The stairs had always been there, but they weren’t there the day before. The first step was in the middle of the park. Just past the slide and the swings, next to the duck pond. Leaves and scraps of rubbish swirled around it, dancing in a wind that we couldn’t feel.
Some people ignored it, some muttered warnings against it, but some of us were drawn to it. We felt a powerful urge to see the top of the stairs. One by one we packed our bags. Calmly stocking up on food and blankets, not knowing how long the climb would take.
We smiled and nodded at each other when we met on the stairs. None of us had much breath to spare for talking, and really what was there to say? We knew where we going, and until we got there it didn’t matter where we had come from or who we had been. The important thing was reaching the top.
My food ran out after the first week or so. I begged for scraps from my neighbours but they had their own journeys to think of. The stairs seemed less welcoming that far up. Some steps were slimy with moss, but I soon learnt to rejoice in that. I started to rely on it for food. It was a bland diet but I got my strength back.
After a month or so I saw the first animals. Little deer like creatures no bigger than a cat. Tasty but hard to catch. Sometimes I thought I could hear something moving on the underside of the stairs. Once I saw a vast spider scurry out of sight. Perspective is strange here, but I stopped travelling after dark.
The years rolled on. Every day I would climb higher and higher. Stopping only to pick at moss, to hunt the step deer, or to rest for a brief moment. Every few months I met a fellow climber. We’d stop and exchange news. We all had the same story to tell, but the climb no longer seemed so urgent. We could spare the time to talk.
Sometimes I met people who had stopped climbing. They were less friendly. They’d given up, decided that they were never going to reach the top. Some of them collapsed, exhausted and waited to die. Others decided to settle down. They farmed the tastier kinds of moss, and herded the step deer.
Some of the stoppers started families. Not that climbers were celibate. The nights were cold, and it was easy to get lonely. You sometimes met a climber couple carrying a baby or a toddler: a child born on the stairs, who had never known the world below. Starting a family meant taking a break from climbing, and childbirth was dangerous. Some couples meant to stop for a year, while their baby grew strong, but they never set out again.
Stoppers often resented climbers. They saw our relentless quest for the top as an insult, an indictment of their failure. People spat at me, threw things at me, and poured scorn on my head. Sometimes I had to fight my way through a stopper camp. I had to waste days waiting down-steps for fellow climbers to join forces with me.
I fought stoppers who claimed the stairs were a second Tower of Babel cursed by God, and stoppers who claimed that their step was the Promised Land. The strangest were those who told me there was no life beyond their steps. The scariest were those who had started to feast on larger meat than the step deer.
There were times when I had to fight, and times when I could chase away the loneliness by a friendly fireside. There were times when I had to hunt, and times when I had to cower from things that hunted me. There were times when I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it all, and times when I thought I was going to fall into the abyss. Whatever else was happening, there was always the stairs to climb.
For years I longed for the top of the stairs. That’s over now. I have found peace. I’ve stopped desperately longing for the top. That was a foolish dream. I know the truth now. There is no top of the stairs; there is no bottom of the stairs. There is only the stairs; there has only ever been the stairs. There is only the climb, higher and higher, the stairs going on forever.
We didn’t know where they went. We couldn’t see the top. They reached up into the sky, dwindling away into infinity.