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Staircases
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Knight Terra Press

littera manet sed lector oraculum

est. 1995

by Quinn Tyler Jackson

  • Published originally in Ubiquity, Vol. 3 No. 3, Apr. 2002.

Content Advisory: This story portrays reckless disregard for personal safety and health and intentional self-harm. Reader discretion is advised.

Just how did Martin Eden manage it? How did he swim down, down, meet the spiral staircase of light, and then cease to know? I surely tried with as much determination as he had. Though there were no bonitas biting at my flesh in the cold, polluted depths of the Seine, my ears, too, hurt. Perhaps it was because he had taken passage on the Mariposa and not a low bridge. Butterfly. Like Martin, I should have found a boat named Mariposa to take me on its wings to the light.

 

Yes, I was cold. Cold for the first time in my life, as I approached death. Had I been so near death before? The heat was leaving me. Floating up as I struggled with what energy I had to swim down every time my body started to float upwards. I no longer had hands or feet, although I sensed that they moved when I forced them to paddle down. No more heat. Montreal heat. Not the chill of Vancouver in November. Real, gentle cold.

 

And then something sharp. On my arm. I could not see what it was, but I could feel something sharp. Death coming to take me? Then, around my neck. Please be coming to suck the last breath my body will not allow me to release.

 

An explosion of streams of color in my brain as my mouth opens and sucks in—air? How?

 

The arm around my neck was warm. It was not my arm. If I’d had any strength, I would have pulled it off me, but I could not. I felt the cold stone against the side of my head as I was pushed onto it. I was not Martin Eden. Someone had jumped in and saved me.

 

Something touched my neck. Warm fingers. I opened my eyes, and as the water slid to the edge of my vision, the reflection of a light on the wet cement stared at me. My arm was under me, but my arm was too cold to feel the cement I could feel on my cheek. I was not sure whether I could not move or did not want to move. My eyes closed again.

 

When I finally opened them, as they adjusted to the light, I could see above me a yellow stained, stuccoed ceiling. I took in a deep breath of smoky air. I was under several layers of blankets, warm again.

 

“Finally awake,” someone said to my left. I turned my head. A young man, about my age, dressed in a red turtleneck sweater and a pair of jeans was sitting on a small stool. He had a cigarette hanging from his mouth. “You speak English?”

 

I nodded.

 

“You nearly drowned, you know,” he said. He pointed at the door of the closet, where my clothes, still dripping wet, were hanging. Another set of clothes hung beside them.

 

I nodded again.

 

“Good thing you didn’t get two lungs full of the Seine,” he said. He coughed, and then pulled a cigarette from his pouch and offered the filter end to me. “I took some in saving you, though. You smoke?”

 

I didn’t smoke—never had—and nodded no.

 

He put the cigarette back into the pouch. He then stood, walked back and forth across the rooms a few times, and finally said, “I saw you jump.”

 

I nodded again, unable to speak.

 

“My name is Lloyd,” he said as he sat at the foot of the bed. “You’re damned lucky I jumped in after you and that I’m a good swimmer.”

 

“I’m Nolan,” I mustered up the strength to say.

 

“I took you here, to my place, rather than call an ambulance,” Lloyd said. “I figured you’d recover. Didn’t seem to have any major shock.”

 

“Should I thank you for saving me, Lloyd?” I asked. I knew it sounded incredibly rude, but I was angry at myself for having botched dying.

 

“Thank me?” he laughed. He stood up, went to the door of the small room, turned off the light, and started to close the door behind him. “Thank me?” he repeated. “Hell no, you shouldn’t thank me. You owe me your life, Nolan.”

 

I closed my eyes again and tried to sleep, but could only stay the way I was, in this stranger’s bed, under his covers, until the first light of the Paris morning filled the room. The noise of the city began to increase as Paris became alive.

 

The door to the room flung open, Lloyd entered carrying a tray. On the tray were two cups and a croissant.

 

“I hope you like tea,” he said. “I don’t drink coffee.” He flicked his ash into the air. “That stuff will kill you.”

 

When he arrived at my side with the tea, I sat up and held one of the cups. It was very hot. I put the cup to my lip and sipped the scalding tea. When I had finished about half of the cup, I put it on the small table beside the bed. The whole time, Lloyd watched me and sipped at his tea, every once in a while taking a drag from his cigarette.

 

“Tell me,” he said, “why your life is more miserable than mine.” He sat on the stool beside the bed, just staring at me. His green eyes penetrated me with their steadfastness.

 

“I don’t know anything about you,” I said.

 

“I didn’t know anything about you when I jumped into the crap-filled Seine after you, now, did I?” He chuckled, lit another cigarette and said, “Humor me.”

 

“I feel like such an idiot,” I said.

 

“Humor me anyway.”

 

“I chased a married woman all the way to Paris,” I said. It sounded stupid coming from my lips, out into the air to my own ears.

 

“Doomed from the get go,” Lloyd said.

 

“She and I had an affair while in Montreal,” I said. It was as if I was defending my decision to have come to Paris to find her.

 

“And what you had there didn’t carry over too well here in the most romantic city of the civilized world?” He smiled when he spoke, but it was not a mocking smile. It was the smile of someone who really did seem to care.

 

“She told me it would never work.” I didn’t know how to put it into words that anyone would understand, because I was not sure I completely understood it myself. I pulled the cover up to my neck and said, “I wanted to stop being me. I wanted to stop feeling it. All of it.”

 

“Did it work? Did you stop feeling it?” he asked.

 

“You saved me before I could find out,” I said.

 

He stood up, put the cups onto the tray, went to the door, and said, “And for that, you owe me your life, Nolan, and don’t you forget it.” The door closed behind him.

 

A few minutes later, he returned with some clothes. “These are mine. We’re the same height and build, so you’ll get along fine in them.” He handed me a green turtleneck, some jeans, and some boxers.

 

Once I had dressed, I felt somewhat more relaxed. I walked out of the room and into the living room of the apartment. It was nicely furnished.

 

“What do you do for a living?” I asked.

 

“Absolutely nothing,” he said. “How about you? What do you do?” He walked over to a door, pointed, and said, “This is the washroom.” He then walked over to a small alcove and said, “This is the kitchen. The rest is the living room and dining room.”

 

“I want to be a writer,” I said. I noticed a photograph on the coffee table and pointed at it. “Does she live here?”

 

“Not any more,” he said.

 

“She leave you?” I asked.

 

“She died,” he said.

 

“I’m sorry,” I managed to say.

 

“Don’t be. I knew she was dying when I married her,” he said without any sadness or remorse in his voice. He walked up to me, leaned over, brushed my hair with his hand, and said, “You feel too much.”

 

“How can you just brush it off? You loved her, didn’t you?” I asked.

 

“Yes I did,” he said. “Listen, Nolan, it’s not like I’m some kind of unfeeling beast. I wanted to enjoy the time she and I had together without cluttering it up with remorse, regret, and remiss, you understand?”

 

“I’m not sure I do,” I admitted.

 

“I had a crappy go of it my whole life,” he said.

 

“Yes, me too,” I replied.

 

“From foster home to foster home, you know?”

 

“Well,” I said, struggling to keep up with him as he glided along, “I don’t know that kind of hardship.”

 

“I decided to get to know someone through the mail,” he explained. “Someone who would always be there, even while I moved around from home to home. That’s how I came to know Marie-Claire. When I found out she was very ill, I didn’t care, you know what I mean?”

 

“Not really,” I said. “Sorry for being so naïve.”

 

“One day, two day, three days, a whole lifetime—as long as it’s real that’s all that matters,” he said. He lit up another cigarette. “We’ve bigger and better things to do with our lives than feel sorry for ourselves and die.” He went into his bedroom. I could hear some shuffling about. He returned with a small book. It looked like someone’s diary. “For instance,” he said. “It’s my wife’s diary,” he explained.

 

I waved my hands, showing I did not want to read it.

 

“Oh, I wasn’t going to let you read it,” he said. “Hell, I haven’t even read it.” He put it on the coffee table.

 

“I’m going to take it to a gompa in India. Way up near the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh,” he explained.

 

“Why?” I asked.

 

“She asked me to, just before she passed away,” he said. He turned the book in a full circle. “There are manuscripts up there that have survived for hundreds of years, and she wanted her diary to be like that. And now, you’re going to join me.”

 

“I am?” I said.

 

He stared at me in his steadfast way, and said, “Yes, you are.”

 

“Why?” I asked.

 

“I don’t want to go off to the mountains of Northwestern India alone,” he said. “The fresh air would do you some good. Might get that woman completely out of your system.”

 

I leaned back into the couch. “I don’t have any money,” I protested. “As for getting her out of my system, I would have to die and come back to do that.”

 

“I do,” he said. “I have Marie-Claire’s life insurance money, and it’s doing me no damned good at all here in Paris.”

 

“You’re sure about this?”

 

“You owe me,” he said, finally. “You owe me your life, as a matter of fact.”

 

I leaned over, picked up the diary, and felt its weight in my hands. There was something in this book, unread even by the man she must have loved, that was important enough that a dying woman wanted it to be brought all the way to some remote place in India. Had anything ever mattered as much to me? Had Anne-Jolie mattered that much? Suddenly, the book felt very heavy, so I put it back on the table.

 

There was something that was not right with the situation. Why had Lloyd brought me back to his apartment instead of just calling an ambulance? Why was he asking me, a complete stranger, to help him fulfill the last wish of his wife? It seemed preposterous. Maybe the answers to my questions about Lloyd were in Marie-Claire’s diary, but if they were, it would not be right to seek them out there, in the private thoughts of another. He had said even he had not dishonored her by reading the diary. This appeared to be one of those things that I would have to reject or accept on faith and intuition alone.

 

“Or you could stay on here in Paris, without a franc to your name,” he said with a grin, staring straight at me, always in his determined way. He reached out his hand and we shook on it.

 

* * *

 

We had made it as far as we could before we had to stop. The Rohtang Pass was closed due to heavy snow. Lloyd, much like me, made decisions without really thinking too much. According to the locals, we would probably not be able to get where he wanted to go with Marie-Claire’s diary before the melt.

 

Because we were staying in the cheapest place we could find that was bearable, we had the money to stay in Manali until then. Lloyd had managed to find a good typewriter from an ex-hippie who needed the money, so I would not go completely insane up in the hills. The scenery was astounding, the air was fresh, and the people, both tourists and locals, were friendly enough. I even felt that I could probably handle the speed of life in Manali until the melt came.

 

I wasn’t sure if Lloyd would be able to, however. When he could not find a single guide to take us into the closed Rohtang Pass, he flew into a rage. It was also impossible to get permission to travel. I didn’t really want to be around him when he was in one of his dark moods, but I tried to remind myself what he had done for me.

 

He had done more than jump into the cold waters of the Seine to pull me back to myself. Even with a persistent cough from having sucked in a bit of the Seine, he had helped me track down Anne-Jolie, and comforted me during the week afterwards when I recovered from her speech about how she and I could never again see one another. He read my stories when I wrote them, and faithfully posted them for me even when I did not have the courage to send them to publishers. Had he been a woman, I probably would have loved him, so I did not judge him too harshly for his temper.

 

In the way one straight man can love another, I did love Lloyd Kirk. I loved the way he was able to stare at me, in his uniquely determined way, and get me to stop shitting myself about life. I often wished I had his clarity of purpose, his single-minded innocence, his total lack of self-pity. I could love him in that way, temper or not, and I tried to show him that I did by agreeing to everything he proposed. That was how Lloyd wanted to be loved: with absolute loyalty—and I tried to give him that—even when he drank himself stupid and started hurling curses at the world. Perhaps it was a better love than any love I could have for a woman, because it was a love I could have that didn’t constantly require me to also love myself and have that love—and myself—put to the question.

 

It was also the kind of love that had me taking up his vices. High in the mountains of Northwestern India, I started smoking, to keep pace with Lloyd. It had been a week since I first felt the buzz that came with inhaling, and the buzz was gone now, and I was as hooked as he was. The buttered tea of the locals was probably going to kill me one day, too, but it filled me with a warmth that regular tea never could. I had always been a drinker, but to keep pace with him, I drank even more. I was becoming his brother.

 

So one night, when we had both had far too much booze in us, when he proposed we bribe one of the less ethical local guides with far too many rupees than any guide deserved to be paid, so we could get to the temple in the pass that would be the final destination of Marie-Claire’s diary, I did what I always did when he proposed something rash—I agreed.

 

Half a day into our trek, I wished I hadn’t agreed, but it was too late to turn back. Bhagat Devi, our guide, a man in his sixties, refused to carry anything for us except food, even though we had paid him ten times what it would have cost us had we waited until the melt. The money we’d gave to the local police so they wouldn’t officially remember we had wandered off without permission, together with Bhagat’s fee, would keep our scheme quiet. As the police had taken our money, they’d reminded us that Rohtang meant “Pile of Corpses.”

 

As old as Bhagat was, he always managed to be so far ahead of us in the snow that we could barely make him out as we followed in the impressions of his footsteps. When it became too dark for us to see him ahead of us, he stopped, cleared away some snow, and started putting up two tents—one for him, and one for us. At least he made us something to eat.

 

“Stay dry,” he told us as we ate. He smiled with his toothless face and kept saying it every once in a while, as if those were the only two words of English he knew. He made some buttered tea, poured three cups of it, and said it again, “Stay dry.”

 

That night, in the darkness of the tent, I could hear Lloyd’s strained breathing. I thought perhaps that the thin air had aggravated his lungs and the cough he’d taken on after saving me from the river was worse than he would allow himself to let on. I was not sure if he had fallen asleep, so did not say a word to ask how he was feeling. Exhausted, I closed my eyes and fell asleep without much effort.

 

When I awoke, I crawled out of my bag and realized I was alone in the tent. I peered out into the brightness of the snow. Lloyd was sitting on his backpack, writing in his own diary.

 

“Good morning, Nolan,” he said when he saw me.

 

“Where’s Bhagat?” I asked.

 

“He packed up his tent,” he said. “He’s off scouting the safest route, I think.”

 

I stood outside the tent, stretched my arms, and took in a deep breath of the crisp air. Lloyd covered his mouth and coughed. The sky was clear and blue, a good sign, were it not for the glare of the sun on the snow. If there was anyone else on planet Earth at that moment, I would not have known it.

 

Half an hour later, Bhagat returned. Lloyd and I had packed up our tent, gathered all our things together, and were ready. “Stay dry,” Bhagat said before waving for us to follow him. He was his usual distance ahead of us in no time.

 

We marched for hours before I noticed how sore my body was. Maybe it was the thinner air of the place that kept me from noticing sooner. Lloyd was coughing more often now, even though he hadn’t lit up a smoke since we’d left camp. The cough sounded wet. Two hours later into our trek, I noticed that it became almost constant. I wanted to stop, to rest my bones and let Lloyd catch his breath, but Bhagat was setting our pace. When we finally did stop, I put down my pack, sat on it, and closed my eyes.

 

Lloyd was still coughing. When Bhagat heard this, he walked up to him, put his hand on Cohen’s forehead, and said, “Fever.” He started to clear snow for the tents and set to putting them up.

 

While our guide was doing that, I walked over to Lloyd, who was sitting on his pack and writing in his diary and put my hand on his forehead. He was burning up.

 

“How long have you been sick?” I asked.

 

“Since the Seine,” he admitted. “But it only started to come back pretty bad about two days before we headed out here,” he admitted.

 

“And you wanted to leave anyway?” I scolded him.

 

“It’s okay,” he said, still writing.

 

I felt the hair at the back of his neck. It was soaking wet from sweat. Some of that would have been from the hiking, but I could tell much of it was from the fever.

 

“It’s insane,” I said.

 

“Probably,” he replied as he folded his diary shut. He put his diary, and Marie-Claire’s, into his coat, rather than into his backpack.

 

“We should head back,” I said.

 

“If I’m still this sick tomorrow morning,” he promised, “we’ll stay here until I get well enough to move, rather than push on.”

 

Bhagat prepared our meal and he and I ate. Lloyd was not hungry. He did drink some tea, however. We crawled into the tent after eating.

 

“Nolan,” Lloyd said after some time.

 

“Yes,” I said.

 

“I really feel sick,” he said.

 

I didn’t know what to say in return. We were two days’ march in the snow from Manali, and I had no idea how many days’ march from wherever it was we were headed, since I had no clue where exactly we were. Finally, I said, “We shouldn’t have left if you knew you were this sick.”

 

He didn’t reply and I did not press him for a response. I fell asleep with a heavy sense of sobriety coursing through my tired blood.

 

He fumbled around in his bag for a while, and then handed me Marie-Claire’s diary.

 

“What’s this for?” I asked.

 

“Read it,” he said. “Don’t tell me what she says, just read it.” His eyes were almost steadfast, for a brief moment.

 

“I can’t,” I said.

 

“Do it,” he said. “Go outside, sit down, and read it. Please. There’s still enough light outside.”

 

I took the diary from him and said, “Why?”

 

“I want you to come back and tell me not what she says, but whether or not all of this was worth the effort,” he said. “I’m too afraid to read it myself. You tell me that, okay?”

 

I got out of the tent, sat down on the half-empty backpack, lit a cigarette, and started reading Marie-Claire’s private thoughts.

 

She often spoke of her love for Lloyd. More even than she spoke of what was happening in her day, or the pain of the cancer that was slowly killing her, she spoke of that love. I loved Lloyd, too, and could understand her. Hers had been a romantic love, but even so, it was a complete and pure thing.

 

As I read, I became ashamed that I had been so self-concerned. I wanted to offer someone the kind of love that Marie-Claire offered Lloyd. A complete love that was more concerned for another than it was for itself.

 

By the time I finished reading the diary, I knew that her last wish would have to be honored. Only she, I, and the gods of the mountains would know of this love. Lloyd, because he refused to read the diary, would never know. I wanted him to know.

 

I returned to the tent. He was asleep. I put my hand in his sweat-soaked hair. “I want you to know what she said,” I whispered.

 

He opened his eyes and said, “Don’t tell me. Just tell me if all of this is worth it.”

 

“It is,” I admitted. “It’s probably the only worthwhile thing I’ve been part of in my life.”

 

He smiled as he fell back into his fevered sleep.

 

“Nolan,” he said, very weakly an hour later.

 

“Yes?”

 

“You owe me your life,” he said.

 

“I know.” I started to sob. I owed him more than my life.

 

“Will you make good on that?” he asked. His mouth barely moved as he spoke. “Nothing ever dies up here. I don’t want her diary to die.”

 

“Nothing and nobody will die,” I said.

 

Before he fell back asleep, he moved his lips and said something that I could not make out. Finally, he was asleep again. I crawled into his blankets and held his burning body close to mine. I didn’t want him to be alone. So close to him, I could feel him inhale and exhale, although his breaths were very shallow. I awoke, then, when he stopped breathing completely, as if my own lungs had filled with the Seine again and taken me completely this time.

 

* * *

 

Down, down, down the rock staircase back into Manali. Bhagat Devi was only six paces ahead of me the whole time he and I hiked back. He had helped me bury both their diaries under some large stones far from the path. He would take the police up there again, to retrieve Lloyd’s body, which we had cached away. Nothing ever dies in the Northwestern Mountains of India, I had to keep telling myself.

"House-in-Circle"
"Staircases"

Books by this author:

Born and raised in Western Canada, Jackson grew up as a child in logging camps, where radio plays and reading were his only forms of entertainment. Upon his return to the city, he felt the call to write fiction, and approached art with a passion and fury. Rather than jump directly into authorhood, he first edited, and then promoted others’ writing as a literary agent. Eventually, he moved forward into his own art, and his first three novels were published in the United Kingdom between 2000 and 2002.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2006. He is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada.

Jackson lives in Western Canada, where he continues to write fiction and work in scientific research.

With Lily the Aussie - 2013
Quinn Tyler Jackson
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