A short story about a real Sky Ladder
A couple of years ago I saw a Netflix documentary about fireworks artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Sky Ladder. To say that it moved me is a huge understatement. The final scene of the documentary inspired this short story. It speaks about the fact that some crazy dreams do come true when you persevere. And it also speaks about what those who stay by your side during the process go through while you try to fulfill your dreams. I never interviewed Qiang’s wife or anyone else involved in the project so, although the facts about the story are true, everything else is the result of my own imagination. It this were a movie, you’d read a note at the beginning that says “this is a work of fiction based on a true story.”
You may not know (or care) but I’m originally, a fiction writer. Poetry, short stories and novels have been my passion since I was very young. I decided to share some of my short stories in the Red Shoe Movement blog because I believe in the power of fiction to help us see the world through someone else’s eyes and experiences. It helps us discover aspects of ourselves and of humanity that we don’t normally access through non-fiction, and much less through the conversations we have at work. Our workplaces and professional lives could use a little more of the delightfulness we derive from reading short stories and novels. The kind of reading you probably allow yourself to “indulge in” only over your Summer vacation. Well, that’s about to change. I hope you enjoy the ride.
She had put up with his dream for over twenty years. This outrageous dream of creating a ladder that would connect the Earth with the Universe as some kind of symbolic gesture. Of all the impossible projects Cai Guo-Qiang had ever concocted —most of which he had brought to life, she had to admit— this was by far the most absurd.
She had been there all along. Supporting him while discovering gunpowder as his artistic medium and while he used it to expand the Great Wall of China in a dragon-like pattern across the dunes in the Gobi Desert. Because that’s what he did. He created art with fireworks. Big, large-scale, unbelievably humbling fireworks.
She stood by him when they left China for Japan and when they moved permanently to New York. She raised his kids and dealt with his ever-increasing fame. His career retrospective at the Guggenheim and his role as director in the visual and special effects in the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Summer Olympics.
But no success was ever enough. Satisfying enough. Grandiose enough. It was the Sky Ladder that kept him awake at night when everything else was going fine. She wished he’d give up. He had already achieved so much. He had attempted this feat several times before and she had witnessed how each failure had crushed him. She didn’t think she could take one more failed attempt. Not when so much money and time was going into every one of these efforts.
But now Cai’s grandmother was approaching 100 and he wouldn’t let go of his obsession. As if igniting this ladder would create a path for her to walk up to Heaven.
She was tired of being okay with everything. Of being by his side come what may. She felt she had earned the right to say enough. But he was unstoppable. Nothing she could say would deter him from his dream.
He continued searching for the perfect location and paradoxically, decided that it would be his small childhood fishing town. He brought experts from all over the world to direct the project. But the village people would build this sixteen hundred feet-long ladder, which would be carried up by a massive hot air balloon.
Cai worked day and night with the energy of a teenager. Nobody could match his intensity. She knew that. She saw his exhaustion and his resistance to give into it. To even show it for fear of bringing the others down. He kept at this ridiculous idea for months and months. Telling everyone this time it would work. It had to. It was the last chance he had to fulfill his promise to his grandma, who had heard him talk about this project since Cai was a kid.
And so, the day came. Or more specifically, dawn came. He had decided to light up his ladder in the wee hours of a Summer day to avoid being penalized by the Chinese government. In the night sky, the white, hot air balloon climbed slowly carrying with it the long, thin ladder over the water. Cai lit a match and slowly, each rung caught fire creating an opening in the dark sky. The small group of family and friends who had gathered to witness this miracle was spellbound as the magnificent ladder, most of them had worked on for months, climbed into space. A ladder made of fire just as Cai had dreamed for so many years.
She held her breath. Her heart beat so fast she thought it might drop to the ground. The silence around them was only made louder by the crackling sound of the explosions above them.
Then she saw Cai climb the ladder. This immaterial ladder that was being drawn out of the darkness for a few moments until the fire consumed it. There he was, climbing into space freeing his soul. The soul he had been attempting to liberate ever since he started using gunpowder as his artistic medium.
She was desolate, left alone on this earth. Without the man who had given her purpose, the man who had taught her that there were no impossible dreams. Just dreams that had not been made possible yet. She put her hand over her mouth and wept with a grief she had never known. Her body trembled. She felt weak at the knees.
And then Cai put an arm around her.
Some crazy dreams do come true when you persevere
Nothing more inspiring than reading some of the crazy dreams that came true for you through perseverance and the support of those who love you. I know I could use a lot of that inspiration in my daily life. So, would you please leave me your comments on the story you just read and/or examples of your own dreams-come-true? I’m excited to read them!