• William I. Atkinson

The Sprites of Bonebreak Stair

I live in Edmonton, of which Pierre Trudeau said: It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there. In December the sun seeps up at 9 AM, grinds along the horizon, and disappears at 4. But as Vivaldi said of winter, “Here too there is joy.” My neighbourhood is an oasis full of kind and helpful people – including, I swear, teenagers who shovel my walk and call me 'Sir.' The streets are calm (three vehicles last hour) and the elms are tall and stately: sheltering in summer, gold-glorious in autumn, and sparkling in wintertime when bowed by snowfall. Right now they’re silvered with hoarfrost. Best of all, the house I’m renting is everything a house should be – warm, solid, quiet, and like its occupant, pretty eccentric.


Take the main staircase. I measured its steps, their runs and rises, and calculated a climb angle of 47.4 degrees, as steep as a ladderway on a yacht. It ascends six steps, does a one-eighty, and goes up seven more steps, each with a 20 cm rise for every 16 cm run. It’s made of hardwood, tough as iron and without a scrap of carpet runner that could cushion a fall. Its ceiling heights and turn clearances are so tight that our movers couldn’t get our bedroom box springs past its landing, requiring us to buy new flat-pack beds. There’s a low rail on the upper steps, no handgrip at all on the lower. Bonebreak Stair I call it, and hope that it doesn’t live up to its name. But something odd and wonderful has happened, in that I have adjusted to it. You see, I’m guarded by its sprites.


Let me explain. Some years ago I showed a friend a sleek new desk whose wooden top he admired. It’s a lookalike, I told him: not wood at all, but an ersatz so realistic that people who buy it have to use magnets to see if it’s real. My friend (a classical historian) rapped the desktop and asked: Are you there, sprites? He explained that according to the ancients, the spirits who inhabit living trees persist in the objects that people make from them. That belief, he said, continues in today’s superstition of touching wood for luck: you want its indwelling souls to help you.


Which is the first thing I do when I go down Bonebreak Stair: I touch its upper wooden railing. Let these old bones get down without incident, I silently petition my sprites, and I will salute you. Grant me safe passage, and I will reverently acknowledge your power and presence each time I descend. So far it’s worked, and a good thing too: if I missed a step I’d look like I’d picked a fight with mad, bad Leroy Brown.


It’s silly, right? Few of us believe in an Abrahamic religion, let alone the Fair Folk of pre-Abrahamic cultures such as the Slavs and Celts. But it’s become a habit with me, a reassuring routine when I sleepily totter downstairs to make coffee in the black, black winter mornings. And then it hit me: Holy cow, I’ve become a Malinowskian functionalist.


Bronislaw Malinowski was a 20th-century ethnographer, who after studying preliterate societies concluded that many actions and attitudes that outsiders attribute to ignorance or superstition have an actual, hidden use. In other words, much apparently irrational behaviour may on close inspection have a firm pragmatic function. That’s certainly true here. The first material I encounter as I descend is the wooden railing, which I humbly touch to ask protection from the stair’s indwelling sprites – at first an act of whimsy, now an ingrained habit. In doing so I set my hand on the railing, instantly reducing my chances of a catastrophic fall. I respect my sprites for safeguarding me, and Malinowski for explaining things; each world-view elucidates the other.


My whimsy extends to knowledge of the particular wood my sprites inhabit. For his floors and stairs, my landlord scored a rare shipment of a South American tropical hardwood that’s as lovely as lapis lazuli and as dense as steel. You can’t buy it anywhere anymore; it’s a protected species, denied to export, and that’s all to the good. But the stuff has an incredible aura. I tried a heel test on it, rising up on my toes and dropping my weight down hard. Developers and real-estate agents do this to see how firm a floor is before they put a dwelling up for sale. I nearly broke my ankles – it was like heel-testing a concrete slab. My landlord told me that when he first tried to lay his floor, the wood bent every nail: he had to drill each floorboard with a carbide bit and drive his nails through the holes. He must have thought he was working with titanium.


To my mind, the sprites in this place are as impressive as Canada’s Joint Task Force Two, or the Allied Teufelbrigade in the Second World War. These are heavy-duty deities, dryads more ancient and terrible than the sprites who live in northern lumber – whom I think of as flighty downtown types with tinted glasses. My sprites hark back to a time when nature ruled absolutely, and they deserve an awwwful lot of respect. I give it to them by the bucketful every time I go downstairs.


Bill Atkinson lives in Edmonton and treads his staircase gently.