Author: Ian Hill
Affin slipped and slid over the lumpy white slopes. Her hair hung clotted with curdy chunks, and irritating crescents of tallow lingered under her fingernails; most of her skin was hidden under smeared wax; her clothes were heavy with clinging runoff. After so much climbing and stumbling, she finally rested and looked back at her sister, who was struggling over greasy wavelets of semi-hardened suet a few meters away.
“They must have used a lot of candles, huh?” Affin called, perching on a rounded knob and crossing her legs.
Pari, one arm outstretched for balance, clambered over a molded timber that had been caught in the sluggish seep years ago. Her long hair swayed heavily in front of her face, and when she tossed it back the weight nearly jerked her over. She was like an all-white specter navigating a surreal, flowing landscape with layers and bumps and licks and flows, all oozed and clodded and whimsical like the congealed ice cream slopes of a child’s dream.
Affin winced as she carved stinging wax from under her nails. “With all the nighttime studying they were doing, you’d think they would have invented a less wasteful light source.”
Pari heaved herself onto a wind-scraped shelf of tallow and ground her eye sockets clean with her wrists. Blinking, she peered down the oily heights they had scaled. The landslide of wax swept lower and lower, like a river of thickened milk, before spilling out and spreading into the foggy fields from whence she and her sister had come.
“Welp,” Affin jumped up and turned her attention forward, up the remainder of the steep, caked-over incline. “Better be going, huh?”
“A minute,” Pari croaked. The inside of her mouth was white, and she winced at the soapy taste.
Affin looked at her pitiful sister and sighed. The former was excited to reach that looming, pinnacled tower whose southern flank vomited molten spillage and whose northern flank blew off equal quantities of handwritten papers. What wonders she would find on those sheets—the recorded thoughts and discoveries of a community of lofty thinkers who, as the waxen wasteland attested, spent so long shut up in their high, windowless chamber, considering, writing. She could see the gray turret now, rising solemnly over its mounded heaps of grossly discharged wax. No warm light came from the coagulate-rimmed vent.
“What’s this?” Pari asked.
Affin turned at her sister’s voice and found her holding a half-charred scrap of parchment in sticky fingers. Affin’s eyes widened and she rushed over.
“Could it be from the tower?” Pari wondered.
Affin snatched the paper and greedily held it up. It was globbed with wax, and, curiously, much of it had burnt away, but she could still make out one passage. She read, “No great breakthroughs have transpired since the mishap. It seems the boys are disheartened. ‘Tis a shame what happened—a mean, crippling shame. We fritter away most of our time at the northern chute, inhaling the crisp fumes of a million million burnt pages. Ah, what cruelty. To think so much and never realize the fool’s game we played until, as was inevitable, one of our candles fell from a table and rolled the wrong way. A single little flame in the wrong place, and poof, our efforts but ashes. A true shame.”
Pari looked at her sister, aghast.
Affin stood still for a while, crumpling and uncrumpling the scrap in her hands. Her expression was unreadable. Then, with a slow exhale, she opened her eyes and smiled. “Oh well. The air in there was probably funny anyway.” She helped her sister up. “Let’s go home.”