When we awoke, we found a great curtain of linked metal rungs had been lowered to earth from the sky. The chain mail drape connected land and sky and ran as far the eye could see, across the ocean in the west and over the range of mountains in the east. The curtain groaned in the wind. It glinted in the sunlight like a rippling slice of aluminum honeycomb. The top of it was too high to be seen.
People from both sides of the drape began climbing immediately. Nobody could keep off. Parents called after their children. Wives ran after their drunks. What was at the top? We had to find out. The neighbor boy had to be rescued by a helicopter. Others went even higher, until they lost their grip in the cold and pin-wheeled to their deaths, or got hung up in the rungs and could be heard screaming through the night. A few got hungry and came back down in time for dinner.
“Heaven is up there,” some said.
“Death is up there,” some said—it was one of the two, most likely, and we wanted to know which.
The local religious leaders came together. Usually at odds with one another, they made an agreement. Each faith, each denomination, each sect, faction and cult would choose their one best climber, and on the appointed day they would set to climbing the curtain. The religious ambassador who safely reached God first was clearly meant to—or died, for that matter.
The day chosen for the climb began with celebration and well-wishing. Group singing drowned out other group singing. The climbers clambered upward at the sound of the gun. They weren’t more than 50 feet up when climbers started stepping on fingers, elbowing ribcages, and yanking each other around for position. The helmet of one climber—representing the Presbyterian church that allowed women deacons—was punched clean off by the climber for the Presbyterian church that didn’t. Roudy cheers rose from below; squabbles turned to fights turned to riots. Mobs were driven against the curtain. A few religions fell to their deaths.
“What if it this was not of the sky?” said a blind woman sitting at the foot of the curtain. The drape did not hang free, but disappeared into the ground. We dug but could find no bottom hem. Word came that another curtain had been found halfway around the world, parallel to this one—“Like two sides of a fishing net,” we said to each other, “as a net being drawn out of water.” The curtain was marked. By sundown, it had moved an inch upward.
“We will all be caught in the net!” some said.
“Only sinners will be caught,” some said.
The remaining climbers, out of sight by now, were quickly forgotten. People splintered into new groups. The new groups worked through the night, drawing up creeds and damnation doctrines. “What if being caught is good?” said the blind woman at the foot of the curtain, but no one paid any mind.
The sun came up as it always had, shining on the faces of those gaveling to order the first official meetings of several new religions—belief systems engineered to endure, if need be, for the next two thousand years, replacing free will with duty, hope with certainty, and chasing all mystery into the darkest corners of heresy.