Commentary on “Portrait of a Staircase”
Metaphors Can Bite
The short story format has its many advantages, one being that it can allow a budding writer like myself to “try things out” and experiment with technique and form. To see how far an image can delight or disgust a reader. To feel the ridges and textures that certain writing tricks can produce.
And that’s what I found writing this story. I discovered that metaphors can bite. They can be thorny and prickly and even elicit winces.
They can feel as painful as what is lying underneath them, bringing two unlike things together that grate against each other like the sound of metal against metal.
Haruki Murakami, a writer who has informed my writing and this particular short story, does this relentlessly. A well is not just a hole in the ground to draw water from. A well is a human heart that “nobody knows what’s at the bottom. All you can do is imagine by what comes floating to the surface.”
Or, as one of his characters in Kafka on the Shore puts it, “Everything in life is metaphor … And through that we grow and become deeper human beings.”
My story tinkers with metaphor in this way. It imagines a family’s life as one continuous metaphor. It uses sharp unsettling imagery that Mrs. Pepperton, the matriarch of the story, does her best to ignore.
The tree in the yard that can slay her children.
Her oldest daughter who eats nails, and her youngest son who eventually grows into a rabid rodent.
Her husband who turns “invisible” and her second oldest who believes they can communicate through the back of their head.
And what drives Mrs. Pepperton through her life is her refusal to accept this cognitive dissonance—while her staircase stays the same, more or less, the world surrounding the staircase is disjointed and nonsensical and violent and ever-changing.
The story ends with Mrs. Pepperton smiling for the camera, but I would like to think she’s no longer pinned down by her delusion—that she knows that so much of her life was how she’d perceived it, that the tree outside that once protruded with “knives” is now something new and reborn, beautiful even.
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Ryan Jenkins is a writer of weird fiction based in Richmond, Virginia, where he lives with his partner and daughter. Previously a managing editor at Tor Books, Ryan currently copyedits novels on a freelance basis. His most recent story was published in Goats Milk Magazine, and he has a forthcoming story appearing in Strange Wor/ds.