From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Elsbeth Rose

Traveller Yud climbed up the stairs and was on the landing between fifty-five and fifty-six when he finally stopped to rest.

Elsbeth Rose put a last, bold stroke of red on the canvas when the knock on the door came and she sighed and laid the brush down gently and went to answer it. The door of number fifty-five opened, and Traveller Yud and Elsbeth Rose saw each other for the first time.

What Elsbeth Rose saw was a short man of about sixty, who stood puffing on the landing like a landed fish.

His otherwise-bald head was crowned with a ring of white hair, and his curled moustache and his dapper goatee — rather dandyish, Elsbeth Rose privately thought — lent him the air of an aged adventurer who was slightly out of shape.

What Traveller Yud saw was an elderly woman with the traces of her former beauty etched in her face like the tracks of tears. She wore an overall daubed with paint. There was a smear of green paint on her left earlobe, and a delicate blue on her right wrist. Her hair, in which white fought and won against her natural black, was nevertheless long and strong, and was currently tied behind her head in an untidy bun.

“Yes?” she said, politely.

“Excuse me,” said the small man, trying to gain control of his breath. “I don’t suppose you could spare me a glass of water?” He gestured vaguely downstairs and shuddered. “Feral apartment-dwellers. All through your lower hundred. I only stopped because I couldn’t run any more.”

Elsbeth Rose felt alarm. “Did they follow you?” she said, and then held the door open. “Get in, get in.”

Concern eased into her words when she said, “You poor man, you look exhausted.”

Traveller Yud entered the apartment. “Thank you,” he said. “There is no cause for alarm. I think they stopped chasing me when I got into your hundred. There was a guard-post between apartments one and two and they pushed them off.” He looked away as Elsbeth Rose closed the door. “I ran the other twenty-five floors just to be sure.”

He extended his hand to her. “My name is Traveller Yud.”

She took his hand. It was warm and pleasant to the touch. “Elsbeth Rose.”

Their hands separated. They regarded each other in silence, already comfortable.

Yud looked around him. He always felt, on entering a new apartment, that two-fold sense of excitement that arose from being in a new place, but also came from that sense of what his parents had called nirvana, the achievement of a higher plane.

He was a traveller. His life had been one long climb, a series of moves that brought him higher and higher on the staircase. His life was a series of alien landings and unfamiliar apartments.

This apartment — fifty-five, short for a number that, had its digits been tentacles, would have had more than a giant squid (a creature Yud once saw many hundreds of floors down, in a apartment that opened up onto an immense aquarium lit only by strange glowing fish that ebbed in the water like curious lanterns) — was a comfortable, airy space that suffered no dividing walls. Large windows ran from floor (honey-coloured wood worn by the passage of countless previous tenants) to ceiling and streamed in sunlight, and behind the window panes the empty, immense blue skies opened up to infinity, the effect of grandeur marred only by the occasional appearance of a white cloud drifting unconcernedly past.

An easel stood to his left, by the window. On the right was a twin bed, immaculately made, with rather a lot of pillows. On his right also, near the door, was a kitchenette, and beside it a table and three comfortable-looking if rather worn chairs.

From the kitchenette his new hostess now arrived with a glass of clear water and handed it to him. The grateful Yud took the glass from her and their fingers brushed. Both pretended not to notice, and Yud drank the water without speaking, though his face showed his delight in the cold drink and his eyes betrayed a new look when they regarded Elsbeth Rose shyly from behind the glass. Perhaps, already, he was half in love with her.

Elsbeth Rose, meanwhile, was gazing on the traveller with no little admiration. To have braved coming from below! She knew about the feral apartment-dwellers, who settled most of the apartments in the hundred below some years back and made passage through that section of the staircase most difficult. Her unannounced visitor was the first person she had seen from below in all the time she had lived in the apartment, though a constant trickle of visitors did arrive from above, some from as far away as three and even five hundred floors.

Seeing that his glass was empty, Elsbeth Rose took it from the traveller’s hands (their fingers brushed again, and this time their eyes did not shy away from each other’s, held each other for one long moment) and retired to the kitchenette, where she poured the traveller another glass of cold water from the bottle that stood nearly alone in small, utilitarian fridge, whose make was written on it in chipped gold letters, in an alphabet that was unfamiliar to Elsbeth Rose. Had she asked Yud, he would have remembered a place (on the Fifty-Seventh Thousand, Four Hundred and Thirty Fifth floor of the World) where he had seen such a script and, had he been prodded further, might have recalled the name of the strange alphabet, which was Assyrian. As it were, the opportunity for small-talk breaking the ice had gone unnoticed and Yud, who was anyhow not a man to indulge in such talk, said formally, even a little stiffly, “I am very grateful to you for allowing me into your apartment.”

Elsbeth Rose inclined her head gracefully in reply.

“I am always anxious when knocking on a strange door,” said Yud. “One never knows who or what might answer.” He looked away, and his ears took on just the hint of pink, rising like dawn at the lobes. “I am glad to have had such a charming woman as yourself open this one.”

Oh, but Elsbeth Rose was secretly delighted! But aloud, she said only, “Really!” in a shocked kind of tone.

The glass held in his hand, Yud stepped forward into the apartment proper: the sun caught his face and blinded him, and to Elsbeth Rose he seemed wreathed in light and almost angelic. Yud turned his face to her and she saw it was merely his beard and moustache catching the sunlight; yet the feeling persisted in her afterwards.

“Please,” said Elsbeth Rose. “Put your backpack down. Against the wall by the easel is fine.”

He did, noticing the painting as he did so: a hypnotic red eye that exerted a strange fascination on him, so that he tore himself away with some effort.

As he turned his head (Elsbeth Rose had retired again to the kitchenette and was busy preparing what Yud correctly surmised was tea) he saw the rest of the paintings. They hung from the wall furthest from the windows and so he had not seen them. Now that he had he could not argue nor threaten his eyes into turning away: he had the strangest feeling that they desired to entirely abandon him, and rush like two maddened connoisseurs of the arts at the wall.

Somehow, he had expected Elsbeth Rose’s art to be idyllic, serene, with scenes of the perfect blue skies, perhaps, or a pleasant group of cows at pasture. Instead, the paintings depicted bizarre and frightening scenes: a group of sensuous satyrs and nymphs indulging in human sacrifice on the shore of a malevolent sea in one painting; a narrow river in which shoals of beings that were half-human and half-fish swam packed closely together in another. The paintings mesmerised him and he forgot the apartment, forgot his climb, forgot even — if only for a moment — his charming hostess: the paintings grew in his mind until they threatened to become his world, in which he would be bound to travel for eternity.

“Milk? Sugar?” said Elsbeth Rose.

Yud tore himself away. His eyes hurt in protest. “One sugar, please. No milk.”

“I’ll make that two sugars,” said Elsbeth Rose decidedly. “You look like you need it.” Then, as the disturbing thought occurred to her, “Oh, perhaps you would prefer a herbal tea? I have some camomile here somewhere…” She was suddenly flustered. “I didn’t think…”

“Please, do not trouble yourself,” Yud said, feeling in his turn a corresponding flush of embarrassment. Could he have somehow offended his hostess? He added, “The tea smells wonderful.”

Despite this small awkwardness, by the time they sat down to their tea it was as if they had done exactly that for the entirety of their lives. The glare of noon light had softened somewhat to the effervescence of afternoon, and the hot sweet tea, Yud found, was just what he needed after his long and arduous climb. The horrors of the morning, the cautious climb through the feral apartment-dwellers’ domain, where the light fixtures were broken and rubbish was strewn everywhere on the stairs and it stank of piss, the desperate flight when he was finally attacked, almost on the border with the next hundred…all were forgotten with the aid of tea, and of good company.

“Tell me,” said Elsbeth Rose now, and her eyes shined. “Have you travelled far? Have you explored much of the staircase?”

“As much as can be seen by any one person, perhaps,” said Yud. “And more than most. I was born to Travellers, who were born to Travellers before them. My great-grandmother was from a place called Scandinavia, I was told, and my great-grandfather from Japan. They were both mountain-climbers. My father told me that one day his grandparents were walking through a hidden valley in a strange and distant part of the world, when they came to the slopes of the tallest mountain they had ever seen, and which the natives of that land called Olympus. For seven days and seven nights my grandparents battled the mountain, clawing their way up the frozen sheer cliffs by rope and peg. At last, reaching the summit, with snow whipping all about them, they discovered, embedded in the ice, a door.

“It was a simple, wooden door, with a dull brass handle and a brass plaque that bore no name. They opened it and went through, and found themselves on the staircase.”

Yud drank from his tea.

Thinking of Yud’s story — no doubt comparing it to her own arrival — the thought suddenly struck Elsbeth Rose. “You mean to say,” Elsbeth Rose, who had never so much as travelled more than thirty floors in any one direction, said, “that you were born here? That you have never been outside?”

“Born on the stairs,” said Traveller Yud proudly. “Took my first steps up the steps, as it were.”

Elsbeth Rose smiled politely.

“But I assure you, I have seen the outside!” Yud said. He gently put down the now-empty mug of tea on the table. He had often paid his way up in the World with his tales, and liked telling them. Here, he felt, he found a truly appreciative audience in the form of Elsbeth Rose. Also, Yud quite desperately wanted to impress her. He began a long tale about a far-away landing (when I was much younger, he said, and looked down at his fingers, their wrinkles and blemishes, and sighed) where a door had opened not on a apartment but on an immense eyrie that jutted like an accusing finger into the skies.

“For twelve days and twelve nights I slept at the top of that foreboding place, buffeted on all sides by wind and rain. The sun dried me. Every day I would walk the mile or so down to the neighbours who lived in the apartment opposite — a charming couple of elderly gentlemen who were — ” Here he blushed again, a little. ” — very much in love, to drink water from the tap and use their bathroom. For twelve days and nights I lived alone on top of that immense appendage of the World. I looked up and saw infinity. I looked down… I saw the same. The edges of the World were caked with clouds. Sometimes I saw people, watching me through their windows. On the thirteenth morning I rose and rejoined the World.”

There was a silence, a comfortable one. Elsbeth Rose seemed far away. The empty mugs of tea sat sunning themselves on the table.

Elsbeth Rose imagined her visitor, stranded (but for water and a private space in which to perform certain essential physical functions no man or woman can sadly do without) alone and lonely on top of an eyrie. In her mind the eyrie was immense indeed, and Yud (she allowed herself now, privately, to call him so) was dwarfed but not cowed by it. And here she was questioning him so rudely simply because he was born here and had not come from somewhere else!

A change of topic was required, and talk of family is always reassuring. And so, “My father was a trombonist,” said Elsbeth Rose, roused from her daydream. “And my mother wrote gardening books.”

Into Yud’s expectant silence she added, “My father used to play Ride of the Valkyries whenever my mother worked in the garden.”

Yud smiled politely.

“You are, I think, from — as you said — outside?” he inquired.

He saw Elsbeth Rose make herself more comfortable in the chair. It was her turn for telling a story, and like Yud, she relished the opportunity.

“I was born,” so said Elsbeth Rose, “in Richmond-upon-Thames, in the county of Surrey, in the island-nation of Britannia. My father (the trombonist) was a Pict from Caledonia. My mother was from the neighbouring island of Hibernia. Like many of their generation, they were newly-arrived immigrants, come seeking the lights and the bustle of the metropolis. Richmond was already a part of the greater city of London in those days, while at the same time it was a pleasant refuge. Queen Wallis took her summers there — I saw her once on Richmond Hill, hunting deer…” Elsbeth Rose’s eyes took on a dreamy aspect. As the afternoon wore on the shadows in the room lengthened. “When I was eighteen the War broke out. There were bombings every night. One morning the house of our neighbours disappeared. I helped remove the bodies.

“But I was young! Death and war could not touch me. Vespuccian soldiers were everywhere and they were exciting and dashing. London came alive at night despite the curfew. We danced as the bombs fell. And I was young!

“I auditioned for Vivian Van Damm at the Windmill once. It was warm, it was underground. They use to say the Windmill was the safest place to be! I took my clothes off. And he said, “Too short, tits too small.” And that was it.”

She roused herself, like a waking cat it seemed to Yud, who was listening in rapture.

His stomach rumbled. “Oh, but you must be starving!” cried Elsbeth Rose. She stood despite Yud’s (admittedly not entirely whole-hearted) protestations and approached the kitchenette the way — so Yud thought — a stalking cat would towards its unsuspecting pray. She lit a match and brought a small gas ring into shuddering blue life. She took hold of a wooden spoon.

‘My speciality is omelettes,” she called over her shoulder. “If you don’t mind a few eggshells mixed in.”

“Please,” said Yud. “Let me.” He stood and came toward her, and stood close. “I once worked as a chef at a apartment that opened up into the most amazing mansion. It was inhabited by a circus, who have moved there, so they said, after a train-crash in a place called Indiana. Every morning I stood in the large circular yard of the mansion, where rare trees grew every kind of fruit and rare birds sang in beautiful voices. Every morning the yard would fill up with jugglers and elephant-riders (along with their elephants, of course), tightrope walkers, clowns —” Here he gave a little shudder, which Elsbeth Rose could not help but sympathise with — “and also bashi-bazouks, nincompoops, whipper-snappers, carpet-sellers, fuzzy-wuzzies, two-timing Tartar twisters, nitwitted ninepins and meddlesome cabin boys. Every morning I cooked for them: haddock baked in honey, coconut rice, exotic seafood chowder and chicken surprise.” He gently but firmly took the spoon from Elsbeth Rose’s hands — which she was clutching rather fuzzy-wuzzily herself — and applied himself to the task of omelette-making. “Please, continue with your story,” he said, and he smiled, and she smiled in response.

Elsbeth Rose was pretty when she beamed at him like this, with a look of simple, momentary happiness, and the lines on her face resembled many little smiles all etched into her skin. Yud was charmed anew, and nearly dropped an egg.

“And that was it,” said Elsbeth Rose, returning to her recollections, “for me posing at the Windmill! I toured instead. I danced, I sang a little…the war ended and my Vespuccian soldier didn’t stay. I fell in love with a magician instead, but he died doing the bullet-catching trick. He had a stroke.” She shrugged, a little sadly. “I should have listened to my mother when she said one should never trust a magician.”

Yud, discovering in one distant corner of the bottom cupboard an unexpected portion of pepperoni, two onions and a potato, nodded in sympathy. Magicians! his gaze seemed to say. A selfish lot indeed! He had also found mushrooms. He began chopping them, while olive oil sizzled in the pan.

“Then I married. His name was Jack Threepwood — he was some sort of distant relation to the Earl of Emsworth. He was a man about town, but he was a good man all the same. We had two children, Silence and Solitude, and we lived in a big house on Richmond Hill.” She looked down at her hands. “We were very happy.”

The smell of frying onions filled the room. There was a hint of something strange in there, unexpected — could it have been oregano?

Sensing that his hostess’s story was taking a toll, Yud felt it was time to momentarily change the conversation. “These vegetables are lovely,” he said. “Where do you get them from?”

Glad for the interruption, Elsbeth Rose said, “A nice young woman in sixty-seven grows her own vegetables. I trade some for a painting once a month. The mushrooms are from seventy-three — it opens up into a small dank cave, and a man called Wormtongue grows them. Daniel de Wormtongue. Strange man with long dark hair all twisted into knots.”

“He grows good mushrooms,” Yud said appreciatively. “And dare I ask, the pepperoni?”

“An Italian carpenter in twenty-one, with the most bizarre child,” said Elsbeth Rose, and shuddered a little theatrically. “Also the olive oil. But you learn not to ask too many questions of your neighbours when living in a place like this.” She sighed. She felt ready now to resume her narrative, though she was grateful to the sensitive Yud for the momentary interruption.

“We were very happy,” she said, resuming the thread of her life, “until my daughter Solitude fell ill. Then she died. My son Silence, heart-broken, ran away to sea. The only letter I ever received from him was postmarked in the Cape of Lost Hope, in Zululand. He was on his way to Antarctica.”

Yud gazed at her with sorrowful eyes. Such a brave lady! he thought. Having broken the eggs in and watched them cook, he hurriedly folded over the omelette, halved it and dished it on to plates. He laid the plates on the table, turned (laid a sympathetic, understanding hand on Elsbeth Rose’s shoulder, for just a moment) then went to his small backpack and extracted from it a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine.

“Chateau L’Escaliers,” he said. “A most remarkable vintage.” Holding the wine in one hand, the stick of bread under his arm, he reached again into the backpack and returned with a bottle-opener. He returned to the table and laid the bread on it. He rested the bottle on the surface and uncorked it. Elsbeth Rose, seated again in her comfortable chair, looked up at him in admiration. What a Chevalier! she thought to herself.

Yud fetched wine glasses and they sat down to dine. The shadows lengthened further. They seemed to hint, in their none too subtle way, that the day wasn’t going to hang around all day and would they please take that into account?

But neither Elsbeth Rose nor Yud paid them any notice.

The bread, the omelette and the wine combined to settle Elsbeth Rose into a mood of complacency. She began to think it would be rather nice to have someone about the place who used mushrooms and onions and, yes, oregano, in such a way.

“I grew accustomed to living alone,” she said, resuming the thought, and with it her story, aloud. “When Solitude died and Silence fled, my husband took solace in book collecting. He collected autobiographies, a harmless enough pastime, and all was well…But above all my husband coveted a first edition copy of Holmes’ Memoirs of a Consulting Detective’s Life. An offer came through. Jack was very secretive about it. I learned, later, that he arranged to meet the seller at an opium-den in Limehouse. He bought the book but, on his way back, could not find a cab and had to walk. He became lost, and by the time he heard the machine guns it was too late. He had walked straight into a turf war between the Moriarties and the Baker Street Boyz. From two sides of the street, the Moriarty Family and the Baker Street Crew opened fire with their machine guns. The bullets. They tore the book apart, and splattered poor Jack’s brains all over the pavement. Since then I have lived alone.”

“That’s terrible!” said Yud.

Elsbeth Rose inclined her head in graceful assent.

“I was comfortable enough in my big house on the Hill,” she said. “I never grew weary of the leaves falling in autumn, or of the winter fog, or of the way the sun reflected off the Thames like a smile, on a summer’s Sunday. I had my cats…I still miss them.

“Nevertheless I became restless. It seemed to me I should sell the house and move to a smaller place. Perhaps even a apartment. The old house was too big, and yet too crowded. I needed a change. I saw an ad in the paper, for a apartment in Kensington, opposite the park. When I arrived the door was already open. I stepped through it…Now I’m here.” She tilted her head and her hair, locked in its stern buns the whole day, finally relented and set itself loose, and settled about her like the soft falling of rain. And she smiled.

“Sometimes I close my eyes and I can almost hear the ducks as they march in the park along the Serpentine. Then I open them and look at that endless sky out there, nothing but empty blue skies stretching from my window all the way to forever, and I paint.”

“You’re a wonderful painter,” said Yud. A wonderful woman! he wanted to shout. But it remained unsaid.

‘Thank you,” said Elsbeth Rose.

Far far away, beyond the clear glass, the sun was setting.

“Tell me one last story,” said Elsbeth Rose. Her finger traced a line of condensation on the stem of the wineglass. “Before the day is gone, I mean.” She blushed. It was growing dark, and so she stood and fetched some candles from a cupboard in the kitchenette. Their glow seemed to confer intimacy on their sitting together, drawing them into a circle of light. It was like an embrace. Outside the circle the shadows breathed.

“On a narrow landing far Below I once saw a door that seemed to me not like a door at all but like a hand, motioning to me with its giant fingers as if trying to grasp me. I opened that door, which felt at once cold and hot to the touch, and when I did, I saw an empty space, cast in gloom, like the backstage of a theatre on a Sunday night, and at its centre a gagged and bound man. I came closer to him and touched his cheek. It felt icy. I turned his face to the light…I saw myself.” He passed a hand over his face. Elsbeth Rose shivered, though the room was never cold.

“It was not, perhaps, the best story to tell,” said Yud. He was embarrassed. “In hindsight.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps I should go.” He rose from his chair as he spoke, Feeling suddenly he had overstayed his welcome. His story had hurt Elsbeth Rose. He was a knave, and a fool. How could he? He walked dejectedly towards the door.

As he walked (in slow, small steps) he was envisioning to himself that world of stairs outside, the endless flights of them, the never-ending landings, the doors battling each other with fancier and fancier welcome mats. He wondered what it was like to live in a apartment. To sit there day after day and grow accustomed to the sounds coming through the walls: neighbours washing or using the bathroom; neighbours snoring; neighbours fighting; even worse, neighbours noisily making up…

He thought it might be nice to get to know the sounds. To know that toilet flush was Mrs. So-and-so in fifty-seven above, or that the coughing late at night on the other side of the wall was Mr. This-and-that at fifty-six, who lived in an igloo in the middle of the living room and behind the windows it always snowed…

What was up there anyway? He would never find out. There would be no one to share a bottle of good wine with, or watch while she painted horrors…

Elsbeth Rose followed him in silence to the door. She did not know what to say.

“Thank you,” said Yud. “For everything.”

He didn’t look at her. Had he done so, he would have seen that her eyes were moist.

“Your backpack,” said Elsbeth Rose.

How could he be such an idiot? Still, he welcomed the delay.

He followed her back into the apartment. She had opened one window and a breeze came through and ruffled her hair. The sun was setting in the distance, in hues of cinnamon and ginger and burnt sugar that filled the darkening skies. He turned to her and his hand touched her shoulder. She put her fingers lightly on his wrist.

“Stay,” said Elsbeth Rose.


Lavie Tidhar is the winner of the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury Prize (awarded by the European Space Agency), and the author of the novella An Occupation of Angels (2005) and the linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007). His stories appeared in Sci Fiction, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Clarkesworld Magazine and many others, and in translation in seven languages.

Tagged as: