The Portal

In our book club, we recently read The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. I quite enjoyed the story and found the writing lovely. It is a book I highly recommend. For all that, I did have some quibbles with it as illustrated in the following book club announcement sent to the members of our group. This is one where I attempted to imitate the style in which the book was written.

Picture a high-ceilinged earth-tone bland living room, scattered books and pillows lived-in. Five pieces of furniture occupy more than adorn the space: a leather couch and matching love seat, backs wet-finger wrinkled, seat cushions dry-mud cracked and worn, a somewhat better preserved recliner, a cedar chest, its copper fittings once mirror bright now dulled and clouded as if a breath on their surface had remained, stubbornly refusing to evaporate as breaths are meant to, and, tucked in a corner by the love seat, a side table whose intricately carved legs rebuke the other furniture’s plain, modern lines and draw the mind back to a more refined era when beauty weighed equally in the balance with utility. Floor to ceiling windows flood the room with light from a cloud-heavy pewter sky and afford a glimpse of snow patched peaks through yet winter-boned trees.

A man saunters into the room. A circlet of gray hair mars his otherwise shiny pate and sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes peer from behind heavily refracting lenses. “Hey, Mari,” Kevin says, flopping on the couch.

A woman with light earth-toned hair, silver accents at the temples, face lightly graved with years and smiles, sits with her feet curled under her on the obliquely facing wide-cushioned love seat, morning-sky blue eyes riveted on her laptop, face taught in concentration. She ignores the greeting.

“I’m working on a story.”

Mouth tightening, intensifying focus etching lines more deeply, Mari’s fingers flutter on the keyboard beating the rhythm of letters to words to thoughts, transforming the mystery of mind through her fingers into electrons.

“Guess what it’s about?”

Mari’s fingers fly from the keys as if stung. Irritation briefly corrugates her pursed lips and shutters her eyes. Her chest expands with indrawn breath, holds and slowly compresses. A beat later, Mari’s eyelids raise and her mouth draws back exposing her teeth in what she surely must intend to be a smile, but which doesn’t lift her cheeks or crinkle the corners of her eyes. “What.” she says, the syllable, flat and unyielding, stubbornly refusing to bend itself upward into a question.

“Parallel universes connected to ours through portals hidden throughout the world. Sounds like magic right? Only this evil society is closing these portals because they introduce change.”

“Change?”

“Yeah, you know—disorder, wildness, chaos.”

“And they’re the evil ones?”

“Yep.”

“Because they want order, peace and calm?”

“Well, they’re evil because they hurt people too.”

“Okay, that does sound evil, but I sort of think order and peace and calm are good things.”

“What about change?”

Mari shrugs. “It depends on the change. Change only for its own sake doesn’t seem like necessarily a good thing. What’s the story about?”

“This woman who meets someone from another world at a portal on her farm and falls instantly in love, but before she and the guy can get together the evil society finds her portal and closes it. She searches the world finding different portals trying to return to her lost love and eventually stumbles upon him in this other world. They have a baby, but when they try to get back to earth one last time so she can say good-bye to her family the evil society closes the portal before they all make it through and only her husband and daughter get to earth. The story is about the daughter discovering who she is then finding her family while this evil society chases her.”

“Sounds interesting. What’s this other world like, the one where the dad is from and the girl is born?”

“It’s a pre-industrial society and has been since time immemorial. It’s a very nice place a lot nicer than earth.”

“Huh, so no disorder, wildness, or chaos?”

“Um, no.”

“And no change, it sounds like, since it’s pre-industrial and has been forever.”

“Ah, yeah.”

“No portals there then?”

“Well, yeah there are portals, quite a few, actually.”

“But they don’t have the same effect as the ones on earth?”

“Um, I guess not. I haven’t thought that part through exactly.”

“Evidently. Leave that aside for a bit. For whatever reason, this other place doesn’t have the portals’ side effects—disorder, wildness, chaos, and change—and it’s nicer than earth because it lacks those side effects.”

“Yeah.”

“And the society that wants to eliminate the portals on earth because of those side effects is evil for wanting earth to be like this other nicer place that doesn’t have the side effects?”

“Well, they kill people too.”   

“Right, so you said. It sounds like you have a good story—lost girls discovering who they are and finding their family while being chased about by evil people always make for a good story. But the world building in which the story’s set needs some work. You don’t want those discrepancies to detract from the story. Maybe you should set the tale in a different universe. That whole portal idea is a bit far fetched anyway. It might snap that willing suspension.” Mari lowers her head to her laptop screen once more and resumes her staccato drumbeat on the keyboard. Her face, drawn in fierce determination, sweeps an invisible curtain around her cutting herself off from further interruption.

 Ever slow on the uptake, it is a few moments before Kevin senses that invisible barrier and understands his dismissal. With a sigh, he levers himself from the couch and leaves the room. “Yeah,” he mutters to himself on the way out, “the portal idea is just too fanciful.”

Minutes later, Mari hits a final key. In jerks and pauses, her eyes scan the screen and as they progress an ineffable sadness suffuses the air and dims the windows’ light. At the precipice, a tear gathers at the brink, trembling and hesitant, reflecting a dialogue deep in its author’s soul. Stay or go? Remain with her family cocooned from danger and pain but hemmed in (or supported?) by those chaffing (or comforting?) ties, or venture, risking comfort and being for freedom (and loneliness?).

Determination firms her mouth, and she hits print on the laptop. After retrieving her pages from the printer, she folds them into an envelope and addresses it: Kevin. She lays it on the couch where he will certainly see it then, recalling his absent mindedness, retrieves a sticky note and writes:

Remember to send out the reminder for Book Club Tomorrow Night at 7:30 pm sharp. You’re discussing The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. Barb is leading the discussion. It will be virtual again, so provide a link.  

With authority she slaps the note on the envelope and marches to the window waving her hand in a sideways W. Without a backward glance, she strides through the window and disappears.

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