I think someone told me a long time ago not to run up the stairs. I think she might have even been important to me, and so it almost bothers me that I am breaking that rule now. Almost.
My sneakers are sodden with water, but I pant for breath and drag my exhausted legs up yet another broad, shallow step. The water rushes around my ankles as it pours down the staircase in a long tumbling spiral towards lower ground. When I turn my gaze to the steps before me, the light off the water and white marble is too much; I shade my eyes, gasping. I swallow against a dry throat, realizing how thirsty I am. Yet I still stagger upward, rubber soles slipping on the slick marble and splashing through the layer of water falling, ever falling, down each step from above. My hair drips in my face – I have fallen once or twice, and I am shivering despite the heat stabbing through my legs and calves, despite my ever-increasing burning thirst. But I cannot stop, I cannot rest, I cannot wait. Lurching up another few steps, I lose my balance and teeter for a second on the stair, arms flailing. My haste might mean broken ribs, a shattered skull, a fractured spine, but I sense I am fleeing something too terrible to name. I regain my balance, adrenaline searing through my veins, and force myself forward again, leaning to the right in an attempt to see further up the enormous spiral staircase. There is nothing, only the smooth white wall a dozen feet to my right and the central column of the staircase the same distance to my left. And the eternal river pouring, pouring down. My next step sends water splashing up into my face and I gag, choking, nearly swallowing reflexively. My heart freezing in sudden fright, I cough, expelling the water so violently my stomach muscles spike with pain. The water is cold and pure, but I know this out of all my possible actions is the worst. I cannot stop, but even less can I drink from the liquid flowing down these steps. Temptation, I think, though I do not know where the thought has come from or why that word in particular has sprung to my mind. It is irrelevant. I continue upward.
Time has no meaning here, but I can tell after a while that I have slowed, legs leaden and weak. Gritting my teeth, I press my hands down on my thighs and use them to push me up another step. Then another. And another. But I know I am failing, my movements growing more and more sluggish. I am in perfect physical shape, but this climb is too much for me. Half-delirious, another thought springs to mind I wonder if that same, half-remembered person ever told me to never run when it was wet? It seems likely. I smile giddily through my fatigue, though the idea is not particularly funny. Pushing it out of my head, I fight upwards towards my goal, considering for a single glorious second the concept of resting, just for a bit. Then my pounding heart reminds me that I need to keep going, that if I slow down I might… I cannot quite remember what it is I fear. I just need to keep climbing…
Each breath sears my parched throat, every step sends pain shooting up my legs. I stumble and fall before I can catch myself, sending out my hand at the last minute in an instinctive attempt to lessen the impact. It collides with the stair hard and I hear a crack, my wrist giving way as I crash onto the stairs, water spraying as it rushes over my head and shoulders. I struggle to my feet despite the pain, coughing, cradling my wrist, spitting out any water I may have swallowed. I am doomed if I have drunk too much, and panic drives me to scramble up another few steps before I have even cleared my throat.
My legs are still lancing with pain, but it is my wrist that swallows my mind with its deep, agonizing throb. I whimper, still climbing mechanically with my arm to my chest, knowing that the next time I trip will be my last. The water around my feet seems to part less easily now, catching at the hem of my pants and tugging me insistently. It is almost malicious, as if it is determined I will never reach the top. I am starting to believe this in my own mind as well. The light seems too bright now, even as black spots start to encroach at the edge of my sight. Things are getting hazy and I curl into myself, sobbing though I am too dehydrated to even tear up. There is something behind me…
On my next step my ankle twists and I fall, landing hard on my side, the marble driving into my ribs unforgivingly. My breath stops in my chest and I fight to inhale, unable to even cry out. When the air comes it is accompanied by ripping pain that sends bright lights to flash in front of my face. I wheeze, realizing I have probably cracked my ribs. Lying there helplessly, the water closes in, seeming to almost rise up my face against gravity. I close my eyes as it smothers me, crying now, as the water trickles down my throat. I no longer care if I drown.
In the darkness behind my lids, I almost catch something. A flash of memory, a face. I remember more pain, a scarlet flower of blood. Someone screaming. It is gone as quickly as it comes. Yet that moment has impressed on me again the urgency of what I am doing. With an effort I force my eyes open, then, spluttering and gagging, I sit up, broken wrist tucked close to my stomach. I will keep going.
Rising to my feet proves to be too much; I sink limply back with a moan. But that desire is back in my blood, so I shift onto my stomach and scrabble my arms and legs, dragging myself over the hard edges of the stairs. I am crawling now, slowly, and with only one hand, but I am making my way upward any way I can. The water is cold on my hand and elbow and legs. My saturated clothes weigh me down.
Time splinters into fragments. Eyes to the stair. Forearm on the next step. Pull. My ribs piercing through my chest with pain. Upward. Climb. Just one more step.
When my arms and legs give way I only despair for a few seconds, because weariness is pouring its gray bittersweetness through the marrow of my bones. I lie there, content to just… close my eyes. Something is pounding at the back of my head, a ghost of my former perseverance, but I am done. I am ready to give up and drift away. My heartbeat is thudding in my ears, and I can hear its pulse slowing. The sound of water rushing is fading.
Then the staircase thrums. I feel the vibrating all through my battered body, shattering the cocoon of calm that has woven its warm thickness around me. I crack open my eyes, gritty reality shoving its way in, but all I can see is white. The light has intensified, and I have the sense that something else has changed.
There is a sound my dazed mind cannot identify. Squinting, I shift my head ever so slightly, trying to look up the steps, and somehow the water parts enough that I can see upwards using just my peripheral vision.
Someone or something is standing on the staircase above me. I cannot make out anything but its silhouette, edges glowing, but I can see as it inclines its head toward me, hands pressed together near its midsection. The water around me warms.
Welcome, the figure says, voice reverberating and echoing from the marble, everywhere at once and yet swelling through my mind directly. Fear not, for you have ascended.
My mouth slips open, the closest I can come to expressing my astonishment. Is my torturous struggle up this stair over? The hours have blurred together, and I no longer know how long I have been climbing, how far up I have come. Is it possible I have made it? Hope trickles through me, numbing some of my bruises and pains with a glow of heat.
I suddenly realize I am lying on a dry step. Twisting my head so I can look down, I see the marble shining pristinely, with not a single indication that only moments before it had a torrent tumbling down it. I have only my soaking clothes to remind me I was not imagining the deluge.
Arise, says the figure, and I do. It takes me a moment to realize the oddness, but the agony in my torso and legs is gone, replaced with an persistent but manageable ache. My wrist too is only sore, and though I feel drained, I am healthy and essentially whole as I turn upward, a smile spreading over my face.
The light has dimmed just enough for me to see the figure above spread its wings. They unfold from its back majestically, shimmering in the same white light that burns everywhere around me. For only a second the memory flickers back: the face, the blood, the scream. My death. But as the angel reaches its hands toward me, I begin to run up the steps, pain forgotten. I know that after all this time, after all my ordeals, after all my anguish… I am home.