking upward at the high edge of the wall itself, her lips moving in soundless concentration, as if whispering to an invisible spirit.
I saw nothing.
I sat and waited, determined this time to catch her in a pleasant mood. The minutes stretched on. I let them. I've had much practice at waiting.
Eliza ignored me. I leaned back on my hands; refolded my legs; stacked some stones atop each other. I whistled very softly, old songs that I could never forget, and new songs that she had taught me at my request. I tossed pebbles down the steep slope, seeing how far I could get them to roll.
Eliza stared at the edge of the wall with her whole being.
Her lips started moving again.
"Eliza," I whispered.
She ignored me. A line of concentration formed between her brows.
"Eliza?" I whispered, a little more loudly. "Eliza—can't you take a break?"
She finally lowered her head and turned to glare at me.
"Good morning," I said. "How are you?"
"Fine," she said flatly, and stared up at the edge of the wall once more.
"Eliza, honestly. This has got to stop."
"I'm not done yet."
"Feeling sorry for yourself won't get you anywhere."
"I didn't say feeling sorry," she said darkly. "I said 'being sorry'."
"Don't be ridiculous. You have nothing to be sorry about."
She looked at me strangely. "Maybe I do. Maybe I've unintentionally offended someone."
"What, all that?" I gestured at her years of writing that sprawled across the enclosure. "I never really expected you to find a way out. So you haven't disappointed me. Please, don't worry about it."
Her look took on a shade of incredulity. "You really think everything is about you, don't you?"
"Eliza, this is my own personal torment. Everything is about me."
Eliza snatched up a rock and threw it down the hillside. Its clatter punctuated her outburst. "You are an arrogant, pig-headed idiot. Can't you see? Maybe this whole thing isn't about cunning. Maybe this is simply about hurting someone's feelings and having enough humility to say you're sorry."
"I already told you, you have nothing to be sorry about, and my feelings aren't hurt." I spoke more gently. "Eliza, please. Don't torture yourself on my account. Torturing yourself is exactly what he wants you to do. Haven't you learned the lesson by now?"
"Ha!" Eliza laughed at the sky, in a short, ugly bark. "Haven't you?"
"That's exactly what I'm trying to explain! He put me here because he was jealous of my mind! If a man with cunning to rival the gods' can't figure a way out, then there is no way out. That's the lesson: cunning can't solve everything."
Eliza shook her head. "No, Sisyphus."
She scowled and turned back to the wall. "I probably have to push up a boulder while feeling it," she said to herself. "I guess it wouldn't matter which one."
She shook her head again, fiercely, as if trying to block me out.
"Please. I hate to see you getting so worked up over nothing. Let's climb down from here, alright? I'd like to play some checkers on that board we made."
Eliza finally looked at me and sighed.
"Okay, Sisyphus," she said. "You know, I feel sorry for you."
"Don't be," I said, as I extended a hand to help her up. "I've got the solution, and I've accepted it. I'm content."
The next morning, I awoke to the pain of the rocks and the whiteness of the unchanging sky as always. I pulled myself up from the hard ground, then wound my way through the valleys and numbered boulders.
When I came within sight of the tallest hill, I looked up for Eliza, but did not see her sitting on the crown.
I cupped my hands around my mouth. "Eliza!"
No response except echoes.
I finished my walk to the tallest hill and climbed. I pulled myself up to the crown, over the last of the jagged rocks, then stood and surveyed the eternal hills.
I didn't see her on any of the hilltops, though from where I was I couldn't see all of the enclosure. She'd be on the other side of one of the hills, then, muttering and scratching in the dirt.
Once again, I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted her name. "Eliza!"
Echoes, then silence.
I climbed back down and walked the valleys to the other side. Once there I climbed the far hill, and surveyed the place from its barren crown.
I stood still and listened. Sound carries eerily well within those walls, and if she were banging around somewhere, I'd hear her.
I began to grow annoyed. I climbed down and wove among the hills, checking all sides and slopes. "Eliza! Are you still upset with me?" I walked along the path she had worn next to the wall, looking inward to the central hill. "Whatever the reason, stop hiding. That won't accomplish anything."
I made it halfway around, back to the base of the tallest hill, when I noticed something enormous etched deep into the stones of the enclosure.
Unlike all else, it was written in Greek.
THAT'S THE LESSON: CUNNING CAN'T SOLVE EVERYTHING.
It was in her handwriting. I glared at it. "Eliza, this is not amusing! Stop pouting and come out!"
I trotted along the wall, looking inward for a sign, a sound, a scrap of her disintegrating clothing. Nothing.
I ascended the center hill and shouted my lungs out. I shred my voice into tatters, calling, demanding, almost pleading. I heard nothing but my missives bounced back to me by the impenetrable, encircling stones.
When my voice gave out I sat and rested.
When my voice came back, I climbed down and searched the place again.
I ascended the hill and repeated the whole thing. And I did this until nightfall.
I slept on the crown of the hill that night, listening to the total blackness, for any sound at all—even the stones settling. But this night even Echo left me.
The next morning, I descended, and put my hands on a numbered boulder.
I rolled it along the rocky ground to the wall, and left it there with its numeral face-up: XΠHHHΠΔΔΔΔΔI. When I looked up, I noticed that I had placed it directly beneath her mocking quotation.
I found a nearby boulder and rolled that one against the wall as well.
I did this every day, for perhaps two years, until all the valleys were cleared and his hideous game pieces lined the barrier. Then I took another two or three years to rearrange them, until I had them all close to each other and lined up in a loosely linear order. Just as I had, immeasurable eons ago, when I had first begun.
When I was done, I looked up at the walls, at all her foreign calculations and notes. The mystery was locked in a tongue I could not understand.
But that's fine. I am the smartest man to ever walk the earth or beyond, and if a mere woman who accidentally stumbled upon the solution—and dared to flaunt her lucky victory by throwing my words back in my face—could make it out, then so could I.
So I began all over again.
And as I cut my hands and feet, bruised my bones, and felt the old lonely madness squeeze out the tears from my eyes and the vitality from my soul, I remembered how in the early days, he himself would prop his folded arms on the wall, and look down and ask, "Have you realized anything today?"
It took me decades to notice that boulder number III was missing.
This story originally appeared in On the Premises.
From a mechanical forest that constructs itself to the streets of Kyoto 8,000 years hence, the sometimes whimsical, sometimes cutting short fiction of KJ Kabza has been dubbed “Delightful” (Locus Online) and “Very clever, indeed” (SFRevu). Collecting all of his work published before May 2011 (plus 5 new stories, notes on the stories, and an interview by Julia Rios), IN PIECES offers glimpses into other worlds—some not unlike your own.
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