9-1 story

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

 

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.1 (Winter 2009)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Erebos

J. S. Moseby

Sometimes you needed to slow down, sometimes speed up. An all-night study session and the test-day itself called for maximum acceleration and then a sustained cruise in the company of gamma rays. Afterward, the fall-off was natural and profound. She had slept a day and a half (that is, one afternoon, one night, and the next day until evening) when the last comprehensive exam of her Master’s program was done. She would later find out that she had passed with honors and received automatic admission into the doctoral curriculum. At the time, though, she had carried no inkling of probable success or failure into her deep, dark coma, nor any peep of anxiety about her future, sink or swim. Natural crashes could be really nice that way: complete oblivion with no morning-after headache.

In response to lesser bursts of nervous energy, however, the body might need some help throttling back. An ordinary test would be succeeded in the evening by an ordinary party, with wine and weed and whatever else wound down. When she had been younger—a callow, inexperienced undergrad—she used to get revved up about this or that guy, and commensurately devastated when the guy failed to reciprocate or did his thing and then vanished forever without notice. In fact, she had probably endured far more roller-coaster rides in those days because of boys than because of course work, which had been both very easy and wholly inconsequential. It was in the dating game that she had learned to level out her mood swings artificially, with everything from a pill for calming herself when Mr. It’s sports car tooted outside her window to a powder for inciting herself after reaching It’s bed at three a.m. (or the bed of someone she took for It at that point).

These days she had little to do with guys—with men. She did not avoid them, but neither did she seek them out. There was too much to do, especially with a dissertation to write on top of her unfinished course work and her teacher’s assistanceship. If a guy really wanted her, she gave herself to him without a hassle. She found less pleasure in the experience itself, generally, than she once had done, but more pleasure than ever in the expanding circle of casual friendships that built up around her this way like masses of leaves in a downward-trundling snowball. Her friends meant everything to her. (At least, of the few things that meant anything to her, her friends seemed to show up most often in a quick introspective scan).

Occasionally she would be a little more obliging than she would have liked to a man who supplied her abundantly in the accelerants and decelerants necessary to lead a smooth, untroubled life. The inconvenience was never oppressive—more a question of lost time than of physical discomfort. She had known for a very long time now that guys had to get into women’s bodies once in a while the way cats had to stalk and mutilate birds. It was in their nature. If you wanted them as friends, you couldn’t give them hell for it. The feminist/lesbian protest thing didn’t interest her at all—not nearly as much, at any rate, as the leathery mummified bodies being hauled out of peat bogs in northwestern Europe, apparent sacrifices to pitiless dark gods. Now there was a trip—something that woke up your last brain cell while paradoxically slowing your pulse to a crawl! Sometimes her scholarly work almost rivaled her friendships in those quick introspective scans for things of importance. Sometimes she couldn’t really tell the two apart… for she and her best friends could talk about their research for hours of an evening on beat-up sofas and floor-level mattresses amid the sweet-smelling vapors of dreams.

Fortunately, an inner alarm had sounded when the young grad student from another department turned up in one of her classes (he was pursuing some kind of interdisciplinary degree) and started showing signs of interest in her. They had been out to lunch a few times together, had walked each other to their varying campus destinations several times even on days between the shared class’s meeting. He would ask her deep questions, and listen in deep silence to her answers. She offered him a couple of easy openings for sex as the weeks wore on, including a walk home to her apartment that ended in her making a pot of tea and emphasizing that her roommate had left town for the weekend. Through such openings he never made his way. A less sensitive person might never have figured it out, and she herself had hesitated almost too long. Fortunately, though, she decided to act at last on the assumption that he had fallen in love with her.

Love. She could remember that from her own past, her early college days. There had been one time, in particular, when she had sobbed outside a boy’s door for hours, and then turned her bathroom upside-down later that night looking for a bottle of aspirin to swallow whole. Love was… a killing field. She was surprised, frankly, that the young man—who was really two or three years older than she—had not yet discovered how to keep from falling into its pit, its suffocating peat bog. She finally sat him down one afternoon and explained its dangers. Sure enough, he took it very hard. Later that evening, having sent him home, she congratulated herself meditatively (drawing deep from a joint). If she had waited any longer, the hunt for the bottle of aspirin would have reprised itself in his own lonely apartment—but with the greater level of success, no doubt, that men bring to such things. She had probably just saved his life.

Yet his complete absence from her path immediately thereafter (he even stopped coming to class) profoundly troubled her. She hadn’t wanted him to be hurt; and while utter separation at first struck her as probably a good idea, its persistence was just as surely not so. People couldn’t be allowed to take things so seriously—they would break into a million pieces if they didn’t bend a little. Friends were there precisely to help them bend. With that protective notion in mind, she began very coyly to reconnoiter his apartment, to follow his movements unobserved. At the end of a few days, she left a note on his door suggesting that maybe they should resume their walks. When she phoned to follow up on the idea, he accepted.

Yet he accepted on very peculiar terms. He stipulated that their first walk “back together again” should take place after dark—not simply after classes and supper, but after every place of business but the clubs and all-nighters had closed. He insisted that they meet near a park that ran long and lean on the city map, frowning heavily with woods over its playing fields when you viewed it from the Expressway. And he stressed that neither of them could say a word the whole time: hand signals permitted, but not speech.

She was highly intrigued. The original proposition, which she had extended in a bland act of mercy, now gave her a definite buzz. The thought of foul play scarcely drifted along the edge of her imagination. She would not have minded, for that matter, if he were to toss her into the bushes and untruss her… maybe the darkness, secrecy, and silence were somehow calculated to get him over whatever hang-up had held him off before. But the role didn’t suit the actor. She remembered just enough of what she called “puppy love” that she could not picture this over-aged Tom Sawyer as a fetishist. Still… there really were no Tom Sawyers, were there?—and their semblances had to morph into something on reality’s humid bog-lands, didn’t they?

They met where McCarter Boulevard crossed the park’s northernmost point—a finger of land whose determined walking trail would peter out into a small shopping center within one hundred yards of tunneling under the street’s concrete overpass. She knew all this because they had met here before by daylight. Now, however, the scene was wholly transformed. The boulevard, feeding the suburbs to the west of the city center, was eerily empty. The path beneath the overpass was a gully of pitch. She would not even have seen him, probably, standing on the bridge’s far side but for the pallid glow emitted from the glassed façade of a grocery store across the street. A weak “hi” escaped her before she recalled the meeting’s terms: he pointed mutely to the store—to its vacant parking lot, its illegible discounts posted in the windows, a mass of fresh bananas catching the minimal all-night lighting somewhere in its interior. She understood. It was sleeping, that hive of life and bounty… it was dead. A place that one had never known, had never thought of, as other than humming with activity. Tons of food, immobile and dormant… it somehow made her sneakers feel leaden where they pressed the worn footpath’s moist rut beyond the concrete.

She looked at him to measure how long the study might continue. His shoulders were oddly squared, giving him a thin, erect silhouette which she had never remarked in him before. Something like a folded blanket was draped over one shoulder, creating a sharp angle. Was it to lie on—was he going to strip her in the pitch below, after all?

They followed the track into such darkness that she had to walk behind his thicker shadow as it plied the thinner shadows. To walk side by side would have been to risk a tumble into the gully on her left, which she knew would grow steadily deeper, or a stumble over the stones and deadwood on her right. She marveled at how he found his way unerringly.

The assailants almost failed to shock her, in comparison. They seemed the mere coalescence of a threat she had felt vaguely from the beginning. Two, maybe three voices uttered gurgling grunts and chuckles in some language whose every word escaped her, if words indeed formed any part of the utterance. Were the stream below to turn into a killer flood, exhaling cold menace from dark earthen gorges and click-clacking boulders on its wet tongue, it would hardly have sounded any different.

She waited in a kind of prescient passivity for a claw to squeeze her arm, then another to shred her shirt or dig into her pants. Instead, a kind of mechanical bird of the night clucked a metallic, unmusical warning—a subtle, intricate series of well-oiled wheels and cogs followed by a decisive crack, a tightly sprung catch sliding into place. At the cry of “pistola”, the phantoms fled like water into a drain, a collective “ah” shouted into the night measuring their rate of re-absorption.

Her heart had not had time to accelerate much. The excess of energy in her veins was quickly kneaded to a stable level by their renewed footsteps. They began to climb, not steeply but steadily. She thought she knew this section. The streambed would now be very far below. In the close shadows that shouldered her through their gauntlet, a passing ghost peeped that perhaps he meant to turn suddenly and shove her over the ledge.

Farther on, near starlit spaces that must have been the playing fields, they heard two winos fighting over a bottle, heard a muffled, regular sobbing drift their way from higher up the wooded slope. And they passed on, always on.

A very steep ascent through a very dark thicket (panting, she bumped her brow into the small of his back once)… and they emerged into upscale suburbia. Streetlights separated themselves from the trees. The trail turned to straight, clean asphalt. Lawns were made of green carpet. Mansions distantly recessed from the curb had the look of delicate treasures glassed into a paperweight, or of carefully modeled elf-work on a miniature train’s board. Haughty and shadowed by day, they now basked in the artificial illumination of a showcase window at Christmas time. She had never before recognized in mere light the primary defensive weapon of the affluent burgher by night. Costly walls of brick and stone, trimmed here in white cornices to hint at southern plantations, there in criss-crossed hardwood to mimic Shakespeare’s London… an occasional stuccoed arch, heavy Spanish iron-work at the windows… all of it ostentatiously rotated before streetlight and floodlight in a kind of pageant, as if the great structures were on parade and she and he not walking by, but watching from a balcony. “What fool or lunatic would scale my walls to pry at my windows?” they declared, one and all. “The whole neighborhood would see!” Yet a deathly sleep had settled over the neighborhood. For the pageant’s lustrous mile or two, they saw no trace of living movement. An expensive car, and later a van, cracked under the night’s descending temperature where they beamed in showroom splendor along crescent driveways.

At last the streetlights grew rarer, the houses closer, the curbside more rumpled. He held up a hand for her to halt at one point. A child’s bicycle had been left lying flat before a sealed garage, whose drive fed straight down into the street. By starlight, she watched him noiselessly roll the toy to safety. A street or two farther along, a dog caught their scent, and soon its wolfish guffaws were echoed in every direction. The low, dark eaves all around them seemed to throw sleeping groans into low, dark trees as one invisible creature after another bayed at the vapor of baying. The chorus sounded less hostile than alien—a kind of exchange of passwords along the palisade, far over the heads of two strangely clad scouts.

She was beginning to grow invincibly tired when they crossed the six-lane loop that girded the city like a belt. She would never have believed that this seething thoroughfare could be traversed at any hour of day or night except at a well-timed sprint. To be staggering across it at a sleep-walk, almost without being able to look up, in total safety and silence was itself mesmeric. They might have stopped to count the stars from the concrete median without a single pair of headlights’ interrupting the inventory. As they reached the far side, she in fact noticed a pale halo of lights just beginning to wheel soundlessly around the bend hundreds of yards away.

She could take little notice of the remaining houses. They seemed to make few pretensions, yet their lots were almost as generous as those of the pageant of mansions. Indefinably, the suburban was morphing into the rural. Mailboxes now passed at their elbows, flush with the curbside. She spotted a trailer-house, as peculiar in its little clearing as a hopper car all alone on a disused sidetrack. Shortly thereafter, two close-set red beads eyed them from a mass of shrubs before disappearing without a whisper. She wondered less how far they had come than how long they had been going. Time seemed to have stopped.

Then, around a corner which left the last suburban trees behind, her sleep-heavy eyes fell upon a mesa. She had not seen one before… only in geography books, only on TV documentaries. She knew every hot-spot of night-life in this city to whose freedom she had fled from two thousand miles away, but she had not imagined that a mesa lay somewhere just beyond the skyline. Her lids stopped drooping, and her eyes darted side-to-side in disbelief. No more houses ahead at all, no more mailboxes or gates. The moon had risen behind them as they had worked through the last block’s rooflines, awnings, storage sheds, garden fences, and sparse wide cottonwoods. She did not look over her shoulder… but the silver haze was unmistakable. What she gazed upon, like a desert castaway fixed on a liquid mirage, was the hard, nearly horizon-length line of the natural table, almost white now against an almost violet west. How far away, she wanted to ask? Ten miles? Twenty? Could they rest first, she wanted to ask?

As if he had read her thoughts, his hand pressed on her shoulder, forcing her down (with gentle force scarcely needed) against the trunk of the city’s final tree. He unfolded the blanket he had carried at his neck every step of the way, and draped it lightly over her. Its touch seemed to put her to sleep at once.

***

Next morning, she woke up cold and alone. The early sun had shaken her out of a deep sleep but could not warm her under the tree’s dense shadow. After stowing the blanket under a bush, she made her way to the last house’s front door. The story she told its occupant, an old woman in gardening gloves, came without a thought—something involving a car’s breakdown. (Versions of that story had been told to older people around her—by her friends and then by herself—since she had been in junior-high school: it rolled off the tongue, unbidden and wholly convincing.) Reluctant to call her closest friends lest they pose too many questions about her odd location—yet unable to draw to the phone a male teaching assistant whose number lingered in her memory—she ended up accepting a lift from the old woman’s nephew as far as the campus. Within an hour of being dropped off at the main building’s fountain (the nephew wanted a date for that evening, but she slithered off the hook), she was working on her dissertation in front of a full pot of coffee. A strange new commitment had overtaken her, as if she had suddenly seen the ancient ceremony she was writing about. She labored through the afternoon, then took a short nap, then was off to unwind in the company of three girlfriends.

Over the ensuing days, the afterglow of the experience lingered. She was grateful to her silent guide as she would have been to a shaman who had smuggled her in to view some druidical ceremony… and she fully realized that the night journey was somehow connected to her new understanding of her topic. Yet she did not for an instant entertain the notion of calling him to say so, to express a special gratitude—or even to request another walk, or even to do lunch. She noticed that he, too, made no effort to reach her; and he must have dropped their common class, for she saw no more of him there than she did anywhere else. They had crossed some threshold, she sensed. It was not her own group’s bygones-be-bygones ritual of exorcising hurt feelings—which was really more a delirious scuffing up of any line resembling a boundary. This was the opposite: it was a bolted gate. The threat of love had been laid under strong spells in time, and then the threat of grief… but something had followed which she could never have imagined, and could not quite imagine now. It scared her a little, when she thought about it. Since she did not like being scared, she used her work and her friends to avoid thought. And, of course, she had other spells—her own special herbs and potions—to hold her spirit’s surges and sags in check.

Yet there was no way at all—none that she knew—to keep those very fantasies moving down productive channels which she manufactured with such delicate, expert artifice. She began to have dreams. They were neither the same dream nor a different one, but a single recurrent dream that shifted into another stage after haunting her in one form for perhaps two weeks or a month. The first form took her back to an ancestral house in the Northeast whose essential skeleton was rumored to be about 200 years old—the kind of house that no one had ever heard of in the land of cottonwoods and mesas. Her ancestry had been “fine folk”, a “first family” in colonial society. That legacy was perhaps part of what had chased her to mesa territory—its expectations, its privileges, its hypocrisy—though she was aware that it probably also whetted her interest in ancient artifacts, somehow or other. She couldn’t even attest to the present ownership of the old house, since her mother had fought bitterly with three siblings over the inheritance for years; but in the days when she had known it intimately, a visit to her grandparents would always introduce her into its creaking floors and high ceilings. The window panes would rattle loosely in their sashes every time a heavy truck passed along the street. The hardwood of the staircase’s railing had a sheen ages old which had invited her as a girl to run her hand along the surface over and over. The thick old paint made things stick—windows, doors, especially the square to the storage space under the staircase—yet exuded a clean, stable smell that seemed to win over all other odors. The wallpaper featured lords and ladies in courtly gestures, or (in the kitchen) a masked desperado—said to be the Scarlet Pimpernel—awaiting a mail coach. Sounds traveled gently, politely. The abundant old wood and the well-worn rugs appeared to mellow them and round them, where a more modern residence full of plush furniture would only have smothered them. The brass catch on the front door would blend with a rattle of the brass knocker whenever her grandfather entered that announced his return to other occupants as discreetly as a servant in livery.

In her first dreams, she saw and heard and smelled her favorite corners of the house again. She could not really tell if she also saw her grandparents or only remembered them as she dreamed because their ghosts lay along every threadbare armrest. She could not tell, consequently, if she herself played any role in these dreams—if her tours of the house, for instance, had the purpose of bringing her at last into her grandmother’s presence. If there were conversations, she was not the subject of them and was not invited to participate in them. Perhaps this was because she was a girl again, and her grandparents’ conversations had always been strictly “adult” matters far above her head. But perhaps, once again, she was just imagining the old couple as her embodied eyes drifted from room to room, for it was hard to think of them not in conversation with someone during one of her family’s rare visits to the house.

These dreams, or this first form of the dream, passed pleasantly enough. She had loved the old house. As a girl, she had always looked forward to a visit as a special treat. The oddest thing was simply that she had not thought about the house, or her grandparents, for years. They had died, and the house had changed hands (or become stranded in the court system), a longer time ago than she could easily remember.

At some point, the dream’s form shifted to a second-story bedroom—the “guest room” where she and her mother and sisters had always slept. As the middle sister, she did not get to sleep in the high bed with the tall, engraved posts and thick counterpane: that fell to her mother and older sister. She and the younger one were given fold-out cots bought specially for such occasions. The privation was not significant. She actually enjoyed the cot, for it reminded her of camping out (or of what she had imagined camping out to be, as a girl). But there was sometimes a scary moment when the other three had gone to sleep. The ancient wood of the high, narrow bed stopped cracking, and the younger sister’s cot stopped creaking. Lying on her back, she would be keenly aware that only she was awake. She would have no idea of the hour, but to her girl’s mind it always seemed very late—frighteningly late, like the time when witches fly on their brooms. And she would lie and watch the shimmer from a distant streetlight sift through the tall curtains of the tall side-window to die on or near the tall ceiling, and she would listen. There would be nothing to listen to, but she would listen—listen for the sound on the other side of nothing. And it would come. With a regular, almost inaudible mup… mup… mup… two stories below, beyond the lawn, in the open, empty street. A man, walking. His footsteps were not in haste, but they were as constant as a grandfather-clock’s ticking, without any hint of doubting their destination or of wanting to pause and peek through a window. Yet they scared her, in a delicious way. She always wondered where he could be going so long after everyone in the world was asleep, and why he went there at such a business-like pace. He might have had his hands in his pockets, or he might have held a coat slung over his shoulder. He would not have been working himself up very much. But how could he be so casual living on the upside-down part of reality? It scared her to think of such loneliness… and perhaps to think of how scared she was by it, how unready she was to go to a place that might be the best destination in the world. For what could be a better place than a low eave with a little yellow lamp in the window while all else was dead?

This, too, was a not unpleasant dream, and it made more sense in the wake of her recent night outing. She remembered actually remembering that night-walker—parts of listening for him and to him, or all in part-memory—as she had walked through the humble neighborhood where the dogs had barked. For sometimes, when as a girl she lay awake and heard the walker pass, a dog would bark farther down the street a minute or two after she could no longer make out the mup… mup… mup. One dog, unanswered by others, in a slow, deep “woof” that sounded more like the groan of someone dreaming than the menace of someone waking.

Was this dream of those nights part of the dream about wandering through the house? Hadn’t it first appeared as an extension of the other, whether the middle or the end? For a while—a week or two—she had it all by itself. Then there came a third form of the dream which was all by itself from the start.

Its terms were faintly unpleasant from the start. She was in the house, usually in the large parlor, with its ornate rugs and marble-topped end-tables and over-stuffed chairs and divans with brass studding all about the upholstery. There seemed, indeed, to be a little more such furnishing than she had remembered, or at least more than in any earlier version of the dream. She could not recall ever seeing a settee in the room, but now there were several. And the crystal chandeliers and lamps with hand-painted globes, if they burned at all, now burned with candle light. Her discomfort grew as human figures came into focus—quite literally bled into presence as one might tune in images on a screen by working the lighter/darker button. They were not people she knew, and the antiquity of the furniture was mimicked by their clothing. The women wore dresses that swept the floor. The men, contrarily, appeared eager to show some leg, their stockings not meeting breeches until the knee. Some leaned heavily upon canes as they squirmed in their chairs, and some fiddled with pocket watches secreted in tight-fitting vests. The women, meanwhile, sat with a wooden poise, their hands in their laps, the younger of them perhaps knitting. Their hair was elaborately coiled about their crowns in patterns which bespoke hours of care. All in all, the tableaux in which they collaborated could not have dated much later than the old house’s earliest years.

As an antiquarian, she would richly have enjoyed eavesdropping on these scenes but for the fact that they declared the dream no longer her own. There was a precise reality about them which nothing in her recollection or imagination could have supplied, and also a vivacity in the parlor talk which forcefully thrust into the background those mumbled exchanges of her grandparents. Worst of all, however, was that she was keenly aware of her own presence among the strangers—or aware that she was both entirely present among them and entirely invisible to them. She saw her own hands on the knees of her blue jeans. She could tell as the men strutted past her to a chair that the tallest of them did not surpass her height. The beauty of the women’s hair sent her hand feeling into her own short mop. There was both inferiority and superiority in her situation: she was embarrassed by her bedraggled appearance, yet indignant that her plain and shocking body should be ignored. Again and again, she would try to speak—to measure a conversation’s rhythm for just the right moment, the best chance of her intrusion’s showing brilliantly. Their accents, however, were difficult to follow; and when she was able to distinguish every word, she was nevertheless mired in a complete unfamiliarity with the names of people and places mentioned and the meaning of incidents recounted. She had nothing to say. To have broken into one of these soirées, as finely detailed as camera footage shot from a time machine, would have been the equivalent of excavating an intact victim from a Germanic swamp… but she had nothing whatever to say to the past which could dredge it up into the present.

At last the dream shifted, yet again. This morph was the most abrupt break of all from previous versions, though it also seemed to fuse all of them with a thoroughness she had not observed before. She was in the old house, and she could hear the hum of conversation… but she was no longer sitting mutely glued to a settee, staring at the conversants like a well-trained dog. They could never have seen her unless they thought to look up, straight up… for her floor was the ceiling. Everything was inverted. She would never have guessed that the rooms were so big; but now, where she was standing, they were utterly swept of all furniture. Only the two chandeliers in the great parlor (where she always appeared to start her wanderings in all of the dreams but the bedroom version) lifted in her path. She could not have said before if the ceilings were plastered over or simply planked and sanded. They were the latter, which made walking along them very like crossing a great empty ballroom. Whenever she passed one of the chandeliers, she wanted to reach out and touch its crystalline mass, impossibly expanding from a thin chain like a flower of sparkles blossomed from the thinnest of stems, finally sending one stalk of pure dewdrops straight into the sky… or into the roof of a cave, perhaps; for the similarity with a stalagmite was even greater. Yet she feared to touch. She vaguely feared, perhaps, that the slightest jostle of this impossible reality might send her crashing down upon her head, the way an inverted glass of water might hold a plate by suction until some foolish finger should give the arrangement a tap.

Instead, she would drift to the lintel of one of the doorways, sit down, and brood. Why did the women’s hair not shoot straight up at her, like the teary tresses of a chandelier? Why did the men’s coattails not flap over their balding heads before they could sit down? Why did pocket watches not jingle their golden chains in a plummet toward her feet? Why did tea pour upward, and why did it lie flat in inverted cups? Flowers in bowls at least reached for her; but the books on the mantelpiece remained pasted in place, and she could actually see some of the nails from which framed etchings were hanging the wrong way. The nearest substantial object to her was the top of a massive mahogany breakfront (as her grandmother had called it). She marveled to find there, not only some furled papers easily hidden from all possible floor-level view, but also a white horse loved and lost by her younger sister. What mischief-maker had villainously set it there and then, apparently, forgotten about it—despite the girl’s crying inconsolably for days? There it lay now, more or less where a doorknob would have met her lowered palm if things had been fixed properly, or if she could recover proper gravity. She brooded over what childish vengeance or envy could have stirred one of her siblings to such an act against another. She brooded, too, over how the solution to a childhood riddle could be staring her in the face as the grandparents of her grandparents’ grandparents chattered away in “’tis” and “daren’t” and “wheresoever”.

Her grandparents themselves could be found if she stepped over the transom into the cozy space about the staircase’s landing… except that the space was no longer cozy from her perspective, but instantly somewhat ominous. For unknown to the old couple, puttering around on meaningless little missions, a dangerous abyss gaped almost at their elbow. Strange, that one of her favorite places in the house—a place where she and a sister had often curled up on the broad, carpeted landing to receive some tender lecture from Grandmother, seated at a desk only partially lit by a small lamp—strange that a great pit should have yawned just at their backs, and they never suspecting a thing. Strange, that they could have crawled up the magical stairs (they had been warned not to wear out the knees of their pajamas doing so, but they crawled, anyway), and run their fingers along the magical railing, and played magical percussion tunes on the rail’s fine spokes… strange, that the only drop they ever noticed (with the delightful fear of a looming disaster real but wholly preventable) was a tumble down to the landing. For the fall into the stairwell’s ceiling was a straight drop, a plunge off a sheer cliff. She could scarcely bear to peek over the ledge. If she stood straight, however, she could easily reach up and steady herself against the descending/ascending steps overhead. (“Such a tall girl!” her grandmother would always cry at the beginning of every visit.)

And she would peek down into the great pit, then shut her eyes and reel backward, her palms pressed tightly against a carpeted stair to fight the vertigo. When she opened them, she would see the top landing far below—a distance below her almost equal to the pit’s, though accessed steadily, with mock hospitality, by stairs that she couldn’t fall up. If only she could have survived the fall into the pit, she might easily have walked the reversed ceiling’s straight, pale, barren plain to the doorway’s lintel. The guest room’s door was open, always ready to receive. But it was as unattainable to her now on steps resisted by new gravity as a plummet into the stairwell ceiling was unthinkable.

Though it was at first daylight in these dreams—this last form of the dream—the light quickly faded in later dreams as she drew up at the edge of the pit. The bottom became murkier, farther away, more certainly fatal. And the doorway of the guest room, too, grew duskier, until the white molding around it could only have been illumined by the pallor of distant streetlights. She began to gaze upon the gray entrance more intently from dream to dream, waiting for something that wouldn’t come for several dreams, but that she knew must eventually come.

When it did come, the dream was fixed, and changed no more. It was the same dream now, every time, day after day, week after week. She haunted the parlor’s ceiling, listening to senseless talk below her which shared the whine of wasps busied about a nest in a knothole, passing her fingers oh-so-close to crystal drops which she dare not touch; choosing a lintel to sit upon and brood, wondering over the white toy horse and the vicious enmity dormant in life’s most innocent days; then drawn at last, by an irresistible magnetism, to the stairwell’s ledge—the brink beyond which dusk fell, and darkness came, and the deep night with a universal sleep of the dead… and then the mup… mup… mup… of a lonely walker on his way to an intimate, unknowable harbor.

She would wait and wait for his footsteps in order to voice a cry for help. She knew that she could make herself heard, through the guest room’s open door and the night stillness beyond the bedroom window, if only she timed her shout. When she finally heard his unhurried, unhalting passage, her mouth would fall wide open, her lips grow chilly with the cold air they drew in… but no sound would come forth. As if she were counting the steps for just the right one, or as if she were measuring them so that she could scream without missing one of their beats… or as if, perhaps, she had no more voice, or no more lungs…. She would miss her chance. Every time, she would have to wait for another time.

The dream became her life. It became so interlaced with her life that, while she met her classes and attended her courses and shuffled to the library and spent long evenings sprawled among her friends, all as before, none of these moments had any observable seam which kept it from the dream. She would be in her carrel doing research… and then, without moving, she would be staring into the pit. She would be leaning over a projector during a classroom presentation… and she would look up to see the furniture glued to the ceiling, its occupants looking on as normally as steam rising from tea. No one seemed to notice, afterward: no one ever said that she had stammered or that a strange look had crossed her face. She could traverse the entire dream, from the first steps in the empty ballroom to the cry that wouldn’t leave her diaphragm, and not a single odd stare would be waiting for her on the other side of the trance.

She gave up weed for long stints and backed off pills and powders as far as she could, but the effect was negligible. The dream seemed to have reached a critical mass. It seemed to be sucking in reality around it like bits of furniture into a great house. It was no longer the dream which came to her at times when she could not resist sleep: it was reality which passed weakly, flippantly, inconsequentially in and out of the dream, always finding ample accommodation well within the ancient manse’s upside-down ceilings.

She opened the medicine cabinet above her bathroom sink to find a bottle of aspirin. It was there… but far too far away, all the way at the bottom of the pit. She would have broken both arms and both legs in the fall, and afterward would not even have been able to open the bottle and suck out its full contents. She pressed her palms against the carpeted stair and looked for the strength to let go, to step over… but only a blow on the back of the head would have sent her into the pit. Even though she might have crawled to the doorway—on broken arms and legs, if necessary—if she should survive the fall, there was no one to complete the sacrifice.

John Singleton Moseby is a frequent contributor of short stories to this journal. He teaches writing at several collegiate venues in north Georgia.