Mother never has been patient. Old as she is—and there are hills Above of which she can remember the birth—time has never blessed her with the sort of wisdom lore informs us is inevitable with the assumption of the grace of age.
This does not bother me. I am not one of the mabkin. They toil at her leisure, they sweat to her pleasures, they suffer to her pains. Sooner be a worker ant in a burrow than one of those pretty, pretty, doomed butterflies. Mother always pulls the wings off her children and eats them in the end.
No, my purpose in this life is different. Someone must keep the Doors, after all. The great copper hinges on which the boundaries of night and day swing do not clean themselves of verdigris. Neither do the shadowed locks forged by Chronos himself in the time before the light first came into the world oil their own tumblers.
You who live Above tell stories. I am never certain if this is a sickness or a blessing, though in my weaker moments over a glass of lifewater I have confessed a time or two to envy. I have even caught the way of it from you. Everyone who comes begging at the Doors launches their plea on the wings of some tale. They tuck their feet beneath their knees amid the riot of spring flowers, or a moment later they huddle fast amid the snowdrifts and the winter wind, or a moment after that lean with the stiffness of their aging against some patient draft animal and croak out a querulous plea against the final bloody sunset of their mayfly days.
The Doorkeeper listens to all. The Doorkeeper hears all. The Doorkeeper is the keyhole to Mother’s heart, here Below. Mother is not patient, but I am, for I hold her heart in my left pocket along with a hawk feather, three apple seeds, and the list of True Names, which is so short and infinite that it has been scriven on the inside of a silver thimble.
Come, then, and tell me your story, for Mother will never listen, and I always will. Like the icy seed of winter hidden inside a summer rain, Below is always here. Like the golden fire of summer hidden inside a winter freeze, Below is always here. And you will never be on the right side of the Doors, unless your tale makes the seahawk fly from my vest, the three trees bloom, and the thimble whisper your True Name in the voice of the distant, amniotic sea.
Then Mother’s heart will take another beat, she will age another day, and we will all be a moment closer to freedom.
Come. Tell me.
The chemo port implant scars on Addison’s right chest still ached a little, and she ignored the continuing sensation that the surgeons had left a Bic pen inside her. Another twinge, to the chorus from her ribs and the partial thoracectomy that had removed her tumor. Besides, she was away from all that now, for a little while. Or maybe longer, despite the appointments next week back in Laramie.
The day here was fine and cold, the wind brisk, and she was outdoors. Addison climbed through what felt like more bracken than any hills had a right to be covered with. A week earlier, she hadn’t even known what bracken was. Ferns and flowers?
Hills without mountains seemed strange to her, but she was a long way from Wyoming. The last few nights camping in her little tent, she’d felt a long way from anywhere. It had taken her great mental effort to remember the name of the little airport she’d flown into over the weekend, after changing planes four times and crossing an ocean.
“I’m not worried,” she told the empty sky, over which not even a hawk circled. The sky held no answers.
She slipped a half–eaten Clif Bar from her pocket, which slowly became a three–quarter–eaten Clif Bar before her gag reflex kicked in. Figs, who the hell ever thought figs were a good idea? Addison was eating less each day, which was odd, because she wasn’t really at any significant altitude.
Just the top of the world, from this view.
Her grandfather Locke’s words kept coming back to her.
Start at the Heartbeck
The sunset behind you
Always climb higher
You’ll find your way true
He’d sung her to sleep with those words when she was a baby and a little girl, and later on made her memorize them. Addison had spent her winters with Grandfather Locke in the little house in Laramie, while her parents and brothers worked their high–country ranch. She’d been too weak for the deep snows, she’d been told all her childhood. Too delicate a constitution.
Addison had never had a cold a day in her life. Not a moment’s illness.
Not until now.
She crossed a ridge so low and subtle she almost missed the fact she wasn’t climbing anymore. The sun stood overhead, directly at its zenith. The scent was different here—the slight rank of bracken overwhelmed by the underlying acidity of the stony soil and a damp tang of metal.
The smell of magic, when you feel like you’ve been chewing wires.
Where the hell had that thought come from? In Grandfather’s voice.
There wasn’t any higher to climb. Not here, not now. No beck to put at her back, either. The watercourses had vanished to rivulets a day ago, and she was carrying her last two quarts on her hip. All she saw in front of her was a shallow bowl of a high valley, a place that by rights should have cupped a little tarn reflecting the blue sky with the indolence of water.
Close your eyes and follow your nose.
Grandfather Locke had died last winter with a smile on his face, looking no older than he ever had since she was born. Not even tired, just finished, as if his life work had been carving a young adult Addison from the stuff of childhood.
Now he was talking to her.
So she listened. That’s what she was doing here, right? Walking east from the Heartbeck.
Addison closed her eyes and breathed in the place she stood. Trace of bracken. Soil. Wind, bearing a bit of damp from some more fortunate locale. The droppings of something small and herbivorous. Metal.
Mouth open, she turned, facing first one way then the other, until she thought she knew where the metal tang was strongest. She advanced slowly, her hiking pole a cane now. No point in breaking an ankle in the one gopher hole for forty miles on this high, hollow hill.
Did they even have gophers on this side of the Atlantic?
Step, sniff. Step, sniff. Step, sniff.
When she bumped into the solid mass on the ground, Addison was not the least bit surprised.
She opened her eyes to see a pair of copper slabs stretched before her. No, not slabs, doors, for all that they were flat against the bottom of the little valley. They looked like nothing so much as the blast doors to a Wyoming missile silo, if the air force had been hiring Italian espresso–machine designers to build the Cold War infrastructure.
The margins of each door were worked in high–relief chasings of snakes and trefoils, which themselves seemed to form a script, though not one she recognized. Tiny eyes winked between the leaves. Tiny mouths screamed ecstasy and terror. Battles and seductions worked their way across the vast spaces between the margins. The doors seemed almost alive.
She looked about to find a girl who hadn’t been there a moment before sitting on one corner of the doors, twenty feet away. A young woman, much her build and age, wearing a rather smart denim miniskirt and a hunter green ragged wool vest far too large for her. And apparently nothing else, which made Addison’s heart skip a beat before she looked away from the curve of exposed breast, then found herself drawn back again.
The girl was the girl in the mirror.
“Hello,” the stranger said. Her voice was soft, familiar, though the accent was strange, like nothing Addison had ever heard.
“Uh, hello.” Addison’s own voice sounded odd in her ears now.
They stared at one another, ordinary brown eyes locked on ordinary brown eyes. She’d never been anything special, had always longed for the fiery red hair and green eyes of all the brave servant girls who were future queens in the books she’d devoured from the library, but Addison’s looks had remained resolutely plain.
On this girl in her ragged, open vest, here in the crown of the high hills, those looks were as exotic as any raving beauty on the page. Unthinking, Addison plucked at her own hair.
“Do you bear sorrow or joy?” asked the girl.
“You—” Addison blurted, then stopped. “You look like me.”
Laughter that could have rung the bells of morning. Why don’t I laugh like that? “Better to say you look like me, stranger.” A long, thoughtful pause, something deceptively close to compassion in those brown eyes. “No one finds these doors by accident. Well, almost no one. But surely not you.”
“No, no…” Addison paused, stared at her own slender, callused fingers a moment. She was still thirty feet from the other girl, but she could smell her. A far–too–familiar scent somewhere between sex and sleep. It was … disturbing. “Grandfather sent me.”
“Whose grandfather?” Now the voice was gentle.
Why was this question important? She’d fallen into some modern version of the riddle game, like talking to her therapist but with such different, unknowable stakes. Addison stalled by walking around the verge of the doors. There was certainly no way she was going to set foot on them.
The other girl was patient. Addison got the impression the stranger would have waited a decade for her to round the corner and walk face–to–face to answer the question.
“My grandfather. Grandfather Locke.”
“Morfar or farfar?”
“Your mother’s father or your father’s father?”
“Oh. Mother’s. Daddy was a Keyes.”
Something stirred in the girl’s vest pocket. She glanced down in apparent surprise, looking into a dark place that seemed much deeper than the ragged woolen vest could contain. “Lock and key,” mused the girl.
“I’m Addison Keyes.”
The pocket shifted again. Was she carrying an animal in there?
The girl just stared back.
Eventually Addison filled the silence. “And you are…?”
The answer was prompt if unhelpful. “Waiting.”
She patted the copper doors. “Locks and keys.”
Something shifted in Addison’s head, half–forgotten words of Grandfather Locke’s. Another verse.
Until you are truly lost
You will never be there
Always climb higher
And never ask where
He really had been a bit strange …
“I can take the hint,” Addison said. “Nominate determinism is just silly, but if you want me to be, I am both a Locke and a Keyes.”
“If you think names do not count, then you have learned nothing.” This close, the girl touched Addison’s hair, then sniffed. A spark passed between them, like petting a cat during thunderstorm weather. Addison didn’t jump, but was surprised at the tingle inside her breasts and groin. “You were raised by a mabkin.”
“Your morfar. Locke? He is a mabkin. I can smell him on you.”
“He passed away last summer.”
“Really?” She smiled sweetly at Addison, though there was nothing but menace in those pearly teeth for a moment. Addison wondered if she, too, were almost–fanged. “Did you see the body?”
“N–no. He died in the hospital, and the funeral was closed casket.”
The smile was positively evil. “If you dug it up, you’d find a dead wolf and a few stone of rags and feathers. He hasn’t come home yet, but he will. I would know.”
“And I would know if he was alive!” Addison shouted, suddenly enraged. “He never was going to come home, damn you. That’s why he told me all the stories, and bought me a plane ticket before he died, and spent all his time filling me with ideas about wearing my clothes inside out and carrying pebbles in my pockets! He was crazy and I love him.”
“You’re not wearing your clothes inside out,” the girl pointed out quite reasonably, ignoring Addison’s anger.
“And the only rocks I have are inside my head, I swear.” Addison huffed, trying to settle down. She had not come this far to fight with some imaginary twin. “He’s dead, girl–whoever–you–are–in–waiting. I watched him slip away. Colon cancer, and they took it out of him three times until he was shitting in a plastic bag and eating nothing but oatmeal. Whatever a mabkin is, no one noticed on the operating table. Or in the CAT scans.”
“The crab disease.” This was the first time the girl seemed taken aback. “A mabkin, in the presence of a grimalkin, was struck down by the crab disease…”
Grimalkin? An old cat. The CAT scan? Riddles, and more stupid wordplay. Addison stuck to the point, for fear of talking in mystic circles. “What, you people don’t get cancer here?”
“We die of nothing but grief or the sword. Sometimes at the same moment.”
“Grandfather Locke died on the sword of cancer, then. But I held his hand when he was done. I don’t think he grieved.”
“Did he call for Mother?” the girl asked gently.
“Yes,” said Addison, and burst into tears.
Later they sat close in front of the primus stove while Addison boiled water for ginger tea. The girl, who would answer to “Door” but called herself nothing that Addison could determine, had been delighted with a white chocolate macadamia Clif Bar. Their shadows lengthened eastward, and Addison kept wondering if she would camp up here. She wanted to see where Door would go at nightfall, because experience had already taught her about the rapid descent of frost on these hills.
Door seemed unconcerned about the passage of time, or really, anything else other than Addison’s camping gear.
“You carry fire with you in a little bottle. This is so much more clever than wooden sticks.”
“I have matches, too,” Addison admitted.
“Surely. Monkeys are clever.”
“I am not a monkey.”
“Not you.” That almost–fanged smile. “But you were raised among them, and you have brought back their clever ways.”
“I’ve brought back something else, too,” Addison admitted. She touched her chest, just below the right clavicle.
“Yourself, of course.” The later the day grew, the more feral Door seemed to become. At noon she’d been almost reserved. Now she was tricksy.
Ignoring the chilly air, Addison slipped out of her fleece vest, unbuttoned her wool shirt, and dropped the shoulder on her thermal top, tugging the sports bra’s band with it. “See this,” she asked, pointing at a red–lipped seam on her neck and another on her chest.
“I could do much better.” A copper blade shaped like a rhododendron leaf appeared as if from nowhere in Door’s hand.
“Stop it,” Addison said, slapping the girl’s wrist. Feral, feral.
The touch caused another spark to leap between them.
With that, the blade vanished. Door cocked her head, looking for all the world like a curious robin. “What, then?”
“It’s a chest port. I start chemotherapy next week back at home.”
Door looked puzzled.
“Cancer. The crab disease.” Addison sighed. “What killed Grandfather Locke. It’s trying to kill me.” She wasn’t supposed to think of it that way, her therapist had been very insistent.
Now Door seemed completely taken aback. Addison wondered if the other girl’s preternatural confidence faded with the light. “You have come to the Doors bearing the crab disease?”
“Well … yes?”
“Some come here seeking life eternal. Some come here seeking the true death of the soul, for fear of the same thing. Some come seeking riches. Or a lost love. What do you hope for here?”
Whatever Grandfather Locke set me to find, Addison thought, but did not say. Her fingers brushed her chest where the port implant ached. “He … He always told me I would discover where I belonged.”
“You belong wherever you are,” Door said simply. For the first time, Addison thought she heard compassion in the other girl’s voice, but when she looked up, all she saw was the gleam of the Primus flame in Door’s eyes. It was like staring into a tiny, liquid hell.
“I don’t want to die,” Addison whispered.
“Ah, life eternal.” The smile flashed, even more fanged in the encroaching gloam. “We don’t have that here. Chronos is long since fallen. We merely abide endlessly without the benefit of time.”
“Cancer is a disease of time.”
“Life is a disease of time.”
Another touch, their third, and on this occasion the spark was like summer lightning. Door drew Addison into a close embrace. Like hugging herself, but not. Like masturbating, but not. Like a mirror so close one could step into it.
“Would you go Below?” Door whispered in her ear. Inside Addison’s head.
“Would I come back?”
“You would carry the disease of time into the Quiet Lands. Is that what you want?”
More of Grandfather Locke’s words came to her then.
Be my sword, little girl
Carry over the ocean my will
To the Mother of us all
So that she may someday lie still
Had she only ever been his pawn as well? Was even the cancer her morfar’s gift to her? “I would not wish this on my worst enemy if I had one,” Addison whispered to herself.
“Time is everyone’s worst enemy,” Door whispered back from within. “The sword of ruin. That is why it does not pass beneath these hollow hills.”
“Cancer is the sword of ruin, thrust through the body.” Addison thought back on Door’s words. “Both grief and the sword.” The disease of time, indeed.
“Your story will sweep open the doors,” Door replied. “They may never shut again.”
Did she want to? Who were the people under the hill to her? Mabkin, her grandfather Locke’s folk, but he’d never spoken of them. Just filled her head with stories, filled her heart with his death, and filled her hand with a ticket to elsewhere.
Addison wasn’t certain what choice she was making. To go home and slowly poison herself, while poisoning the cancer a little faster. Or to pass beneath these copper doors and come to face her great–grandmother, who lived outside time.
Sooner pass between the pages of a book.
You always did want to pass between the pages of a book, girl, her grandfather Locke said. And someone must break the chains under the hill, someday.
Though Door’s fingers barely touched the copper, the slabs swung upward as if pressed forward by hands the size of houses. They smashed into the ground on each side with an echo that Addison felt deep in her bones. The inner faces of the doors were decorated just as ornately as the outside, though in the last of the twilight, the carvings seemed alive, fields of men fighting flowers while winged archers sailed overhead laughing.
A stairwell descended into darkness. The steps themselves were carved from the stone of the hill, each one bowed and worn with generations of passage. There was no light at all below, but the air smelled of roses and grave dust and meat.
It was an invitation.
A vector of change now, aimed at the deathless heart of the unchanging, Addison touched her woolen vest, fingered the seam of her denim skirt, and set off into the darkness below with an ache in her chest and her grandfather’s memory in her heart.
Mother will learn patience now. If the monkeys know anything we do not, it is that death is the greatest teacher life can set before us. I am not one of the mabkin, but I have sat at the borders of Mother’s realm so long I might as well be one.
That a monkey came for me is one of those blessings which can only be the world playing with its own sense of humor. Her stove burned me a little, but I got the hot tea off and into my belly. It will be strange, eating their food, but I have a ticket that will take me somewhere else.
Change is coming Below, where change has never been welcome. I wonder who set the Locke and the Keyes on their course, or if that is just another of the world’s little jokes upon itself.
Leaving the flame behind to light the night, I follow Addison Keyes’s scent back down from the high hills. As Above, so Below. Mother’s fingers may be like whips, but they will never tear at me now. Mother’s eyes may be like razors, but they will never cut at me now.
I thank my sister, I thank myself, and I sing a song of crabs and cats as the bracken whips at my hiking boots and my monkey pants and I bounce down into the wider world armed with bright teeth and a copper knife.
I am coming. I might even become a Mother myself someday, in Addison’s high Wyoming hills.
Are you afraid? Or are you laughing?
“Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors” copyright © 2011 by Joseph E. Lake, Jr. Originally appeared in Postscripts, 24/25, 2011. Reprinted in Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection (Tor, 2014).
(Editors’ Note: In this issue, Lynne M. Thomas interviews Beth Meacham about Jay Lake and his work.)
© 2011 Joseph E. Lake