The View from the Top of the Stair

When her father died, her second thought was that now, she could build her stairs.

E. Lily Yu received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2012. Her stories have...

 

Upon hearing of the death of my father at sixty-seven to a slippery lentil of a clot in his brain, my first thought was that my mother would have laughed, and my second thought, I am sorry to say, was that at long last I could gratify my passion for stairs.

They were my first love and my truest. I adore a snappily spiraled stringer, volutes smooth as abalone, the twist of sunlight along a copper banister. On my minimalist salary as assistant to the art director of a well-known fashion magazine, the one indulgence I could afford was a slowly growing stack of architects’ portfolios and builders’ catalogues, which I special-ordered over the phone. These firms were the sort that issued business cards blank but for the tidy black serifs of their names, bearing nothing so vulgar as a number or address. I was never disappointed.

Each photo spread was a masterpiece. Here were no poured concrete stoops or factory-sawed treads, no pine or softwood, none of your suburban rickrack tacked with furry polyester runners. The stairs splashed over double pages were poems of bird’s-eye maple and marble and chrome, tastefully composed, carefully lit, thick with varnish and money. I carried the catalogues in my bag and flicked through them at work. I ran my fingers over the coated pages before laying them on the bedside table. I tromped up and down the ugly cement steps, pricked all over with bubbles, that led through a square stairwell to my apartment, while I dreamed of owning a melted-chocolate Esteves, a twining Momo, a floating and impractical Lang and Baumann.

It is strange how electrifying the sudden arrival of a small fortune can be. My father, born into famine in another country, had saved the laces from unsalvageable shoes and eaten every fleck of food in his bowl. He left me a comfortable savings account and an insurance policy to be paid out over two decades. I went over his accounts three times to be certain. But there it was, a cold sum fanged with two commas. I could quit my job. I could build my stairs.

This is not to say that I did not grieve for my father. At the time he died, I had not seen him in two years. He had ensconced himself in retirement in a cabin in the Alaskan wilds, enjoying the elastic days and nights. Once every few months he would call me to describe the midnight explosions of color in the sky and the mosquitoes as big as cats.

I said, every call, “Have you seen a doctor?”

He said, every call, “You’re turning into your mother.”

My mother had been after him to see a doctor for as long as I can remember. She made appointments, and he canceled them. She warned him of lupus, hepatitis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer. He laughed and shook his head at her. She had died too early, her hands roughened from cooking and keeping house for the three of us, the humor long since rubbed out of her laugh, which was like pebbles shaken in a cup. Apart from our ritual exchange, by mutual agreement, my father and I did not speak of her.

A week after my father’s funeral, after the reek of lilies had left my nostrils, I called the art director and informed her that I would not be returning to work.

“A natural reaction, given the circumstances,” the director said. She had smoked incessantly while cigarettes had been in vogue, and her voice always managed to convey impressions of hellfire and opulence. “Wouldn’t you like another few weeks to think it over? Take your time. Take all the leave you want. It’ll be unpaid, but—”

No, I said, giddy with freedom. Thank you, but no, I am in fact moving, here is my forwarding address.

By then I had selected, after a brief but methodical search, an old barn that had stood vacant for fifteen years after the death of its owner. It was out in the countryside and excitingly distant from neighbors, surrounded by ten acres of fallow farmland. I exchanged my pinching black pumps for boots and drove out in a spotless white rental for a look.

The gravel path to the barn was thickly overgrown, and the owner’s son and I swam through waist-deep grass. What I saw was unprepossessing. The ancient red and white of the barn’s sidings was peeling to gray. Over the door hung the brown circle of a hex, rusted and discolored beyond recognition.

The owner’s son unhitched a padlock and chain and shouldered the door open, then showed me into the dim interior, dusty with down and mold. Despite the owl pellets and droppings whitening the floor, and the gloomy shape luffing its wings upon a crossbeam, several generations of mice roistered beneath the floorboards. Turning to me, the owner’s son gestured helplessly at the dilapidation, as if to say, what could we do?

From the moment I walked in, I knew I wanted the barn. I knew what I would do. It was as if my vague, unsatisfied desires, cloudy in the colloid of privation, had at the first contact with money precipitated into a crystal lattice I could inspect from all sides, acquainting myself with the angles and edges of my hunger.

I packed half my belongings, disposed of the other half, and moved into the barn before it was fit for habitation. For nights on end the moonlight spilled through holes in the roof. I could look up and see Cassiopeia and Cygnus picked out in melee diamonds, except when the shadow of the owl briefly blotted them out.

It was summer, and warm. I suffered only small galaxies of insect bites and a few hours of damp and steaming clothes when a thunderstorm rumbled through. None of that mattered.

As soon as the telephone was connected, I punched in several phone numbers so familiar that I did not need to peel apart the sodden pages of my address book, and explained what I wanted.

“We can send you a proposal and preliminary contract,” the woman on the other end said, her voice curving with doubt. She recognized my name if not my voice: the importunate caller who begged for catalogues year after year, her checks hardly worth the postage. She named a figure that iced my blood before I remembered that I was wealthy. “Twenty percent of the estimate is due as a deposit before any design work is begun.”

My cheeks warmed and tingled. “That will not be a problem,” I said. “I am writing the check right now. Listen. I am putting it in an envelope. I am licking the flap. What address shall I write?”

So it went at every firm. I waited a week, allowing four days for the postal system and three days for the banks. Meanwhile the local contractors I had hired, morose types in spattered overalls, continued to patch up the barn. They scooped out rotten wood and ripped off moldering shingles, muttering at my supervision. At every opportunity, they shucked their work gloves and lounged in the barn’s shade until I chivvied them back to their crowbars. Once I heard them remark on the audacity of a single woman, particularly one with my face and eyes, in occupying the abandoned Sutton farm in the middle of a vast whiteness, and their faces grew ugly with something I recognized from subways and buses and shops, on corners and in offices, and I went and hid in the woods until they had left for the day.

When I phoned the firms again, the men and women who spoke to me were variously deferential, obliging, anxious, and subdued. I understood well, having spent twelve years in their place.

“When can you begin?” I said.

“The partners will have to visit the site—unless you have blueprints—”

“Will tomorrow do?”

A silence of sucked breath, then effusive apologies. I was not worried. I could wait. Soon the barn was restored to a state that, though far from luxurious, no ordinary person would have been ashamed to inhabit. I was scrubbed and steamed, and my wardrobe was replenished, by the time the architects arrived.

Crisply sleeved, hair slicked, their noses shining from the summer heat, they came and went with pursed lips and gridded notebooks. I trailed them, clutching brochures gone wavy and crackling with rain.

“What do you think?” I said and said again. Some of them brushed me aside. Some were lost in contemplation and never heard the question. One or two sat down and sketched for me, as if for a child, the strange and lovely shapes in their minds.

“It has reached our attention,” the starchiest of the receptionists said over the phone one day, “that you have solicited competing bids from at least two other firms. I thought I would take the opportunity to remind you that the deposit is not refundable.”

“They’re not competing,” I said.

“I beg your—”

“I want all of them.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Reed will build his design, and Ling and Martin will build theirs, and Jewett will build hers. I will pay you all in full. Please tell Mr. Reed that I am enchanted by his suggestion of automatic hourglass balusters. In addition, I would like to propose a pair of Galileo thermometers for the newel posts.”

“But how many staircases can one person use?”

“All of them, Ms. Singh.”

The egg-blue phone remained my solitary connection to the city. I used it rarely, but when I did I usually spoke to Sophia Z., who taught elementary school, and about whom there drifted an ineluctable odor of crayons. Just as I loved stairs, she adored doors, in her quiet way, never seeking them out on her own, but always appreciative of the ones she encountered in the course of her day. Many doors had been shut in her face over the years, which gives one time to admire the finer details of stile and rail.

“It’s not finished, but you should come see it,” I told her. “I’ve never been prouder.”

“Proud? You?” she said. “That’s a first.”

“Doesn’t run in my family.”

“In that case, I’ll have to. But the kids, the timing—I can’t get them out of my hair—”

“I’ll pay for a babysitter.”

“That’s too much.”

“Please let me. Anthony’s busy, I take it?”

Here the connection weakened, or else Sophia mumbled, but in the end we fixed the date of a visit.

She drove two hours from the city to my barn, which was still crumbly with sawdust and bustling with workmen. She had brought a bag of zongzi as a housewarming gift, and I plopped two in a pot and set it on the hot plate to boil.

“They’ve been all right,” she said, when I asked about her children. She had named them Toronto, Manila, and San Diego, primarily as a geography lesson, but also in hopes of imparting a sense of spatial freedom that she herself lacked. Diego had caught every cold that cropped up at school; Nila was emptying tissue boxes over boys; and Toronto was acing her exams and bored out of her skull.

We ate on the upper landing of the first staircase I had commissioned, a graceful iron spiral not quite reaching the roof. The bars were worked with ivy and honeysuckle. The treads contained varying amounts of iron and were tuned to play, when struck in ascending order, the first notes of Handel’s Water Music. We deposited the strings and banana leaves in a sticky pile beside us.

Sophia leaned over the edge and looked down. “What are you planning here?”

“A proper home,” I said. “A space I can stretch out in.”

“What will it look like?” She indicated the small platform we occupied, supported by the staircase on one side, on the other by a frame suspended from the roof. “Are you building a second floor?”

“Not really. Over there? That corner was part of the hayloft. The rest collapsed. It’ll be cleaned and reinforced. I’ll put a mattress there, and a flight of stairs up to it. That’s all I need.”

“How many stairs, in total?”

“As many as I can afford.”

She sighed with the faintest tinge of envy. “I could never.”

“Even something less extravagant? What about replacing your front door?”

“Anthony would never let me. It’s solid core, triple locked and deadbolted. Hideous but safe. I’d want an arch—we’d have to redo the wall. And we don’t have the money for that. Not with the kids.”

“When they’re done with school?”

“Maybe,” Sophia said. Her eyes said: no.

Three weeks after her visit, I found myself the proud possessor of twelve sets of stairs. Each of the long walls boasted three straight flights in parallel, spaced far enough apart that the underside of one did not loom over the next. The long wall on the north side of the barn had, from left to right, one floating stair constructed of blunt silver blades; one extended undulation cut from a single slab of teak; and one staircase of white resin and lacquer molded into the shapes of wings and impressed with feathers. Across the barn, the southern wall had the Reed hourglass stair; a ribbon of steel painted yellow and blue that looped upon itself, alternating colors; and, last in line, a series of four bronze trees whose limbs bent into treads.

The short walls were only fitted with one staircase each, but these were sprawling and magnificent. On the east wall I installed an imperial staircase of Carrara marble with a handsome brass rail, topped with two brass sphinxes and ending in brass lion’s paws. The western stair was pieced together from jigsawed rosewood, mahogany, ebony, and oak, and the pattern of woods pulled the gaze upward.

On the open floor, my musical iron spiral formed one point of a diamond, the other three vertices of which were also clockwise spirals. One, a child’s stair, really, which I could not climb myself, was fashioned from polished bone and tapered like a narwhal horn. One was a square coil of aluminum pleated into steps. One had an illuminated newel controlled by a switch, and at night its warm yellow light fanned the shadows of the other stairs into lace.

This last spiral struck the ceiling and emerged onto the roof through a trapdoor. Several of the straight flights ended at high square windows. The hourglass stair abutted my sleeping platform, which I lined with matching glass balusters. The rest reached into emptiness and grasped nothing at all.

Looking at what I had made, I felt an unfamiliar contentment stealing over my heart. It was not finished, no; perhaps like certain emanations from the heart’s most secret quarters, it never would be. There ought to be stairs on the exterior of the barn, for a start. Then I could excavate a cellar, or several, and perhaps add an attic, a tower, a retractable ladder.

But the trees edging the fields flamed crimson overnight, and geese dragged their brown chevrons across the sky. No work of the kind I imagined could be done in winter. I buried myself in quilts, with a pen and a wad of paper, and dreamed. As the snow fell outside, I covered pages back and front with zigzags, helices, crosshatches, scrolls, letting them drift to the floor.

Though I seldom visited town and barely knew my neighbors, when I began adding stairs along the outside of the barn in spring, people took note. A pest of a local reporter rang me three times and published lengthy speculations and several photos when I would not speak to him. Cars crunched down the dirt road leading to the barn, spitting out gawkers in the daytime and shining their headlights through my windows at night.

I resented the attention. I blocked up the original doorway and chopped and fitted a new entrance above the white winged stairs, accessible from without only by a transparent flight of glass. This discouraged a fair number of my visitors, but not all. On Friday nights, after pool or a movie, pock-faced high school students dared each other to climb the invisible steps. When I heard the whispering and giggling and the squeak of sneakers on glass, I pointed a flashlight out the window and shouted until they jumped down and ran.

In desperation I erected a fence, a gate, and signs that threatened bulldogs and shotguns, although I had neither, regretting the expense. The number of visitors presently declined. Some nights, a twig snapping outside was nothing more than a rummaging skunk.

Still, none of these things deterred the nut-brown man who came down the road in September. I watched his approach from an upper window. He wore jeans and a denim jacket. His hands were empty. He did not stop and stare when he saw the barn, but climbed the glass stair without hesitation and knocked.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” he said, his voice so soft I could barely understand him, “but I heard you collected stairs. I want to offer you one.”

“Who are you?” I said.

“I make stairs,” he said. “For those who appreciate them.”

There was mud on his work boots, a silver buckle on his belt, and a pepper of white in his black ponytail. His face was clean but roughened and deepened by labor. I could tell nothing else about him. He had braved the signs, the chained and padlocked gate, the stairs that even now appeared to vanish beneath him, leaving him standing on air.

“I’ll be honest with you,” I said. “I’ve run out of money, beyond what I need to eat. I thought I could afford one more, one last stair to crown and complete my home, but I had to buy a fence instead. If you can build the kind of staircase I want, I can’t pay you.”

“All I want in way of payment is for you to climb the staircase that I build.”

I stared at him. He studied the winder and switchback that led to the roof.

“Why would you build stairs for me if I can’t pay you?”

“You can,” he said patiently. “By climbing them.”

“What would they look like, your stairs?”

“Cast iron, three foot radius, acanthus balusters, a stamp of birds on each tread.”

“If I may ask, what is so wonderful about them? I can order what you describe from anyone.”

“They are the highest stairs in the world,” he said. “Higher than castles, taller than skyscrapers. They stretch up to the stars.”

I paused. Who was I, with my house of seventeen stairs, to decide another person was delusional? He did not look the part. There was a soberness and solidity about him that put me in mind of granite.

“The stars?” I said.

“Or higher, maybe.”

Odd as it sounded, I liked the idea. Already in my mind I owned a flight of stairs that like Jacob’s Ladder raced into the celestial unknown. I did not care that what he described was impossible. I did not care if he built me a five-story factory-kit staircase that ended nowhere at all. I did not care if he never built anything. His beautiful dream had filled my head, and nothing could remove it.

“Build your stairs,” I said. “I’ll climb them.”

“I’d like to start from the roof.”

“All right.”

“I’ll need a support column underneath, for the weight.”

“Send me the specifications and I’ll have that done.”

He began two weeks later, arriving at dawn and departing at dusk. His steps echoed on the roof. I could hear him whistling a tune I couldn’t quite place, neither cheerful nor melancholy. When I left the house I saw him measuring, scribbling, chewing the pencil he wore behind his ear. I did not speak to him. He did not knock again.

Then he vanished. I was disappointed but also relieved. I had wanted to believe in his impossible idea, but I had also been afraid of the consequences. What would the former plague of teenagers be, beside the crowd drawn by an iron needle threading the sky?

The steel support, featureless and cruelly asymmetrical among my spirals, filled me with hope and regret when I looked at it.

He returned at the end of October in a red pickup truck with a black tarp lashed down over the mound in its bed. I waved to him, he nodded, and that was all.

Throughout the day, the clang and shriek of metal upon metal echoed through the barn. I left water and covered plates of pasta and chicken on the stairs to the roof, and he returned the empty plates to my glass doorstep. He did not pack up and leave at dark, but worked more quietly, with a headlamp. I fell asleep listening to his footsteps and the hissing of sand in the hourglasses around me.

He worked steadfastly through six days and nights. The thump of his work boots overhead made the tuned spiral staircase hum in sympathy. If he rested, I did not know it. Sometimes I went outside to see the spindle rising over the barn. I did not wish to interfere, so I did not climb to the roof, though I longed to see my new staircase taking form. He only left my barn to replenish his mountain of parts, a task that took upwards of an hour. I might have gone up then, I might have looked and touched, but I thought that somehow he would know, and I could not bear him knowing.

I waited. This was harder than waiting for the repairs to the roof, harder than waiting for the architects’ plans, far harder than waiting for the assembly of my other seventeen staircases. I lived in constant anticipation.

At last, one evening, there came a knock at the door. His hands were blackened with dirt and oil, his face streaked with the same. His eyes were still and quiet.

“Is it done?” I said.

“It’s finished.”

“May I see?”

“Please.”

The sun was setting through the distant trees. The staircase ran higher than my eyes could follow, so high I grew dizzy looking at it. It might have ended after sixteen stories, or twenty, or thirty, and I would not have known. The black iron glowed copper and bronze in the slanting alchemical sunlight, though night crept up its length.

“When should I start climbing?” I asked.

“When you are ready.”

“How long will that take?”

“As I said, when you are ready. Bring food and water, and a warm coat. Maybe blankets. It’s getting cold.”

“Blankets?”

“There are landings for you to sleep on. You can’t see them from here.”

I glanced up again, but it was growing dark, and any deviations from the regular spiral were invisible to me.

“Will I see you again?” I said, although I thought I already knew the answer.

He smiled.

The half moon brightened in the sky, spangling the stairs. His footsteps receded down the steps to the fallow earth. The truck stuttered and started. I turned my eyes from the fine filigreed structure in time to see the builder of stairs drive down the dirt road leading to elsewheres, the headlights of his truck flickering through the trees.

The reader of fairy tales will understand when I say that I did not hesitate or question the strange requirement, as one would ordinarily do, for at times there is a certain silver inevitability about our choices that no amount of reasoning can explain. It is an impulse to truth or rightness, felt in the marrow: feed the animals before eating, offer water to the crone.

I packed what food I already had: water, bread, tabbed cans of soup, apples, carrots, peanut butter, cheese. To these I added an armful of blankets and enough sweaters to swell me to the roundness of a drum.

I slept fitfully that night and set off at dawn. My stairs to the sky were conspicuous, and others would soon come to investigate. I did not want to explain myself to the dull and curious. I did not want to delay.

The air was cold and crisp, but I sweated under the layers of wool. After several hours I tugged off my hat and tossed it over the side, watching with pleasure as it tumbled, shrank, and disappeared. Its weight had been slight, but my heart lightened.

I climbed high above the lemniscates of birds, until the scattered houses below me appeared to be tokens from a game. There was no sound but the rushing wind and occasionally the rumble of a distant airplane. Otherwise, I was profoundly alone.

Night came without an end to the stairs, but I reached a curved landing I had not seen from my barn, just wide enough to curl up on. At that rarified altitude, the wind was bitterer than I expected. The iron was bitingly cold. I regretted the excess of spirits that led me to throw away my hat and abandon two blankets on the steps far below. I ate a can of soup and two slices of bread with chattering teeth, thinking that it would be better to eat during the day.

I passed the next seven days in this fashion. The air grew paler, the light thinner. I left my empty cans on the steps, weighed down with apple cores, and tied plastic wrappers around the balusters.

On the seventh day I finished the food I was carrying: the last apple, the last bite of cheese, the last sip of water. At that moment I looked down upon the contracting world and contemplated what I undertook to do. Sophia would miss me, but she would understand. Other than her, there was no one and nothing tying me to the earth.

In some ways this is what I have always wanted.

Soon, I think, I will pass the moon. Each time it swings by, it looks larger, closer, its scarred smile more delicate and more intimate. I wonder if I could have asked the builder of stairs to fix the end of my staircase in the moon. It looks like a friendly place. Too late, now.

I am a little thinner and lighter each day. Sometimes I feel so light that letting go of the balustrade would send me floating upwards, faster and faster, until everything is blue and infinite. But when I drop my hands to my sides, I do not rise. Not yet. So I climb, hour after hour, day after day, losing the clear thread of time in the unbroken repetition of tread and tread. They are stamped with robins, as he promised. The sun comes and goes. The moon waves. I climb.

I am climbing still.

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