Spiral Staircase

By Jared Carter

From a certain point onward there is no turning back.
That is the point that must be reached
. – Kafka


"Not many care to go up there anymore," the old man said, bringing from beneath the counter a stick of wood no more than an inch square and ten inches long. Threaded through a hole at one end was a steel ring that held five or six hand-forged keys. The wood was walnut, polished and smooth. The keys were heavy and thick and bore no sign of rust. He pushed the stick across the counter and turned back toward the desk.

Moments before, he had pointed to a door at the far end of the office. Beyond, he told the visitor, was a stairway to the second floor. Each of the keys he was about to provide would open a door to still another stairway, but on each floor the doors were in different locations relative to the plan of the building. In addition, some of the stairways were locked at the top. Whoever wished to reach the lantern must remember the directions, locate the different doors, and use the keys in their proper sequence.

Earlier, when the visitor first entered the office, the old man had insisted that the upper floors were no longer open to the public, but he had relented when the visitor explained that he had come a long way. After handing over the keys, the old man said nothing more, though when he turned away he seemed to smile. The room was silent except for the ticking of a clock.

The visitor went over to the door, opened it with the first key, and proceeded up the stairs to the second floor. At the top was a long hallway. He had been told to turn left and take the second corridor on the right. On both sides of the hall the doors to several of the classrooms stood open. As he passed along he stopped now and then to look inside.

The rooms had high ceilings and tall windows. All were empty. There were no blackboards, no desks. Embossed metal plates showed where the stove flues had been attached to the walls. In some rooms the molding surrounding the doors and windows was made of oak; in others, it was yellow poplar. The pale blue wainscoting, which must have been pine beneath, still bore the original layer of buttermilk paint.

In one room he noticed a fireplace made of red marble; in another, a pie-safe with its perforated metal panels removed. And in still another, a long trestle table made of oak. Its upper surface was grooved and worn but there were no carved initials or places burned by cigarettes. Farther down the hall, a cloakroom into which he ventured by mistake contained a pile of ladderback chairs. They were made of maple and their woven bottoms had fallen out. The floor beneath the stack was strewn with bits of chaff.

The light was better on the third floor, which was higher than all but a few of the trees in the park outside. The rooms were smaller and more numerous and had lower ceilings. They were as empty as the rooms below. Originally they might have served as sleeping quarters or as offices and storerooms.

The ceilings showed no discoloration, no patches of broken plaster. When he had approached the building, earlier that morning, he had looked up at the peaks and ridges of the roof above the line of trees. The slate appeared to be in excellent condition. At the top, also well preserved, was the cupola with its volutes and cornices and its brilliant white lantern.

He came to a corner room with windows along two sides. It was bare but much warmer and more inviting than the rooms on the second floor. An indirect north light spread evenly across the floorboards and moldings, smoothing their nicks and scars and making the whitewashed walls seem fresh and unblemished.

There was no sound, not even the buzzing of a fly, or a yellow jacket tapping along the panes. He went over to look at the glass in the windows. In the rooms below, the windows contained large squares of plate glass. It was unusual to find that much glass in a building of this size and vintage. Back in those days such enormous panes had not been available locally. Someone had transported them over hundreds of miles of rough terrain. They would have been difficult to handle and vastly expensive.

In contrast, the windows in this room consisted of small rectangular panes set in mullions, six to a frame. Random streaks and blemishes in their texture showed that they had been made by hand. This was the oldest glass he had encountered so far. Most likely it had been removed from some earlier structure. During the previous century such handmade glass was considered less desirable than manufactured glass. These panes, installed on the third floor, were not likely to be noticed by those passing below. The location had helped them to survive. Few had been broken or replaced. Much of the glass in these windows, then, might easily have been two centuries old.

He took the opportunity, in the improved light, to examine the woodwork. He studied the quarter rounds, the picture molding, the tongue-and-groove joints of the wainscoting. All the while, at the edges of his vision, the world outside, seen through the flaws and striations of the old glass, was slipping its moorings. The sky was on the verge of melting, and the clouds seemed to flicker and change.

He came up close to one of the old panes and looked out. In the stiff summer breeze the tops of the ancient trees and the lawns and walkways beneath were moving in several directions at once. In response to something inside him – his breathing, perhaps, or the beat of his pulse – everything appeared to be shifting in a hundred different ways.

He re-entered the corridor, found the door of the staircase leading to the attic, opened it, and peered up. Light from the hallway barely revealed the first few steps. These stairs were much steeper than the others, and there was no railing. With one hand on the wall, he crept up, a step at a time, until he bumped against the door at the top. It was locked. He tried two keys, then found the right one. The door swung open.

He stepped out into what seemed at first to be the shadows of a vast, overarching tent. Above and all around him the peaks and valleys of the roof and the supporting rafters and beams hung down in endless folds and gathers. Currents of dust eddied and swirled across the floor. The only illumination came from four windows set low in the attic’s four corners. Each was oblong and no larger than a dinner plate, and deeply recessed in the building’s fašade.

In the center of this space, barely visible in the bleak light, a spiral staircase rose like a length of rope suspended by a magician’s spell. If he had stretched out his arms, the stairway would not have been much wider. Around and around it went, in a perfect helix, climbing some thirty feet to the top of the attic. Hidden among the shadows, where roof and staircase came together, was the door to the lantern. The last key on the ring would open that door.

According to the guidebook the lantern offered a splendid view. The building stood at the highest point on the entire river. Gazing down, one could see the pathways through the park, the roofs of the houses below the ridge, the roads leading to distant towns. Far to the west the broad green plain of the bottomland extended for miles. To the north and south, along the east bank of the river, wooded cliffs and palisades had built up for centuries, since the last ice age, out of the yellow dust that had blown in from the prairies.

Still, it was the staircase he had come to see, and it stood before him now, no more than a few feet away. He had found references to it in articles written during the last hundred years, and in at least one out-of-print guidebook. But it had been mentioned only in passing, as part of the general survey of the building. The staircase itself, and its method of construction, had never been described in detail.

It was entirely self-supporting and appeared to have no outward thrust, no displacement, and only the slightest sag. No metal bands seemed to have been used in its construction; no wooden or iron beams reached up or down to brace it. If it contained nails or pins, these had been concealed. One article suggested that it was fitted together with pegs, but now that he could glance up and down its length, he saw that it was entirely too fragile. Its posts and interlocking ribs were far too narrow for conventional mortise-and-tenon technique. Gluing, of course, was out of the question for something of this scale.

He stood at the foot of the steps and reached out to the curve of the handrail. What kind of wood was this? And how had it been shaped? It swirled to the right, up and around the swift rise of the lifts. Each triangular tread was sixteen inches across and no more than a hand’s width at the outer edge. The lifts unfolded like the vanes of an oriental fan. He was reminded of the narrow, circular stairways hidden deep inside ocean-going ships, or even submarines, where space was at a premium.

But there was no lack of room here. Some other need had dictated this economy, this reliance on air and space and invisible balance. As yet he had no name for it. Lift, perhaps. He surveyed the entire length of the structure, from its base to its distant top, and the right word came to him: flight.

The staircase was real. It was solid, and crafted by hand, and immediately before him. With the tip of his toe he tested the first lift, then the second. Each touch yielded a slow, prolonged creak, as though a signal had been sent up through the nerves and ganglia of some living thing.

He realized that he had been gripping the railing. He drew back and stepped away. A faint vibration came from somewhere high in the structure, as though in response to the release of tension. He remembered reading that there were two hundred steps to the top. The parting words of the man in the office came to him: "Not many care to go up there anymore."

All this time he had been holding the stick with the keys. Now he placed it on the first step. He fished around in one of his pockets for the small flashlight he always carried on such expeditions. With the aid of its beam he could make out the grain of the wood in the rail and the manner in which the individual pieces had been assembled. It was hackberry, a strong, supple wood often used in the making of rustic furniture. The joints were interlocking keys, a method employed by coopers when they worked without metal to band the staves together.

It was true that occasionally a chair or even a small table might be joined in this way. But that a self-supporting stairway could have been constructed in this manner was difficult to conceive. Still, the evidence was before him, and the solution was ingenious: the handrail itself provided a great deal of the support. It appeared to be a long and continuous coil wound tightly around a load-bearing core. The degree of torque was difficult to imagine. But the entire structure had held together all these years.

How long had it been, he wondered, since the last visitor had climbed up to the cupola and gazed about? And what would happen, now that he had come this far, if he decided to go on? He weighed close to two hundred pounds. There was a considerable personal danger. But there was also the fear of being the one who, by a single misstep, might bring about the destruction of this marvelous artifact.

Clearly, the roof was in excellent condition, which suggested that workmen had been going up and down these steps on a regular basis. They carried materials, too, such as slate or pitch, along with their tools. But the roof of the building could be gained from the outside, if the necessary ladders and scaffolding were put in place. It was equally possible that no one had ventured up this staircase for dozens of years.

He stepped back a few feet, to get a wider view. He switched off the flashlight and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. As he stood there he became aware of additional sources of illumination. Here and there a faint glow came from five or six grilles spaced at intervals out near the eaves and from even smaller louvers set beneath a few of the ridges. The dust that kept drifting across the floor must have gotten in through these openings.

Some of that same dust was already on his hands. He tasted the tip of one of his fingers. It was not plaster dust. All the plaster was below, on the walls and ceilings of the lower floors. It was not lint, either, or soot or ash. Nor was it pinfeathers. There had been no pigeons on the building, or anywhere in the park. This was owl country, and there would be hawks along the river.

He knelt to scoop up a handful of particles and dust. He snapped on the flashlight and examined the mixture: cottonwood fluff and the molt of box-elder blossom, lifted by the wind and carried into this sheltered place, along with yellow dust from far out on the plains. All of it sifted back and forth across the rough flooring until it had been worn down and polished almost to the consistency of smoke.

He returned to the staircase and played the light’s beam over the steps. They were coated with this powder. The higher the step, the thicker it seemed to have settled. Not many care to go up there anymore.

The old man’s words began to make more sense now. Down in the office, the visitor had paid little attention to their encounter, so great was his excitement about finally approaching the attic. Years before, in an old encyclopedia, he had run across a reference to the building and its remarkable staircase. Relying on out-of-date maps, he had tracked down the village. As he had driven up the hill that morning, he had half expected the site to be thronged by visitors. He had assumed that others would be eager to see the staircase for themselves.

He had found, instead, on a windswept height, a grove of towering hardwood trees, and a large brick building that seemed entirely deserted. Inside, at the end of a long corridor, he entered an office. There were no brochures on the counter, no signs or displays. An old man, asleep in a chair, sat up and pretended to be occupied with a few papers on the desk in front of him. The old man greeted him, but explained nothing about the building or how it came to be there. Evidently it was assumed that if one had come this far, its history was already known.

The expression on the old man’s face when he handed over the keys was becoming clearer. There had been nothing unfriendly about that look. It was a smile, but a knowing smile, one that implied that something had been left out. Not everything had been said that might have been said.

He thought about that conversation as he paced about the staircase, surveying it from all angles, trying to determine how it was connected to the roof above. At that moment he noticed something far back in a corner of the attic. He walked over and found two chairs similar to those stacked in the cloakroom below. The rush bottoms of these two seemed intact. He brushed away the dust on one of them and tested the weave of the cushion. It was quite firm.

He glanced at the staircase and the broad surrounding floor. It would not be wise to continue breathing the particles that seemed to well up with every step he took. Yet he needed a few more minutes to consider the morning’s events, and to think about what he had observed. Then he would decide about going on up. He put away the flashlight and sat down on the chair he had dusted off.

He thought back over the history of the building. He had pieced it together from the books and articles he had consulted. Perhaps if he were to review it now, there might be something he had overlooked. It was a cautionary tale.

During the previous century, in a seminary farther to the east, due to some obscure doctrinal dispute, a group of professors and students had broken away from the main body of believers. The creation of utopias was much in vogue. They decided to go out into the wilderness and establish a community of their own. A few of them possessed inherited wealth; others had practical skills and trades to offer. Their loved ones agreed to go with them. All were able-bodied and eager to make a new life on the far frontier.

They came out to this remote place on the river, built log houses, and began to clear the land. Soon they had established a grist mill and a distillery. Over a period of years, after enormous labors, they had managed to erect this building, using bricks burnt on the site and blocks of stone hauled from a quarry a few miles down the river.

The academy, as it came to be called, would provide them with classrooms and offices and enable them to attract recruits. Above all, they wanted the structure to last. They had insisted on using the best available materials in its construction. At its top they placed a great lantern to serve as a beacon for the surrounding countryside.

While they were applying the finishing touches and planning the dedicatory celebration, news came that a civil war had broken out far to the east. It proved to be a murderous conflict, but it was centered on a cause to which they, by the very nature of their beliefs, were passionately devoted.

They rushed to enlist and were quickly swept away. Whatever they believed, whatever had compelled them to seek out this remote place and to erect this building, with its magnificent lantern and its remarkable inner staircase – all that was left behind and soon lost and forgotten. Not one of their original number returned.

The academy’s intended purpose was never achieved. Though there were scattered attempts, over the years, to establish some sort of college in the building, none succeeded. In time, those who remained in the village took over the lower rooms as a schoolhouse for their children, but found it too expensive to heat during the winter months. The two upper floors and the access to the lantern were sealed off.

Decades passed. Chautauqua associations pitched their tents on the grounds. Once a year, a traveling carnival set up its booths and shooting galleries under the canopy of trees. In later years three Protestant congregations operated a summer camp in the building’s shadow. Rooms on the first floor were converted to dormitories, a plastic swimming pool was erected not far from the main building, and an outdoor auditorium was carved from a hillside. But the venture was not successful, and the improvements were soon overgrown with weeds and saplings.

The building was too primitive to be modernized, too remote to serve as a conference center, too old-fashioned to attract those in search of novelty. The villagers kept the park mowed and the trees trimmed. A small endowment, set up by the widows and children of the first seminarians, paid for the overall maintenance.

The academy had, nonetheless, been built to last. It remained on its ridge among the lofty trees. Not many care to go up there anymore.

No one alive knew who had designed the staircase. One article suggested that the secrets of its construction had been lost and would not be understood until it had been dismantled. There was doubt that if this were done it could ever be reassembled.

Its origins, although untraceable, were at least understandable. Here and there on the frontier there had been itinerant artisans skilled in the working of wood and stone, and schoolmasters with books on geometry and classical design. It was likely that at a site such as this, when the builders began to consider a simple way to reach the lantern from the attic floor, while keeping weight at a minimum, some rustic genius had stepped forward, confident that it could be done. But why such an elegant solution?

In a place where few would ever venture, they could have cobbled something together with a wagonload of rough-hewn planks. Instead, they had chosen to erect this splendid thing. Their doing so could not have been accidental. He tried to remember the nature of the theological dispute that had led to the building’s existence, but it would not come to him.

He thought instead of the expression on the old man’s face. The smile had been friendly enough, but it had also been fleeting, and not meant for the visitor to see. The reason seemed obvious now. Something had been left out of the directions. The old man had said nothing at all about the staircase. It had not been mentioned. He had been willing to let the visitor encounter it on his own.

Whoever reached the attic and approached the staircase would have to make up his own mind about going farther. That person would be given a key, but the decision to climb the stairs would be his alone.

Despite its precarious appearance, the staircase might be as strong and supple as the day it was built. The wood might have seasoned perfectly, and not dried out at all. Perhaps it had endured all these years in a remarkable stasis, one no less strange and unusual than the powerful tensions holding it together, or the remote events that had conjured it into being.

It might bear up for anyone who understood such matters. Or even for someone who was unconcerned about them, but who was prepared to take the risk. Surely many others had gone before. Perhaps a few had reached the top and attained the memorable view.

The keys were still on the first step of the staircase. He waited and listened. Outside, the wind seemed to have died down. From somewhere far away a mourning dove called through the trees.

He looked at the luminous dial of his watch. It was approaching noon, a time when there would be almost no shadows among the great oaks and maples surrounding the building. Instead, they would be filled with sunlight, and the lantern would be a pure and gleaming white.

Here in the attic that same light would be indirect, and yet it would find ways to move through the darkness, and to show the staircase as it was meant to be seen.