THE TALE OF THE STAIRS
by Hristo Smirnenski
Dedicated to all who will say:
"It was nothing to do with me!"
"Who are you?" The Devil asked him.
"I am a plebeian by birth and all ragged folk are my brothers. How terrible the world is, how wretched the people are!"
It was a young man who spoke with head erect and clenched fists. He stood at the foot of the Stairs - a high white staircase of rose-flecked marble. He gazed fixedly into the distance where the grey crowds of poverty stirred like the turbid waters of a swollen river. The crowds surged and seethed, raised a forest of thin black arms, thunderous cries of wrath and indignation rent the air and the echo faded slowly and solemnly like distant gun-fire. The crowds grew and grew nearer in clouds of yellow dust, single silhouettes showed more distinctly against the grey horizon. An old man approached, bent low to the ground as if seeking lost youth. A barefoot little girl clutched his ragged clothes and stared at the high Stairs with mild cornflower-blue eyes. Stared and smiled. Then thin grey figures came all in rags, singing a long-drawn funeral chorus. Someone whistled shrilly, somebody else thrusting his hands in his pockets laughed loud and harshly and insanity blazed in his eyes.
"I am a plebeian by birth and all ragged folk are my brothers. How terrible the world is, how wretched the people are! But you there, you at the top there…"
It was a young man who spoke with head erect and fists clenched in manace.
"So you hate those up at the top," the Devil asked, and styly leaned forward towards the young man.
"I shall have my revenge on those nobles and princes. I shall cruelly avenge my brothers - my brothers whose faces are as yellow as sand and who groan more bitterly than the blizzards of December. See their naked bleeding bodies, hear their groans! I shall avenge them. Let me go!"
The Devil smiled: "I am the guardian of those at the top and without a bribe I shall not betray them."
"I have no gold. I have nothing with which to bribe you… I am poor, a youth in rags… But I am willing to give up my life…"
Again the Devil smiled: "O no, I do not ask as much as that. Just give me your hearing."
"My hearing? Gladly… May I never hear anything any more, may I…"
"You still shall hear," the Devil assured him, and made way for him. "Pass!"
The young man set off at a run and had taken three steps in one stride when the hairy hand of the Devil caught him.
"That's enough! Now pause and listen to your brothers groaning below."
The young man paused and listened.
"How strange! Why have they suddenly begun to sing happy songs and to laugh light-heartedly?…" Again he set off at a run.
Again the Devil stopped him. "For you to go three more steps I must have your eyes."
The young man made a gesture of despair. "But then I shall be unable to see my brothers or those I go to punish."
"You still shall see them…" The Devil said. "I will give you different, much better eyes."
The young man rose three more steps and looked back.
"See your brothers' naked bleeding bodies," the Devil prompted him.
"My God, how very strange! When did they manage to don such beautiful clothes? And not bleeding wounds but splendid red roses deck their bodies…"
At every third stair the Devil exacted his little toll. But the young man proceeded, willingly giving everything he had in order to reach his goal and to punish the well-fed nobles and princes. Now one step, just one last step remained and he would be at the top. Then indeed he would avenge his brothers.
"I am a plebeian by birth and all ragged folk…"
"Young man, one last step still remains. Just one more step and you shall have your revenge. But for this last step I always exact a double toll: give me your heart and give me your memory."
The young man protested.
"My heart? No, that is too cruel!"
The Devil gave a deep and masterful laugh: "I am not so cruel as you imagine. In exchange I will give you a heart of gold and a brand-new memory. But if you refuse me, then you shall never avenge your brothers whose faces are the colour of sand and who groan more bitterly than December blizzards."
The young man saw irony in the Devil's green eyes.
"But there will be nobody then more wretched than I. You are taking away all my human nature."
"On the contrary, nobody shall be happier than you. Well, do you agree: just your heart and memory?"
The young man pondered, his face clouded over, beads of sweat ran from the furrowed brow, in anger he tightened his fists and through clenched teeth said: "Very well, then. Take them!"
…And like a swift summer storm of rage and wrath, his dark locks flying in the wind, he crossed the final step. He was now at the very top. And a broad a smile suddenly in his face, his eyes now shone with tranquil joy and his fists relaxed. He looked at the nobles revelling there and looked down to the roaring, cursing, grey ragged crowds below. He gazed, but not a muscle of his face quivered: his face was radiant, happy and content. The crowds he saw below were in holiday attire and their groans were now hymns.
"Who are you?" the Devil asked in a low sly voice.
"I am a prince by birth and the gods are my brothers. How beautiful the world is and how happy are the people!"
On retreat until 17 February.