The Staircase (English version)
Luis Arturo Ramos
Once again she dreamed of the handrail. From the darkness at the foot of the stairs, the strip of wood extends as if someone were pulling it from above. The polished mahogany color produces (strangely because it has no reason to cause any sound at all) the hiss of a serpent or a fish as it slithers from the depths of the aquarium towards the riveted face of the observer: her face.
There never were any hands. On one occasion there were about to be; but she realized that instead it was the shadow cast by the sea gulls in the painting on the landing, or perhaps by the shade deadening the light from the bulb. She had been forbidden by her mother to go down the stairs alone ever since that man arrived. ¿Who lives down there?¿ she asked one day and no one gave her an answer. Sometimes she heard steps, the sound of a key searching for the lock. The door opening and closing. The sound remaining, vibrating in the well of the stairs.
On the landing there is a fern plant and a picture of grey sea gulls flying over a blue, numb sea.
Once she went down the stairs alone to where the two flights meet. She sat on the first step and waited without knowing what she was waiting for. Her elbows resting on her knees, her chin cupped in her hands, she whiled away the minutes slapping her thighs together. She watched the darkness seep into the hall of the little apartment house. She watched it pass through the curtained window and slide through the cracks in the door until, suddenly, the flash of the bulb as it was switched on brought a flood of purple blotches and yellowish streaks to her eyes.
The stairway was bathed in light and she could see the faded sea gulls suspended in the grey sky of the picture. The sea laced by streaks of foam. The fern lending freshness and humidity to the cardboard sea. It was six o¿clock in the evening. She counted the stairs on the first flight up to the one she was sitting on: twelve. Then she counted the stairs on the second flight which took her up to the door of her apartment: twelve. Twelve and twelve: twenty-four; divided by four, equals six. That discovery led her to think that everything there was organized toward a very special purpose: something that escaped her understanding but which had to do with the spiky fern, the textured sea gulls, the handrail slick as a stream of water. It was six in the evening and the building manager had turned on the gates light from his apartment.
She stood up and listened to her mother busying herself with the supper dishes. She went up the stairs without taking her eyes off the door of the apartment on the first floor, which became smaller with every step she took, until she could see no more than the door mat. At that moment more light flowed into in the gates and she recognized the sound of keys. She paused, close now to her door; she looked down and saw the brown shoes, the crease of the pant legs, brown also, falling around his ankles. She began to kneel down, searching for the face, but at that moment her mother opened the door. She ran into the apartment to wash her hands for supper. She remembers herself slowly going up the stairs (her left hand gripped by her mother, her right sliding up the handrail) feeling the highly-Polished wood, the warmth which the mahogany stain seems to convey. She remembers her mother climbing the stairs with her mouth slightly open, her raspy breathing, her shopping bag clutched to her chest. She remembers the color of the sea gulls at that hour of the afternoon, when the unlit bulb on the stairway allowed a brownish fuzz to coat the walls. She remembers the sea and its sprays of foam. The color that the light and the shadows sketch in the veins of the wood.
¿I told you before that I don¿t want you out there alone on the stairs. I don¿t want you to play there.¿
¿Who lives downstairs?¿
¿A maniac ―The drunken child kidnapper.¿
From that moment on, through the keyhole, through the crack of the half-opened door, with her ear glued to the wood, she listened to the noise of the keys in his hands, the steps, the half-heard voices. She imagined the sea gulls coming out of the picture, flying rapidly, very quickly, until they broke through the window in the hallway door and merged into the real sky.
She began to dream about the staircase. The gleaming handrail climbing like a river flowing backwards. The sea gulls pecking at the wood and carving out their names, hearts pierced by arrows. The fern, her rag doll sliding down the wooden strip as if on a toboggan. But she never found hands on the railing. She smiles. She remembers.
Now (how many?) ten, fifteen years later, with Mothers' Day presents stacked against her chest, she climbs the staircase and unwittingly imitates the steps of her mother. Is she really still her mother after so many years? Is she still her mother's daughter? Her right hand touches and remembers the warmth of the handrail... The fern is now a large pot with plastic roses. An abstract ? painting replaces the thin and ragged sea gulls.
She asked who is now living on the first floor. "That crazy man... That pervert," says her mother, insisting that she doesn't want to talk any more about it because it still makes her shudder. Then once again she hears (she looks at her watch and checks the time) the metallic click of the keys in the lock. The solitary voice, either swallowed or deformed by the dimensions of the apartment, that had to be ―has to be― the same as this one.
"What's the time?" she asks.
"It's four-thirty," replies her father.
She complains about her watch: It's stopped, she taps it with her fingernail. Then she laughs when she realizes that what she heard was only the memory. Her parents laugh too because they think she's happy, because it's Mothers' Day, because they are all together again.
Later on, with Aunt Emilia (single) and Dad, they had chocolate cake (brought of course by Aunt Emilia), coffee (Dad's special brew) and vanilla ice cream (from the corner store). Mom was pleased by the gifts. She was grateful for the kindness. She lamented not having had more children in a tone of voice that could only be a reproach for her daughter's independence. Dad caresses her hand. Aunt Emilia cleans the comers of her mouth with the corner of her napkin. She sighs. Mothers' Day, what a beautiful custom.
She looks through the window: a couple is talking on the sidewalk across the street. He moves his hands, puts them on his hips, leans over the girl. She turns her head, offers him her profile. She realizes how the late afternoon light puts greater distance between them even if they stay in the same place. By now it really must be six o'clock, and at this hour everything seems to distance itself from surrounding objects.
She gets up with the cup of coffee in her hands; she listens to Aunt Emilia talking about her holiday in Los Angeles, walks toward the door and observes her family blotched by the light coming in through the window. She leans against the wooden door. Then, between the voice of Aunt Emilia and the sweet sound of the spoon in the ice cream dish, she listens to the muffled footsteps, rattling of the keys.
She looks at her parents again, reaches her hand toward the door knob and opens it trying to make the least possible noise, to let as little light as possible escape, because she knows that it might be dark outside. She pokes her head outside, then her shoulders; she takes two steps into the corridor and crouches down with her hands on the railing.
Downstairs, the warmly-dressed figure is standing at the open door. He waits for a few seconds, then, slowly, turns his head and looks up the stairs. Long grey strands of hair fall over his face. They look at each other. She steps backwards but not before confusing in the darkness of the stairway the symmetrical lines of the abstract picture with sea gull wings. When she shuts the door, the cup clasped tightly against her chest, her mother, Dad and Aunt Emilia are staring at her. She finishes in one swallow the coffee she still has in the cup.
That night she accepted happily for once the old invitation to stay over. Mom is so silly, so sentimental: she still keeps the rag doll; the toys from when she was ten adorn the bed and the shelves in her room.
"What's the time, Mom?"
"It's bedtime. It's after ten."
This time, in the dream, she found a hand on the staircase. A hand that was approaching, slowly, fading into the mahogany color of the wood. A child once again, she watches it, without fear but without smiling, sitting on the top step. The hand climbs as if it were navigating upstream. Then the sea gulls break the silence with their duck-like cries and the sea erupts into foam. She, a child once again, opens and closes her legs, mesmerized by the soft slapping of her thighs.
They decided to spend the day out. Window shopping, buying a few things, eating something somewhere, and then going to the movies. But she excused herself in the afternoon. She needed to lie down, rest a while, then she would feel better. No, not to worry, she would prefer to be alone. She'd take a taxi back. Yes, good-bye. Good-bye. Yes, bye.
She arrived at the house and began to climb the stairs. She criticized the terrible taste of the current manager (might it be the same one?) who substituted the freshness of a live fern for the pot of plastic flowers. And the absurd, meaningless picture. She imagined the picture of the sea gulls on some other wall of some other landing in any old building.
She went up the second flight of stairs without effort, lightly sliding her hand along the handrail. She thought she heard steps, the noise of keys. She stopped, turned her head to see if anyone was coming in. She looked at her watch: it was just a quarter to four. At six the lights of the hall would go on and everything would be bright and clear. Though perhaps now, with the new management, they might wait until later. To save energy... I suppose.
She washed her face with cold water; she changed out of her slacks into a loose, flowered skirt, a relic that her mother kept from her wild, rebellious years. She pulled an armchair up to the window and looked out at the street: the spindly trees, people walking and making strange, inexplicable gestures. Then the room was becoming smaller as the light drained away abandoning the objects outside. But curiously, the half-light that came in the window seemed to bring within her reach all of the objects in the room: the fat and kindly old clock that never lied. The dancing figurines of almostfinechina.
In the street the couple from the other day appeared; in the same spot they discussed again the same problem with identical postures. She thought that the woman probably worked in the corner store and that the man came to wait for her every day when she got off work. What time would that be?
She glanced at her wrist but her watch was in the bedroom. She turned to look at the living room clock, so reliable, so solemn, but the twilight obscured its face. She thought about electronic clocks that glow in the dark, about progress; she thought about Mom and Dad, so old-fashioned, so old, so pre-historic.
"It must be close to six," she said out loud.
And that, her voice rebounding off the walls, reminded her of many things. Toys sliding down the handrail, and crashing into the wall. The sea gulls fading more and more under the daily glare of the sunlight. Outside, the couple has disappeared and the passersby crisscross on the sidewalk opposite cut in half or decapitated by the passing cars. No, it wasn't going to rain.
She made herself comfortable in the chair, leaned back and put her feet up. She hugged her knees. She was sleepy and wanted it to rain; wanted the rain to wipe out the city, the world. Wanted Aunt Emilia and Dad and Mom to stay away, floating out there like little boats. Wanted them to stay away until the next century, and only come back for her birthday. She brushes her lips again her knees, smells her fresh, mentholated skin. Then, the shuffling of steps in the entrance hall and the sound of keys, startled her.
She got up from the chair and waited by the door gritting her teeth so as not to lose a single sound that came from the floor below. The ticking of the clock confused her at first and made her doubt what she heard; but then, once again, the fumbling of the keys and the murmur of a voice muffled by a scarf or turned-up lapels. The scraping of a key in the lock led her hands to the door knob.
She opened the door trying not to make any noise. The staircase was in darkness. Either it was not yet six or everything had changed. From the half-opened door she looked at the man's legs sliced by the bars of the handrail. The cuffs of the pant legs falling in folds over his shoes. The man murmured something as he turned the key in the lock.
She walked along the corridor allowing her apartment door to open wide. The different degrees of darkness when they mixed (hers, spilling down the stairway like a stream of water; the other, mired in the entryway like mud in a pit) made the man turn his head and look up at her as she leant over the banister.
They looked at each other. The man with the key in the lock. The door ajar, allowing a warm smell to escape. She walked along the hall to the top of the stairs. She went down two, three, five steps, while the man looked at her as if he didn't know her. She sat on a step, gathered her legs up under her and rested her elbows on her knees; then, nervous but not afraid, she began slapping together the soft skin of her thighs.
The man left the key in the lock and looked into the street through the sun-scorched curtain. He began to climb the stairs, slowly, with leaden legs. But she only watches the hand on the rail; a hand moves up and up as if it already knew the way. Then she, without fear but without a smile, points to the picture, to the absurd lines.
"Where are the sea gulls?" she asks.
Her thighs flutter below her flowered skirt. The man, leaning on the handrail, answers in a voice which she now remembers having heard before.*
Translated by Tim Richards
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BOOKS BY LUIS ARTURO RAMOS (CNL-INBA)
Crónicas desde el país vecino, anthology by María Elvira Villamil (Google Books)
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|Fuente: * From the book The Old Assassins. México, Grupo Editorial Neón, 1996. E Narrativa, 1.|