Death’s Door by Emma McMorran

It’s not the fear so much as the waiting that gets to you in the end. Fear is finite: one cannot remain indefinitely afraid, even in the most dire of circumstances. No, I know my fate, that I am both doomed and damned. It is a dance we do, myself and the Thin Man.

The door first opened April 4th, 1918, outside Sawyerville, Alabama. My family were  plantation owners fallen on hard times, forced to parcel the land as our cotton fortune dwindled. When I was a girl all that remained were the great columned house with its whitewashed glory slowly succumbing to ruin, and a dark, uncanny tangle of brushy wetlands. At the heart of this bayou lay a pond called the Devil’s Teardrop, named by the Chocktaws long before my ancestors claimed this place as their own.

Perhaps we were already paying the price for that fluffy white fortune by the time the Thin Man called my name; perhaps I am only the last to stand trial for past wrongs. But for me, the story began, and, yes, ended that spring afternoon.

My twin sister and I were the sole heirs to Benedict House, last of a dying line. It should have been Mary’s, in truth. Mary, the child who stole my sustenance in the womb, who made up for this transgression with great kindness to me, her frail facsimile.

As an infant, the angels tried to take me again. I survived, but the last of the family’s wealth didn’t, every penny gone to save my life. Mary shared her toys, knowing they would be burned; Mary helped me learn to walk again in the ungainly and chafing braces.

Perhaps if not for the polio, things would be different now. But Mother and Father were distracted, the help had been dismissed, and Mary and I were restless after the long winter. It was Mary who decided we should build a fortress in the woods that warm afternoon.

On a sunny spring day the forest holds no shadows but those of birds, to little girls. Wildflowers began to bloom right in front of my eyes, distracting me from my task of gathering wood for our fortress. I wandered off, enraptured, to pick the otherworldly blossoms. They lay a path into the dark bosom of the bayou and drew me to the Devil’s Teardrop.

Had I known more of the world at that tender age, I would have been wary of the shimmering aquamarine water, aware of the pall of silence that enveloped the glen, and the unnatural brightness of the sunlight there. Instead I knelt at the water’s edge. Wavering there in the water, I was hollow-eyed, sickly pale, with thinning hair. I dipped a finger into the very center of my own face, breaking the image up with concentric ripples. As it reformed, lines began to spread from the corners of my reflection’s eyes and mouth, sallow skin sagging like the jowls of Daddy’s hounds, and in the time it takes to blink, she had become an old woman with tubes in her nose.

I saw myself, as I am now.

“Louisa,” said a man’s voice, filling the glen.

There was the sound of bolts unfastening and, with a creak, a door opened across the pond, a door that should not have been there.

It was wooden and red-painted, framed by an arbor of hawthorne; it could have been the door to Snow White’s cottage, had there been a cottage attached to it, instead of…nothing. The door swung inward, revealing a space blacker than night.

“Louisa.”

I was chilled, despite the warmth of the voice.

Then there was a man, standing in the doorway, as if he had always been.

The Thin Man, as I would call him for the rest of my days, was gaunt and bone-white. His eyes were shadowed even when he stepped into the light, pools of nothing that peered deep inside me to a place even I couldn’t see. He wore a dark suit of antiquated style but ill-fit, the arms and legs too short for his tall frame, revealing slashes of pallid skin at the wrists and ankles.

He held out his hand, and called again.

Of what happened next, I can only explain thusly: I was a frightened child who had twice seen the face of death and twice turned away. I bore my dear Mary, my sweet sister, no ill will, and my words came unbidden, as one might cry out when coming upon a venomous snake.

“Louisa is there,” I said, pointing back the way I came. “I’m Mary.”

It is clear to me now that the Thin Man saw through my lie. I do not know why I was spared, though I have had substantial time to speculate. Like little girls kept too long in the house, perhaps the Thin Man had grown bored, and I offered him the chance at a game.

There was a glint in the Thin Man’s eye and then he was gone, the door with him, as if they had never been.

###

Father found Mary past dark, her body a broken heap beside the skeleton of our fortress, having fallen from a tree while trying to snatch a twig.

My twin was interred, the delicate thread holding my family together was snipped,  and I was sent to live with Mother’s relations in Birmingham. Perhaps they could no longer care for me; perhaps they suspected. That I had done something wrong was never in question; it was the magnitude that shocked me when, at last, it was revealed.

In Birmingham I heard the creak of hinges once more, and a fire destroyed Benedict House as my parents slept, the poorly wired new electricity to blame. Over the years, the door would open for three husbands and all of my five children, for housekeepers and friends, but not for me, despite my entreaties. Instead I would remain, inheriting what was left behind as people passed out of my life and into darkness on the arm of the Thin Man.

I have tried to buy salvation, or at least redemption. A hospital in Tuscaloosa, in honor of my parents and sister. A children’s home, a library, a church organ. Still, the creaking of hinges continues as the Thin Man takes ever more, while leaving me to wither like the grounds of Benedict House.

Once more it is spring, and I hear the hinges, hear his soft footstep in the nursing home’s hallways. I cry out what I should have nearly a hundred years ago.

“Louisa! I’m Louisa!”

______________________________________________________________________________

Emma studied Japanese at the University of Texas, and has studied writing under Kat Howard and Suzy Vitello at LitReactor, where she is an active participant of the writer’s workshop. She has been published in Parable Press and her work will appear in Mariah McCourt’s upcoming anthology Monstrous Parts. Emma lives in Minneapolis with her dogs, cats, and husband, and enjoys reading Neil Gaiman and watching Doctor Who.

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