The man landed with a muted thud. The ground was mostly mud, but the small of his back had managed to find a rock to connect with in an intimate fashion. Sharp, tingling pain shot through his tailbone and he gasped for breath, winded.
He had lost count of the times he had fallen, and the low light made it difficult to see exactly where each of these falls had taken him. His goal, before each fall, was to climb the slippery spiral ramp that stretched up into the darkness like a giant, flat corkscrew. It was muddy, like the floor he lay on now, and gave easily under his feet. Somewhere far up above a light shone dimly. That was the outside, he knew. He had been attempting to get to it for many months.
The man felt around his wrist and found the tiny, silvery chain that was connected to it. He pulled this out of the mud and followed it a short ways to find the tiny fairy. She sat on a small stone, the end of the chain connected to her ankle. Her elbows rested on her knees, and her hands supported her face. She was crying.
The man pushed himself up on his side to examine her briefly, then rolled back to catch his breath. She was never physically harmed, but he always checked just the same; no matter how often the falls occurred. Turning into a solid statue evidently protected her until they reached the bottom.
This was the hazard of being a fairy, apparently. The physiology of a fairy mystified the man, but what he had been able to glean from his time around her was this: happiness lightened, anger weighed down. He had read somewhere that fairies, being of a small and magical nature, could only stably express one emotion at a time. If more than one were to become trapped in a fairy, strange things would happen. Fairies that experienced a full spectrum of positive emotions at the same time tended to transform into high speed projectiles, ricocheting off of any surface they encountered. Restraining a fairy in this state would cause it to explode into a shower of light, only for it to reform a second later to continue zipping around wildly.
Pain, however, was an altogether different story. If fairies were "excited" by happiness the same way particles were by energy, then the opposite was true with negative emotions. A sad fairy would become weighed down and sluggish. A fairy experiencing a wide range of such emotions became a solid statue, and impossibly heavy.
This transformation had occurred many times to the man's companion, each taking place at various levels of their progression up the slippery ramp. When she was not in this state, she flew freely about him, as far as the silvery chain clamped to her ankle would allow her. When an attack of heaviness overtook her, she became an anchor, the weight of which the man was powerless to stop from dragging him off the sloped edge of the spiral ramp.
The man checked the chain at his wrist. It was loose, as usual, and had not tightened. He wished it would. He could have dropped it; indeed he could have prevented every one of the fairy's attacks of heaviness from dragging him down simply by letting go of the chain, but he had refused. He was not going to leave without her.
The chain was something of a magical enigma as well. It seemed to have a life of its own when he did not hold it. If he were to set it down, the end would attach itself to whatever surface it came into contact with, and the fairy would be trapped at that spot. If he picked it back up, it would come free, but it refused to tighten itself around his wrist of its own accord. He had to hold onto it with main strength to keep it from getting ripped out of his hand whenever they were being pulled down to the bottom of the pit.
"Well," she said sulkily after many minutes of silence, "why don't you put that thing down and get out of here?"
The man had mostly recovered his breath, but did not move from where he lay.
"You have accused me," he said, wheezing slightly, "of running from problems. That I just can't handle it when things aren't going perfectly; so I run away from it."
"Yes, you do," she said unapologetically.
"Did," the man said, struggling to his feet, "Let's get started."
The fairy sighed and slowly flapped its butterfly wings. A tiny amount of light radiated out from them and she floated up off of her stone seat. The man gingerly felt his way across the muddy ground to the base of the spiral ramp.
"You're with me, right?" he asked.
The fairy floated near his head, the chain dangling down from her foot.
"Yes," she said after a few moments.
The two began to walk slowly up the ramp. After a while they began to talk. The conversation was idle at first, but eventually turned to the future, and what they planned to do together once they were out of the cavern.
The fairy's light became brighter as her spirits lifted. They began to tell jokes, all the while climbing higher. Laughter echoed throughout the recesses of the cave, and the fairy began to fly around more swiftly in a sort of aerial dance. Despite her motions making the chain flip this way and that, it did not disrupt the man's ability to climb at all.
The man looked above them. The light from outside was brighter than he had ever seen before. The fairy flitted close to his face and stuck her tongue out at him while making a silly noise. They both laughed.
Presently the conversation dropped and the fairy became quiet. The man's heart pounded; he had come to recognize the early signs. Sure enough, a question came.
"Are you really as nice as you seem?" the fairy asked.
"I'm doing my best," the man said hurriedly, wishing he could change the topic.
"You really hurt me, you know," she said, the light from her wings dimming considerably.
The man kept climbing. There was a time he would have hesitated, but he had been trained by circumstance to keep moving in these situations.
"Yes, I know," he said, "Please forgive me and let's keep going."
"And your 'friends,'" she continued, "I hate them. How could you have listened to them?"
The speed at which the fairy flew slowed to a crawl, then stopped altogether as she landed on the ramp and walked a few steps on foot. The man was forced to slow his pace to prevent himself from dragging her.
"It was my fault," he said, "They were just trying to help. Please, forgive me."
At this point it was too late, the transformation had taken place. The fairy was now a small, grey statuette, toppling over and beginning to slide down the ramp. The slack in the chain was soon used up and the man found himself being dragged off the side of the ramp along with her.
He held on tightly to the chain.
This particular fall caused him to lose consciousness, but he did not realize it. He woke up and immediately clenched his fist. This caused him a small amount of discomfort, for he found he had already been gripping the chain as tightly as he could manage, and his hand was cramping. He looked around for the fairy, and found her sitting in a similar spot as the previous time.
The man stretched out his limbs spread-eagle and tried to rest for a moment. He ached everywhere, and mud was getting into uncomfortable parts of his anatomy.
"Why did you do this to me?" she asked after several minutes.
The man winced both physically and mentally as a spasm went through his back when he shifted onto his side. He looked at her for a long time. She didn't meet his gaze.
"Why do you refuse to accept my apologies?" he asked.
There was a long silence before she responded.
"I don't know if you are sincere," she said.
"In other words," the man said, "You don't trust me."
"How can I?" she said, turning to look at him, "You hurt me. I'm scared of you."
The man grimaced and rolled onto his back again. Another twinge of pain went through his spine and he let out a small grunt to express it.
"You realize," he said after a time, "that this is a cycle?"
"I can't help it," she said, "You hurt me. This is your fault."
Anger pawed at the locked gate in his chest, but the man refused to unleash it. He had done far too much shouting already.
"Before we can even begin to make it," the man said, quietly, "You must forgive me. We will continue to have these falls until you do."
"This is your fault," she repeated, "What am I supposed to do? You're the reason we're here!"
The man ignored all pain and abruptly sat up. Losing restraint, he raised his voice.
"This is not MY prison!"
The fairy turned around on her little stone seat to face away from him.
"We have been in my prison," he continued, failing to lower his voice as much as he would have liked, "We are not there anymore. This one is yours. You are trapped, and you hold the key to getting out."
The fairy did not respond.
"You say you do not trust me," the man continued, "You have pointed out my tendency to run from problems in the past, but here I am refusing to run now. Do you not see what I am doing? Why do you not trust me?"
"Because," she said without turning, "You hurt me. What kind of person would do what you did?"
"There it is again," the man said simply. He should not have been so short, but he was losing his patience.
"What? What?!" she demanded, turning to glare at him.
"How I can I build trust with you if you do not forgive me? I have repented and grieved over what I did to you! I have begged your forgiveness, and I have followed you down here into the prison of your own resentment to try to help you escape! I am doing all that I can, and all that I should!" the man held up his arm and displayed the slack loop of chain around his wrist, "This is not a shackle to me. I am not trapped! You are!"
"So drop the chain and just leave!" she said, raising her own voice.
"THAT IS NOT HOW THIS WORKS," the man bellowed at the top of his voice, pounding the muddy ground with his fist, "THAT IS NOT HOW THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN. I WILL NOT ALLOW YOU TO SELF FULFILL WHAT YOU HAVE PROPHESIED ABOUT ME. I WILL NOT ALLOW YOU TO TURN THIS INTO A CATCH TWENTY-TWO."
These words echoed throughout the cavern for several moments, and were followed by a long period of silence. The fairy remained motionless and the man regretted his volume.
"I am sorry," the man said, "I am sorry I shouted. This is not easy for me."
"So leave," she said again.
"I am not giving up," he said, quietly, "I am not running from this problem."
There was another long period of silence before the fairy spoke again.
"What is a catch twenty-two?"
"Oh..." the man said, "Uh, it's... it's a situation where solving one problem creates a second problem, which leads back to the original problem. It's named after a novel."
"I see," she said.
"The problem," the man continued, "is you don't trust me, and we need you to trust me for us to get out of here. But you can't trust me unless you forgive me, and you're stuck on being unable to forgive me because he don't trust me. It has to start with you. I'm doing everything I can; I am powerless beyond what I am already doing."
There was another moment of silence before the fairy spoke again.
"That doesn't sound like a catch twenty-two."
The man thought about it carefully and realized she was right. It wasn't the solving of one problem leading to another problem, it was merely problems that needed to be solved in the right order.
"Well, uh..." he began, flustered, "That... that's not the point!"
The fairy laughed at his embarrassment, which infected the man as well. Their two bodies shook in quiet mirth and the fairy's light began to glow a bit.
This moment of happy distraction was brief, however. They soon sobered and lapsed into silence again.
"Look," the man began again, "I'm not giving up. I'm not going to leave, but you're stuck. I'm trying to help you get unstuck, but you have to forgive me before we can make any progress. We need to forgive people who hurt us. If we don't do that..."
Here the man paused and coughed.
"If we don't do that, we end up... well," he gestured at the dark cavern around them, "we end up here."
The fairy was quiet for several minutes. The man was so exhausted he nearly fell asleep, but was roused when the fairy flapped over to him and landed on his chest to stare in his face.
"Yes?" the man said after several moments had passed.
"Are you going to hurt me again?" the fairy demanded.
The man massaged his left temple with his thumb.
"It would be idiotic of me to do so after going through all this trouble," he said.
"It was idiotic the first time," she retorted, pacing up and down his abdomen.
The man closed his eyes and grimaced.
"Yes, yes it was. I don't plan on making that mistake again."
"You'd better not," she said, fluttering into the air, "Let's go."
This was the first time the fairy had ever been the one to initiate the climb, and this notion gave the man new energy. He stood quickly and swatted as much mud off his pants as he could before stumbling over to the bottom of the spiral ramp.
"You're with me, right?" she asked.
"Yes," the man said after a few moments.
"I can't promise we won't fall again," the fairy said.
"I know," the man said, taking the first step.