There stood a great flight of stairs out in the country which breached the clouds and the heavens and tailored off out of sight. Where it led no one knew but people were drawn to it from far and wide and formed an orderly queue at its base.
Families talked of it at dinner in hushed, reverent tones. Fathers told stories of relatives and ancestors who had ventured to climb the stairway. “Your great-grandfather walked the stairs, and he never looked back. I remember as a young lad hugging his knees goodbye.” It was the talk of the land: in poor houses and in great houses, it offered something to aspire to, something to hope for, something to – well, talk about.
A tall, broad man stood guard at its base. He never moved from his station nor did he sleep a wink. No one knew how long the stairs and its guard had stood; they were as natural as the clay and the birds.
A young man approached the start of the queue. He waited patiently for weeks as he crawled closer to the base and grew familiar with the others close in line. They exchanged stories of how a relative or acquaintance had climbed the steps and inspired them to do the same, they talked of possibility and opportunity and of the homes they had left, they speculated as to where the stairs led but not once did they hit the nail on the head.
As the sun rose on a new day the young man bid his friend two places ahead good luck. The time had come. He looked around the world he was to leave and breathed the dense ground air in. He had traveled far to get here: over vale and brook, through dell and quagmire; and had often stopped, weary-legged, looking over his shoulder and yearning for home. The greatest struggle was continuously ensuring his feet travelled in the right direction: for he knew his mind could play tricks and, after hours of familiar rocks, he would find himself at the start of some mountain range he left the day before; but now, through great frustration and greater determination he was here, at the base of that greatest flight of stairs.
No sooner had he saltily hugged his forerunner goodbye when it was his time to mount the first step. The usually polite and reserved elderly man behind squeezed the young man’s hand as a gesture of good will. The young man prayed for his father, his fiancée and his many siblings, touched the earth with his palm and left it with his foot.
Hours passed. Horizons shifted. The vast surrounding fields appeared as those on toy boxes, stretching to meet the mountains which now revealed yet more mountains; and unnavigable waterways, roaring on ground level, silently and intricately veined the blue cheese landscape. The young man had always feared the practicalities of ascending the stairway: would the wind whip him off his feet and dash him against the rocks like a broken kite; the height induce a nausea so terrible and unforeseen his jellied legs might give way; would hunger or thirst take their horrible advantage? No such incident had ever been reported but isn’t it natural to fear being the anomaly.
The reality was the wind dwindled long ago and there existed an indiscernible, upended polytunnel which surrounded the stairway: an Elysian protective. The view was comforting, curious, not unnerving; and the young man found boundless energy in his limbs and spirit. He leapt from step to step, following in the – likewise rejuvenated – footsteps of those above.
Somewhere in the distance, just short of the first cloud, there was a small commotion. A stationary figure could be seen slightly to the right of the procession. This is not supposed to happen, thought the young man, never have I heard of this before! But he reasoned to himself no groundling eye could ever discern intricacies this far up. Perhaps this was normal.
As he approached the figure he realised it was another guard, slender and feminine by contrast, and, as one always does in the presence of authority, felt guilty. The young man kept his innocent head down as he inconspicuously scuttled by.
“Stop right here”, came her contralto voice, piercing the silence. He bent his neck up to look at her.
“Yes. You are to go no further.”
“Why?” His world darkened. The clouds of potential sat metres above his head.
“You are to remain here, forever. Unless, of course, you wish to make the return journey. I warn you though, out of a strange but goodly concern for your well-being, the steps down aren’t as forgiving: titans pull at the four corners of the world, the Earth slips and crashes upon your eyeballs, the winds howl your fate and send shame singing throughout the land, demons wrack your mind and order your rebellious feet over the edge and all the while I will come biting at your heels. Should you make the ground in one sensible piece, you will face a calumny-ridden life with shame in your heart and guilt in your gut. Or, you can stay here, and enjoy the perfectly beautiful view.”
Hungry tears formed in the young man’s eyes. He was so close. Unknown pastures lay just above. He couldn’t turn back now. And all the while, up marched the sprightly procession.
“What singles me out?” He cried.
“Nothing. My advice: make do with what you’ve got. You’ve come far, far, further than most, and those that know you are envious. You’ve done well, your family will be proud and no one will know you came just so far.”
“But I want to go further, I want to go where the great ones go.”
“Isn’t it righteous to want for yourself that which others have? I want the best, not to be content with my lot if I have the chance to take the lot!”
“Ambition is folly. Ingratitude is unbecoming in a man. You can enjoy the view and make do, or”, she paused for delicious effect, “try following me, see what thunder awaits.”
And with that, she disappeared into the cloud.