Vasant 2023 Stories - Sophie Langridge


The Cathedral and The Fall

By Sophie Langridge

The Cathedral is too preposterous in scale to be a work of human endeavour, yet too heavy with intent to be attributed to nature. Its towers, domes, steeples and ramparts, grow on and off each other in tumorous excesses, defying design and description with impervious arrogance, thrusting across the horizon, and up into the pewter skies above.

Inside, there has been another disaster. Something high above has broken, and boulders the size of small houses pelt the work floor, bringing with them a choking cloud of dust and an incarcerating layer of debris. Once the bombardment ceases, and the muffled cries of horror and human agony subside, the surviving workers struggle to their feet, collect their tools, and move to nearby quadrants to continue their labours.

The stretching graveyard of shattered masonry they leave behind lies lifeless with settling dust, until it is surprised with movement. From amidst the rubble, a crumpled figure pushes themselves upright, coughing and groaning in pain. Another clatter of stones, and another disorientated figure stumbles to their feet nearby, as further back, another.


These bewildered souls clutch themselves and peer anxiously about, but they cannot see much. The air of the Cathedral is hazy with dust and choked by a sticky layer of dense fog, rising up from the stone floor and dampening sight and sound alike. The fog gives the interior of The Cathedral a slippery, ethereal aspect, and the newcomers wince at the unpleasant chill of this strange precipitation.

One of the huddled figures discerns the muffled clanking of industry nearby and stumbles in this direction, the others hesitantly follow and a small cluster of them emerging onto the work floor, casting around for help. The workers of this quadrant pay them no more attention than they do to each other, interacting through the mechanisms of their labour with the thoughtless familiarity of those long-accustomed to working intimately with strangers. The first of the newcomers continues towards a group of headlamp-lit workers, and on arrival, finds it to be focussed around the edge of quarry. A conveyor belt carries rocks from a worksite below, which are then shovelled into carts and wheeled elsewhere. An indistinct cluster of children work through the debris at the base of the belt, their over-sized helmets lighting thin, grey arms and tiny scrabbling hands.

A worker with large forearms has seen the newcomer arrive, and with no change of expression, waves them closer. When they obey, the muscled arm gestures to a ladder, leading down to the quarry below. On nearing the bottom of this ladder, the newcomer finds the fog thickening around their ankles, oozing up from the quarry depths and sucking on them with a murderous, boggy grip. Clinging in terror, they must be forcibly dragged from the ladder and once they are on their feet and have been handed a pickaxe, they are directed impatiently to a nearby section of the quarry wall. The wordless order is given with such careless authority, the terrified new arrival does as they are bid, pushing through the unnatural swirling mist with visceral horror, and aiming their axe with shaking hands.


There is no announcement, but at a designated time, everyone puts down their tools, climbs the ladders to the work floor above, and sits to eat. Plates of meat and vegetables in a thick stew are passed along, followed by a basket of dense, black bread.


The workers eat in silence, no more than head tilts and non-committal grunts exchanged, and the newcomer — shivering and unnerved — intuits it would be remiss to break this studied quiet. After the meal, someone has found a spare helmet, and the weak glow of its headlamp meanders down the line to find the new arrival where they sit in shadow. When their neighbour presents it to them, the newcomer demurs, and this attracts attention. With urgent gestures, those closest insist, their manner distressed, as though the new arrival’s lack of helmet were an impropriety akin to nudity. Abashed and confused, the newcomer relents, placing the battered thing on their head where it weighs uncomfortably. Blinking in the feeble glow of the headlamp, they find with a jolt, that not only the gloom, but the rank fog too has lifted — their vision now clear, albeit restricted to the illuminated circle in front of them. The neighbouring workers nod in quiet satisfaction, headlamps bobbing, and allow their attention to drift elsewhere.

After the meal, the newcomer returns to hacking away at the quarry walls, the weak glow from their headlamp giving focus to everything within the beam, but blinding them to anything outside it. An older worker with a bent back and scowling expression is having trouble with their headlamp, the beam flickering as though the battery is running low. In the intermittent darkness this generates, they can be heard fumbling their strikes and muttering admonishingly to themselves.
Free from the awful, slinking fog, the new worker toils with grateful fervour, until a grizzled labourer with rough hands claps them on the shoulder, and indicates they are to relieve them. A weary convoy is forming as others lay down their tools, click their shoulders, and climb the ladder to the work floor above. Here, a train of workers is forming, trudging deeper into The Cathedral in a staggering line of lamplit shoulders.


The new worker’s mind is so dulled by the need to rest, they follow without question, faintly aware of other quarries as they pass them — points of convergence marked by piles of rocks and the to-and-fro of lamp-lit workers. At some point, the caravan turns left, and a little after this, passes under an immense archway, looping into the darkness above. Next to the archway there is a table covered in plastic cups, each filled with a light blue liquid. As they pass, the workers take a cup and down the contents; the liquid unpleasantly sweet with a strange bitter aftertaste. Not long after this, the convoy reaches a forest of bunkbeds made up with thin, grey sheets, and the newcomer finds an empty bunk and lies down. They place their helmet on their chest as they see their neighbours doing, and close their weary eyes. They fall asleep like one sinking into bath water — gratefully, peacefully, luxuriantly — and then they dream.

They dream of a breathless wonderland; a towering metropolis lit in a pearly, lunar white. Here, there is boundless prosperity, needs met before they can be voiced, a sense of privilege and exceptionalism; the easy righteousness of a chosen elite, enjoying the spoils they are due. Inexhaustible quantities of succulent food and effervescent drinks pass through their hands, and the air resounds with gentle laughter and melodious strains of music. There is the sense of being comically high above mortal concerns, and though somewhere in the distance, a warning whispers, it is so far away as to feel irrelevant, the dreamer’s senses drunk on far pleasanter refrains and carried dancing along.

The next day the newcomer mines rocks, and the day after. They are a steady worker and prove to be strong and reliable. Perhaps it is the day after this, or the day after that, that they are upgraded to next worksite, loading carts, and then a week or so later, promoted again to driving larger motorised transports. The newcomer feels a swell of pride at this swift ascent, and notes with some pleasure, the envious looks of the workers they leave behind. Driving the transports is easier than pushing the carts, which was itself easier than mining rocks. The respective shifts increase incrementally in length however, so that when their replacement arrives at the end of the working day, the newcomer is too tired to do more than trudge back under the arch, drink the pale blue tincture, and return to the forest of bunk beds to sleep and dream. They do not mind. The wearier they are, the more deeply they sleep and the more delicious the dreaming.

Then there is another disaster. The worker wakes to a thundering, pounding, dust-filled hell, ripped apart by terrified shrieks and heavy with the smell of iron and carbon and sulphites. When the bombardment is over, large boulders litter The Cathedral floor, the sad protrusions of legs and arms testifying to the laughable inadequacy of the helmets as a means of protection. From among the boulders, a few scattered figures emerge, blinking and confused, but the worker (who is no longer so new), sees these arrivals are soon herded towards to the quarries where they are made useful.

That day, when the not-so-new worker arrives to start their shift, they are given to understand that hands are scarce, and they are being promoted much further up the line. They, and high-performing individuals from other worksites, are ushered along in a jerky crisscross of headlamps, increasing in number as they forge higher and higher into the heart of The Cathedral.

The convoy has been hiking upwards for some time, when the worker notices a muted glow in the gloom above, coming from a single point of illumination, like a not-moon in the not-sky of The Cathedral ceiling. This light continues to strengthen until the cathedral floor is bathed in its silvery glow, the headlamps becoming obsolescent in its brightness.

Necks craning, the members of the convoy come to a straggled stop at the base of another conveyor belt, this one carrying rocks upwards to disappear into the dazzle of that not-moon above. No moon at all, but an opening; a window in the cathedral ceiling to a silvery space beyond.

The worker, gazing into that pearly lunar white, feels something in their heart tug like a memory; the hopeless attraction of an ash-winged thing, flapping for the light. Squinting into that window to another, brighter place, the worker's straining ears make out a light tinkle of laughter and the melodious strains of music.
Understanding hits like a gut punch of déjà vu, accompanied by a powerful nausea of regret. The worker can almost taste the succulent food and feel the effervescent drinks dancing on their tongue. There is a breathless wonderland up there — the place they are meant to be — not down here in the gloom and dust, but up there, with the chosen elite, in the pearly lunar light.


It must be so, for have they not seen it in their dreams?

The worker is called back to earth by an insistent poke, alerting them to the gestures of a muscled foreman who is instructing in the loading of the belt. Others in their group have already grabbed shovels and are shunting rocks at the sky-bound belt like their lives depend on it. Heart racing, the not-so-new worker elbows and hustles to grab a tool, applying themselves to the loading of the belt in a panting fervour. A new hope, intoxicating as any tincture, is stirring in their veins. With enough hard work and determination, who can say how far up into The Cathedral one might forge; what winged dreams, might be made to come true.

The days pass. Rocks are shunted onto the sky-bound belt and more arrive in trembling towers which steadily decrease, then grow again. Some workers tire, their pace unsustainable, and with a shoulder tap and pointed finger, these lazy individuals are sent back into the depths where they belong. Others arrive to replace them, and the shifts stretch, long and hard. At night on their bunk, the no-longer-new worker dreams of breathless lunar wonderlands, and at work, gripping their shovel tight as doctrine, they feed the belt, and their own desperate ambition.

But they cannot keep up. New faces join the group labouring under the not-moon, replacing their exhausted predecessors, and the no-longer-new worker sweats and toils alongside them. Their breath rasps, their muscles burn, and unwanted knowledge flames like lactic acid in their veins. They are becoming slow and clumsy and it is noticed.

The day the shoulder tap comes, it is too soon — cruelly soon — as though that autocratic finger had been waiting with bated-breath to find them unworthy. It is without ceremony that the worker is pointed shamefully back into the darkness, their banisher impervious to any pleas they might proffer.

With despair, the workers find themselves back near the start of the line, driving the motorised transports. By the end of that first shift — when a tall, sallow man comes to relieve them — the need to get away is so strong that the worker is almost frantic with it. They barge along the weary train of bed-bound labourers, ignoring the mutters of affront, and shoot back the blue tincture with the reckless irritation of an addict.

Tipping themselves onto a bunk they rip the helmet from their head and throw it from them with such disgust that it falls out of reach. They do not care, let it be lost. Lying back and yanking the coarse blankets overhead, they close their eyes with the violence of one attempting to barge their way into sleep as into a locked room. Unsurprisingly, when the dreams do admit them, they are pallid, immaterial things that bring no warmth or music.


You wake up choking, startled from diluted dreams by a sharp inhalation of cold terror whistling through your lungs. An existential dread buckles you forwards on your bunk, panting and shivering in an unnatural fever. Your vision is misted, and after a few panicked seconds, you find the air is once again thick with that stagnant fog that so repulsed you on your first day. Squinting into its murky depths, you now see shapes moving within the fog, and after a few wide-eyed, straining moments, you realise the gloom is not as amorphous as you first believed. Not a fog at all. Not a fog, but a heaving mass of ghosts.

Ghosts. The Cathedral’s air is thick with ghosts and you are inhaling them, the cold of their bodies flooding your lungs so that you cannot breathe.

You struggle to the edge of the bed, reaching for the fallen helmet like a drowner flailing for an outstretched hand. It is no good. Your movements are weighted with the grasping hopelessness of one sinking, and the helmet is lost in the press of the ghosts’ translucent bodies. Moaning, you curl into a ball, closing your eyes tight and fighting the mad horror of it with denial, clenched tight as a fist.

It is eons later that morning comes, the other workers returning to life and climbing from their bunks to start the day. The beams of their headlamps crisscross through the fog of ghosts, and hope stirs in you; a flickering candle in a draft. With a force of will that threatens to tear muscle from bone, you lunge forwards and grasp until your fumbling fingers find the helmet and you get it over your head.

It is broken. You threw it with such force the night before that the lamp is damaged. The beam now flickers, strobe-lighting you between two worlds: one pale and indistinct, the other thick with ghosts. Squinting against this awful double-vision, there is nothing left to do but stumble off to work, clinging to the feeble hope that normality can outrun the terror.

That day, your frenzied imagination can hear the ghosts whispering — a seashell’s breathy echo — thick, formless and constant. The ghosts whisper about the rocks you transport, and looking closer, you see faces in them; the gaping hollows of eyes and the leer of lipless mouths. The ghosts murmur about the uneven surfaces of The Cathedral’s floor and walls, and it dawns on you that they are not as formless as you first assumed. There are patterns, shapes; the curve of a spine, the arthritic curl of claws and fingers.


Everywhere you look, petrified creatures’ large and small, assemblages of the long-since dead — death everywhere and laughing at you. As the haunted days pass, your body wears down as surely as your overalls. You are becoming slow and clumsy, and it will not be long now. The pull of the ghosts whisper in you like a lodestone to a pole, until one day, they urge you back down to the quarry basin where you used to hack stone from walls. Staggering away from the workers labouring there, you are soon alone, scooping a solitary path through the murky soup of the ghosts’ stagnant bodies.

It is with dazed surprise that you come to a stop, teetering over a violent tear in the quarry floor; a crevice from which the ghosts ooze like water from a burst pipe. You stand and stare down into the void with a calmness you do not recognise. You are tired after all, and it is time. The problem was always one of gravity: Much easier to fall than fly. It is nothing special, and there is no one to turn and look as your feet slide off the edge and you are falling.

Before the plunge, before the mad, pelting descent of rushing air, there is a fragile moment of stillness in which you see it all: the substrata of The Cathedral stretching fathoms deep in layers and layers of fossilised death. Death, mined and shovelled and transported upwards, carried on carts and motorised transports, heaved on conveyor belts, up through a not-moon, and onto new carts and transported once again. Up and up, into the highest reaches of The Cathedral, and out into the sullen, pewter skies.


There is no breathless wonderland up here, no towering metropolis of pearly white, just a vast construction site of shrieking pulleys and groaning scaffold. Gritting their teeth against the fearsome winds and lurching heights, armies of workers toil, building towers and domes and steeples and ramparts, which grow on and off each other in tumorous excesses, defying design and description with impervious arrogance which thrusts ever higher.

The Cathedral knows nothing of this of course. Nothing of the lives from which it is built. The Cathedral knows only ‘up’, until one day, presumably, it too must fall.



Sophie Langridge from UK is a speculative fiction writer and poet, who recently returned to South London after nine years’ living in Mexico, Germany, The US, and Cameroon. She teaches English as a Foreign Language online to students around the world, and when she is not teaching or writing, she is climbing, cooking or walking her dog, Merlin.


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