K a t e P e n t e c o s t
The Ankou and the Staircase
a Black Caravan Story
It was only an hour after he rebuilt, but the Ankou was already far into the deep birch woods outside of Lorensca. He traveled easily in these woods, with the white trunks of the trees stretching out all around, like silent pale soldiers watching, offering no aid.
It was a warm night—unusually so for the season--and the Ankou had resorted to a cape rather than a heavy cloak, a bag of supplies, and only one layer of his signature sleek, black clothes beneath it. The insects seemed to have taken these new, warm temperatures as a sign that the summer had begun in earnest and that it wasn’t still the month of the Toad. They hovered here and there in clouds, but avoided the Ankou, and he was thankful he’d thought to add midgeweed to the usual bundle of sage he practically fumigated himself with before each mission.
At least the moon is out, he thought. That would make finding the blasted thing easier, so he hoped anyway. The woods were lovely, dark and deep, and they had a way of playing tricks on even the most experienced of woodsmen, among whom the Ankou supposed he counted after this long in his position.
It was not a true mission, this one. Not the sort he was used to, full of teeth and claws, screaming villagers, deep, fast-healing wounds, and clothes to be mended afterward. This was different. It was investigative. Instead of killing something, the Ankou had been called upon to solve a mystery: the mystery of the staircase in the woods.
The Ankou pulled his black book from his pocket and went back over his notes.
“’First seen one week ago by three children lost in the forest,’” he read. “Description: ’Tall set of stairs made of lacquered wood that did not seem to originate from the area, and so high it reached beyond the trees,’ so far, so good.”
“The stairs weren't part of anything,” one of the three children had said when the Ankou questioned him two nights ago.
“Not part of anything?” he’d asked. “Not part of an old house that had fallen in? Part of something being built?”
“No, sir,” said the boy. “They were just stairs.”
“We wanted to climb them real bad,” said another child, a little girl with her hair hanging in two looped braids by her ears. “Fezza and me started to go toward them. Then Lina screamed at us to stop. And she don’t say nothing ever, not a sound, so it made us stop.”
The Ankou turned to the last child, a smaller, younger girl with big, round, fearful eyes. “Why did you keep your friends from approaching the stairs?”
The little girl, Lina, did not say anything, of course. “Did you see something bad about the stairs?” he asked. “Just nod for yes and shake your head for no.”
She shook her head, just slightly.
“Could you hear something, perhaps, inside them, like a small troll or a bogey? Or maybe another animal that had taken up residence inside the stairs or tunneled under them?”
She shook her head again, then put her hand to her chest and gave him a knowing look.
“You could feel it,” the Ankou said skeptically. “You could feel something bad about the stairs.”
The little girl considered this, shook her head, nodded, then shook her head again and hid behind the other children.
And that was as much as he could get out of them about the mysterious staircase in the forest.
It wasn’t a typical case, certainly, but he didn’t have any other missions lined out at the time and needed to get the horses re-shod soon, so he took it anyway.
Privately, though, the Ankou wondered what the cause for alarm was. They were only stairs, after all. Why bother with them in the first place? And what were the children doing so far out in the forest? Where were their parents?
Children, he snorted. Always sticking their noses in where they didn’t belong. Why couldn’t people just let things be? Why this incessant need to explore? To poke and prod until the proverbial hornets’ nest was disturbed? And then, of course, they contacted him to solve it all. Something about curiosity and cats tickled at the edge of his mind, something he’d heard from another soul in the Between, most likely, but he couldn’t put the words in the right order, so he snorted again and trudged onward.
He was trudging now because ground had become muddy, and his boots sunk an inch into the muck and squelched with each step.
“’The children'—ugh! Damn this mud!—'the children found themselves inexorably drawn toward the staircase, but did not climb it and, instead, ran back to the village to tell about it. Since then two different parties have gone into the woods to look at the staircase, but were all overcome with a feeling of desire and foreboding which led them to believe it was time to call in the professionals.’ Well, that’s big of them, I must say.”
The Ankou turned the page and followed the crude, hand-drawn map he’d copied down from the description of the parties who had found it the second and third time. He’d started the previous day and was about twenty miles into the forest. He hoped he was near the damn thing by this point. He’d had to dig his own grave the previous night so to make sure animals didn’t run away with his bones, and he didn’t relish the idea of doing so again.
“I heard about something like this once,” one of the men in the village had said when the Ankou had made his way through the town with his little black book, making notes for the mission. “If you climb up to the top, you’ll have a great pain, then fall down dead! I heard tell of a woman who did so.”
“Aavo, you never heard anything like that!” his wife had admonished. “Where would you hear it from? The cows? Stop showing out!”
“No, no, no!” another man shouted over her.
She and the other man’s wife exchanged eye rolls.
“I heard of two brothers who found one of these in the woods down Davasca way. One of em hung back and the other decided to climb it. But before he could reach the top, they heard a scream! The kind of scream that’ll knock the wind clear out of you, then he felt a hand—an ice cold hand on his shoulder! And then his hand was cut off! Just clean off!”
“...And then what?” the Ankou asked calmly.
“Uh…” the man had said. “I’m not sure. That’s where it ends.”
“Very informative,” the Ankou had said, scribbling it down in his black book.
A lot of these stories were clearly meant to be told to wide eyed children around a campfire on Solstice night, but sometimes bits and pieces of them were useful. A cold, dead hand could mean some sort of wraith. A great pain and then instant death could mean some sort of curse, or, more likely, a booby trap, and of course there was the hand, but the Ankou felt like that last part had been added for dramatic effect. It was the little girl’s head shake, then nod, then head shake again that confused the Ankou and gave him pause. Something not bad, not good, but which should be avoided? It was at least interesting, he thought.
Just then he saw a flash of light. Then another. Then another. Pulses of white light about the size of an apple, low to the ground, between the trees. Will o’ the wisps. They flashed and beckoned, but he knew that following them would only lead to an ambush, a lot of pain, and confusion on the part of the wisps when they realized that they couldn’t eat him, only bite him. He ignored them, which he knew was the best way to get them to cluster nearby and give better lighting to his path. In their cold, venomous light, he could see the piece of blue cloth hanging from the branch, the one that was coming up on the map and signaled that he was almost to the stairs.
He turned at the blue cloth, kicking will o’ the wisps out of the way, and trudged onward until he came to the spot marked with a crude X on his map. And, sure enough, there it was.
The staircase was as described, but there was…more to it: It was made of walnut wood, lacquered until it shone even in the light of the moon and will o’ the wisps. But there in the clearing, it looked strange, somehow frightening. The wisps, he noticed, did not float near it. No lichen grew on it. It had no signs of wear or age or decay. There were not even bird droppings on the railings. It was impossibly pristine, and spiraled up, up into the canopy and out of sight.
The Ankou was stumped. As he neared it, the Ankou began to feel the strange pull that the villagers had described, as though there were tiny hooks within his heart that pulled him toward the stairs and said Climb, you must climb. Yes, he was sure that this staircase had a deep, ancient magic. Anything with a pull like that was clearly very powerful and took a lot of willpower (or fear, he supposed) to resist. He was proud of the villagers suddenly, and felt he’d been a bit too harsh on them. But what was this? Where did it come from? Why was it here?
The Ankou made his way toward it, stepping carefully, eyes scanning the trees for movement. He reached out and put his hand on the railing, marveling at how the high shine of the lacquer in the starlight made his fine leather gloves look so shabby by comparison.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said a voice.
The Ankou spun around, his sickle-shaped blade gleaming in the starlight. “Who was that? Come out so we can talk.”
“I am the Abanaku,” said the voice. “And I’m right here.”
“Abanga…?” the Ankou ventured, looking around for the speaker.
“Aban. Aku. Abanaku,” it said. “And, yes, right here, but don’t bother looking around. I’m down here, lying here at the bottom of the stairs, like always, but no one can see me.”
“I might be able to help you there,” The Ankou said.
He reached into one of his pockets and grabbed a bottle of hawthorn ash. Usually he’d use it for things like banishing ceremonies, but that didn’t seem to apply here. He poured some into his hand and sprinkled it over the place where the voice was coming from. As it fell, it revealed the form of a creature, long and thin and coiled up like a snake.
It looked to the Ankou very much like one of those two-legged wyrms that was always getting into wells and causing problems, or maybe one of those rare, long bodied dragons from the northeastern-most mountains of Valacia. But it was much smaller than either of those would be, and seemed to have something like feathers protruding from behind its long pointed ears and from the end of its tail and from the tufts of the elbows on its short arms.
“There,” he said. “I can get a vague idea of you now, anyway. I am the Ankou and I’ve been sent to investigate these stairs. So what is the story and who and/or what are you?”
“That is hard for me to say,” said the creature in a piteous, languishing sort of way, its voice as soft as fallen silk. “I am me, and the stairs exist because I do. But they are simply my way into the world, my entrance, the great birth canal into life from the prebirth in which I currently reside. A way which I can never completely take.”
The Ankou rubbed his temples. Whenever a creature he encountered could speak there was a very high chance that it would be badly poetic and completely incomprehensible.
“Please explain in much simpler terms,” the Ankou said. “What are you, what are these stairs, and why are you both here in the forest?”
“I am a creature of goodness and light,” it said, stretching its long, lithe body. “The stairs are there for me to make my entrance to the world. With my birth, all sorts of good things will happen. People will invent new things, paint new paintings, create art and literature and music. But only if I am born, and, alas, I probably will never be. And so I sit here at the base of the stairs that no one can ever climb, waiting for a miracle.”
“If you’re not born yet, how did you get here?” asked the Ankou.
“I’m not sure,” it said. “I simply am. Or rather, could be. But I’m afraid almost none of us ever get to be.”
“Why not?” asked the Ankou.
“Because we cannot climb the stairs to birth ourselves. We must be carried on the backs of someone who is perfect. So at peace within themselves that they cast no shadow. If they are not perfect, the stairs will sap the life from them, step by step, until they are dead, and then I just go back down to the bottom of the stairs again.”
“Well, has anyone tried it at this location?” The Ankou eyed the steps, looking for dried up corpses.
“Not yet,” said the Abanaku. “I’ve moved these stairs countless times to try and find someone to climb them successfully. The north, south, east, west. But if anyone ever tries to climb, the result is always the same. They are sapped of their life force, they collapse, dead, and the staircase simply absorbs the body. I don’t know where they go. I just know that I cannot go anywhere.”
Probably explains a lot of cases where someone goes missing in the area, the Ankou thought. Between the stairs and the wisps, I bet they have a high rate of unexplained disappearances around here. But, he reminded himself, that’s neither here nor there.
“What happens if someone climbs the stairs successfully?” he asked.
“In the extremely rare case that that would happen, I would be born into the world, the stairs would disappear, and the area would be blessed for all eternity.” The Abanaku sighed deeply.
“But I am so tired. I have been at the foot of these stairs for so long, I have almost forgotten my purpose. The days stretch onward and onward. For a thousand years I have waited. A thousand years, and I can barely feel myself here anymore. I don’t suppose a young man like you could understand, but it feels every day like there is less of me. Like there is no reason. Like I’m trapped.”
But the Ankou could understand. He could not understand waiting to be born, not completely, but he could understand waiting long beyond one’s time, losing oneself, but never being able to move on. As the centuries had passed, he was beginning to understand all too well.
He looked up at the sky. He judged that he had about three hours left until sunrise came and he went to bones. If he wanted to solve this mystery, he’d better do it quickly, so he had time to dig himself a grave in which to go to bones for the day.
“All right. Let’s do it,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Let’s climb it,” he said, taking his place at the foot of the stairs. “Climb on. I bet the view up there is beautiful on a night like tonight.”
“I can’t ask anyone to do that,” it said. “It will kill you to try to let me be born. I can tell by your smell that you’re not perfect. Even those children weren’t, and that’s why I frightened them away. I can see your shadow plainly on the ground. No, I can’t ask that you give your life.”
“I know I’m not perfect,” said the Ankou. “But we can still give it a try. If it kills me, it kills me.”
In fact, he hoped it did. Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the thing that could finally end the curse that had been placed on him, that kept him forever young, forever invincible, forever dying and waking, dying and waking again, his soul hanging in the Between, where all souls cross from life into whatever lay beyond it, but always rebuilding from bones before he could do so himself. He must have sounded slightly eager, because when he looked back at the Abanaku, it seemed concerned, even if he could only see a vague outline of it beneath the ash.
“Are you…you know…all right?” it asked gently. “Is life such great pain for you that you must eschew it altogether?”
The Ankou shrugged again. “Death is but the next great adventure, or so they say.”
“Who says that?” the Abanaku cocked its head to the side.
The Ankou wasn’t sure, really, and knew immediately that it must have been one of those things he’d picked up in the Between. He really needed to write all these little sayings down so they wouldn’t make their way into his regular vernacular and confuse anyone else.
“I’m sure somebody does. Anyway, if your birth will usher in all kinds of good things, and trying to achieve it does kill me, I think that’s a good way to go. Especially with all the terrible things I deal with day to day. It’s about time for some good in the world.”
The Ankou bent down. “Let’s give it a try.”
The Abanaku climbed onto the Ankou’s back, and the Ankou could feel that it was about as heavy as a house cat, with similar claws that dug gently into his shoulders. It was very warm, and its skin felt like the fuzzy skin of an apricot. It had no smell whatsoever.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Are you?” it returned.
The Ankou didn’t answer. He just put his foot on the first step and began to climb. Immediately, he felt a jolt rush through him, starting at his feet and moving upward, a tingle that wasn’t pleasant, but not deadly. He kept climbing, and the tingle grew to a buzz within his bones.
“Can you feel it?” asked the Abanaku.
“Yes,” the Ankou said. “I’ve had worse.”
“So far,” said the Abanaku. “Remember, there’s no shame in quitting.”
But the Ankou did not plan to quit. He kept climbing the spiraling wooden staircase, his feet thumping against the lacquered wood, his eyes on the steps ahead of him. In his bones the buzz grew and grew. It became painful, radiating upward and through him. But the Ankou just gritted his teeth and continued. Only seventy steps more…
From where it hung on his back, the Abanaku began to glow faintly with a thin, blue light. He began to be able to see its long feathers out of the corner of his eye, red and blue and green, bright, like the feathers of birds he’d seen on the Southern Valacian Isles.
“I can feel it!” said the Abanaku. “I am gaining strength!”
But the Ankou could feel himself losing strength. His lungs were weakening. It took careful concentration to breathe in and out. His knees, his legs, ached with each step, but he kept moving, and the Abanaku’s glow grew brighter, so that it illuminated the thick summer air and made the midges look like a flurry of snow.
The pain was becoming intense. It grew and throbbed through him. His every tissue felt depleted. His body was weakening rapidly. His breath came in wheezes and gasps.
The Ankou glanced down at his hand on the railing and gasped when he saw that it was spotted and frail and wrinkled, like the hand of an old man. He remembered the apothecary he’d studied under back in his village, before his curse, during his first life. Bres of Potions, he’d been called. He remembered how he’d wheezed and coughed, how his hands began to shake toward the end, before death came to claim him. Would death claim the Ankou too now?
The Ankou stumbled then. His knee went out of socket under him and pain flashed through his leg and up into his hip. He groaned.
“Almost!” said the Abanaku. “We’ve almost made it!”
He could feel the curse working against the stairs, feel his sinews trying to knit themselves back together, more slowly than usual.
The Ankou gritted his teeth and forced himself up. There were leaves all around them now. They were in the canopy and the pavilion was visible in the brilliant blue light coming from the Abanaku.
“So close!” it said, its voice full of yearning. “We are so close! I am almost born!”
The weakness grew within him. His clothes had begun to hang loosely on his bones. The hair that blew into his face with the breeze was no longer black, but thin and colorless like the hair of a corpse long dead. He could feel the ache all through him as his blood began to dry in his veins and his lips were so dry they cracked painfully before they mended.
Ten steps now.
The Ankou could feel his lungs begin to crinkle and dry within him. He could feel his heart shrivel. All senses of hunger and thirst began to dissipate, and the Ankou’s shrinking heart leapt then dropped. He knew better than anyone the symptoms of death when he felt them.
“Five steps now!” the Abanaku whispered, its light so bright now it illuminated the branches that surrounded them. “Just a little further now, Ankou. Just a little further.”
Then the Ankou’s shins snapped. His bones had grown so brittle that they were unable to support his weight. He collapsed, gasping on the stairs as the pain shot through him.
“No!” the Abanaku wept. “Oh no, no!”
But the Ankou was not finished. He gripped the step in front of him with his hands and dragged himself to the next step, with the Abanaku still on his back.
“We are going…to…make it…” he gasped, his drying vocal cords so brittle that his voice was barely still a voice at all.
His hands were just skin and bones now, the skin dehydrating, mummifying before his eyes. But he pulled himself onward anyway. One step left. Pain wracked the shell that his body had become. He thought of the Abanaku. No, he thought of himself, the endless cycle he lived day to day, the endless waiting, the curse of the immortal, forever tethered to fate. But this time, he could do something, if not to end his own cycle, to end someone else’s. This time, fate was in his hands.
With the last gasp of his shriveled lungs, he pulled his body up and onto the pavilion.
With a shriek, the Abanaku exploded into the air and into life. Fully visible, clothes in brilliant blue light, it stretched its colorful wings and coiled its long, dragonlike body.
“I am born!” it crowed. “Thank you, Ankou! Thank you!”
The Ankou couldn’t speak. He could only look up and outward through the railing over the silver tops of the trees. The sky was like a nightstone, dark, brilliant blue and freckled with stars. He could see the purple swirls of space beyond them, and all around, the wind caressed him reassuringly with the scent of leaves and rain.
I was right, the Ankou thought with satisfaction as he collapsed on his back on top landing. The view is beautiful from here. And as the sky lost focus and his sight dimmed, he thought This is what should be. This is truly…peace.
And though Ankou didn’t know it and would never know, as he lay there dying, just for a moment, he cast no shadow.
That night the Ankou’s soul did not go to the Between. Instead, the Ankou slept the sleep of death. A deep, deep, satisfying sleep that takes away all pain, all fear. And when he woke the next morning, rebuilt awkwardly in the clothes he had been wearing, the staircase was gone, and he was lying in a clearing of white flowers he didn’t remember from before.
He rose and stretched, feeling refreshed, well-rested, and somehow…changed. He glanced around the clearing. Gone were the clouds of midges, the will o’ the wisps, the mud. Instead, it was all sweet smelling grass, pale birch trunks, and those delicate white flowers he hadn’t seen before. The forest was thinner too somehow, impossibly so, and when he squinted, he could see the lights from the windows of the village. He was a little let down that this hadn’t been the end for him, that he hadn’t managed to die permanently, even on the Abanaku’s staircase. But he thought of the Abanaku for a moment, how beautiful and brilliant its colors had been, how joyful it had been to be born, and its promise that goodness would come with its birth, and he felt just a little bit satisfied.
“Well, Ankou?” the villagers asked when he made his way back to them. “Did you figure it out? Did you solve the mystery?”
“I did,” he said. “You were all smart not to risk climbing it. But now it’s gone, and it’ll trouble you no further. In fact, I think you’ll find a bit of good fortune in the coming days.”
“Oh bless you, bless you, Ankou!” said one of the children’s mothers. "Aavo, come and bring his payment.”
Obediently, one of the men from before came and handed the Ankou a bag of silver.
He felt eyes on him then and turned. From inside a nearby cottage, he could see the three children peeping out the window at him. The two older children looked out curiously, but smallest one, the little girl, simply smiled at him, then climbed down from the window and out of sight.
“If I may offer some advice,” the Ankou said, pocketing the silver and straightening his clothes. “Keep your children closer to home next time.”
“You’re right of course, Ankou,” said the mother. “After all, who knows what could be out there?”
“Who knows, indeed?” the Ankou said. Then he tipped his broad black hat, touched the hourglass pendant hanging at his throat, and, as always, kept moving.