top of page

A quarterly international literary journal

Salve Porta

/ Fiction /

They never would find out what happened to the lady on the train. They’d been about to read the book on which Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes was based, when Maude herself was suddenly not there, not anymore. Her heart had stopped during the night, as it had already been threatening back in April when Emmy first started coming to read to her.

There’d been that moment of warning, the day before, when Emmy had seen her old friend for the last time—standing in the doorway to her bedroom, in the pretty block-printed kimono robe which her son Fergus had given her for her birthday. (“Only two weeks ago,” he’d say with wistful disbelief.) Emmy had felt a moment of panic when she had seen Maude there, watching her go. But she had been on her way out, and couldn’t do more than murmur a plea to St. Martin de Porres (unofficial patron saint of doors) as she reluctantly went on out to her car, not daring to look back. Maude kept afternoons free for appointments and chores, for visiting nurses and her eccentric visiting accountant who showed up every two weeks on a purple Harley, so Emmy always left just before lunch, or earlier if they had come to a good stopping place. After a power bowl or salad, she would turn to her legal transcription work in her little home office looking out towards the Jemez Mountains, and a sea of Russian sage during the summer months.

Now though, her whole routine was off. And what she’d always known about doorways had proven true again: they swallowed people whole.

* * *

At the memorial service on Sunday afternoon, Emmy read a short eulogy, including a quote from one of Willa Cather’s books that almost perfectly summed up how she had felt in Maude’s presence.

I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins,

and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps

we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire,

whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that

is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.

She told the other mourners in the patio behind Fergus’s gallery how she had felt back in ninth grade, as one of Maude’s students, being let into that something complete and great. And how she knew her friend was now part of the sun and air, however indistinct. The late September sun that came through the leaves of the cottonwood and birch, and dappled the flagstones where the white folding chairs had been set into long uneven lines and soon platters of various small empanadas would be brought out, with bowls of fruited sangria to toast this next stage of her being.

There was a string ensemble playing Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, and then the Bach Air and Handel Largo which Maude had loved, while memories were traded and relived until sundown. Emmy felt she couldn’t bear to go away from all these people who held pieces of the woman Maude had been, though they were starting to go off in twos and threes, leaving her fragmented. Not ready to go yet, she lingered in the growing dusk, cheered by the fairy lights strung in and between trees and reflected in all the windows.

Through the gallery doorway, on the russet adobe wall across the room, she spotted one of the paintings which Fergus had brought from his mother’s bedroom—the multifaceted kachinas like a cascade of jewels, or like the colored flames that rise and dance when metallic gift wrap is thrown onto a piñon fire on Christmas morning or Eve—and she was pierced by sadness to see it there alone, displaced, out in the world, its magic fading quickly with the light. Another part of herself about to vanish through what Rilke in one of his Sonnets to Orpheus called “the inconsolable open door.”

She needed to do something to fend off this too familiar loss.

* * *

The morning after the memorial, Emmy packed sweaters, jeans, and camera into her canvas bag and headed up to Mesa Verde, on a kind of pilgrimage. In the back seat Pautiwa, the black Skye terrier Maude had named for one of the Hopi sky gods, kept a watchful eye on things from the bastion of his emerald green velvet throw, as they passed the Kewa, San Felipe, Zia, and Jemez Pueblos, and Pueblo Pintado Canyon. Maude had especially wanted her to have the dog, besides her collection of vintage Willa Cather books. Neither Fergus nor Anne, his activist younger sister, had the requisite lifestyle to take him in.

Pautiwa’s eyes reflected the same sadness Emmy felt, but the journey distracted them. They spent the night in Durango, and by midmorning the next day they’d checked into the lodge inside the park, and set out to explore the nearby sites—the paved trails of the Mesa Top Loop some of the few dogs were allowed on. After the long car ride, both were grateful to be out walking in the pleasant autumn air.

From the Sun Temple there was a great view of Cliff Palace across the canyon, tucked into the sandstone, and Emmy was glad to get pictures of the largest and most famous of the cliff dwellings with her zoom lens, without having to sign up for a guided tour. She’d have her own private tour later, in company with Maude and Willa Cather.

That would be almost the best part of the day. After a long shower and change of clothes, she opened a bottle of earthy old vines Chinon she’d brought from the Aladdin’s cave of wines just north of Santa Fe, and sat out on her quiet balcony, tired feet up and tired dog beside them. She looked out at the landscape of verdant plateaus that gave the national park its name, and at the staggering expanse of sky, and reread The Professor’s House. Maude had introduced her to it early on in their readings together. She’d found it quite a revelation—and had probably been drawn back now because of it, because of that ravishing middle section describing the discovery of the cliff ruins by the professor’s young protégé. What better than to read that again in the place itself? She’d only been to Mesa Verde once before, some fifteen years ago. She saw this visit as the perfect way of paying homage to her friend who’d been here often in her Colorado youth, with a naturalist mother and three older siblings, all gone now too.

* * *

The next day Emmy set out early with her camera on the Far View trail, though it meant leaving Pautiwa in the car while she was out rambling. (He looked perfectly happy to just laze.) Another reason for this trip was to investigate the striking doorways that figured in so many depictions of the Anasazi ruins. She’d started taking pictures of those haunted openings wherever she traveled, trying to come to terms with them and figure out their secrets and power. Ruined abbeys in England, the empty door and window frames on the abandoned island of the lepers off the northern coast of Crete, the really scary Gates of Heaven at the Lempuyang Temple in Bali, which she almost couldn’t face once she was there. The doors yawning and beckoning in the structures the world over which archaeologists unearthed and recreated so painstakingly, still holding those millennia of ghosts.

Emmy knew this about doorways: they were merciless. There was no guarantee that those who went in would come out again. Or vice versa. Doorways were fraught. Portals to the unfathomable place where absence dwells. The loneliest, most haunted spaces in the world.

Taking photos of them had started as part of the therapy she was forever working on with Micah, therapist and brother of her childhood friend Rachel. Struggling to get her head around what she saw going down in those transitional, spooky spaces. Having consulted world religions and mythology, other experiments had included painting her front door the blue of beads against the Evil Eye; hanging rosary beads of Medjugorje olivewood on all of her door knobs. She tried salt (across thresholds), turquoise (on lintels), feathers and sage (threaded together on over-door hooks), and chalk (for chalking house doors on Epiphany). She found a Navajo yei rug for a doormat—yeis said to be the keepers of the door into the other world. Lately she’d found that she actually liked adding to her collection of photos, the places she had visited calmly, curiously, without undue anxiety. So she was interested in seeing the doorways in Mesa Verde’s Far View House—all perfectly aligned, much like the image of an endless line of mirrors, each reflecting the last, the nearest gobbling up the rest.

But in the end they didn’t have a lot to say to her. She was drawn more by the kivas there and in Pipe Shrine House, the circular underground chambers used for sacred ceremonies, and now open to the sky.

She’d been planning to have lunch and then spend the rest of the day resting and reading, writing up her impressions, as on the postcards she’d sent Maude from her travels. Drinking sun tea on the balcony . . . or even sleeping for a while. But before she had gotten back up to her room, her cell phone startled her. She almost didn’t answer, with her hands full, and Pautiwa tugging impatiently at the long, tangled leash, needing to go investigate some tantalizing smell. She answered crossly just before the ringing stopped, and was still more upset hearing her father, of all people.

“When are you headed home, Emmy? Can we have lunch on your way through?”

“How did you know I’m here?” She felt invaded, outed, cheated of precious moments she wanted for celebrating and mourning her friend.

“Your brother, George, alerted me, hija—knowing you wouldn’t call.”

“I’m meant to be recuperating . . .” She sounded grudging, she knew, and she felt mean but just the same unwilling to spend any of the little energy she had on him.

“Well, count me in, Em. You know I’d be glad to help.”

He’d do his best, she did know that. And she had done her best—but even with Micah’s expert guidance she hadn’t yet been able to let go the hurt he’d caused that Sunday morning in late spring, so many wasted years ago, when he had hovered in her bedroom door while she was half asleep, then, when she woke enough to startle up, vanished silently through the kitchen door and then the heavy, balking front door of their rented house on Acequia Madre, not looking back. Not coming back, ever. The last thing she had seen, besides and forever the empty doorways, had been his bulging backpack (packed to go) with one of the three-story white pine birdhouses he made sticking up out of it.

She’d been eleven when he left, and not yet in Maude’s class. He’d tried over the years to stay in touch, from Colorado to New Mexico, but she’d developed a whole armory of distancing techniques. She’d never met his now long-time partner, Lenora, though even her mother liked her, had said of her “ella es un sol!” A real angel. High praise indeed from critical Inez.

Rather than argue now, which invariably left her feeling worse than just pretending to accept whatever she was being pushed into against her will, she agreed she’d stop the next day and have lunch with her father in Aztec. She didn’t tell him she’d be staying overnight in a motel down there, and spending time at the Ruins—another place she hadn’t visited since she’d been there with her family when she was maybe eight, and George in junior high. They might not be as extensive or impressive as Mesa Verde, but what was there had that same aura of spiritual grandeur about it, a tacitly sacred quality.

* * *

Her father texted her first thing the next morning, saying

“Tell you what—I’ll meet you at the picnic area at the Ruins, and bring the picnic. I’ve got the day off, and don’t much feel like being indoors in this perfect fall weather. As I’d guess you don’t, either.”

She got to the Ruins early, and wandered with her camera, aimlessly, unable to settle. Besides the famous aligned doorways in the West Pueblo, like those she’d seen at Far View House, she was intrigued to see the t-shaped doors she’d read were sacred, and of Mayan origin. The beams of pine and juniper inside the narrow rooms.

She felt a strange frisson when a figure appeared without warning in one of her pictures, coming through one of the nearer doors—a formless shade, an insignificant eclipse of the daylight, a momentary chill. Her father. She recognized him only after a pronounced silence, an interesting awareness that he had solidified out of nowhere, nothing, as if he had been living all this time there in the portal between then and now, and there and here. Come back, out of the place of haunting. She touched the silver cross below her collarbone, with its small nugget of turquoise, not aware she’d done so.

“Sorry—I’m early too,” he said, seeing he’d startled her. “But glad I’ve found you here.”

Francisco Salas, Frank, was a physical therapist for in-home care. A healer, a kindly man by all appearances, by what everyone said. Emmy had seen only his absence, though, his failure every day again to come back through that other door—the door she’d watched and watched, heart breaking daily, as a child. At the terrible 5:15, the time he’d always gotten home from work, with cheery grin and tired eyes lighting when he saw her.

Now he was here, and she was awkward in the unfamiliar materiality of him. His rusty red t-shirt, his khaki cargo shorts. His kindly eyes. Deep etched smile lines, gray in his black hair now, like an unseasonal dusting of snow. Emmy fetched Pautiwa out of the car, with his big bamboo water bowl, and Frank laid on the picnic table an array of salads, including mixed fruit, farro and piñon nuts, and grilled chicken with blue cheese and a mustardy dressing. He’d always been a better cook than her mother. Things had gotten a little grim foodwise as well after he’d left, though George had developed a real talent for mac and cheese, at least twenty-three ways. (She’d kept a list, until George took off too.)

“Who is this friend who’s passed away?” Her father seemed genuinely interested and sympathetic—and that only made it worse.

“Maude was my teacher,” Emmy said politely. “Then it was reversed. I read to her; we watched the Hitchcock films.” They’d gotten through Rebecca, The Thirty-nine Steps, Rear Window, Marnie, Young and Innocent (from Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles). It had been so fun, seeing how the films changed things, took solid words and made them into nothing but transparent light.

She’d never thought to ask Micah why that had been okay for her, but not when people turned transparent in the hazy light of doors, confining and elusive as the movie screen.

They walked after they’d eaten, Pautiwa shut back in the car reluctantly this time, having formed an instantaneous attachment to the man Emmy had such a hard time letting anywhere near her. Frank pointed out to her the “doorways of light” in the Great Kiva, aligned with the major celestial events.

“You should come back and watch the sunrise here on the summer solstice,” he offered, seeing her interest. “They let the public into the kiva, and you can see the moment when the doorway of light fits perfectly inside the t-shaped frame—or fits it to a t, as the old saying goes.” He smiled at her, and she remembered that he’d taught her puns.

“We’ll see,” she said, wooed but not won, still feeling prickly, or at least needing to think she was. She was interested, though. She’d read that solstices are temporal dividing lines—crucial limins for so many cultures. And in psychology, Micah had mentioned once, “the limen’s the dividing line between the sensation being too faint to be noticed and the point where it starts to be felt.” The sensation of absence, she’d immediately thought. But now she wondered what other sensations were there, waiting. The feeling of being wanted, important in somebody’s day. That feeling of being happy she’d admitted to at the memorial service—and had also experienced, she realized, in the presence of the kivas, the tree-covered mesas, the stupendous skies. Maybe, even, with Frank?

* * *

After two months of chatty texts from her father, which she more often than not replied to, Emmy drove back up to Aztec for the winter solstice.

“It’s just outdoors,” he’d warned, “with the sun aligning at sunset with one of the buildings. Lenora and I saw an amazing occurrence of the winter solstice effect at Malinalco, in the Aztec Cuauhcalli, or House of the Eagles—the sun illuminating an iconic golden eagle sculpture through the entryway. I’d love to take you there sometime.”

She thought she’d like to see the one at Aztec Ruins anyway, and see whether she still felt somehow healed and okay in her father’s presence, or if the day of the picnic had only been a fluke.

After they’d watched the sun go down, and were on their cold way back to the parking lot, Emmy stopped at one of the doorways into the West Great House, and worked into the earth just next to it an obsidian charm she’d had for years and years. A little Zuni bear: an offering, part of her haphazard juju. Obsidian for healing from the past, for help in letting go—now let go in its turn.

Not seeing exactly what she had done, but knowing she had paused deliberately there, in some sort of private observance, her father asked what drew her to the openings.

“Well, this,” she said eventually, once they were back in his warm car, drinking some of the spiced hot chocolate he had brought in a thermos. It was past time. “A superstition, dread—actual phobia. Entamaphobia—fear of doors—has both emotional and physical symptoms. Including in my case trouble breathing, dizziness and nausea . . . getting almost hysterical at the thought or the sight of doors, or the idea of walking through one. It’s said sufferers may have had a negative door-related experience as a child. And after that, having to face the door alone.” Her voice remained impersonal. “You left me, Mom was even less maternal than ever, George acted out and got real mean, and of course later that year took off too. . .so I guess I transferred my fear of being left (again, always) and my despair to the doorways, through which you’d gone. And almost everything I’d loved.”

Frank gave an anguished groan, but she’d gone on, wanting to clarify. “Everyone who leaves me adds to my distrust of doors. Maude’s dying, too, I couldn’t help associating with the bedroom doorway I last saw her in.”

“Oh, niña. I never knew. Your mother . . . there was just no way I could go on. She was destroying me with her constant contempt and negativity. I’m so, so sorry you were a victim. Has it gone better since, with her?”

“She is extremely tough,” Emmy was careful to put it diplomatically. “But for the longest time,” she admitted sadly, “I didn’t think I deserved otherwise.”

“Oh, Em—I can’t tell you how sad that makes me.” And then, looking suddenly older and careworn, in what light there was in the car, “At my end, I was devastated too when you disappeared back behind that door.” He had picked up her imagery, and saw it fit them both. “My fault that I left first, absolutely. But I couldn’t do otherwise, the way things were with your mother. And you were always meant to stay in my life, afterwards, in all important ways—except I couldn’t figure out without your help how that could be worked out. I’d been crazy to hope, I guess. And ever since, I’ve been trying to earn your forgiveness.” He’d turned to look out into the December night, only his old, familiar profile visible.

“I found a line in a poem by that Sri Lankan guy I like that put it really well for me: ‘Who abandoned who, I wonder now.’” He couldn’t see her face. “I don’t tell you to make you feel bad—any worse—querida; that is the last thing you need. But still, I guess that’s how it looked from my side of the door. I walked through with my arms held back to you . . . and you weren’t there.”

Emmy felt dizzy as she had at the height of her phobia. She saw him clearly in her mind’s eye, waiting, as sad and forsaken as her. Where had she been, if he had been there the whole while?

He tried to get them on an even keel, in the now warmer car.

“But listen, Em. The god of doorways is two-faced, I learned in school. One looking back, and one forwards. One looking out, maybe, one looking in. That way everyone is accounted for. And there is hope.”

“Janus, you mean?” She knew Janus, as one of her door guardians, but hadn’t thought of things that way. She’d always seen doorways as the vanishing point, but in this topsy-turvy way of seeing things that he proposed, might they not just as well turn out to be the reappearing point? Signify presence and return?

“Do you know that the Virgin Mary is seen as a door? She’s greeted ‘Salve Porta’ in one of the old sung chants; elsewhere she’s honored as the Door of Heaven. Only one of many tended by a loving spirit, I wonder? By your Maude, or your grandmother, who always sat in her doorway on summer evenings, in the old rush bottom chair my dad made her.

One of those doorways of light, then, that they’d seen in the Great Kiva together. And like the one in which Lenora was waiting at home, all kindness and welcome and shoulder-length silvery curls, Pautiwa at her feet, dinner ready to serve and fresh sheets in the spare bedroom where Emmy would, finally, spend the night. Two nights, an early Christmas—George and his wife coming the next day, with a nephew she’d never met.

* * *

To mark the coming year, Emmy attended Fergus’s New Year’s Eve open house, the path in from the street and the back patio lighted by farolitos, plus the fairy lights, and the indoor gallery rooms by Renaissance-style floor candelabras. After hugging Fergus in the foyer, and his sculptor partner Mark, she was arrested in the doorway by the sight of Maude’s jewel- or flame-like kachina painting, just ahead, as full of magic as ever. Salve Porta, she echoed her father—wondering if she’d said it aloud—thrilled that it was still there. The brightness beckoning, the hope and joy almost undoing her, it was so unlooked-for.


bottom of page