We spiraled down the thousand stairs to the river shore. Our arms floated alongside, separated from our bodies by the currents of air rising from the warm waters below. The air was heavy. It gave lift to our arms but slowed our descent, keeping our feet from escaping us.
Not too fast. We were certain not to make our way too fast. Haste was always met with disdain. But it was something against our will as children—slowing down was antithetical to being a child. Carefree and full of aplomb were our true natures. Still we held our emotions and our raw energy in check, careful not to disturb the peace.
It was a peace that didn’t happen often. But when it did it we were made to abide.
I turned back to see Robert coming down the stairs in unison with my steps. The shaded spiral of stairs was hewn from flagstone slabs shingled like fallen dominoes. On their surfaces colonies of moss crept, claiming squatter’s rights. They defended their territory with ferocity—one misplaced step and the moss would grab the underfoot and push it away, sending its victim tumbling to the rocky shore below.
We were keen to the moss. We tread the stairs by its rules. It slowed us down, maintaining the balance between our world and the adult world: the same world we fled every morning. The stairs were our escape to the one place we were allowed to go and just be kids. As long as we played by the rules—no running, no speaking on the stairs, and return home at our assigned times—it was the only freedom we would know. It was school for the summer, scheduled play to remove us from the adult world, where we were nothing more than in the way.
The moss was quiet. It never spoke, but only listened to our approaching footfalls.
Robert’s stride had a sense of hesitance. On his face was a lack of reassurance with the placement of his steps. Still he continued, not slowing, although it was not of his own will. He did all he was told: he spoke nothing and held his feet in abeyance to his arbitrary speed limit. It was too late to avoid the fall, guided by an unseen hand.
His body sounded off like a balloon releasing its pressure, the wind expelled from his lungs by the hardened stairs. His face was full of fright; it ignored me. I watched as it slid by in slow motion, passing beneath the banister, and fading from memory. He slipped into the darkness below and was swallowed by the maelstrom of waves gnashing at the shore like hungry teeth.
I stopped and planted my foot. The moss caught my sole.
I never saw Robert again.