This is revised and shortened version of a story I originally wrote almost three years ago while I was working at a screen-printing company. I left that job to wander aimlessly through Europe, which, as it happened, didn’t go so well. But it was the door at the top of the stairwell and I had the courage to walk through it. And since then I’ve mostly been in the forest, trying to stay out of the tower, but listening to a Radical Face song today I realized how much of this I’ve completely forgotten.
There is the boy and there is the headland,
There is the Leithe and there is the tower,
And there is the song though it all,
Calling me to the kraken and the cavern
And the stairwell;
Florescent in the peerless night–
There once was a stairwell in which sat two denizeyns upon the grey and worn carpet. Above them was a window into a world so darkened that no human eyes could pierce its deeps and opposing it were two passages, one closed off by a plain and wooden door onto which a plaque was affixed into which a name was inscribed that neither could read, the other a stairwell that led to a glass door. They sat against the wall beneath the window, the man and the woman, peering blankly into the plaster ceiling.
Are you going to go in?
The man turned toward her staring face and she reiterated.
Is this even the right door?
The question was one they had asked many times – there was not and had never been an answer.
You know we don’t…we can’t know. We can never know. Just go in and see.
He turned, looking away from her imploration.
Why did we think…
I do not know.
The bleakness of her unanswer lay upon him a great weight, bending head into hands. Her gaze shifted to the silent door and then descended, pausing only for a fractured moment on the foreign inscription that had so reduced them.
How long do you think we’ve been here?
I do not know.
We can’t just…
So, do something.
Sitting close and intertwined they had spoken.
Who do you think we are?
Do you want names?
I suppose so.
How about Ronald and Amelia?
They are names...
I can’t see you as a Ronald.
Neither can I. You could be an Amelia though.
Maybe. But forget names, who are we?
Does not ‘who’ imply a name?
Perhaps, but who we are – it must be more than a single word.
Then ask for more than a name, what are we?
Her reply came slowly, dredged up from a mind unpierced.
Two people sitting in a stairwell waiting for something to tell us what we might find behind that door.
He was silent, then, the laughing edge of his voice stilled,
That is what we are now, but what were we before? Two people walking up those stairs? What were we before we saw the light in the window, before we thought there might be something here?
Before that I don’t remember, we might not have existed before that…we might have existed, but without memory it is as if we did not.
In dusky luminescence they had walked, the man and the woman, striding through the pitted and crumbling streets and around them a deadened city: first two wanderers of a long-slumbering race. Although the cloud ceiling hid any sun that might have sunk, the road darkened and they had made only for the yellow-lit glass glowing amid the upper windows.
Through the door and into the stairwell they had come. Into that waiting place of christening and funeral and all middle ceremonies and seated thus, against wall and window, had their becoming begun.
And as they in the stairwell embarked upon their genesis, the night thickened into a viscous tar-pit blackness, utterly sundering hall and stair and door and whatever lay beyond from the greater earth. Narrow became their existence; its channel-worn depth carrying them into the deadly oblivion of night. Through them began to blow the winds of the battles of all sentient ages and in them raged the tempests that have consumed and will consume all men.
Leaning against the walls, her the narrow span between door and stair and him across, staring into the window, hands cupping eyes, they stood. Her arms folded, face an aloof air.
Can you see anything?
It can’t have been this dark when we came in.
Maybe it is not a window.
He half turned, his shoulder on the glass, to answer her leering suggestion.
The door down the stairs is the same.
It is odd, can’t remember the state of the light before, there must have been some.
We would remember if it had been dark–
He turned back,
–There’s a light out there.
She joined him searching that smoky landless void.
A speck, see it? Almost like a star.
He looked at her and spoke in semi-disgust,
In the middle of all the blackness.
She turned away,
I don’t see it.
They stood in silence. Him watching the pin-light slowly expand, her beginning to weep softly.
After a time he too turned and reached his arm around her, pulling her gently into a sort of half-embrace.
When it’s light again we can leave and forget this, forget we knew this stairwell and this door existed, it will be fine.
Just give up and leave? Coming here then for nothing?
We can’t just go in, uninvited and unannounced, we don’t even know who this is.
Whatever then. Ok.
Now… now we just wait.
Why are we?
She raised her head from the tear-stains on his shoulder,
We said who, and what – why are we?
That is an incomplete question, why are we what? Here? Who we are?
Why are we at all?
Through each of their minds passed their sole knowledge: they had come seeking the light in the window and without that pursuit they could not answer. She turned from him and leaned against the side of the stairwell,
Why are we? Why do we exist? Who is this we? Why do you exist?
He remained unmoved on the edge of the landing, feet on the stairs, and answered as if to the sky,
I am here because you are. When we walked through the city I doubt we even left footprints and this stairwell will not remember us. You are all that I affect.
She stared at her feet, her face damp and shining, refusing to meet his gaze, but he continued,
Why am I? Because without me your every step is toward your tomb.
She finally looked up,
That sounds ok.
In a sort of spastic desperation they caressed; tear-streaked faces meeting in desperate union – the man and the woman, I and we, them, forcing all their horrible unknowing into that meager and brief expression of oneness.
If we leave this place who will we be?
Their pain had all but gone to salt and ambivalence. They stood their backs to the dimly growing dawn, recalling her words; flirtation now an icy and terrible pronouncement. He answered,
No one. We will be no one.
And you still think we shouldn’t go in?
In there I don’t know what we will be, out there we will only be no one.
Her voice was thick with incredulity,
You don’t know what we will be? What might we be - dead?
Its possible. If we go in there we have to be ready to die. Or become anything else.
And you would rather be nothing?
I think I disagree, being nothing – I can’t even think of it, how could something be worse?
There are a thousand ways something could be worse, and maybe more ways something could be better, but we cannot know that. I cannot know that. And what I cannot know I cannot choose.
They sat as if a great portcullis had come down between them. Alone in their company. Unspeaking. Separate in all but physicality. From the womb of the earth had they come and in its stark birth canal did they then wait and though of this they were ignorant somehow he sensed his folly and she her wisdom. Delay they might but there was no retreat. The currents of gods and men flowed in but one un-fluctuating direction and though they could not know what they had proposed to enter, it was their singular path to proceed through that plain and wooden door.
I think I’m going to.
That door – whatever the name upon it – I’m going to enter.
And the unknowing, the risk?
Her question, his own words, nearly a mocking quotation.
All life is risk, of death and much else. And death the risk of life; they are not opposites – life and death. Death implies life and life implies death, without each other each is meaningless… And beyond that door lies not one but both of them. However, here lies neither. Here we are waiting - but only for ourselves, the becoming lies beyond, here is only stagnation.
And in one motion he stood and stepped forward and grasped the handle which clicked as though locked. And through his mind ran all their battles in the night and the utter vanity therein but then the door was opened from within and through it poured men of all times and nations. Dark Nubians and bearded northsmen and bone-eared hunters and victorians and businessmen and beggars and beaded women with infants strung about them and ragged farmers and emaciated children. He stood aside and they passed a murmuring, equestrian jumble down the stairwell and out the glass door and into the still, crystalline light; children laughing as though the world lay before them.
From within the doorway came a soft glow and they entered, the man and the woman, into life and death and all its secrets.
Special thanks to Cormac McCarthy, Tom Stoppard, Ben Cooper, and not wearing thermals with shorts.