The Staircase

It stuck out at the edge of the park.

Of what once was a park, perhaps. Now disheveled like an old beauty in her tattered dressing gown. Gravel disorderly mixed with dirt, gnawed hedges.

Photo credit: Martin Burns via Flickr
Photo credit: Martin Burns via Flickr

The tall pines, the only things around still claiming some pride, spread their prickly needles all over, adding to the dusty feeling, to the lack of tidiness.

The thing, although endowed with a mysterious charm (just a tad of it) shared the general desolation.

It looked as a gray stub of concrete, a cut-off tower… like a tooth carelessly pulled from its root, edges sharp and irregular. But it was a spiral, in fact: you could see it while getting closer. You would notice the wall that started in the middle, then rose, turning around itself like a roll of licorice. The exterior hid the interior (of course), concealing the snail-like shape.

Long ago, it must have been a staircase. Only one side remained and no steps at all.

That one side stood like the backbone of a large animal. Vertebrae smoothed out, still huge: you would expect for the dinosaur, the dragon, the mammoth to get up, shaking away ashes of time.

Suddenly or slowly, that would be equally terrifying.

Not improbable, according to the creepiness of the surroundings. Of the decaying villa, severed from the town by overgrown fences, that entirely erased the street sounds, besides blocking the view…

Remote, quiet, the wrecked mansion hung in mid air with its ghost gardens… Suspended. Nowhere.


     There the theater had its quarters. The City, having bought or expropriated the estate from some careless scion, rented it out for next to nothing, thus avoiding the burdens of maintenance and repairs. The renters in this particular case didn’t mind.

No: the company manager thought the place convenient because of privacy and spaciousness… plus, the strangeness of the landscape provided a number of stimuli and suggestions.

The troop specialized in stilts, acrobatics and physical stunts… Well, the villa was an inexhaustible playground, with its gates, barriers, raised platforms, excavations and tunnels… all incongruous, truncated, residual of bygone architectures. Now a perfect gymnasium, only waiting for fairies, gnomes, fools and tumblers to come alive. Causing time to resume its frozen flow, death to slow down its relentless pace. For a while.

The new trainees, not yet hired, were instructed through a quantity of exercises, preparing for prospective rehearsals and plays.

The stub was one of the first destinations: introduced during one of the earliest sessions. Some found it amusing, even exhilarating. Some dreaded it: only after they tried, since no one knew beforehand.

No one knew what he or she would be asked, that was in fact very simple.

One of us demonstrated it as if it was nothing. One of us: the instructors. I did it sometimes (we took turns). Many, many other times I watched. I was supposed to take notes and to evaluate. That I did, being conscientious by nature.


     Still, my attention was systematically attracted by something else that I would miss for no reason… That split second, that fraction, that eight or sixteenth of a heartbeat when the faces changed…

God, how fast they did it! It was hard to witness that hairline divide, but I craved it. Since it was, believe me, as spectacular as unexpected. Faces changed: all of them, the one of whoever was doing the drill. For the first time essentially. Then one got used, one knew: that is how the trainers could trick the apprentices and hide it.

Hide that moment I mean, when their face would drop. Which is the closest description of what happened, although the phenomena escaped perfect pinpointing… We of course didn’t pick ears, cheeks or noses from the ground… but the faces, in that ineffable instant, got longer for sure: inches, I’d say. I believe all muscles let go, joints releasing in concert.

That transformed expressions in the most striking way, erasing in a single wipe all personality clues. In a blink people lost all character inscribed in their features, and whatever luggage they brought, what made them into themselves.

Up there they washed out, transfixed, and they suddenly were nobody. No one: a generic shape. Astonished, dumb. Emptied, void, essential. Their traits a few lines, mountains, creases… non-descript, universal… what a kindergartener could draw.

Is it how we look during orgasm? When we see death?

When do we look that way? I couldn’t tell, although I certainly asked myself about it, each time I was exposed to the show. My favorite.


     People recollected themselves. When they finished, a minute later, they wore their previous heads, the usual.

Of course I can tell when and why the shift happened: by my own experience, since I had my first time like anyone else.

I remember my feelings, although I obviously didn’t see myself. I don’t regret it. I suppose that’s a me I don’t care to know. To picture, at least.

Well, the shift occurs because of the absence of steps. Yes, that is the only cause.

We are asked to run up the wall, that single spike, that bestial backbone. It’s not high, so no one is scared. We just climb, one foot in front of the other as if on a tightrope. A comfortable one, large enough to allow the average sole.

We proceed boldly, as we watched the teacher do.

Then it catches us by surprise. The end, I mean.

There are no steps, so we cannot say “in three steps, in two… one more step and I’ll recover my balance, I’ll pull the brakes”. We can’t: it’s all fluid and it happens too fast. We are propelled, our body inclined to gain forward momentum, easing the ascending effort. We can’t truly gauge distances…

The end abruptly leaks in and it ruptures the unity. It explodes the continuum… therefore the incongruity.

It’s not fear striking, but a kind of immensely highlighted awareness. We’re alerted of emptiness: but such change of state finds us wholly unprepared. As if in a skyscraper lift, our stomach sinks instantaneously into our heels.

People stop randomly, at the most various distances from the actual edge of the fall. They oscillate, they slow down. Someone freezes, some one takes a couple more steps, maybe just one, in slow motion. Someone shakes. They turn back with more or less elegance.

No one, not even those who push closest to the chasm, do it with self-controlled nonchalance, mastery, or savoir faire. Not the first time.

The first time they all encounter a monster of sorts. I haven’t found its name yet. But I’d like to.


     For I know that monster doesn’t only dwell there. On the old spiral staircase, that while I’m writing these pages has probably crumbled away.

Still, that monster who’s able to snap our mask away, revealing our bared soul, must have other hides. I’d so much like to find them.

My reason (I forgot to say) is the ravishing, incomparable beauty of the anonymous stares…

Calm: all claim, all anxiety, all greed gone as if they never were. At peace like the dead is, yet alive and very much so.

And those eyes: not vacuous in their clarity, not at all. On the contrary: those eyes, suddenly huge, sink at vertiginous depths, become wells of infinity. They contain all that was ever seen, whatever we need or want.

But right then, truly, nothing is wanted… Neither by the wall riders, in their stupefaction, nor by the observer, who drinks in eternity looking up at those awkward angels.

Awkward, wingless and suddenly aware of such tragic lack…

Angels, still.

Toti O'Brien

Toti O'Brien

Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Litro NY, The Harpoon Review, Synesthesia, Aji, Adanna among many other journals and anthologies. She has contributed for a decade to various Italian magazines.

Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Litro NY, The Harpoon Review, Synesthesia, Aji, Adanna among many other journals and anthologies. She has contributed for a decade to various Italian magazines.

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