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Delia’s Door

by Julia August

3888 words

The first time I saw the summer country was when the first fugue of Vivaldi’s Dixit came together, finally, for a single perfect moment one wintry night. The rain beat against the drafty windows and fifty voices sang out together, split into two choirs, which means eight different harmony lines, which is quite hard when you’ve only got six tenors and seven basses to start with, and for once, for once it sounded as if we were really singing what Vivaldi had written.

I saw it then. A wash of blue and gold lit up the old school hall turned community centre, splashing raggedly across the choir notice boards and institutional paint and hundred-year-old prize lists full of familiar names, and through a hole as evanescent as a soap bubble I saw a new horizon: green hills, summer sunset skies, a long perspective onto light and color and a different country, far away — yet one I could reach if I could just step through the door our singing had opened up.

I could smell it. A sweet breeze ruffled scores across the hall, teasing hair and clothes, and just as a shadow fell across the horizon I and half the other second altos came in at the wrong moment and our fugue collapsed, along with the vision.

Nothing else that evening was really satisfactory. I drove home in the dark, in the rain, my eyes still stinging, and in my head that far off summer country beckoned to me like nowhere here ever had. But it was on the other side of an impossible iridescent fugue, one we might not get right if we rehearsed all year, so I tried to forget it, and failed, and dreamed all night of whatever it was that had been striding across the hills toward us, the sunset burning like a halo at its back.

• • •

The ancient Greeks called them Delian Doors, because they thought the phenomenon had something to do with the god Apollo, who was born on Delos and really into music, but now we know it’s all about particles and vibrations and probably even black matter and string theory. I don’t really understand any of it. I never was any good at the more imaginary side of physics. What I do know is that what you sing up from the dreamy deeps, if you do, depends on you. Everyone knows that, even people who can’t hold a note long enough to conjure a flash of light to find their keys in the dark. I’m a good supporting alto, a decent choral voice with sensible pitch (usually) and cautious timing (mostly), but I couldn’t sing my way into another room on my own, let alone another world.

You don’t find voices like that in my little town. The best I’d heard recently was at a strictly amateur church concert, singing about sleep in a luscious mezzo that lacked only a few more years and crisper attention to consonants to be perfect. Amid the whistling recorders and xylophonic renderings of Für Elise, she’d snapped my head right back.

Even she’d need support to sing up a door like that, though. Usually it takes a choir to do that. A well-conducted choir singing the right piece in exactly the right way.

No one had told me we were opening doors between worlds this term. I couldn’t find it in any of the newsletters either. “I suppose the question is, where?” said Alex, the Scottish bass, aspirating his whs down at the pub on Monday night. He shifted, glancing at me with uncomfortable warmth. “It’s a bit ambitious for a spring concert.”

Alex was half a lifetime younger than any of the other men, just as I was half a lifetime younger than any of the other second altos. Sometimes I felt inevitability weighing down on me like gravity. However, there’s a moment immediately after the flush of satisfaction you get from having accurately gauged someone else’s interest when you think, Oh hell, now I have to go on a date, and I was trying to avoid it. “Ten quid for a trip to another world?” I said. “It’s a draw, I suppose. If you don’t mind probably never coming back.”

“They wouldn’t let people go through,” someone else said, as if I’d meant it seriously. “It’s just a show.”

“I’d go through. Do you think you could make a run from the pulpit before it broke up?”

The spring concert, like most of our concerts, would be held in the Baptist church on Angel Hill, which had surprised me the first time with its great grand organ fronted by a choir loft and a pulpit, but with no altar anywhere I could see. It was a fine church, but from a performer’s perspective a bit of a nightmare: the elbowing and reorganization and negotiations over who got to sit where usually cut upwards of half an hour out of the rehearsal immediately prior to the concert. I knew perfectly well I’d be trapped on the steps again, so I let the familiar complaints wash over me until someone stopped at our table and said, “Hi.”

It was the luscious mezzo from the church concert. She hovered with the bright uncertainty you get when you only know someone slightly, but not slightly enough to ignore them, which I could sympathize with. “Hi,” I said, surprised. I hadn’t been sure she was old enough to drink. “It’s Mei Ling, isn’t it? Bridget introduced us.”

“That’s right,” said Mei Ling, whose name was not Mei Ling, and now would be the time to tell you Alex was not called Alex, either, and as for my name … well, that never mattered anyway. “It’s Delia, right?”

She looked relieved to be remembered. I always feel like that too. “Right. How are you? Are you here with people?”

Mei Ling looked both ways, then grimaced. “I was, but they’ve gone.”

“Oh, well, feel free to join us. We don’t bite. Much.”

She pulled up a chair. I felt pleased until I saw Alex looking at her with interest, whereupon I felt a sting of something wholly unjustifiable, since that hadn’t been going anywhere and I was largely responsible for it. Alex was the best bass we had, with a voice that opened windows in my head and made me think I could listen to him forever, but in the end I always shut my ears and remembered there was more to life than music. Still, it made me uncomfortable to see Alex look at Mei Ling like that. Possibly it was because I knew she had a better voice than me.

Possibly. I didn’t know her, but I was willing to like her, especially as we sat there gossiping about the choir and Vivaldi’s Delian Door and she expressed curiosity engagingly. I had supposed she was a teenager because I had only seen her wrangling younger siblings, except at the concert, where she had played the violin with the son of a local music teacher for those performances when she wasn’t singing. Out of context she still looked young, but young like an adult, wearing her makeup glamorously. She laughed at something Alex said with her silky plum-colored mouth and I experienced a familiar momentary confusion over whether I wanted to kiss her or be her. I could imagine what it would be like to have her hands on my breasts, but at the same time I would be thinking, what brand is that lipstick? Maybe I should give it a go.

I drank my drink and sat there contemplating either prospect until Alex shifted uncomfortably and said to Mei Ling, with more hesitation than usual and a glance for me, “Why don’t you try coming along to choir? We always need new people and there’s loads of time till the concert. It won’t be hard to catch up.”

I was stung again, helplessly and unreasonably, and I wanted to say Alex was wrong and the concert was almost upon us and maybe Mei Ling should try to join the choir next term, by which time she might have forgotten about us altogether. At the same time, though, something leapt in my throat at the prospect of hearing Mei Ling sing with Alex. Their voices would twine and rub together like the slinkiest of cats.

She glanced at me too. “He’s not wrong,” I said.

“I would like to see a door to another world,” said Mei Ling, as hesitantly as Alex. “Well … I’ll see.”

• • •

I hate the sound of other people eating. I hate the chewing, and the swallowing, and I hate knowing I make those noises when I eat and probably other people hate hearing it too. Alex had ordered chips. I went home early. The moonlit road stretched out ahead of me toward the village and I thought, not for the first time, of sailing past my turning and driving into the unknown distance, without any destination or purpose or goal, until all the lanes were unfamiliar and all the names were too. But a shadow fell across the village as I arrived, so I took my turning after all and just went home.

Over the week I went to work, where routine was routine, and to the dentist, where they were running late, as they have always done, except for once in 2003. And very nearly again in 2005. At the hairdresser’s, the new management had changed only the mirrors. A radio blared glitz and tawdry colors in the corner. “Just a trim,” I said, staring into my washed-out white face. “Enough to take off the split ends, please.”

I only thought about Vivaldi’s door twice. Once when it hailed on and off all day and in the evening, when I got home, I applied for five new jobs far away even though I knew I’d never get them and probably wouldn’t take them if I did. I sat at my computer inputting qualifications and former employers and thought of selling everything I owned and driving away without leaving a forwarding address, then thought about stepping through a blue-and-gold soap bubble of a door into a different world, who even knows where.

The second time was on the Saturday night, after I’d driven twenty-five miles to a concert our musical director had put on with his other choir, the professional one, in the great old Norman Gothic cathedral over in the city. They were singing Bach’s Mass in B Minor and somewhere in the middle of a fugue more fragile and complicated than anything in our Vivaldi I lost track of the polished play of sacred images and wondered instead what made a man write music to open a doorway to nowhere. It’s not that no one ever crossed over to another world before, it’s just that there’s no good reason to do so. There’s nothing there. You step through the Delian Door, it closes, and then…

And then, no one knows. Every other world is different. Possibly when the door flashes out of existence the other world does too.

It’s a conjuring trick, that’s all. Just a trick to make you think music can give you something more than a few moments of auditory pleasure. I knew it, and I repeated it over and over to myself, and even so I ached for something blue and gold and out of reach, something I couldn’t find for myself or even really put into words.

I didn’t have the sort of voice that cuts through locks and opens skylights, or paints the air a wash of rainbow shades for the amusement and delectation of its audience. All I could do was to keep on going through the motions and meanwhile dream of a nowhere-world drawn in crayon colors, a summer country with greener hills and bluer skies and sweeter breezes than anywhere this side of Vivaldi’s door. And if that world vanished along with the door when we stopped singing … well, if it did, so what?

• • •

Mei Ling was there at the next rehearsal. She sat primly in the alto rows looking uncertain, and I was pleased;, then Alex arrived late and beamed when he saw her, and I was less pleased; and then we started singing and nothing in the world mattered except coming in at the right moment in the absence of a conductor, since our musical director played the piano for rehearsals and conducted only when the concert came round.

We sang and stumbled and fell together. Misformed images flickered in the air, cohering and collapsing again into indistinct fuzz. I dropped half a dozen notes and saw the results rucking up Vivaldi’s inchoate door like dropped knitting stitches. It didn’t matter. I could hear Mei Ling’s mezzo on my left and Alex singing bass behind me, and the same attraction tugged me both ways like a fishhook through the heart.

Towards halftime we got the hang of the Judicabit and broke up for tea and coffee with the brilliant after-images still pulsating against the wall. “Hello,” said Alex, looking past me at Mei Ling, and I pushed between the chairs to join the queue for tea and left them to it.

Tonight I didn’t mind. I was soaring high on a current of unfounded, exultant optimism that had nothing to do with either of them and everything to do with glimpses of grass and hills snatched through a morass of missed notes. The hall had filled up with cursory chatter and every word not sung was jarring. CON-qua-sa-bit CA-pi-ta, CON-qua-sa-bit CA-pi-ta rattled in my head.

I felt as if Vivaldi’s summer country was about to reveal itself to me. I stood outside in the dark for five calming minutes and went back inside only when the draw was drawn. I hadn’t won it. Alex was still talking to Mei Ling, whose pinkness might have been due to the stuffiness of the hall, although I didn’t really think so. They were both fiddling with their phones. “Back to work, people,” I said, flapping my hands, and retook my seat.

I was waiting for the moment when everything came together and the Delian Door opened up again. I don’t know what I thought I’d do then. Lunge for it, maybe, or just stand stock-still and drink it in, this other world that our combined voices had sung into existence. I knew it wasn’t going to happen tonight, but I waited for it anyway.

It didn’t happen. Next week, I thought. We might get everything right then.

I knew better, of course. You never actually get everything right until the concert. I followed Alex and Mei Ling to the pub, where we spent too much of the evening talking about everything everyone else had got wrong. Alex grumbled about the man who sat next to him and I complained about the director’s confusing directions and the level of Mei Ling’s gin and tonic sank slowly until at last she took the last salt and vinegar crisp and said, “I wonder where the door goes?”

“Does it matter?” I said. “Wherever it is, the weather’s better there.”

“I just wondered,” Mei Ling said, as if I’d meant it seriously. “Someone must have come back at some point. Surely?”

“I was reading up on this the other day, actually,” Alex said. “Did you know Vivaldi wrote the piece for a girls’ choir at an orphanage in Venice? It wasn’t performed very often. They didn’t like it much.”

I thought about that, or rather about how it must have been to be one of the girls in that choir, staring through a Delian Door to nowhere from the nowhere they already were. I couldn’t believe that not one of them had tried to escape through Vivaldi’s door. Surely there had been some hushed-up disaster. Surely some prized pupil had made a break for it and vanished into the tantalizing meadowsweet-scented aether long ago.

Or maybe those girls had all been happy in their Venetian birdcage. “I can’t think why,” I said aloud.

“People used to think you could get to heaven through Delian Doors, didn’t they?” Mei Ling said. “And that’s why no one comes back, because you wouldn’t want to anyway. It’s funny more people didn’t cross over.”

“That’s because you might actually have ended up in hell,” Alex said. “It isn’t always sunny on the other side.”

The ancient Greeks thought Delian Doors took you to where the gods lived, whether in the bright sky or the gloomy underworld, and gods are rarely very keen on being bothered by mortals. I’d done my own reading. “It’s sunny on the other side of this one,” I said. “There just aren’t many choirs that could keep one open long enough for anyone to go through. They’ve done a lot of tests and lost a lot of equipment in the process. Nothing’s ever come back. It’s parallel dimensions or dreams or the middle of the sun or the dark side of the moon, whatever. No one knows.”

“Wouldn’t it be amazing to be the first person to come back through a Delian Door?” Mei Ling said. “If you can sing yourself there, maybe you can sing yourself back again. Can you imagine? Everyone would want to know what was there.”

I wasn’t in the mood for this. “Wouldn’t it be more amazing to go through and not come back at all?”

They stared at me. “Would it?” Alex said.

“I said so, didn’t I?” I was angry suddenly, with a jaggedness that surprised me, and unwilling to sit there making empty conversation in the dark and noise. I picked up my bag and pushed my chair back. “It’s late. I’m off. Goodnight.”

I was halfway into the night when Mei Ling caught up with me. “Delia,” she said, and I snatched my sleeve away from her fingertips. “Are you all right?”

The details of the pub sharpened and unfocused like a film still: Mei Ling foregrounded, clear and vivid and unmistakably the focal point of the scene, and Alex, dimly rising from his chair, blending into the background over her spotlit shoulder. Mei Ling’s mouth was open. She was obviously concerned, which made me angry again, because it felt like an intrusion on my private self. I didn’t want Mei Ling’s concern. Flashing into my head came the image of her plum lipstick smeared over my bitten throat.

I jerked away. “Fine. See you next week.”

• • •

I didn’t go to the pub next week, or the week after. Alex and Mei Ling did. I said hello during the coffee break, but that was all.

I was concentrating on the concert. Maybe we couldn’t hold the door open long enough for anyone to go through. Better choirs had tried and failed. Maybe we couldn’t even open it wide enough to smell the sweet summer breeze. I wanted to see the green rolling fields again, though, and the color of the sky in that other world. That, at least, we could achieve.

The last rehearsal before the concert was a mess, as always. I wasn’t rattled by it. I went home and put my concert clothes on and came back out again.

This is the bit you will have seen in the news, although not using these names.

The Baptist church on Angel Hill was three quarters full, which was not bad at all. We took our places graciously. The orchestra that penned us up in the choir stalls before the organ began to play.

The Delian Door unfolded in my mouth a moment before it unfolded on the stage. The words sweetened, then the unstained air, then implebit ruinas twisted on my tongue like a key and the door opened before us. I think the audience gasped. The church was well lit, but nothing compared to the brilliant evening of Vivaldi’s summer country, where the sun had just begun to sink behind the intersecting hills. I couldn’t see anything else. The door sliced through pews and banners and startled faces, and I was transfixed, perhaps even transfigured, and could only stand there channeling the second alto line as it unwound from my annotated page.

A breath of lilac and meadowsweet wafted past me. The door was holding.

The urge to go through the door seized me, as I had known it would, as it had seized me at intermittent intervals ever since I’d first glimpsed Vivaldi’s summer country. I didn’t just want to step from this church into that meadow. I wanted to fling myself face-first through the Delian Door, to land on my knees with hands outstretched and bury my fingers deep in the rich otherworldly grass. It wasn’t just the sights and sounds of that other world I wanted. I wanted to experience the summer country with my whole body. I wanted it so much I couldn’t move. Time seemed to slow down and the summer-scented air grew icy cold and tingled as it touched my face.

I climbed down from the choir stalls. No one noticed me. I don’t know how many toes I trod on or how I didn’t trip over half the orchestra, but the light blazing out of every entranced face was blinding. Our director was incandescent. One long unwavering note, an A, I think, filled the air.

I reached out. I meant to fill my hands with sunlight, even the fading sort. I felt resistance, then warmth. I closed my eyes, flung out my arms and fell forward like a winter angel into deep snow.

• • •

I opened my eyes. My hair still smelled of meadowsweet. I was standing on my step below the choir stall and down below me, between the orchestra and the audience, Mei Ling and Alex plunged hand in hand through the Delian Door.

The door flickered out. The last I saw of either of them was Mei Ling picking herself up on the other side.

I stood there helplessly as the orchestra juddered to a halt and the whispers began around the startled church. The after-images of the vanished door blazed in my eyes. All around me, the choir had begun to talk about Mei Ling and Alex.

I couldn’t grasp it. I felt as if a flower had been snatched away as I reached out to pluck it. I had seen so clearly how it would feel to step through the doorway to nowhere and leave the whole world behind. And I hadn’t gone anywhere after all. Mei Ling and Alex might, but for me nothing had changed.

They had stolen my door. A scalding wave of anger left me lightheaded. Vivaldi’s door would never open for me again. Every time was different. Every choir was different, and every performance. Everything I sang without Mei Ling or Alex would be different. That particular mix of voices and inflections was lost, and that world was lost as well.

Numbed, I packed up my music. All I could think about was Vivaldi’s summer country with its meadowsweet breeze and the sun sinking into a scarlet smear. It wasn’t until I finally went out of the church that I remembered the giant’s shadow falling across that other horizon and wondered where it could have gone.

Julia August ran away to sea in the middle of writing this story. She came back, though. Her short fiction has appeared in Unlikely Story’s Journal of Unlikely Academia, Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Fantasy! and PodCastle, among others. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr. Find out more at juliaaugust.com.

Issue 28

October 2016

3LBE 328

Front & Back cover art by Rew X