The Staircase

Rosa lived on a cliffside by the sea in a village of small wooden huts with roofs of woven grass. From dawn until dusk there was wind blowing in from the ocean, sometimes a steady breeze and sometimes gusts from a storm, but always with the taste of salt. Every day Rosa watched the bobbing waves with their cresting white caps, looking out at the horizon which seemed to be the edge of the world, yet she had never touched the salt water below. The cliffs were a thousand feet tall and stretched for a hundred leagues to the north and south.

Rosa’s first memory was her older sister Zara’s marriage to a quiet man from a nearby village. The ceremony took place on the cliffside at the top of a staircase. This staircase descended towards the ocean—the product of centuries spent carving directly into the stone with primitive tools taken up by those compelled to reach further towards the ocean’s surface. It was nearly complete, and that day Rosa remembered older villagers whispering that the next generation might be the first to reach down from the bottom step and dip their hands into the ocean water.

During the ceremony, the couple walked hand in hand down these steps to the bottom, almost close enough to feel the spray from the waves crashing on the rocks. With their backs against the stone cliffside they looked out towards the ocean. In turn they spoke ceremonial words about oneness—the ocean against the cliff, horizon touching the ocean, and now their own connection. They turned to face each other. Each held one side of a circular stone and together they threw it into the ocean, completing the ceremony.

For years the three of them lived in one hut beneath their thatched roof, with peaceful evenings spent telling stories and listening to the sea.

As Rosa grew she watched as clouds came and brought storms to clear skies, and winds came and brought waves and foam to calm seas, until one day a sickness came to Zara’s husband. He became ill with a fever that left him pale and gaunt. He spent his last days drenched in sweat, face contorted with pain. In a week he was dead.

Rosa remembered her sister weeping as the other villagers came and tied his legs together and his arms to his sides, his forehead still coated with a salt residue where the sweat had dried. They tied each of his hands closed around a stone, then tied one large flat stone to his chest. It was raining as they carried his body down the staircase. She watched them from above with her sister. Someone said a few words, asking that his spirit find a home among the waves. The body fell and slipped beneath the surface, any sound of impact muffled by the steady rain.

A month later Rosa came home just before twilight on a clear evening and could not find her sister. She checked with other villagers nearby, found nothing, then ran to the staircase. She saw Zara standing far below at the edge of the bottom step, arms outstretched and looking towards the sunset.

Rosa cried out but knew her voice wouldn’t carry that distance. She started to walk down, stepping carefully on the smoother, worn steps near the top towards the sharper edges of the newer steps below. She cried out again, but Zara still heard nothing and stood at the edge, unnaturally still. Just as the sun dipped below the horizon, Zara tipped forward and fell, legs straight and arms at her sides, entering the water like an arrow piercing flesh, sinking into the depths as though made of stone.

The next morning Rosa fashioned a tool from a sharp rock tied to a short piece of wood. She brought the tool to the staircase and walked to the bottom where she began to carve the next step. In the evening when Rosa returned she found food had been left for her.

For days at a time she heard only the sounds of the ocean and of her stone tools grinding against the cliffside. Each time she struck a blow it left behind a tiny pile of coarse powder small enough to fit on a fingertip, which she brushed over the edge. As she came closer to the ocean’s surface the cliff became smoother, battered by the waves, and it was harder to find cracks and edges where she could start carving. When it was windy the ocean spray soaked her, and the salt stung her eyes and calloused hands. She wrapped her hands in cloth to cover her blisters, but sometimes the skin beneath tore, and blood soaked the cloth a deep red. Sometimes tools slipped from her grasp and disappeared over the edge, and she would pound the stone in frustration. Sometimes after hours spent hunched over she stood up too quickly, and feeling dizzy, grabbed hold of an outcropping to keep from slipping over the edge herself.

It took Rosa a year of work to reach the ocean’s surface. On that day, when she decided she was satisfied with the final step, the sky was clear and calm and hardly a ripple was visible in the ocean all the way to the horizon. Rosa sat down on the bottom step and dipped both of her feet into the dark blue water, watching the circular ripples that spread out around her legs. She looked down and studied her distorted reflection, thinking of her sister’s face.

As she swung her legs, her foot grazed something. She shifted her weight forward and leaned to dip her leg down further. She felt smooth, flat stone that extended out from the cliffside like the step she had just finished. She stood up, then crept forward and found the edge of this new step. With arms out for balance, she dipped one foot down, and just as she thought her foot would disappear and she would fall forward, she found another step. She stepped out and down and found yet another step, now letting the water come up to her chest. Rosa took another step, and another, and felt the cool water cover her as she continued to descend.

Michael Kling grew up in Vermont and now lives Ann Arbor, Michigan. He does consulting work as a software developer, works on a startup supporting jobs and economic development, and tries to find some time to write. His website: http://mikekling.com.

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