Featured January 23, 2019 Fantasy
From the editor:Spiral staircases appear at random and bestow bursts of insight upon those who climb to the top. But where does that insight truly come from? LaShawn Wanak combines the surreal with the all-too-real in this memorable story. LaShawn lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, and Podcastle, and she reviews books for Lightspeed Magazine.
From the author: When a spiral staircase appears in front of you, don't panic. But know that if you place your feet on that first step, it shows commitment. You can't go back. You can only go up and up and up until you reach the very top.
When a spiral staircase appears in front of you, don't panic. But know that if you place your feet on that first step, it shows commitment. You can't go back. You can only go up and up and up until you reach the very top.
Watch your step. That's the main thing to remember. Some people think they can race to the top, or take the steps two at a time. All it takes is one stumble, one slip, and soon, you're tumbling, arms pinwheeling, shins banging, down, down, down.
You don't want to be rejected by a spiral staircase. It's painful.
Each spiral staircase is different. Wrought iron, peeling plaster, cement, cobweb, bone, wool. It may have wood balusters spun to the thickness of a single hair, or marble treads with the sponginess of cheddar cheese.
One thing they all have in common: you can look down and see the progress you've made in the shape of a snake eating its own tail.
I climbed three spiral staircases in my life.
Don't look so surprised. In this day and age, most of us get the chance to climb them two, maybe three times. Momma says it's just one more thing to do our thinking for us, just like our cell phones and laptops and handheld GPS.
(Though she didn't complain when I got her a GPS for Christmas last year.)
I was fourteen when I climbed my first spiral staircase.
Esau was a white boy. Green eyes. Long blonde hair. A senior five years older than me. His friends wore dreadlocks and tried to get me to bring weed from 'my hood'. I had no clue if drugs were sold in our plain, each-house-the-same subdivision. I was working up the nerve to let him slip his tongue into my mouth the next time we kissed. I never got to find out--Momma caught me sneaking out my bedroom window.
Oh, we yelled, Momma and I. Daddy said nothing, just turned his football game up. Momma dragged me kicking and screaming to where her belt was, and oh, I knew I wouldn't be able to sit down for a month--
She wrenched open her closet door, and instead of belts and clothes and shoes, there was a spiral staircase made of crystal. Icicle banisters. Slabs of quartz for steps.
I broke out of Momma's grip and rushed to it. Nearly slipped on the first step. Its chill was an electric shock reverberating through my legs. I had no jacket; only jeans, a t-shirt and flipflops. All sound fell away except for the occasional ding and plink, the chime of icy atonal dissonance.
Momma called after me: "Isa! Isa!"
My name wafted up from below in cursive smoke before swirling into nothingness. As the chill rose through my legs, I thought about stopping, of going back and getting my blanket. I peered over the railing to see swirling mist pooled where the base of the staircase should have been. I couldn't even see Momma.
I got scared. I was only fourteen years old, thinking I knew the world already. I could've stood there until my body turned to ice, a frozen statue with snowflakes on my shoulders, frost etching my skin. So I turned my head and looked up.
At the top of the staircase swung a chandelier of crystalline shards and prisms, hanging from the middle of a starlit sky. It chimed and tinkled, all xylophone and triangle, decked in rainbows and sparkle, a Christmas crystal tree.
I had to go up. What kid wouldn't? It pulled me out of my frozen fear. I circled up, like a moon moth circling ice flame--
And then I was on the top of the staircase, looking out over the city of Chicago lovingly rendered in crystal.
See also: Enlightenment. Revelation. Insight.
There were a lot of things I saw at the top of the spiral staircase. The John Hancock Center: a juggernaut of quartz. The CNA Plaza: a chunk of jadeite. The Blue Cross/Blue Shield building: unstable blocks of sapphire. The city I saw, day after day, changed into a dazzling unrecognizable landscape of crystal shards.
I saw my future, too.
On 24th and Wabash, there was a frozen me yelling at three kids, pregnant with a fourth. On 60th and Cottage Grove, a meth-crystal me, laid out on the sidewalk. Dead end jobs. Frozen prospects. Only a couple had Esau in them. Neither of them had him doing anything remotely nice to me.
Frost covered my arms, but the chill cleared my head. I thought back to all the winks, the grins, the comments he made. Look, I got me a black girlfriend. Isn't she cute? We go together like a couple of oreos. Yeah, she's sweet. My little brown sugar.
And I didn't mind because I was his girlfriend and he was a senior and I was a freshman and he said I was cute and...and...
Just what did I see in him anyway?
There's no time at the top of a spiral staircase. I stood and looked out at the crystal city and thought and thought and thought. And when I had thought enough, I came back down.
It was daytime by then. Momma had already gone to work, but Daddy was in the kitchen cooking bacon and eggs and hash browns. He gave my hand an awkward pat. Later, he put a plate of food on the table and I ate it up without saying anything. All day, I sat like that, staring out the window, saying nothing. That night, my dreams were full of tinkling chimes and snowdrifts.
When I finally told Momma I wasn't going to see Esau anymore, she snorted, "Just like that, huh?"
She then proceeded to ignore me for three whole days.
That's the trouble with spiral staircases. They change you up good.
People say that spiral staircases appear to those who really need them. People driven into a corner. Stuck at the end of their rope. Forced to make a decision they could see no way out of.
But they can appear to anyone for no reason whatsoever. One guy went up thinking he could find a way to stay in college without getting kicked out. He came back with a recipe for grilled cheese sandwich stuck in his head. Two months later, sure enough, the college kicked him out. But his grilled cheese sandwiches from that point on were the best ever. He opened a cafe down on State street last year. It's doing pretty well. Very popular with the kids.
Spiral staircases give people ideas for their next novel, their next painting. Money for the rent. Boyfriends. Cheetos. Cured of their cancer. A warm place to spend the night. The urge to take up knitting, rave parties, manicures, a PhD in astrophysics, that thing you've always wanted as a kid, Heaven, Hell, and everything in between.
One of my neighbors decided to build his own. He made it from anything he found lying on the ground. Scrap wood. Old planks. Nail-studded boards. Railroad ties. Toothpicks. We gathered on the sidewalk to watch him stack it up on his front lawn.
We knew it wouldn't work. You can't just build a spiral staircase and expect it to work. We told him so. He told us to shut up. So we just watched as he climbed one crickety step after another. The whole structure swayed and creaked, but it stayed put. When he reached the top, we all applauded.
Fifteen minutes later, we lost interest.
He stayed up there for a whole week. Refused to come down. We passed him donuts and coffee at the end of a pole. I don't even know how he went to the bathroom. At night, I could hear him weeping through my bedroom window.
The following morning, what was left of his staircase had been scattered over the street. There was no sign of him.
Sometimes a spiral staircase is just a spiral staircase.
I know what your next question will be. Why spiral staircases at all? What's the point?
Let me answer with Momma.
A spiral staircase appeared in front of her in her garden, right in the middle of her Brandywine tomatoes. The staircase was made entirely of raw meat. I'm not kidding. The spindles were sausages, the handrail thick slabs of bacon. Steaks as risers, pink and soft. The bacon banister was broken on each fifth step by a post capped with a chicken carcass--drumsticks crossed like it was urging you to get a move on, it couldn't squat on this banister all day.
Momma leaned back and stared at it for a while. Then she shook her head and went back to weeding.
So why didn't she go up?
She gave me the side-eye."Why the hell would I want to climb a meat staircase?"
I don't know, maybe you'd know how to carve meat when you got back down. Maybe you'd quit your job and become a butcher. Maybe nothing would happen, except some weird dreams. Maybe you'd become a vegetarian. Maybe you'd become the greatest griller in the world. Maybe you'd turn on the TV show and they'll show all those cows in the pens and just like that, you'll start sobbing, and maybe just appreciate a little more of what mankind goes through just to put food on their table, and maybe you'd stop taking food for granted or--
Or you could say what I said. "Don't you want to know what's at the top?"
"If I want meat," Momma said, "I'll go on down to the grocery store. Would stink less, and my shoes would stay cleaner, that's for sure."
That was the second time I climbed a staircase, by the way. Yeah, it was squishy. Yeah, it stunk to high heaven. And yeah, all it did was make me cry during a beef market report.
You need to understand--Momma came from a different time, back when spiral staircases weren't as prolific as they are now.
She grew up the oldest of six kids, down in the projects. By the time she was sixteen, she watched over her brothers and sisters, cleaned houses, and did janitor work at an office building on the near North side. All this while pulling decent grades in high school. After she graduated, she got a job driving a public bus, met Daddy, had me, got promoted to supervisor, and moved us out to the suburbs.
Momma didn't have the luxury to wait for a spiral staircase to change her life.
When the news started reporting more sightings, she rolled her eyes. Just you wait, she said. They'll show up for a while and then, one day, vanish for good. And then what will people do?
But the staircases kept coming. Before I was born, only a few would show up once every five, six years. Now, they pop up all over the place. They appear to everyone. Not just thinkers. Not just creatives. Common, ordinary people.
Nowadays, mention the word 'staircase', and Momma would press her lips together and go out the room.
Daddy always said he didn't need a spiral staircase because he got all the enlightenment he needed from football and beer.
Anyone who've been anyone had climbed spiral staircases. From Leonardo DiVinci to Leonardo DiCaprio. Beethoven to Stevie Wonder. William Shakespeare, Dennis Rodman, Albert Einstein and the guy who created the Internet.
That story about Moses ascending the mountain to get the Ten Commandments? He really climbed a spiral staircase.
Buddha didn't find enlightenment under a tree. It was at the base of a spiral staircase.
Harriet Tubman led slaves to freedom via a spiral staircase called the Underground Railroad.
When Amelia Earhart disappeared, it wasn't motor failure. She went up a spiral staircase. She just hasn't come back yet.
They show up everywhere. In paintings. In music. In mathematics. The Fibonacci series? Spiral staircase. Picasso's cubism period? Spiral staircase. Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven? Well, duh. The computer used to compute the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything? Yep, that too. It even tells you the number of steps it had.
The third time I climbed a spiral staircase was at Nana's funeral.
You thought Momma was hard? Nana was ten times harder. Life had worn her out so by the time I came around, she had nothing left to say. Hers was the silent type of hard. She's always stood in my memories--never sat or laid down, her back stiff and straight as she stirred gumbo or washed clothes. She made the sweetest cherry jams, though, sweet enough to make you cry.
The day of her funeral, all these cousins and uncles and aunts I never knew came up from Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee. We crammed ourselves into Nana's storefront church, where Daddy and Momma and I sat in the first row alone. Nana was always a small woman, but in that casket, she looked like a shrunken leather doll. Daddy kept staring at her, his whole body slumped as if she had been the only thing holding him up.
Right when the preacher said Nana loved everyone (which we knew wasn't true), a spiral staircase appeared, right behind her casket. Out of all the staircases I'd seen, this one was the plainest--steps and balustrades of black iron, metal leaves curling around the banisters. It was plain, and yet there was a cleanness about it which made you think of washed floors and sparkling windows and fresh laundry right off the line. It stood radiating the pride one feels at a job well done.
Daddy got up--the preacher didn't realize what was happening and kept on preaching, even though no one said "Amen" or "Hallelujah". They whispered to each other as Daddy went to the base of the staircase and looked up, big fat tears rolling down his cheeks. Long as I knew him, Daddy never cried.
Then he leaned over and scooped Nana out of her casket.
Everyone gasped. The preacher caught on what was happening and stuttered into silence. Momma stood up in her black dress and black hat and black veil and said, real quiet, "Stefan. Please. Don't."
Momma's fighting voice was all bluster and thunder and every kind of noise. So to hear her speak so quietly--almost pleading with him--was a thousand kinds of wrong.
Daddy's face crumpled. He deliberately turned his back and began to climb the staircase. One of Nana's black pumps dropped off her foot, clacking down the steps. I jumped up. Momma stared at me with no outrage, no sadness. Just a long, tired look. With a deep breath, I left her and started climbing after Daddy.
Uncle Owen got up next, then Aunt Sally. Mr. Lyons, who filled Nana's prescriptions. Mrs. Thompson, who sat with Nana at the hospital. Uncles and aunts, friends and ex-lovers (Nana had a couple of those), we all climbed the spiral staircase. The preacher brought up the rear.
Only Momma stayed behind. She stood at the bottom, face upturned. High as I was, I thought I saw tears on her cheeks, but that could have been the veil she wore.
As we climbed, Daddy told me a lot of things. Like how when he was a kid, he tried to run away and join the circus. They wouldn't take him--said they already had enough niggers. His daddy whooped him good for being out so late. His momma, Nana, only smoothed back his hair and gave him an extra helping of ham and grits and cherry jam.
He dropped out of high school. Spent two years in the navy. Came home to packing boxes or doing other odd jobs. No spiral staircases appeared to him; seemed to be a white man's thing anyway.
When he met Momma, she saved him, in a fashion. She got him a job at the bus company. When he left that, she convinced him to become a postal worker. When he got fired from that, Momma was making enough that it didn't matter anymore. As long as he kept the house clean and me out of trouble, he could stay. It was easy to give up and do nothing but sit on the couch, drink and watch TV. Easy to numb himself than watch his future go up in smoke.
We reached the top and Daddy set Nana down and folded her hands. Already she looked better, at rest for the first time in my life, the half smile the embalmers shaped on her face more natural.
Daddy leaned on the iron banister. The city spread out below us, clean and bright, like someone had opened all the hydrants and washed all the trash and dirt away. He said he was tired of spending his life dulling it away with whiskey and rum. He was ready for a change. He was going to quit drinking. Clean up his act. Hell, maybe go back to school. You see those commercials where old people now are going to college? That could be him.
As he spoke, I looked at the city spread below us. If I focused my eyes right, like a telescope, I could see every street, every corner, all clean and neat, the tiny people smiling at one another, carrying each others' groceries, opening the door for one another. And there, on the corner of 51st and Dorchester, was Daddy--or rather, a young version of him, decked out in knickers and a plaid cap, highstepping down the street with big cocky grin on his face.
There was his future, spread out for all to see. Daddy could see it, I could see it, the people at the top of the staircase could see it. Even Nana, slumped over with her dead half-smile, could surely see it.
It was the most optimistic I ever felt about things.
By the time we climbed back down, Momma had already left the church.
Three days later, she told Daddy she wanted a divorce.
He never did go to college.
That's the thing about enlightenment. Unless you do something with it afterwards, it really don't mean shit.
After everything was done, I visited Momma. She'd gotten an apartment in Bronzeville. She had her hair cut short. She started taking cooking classes. She was starting over.
"You know how long I told that man to get up and do something with his life? Thirty years. Thirty years is too long. He climbs a bunch of steps and all of a sudden, poof, now he wants to change. Now he wants to make something of his life. I've been telling him that for years. Years. So I thought, forget it. I've given thirty years to that man, to you, to the whole world. Time to do something for me for once."
I told her it wasn't the spiral staircase that made Daddy want to change. It only helped him rise above his problems for a while, helped him see things from a different perspective. It gave him the push he needed to make him want to change.
"Bullshit. You can get just as much on the ground. Too many people got their heads in the clouds. You can keep all your epiphanies and enlightments and great ideas. I don't need a staircase to change my life."
She pummeled the dough she was kneading, her shoulders quivering with each thump.
I thought back to when I saw Daddy all young and fresh, strutting down the street, strutting towards her--yes, I saw Momma when she was young too, sitting on her front porch in a floral cotton dress, hair in a frizzy bun. The happiest I'd ever seen her, laughing and laughing and laughing.
I wondered if I would ever see her that happy. Then I realized I wasn't responsible for her happiness, anymore than she was responsible for mine.
I went to put together the salad. Momma didn't say anything more, though I caught her looking at me out the side of her eye. I smiled and she shook her head and continued working the dough.
Her shoulders didn't quiver anymore.
One thing Momma's right about: you don't need a spiral staircase to change your life. I get that now.
But she's also wrong.
It's the climbing of the spiral itself. It's feeling the ache in your thighs as you climb higher and higher. It's looking down and seeing the bottom so far below, you get dizzy and cling to the railing, but you keep moving up. It's fighting the urge to sit down or go backward--or stop completely. It's the perfect metaphor, and Momma, despite her protestations, did this all her life.
Every time she yelled at me to make my bed, or do my homework, or to leave that loser of a boyfriend, all the advice she gave, her constant nagging, advice giving, the roll of her eyes, the shakes of her head--each one of those was borne out of her own experience, twisting up and up until they solidified inside her.
Momma was her own spiral staircase.
Which is why I'm done climbing spiral staircases. I think I got all I ever needed out of them.
But you? You should definitely climb this one. I never seen a staircase made out of the complete works of William Shakespeare. Start your climb with A Midsummer's Nights Dream and end with the Tempest, and if you're bored, skip all the tragedies by running up.
Epiphanies. Revelations. Insights. Enlightenment. It gets easier each generation. One day it'll get to the point when your children's children will turn around, and there'll be spiral staircases all around.
You'll have to tell me what's at the top. Maybe you'll become a writer in your future. Or maybe you'll go into acting. Or maybe you'll just know enough to answer trivia questions. You can never tell with these things.
And while you're up there, see if you could find Nana. It took us a couple of months to realize we'd left her up there. The spiral staircase had long since vanished. As far as I know, they don't come around twice. One chance, that's all you get. At least, until the next one comes along.
She's probably happier up there anyway. Her and Amelia Earhart.
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.