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The Little God of the Staircase

“Love and hate are so entwined that if thoughts could kill, we’d all be dead in the bosom of our families.”—Dr. Sigmund Freud

It was the first thing I ever saw in my analyst’s office, and I was struck that anyone would embroider a phrase like that into a sampler, the embroidery thread all in olive drab and darker green, like during the war when everyone seemed to be wearing a uniform even when they weren’t.  The samplers I liked were gaily colored, like the one my mother had made before her wedding day (our family is a circle of strength and love) all in lavender and blue with a ring of pink posies. And then there was this quote about murder and revenge; who would even take the time to stitch such a thing?  Who’d kill a member of their own family, even with a thought?

Father hadn’t liked Dr. Mannheim, I knew that. I had heard him talking to Mother about it through the wall at night, their room right next to mine. How could analysis cost so much and still not cure me? How was lying on a couch and talking about myself anything more than a fad; this year’s poodle skirt?

I thought he might be right on the first point. I didn’t think this process was doing me any good.

Dr. Mannheim’s couch was almond green velvet and the room was always too cold. I settled myself on it, my back to his silly beard, and set my pocketbook by my hip. The cab ride home was always my favorite part of this appointment, and I carried exact fare. Not a penny extra; Mother did not want me lingering in town. But with the lights of early evening sliding past the window, with the quiet inside the car and the leather seat at my back, I could pretend I was in some other life, headed from some other place than this office to some other place than my home. Best twenty minutes of my week, hands down.

Dr. Mannheim didn’t ask questions anymore. He had done that in the beginning, to figure out why I had slashed my wrists. He had gotten me to tell him what happened. They had asked me the same questions at the hospital of course, and I had told it back then. But I knew better now. As my wounds closed up, so did I.

I talked in circles about the girls at school whose hairstyles I liked, the boys whose letterman’s jackets I thought looked the best on them. I talked about wanting a family of my own one day, hoping to live in the same neighborhood as my parents so that we could all go to the same church.

In other words, I told lies.

So it was a surprise to me when I heard myself talking about the mask on the staircase.

“What mask?”

I couldn’t see Dr. Mannheim, but I could sense him shifting forward in his chair to loom over me a little, his pad of paper sliding in his lap, hands suddenly tense.


“You said that you dreamt about a mask. Tell me about the mask. How do you imagine it?’

“Oh,” I said, laughing a little. I couldn’t relax until he did. I waited for the almost imperceptible sound of him settling back into his big leather armchair so that I could breathe easily again. “I didn’t imagine it. It’s real. It’s a real thing, in our house.”

Silence. The sound of his lighting his pipe, then the sweet smell of smoke. Silence.

“It hangs on our back staircase. It’s in the far corner of the house. Mother said that used to be the staircase that the servants would use, when the house had a whole staff. You know we just have a man and a maid. And the gardener. Anyway, the staircase is always dark. There’s the light at the top and the bottom, but the house is nineteen-two and there’s no wiring there. You know, for an electric light. Father brought the mask home from the war. From the Pacific. Well Mother thought it was ugly, just dreadful. But she didn’t tell him that right out. She just hung it up somewhere you could barely see it. I was afraid of it as a child.”

He didn’t ask why. We sat in silence. I was sixteen—was I a child still? Nobody seemed to think so, but I wasn’t free to take my cab ride anywhere but home.

“I suppose I was afraid because the face is so fearsome. Long, and shaped like a canoe. It’s got great big eyes. And the lips are almost closed, but you can tell there are teeth behind it. Pointed teeth, like fangs, like an animal. I used to think it was going to leap at me the second I turned my back on it. I’d make the turn at the landing and do the last fifteen stairs backwards to avoid letting it get behind me. Boy, I’ll tell you I tripped over my slippers doing that more than once. But anyway, it was the kind of thing a baby might be afraid of. Not a grown girl. So I put that aside as I grew up. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Nothing bothers me anymore. That’s how I tell it. Because if I don’t, I’ll never get out of here. You hear stories, you know, about the girls who couldn’t get it together. The ones who talked too much on this couch. They got sent away somewhere, or they came back different. With a funny, faraway expression and not much to say beyond the weather. I was stupid once before. I didn’t open my mouth; I opened my veins. But I was still telling. The scars weren’t that bad and I knew better than to open up again. I knew better.

“Just the kind of thing a kid might be afraid of, you know.” I was speaking to the cloud of pipe smoke.

“That’s the stairway where your father died.” Dr. Mannheim’s voice was quiet, even. Pleasant. He had been at the funeral, a thin man in a black suit. He had kissed my mother’s cheek and I’d had to turn away. I hadn’t cried.

“Yes, that same staircase. Poor Father.” My voice was sad and sweet, just as I’d practiced. “I wish his heart attack had at least come to him in the comfort of his own bed. I hate to think of him falling.”

I loved to think of him falling. As I went to sleep at night, I thought of the hard corners of those oak stairs, the way the tops jutted out over the falls, thick as thumbs. I liked to think of one striking him right on the cheekbone and breaking it. I thought of the wood bumping against his ribs like a mallet on a xylophone. I was on the other side of the house, in the formal living room when it happened. Mother was entertaining guests and Father had gone to get something to show them. Vacation slides of our happy family, or some trinket he had brought home from the war. I can’t remember. What I can remember is the joyous, butcher shop sound of the meat and bone of him hitting the floor in ten different ways before he came to rest on the kitchen linoleum, eyes open and already dead. We ran in to find him face-up, the shawl collar of his sweater pulled open as if he’d gone to loosen his tie one last time. I had screamed, but so had Mother and Mrs. Henderson. They all assumed we were screaming for the same reason.

“Poor Father,” I said again.

Dr. Mannheim’s pen scratched his paper.

“Did you dream of this mask before or after his death?”

I had dreamt of the mask in the staircase for years. It was one of my earliest memories and I dreamt of it still. The first time I remember dreaming it, I woke up with the curse for the first time and had to tell Mother, had to take my sheets down to the cellar and learn how to get bloodstains out of cotton.. Can’t tell Dr. Mannheim that. Can’t tell anybody that. Mother got me a sanitary belt and left the instructions open on my bed so that I wouldn’t even have to tell her. But the mask and the blood were one in my mind. The trickle of blood at the corner of Father’s left eye, like a tear wrenched from him at last.

“It must have begun after,” I said, false wonderment in my voice. “I’m sure I associate it with Father’s death, and it frightened me because I think of him dying beneath it.”

“And your fantasies of your father?” Dr. Mannheim’s voice was too light, too casual. He was trying to trick me. “Did they persist after his death?”

“No,” I said. “No, I haven’t thought about that since I was in the hospital. They took good care of me there, and I’ve felt quite well since then.”

I heard him come forward in his chair again and I tensed the muscles in my thighs. I’d been doing calisthenics since the hospital. The nurses there taught me that calisthenics were wonderful for nervous energy, and they were right. I’d learned isometric exercises and I felt much better when I used them. Any time I wanted to run and knew I couldn’t, I could use those same muscles as if I were running. But I would go nowhere. It was a perfect regimen for a lady.

“When you first came to see me,” Dr. Mannheim said, his breath tickling the edge of my hair, “you told me all about your fantasies. The ones where your father would come into your room in the middle of the night. Your envy for your mother was quite consuming. Your dreams were vivid. Intense. You told me all the details, remember? You told them to your doctor at the hospital, but you really trusted them to me.”

My body was stiff as a board, but my voice was still compliant. Nothing to worry about. “Of course, Doctor. I’ve always been honest with you.”

“You were thirteen then. Just barely entering womanhood. You’ve grown up so much these last few years. You’re almost ready to move on to an adult life now.”

I nodded, my neck almost creaking with the effort. “I’ve worked hard to become more grown-up and leave childish things behind me. Only children fantasize wildly, or do silly things for attention. I’m a grown girl now, and I know better.”

He didn’t come closer, but he hovered. I could smell his aftershave. It wasn’t like the other times, like when he told me we were going to learn about transference and he turned off all the lights in the room and tickled the back of my neck with his beard. It wasn’t like the exercise when he pretended to be Father and talked me through my neurotic fixation, my strange dreams. It wasn’t even like the days when he used to dangle his watch before my eyes and talk me into falling asleep—and that had never worked. He told me I simply wasn’t suggestible. I had apologized for failing that test.

It wasn’t any of those things, but the same spirit was in the room with us. It was like the sensation of those eyes in the slim green mask on my back as I turned on the landing. Unmistakable, and impossible to prove. Like so many things in life.

I held my breath. I worked the muscles in my thighs and buttocks, like running in place, like swimming in a dream.

Eventually, he fell back in his chair.

“I don’t think this analysis is going well,” he said finally. “I believe we are at an impasse. I’d like to suggest something different.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

He chuckled. “Not to you, my child. I’ll suggest it to your mother, and we’ll see what she says. It’s unorthodox, but I believe we can get someplace.”

And that was our time. I picked up my pocketbook and checked my hat in the mirror. My driver was already waiting for me, having been summoned by Dr. Mannheim’s secretary, Maureen. She made sure that I never had to wait. I saw her flaming red hair on my way out, but she was on the telephone and only nodded to me as I passed. Maybe she was the one who had done the sampler. I knew Dr. Mannheim was not married.

The house had changed since my father had died. My mother was different as a widow than she had been as a wife; quieter, less likely to laugh. She was still in mourning dress, and I had begun to see streaks of silver in her fair hair. She was sitting at the kitchen table when I came in, and she offered me her cheek.

“Dinner is at seven,” she said, almost absently.

“Dr. Mannheim says he wants to talk to you,” I told her, hanging my coat on the hook beside the back kitchen door.

“Oh?” Her voice wasn’t suspicious. To this day, I don’t think she knows what happened. I think she was told I was a neurotic child who heard voices or some terrible thing. I think if she knew she’d have hated me, and I never had to bear that. My mother loves me, despite all that’s happened.

“Yes, he has an idea of something he’d like to try. I think I’m nearing the end of my analysis, Mother. I’d sure like to go on some dates with some boys and start thinking about a finishing school.”

She smiled and I saw how the corners of her eyes were crinkling now, how much she looked like Grandmother. I supposed that would only become truer as time passed.

She didn’t tell me when he called, and I didn’t know until it was time for my weekly appointment that I wasn’t going. I had spent another blissful week in my normal life; I went to school, I put up crepe streamers for the homecoming dance and helped make punch even though I couldn’t go. I wore sweater sets and nobody at school saw my scars. They thought I’d had scarlet fever when I was in the hospital; they thought I couldn’t go dancing because my poor widowed mother was just too strict. I didn’t mind what they thought. I looked up at the red and yellow streamers, looked down into the red pool of the punch and loved what we’d made. We’d made the plain old gymnasium bright and cheerful.

I had spent six wonderful nights alone in my bedroom, sleeping undisturbed and peacefully under the quilts my mother had sewn. My bedroom was cheerful too; after Father had died, Mother and I started a garden and grew roses. I clipped a few each week and put them in her bedroom and mine in little milk-glass vases.

“For remembrance,” she had said, her fingers lingering on the red petals as she stood at her window.

“Yes,” I’d told her, my voice solemn and sweet. In my head, the musical sound of his carcass thumping down the stairs for all eternity. “I will always remember.”

When I was pinning up my hair for my appointment, I heard our maid get the door. Creeping to the upper landing, I heard Mother talking to Dr. Mannheim. I hurried down the back staircase, throwing a look at the long green mask on the wall.

The dreams I had had of the mask had always been a little unsettling, but it wasn’t just fear. It was something else. Perhaps the best word was expectation. I wasn’t afraid of what the mask would do to me. I was more afraid of what it wanted me to do.

I turned the corner on the mask, brisk as you please, and put it out of mind. I came into the vestibule in my white dotted swiss dress and felt Dr. Mannheim’s eyes crawl over me. I saw Mother notice it and then pretend that she had not. From what I could tell, this was an essential quality of adult womanhood, so I followed her example. I offered my hand in the manner that I’d been taught.

“Dr. Mannheim, welcome to our home. I suppose this visit is the something different that you wanted to try?”

He nodded, his beard touching his shirt front and creating a flat surface on the underside. He had shaved his cheeks that very afternoon—they were still reddened from the razor. His shirt was pressed and the collar stays were in. He had put on too much aftershave and for a moment I thought perhaps he had come to court my mother, the widow.

But I knew better.

“Darling girl, could you leave us alone a minute?” Dr. Mannheim was looking at me, but reaching his hand out to my mother. I’d been shooed out of a room enough times by adults to understand.

“Of course. I’ll wait in the parlor.”

I walked away decorously and sat on the edge of the good sofa, barely resting my weight there. Mother always acted as though the furniture in that room were made of glass. I couldn’t shake the habit, even when she wasn’t watching me.

Dr. Mannheim walked through the door a few minutes later, alone.

“Your mother has agreed to leave us alone for tonight’s session,” he said brightly. “She’s given the maid the rest of the night off and gone to the market. We have an hour to try something that I think may help you.”

I tried to control my face. “How interesting. How shall we begin?”

“I’d like you to take me to where you made an attempt on your own life,” he said quietly. His eyes shone like a cat’s in the dark. “Where was that?”

“The bath on the third floor,” I said at once. “Beside my bedroom.”

“Lead the way,” Dr. Mannheim said.

My mother believed this man. She thought he could make me safer so that I’d never be hurt again. She thought his intentions were therapeutic and he’d leave this house better than he found it.

I knew better. I took him by the back staircase.

Fifteen steps up from the kitchen to the landing in the middle, fifteen steps until we reached the mask. I took the first one, gathering my skirts in my hands. The doctor followed me.

“Is this the same staircase?” He asked me curiously as the light from the kitchen faded and the darkness took us.

“Yes,” I said, looking instinctively upward for the shaft of light from the second floor. “This is the quickest way.”

“And the mask is here? The one from your dreams?”

“Yes.” I could feel him closing in behind me; my heel struck his shin as I continued at my measured pace. Not running. No reason to run.

“Show me.”

We reached the landing in short order. The yellow light slanted down from above, creating a golden diagonal blade of bright on the paneling above the mask. The shadows on the face itself were queer, like afternoon stormlight cutting across a familiar vista and making it strange. The chevrons of its eyelids seemed to be deeper relief, the lips colored by the shade of its brow. Even now, it seemed to be waiting for something. The verdigris of its color was almost black in the gathering gloom.

“Look up at the mask,” the doctor said. I stood on the landing and I did look up. I saw the face from my dreams looking back down at me, hung to make eye contact with someone much taller. The doctor was close behind me, a collection of heat and shapes hovering an inch away from my skin. I could smell the warming wool of his vest. When he spoke, I felt his breath in my hair.

“Tell me again what you dreamt about your father. Tell me why this mask scared you.”

When his hands first landed on my waist, I didn’t cry out but I drew my breath in sharply. When he began to pull me back toward him with nightmare slowness, I thought he might be trying to make sure I didn’t turn around, that we remained in our Freudian pose that precluded eye contact and kept me talking. As the length of him settled hard against my back, I knew better.

“I used to pray for my father to die,” I said quietly.

“Yes,” he groaned, his face against my neck. “Tell me.”

“But I thought that might not be a prayer a girl could say to a Christian god. So I would pray to any god who could hear me. There might be a lot of them, you know. He says have no others before me, so there are others, right?”

“Mhmm,” he said, his hands crawling like crabs over my body.

Isometric exercise. I was coiled tight as a steel wire.

Dr. Mannheim shifted against me again, holding me tighter. “Tell Daddy all about it,” he murmured in my ear. “I can provide for you the way he was supposed to. I can take you away from here, you know. I told your mother that your analysis is complete, and that I’d like to marry you. You’d be the wife of a respected doctor. You’d have money of your own. You’d be free of this house. These awful memories. Let me take my little girl away from here. Away from this place of death.” His voice was pleading now, cozening but with an edge of need.

It took a second for the shock to pass over me. “Is that what you asked my mother? To make her leave us alone?”

He nodded and I felt it against my shoulder. “She’s grateful. She was worried no one would want you. But I do, child. So much. Look up at the mask and tell me. Tell me you don’t want to leave here.”

“I know what I want. I don’t know whose face this is,” I said, looking up into its impassive, half-closed carved eyes. “I don’t know the god’s name, or what sacrifices it might care for. I don’t even know it is a god. This might be the face of some dead comedian. Maybe this is the Jackie Gleason of the Malay.”

“You’re ready to say goodbye,” Dr. Mannheim said. “Become someone new.”

“Whatever is inside that mask, I think it heard me,” I said, deadly quiet as if I spoke in a chapel. “And I bet it will hear me again.”

I tore out of his arms then, a single explosion of kinetic energy, a shocking spellbreak to the moment he thought he could create with a swinging watch, with a vest and a pipe and a gold band and with Dr. Freud on his wall. I sprinted up the stairs with homecourt advantage, knowing my way in the dark.

Those stairs aren’t treacherous. They’re evenly built and spotlessly clean. There’s no rug on them. The sound of Dr. Mannheim’s leather soles was even, rhythmic, and inexorable behind me. I reached the last step before the third floor just as I heard his ragged breath become laughter.

“Every girl wants to be chased,” Dr. Mannheim said. “And the chase only makes capture sweeter.”

I turned to face him at the top of the stairs, defying Freud and looking him in the eyes without couch or mask between us. My analyst’s little round spectacles were fogged where he had buried his face in the heat of my body, his hair was mussed and his mouth was parted as if he were expecting a kiss.

His eyes, though. His eyes are the thing I will never forget. They were just like my father’s. Sure, Father’s were brown and Dr. Mannheim’s were bright German blue, but the feeling in them was the same. They both believed they were playing a silly, harmless game. They weren’t evil; they weren’t wrong. They were simply reaching out to take what was theirs, what they knew they should have. There was no question in them whether I wanted to be part of this; that look held me as nothing at all. I was as inconsequential as, say, a little trinket a man might pick up as the spoils of war and take home. Something that does not get to decide for itself.

I didn’t move. I didn’t push. I never laid a hand on him, and I never had to. At the last step, as we were looking into one another’s eyes, Dr. Mannheim’s left ankle simply gave out under him. I saw his head dip down as it shot out weakly to one side. I saw his arms pinwheel in the air, grasping for purchase and missing the newel post, missing the railing, scraping once in helpless scrabble against the smooth dark paneling on the wall.

Dr. Mannheim went down hard on his back, the bald top of his head smacking against the corner of the eighth or ninth step below him—both were bloody later—and he slid through his own blood like a toboggan on ice. He picked up speed until he crashed against the wall of the landing, just below the green mask on the wall.

The impact knocked the mask off the wall and it fell over his glasses, face down as if to cover him in kisses. I followed him down, my tread light, practically skipping. I had never seen the backside of the mask before. There in the resin that shaped it and held it together, I could see the fingerprints of the artisan. I blessed the artist, across the seas and unknown to me. I said prayers of thanks to an unknown god, to all the nameless gods, for salvation.

I waited until Dr. Mannheim’s breath had stopped.

I collected myself and called the family doctor, whose name was beside the phone in the kitchen. He came right away with his black bag, knocking at the back kitchen door. By then I had made a good show of looking distraught. I’d found myself a handkerchief and worked up some tears. The doctor felt the analyst’s neck and then put his arms around me to comfort me.

“It’s just like with your father. My dear, I am so sorry. What a terrible thing for you to see.”

I did not attend Dr. Mannheim’s funeral.

I took only a few things with me when I left home for college. My trunks had been sent ahead with my clothes in them. It was a good girls’ school, and Mother had seen to it that I had all the right things to wear to make a favorable impression. She told me she was proud of me, that we had been through so much and she was pleased I could still make something of myself.

I kissed her and she left me alone in my room with my little valise. I put my diary and my milk-glass vase into it. I thought I might like to have flowers in my dorm room, as well. I walked down the back staircase and found the green god’s mask there, re-hung after Dr. Mannheim’s body had left in the coroner’s van. I took it gently off its nail and slipped it into my valise, winding it up in a scarf for safe keeping.

On the cab ride to the train, with the light of the day sliding by, I realized that I might be headed anywhere. I might be on my way into any kind of life I wished. I put my hand on the valise beside me on the leather seat and drummed my fingers lightly.

There were bound to be some who thought that they could get in my way.

But I knew better.

About the Author

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, F&SF, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. She can be found at and on twitter @megelison.