By Jeroen van Honk
There must have been someone, somewhere, sometime, who said that everything happens for a reason. Led by the hand of this convenient adage, and by the siren calls of invisible angels who trumpet my destiny, I will now scale the faithful stairs of the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos at the fringes of the Unescoed heart of the ancient city of Córdoba. Made of large stone slabs, the Alcázar housed the Christian Kings, Isabel de Castile and Fernando de Aragon, after they drove the Moors out of their once-famed capital. What is left now is a calculated ruin, showing just enough grandeur to inspire awe and just too little to anchor the place in a tangible, imaginable version of history. The walls are still standing and the gardens stretch out endlessly. This contrast of grey and green emanates a certain simplicity here, bringing everything back to basics. Here, it is as if the human race once and for all is pitted against nature. From the grounds there is one spiral staircase, with tall, uneven steps, leading you up to enjoy the ultimate vista of the place.
Though unimaginable, since it is now a major tourist showcase, it is said that those who scale these steps can never again return to terra firma. At the foot of the steps there is only the insignificant warning sign stating that no more than ten people at a time are allowed to go up. At the same time it is impossible to know how many have gone before or how many are walking around up there. Never has anybody been seen to descend the stairs, though there are tourists who claim to have done it. They show pictures of the gardens taken from an aerial point of view. These don’t prove anything, however. As the legend grew, it has become a popular tourist pastime to put their cameras on self-timer and throw them in the air, or tie them to long, wooden poles. It’s a fascinating amalgamation of the decadently touristic with a fatalistic old-world curse.
Some have wondered why voices cannot be heard from above, why shadows cannot be witnessed. It is written in some ancient Moorish documents, enigmatically, that ‘those ascending the steps are already a shadow cast from the very heart of their souls’. The more impressionable at heart have claimed to hear murmurs or wails cast down from the walls, especially at night, but none of those have ever been recorded on tape.
As it stands, I myself am one foot in, tentatively put down on the first step. I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary yet, save indecision. I wonder if there is still a way back. Something in me is blocked from retreating, is too set on seeing this through to the bitter end. My right foot travels through the air to the second step, and I feel lighter. With every consecutive step, I am fading. Not in a physical, ghost-like way, but in consciousness.
I have always felt like a time traveler having inadvertently sprung upon the future. I think myself the outcast, not walking the fringes of the city but the fringes of the present. It is as if always, with my companions already out the door, I have yet to tie my shoes. I am doomed to be perpetually out of step. When then I chance upon a place like this, grounded in a time long since flown, I might still be an outcast, but at least they are on my turf. Surrounded by these age-old walls, they are the inapposite ones. Here, my head high up, I proudly walk in tune to the soundtrack of our world.
It is a source of wonder to me why so many of us feel compelled to walk up a stairway to certain death. Is mystery really that alluring? I know I was drawn here by the stories, stories so curiously lacking in details. No one really seemed to know what was going on here, and such honesty was refreshing in our age of information saturation. I was drawn here, but dressed the occassion up in the suit of a summer holiday. I came here as a tourist, playing it cool, but the truth is I am not just passing by here. This is my destination ever since I read about it.
In the second-hand tourist guide I bought in preparation for my trip to Andalucía, the whole section on the Alcazár was underlined. When I read about the place and its myth, it was as if something dormant in me was stirring up, as if its resonance had always been there, a bystander waiting to jump in at the faintest lull in conversation. In fact, when I told my friends about it, I added in details that were not in the guide, that I could not possibly know; details that, on later inspection, proved true. For instance, the names of its two skystraddling towers: Torre de los Leones and Torre de Homenaje. I further explained to my friends that this latter tower was an opportunistic sycophant. In its history, it had paid homage to various characters, as the region changed religions and allegiances, the latest of which was Napoleon. After his fall from power, the Torre de Homenaje a Napoleon Bonaparte was stripped of a namebearer altogether, thus paying homage to all and sundry, or to whomever vain and imaginative enough to believe himself so privileged.
It is to the top of this Torre de Homenaje that the stairs lead. As I linger on the fourth step, holding up the queue, paper and pen in hand, scribbling away at these quasi-philosophical questions, I have a deja vu. In it, I am standing on the exact same step of these exact same stairs. I see myself as in an out-of-body experience. It becomes clear to me that the fourth step is the pivotal one. The queue before me is proceeding, breaking on through to the other side. The queue behind me is folding and unfolding into each other like an accordeon, more and more people propped up in the cramped space I close off. I am the only one not in motion. That has got to be significant.
I say everything in this deja vu is the same. That is not true. The surroundings are exactly the same. So seem to be my intentions. The people around look different but that is insignificant, for they are just variations on a theme. I, however, look different too. The one I call myself is someone I have never seen before, yet I am certain it is me. It is that feeling of deja vu that drives it home. How can I feel such recollection emanate from that fourth step perspective if that is not me?
Now this me is mounting the stairs. The vision drifts away to the seasick tune of a violin. Another episode of the past drifts by and again I look different. Again, too, there is no doubt that this is me. Another time, same place. I can predict every exact movement. I can act out the whole scene in shadow puppet theatre. The only thing alien to me is the peculiar mien of this version of me. It is the surefire smile of a bookie at a fixed event. Upon further inspection, I find the same expression in all the others on the scene.
Suddenly I realize. Everyone scaling these steps knows death lies in waiting, but no one actually believes it. We all consider ourselves to be the exception, and feel compelled to prove it. We all secretly believe the tower to pay homage to none but ourselves. It goes to show that we cannot possibly ever grasp our own mortality. We all want to be Arthur. The Alcázar is just a poor man’s Excalibur.
Halfway there now, I will have to conclude my writings here, and throw the rolled-up paper down the stairs, for I have lost the lucidness of mind to continue.
I hope the one who finds this document will make good use of my sacrifice.
Jeroen van Honk is a 24-year-old writer from Leiden, The Netherlands. His short stories have recently been published in The Quotable and Sassafras Magazine. In his work, he is often concerned with the changing role of technology and spirituality in our modern day and age.