Stuart Dybek

They were ascending a staircase that might bring them closer to the mystery. Each shouldered a stair that seemed at first immaterial, but as the ascent continued, its weight could be discerned by the bow of backs and breaths growing shorter as if the air had thinned. When the staircase ended suddenly before an edge overhanging a void, the ascendant knelt and set the stair into place. It fit perfectly as if it had been expected, ready to support the footfalls to follow, its moonlit tread and riser of shadow in perfect uniformity with the spiraling flight of preceding stairs. The task completed, the ascendant stood aside, silently joining hands with the ghostly balustrade of those who had come before and, closing his eyes and fading into a dreamless sleep, allowed the next climbers to pass.

From afar, their climb must have appeared processional: a living current flowing upward at a pace undeterred by accident or conflict, as if ascension was obedient to a law greater than gravity. Bombarded by starlight, the climbers reflected the radiance. Beneath the dome of the universe, they looked barely corporeal. The birthing-dying galaxies shined through them so that their inner lives—their most intimate memories and dreams—were as visible as the organs of a gecko in the glow of a porch light. Across the stillness of black matter, the synchronized stamp of their footfalls, regular as the pulsing of quasars, beat out an elementary measure of time. From a celestial distance the ascent was beautiful.

Like all beauty shaped from chaos, its preservation depended on order. Perhaps that was the law more powerful than gravity. To disturb the order would threaten a return to the emptiness from which the staircase and those who climbed it were, not so much composed, as organized. From a distant perspective it was obvious— whether the ascendants recognized it or not—that when each of them reached the last step and was required to stand aside, the change was merely one of degree rather than of kind.

There were other immutable laws. Possessiveness was forbidden. Whatever an ascendant professed to believe, he or she—not that gender mattered—ultimately possessed nothing. No matter how passionately the ascendants felt themselves possessed, how much they loved or hated, what allegiances they’d formed over the course of their climb, they possessed nothing. In that they were equal. Balanced at the edge, it was not permissible for the ascendant to hug to the stair, refusing to release the weight he’d carried, to which he’d grown attached so that what had once been a burden now seemed a part of him. It was not permitted to raise the stair that had been dutifully transported to that incalculable height—a summit erected by all those who step by step had preceded—and, in a final tantrum of rebellion, hurl it over the edge, before leaping after.

Worse still was the penultimate offense of trying to go back down.