THE HOUSE

In that house the laws of things were halfway suspended, and laws all its own prevailed in their stead. He would sit by the window of an amber day and contemplate, while in the shadows he could perceive Chammers stirring constantly and restlessly as if seeking something. It was the one thing he could never quite ignore in his pondering, the one thing that seldom left him in peace. But out of a certain wary respect for the other man, and maybe also a sense that he would never alter his ways in any case, he did not complain.

The great distorted spiral staircase beside the ponderer seemed to press the roof up, as though a gargantuan screw had once thrust through the building itself and gotten stuck while working its way to the inner cavity. But he did not go up there, and did not know if Chammers ever did, either. Perhaps while he was sleeping, perhaps while he was away, in the worlds beyond the house.

He dreamed on many things as he sat there by the window. It was the single window to the house, just to one’s right as one entered through the heavy front door, itself wrought of oak and iron. He seldom looked out of this window, only sat in the light of it, and he dreamed on the ways and courses of existence and of polities and on the passage and nature of time and on the meaning that runs like a secret vein barely palpable beneath the skin of life. He dreamed of matter and energy and passions and thought. He dreamed of essences and accidents. He dreamed of things high and low, the first things and the last. He spun it all out like cobwebs through the long daylight hours, weaving and tessellating the lines of it. And at times, not even the hacking and groaning and shifting of Chammers would disturb him from these reveries.

Chammers despised the light from the window, though for some reason he did not mind the glow of the fire. He would keep to his ruddy corner, tending the flame with his usual intensity, and sometimes he would speak from out of the shadow, and only the glimmer of his cunning eyes could be seen across the room on the far side of the stairs. The weirdly small door to his room was near the window, just behind the ponderer as he pondered, so Chammers would not go there save for a few hours in the evening, proceeding silently to the doorway and pressing his thick knobby frame through it. The ponderer had never been in that room, for it was dank and dark and musty and he did not like the smell or the look of it. Chammers would stay there for but an hour or two, presumably slumbering, and then would emerge again, awkward and ponderous like a spider.

Seldom did they speak, and often would go days without saying a word to each other. It was usually the ponderer who spoke first, when his curiosity could no longer be put down. He would frame up some question, and the responses of the other would only serve to drive the curiosity deeper. The hardest riddle of all the riddles in all the world was dwelling in his very home.

When they did converse, it was usually the ponderer who spoke first – but not this day. For this day, as he sat lost in reveries about the One and the Many, he was suddenly interrupted as though by the sound of something fallen. He shook his gray mane and looked about him and suddenly realized that Chammers had spoken. He could see the man’s face hovering over the stairwell, his eyes gleaming in what seemed to be resentment and hostility. 

“What did you say?” he asked.

“You do not trust me,” the other said again.

“What ever compels you…” But Chammers had already vanished behind the stairwell, and could be heard moving there as if he were rummaging in a great box.

This was the only exchange they had had in a week.

It was long ago that the two began to dwell together – long enough that the ponderer could not recall how long. It had come about it seemed by chance, though if he had bothered to turn his impressive powers of reflection upon his own situation he might have seen that there was no accident about it. There had at least been something evidently fit in it, two old bachelors under one roof, one to keep the hearth burning and the other to keep order. Chammers despised the world outside, and would leave only when he had no choice, which almost never happened, so it was the ponderer who left to get them what was needful. And sometimes Chammers would make unexpected and inexplicable demands, and the ponderer would often enough heed these and bring him what he had required, whenever the world outside permitted it. They passed their days in silence and a kind of mutual solitude, dwelling in proximity and at a distance. They would sup together at the same table, sitting across from one another, and saying nothing, the ponderer quietly nibbling his bland fare, Chammers noisily slurping at his food as though he had been starving. They had never much spoken to each other, though there had been several occasions on which they had had long disputes, and rarely they would fly at one another in a rage as if to tear one another limb from limb, though somehow it never came to that.

The ponderer knew nothing of Chammer’s past. To be sure, he knew little enough of his own. His memory was perfect for all things that did not personally and immediately concern him; but for those things that did, it was vague and dithering.

Yet he wondered about Chammers, and sometimes reflected long on his outlandish companion. It was inevitable then that he should follow up on Chammers’ unaccountable accusation, though it was already some hours on that he broached the question again. 

“Why did you say that, Chammers?” he asked the man, turning to him and looking over at him from his place by the window.

“Say what?” replied the other.

“What you said earlier.”

“I said many things,” he replied, but this was a lie.

“You said I do not trust you.”

Chammers turned back to his work, and for a moment it seemed he might not deign to reply. But then he muttered something that the ponderer had to ask him to repeat – request to which he was most inured, for Chammers was prone to maundering.

“You lock the door to your study,” he repeated.

The ponderer was quite taken aback. “What reason would you have to go into my study?” he asked.

“None,” snapped the other, “but you should trust me not to.”

“But how did you even know the door was locked?”

“I tried to open it.”

“Why would you try to open it, if you did not intend to go in?”

“To see if it was locked.”

“Then it is you who do not trust me!”

Chammers glared at him a moment irately from his wideset eyes before returning wordlessly to his work.

The ponderer, somehow much troubled by this exchange, retreated to his meditations. But the heavenly strand would not return to him. His locked study door continued to appear before his mind’s eye, and a mixture of shame and regret and resentment accompanied it. Somehow the entire situation with Chammers would not leave him in peace, but continued to interrupt his wonted thoughts and to fill his mind with something like foreboding. He elected at last to leave the house and get some light and some air, to try to clear his head. He rose. 

“I am going out,” he announced across the room.

“Well,” said Chammers somehow quite loudly, and the ponderer proceeded out through the front door.

The morn was growing, and the sun ocher upon the hillsides, and the ponderer saw to his satisfaction that the door lead today into a broad and hilly countryside, dotted pleasantly with smooth grey boulders and copses of oaks and runs of willow trees along the banks of a stream not far distant. A hoary old bay tree was leaning possessively about the roof of the house (such as it was, for the house itself seemed on this day to be nothing but a burrow nestled into the side of a grassy knoll, a barrow as it were with an entrance in the side of it and, to the right of the door, his window). He looked about him at the still and verdant scene, the trees filled with birdsong and the perfume of early spring on the air. This was on balance, he reflected, as fine a place as he could have hoped to make his stroll and clear his mind.

The ponderer was never certain what he would find when he stepped out the door. It changed from day to day and hour to hour and there was seldom any correspondence between it and the view from the window, which earlier had overlooked a busy quay and fishermen about their preparations for the morning’s labors. He glanced back in through the window from outside now, and was startled to find Chammers standing at it staring out at him. This had never happened before, and he was filled with a sudden disconcerting sense of fear. The man’s face was distorted into a malevolent grin. For a moment they stood, locking eyes, before the ponderer turned and hastened away.

There was a worn path that passed right before the door to the house, proceeding with admirable directness through all the rising hills and outcroppings surrounding. Ferns and mosses and new grass lent the entire landscape an emerald sheen, but the almost orange light of an early sun seemed strangely thick and heavy, as if it were dragging at that living green, sopping into it like oil into bread. Something was tugging at his consciousness as he went, something unpleasant and menacing, but he pressed on through the landscape almost against this sense, trying to clear his mind, only now and then turning to look back, as though he expected to see the dark bent figure rising up on the path behind him.

The landscape where he strode was thinly and inconsistently forested, but the large dark trees rose on all sides and obscured his view of the horizon, giving him a sense that began as comfort and protection and soon transformed into something almost claustrophobic. He felt a sudden overpowering desire to break from the low-lying path and to gain higher view, and he turned and began to climb up the embankment beside him, struggling through a spiny brake and forcing his way up the hill against its inclination and his rheumatic joints.

The hill was taller than he had anticipated, and he fought up its hard and stony flank, pale and barren of the spring vegetation save for the occasional pink-flowered mallow that craned somehow loomingly from the shale, the soft green leaves caressing him where the brambles had bitten his skin. He looked down and noted that his scrawny shins were scratched and bleeding beneath his dark robe, but it did not deter him. He felt a need to rise.

When the hill began to even out, the trees on its crown thinned, and he felt that not far ahead the landscape would open and he would at last be able to see. He hastened on, and the forest indeed diminished, until at last upon the brow of the ridge he caught sight of the horizon beyond, though the perspective was cut off on his left by the sharp rise of a granite-crusted eminence. The purple mountains against the distant sky were steep and dramatic and snow-capped, and he perceived two huge Glowlamps, as large perhaps as his very home or larger, floating in gracing arcs somewhere in the wide emptiness between the mountains and the point where he stood. The twin balls of light seemed to dance about one another, intersecting one another’s paths and all but colliding in their mysterious play. The sun was just up over one of the shoulders of the mountain and he felt a tingling warmth on his face where it touched his pallid skin. He was about to proceed further toward the horizon like a man bewitched when suddenly he saw something that paralyzed him where he stood. A gargantuan Greatspider with its grotesque spindly legs was picking its way slowly across the landscape far off in the distance a bit to his right, moving off slowly toward the same peaks that had been calling him with a malevolent intensity and towering over the trees. It’s sable body gleamed wickedly in the sun high over the earth, and it cast a long and blighted shadow. He hesitated, then turned in revulsion and horror and hastened back where he had come, bracing himself against the downward pull of gravity and taking the slope by steps and slides.

When he came back to the path below, it seemed to him that the sunlight had grown somehow dimmer and was pooling up thick as caramel upon the trees. He did not like the sudden gloom, and he hurried down the path, feeling strangely like something was pursuing him, though he could not say what. He came to the door of the house beneath the bowing bay branches almost in a panic and flung it open and closed it hard behind, and stood there breathing in some relief for a moment, his back against the smooth wood of the door, feeling suddenly safe. To the left of him was his desk and his window, precisely as he had left them. He could hear Chammers shifting in the fire-enlightened shadow by the stairway, and seemed to see the man hulking at him from the dark.

“There was a Spider,” he gasped, and the other grunted in response. “One of the biggest I’ve seen,” he added after he had regained his breath.

Chammers stepped into the outskirts of the light. “I killed a Spider, once,” he declared.

The ponderer blinked. “No one has killed a Spider…”

Chammer’s brutal face suddenly twisted. “You do not believe me,” he spat.

The ponderer did not know how to respond to this, so he said nothing. Chammers sometimes lied, he knew it, and he could never find the reason for it, and sometimes the man would tell incredible truths and he could never tell the difference. But there was something angry and inexplicable in Chammer’s whole manner today that frightened him, and the sighting of the Spider had done little to calm his nerves.

“How long have we lived together?” asked the man suddenly.

“I… I do not know. Perhaps thirty years?”

“Thrice a decade!”

“I believe so. Though… Something like that, at any rate.”

“Thrice a decade in this house and you nor trust nor believe me. Why do I merit this contempt?”

The ponderer shook his hoary head. “It is not contempt. I simply cannot fathom how any man would even go about slaying a Greatspider.”

“I killed it with these hands.” He held his thick hands and their stubby, sooty fingers open in the air before him like a supplicant, as if he would show the ponderer the implement with which he had performed this incredible deed.

“It seems an impossibility…” murmured the ponderer helplessly.

The hands fell, and the man sneered. “You are sick with logic and reasoning, Krissle. Tell me, what sense has the world beyond that door?”

“Well… I have been attempting to work that out. There is a meaning—”

“And how if there is not?”

“If…”

“If this world is all nonsense. Beyond this house.”

“There must be sense…”

Chammers sneered again. “Must be, must be,” he mocked.

“There is an order, a pattern…”

“A head will put order where there is only a heap.”

“Then it is finding something, something already present,” insisted the ponderer feebly. “If it sees something there, the thing is there…”

“Meaning is made, not found,” uttered the other, and spun around abruptly and returned to his flame.

The ponderer walked slowly and weakly to his desk, and sank down in his chair. His head was heavy and he felt dizzy, and was suddenly aware that his mouth had grown very dry. Yet he would not rise to get water, and would not beg it of Chammers. He lifted a trembling hand to his brow. His mind was spinning around the Glowlamps, the Greatspider. There was order, there was an order

He could not return to his meditations in the days that followed. The question hung over him like a blade, and on each subject that presented itself to his interior discernment, it clung like a massive and thorny limpet, obscuring his view of the matter at hand. Try as he might, he could not have done with it. He found himself less and less able to ponder, to meditate, and he would sometimes rise and pace restlessly about the house. He had never done this before, but Chammers took no note of him, and asked him no questions.

After some time like this, he began to go out from the house almost obsessively each day to see what manner of world it was that would greet him, to seek in it some answer to the ur-riddle. The world itself since the question had been broached seemed to take on an almost manic quality, and the scenes that awaited him seemed less coherent and interrelated than ever. Once he found himself in a busy city of tall mud buildings, red banners everywhere and a kind of market opening before him with the most exotic fruits and fish he had ever seen, and perfumes upon the air he had never known, and the people of an orange hue of skin and green eyes and three arms, speaking in a tongue he could not fathom. Another time he found himself standing on the precipice of a high mountain cliffside with a view of a colorless labyrinthine network of valleys and canyons below that cut across an endless plain to the very horizon, and there was no way of ascending or descending, but he could only stand there and watch tremendous black buzzards wheeling in the cavernous heavens and the shapes of strange beasts moiling in the maze. On another venture he seemed to be standing on the charred remains of the world, still smoking from the disaster that had consumed it, and nothing as far as the eye could see but black, and his heart filled with an overpowering sense of something ominous and menacing. Once he seemed to have entered into a kaleidoscope of fractal colors and shapes that almost appeared to mirror or repeat, but failed the repetition in a way that threw him into a kind of despairing panic. He found himself one day in the midst of a vicious battle, surrounded by the dead and the dying and the screams of berserkers. Or again, he was standing upon a pastel ocean frozen it would seem to glass, and he could walk and walk but nothing ever changed, nothing altered its character, nothing appeared on that flawless horizon with its unblemished twin faces, and all the world seemed to be unmoving and unmovable, until the glass began to melt slowly beneath him as though to swallow him, and he was forced to retreat to the house, almost failing to arrive before he had sunk entirely into the liquifying quicksilver beneath his feet.

He wanted desperately to glimpse another Greatspider, but it seemed that the one time in his life he actually sought one of these heinous beasts, they conspired to remain beyond his sight. 

He spoke almost not at all to Chammers, fearing any other exchange, any further confrontation, and limited his words to the most prosaic and workaday. He would tell the man when he was going and would greet him succinctly when he returned, and would speak such phrases as were necessary to their cohabitation and their coexistence and their mutual dining, and Chammers responded often enough in mere grunts and monosyllables, as if he were becoming less articulate with each passing day and degenerating into a state of speechless brutality.

Who knows if that trend would not have continued had it not been for the incident – the first of the inexplicable encounters.

The ponderer had opened the door to find a wide sweeping country of golden wheat fields on gently rolling hills, and a road that set out precisely from his front door directly toward the distant horizon. The day was bright and the sun heavy and white and somehow oppressive in a late-morning or early-afternoon sky (he had no sense of direction here, and in any case direction was variable and so meaningless in the world beyond the house). It seemed pinned to the face of the heavens like a great glowering eye, and he walked beneath it uneasily and tried to settle his mind on the heads of the wheat, bowing peacefully in the breeze. There was an earthy fragrance to the air, and he felt drowsy somehow, and somehow intent upon walking.

The road was long, and seemed never to change. By and by, he perceived a tremendous tree growing out of one of the wheat fields to his right, a mighty tree with the semblance of a dark, millennial oak but crowned with silver flowers. The road continued straight before him, and though he was tempted to cut through the field to the tree, he could not, for the moment he tried he found that the wheat was vorpal sharp and rent his fingers, so that he began to bleed, and the blood would not stop, so that time and again he had to bend his head over his hand and suck at the crimson drops. He walked on.

By and by, after what seemed an endless time, he perceived ahead a small and oddly active village. Several dozen huts with thatch roofs encircled a square with a well, and at the periphery were sheepfolds and styes for pigs and pens for donkeys and cows. Chickens moved between the human and the bestial world with their peculiar liberty, pecking at the greening grass about the settlement and ruffling their red feathers in the sun.

In the square was much bustling activity, and men and women gathered in modest gray clothing and setting up tables with food, from which passers-by stopped and freely took, not paying for what they took but only modestly filling their baskets. There was something pacific and tranquil about the scene, and the people were smiling and amicable, and when they saw the ponderer at the outskirts of their town they invited him in warmly, offering their food to him in his own language and encouraging him to try it and to rest and to sup. They brought him a chair, and he sat, and they brought him food. He took their offerings in his wounded fingers and tasted of the ripe strawberries, sweet and crisp and covered in fresh cream, and bread that was still steaming from the oven where it had been baked, its warmth melting the honey and butter they spread upon it, and frothy cool amber beer whose gentle, hopsy bitterness seemed to take the sharpness off the glaring sun above them. And he looked at the merry faces around him and smiled and thanked them, when suddenly at the edge of his vision he saw something candid.

He turned, and found himself watching the progress across the space of a lithe young woman, smiling and glowing and dressed in pristine white. Her dark hair was tinged with gold and her eyes were black, and she seemed to physically glow against the drab tones of the village and the villagers, and she greeted each person she passed with such a warmth that he could feel it radiating upon him even where he stood. She stopped before a young girl, and knelt gracefully to the hardened earth to stroke her copper head, her curved lips laughing, then stood, and turned toward him, and suddenly looked him in the eye. But the moment the glimpse of her deep eyes came into his awareness, he felt immediately torn away, and it was as if the world dissolved around him, and he found himself standing at the door to his own house, his back to it, the road extending endlessly before him through the boundless wheat fields…

He stood amazed, staring about himself wildly, his eyes still impressed with the brilliancy of her dress, the brightness of her eyes, as though a phantom of her had been burned onto his retina, but here he stood, before his house, and at the beginning of the road, and everything else had been as but a dream—

He began to walk. He walked furiously, angrily almost, with a kind zeal toward the horizon, toward the town. He walked though his legs were aching and his rheumatic knees crying for pity, and he walked until he came again upon the great tree to his left, and when he saw it he quickened his pace though his lungs were burning and he felt the strength weeping from his body.

The road seemed never to end. It carried on and on, much longer than he had recalled, the horizon ever the same distance from him, for such a long time that he began to fear the village had disappeared altogether. But suddenly he caught sight of it, and almost began to run toward it. But even as he approached, he saw that something was wrong.

All about it the land was cracked and broken, and the wheat fields themselves (as he suddenly perceived) were poor and sparse and dull, and the animals seemed malnourished in their pens and glared at him with thirsty, aggrieved eyes. There were only a few figures skulking in the space between the huts, and the roofs of the huts were gray and sun-worn, and the walls seemed to be crumbling. The people were thin and dressed in rags and they glowered at him suspiciously as he entered and said nothing, but still he raced up to them and asked them where the woman in the white dress had gone, and they looked at him as though he were a madman and told him there was nothing to eat and nothing to drink but the little brackish water of the failing well, and that he must move on.

He tarried still in the impossibility of hope. He lingered there as though by dint of his presence she might again appear, walking out in all her glowing beauty from one of the little huts, and life return. But soon the villagers began to grumble, and they drove him off with hard, foul words, one of them even casting stones at him. When he was a ways distant from the village he turned and looked back at it with helpless longing; but it was the same broken village it had been. And before? Had that been a vision? a dream? a delusion induced by the heat? But no, for his fingers were cut and aching and still stained with the blood of his body, the blood of ripe strawberries…

By and by his head fell to his chest and his heart clouded over. He began to make his dejected way back to his house, his mind turning ceaselessly and his heart thudding dully in his chest and his legs feeling suddenly lethargic. The sun was hot and heavy upon his head, and his mouth had gone entirely dry, and the road crept on before him. It seemed an eternity before he came to the tree, there to the right of him, and an eternity the more before he came to his door.

He was oppressed by feelings he knew not how to name. He went to Chammers as though in a daze, finding the man squatting there in the shadows near the fire, and began to recount to him everything that had transpired, from the first time he had left the house through to the woman in white, to his inexplicable return to the front door and his second venture. As he spoke of the woman and his transportation, the man rose and stood before him, staring at him with great intensity and listening to him attentively.

“Such a thing has never happened,” said the ponderer. “Such a thing has never happened to me before.”

“Nor to me,” replied the other softly.

The ponderer blinked. “Of course not. You never go out,” he said.

“I do.”

“But when?”

“When you are sleeping.”

“I have never woken to find you gone… You are always here.” Chammers’ face took on a strange look, difficult to interpret in his twilight, which might have been a sneer.

Always here,” he echoed. “Always here.

“What do you make of all this then?” asked the ponderer sharply.

“It was the heat,” said Chammers, pointing with somehow offensive intimacy right at the side of the ponderer’s brow. “The heat has gone to your head.”

“But the blood, the strawberries.” He lifted up his long, stained fingers before him, and as Chammers stepped a moment into the light to analyze them the ponderer almost drew back a step from startlement, for he suddenly saw streaks of gray in Chammer’s lanky dirty-blond hair, freckles of age upon his brow, as though the man had grown older at a stroke. He must not have ever noticed how the man was aging… and to be sure, Chammers had been spending more and more time in the crepuscular corner…

“What does this prove?” mocked Chammers, only glancing at the reddened digits. “You did all this here.”

“Did this here!” echoed the ponderer, amazed. Chammers did not respond, only pointed to the ponderer’s desk. The ponderer turned and saw there a bowl of strawberries, a cruel-looking knife. “I did not…” he began, but the other laughed and turned on his heel and went back to the fire.

In the days that followed he began to go out almost manically. Where before he would leave maybe once in the early afternoon, his ventures now became frequent, three or four times a day. He would have gone out still more, save that he often had much exploring to do in the places he found himself. He told himself he was seeking air, but he knew better. He was looking ever for her.

For days and days he found nothing. He walked through futuristic city streets where men flew about on winged shoes like Mercury, and the streets of towns and sea ports and hamlets and mountain villages built over breathtaking stone cliffs. He walked through forests and wildernesses and tangled jungles and altogether different worlds beneath different skies, different suns, different moons. He stood in the midst of shepherds and cowherds and once a kind of fishherd who floated on the surface of the water on a marvelously mobile craft and drove a school of fat surfacefish across the face of the sea. He found himself in a desert once, and another time in a landscape of magma and smoke, and another time in a great icy expanse that extended in all directions interminably, and another time on the back of a gargantuan ship like a floating castle. But never, in any of these places, did he find her.

He did not speak to Chammers again of any of this. He did not touch the strawberries that had appeared on his desk, but he left them mistrustfully to wilt and decay in their bowl, until the aspect and sour smell of them became too much to bear and he walked over and threw the mess of into the fire while Chammers watched him coldly. They sizzled as they struck the embers, and Chammers muttered something about how such things were not fit for the fire, but the ponderer ignored him and proceeded back to his desk.

It was perhaps four weeks later, on a rainy morning within the house, that he found himself, as he stepped out the door, in a kind of expansive garden. It was late evening in the garden, and it was not raining, and though the sky was still somewhat illuminated, the Chinese lanterns hanging from the branches of the trees had all been lit with candles, and the warm light of them shed on a gathering of well-dressed party-goers, evidently wealthy and sophisticated and elegant and with impossibly tall brows, idling about in the fairy lights and sipping drinks from long-stemmed crystal chalices, conversing and exchanging heady pleasantries. He moved among them as one invisible; only now and then did they deign to cast contemptuous or perplexed glances at him in his homely garb, but they elected even then to ignore him. He walked through the paths beneath the dark boughs of fragrant trees, distracted by thoughts he could not articulate, desires stirring in him he could not name.

He stopped in an open space near a fountain, taking in its crystalline song. And suddenly it was again as it had been that first time, for he saw her a ways off, moving in the lights. She wore a long and simply graceful and perfectly white dress, and she walked with the same ease that she had evinced in the village, and smiled with the same smile at everyone she encountered. And as she stopped near one of the lanterns, and was as if entrapped in the sphere of its light, she turned to him—

And here too it was again as the first time. For he was ripped away, and was standing at the door to his house, and all about him the garden was changed. The Chinese lanterns had been replaced by mere candles, and many had gone out in the breeze, and others guttered, and those that remained cast a garish light on the debauchery that surrounded. Slovenly and dirty and loud, the party-goers stumbled drunkenly about him, the inebriation twisting their features, and some of them fought clumsily but furiously and others rolled about lecherously in the darker corners. The place was littered with trash, and the neat and tidy flowerbeds had been trampled, and men and women lolled on the benches and slumbered in the dirt.

He began racing in their midst. He knew already that it would be as last time, but he must try. He pressed on through the garden amidst the insults and abuse that followed in his wake, until he came to the fountain. A bonfire had been lit in it, and men and women in various degrees of nudity were dancing cumbrously around the wild blaze, some of them squatting on the cobblestones and staring into the flame with an air of devotion as though it were a god. Then one of them saw him, and screamed and pointed, and the others stopped and turned and took up brands from the fire. They began to race after him, and he turned and fled from them, back to the house, as the party-goers crowded in about him raging and crying out in bestial tones. He only just managing to fly through the door as he felt the heat of their torches caressing his neck.

Despite this brush with violence and perhaps with death, he could not have done with his quest. Indeed, he was now more invested in it than ever. He began to leave his house five, six times a day, cutting into his sleep and all but abolishing his meditations. He nigh ceased to eat. 

In the days that followed, he saw her three times the more. Once, she appeared, elfish and radiant, in the midst of a great and ancient forest, and he called out to her and she turned – and then he was again at the door and the wood dying and moldering about him, a devastation of corrupted and diseased life, and she was gone. Again, he found her in the midst of a group of dwarves, and she seemed a kind of Snow White, but dressed as always in purest alabaster, and when she looked at him and he was torn to the door the dwarves transformed into cannibalistic fiends tearing at one another and trying to catch him. The last time, he was in a huge chamber filled with very tall people all dressed in white robes, and they were holding candles above their heads and looking ahead toward something they could see but that he could not glimpse, owing to their great height. He moved in their midst toward the object of their attention, and suddenly he saw her among them, and she turned, and he was back at the entrance, and the room was in flames around him, and the robed congregation was stampeding through the cinders and the falling fire. A Greatspider was squatting over them, its legs crowded in beneath the ceiling, its jaws working obscenely in the firelight and a horrifying shriek emitting from its bowels. The bitter smoke was working into his lungs and the flames were searing his skin and working somehow into the innermost folds of his being, and he fled back into the house.

In the midst of these sightings, he began to note something strange at work in the house itself. He noticed it first when he glimpsed himself in the mirror on the far side of the room – rarely enough did he look at himself in the mirror, and this time it was almost by accident – and was astounded to see that he had grown more youthful. His withered gray hair was darker, as if youth were coming back to it, and his gray and wrinkled face had begun to smooth out and to gain in color, and he seemed to stand straighter. He noticed a strength in his hands that had been waning these many years, and his limbs felt lustier and fuller of life than they had done in decades.

At the same time, it seemed that Chammers had undergone a contrary transformation. The man grew progressively more stooped and wasted, his once thick limbs becoming flabby and his broad brutal face becoming grizzled and haggard. His hair began to thin until it was but so many strands, lank and greasy, dangling from the crown of his pate, and he began to lose teeth, and his eyes grew cavernous and dark.

The ponderer had somehow become uneasily aware of something else: he could not explain where Chammers got the wood for his fire. Chammers never seemed to leave, never seemed to go anywhere, and yet his corner was always stocked with heaps of the same kind of wood, wood that never ran out and never diminished. He even asked the man about it, but Chammers only smiled with a certain air of fatuous superiority and replied, “There is wood enough for it.”

“But where does it come from? Where do you get it?”

“Your study is locked,” the goblin replied coldly, and the ponderer looked at him a perplexed moment before retreating to his window.

He could not believe that Chammers ever left, with his hatred for the daylight. He doubted the man would leave even at night, because nothing guaranteed that the world on the other side of the door would also be nocturnal. And even if he did leave, there was no way of predicting where he would go, where he would be; how could he bring back always and ever the same kind of wood, carefully cut in precisely the same manner and to the same length? Years of their cohabitation, and the ponderer had never noticed something as simple as this mystery of the wood…

He even considered making an exchange to resolve this enigma; he would show Chammers his study if the man would reveal the source of the wood. But somehow he could not abide the thought. Those stubby fingers, rifling through his things, those greedy little eyes falling upon his devices and his writings, the creature itself hulking over his desk… The thought itself made him shudder. Still, he could not have done with the nagging curiosity.

After the scene of the candle-bearers, there followed another long period of silence. It did not matter how often he left his house, at what times of the day or night he made the attempt: he could not find her. He began even to despair of ever finding her again.

He fell into a kind of melancholy. It seemed his enfeebling age had begun to return to him, and he was overcome with a feeling of helplessness and depression. The matter presented itself to him as a riddle he could not solve, the one enigma in an enigmatic world that in principle could never be answered. He saw dozens of new places, hundreds, of all possible descriptions, but none contained the one thing he was looking for, and all the rest seemed bland and insipid to him, no matter how bright and colorful and fantastical they were. He began to despair of life.

As the darkness came down around him, he fixated more and more on the problem of the wood. It was the one thing to distract him from despair. He felt he must know, at all costs, whence it came. He asked Chammers about it another time, but the man only laughed a hacking, wheezing laugh and spat a tooth upon the floor, which went rattling off into the dark. The ponderer began to conceive a paranoid certainty that the wood stores were within the house itself. It was the only explanation. He did not believe they could be in Chammer’s room, for the door was so small the man could hardly leave it unencumbered, much less with wood in his arms. It must be up the staircase. It must be there that Chammers went to gather the wood. But how…?

He decided he would find out.

He waited for one of those rare days (though increasingly common now that Chammers was an old man) when Chammers went to bed before he did. It was a stormy evening, and rain was beating against the window, and Chammers made his creeping way across the floor. “You are going to sleep?” asked the ponderer, and Chammers grunted. “Goodnight, then.”

“’Night,” muttered the other, and stooping down opened the door and pulled himself through it.

He waited tensely for some time. He had never known Chammers to come back out of his hovel ere several hours had passed, but he was somehow fearful of being caught in the act of attempting to walk up the stairs. He felt somehow that Chammers would be furious if he knew, though he was uncertain why he believed this, or why Chammers should care. Still he waited, five minutes, ten, twenty. At length, he began to rise, his heart beating furiously in his chest – and froze in place as he seemed to hear a creak in the door to Chammer’s room. But no there was no further noise. It had been but an accident, or a mouse, or a fantasy.

He stepped slowly and carefully, as quietly as possible, moving toward the spiral staircase, its counter-clockwise rise into the space above. He came to the foot of it and gazed up into its blackness. The light failed already there after the first flight, and he had no torch to bring, no illumination. It mattered nothing, he would find his way groping if he had to. He stepped upon the first step. It creaked—

He looked around. Silence reigned still in the house. It seemed to him he could hear Chammers snoring. Taking courage, he stepped to the second. Then the third.

Yet it seemed there was a resistance upon his passing. It seemed that every time he took another step, his movement grew more difficult. By the seventh step he could not force his foot to the next. He strained powerfully against it, but by and by had to surrender to the greater power. He returned to his desk, exhausted and disheartened.

The next day, he decided to ask Chammers about it. 

“I tried to go up the staircase, and could not,” he said, after he had walked to the man’s corner to hover over him.

“Ah… Ah… And what of it? Could not ascend! And that is somehow my fault?” mewled the somehow pathetic figure, scrawny now and reduced to an ancient-looking husk of his former self.

The ponderer ignored the question, and the accusation in it. “What is at the top of the staircase?” he demanded.

“Devil should I know?” 

“You are telling me you never go there?”

“Have you ever seen me go there?”

“No. But I have not seen you go out, either.”

“Of course. I do not go out.”

“But you told me—”

“I said no such thing!” cried Chammers indignantly, and stared up at the ponderer irately. The ponderer did not know how to respond to this outburst, but then Chammers continued, rising angrily to his feet and shaking his feeble fists in the air. “Go out!” he all but screamed. “I am always here, at this fire, tending the fire! My life is tending this fire for you and your warmth. I am a slave to your comfort. This is no life for a man to live, but it is my life, and it is a worthless one. Staircases! Going out! You are the only one of us with the luxury of free movement. I am here while you go looking for that tart of yours. I am here while you are out gallivanting with your whore!”

The ponderer was filled with a terrible rage at such crass mention of the woman in white, but he pressed down a violent impetus, and spun around and went back to his desk.

They did not speak in the days to come, but Chammers seemed to make more noise than usual, and could be heard often enough grumbling in his corner. This did not bother the ponderer as it might once have, for he was doing very little pondering in any case, and was often out of the house. He attempted several more times to ascend the stairs, now flagrantly and in full sight of Chammer’s resentful gaze, but each time was like the first. He could not, for all his will and all his strength, trespass the seventh step.

He rose one day toward noon with a sudden and inexplicable urgency, almost as if something were calling him. He went to the door, and without saying a word to Chammers, stepped out—

—into his house.

He looked about himself in confusion. Had he not just left? But no, it was all there – his desk just to the right of him, right where he had left it, Chammer’s door, the staircase, Chammer’s corner – only, Chammers was not there…

He stepped into the house in confusion. What had happened? “Chammers?” he called, tentatively, but there was no response. “Chammers?” he called, more loudly this time, but still nothing. He went to the man’s room, hesitated, knocked on the little door… No response. He opened the door cautiously, closing his nose against the repulsive stuffiness that wafted from it, and called out Chammer’s name again; but the man still did not respond. Where in the world could he have gone?

He closed the door and stood for a moment in the room, looking about him. It was all precisely as he recalled. He caught a glimpse of himself in the great mirror on the far side of the room – the face of a hearty and vigorous man of thirty – and marveled again that he should have so rejuvenated. He stroked his full brown beard, ran a hand through his thick brown hair. In the mirror he caught sight too of the staircase, counter-clockwise in the mirror and leading up, up…

He turned to it, and went to it with a sudden determination. Perhaps now, now that Chammers was away…

He put a foot upon the step – and felt no resistance. Encouraged, he stepped to the second, then the third, and so on, all the way to the eighth.

He stood on that step for a moment, turning and looking back at the room from a vantage he had never gained. He could see his desk reflected in the yellowed mirror, and it seemed for a moment he saw an old man sitting in his own chair in the orange light of the window and gazing back at him, and Chammers leaning over to shift wood in the fire – but it was surely just an artifact of the reflection, a trick of his overwrought imagination. He threw the impression aside. Eagerly, he turned and ascended.

The staircase seemed to go on for much longer than he would have imagined possible, as though he were rising in some tremendous tall tower. The darkness crept about him until he could see nothing at all, but he ran his fingers against the wall, feeling the clean-cut stones, seeking a door, an opening, any break to the monotony of the spiraling rise. Nothing came, and nothing came, and he began even to grow somehow fearful that the staircase had no end, but would continue like this for eternity, and he perhaps be locked in it, and unable ever again to descend.

Great was his relief when he felt the stone beneath his fingertips give way to wood. He set his hands upon what he had discovered – a door, surely a door – and found the cold brass knob, and turned. To his disappointment, he found that it was locked, and he almost despaired. He tried again, and it would not give. He began to whimper there in the dark as the fear took him. But when he tried the knob a final time, it clicked at once, and gave way.

The light at the other side was blinding to him in his batlike state. When was able to perceive his situation, he found that he had stumbled into a broad and airy attic, a spacious room of wooden walls and ceiling, with golden light that streamed down from openings in the ceiling. Strangely large motes of dust caught the light like particles of floating gold and the entire room held an intense amber glow and a powerful, unknown fragrance. There was nothing in the attic itself save for a kind of huge ornate chair, and sitting upon the chair, the woman in white.

She was looking on him and smiling, and he stumbled toward her, and knelt. “My lady…” he murmured. “You are here…!”

“Rise,” she said, lifting a graceful hand, and her voice was dulcet and mellifluous. He rose, and looked on her, and her beauty was greater than he had remembered, than he knew. A candid light came off of her as though she were ever shedding illumination, and her smile and her dark eyes glowed upon him and within him, and he felt he might weep as his eyes met hers and held them.

“But how…?” he managed.

“We do not have long,” she replied, lifting her white hand before her in admonition, “so you must listen to me. Do not despair. You must go back.”

“Back where?”

“Back through the door,” said she, indicating the door below them. “You must go at once.”

“But… I cannot possibly leave you… I have only just found you… And I have so many questions!”

“There is no time now, but there will be time.”

“I must know this, at least… Is this a dream? You… this… the world outside… Is it all just a dream?”

She smiled and cocked her head and looked at him with infinite gentleness. “What is a dream?” she asked. “Now go!”

“I cannot… What if I never see you again?”

“You will see me. You have tarried too long, and time is grown so short. You must go now, before it is too, too late…”

A sudden horror filled him. He bowed clumsily to her and turned, and raced to the door to the staircase, spinning round a final time to drink of her beauty before he threw himself into the blackness, half descending, half plumetting toward the bottom flight. The staircase felt even longer in the descent than it had in the rise, and again the terror seized him that he should remain trapped there forever, racing eternally and senselessly down those steps in the total blackness. But then he became aware that he could just make out the lines of the steps, and with a wave of relief he knew the light of the house was nigh.

He flew into the house and raced to the door and threw it open, and stood for a moment gaping.

He was on the threshold of his house, everything was he had left it, the desk to the left of him – only that fire was garlanding the upper beams and racing along the back wall. Chammers stood in the midst of it, his face pulled back in a mad rictus grin, and he held a torch against the stairway. The door to his own room was wide open, and a raging orange light glowed balefully from within, and dozens of black spiders the size of cats were racing out of it beneath plumes of smoke. “What have you done!” cried the ponderer, and Chammers turned to him, the terrible delight fading from his face, as something like horrified remorse took its place.

They could do nothing to stop the fire. It burned on through the day and long into the night until it had consumed everything it could consume and died at last. In the morning, they sat before the charred and smoking ruins on a log they had dragged out of the forest beyond, the young ponderer and the ancient bent Chammers, side by side, exhausted to the core, and unspeaking. The stone supporting walls stood still, dark and charcoaled, and the remains of the staircases rose in black jagged projections toward the sky, like a pair of crippled hands reaching out in supplication toward the heavens. The singed and broken mirrors lay gleaming under the ash, an exposed shard of one of them wanly reflecting the clouds. Both men were filthy with coal, and their hair and clothing was singed, and they stank of the same dark clouds of acrid smoke that had consumed their dwelling. They looked about at the wreckage with bloodshot and exhausted eyes.

“Why did you do it?” asked the ponderer at last.

“It crept upon me like a demon,” muttered the other. The ponderer only nodded, too fatigued to say more. “What do we do now,” asked Chammers flatly.

The ponderer looked out over the desolation, and nodded.

“We rebuild the house.”

More work by John Bruce Leonard can be found at the following links:

To read the other literary reimaginations of Rembrandt’s painting, click here:

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