If you ever get trapped in the desert
and the Sphinx asks you a question
you have to answer in order to survive
and the question is more like a physical challenge than a question
because the Sphinx just points up at this really tall ladder
shooting up out of a dune
and your line of sight
guided by the Sphinx’s paw
travels up the ladder rung by rung
and you see that this ladder is so huge and skinny
that its top disappears in the clouds
where the sides converge into a single line of “ladder”
waving back and forth in the air
like a long blonde hair
which you follow all the way back down with your eyes
as it gradually widens back out
to about two feet wide
and plants in the pink desert sand
and looks like any other normal, yellow ladder
and the Sphinx squints down at you
and says, “Get to the top of that ladder
and I’ll let you pass…
but if you fail… I’ll devour you.”
don’t actually try to climb the ladder as it is.
That’s exactly what the Sphinx wants.
That’s exactly the kind of thinking
the Sphinx was designed by the old gods to punish.
Instead, walk up to the ladder
and grab it by its sides
as in not the rungs, but the sides
which are sort of like vertical rungs
if you want to think of them that way
which you should, because once you do
you’ll realize how light the ladder really is
in spite of its height—
although, don’t let that startle you—
but also don’t worry if it does.
It won’t impede your progress to be startled.
It’s just irrelevant.
here is what you want to do:
Walk up to the latter
and grab it by its sides
and lay it down flat on the sand
so that it’s parallel to the whole Sahara
or whatever desert you’re in…
probably the Sahara
since it’s the only desert big enough
for a ladder that long to fit on sideways…
once you lay it down flat
you can then flip it up on its side
and easily “climb” to the “top” of the “ladder”
which is now only two feet off the ground
because its current rungs are its former sides.
you too can defeat the Sphinx like this
and completely perplex the Sphinx too
while you’re at it
and easily complete your passage through
the desert, or at least continue it
deeper into the desert, beyond the Sphinx.
There was this duty they needed somebody to volunteer for
something of no apparent use to anyone
and it was also clear
that I was the one who everyone expected to do it
because everyone else had paid their dues
but I was new, and hadn’t volunteered for anything yet
so as they were going around the room
asking if anybody wanted to volunteer
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,
cave in to the pressure, or hold my ground.
Honestly, I was leaning toward volunteering
thinking that working my way into their good graces
might end up getting me out of some real work
somewhere down the line
and I had almost decided to volunteer
when all their eyes landed on me.
They just kept staring at me
waiting for me to volunteer
knowing that I was about to
if only they could wait me out
and I half-unconsciously lifted my hand
as if I were about to
but at the last second brought it back down
across my body in one smooth motion
pretending to scratch my other arm
as if I were an idiot
who didn’t even know how to just sit there
without giving the false impression of imminent speech
It was a total letdown to everyone in the room
and I could feel the vestiges of our morale
crumbling around me like invisible pillars.
Eventually, the meeting agenda moved on.
There I sat in a reverie of self-congratulation
having successfully evaded yet another of their attempts
to guilt trip one of us
into wiling away precious hours of our lives
in pursuit of an objective they claimed was indispensable
yet refused to make mandatory—
a policy that to me belied
that the duty had nothing to do with the duty
itself, and everything to do with them wanting us
to seem as self-sacrificially busy as possible
which was the opposite of what we all actually were
which was doing the bare minimum necessary
to sustain the standard of living a thousand times greater
than everyone else on the rest of the planet
to which we felt entitled.
And it was in the wake of this epiphany
that I felt a great emptiness well within me
as if the wisdom I had gained
had been drained from me
and soon an even bleaker point of view
drew itself together in the fog of my mind…
something about the supreme hypocrisy
of taking pleasure in resisting the enterprises
of an organization I clearly despised, yet not enough
to simply leave and move on with my life.
And in that moment I knew I was a coward and a parasite
who would’ve weaseled out of any duty
whether farce or noble—
whether the solipsistic circle-jerk of privileged elites
or a beautiful act undertaken in service
of a universal value—and I hung my head in shame
and self admonishment there at the table
but then, just as suddenly
lifted my head back up.
I’d known this about myself all along,
had worked for years to insinuate myself
into the folds of this organization
not for the money like everyone else
but so the dead weight I would’ve added
to any whole of which I was but part
would be suffered by that which ought to atrophy
and spared from that which ought to flourish.
And it was on the crest of this wave
of heroic self-contempt
that I mentally coasted through to the end of the meeting.
But then at the end of the meeting
they brought the whole thing back up again
and begged for someone to please volunteer,
looking straight at me when they did.
By now I was feeling cocky
and decided to speak. "Look," I said,
"normally, I would volunteer.
It’s just that right now I can’t.
I have a million other things to do."
This was secretly hilarious to me
and secretly infuriating to everyone else in the room
most of whom really did have a million other things to do
and all of whom knew that of everyone there
I had the least to do,
but in behavior typical of these sorts of meetings
no one had the courage to point that out.
And so I just stared back at them
like they were a distance I was refusing to enter
and then it switched, and I became the distance
and they were the ones unwilling to enter me.
The face-off lasted for what felt like forever
though in reality it was probably less than a minute.
Eventually, a hand went up in the back of the room.
It was one of those people who really did have
a million other things to do, volunteering.
Mark Leidner is the author of the poetry collection, Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press, 2011), and a book of aphorisms, The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator Press, 2011). Under the Sea, a book of short stories, is forthcoming from Tyrant Books in 2017.
Cover image by Sarah Meadows