On the Stairs (excerpt) — Dan Ivec

Jürgen approached the room slowly. The other children were in there and he did not feel like entering. It had been weeks since he’d attended school but his auntie had found him in the forest.

She pulled on his ears and led him back to the cottage where he continued to scream. Auntie slowed down in order to cough and lost the boy. He climbed the stairs crazily. She followed with clenched fists while Jürgen swore to himself. The staircase was wooden and the house soon filled with the noise of their conflict. It was a small house, made of bricks. Through the window, one could see the deep approach of an oaken abyss. The forest which Jürgen loved and dreamed of escaping to. Always with Auntie following him angrily. Like now, on the staircase.

They almost lived within the forest themselves. It was so close and easy to dream of. They lived on the outskirts of town. But it wasn’t much of a town at all. Trees and hills surrounded them nearly forever. And in the distance there were rumored to be mythical, gray cities.

Auntie was large. She had a bulging torso, a wrinkled face, and serene blue eyes. She followed the boy scowling and twitching. He was tall, but very thin. He slouched dramatically and vanished beneath her legs, making his way to the bottom of the stairs while Auntie continued to stammer up. She turned around and made after him. He readied himself for another upward ascent. He bared his teeth and raised his eyebrows. He stretched his arms out like a giant squid. He shook his entire body, trying to scare her. He knew he was upsetting enough of a little man and that even the greatest villains had moments of fear, and tenderness. He’d seen her wince before during these cruel contests. And he knew she’d fallen in love before and could thus be defeated like anyone else.

All the same, she always found him and whooped him. She hurt the hell out of him. She called him her little moth. He was such a troublesome little household occurrence. I guess it’s time to get that moth! she would say. What was the point of it? She was a constant feeling of fear he had. She could happen at any time. She could arrive screaming and lock the boy in a suitcase. She’d done that before. Her outbursts could not be anticipated. She was like a cloud that moves over the sun and leaves you suddenly in a very dark room. He knew she had her reasons and there was a way of predicting her outbursts. If only he knew what was behind those illogically pretty old lady eyes. He almost felt he had pardoned her evil, a bit, by running off so often. He had created a reason for her anger. He was the wrong type of child and what a mess he was. He was always making trouble. He might get himself killed by wolves in the forest. And wouldn’t she get hell for that.

He had made her tirades more logical. She could hate something other than her dreams of the old days. She could blame him, living and dying in the forest and getting her in trouble with the authorities – with the local police! Of course the beatings had gotten worse since he’d wised up and tried to leave. He was no longer just an excuse, the only one around, but a shadow of, or the magical heir to, her nightmares. He had become an active rebel in that strange kingdom of her mind. He could understand that he infuriated her. He knew he was troublesome and he did pity her. That’s also why he wanted to live on his own. It would be fine. He could die or adapt to the ways of the forest. Both were logical solutions for the two of them.

But she was awful. She was really bad. She was always smoking cigarettes and laughing. And it wasn’t the kind of laughter his mother had laughed. Loud and soft and well-meaning. That was the kind of laughter he loved. But it wasn’t like that at all. She had her own style of laughter, Auntie. She laughed like the owner of a casino. She laughed and coughed up the tar from her cigarettes. Often she would smoke many cigarettes at once in order to shock him. When she wasn’t already chasing him up a staircase and felt he needed to be frightened. These are my extra fingers, she would say, my fingers of fire. You must never run away from me or I will grow an entire third hand consisting only of fire fingers. It is with this hand that I will follow you into the night!

Moments earlier, she had tugged on his arms and pulled his hair. She had done this with her regular hands and that had been bad enough.

He ran up and down the staircase, squeezing past her on the side. She was getting tired; she was old. He jabbed her in the face with his elbow on the next trip down. He then slid on the banister with his eyes closed. Some playing cards began to trail out of his pocket as he flung himself around. An old-fashioned deck of cards which he treasured. The Four of Hearts landed on a stair. Next came the King of Spades. And then out tumbled a Jester, the Three of Clubs, and the Two of Spades. Auntie collected a few of the cards and began to feel triumphant.

‘You’ve been playing cards in the dark forest again? We’ll see about that!’

She pulled out a match and quickly set fire to one of the cards, using the flame to light a cigarette.

‘I’ll always smoke my Stinking Reds!’

Jürgen continued to move up and down the staircase in a panic as Auntie relaxed and began to hum to herself. Eventually he fell down exhausted.

‘You aren’t old enough to live in the forest alone and you never will be. Boys don’t get that old!’

A bug was in his ear. He picked it out and approached the door of the classroom. The door had been replaced during his sabbatical in the woods. It no longer had a window. There was no way of telling how it would be in there.

He entered the room in the middle of class and sat down. The teacher was not surprised to see him nor where the students. Maybe they’ve forgotten I existed, Jürgen hoped.

The teacher, Mrs. Hanok, finished the lesson without addressing him. After class, she followed Jürgen out of the room and stopped him in the hall. Her hands were warm and soft. She wasn’t that bad, really.

‘What am I going to do with you?’

Jürgen was not the type to answer such questions. He looked past her and upon the dark brown wall.

‘If you leave againthere will be repercussions. It isn’t the way I like to view the world, but it’s true. If you make a mistake, things can become very difficult for all of us.’

He looked around with little patience. Yet he tried to be polite. He knew she was not the source of his great wanderlust. And so he nodded often.

‘Jürgen, I’m only saying this because I think you are an almost decent child. Despite your stubborn nature and your running awayI think you could eventually contribute to our society.’

Jürgen dreaded a conversation like this. He had to escape before he lost his mind, became anxious, or caused a scene. Of course escaping would be enough of a scene in itself. Yet he respected Mrs. Hanok and didn’t want her to suffer at the hands of an outburst. He knew she wasn’t the worst there was. He didn’t want her to think she was. He didn’t want her to chase him up and down the staircase of the local school.

So he continued to say nothing and to look at her.

‘OkayI will.’

He straightened his shoulders.

‘I willdo what you want.’

‘And what am I asking you to do, Jürgen?’

‘I will contribute to the society.’

She took him by the hand and led him back into the room, seating him in a desk before pacing. She couldn’t think of anything. It was incredible that Jürgen managed to sit there without losing himself and running out the door madly.


She looked out the window and sighed.

‘Come to school tomorrow, Jürgen.’

In the morning, Auntie made a porridge from the old days.

‘We didn’t have to eat such things when I was a child, so it’s only fair that someone does now!’

Jürgen put his spoon in the porridge. It was full of dead mice and un-chopped onions.

‘I’ve been waiting a long time to make this recipe.’

Auntie cackled and cackled and dried her hands with a towel in the kitchen.

She was in a rare mood of feeling good. She went to the record player, in another room, and keyed up a very romantic melody.

‘Now I feel randy!’

She began to dream of her most legendary affairs. Once, she’d fallen head over heels for a man who claimed he could breathe fire but wouldn’t do it because it might kill everyone in the room.

‘I just loved him for his dignity, for the simple fact that he didn’t want to kill people who were in the same room as him.’

Auntie had fallen in love many times. She had a predilection for sailors and massive men. She was a large woman. And she even dreamed of the sea. Living near the forest, the forest she hated, what a hell that was. She was born on the coast but that was all far away and long ago. There weren’t even any decent woodsmen or loggers or hunters in town. And of course, she was always alone. This Jürgen was frequently and terribly aware of.

Auntie, the great lover, the great romantic lover.

The crushed auntie with her violent singing late into the black nights.

Dan Ivec: writer. He was born on June 8, 1986 in Mayfield Heights, OH. He has lived in Chicago, Illinois and currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In Chicago, he lived in Rogers Park and other neighbourhoods too.

The full version of this piece will be published by Meekling Press in 2014.

Images by Dan Ivec.