When Philip was six years old, his mother went downstairs.
He remembered it well: her retreating back as she slowly walked down the first flight of the rough stone stairs, holding on to the shaky banister. As if she were afraid to slip on the moss-covered steps. As if it mattered.
She paused five steps below the Landing, almost but not quite looking back. Philip was standing on the very edge of the Landing, his toes hanging over the misty abyss, crying “Mama!” He lowered his right foot, the tip of his shoe touching the step below…and then a rough hand closed over his arm, yanked him back, and his father yelled something, something Philip did not understand then and could not remember later, and his mother’s pale face hovered below them. And then she walked down, quickly and resolutely, until she was swallowed up by the murk of the Cellar.
Philip wailed and squirmed in his father’s bear-hug until a slap made his vision blur and his father told him that the whore was gone and he should stop crying, he was a man! And Philip stopped. He did not cry for six years.
During these years he had gotten such schooling as was available to the children of the House in Miss Spore’s one-room lyceum, far enough from the Landing for the students not to be distracted by the Cellar’s shadowy activity. This was the idea anyway. The children, ranging in age from six to twelve, perked their ears every time the level of ambient noise rose slightly, even if most of the time it signified merely the return of workers from the plantation rooms, tipsy on fermented moss and yelling obscene songs. Many students pitched in, to Miss Spore’s indignation, unerringly picking out their fathers’ voices in the medley. Philip remained silent.
He was grateful to Miss Spore for the discovery that changed his life. He was not good at letters at the beginning but she beat the alphabet into him, smartly tapping his knuckles with a ruler every time he stumbled over “Angel” or “Behemoth”. And eventually the squiggles turned into sounds, and sounds resolved themselves into words, and he found he could read. And because she was proud of her success in turning such a poor student around, she rewarded him by giving him access to a slender stack of pre-Incarceration books she kept under lock and key in her own room. The books were mostly illegible, splotched with brown and green mold. But he managed to decipher the beginning of one, and this is how he learned about the Fire-Escape.
Eager and excited about his discovery, he came back home to the dank apartment he shared with his father. The glass ceiling was so stained that the light of the Attic barely penetrated into the gloom.
This was why Philip did not see his father’s curled-up body in the corner. He almost stumbled over it.
His father grasped Philip’s hand.
“I’m sorry, son,” he whispered. “I’ll be all right. No big deal. Don’t worry.”
Indeed, there was nothing to worry about. His father was dead.
Philip sat by the body in the dirty light that flared up occasionally when the incandescent blob of an Angel dove down from the empyrean of the Attic. Eventually the night-awning slid over the glass ceiling, plunging the House into dark. But he did not stir. He was remembering all the times his father had brought home a package of lichen and divided it into two uneven parts, shoving the bigger portion across the table at Philip who sullenly devoured it.
When the night-awning folded back, Philip wrapped his father’s body in a shirt he pulled out of the closet. He had never seen it before which indicated that the House had shifted into one of its grudgingly generous moods when clothes and other basic necessities would be capriciously distributed through the rooms. Philip filled two big canisters with the rusty water that trickled from the faucets and quickly washed up while it lasted. He also checked the kitchen cupboards out of habit but they were bare. It had been a long time since any food appeared. Humanity – all 268 of them – subsisted on lichen agriculture and rat-hunting.
He carried his father to the Landing. Miss Spore was there, and Judge Morley. The elders of the community who could no longer work took turns watching out for a Behemoth incursion. They could alert the others who would hide in nooks and crannies but their own lives would be forfeit. Nobody survived a face-to-face encounter with a Behemoth.
“Where do you want your father’s body?” Judge Morley asked ceremoniously, hawking up phlegm. It was not a pro forma question. Most families would, of course, choose that the body be placed on the first flight of stairs leading up to the Attic. Then it would be carried into glory by Angels during night-hours. Only the bodies of malefactors – thieves, murderers, cannibals – were left on the lower flight, below the Landing, where they would be snatched up by Behemoths. Such people were known in the community. It did happen, however, that the deceased’s family would pronounce an unexpected judgment on them. When Philip was small, a shy girl named Fiona declared that her father’s body did not belong in the Attic because he had secretly abused her.
Philip swallowed. Now was the time. He had dreamed about this moment in the lonely nights after his mother’s disappearance, rehearsing the words he would say, condemning his father for driving his mother into the Cellar. He must have done it. Why else would she have abandoned her son?
But the words had melted away.
“Up,” he said and the two elders nodded.
The body was left on the upper flight and disappeared at night. The Angels accepted Philip’s judgment.
But now, living alone, Philip could finally explore the moldy book with the incomprehensible title of “Elements of Architecture”. He pored over it in the scant hours after work, before the black awning of night slid over the ceiling, leaving him in the dark which the few wall-lamps could not dispel. When the lichen harvest failed, he knew it was time to act.
Finding the Fire-Escape was not as hard as he had expected. Many parts of the House had fallen into disuse. Following a drawing in the book, he went into one of those abandoned corridors where chunks of plaster fell off the walls as he walked by. The doors, warped in their frames, opened onto darkness.
He peeked into a room and flinched away. It looked as if it were permanently covered by the night-awning, and there were stealthy movements and whispers in the impenetrable gloom.
He reached the end of the corridor and there it was: a steel door, so well-blended with the rusty wall that nobody would notice it unless they knew it was there. Philip put his shoulder to it. Once, twice….
It opened with a screech. Light flowed in: as bright as the light of the Attic but with a strange orange undertone. Philip poked his head out and gasped.
It was the largest room he had ever seen: so large that its walls were invisible. Only a faint bluish paint in the distance indicated where it ended. And suspended in the room was a giant lamp, shedding a crimson radiance so strong Philip could not look at it without blinking. The lamp was being slowly lowered on invisible chains even as he watched.
And the Fire-Escape was there: a ladder of metal rails and rungs attached to the wall and stretching far up into the radiance of the Attic and far down, into the dimness of the Cellar. Philip grasped the rails. They were strong and reassuring.
Keeping his arms wrapped around the rails, he angled his body until both his feet were firmly planted on a rung. If he kept his face to the wall instead of staring into the abyss, he could do it!
But where to? Philip realized that everything he had been told in his short life was a lie. They told him the Attic and the Cellar were inaccessible to the living, and yet here it was, the Fire-Escape that, as the book had explained, provided “emergency exit”. He could climb it up or down. He could be reunited with his father or his mother!
But not with both.
Philip clung to the rail until his fingers went numb. And then he started climbing.