Shadows and stairways

I haven’t slept in three years. Tomorrow will be the exact third anniversary. I can’t believe time went by so quickly. Three years! A little more than a thousand nights! A thousand white nights. Not even insomnia. I just gradually stopped sleeping. In the course of three months. Started on a Monday. I woke up at five in the morning. Totally rested. Like I’d slept ten hours, not five.

     Every night, I would sleep a little less. After a month, I’d sleep an hour a night, and wake up as if I’d slept a full night. After two months, I’d sleep an hour every two, three days. After about three months, I slept my last wink. And dreamt my last dream.

      I was concerned at first. I saw many specialists, psychologists, homeopaths, jacks of all trades.  Most told me that I should not worry, with this paternalistic tone some doctors – or quacks – use with their patients:

     “How lucky you are! Man, I sleep eight hours, minimum, and I don’t have enough time!”

     Or another:

     “Look, I sleep three hours a day, and I don’t need more. An hour, maybe is a little outside the norm, but… If you feel fine, no side-effects, and I see that all your labs are perfect… I wouldn’t worry. Call me in a month or before if you notice fatigue.”

     I went to see a shrink. She charged me more than any doctor I’d seen. She asked me if I remembered any particular dreams, when I was still sleeping. She was a Freudian of course. That’s when it dawned on me. The dream.

     The first night I woke up at five, I’d been dreaming. Just before I woke up. And then, every single one of my dwindling sleep nights, I dreamt the same dream, over and over again. Strangely enough, I’d forgotten about those dreams. In fact, I rarely ever remembered my dreams. But when the shrink asked, it all came back to me. Always the same dream: a house of shadows and stairways.

     In the dream, I am inside a huge house. Not your everyday house. No rooms, no furniture, no walls, not even floors, a huge empty house. You can vaguely see a distant hill behind the house through a few high windows. Stairs are all you can see inside. Stairs. Stairways. Staircases. The stairs go up and down, intersect, building a labyrinth of sorts in three or more dimensions. Wood. Steel. Marble. Straight. Spiral. A maze of stairs leading to high shadows. You can’t even see the ceiling.

     In the dream, I start climbing a stairway, at random. There are impossible shadows everywhere. There are no lamps that I can see. Where does the light come from? My own shadow multiplies, sometimes it climbs faster than I do. I have to run up to reach it. Imagine. Running after your shadow. The stairs get lost in the shadows. I’m going up, I enter a shadow, and I end up going down. I enter another shadow, and come out on another staircase I had seen on the other side of the house.

     In that dream, always the same dream, I keep going up and up and up. Or trying to. Something tells me that the only way out of the house is “up”. How? Where? I don’t know. But I feel like it’s upstairs, and I keep going up, changing to stairways that seem to go up.

     There is a noise in my dream, always there, and the more I go up, the louder the noise. It’s like a buzz, a humming. From some machine upstairs in a distance.

     I go up, looking for the way out of the house, between shadows and stairways. There are variations in the dream. I don’t always use the same stairs. But the end of the dream is always the same: on one or another narrow staircase, I stumble, and fall down. And I wake up, bathed in sweat.

     That dream was the trigger of my… insomnia, my loss of sleep. I tried to go to bed earlier, to… compensate. But every day I slept less. I woke up earlier and earlier, after the dream. I tried going to sleep later, with the same result. When I finally got the idea that I would sleep less and less, with no apparent effect, I thought it would be a tremendous opportunity: I was finally going to have time to do everything I wanted. I felt great: no tiredness, no discomfort. I didn’t sleep, but I didn’t seem to need it. And the labs were good. So? I thanked the shrink, paid her, and never saw her again.


     I started to take advantage of the nights. Of the extra hours. I would bring work home, and when all were asleep in the city, I would speed up reports, strategies, concepts. I got promoted, my bosses asking: “How do you do it? You’re amazing! You get twice as much done as anyone else on the staff!”

     When I stopped sleeping altogether, I wanted to go out almost every night: see all the movies, all the plays. Combine a concert, and the last show at the cinema. My wife gave up first. She said that she had to work in the morning, and that she could no longer party every night. After six months, she left. She told me she hadn’t signed up to live with a sleepwalker.

     I started throwing parties at home, for three, four days and as many nights. At first, everyone would come. They knew the party never stopped with me. Then, one by one, they’d fall asleep. Or crawl home. They couldn’t keep the distance either. Who could blame them?

     After a year, I realised that I was alone. My friends made up apologies. And didn’t come any more. My (ex) wife didn’t take my calls.

     Sleeping was but a memory to me. I had stopped looking for answers in doctors’ offices. All I remembered was the house of shadows and stairways. When night came, I started looking for the house. Nothing else to do. I got into the world of the night. The bars. The night clubs. The sleazy hotels. The darker, clandestine joints. I talked to the waiters, the barristas, asked them whether they knew of a house of shadows and stairways. I got into a few fights. I always had an advantage: I was never tired, and I was faster than anyone.

     In the night side of town, I saw everything. Lovers, legit or not, hookers, dealers of anything, the weary executive in search of emotions. Generally found them.

     I soon got bored of the bars and clubs. Eventually everybody went to sleep. After a few months, I quit the club scene. Stuck to the bars.

     Those who live at night, who live from the night, can be strange. Out of sync. There is always a background of fear, of violence. Who knows what hides in those shadows, behind that black door, or up those stairs in the back. Night is a world of fear, of pleasure, of violence.

      In the bars, during the cold hours of the night, I would ask around whether anyone had heard of a house full of stairs. Most thought I was crazy. The barpersons would fill up my glass. Or tell me to beat it. A handful, after a few drinks, would offer me a deal. How about I went along with Joe or Bill or Freddy to “visit” some flat or house. Maybe I’d find my house? How about that, pal? Want another shot? On the house. I went along a few times. Learned the trade. Became a burglar.

     It served my purpose: I was convinced that the house of shadows and stairways existed. To “visit” houses at night gave me cash. I’d stopped working a while back. Boss couldn’t take my proposed meetings at 6AM. It kept me busy too, and I could look for the house of my dream.

     I learned the techniques and tools of my new trade. From a somewhat unethical locksmith, I bought, at the price of gold, a universal “kit”: skeleton keys, picks: half-diamond, hook, ball, rake, what have you. After a while I could open any door in a snap of fingers.

     One night, I was “visiting” the home of an architect who was on a trip to Miami. A word of advice, always do your research. Who’s the occupant, habits, trade, schedule. When they’re in, when they’re out. Research. Always research. And make the occupant is out. I was moving around the architect’s flat in the dark, hadn’t drawn the blinds yet, when I almost dropped my flashlight. There, on a wall in the architect’s study, was a large, framed B&W photo. The interior of a house. A big house with no rooms, no furniture, no floors, no walls, only stairs, a labyrinth of stairways… And shadows.

     I drew the blinds, curtains, drapes. Turned the lights on. Started looking through all the papers, the architect’s files, anything that would help me find the house. Fortunately, the owner was a bit old school. Lots of paper. Not even a computer in sight. Apparently, the architect worked a lot for the movie industry. After half an hour, I found plans. The house had been a job for a movie. I had the address.


     I found it. I found the house. It’s one AM… From the outside, the house looks big, nothing special apparently. It is built on a huge lot, with a hill behind, the same hill I could see through the high windows in my dream.

     There is no one on the street. The nearest houses are at a distance. I’m going in! I open the door without problem. I am tempted to turn the lights on, but it would attract attention. No curtains or drapes on the windows. I turn my flashlight on. The light does not reach the ceiling, but it’s all there: no rooms, no furniture, no floors, no walls, only shadows and stairways. I found it! Finally! The house of shadows and stairways, marble, stone, wood, metal stairways, even ladders of sorts. Some even looked like fire escapes. Inside. Rope ladders even. There it was: the house of my dream!

     It’s a maze of stairs, like a spider’s web. What crazy movie did they plan to shoot here? And how could I possibly dream about it? In the architect’s papers I’d looked for a reference, something, that could explain, that maybe I remotely knew the guy, or that he was a friend of a friend, anything that could account for how I knew about this house. No. Zip. Nothing. But there I am. At the bottom of the stairs.

     There are lots of shadows. Lack of light maybe? The shadows hide the top of the stairways. I choose a staircase at random. One that looks… “safe”. Twenty, thirty feet up, I begin to hear the noise: the same humming of my dream. High above, in the shadows. Climbing becomes harder with each step: the shadows feel… dense, thick, almost heavy. The stairway starts to shake. I jump to another set of stairs, the shadows move around, I can hardly see anything, the shadows move again, and I feel that I am walking upside down. Another shadow is rushing towards me, I grab hold of a railing.

     The stairs are falling apart! The stairway is dissolving under my feet. I try to grab something, anything, but I can’t!

     I’m falling! Falling. I close my eyes.


Our Lady of Mercy Hospital                           March 23 202..

     To: Ministry of Health

     Attn: Dr John D. MD.

     Ref. : File No 5435bc3467h

Today, March 23rd, the undersigned, Dr Richard K, MD, Head of Intensive care, proceeded to disconnect the artificial survival systems that supported Mr. R…, since March 23, 201… Since that date, exactly three years ago, Mr. R… had suffered a major skull fracture in the occipital region, remaining in a deep coma without any brain activity for the past three years (see attached encephalogram reports).

The decision to disconnect Mr. R’s survival systems was made on the basis of the Second District Court’s Ruling No 437872/dfk‑23 at the request of Ms. S…, the patient’s wife.

The disconnection of the artificial survival systems began at 10:00 Hours AM, in the presence of the Hospital Administrator, and the patient’s wife. It ended at 10:20 AM.

Clinical death was observed at 10:45 hours AM.

Patient file is available through the usual channels.

     Dr Richard K.

Intensive care Head.


     The doctor signed the letter. He sighed and called his secretary:

“Eileen, please send the letter to the Secretary of Health.”

“Yes, Doctor, anything else?”

      Dr K. took his glasses off, closed his eyes, rubbed his face. When he opened his eyes, he said:

“Yes, Eileen, another favour: please ask the maintenance staff to check the EEG, the encephalogram equipment.”

“Yes Doctor. Of course. But isn’t that… The equipment you just disconnected in the morning? The EEG of that poor patient?”   

“Yes. That very one. But please don’t tell anyone, okay? Once I finished disconnecting everything, and I had declared the poor man dead, everybody left. I stayed. Every Doctor reacts differently when losing a patient. I felt like I needed a short break. A few minutes maybe. And then move on. Suddenly, I heard a buzz. A very mild humming. I walked towards the EEG. Though it was turned off, and unplugged, as all the other support systems, following protocol, it was the encephalogram that was making that little noise, that small humming…”

“Oh my God, Doctor. What did you do?”

“Well, I plugged it back in, thinking there might be a short, or something. Although, of course, it was working perfectly before I disconnected it. The line was absolutely flat.  Horizontal.  No brain activity. Not for the past three years. But when I turned the EEG back on, something weird happened.”

“What happened, Doctor??”

“Something that I have never seen before on any EEG. Never. Instead of a line with irregular peaks going up and down, the screen showed a line with square steps, all the same size, going up, like a stairway.”


119 thoughts on “Shadows and stairways

  1. This would make a good Twilight Zone offering! Did Poe’s birthday the other day inspire you? I often dream of large houses with many rooms within rooms. Supposedly houses in dreams represent your soul.

    • Twilight zone was very good writing. Thank you. I like the fantastic.
      And I like Poe. Though I have no idea when his birthday is. 😉
      Don’t know about the symbolism of houses in dreams. I will check my dictionary of symbols. Always a good reference…
      Actually if I recall the idea for the story came just with the title. Shadows and stairways. Sombras y escaleras in my original Spanish version. Then for weeks, I let the story develop in my head… Glad you liked it…

  2. What a story Brian! I’m searching for words. The man in it’s claustrofobic and yet unlimited world. Unaware of the situation apart from a hunch that he has to go up. We all live in our heads to a certain extend, but mr. R. brings that to a whole new level. And the question is: is he actually living? It’s a sad, even cruel story. He didn’t make it to the Buzz. But his 3 years became 6 years, and who knows how and where he is after the machine was shut down. Maybe he still is climbing the stairs, or perhaps he was freed after all, finally closing his eyes in a well deserved sleep.

  3. An intense read. So creative and well thought out. Where is that staircase going? And I hope there’s a new beginning after that ending. Your writing is top notch, Brian. Didn’t see that coming. 🙂

    • Dhanyavaad. Got you there, right? You, the master of unexpected twists? (One up!)
      And the question remains: where is the bl–dy staircase going? The answer is probably in the machine. Or not.
      Funny you should say staircase. I translated this story from the original Spanish I wrote a few years back, and I was wondering whether to say ‘staircase’ (my inclination) or ‘stairways’ which is probably more “American”. What would you prefer?

      • Haha! One up, indeed! It’s a brilliant story and I’m always stuck between British (Indian) and American English. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t live in one bl-dy place. You must be facing this dilemma so much more with all the moving around you’ve done. Amazing!
        Kahani bahut achhi thi.
        The story was very good. 🙂

      • Yeah, spelling is becoming a bit of “nightmare”. 😉 Civilisation or Civilization? LOL.
        On the same note, I guess you must have read Enid Blyton when you were little? A style of her own…
        Bahut = very, a lot.
        Acchi = accha = good?
        Thi?? I’ve seen it before but forgot. Will check.
        Thus kahani would be story?
        Au revoir Terveen…

  4. Love this, Brian! I agree with an earlier comment about this being perfect for a Twilight Zone episode 🙂 As I was reading, I was imaging the scenes and it flowed just like one of those classic episodes, where I’d wonder “how would I handle this situation?” and the twists of the tale make it so. A reality we are never quite sure of 🙂

    • Thank you Dalo. I do like the Twilight Zone, though I could not see it as a child. Not for children then. LOL.
      Reality? hmmm. I sometimes wonder whose dream we live in?
      All well I hope? Where are you now?

      • There is a great quote by a Chinese Daoist writer, Zhuangzi: wondering if he was a man who dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a man. 🙂 I am still in Seattle for a few more weeks and then head back to Czech 🍺

      • You say “Dao”? Hmmm. I guess there must be many different pronunciations for “Tao”.
        Gong he fat choi. Which would be the Cantonese for:
        Gong chi fa cai. Happy New year of the Rabbit. 🐰
        (I find variations of “Chinese” fascinating. The Hokkien version in Penang or Singapore is close too)
        Enjoy Seattle before you go back to behind the lines…
        I will have to look up Zhuangzi… I might know him by another name. His thinking was probably right. Now if I’m not mistaken, the Chinese believe butterflies are “visitors”, the dead coming back to visit us… Very poetic.
        Stay well Dalo.

  5. Poor Mr. R got a stairway to Heaven… but guess he never made it there. Ghost in the machine? Who knows… 😉

    The story could make a nice short movie. Maybe you should try contacting a movie producer rather than those smug book publishers. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Shadows and stairways – Scenic Linkz

  7. Pingback: Brian Martin-Onraët – Interview – Gobblers & Masticadores

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