The Thing At The Bottom of The Stairs
Or, A Discourse On The Monstrosity of Monsters
Welcome! Nice to meet you, dear. Come in, come in, don’t just stand there hovering. Have a seat, make yourself comfortable, there’s plenty of room. Would you care for something to drink? No? Settled then? Good. I suppose I should just get started with the tale, then, shouldn’t I?
I’ll begin it in my favorite way, with the words that begin all fairy tales, though this is not exactly what you would consider to be a tale of the fairies. If you’d rather hear something about them, then perhaps I’ll send you to a friend of mine, who would certainly be better able to tell you about those. This is, rather, a tale of monsters, you see. Still here? Good. Then I’ll begin.
Once upon a time, when I was a younger girl, my family and I lived in an old house in the city, which, as I came to find, was quite the haunted old mansion. My parents would often walk through ghosts, with nary a bit of realization, other than perhaps a slight chill of cool dead breath on their neck. My little brothers and I, oh dear, no, we saw them quite frequently, and the poor little things were terrified for a time. But the ghosts were turned out to be harmless in the end, and I promised you a story about monsters, didn’t I? Let me try that again.
Once upon a time, when I was a younger girl, my family and I lived in an old house in the city, which, as I came to find, was quite the haunted old mansion. But the ghosts are indeed another tale, and this time I shall stay on topic, as promised. Our house was, of course, very large and grand, and our parents were quite well to do people of the time; everyone seemed to be getting a bit wealthy back in those days, when it seemed like the entire world was roaring with richness.
Now, there were expensive items all through our home because my parents were making a nice bit of money at the time and Mother liked to shop. We had fat chairs lined with plush purple velvet, lead crystal vases, and pretty porcelain plates displayed in a glass curio. There was a grand black piano in all its silent glory and there were these carved ivory figurines in strange, multicultural styles decorating ledges and edges here and there. Personally, I always liked these stained glass lamps Mother bought. They were all lavender and green and red, always very warm looking, even downright cozy when they were all turned on.
What? Oh, of course not. It was all quite lovely, but certainly not a place decorated for the play of young children, which is what my little brothers and I most definitely were at the time. The velvet could be stained, you see, by mud or food or some other peculiar thing that only a child could manage to track into the house. Mother would have pitched a fit if something had happened to her precious figurines, or to one of her beautiful electric lamps. All entirely breakable and not toylike at all.
So into the basement it was with us. The floor wasn’t carpeted downstairs, but it was tiled with these white and burgundy squares. The walls were wooden and darkened with age and a little smoke from earlier owners’ kerosene lamps. Down into the basement we went every day, using it as a playroom. There were a series of steep steps leading downward, and fortunately there was a good, sturdy railing for my little brothers and I to hang on to. We were down there every day to play and hide when our parents had guests or some other parental type thing to do that did not involve us scurrying underfoot.
There were so many toys in the basement, the three of us were quite spoiled. I had nicely dressed dollies in elegant gowns of lace and silk, and I combed their hair and borrowed my brother’s cherry red Radio Flyer and toted them around with me as though on parade. We had this great rocking horse, a grand, wooden white thing with a painted blue saddle and a real rope harness. My littlest brother would scream with delight as he was rocked back and forth.
Sometimes, my other brother and I would push him around on it, even though it had no feet. It was quite old, so it had those nice curved wooden pieces instead, which made it very easy to slide it around. We would set up my younger brothers’ little painted tin soldiers and have grand miniature battles, until called up for dinner. It was on such a day that I first spoke to the monster who lived in the basement.
Honestly, there still is a little touch of fear in my heart when I descend stairs that are not fully lit. A tiny curl of terror that comes from descending downward into absolute darkness, the kind without windows and is only chased away by little electric lights in the ceiling. Terrifying, you know, because you can’t see where you’re going, exactly.
Anyway, we’d been playing for quite some time when my mother called, “Dinner is ready!” but my brothers and I were completely enwrapped in that day’s game of hide and seek. She called again, and received giggles as reply, which of course revealed the positions of my two little brothers. I hastened to reveal them from beneath a cloth draped table and my hill of dolls, but not quite quickly enough. Mother flipped off the lights as a warning, leaving only the light above from the door to light the way to the upstairs.
Not such a wise move, really, but Mother couldn’t have realized what she was doing. My brothers screamed and ran for the steps, and I was quick behind them. We all knew what lived in the darkness there, held off only by the electricity. Mother was sighing in exasperation at what seemed to her a racing game, but then she never saw the ghosts either. I saw the monster snatching at my littlest brother’s heels, and so pushed him up through the doorway as quickly as I could. It was, after all, my duty as elder sister to protect them from such wicked, mean monsters that would try to trip them just to make them cry before gobbling them up. This made me very annoyed with this particular monster, because it seemed to me that was a terribly dirty trick to play on such little children with such short little legs.
Mother ushered my crying brothers through the door and toward the dining room, and I turned at the top of the stairs to see the naughty monster lurking at the bottom, a big black mess of hulking shadows. I turned around at the top step, just a quick turn away from the safety of the kitchen, and put my hands on my hips, and glared down at the darkness, saying, “That is a very cruel trick you know, trying to trip one of us. Please do not try such wicked things again.”
“I am the Thing At The Bottom Of The Stairs,” said the monster, with a great rumbling, tumbling kind of voice. “And I am very hungry. Who are you to tell me how to catch my dinner?”
“I am Miss Clara Daringby, and you will make me very angry if you try such a sneaky trick again,” I told the Thing. “Besides, I can’t imagine a person’s heels being a very tasty dinner to begin with.”
“A person’s heels are sometimes their weakest point,” said the Thing, and it was shifting around and crouching as though to spring. “People cannot run without their heels.”
“Maybe so, but you are still a very tricky, mean old Thing for trying to tackle children so much smaller than you.”
“Then perhaps I shall eat you instead!” growled the Thing, and I could see it was gathering itself to leap at me.
“Today is not a good day for me to be eaten,” I informed the Thing. “Mother has made chocolate cake for after dinner, and she always makes excellent cakes. If you do not mind, I would like to have some of her cake, one last time, before you eat me.”
The Thing grumbled and settled back into the shadows. “Very well. You will be filled with sugar and it will make you fat and tasty. I shall eat you next time you come down to my basement.”
I was quite afraid, but I knew if the Thing realized that, it would spring at me at eat me instantly. Monsters love nothing more than the taste of fear. So I said very politely to the Thing, “Thank you very much,” and I went upstairs and shut the door and had my supper while thinking what to do about the Thing At The Bottom Of The Stairs. I had never before spoken to a monster, and was very curious about it. However, there was the sad fact that I did not want to become the Thing’s dinner. Besides, who would keep my little brothers from getting eaten up themselves if I was to be swallowed? Such a terrible situation. I decided I would certainly have to do something about it.
That night, after everyone had gone to sleep, I readied myself for battle by putting on my favorite nightgown and slippers and picking up my favorite doll. Her name was Hatty Box and the two of us had lots of imaginary adventures down the years, though they really were just imaginary when it was just us. What? Oh, yes. I was about ready then, and I stood before my bedroom mirror and nodded in satisfaction. I didn’t really have any particular plan, but then I usually didn’t with these sorts of things. I felt braver having Hatty with me, though.
I crept down to the kitchen and turned on the light, and opened the door to the basement, setting Hatty down just outside the door, so no harm could come to her should things go badly. Once I had stepped out onto the top step, I could see the Thing shifting around in the darkness below, a little bit of its shifty body slithering away from the dim light from the kitchen. “Thing?” I called in a whisper. “Thing, are you there?”
“I am always here, and now I am going to eat you up,” it hissed, no longer sounding like a great big brute, but more like some slithering, sneaky snake in the shadows. I could see a little gleam down there, like it was a basilisk and it was testing out its fangs with me. I certainly had no intentions of allowing it to turn me to stone!
“Very well,” said I, in a terribly sad tone. “But first, may I ask you a question?”
The Thing hissed at me again and I sensed a bit of faint movement as it slithered itself around the rocking horse, upsetting the large toy and causing it to rock slowly back and forth, the sound floating dimly toward me from the dark. “What?”
“Whyever must monsters, such as your own noble self, persist so in the eating of people?”
A little tone of preening pride crept into the responding hiss. “It is our glorious job, of course,” said the Thing, as though this were an answer that would solve all the world’s riddles. But I was still quite puzzled by the answer.
“You’ll think me terribly thick, but I don’t understand,” said I to the Thing. “What is so glorious about eating people?”
“It is not the eating,” hissed the Thing. “It is the devouring of the delicious fear. It is the swallowing of all the monstrous things humans have inside them, growing stronger, empowering ourselves, growing great because you little people are always falling into your fears. You fight and struggle, but you are nothing. You tremble and make yourselves powerful and great to fight us, but we are always here. We always lurk down here, in the shadows, and no matter how you struggle and deny our existence, we always eat you up in the end.”
I couldn’t help but be a bit entranced with what the Thing was saying. I thought to myself: Perhaps it was right; people do tend to become stronger to fight the monsters around them, but despite that, they never do quite manage to chase them away forever. As I was pondering this, the Thing was slipping closer to me, now back at the bottom of the steps, and though I could see coils and lumps of body, it still seemed quite formless and indistinct. You know, it’s always easier to go to battle against something when you know what it looks like. One of the most frightening things in the world is the lack of knowing, isn’t it?
“So,” I wondered aloud, “there are monstrous things inside people? Even inside me?”
“Fears and hates and wicked delicious things,” said the Thing, and I imagined it was licking whatever ghastly lips it had in anticipation of chewing on my poor little bones. Though it occurred to me that if what the Thing said was true, then perhaps I had nothing to fear at all. What do you mean, what do I mean? Well, I was thinking how clever it would be of me, to out-monster a monster, of course. Hush, and just let me finish.
The Thing was shouting, “And now that I have answered your silly questions, I shall eat you!”
And it sprang at me! It leapt up towards me by means of a ferocious jump, and I saw all the things you see in your nightmare monsters; ruby eyes that gleamed with facets of evil, and black scales- or perhaps it was black fur- oh, I don’t remember, perhaps it was both. It was fanged and taloned and clawed, a horrifying chimera monstrosity! I was terrified, but I knew now what to do; the Thing itself had told me, and I was certainly not in the mood to be eaten!
As it reached toward me, I reached toward it in turn, and I grabbed it about the throat, just like this, you see? And where it claimed it was going to eat me…oh, don’t laugh, it isn’t funny. You see, when the Thing told me people are full of monsters themselves, why, I simply let myself, for just that moment, of course…become a monster myself.
And I ate the Thing up.
I see you don’t believe my tale. Well, it’s true, I tell you. When I was a little girl I swallowed a monster that was going to eat me. It tasted rather sour, I tell you, and I had a horrid stomachache for days and days, it was terrible. Ask my younger brothers, they know the Thing was never there after that night. If you came here to be so suspicious of an old lady’s stories, you shouldn’t have come at all. Yes, fine, you may certainly go. But do watch the first step on the porch. There’s a pixie who lives in the bushes next to it, and she does so enjoy tripping people.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.