The following is excerpted from the novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. Harrow worked as a part-time history adjunct and now is a full-time writer, with stories published in Shimmer and Strange Horizons. In her spare time she works on her gloriously dilapidated house. She lives in Berea, Kentucky with her husband and son. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is set in the 1900s and follows a young woman who discovers a mysterious book in a mansion sprawling with curiosities.
“The following excerpt is taken from a book within the book, one that’s very . . . Ten Thousand Doors of January. Read on for a peek through this ‘tiny leather-bound Door with hinges made of glue and wax thread.’ Or, to meet January, the main protagonist of the story, read chapter one at the Orbit website.
The lineage and early life of Miss Adelaide Lee Larson—the opening of a door—the closing of a door—the changes wrought on the soul of a young girl
Miss Adelaide Lee Larson was born in 1866.
The world had just begun to whisper the word modern to itself, along with words like order and unfettered free trade. Railroads and telegraph lines snaked across frontiers like long lines of stitches; empires nibbled at the coasts of Africa; cotton mills churned and hummed like open mouths, swallowing bent-backed workers and exhaling fibrous steam.
But other, older words—like chaos and revolution—still lingered in the margins. The European rebellions of 1848 hung like gun smoke in the air; the sepoys of India could still taste mutiny on their tongues; women whispered and conspired, sewing banners and authoring pamphlets; freedmen stood unshackled in the bloodied light of their new nation. All the symptoms, in short, of a world still riddled with open doors.
But the Larson family was, on the whole, utterly disinterested in the goings-on of the wider world, and the wider world politely returned their sentiments. Their farm was tucked in a green wrinkle of land in the middle of the country, precisely where the nation’s heart would be if it were a living body, which troops on both sides of the Civil War had overlooked as they marched past. The family grew enough corn to feed themselves and their four milk cows, harvested enough hemp to sell downriver to the southern cotton balers, and salted enough venison to keep their teeth from rattling loose in the winter. Their interests extended little farther than the borders of the seven acres, and their political views never grew more complex than Mama Larson’s dictum that “them that has, gets.” When in 1860 young Lee Larson suffered a fit of patriotism and scurried into town to cast his vote for John Bell, who promptly lost not only to Mr. Lincoln but also to Douglas and Breckenridge, it simply confirmed their clannish suspicion that politicking was a ruse designed to distract hardworking folk from their business.
None of this marked the Larsons apart from any of their neighbors. It seems unlikely that any biographer or chronicler or even a local newspaperman has ever written their names in print before now. The interviews conducted for this study were stilted, suspicious affairs, akin to interrogating starlings or white-tailed deer.
There was only one remarkable fact about the family: when Adelaide Lee was born, every last living Larson was female. Through poor luck, heart failure, and cowardice, their husbands and sons had left behind a collection of hard-jawed women who looked so similar to one another it was like seeing a single woman’s life spread out in every possible stage.
Lee Larson had been the last to leave. With his characteristic lack of timing, he waited until the Confederacy was on its last shaking legs before marching southeast to join the militia. His new wife—a colorless young woman from the neighboring county—folded herself into the Larson house and waited for news. News did not come. Instead, 17 weeks later, Lee Larson himself turned up in the night with a tattered uniform and a ball of lead in his left buttock. He left again four days later, walking westward with a haunted expression. He lingered just long enough to conceive a child with his wife.
Adelaide Lee was three when her mother succumbed to consumption and depression and faded away entirely, and thereafter she was raised by her grandmother and four aunts.
Thus Adelaide Lee was born of poor luck and poverty and raised by ignorance and solitude. Let this ignoble origin story stand as an invaluable lesson to you that a person’s beginnings do not often herald their endings, for Adelaide Lee did not grow into another pale Larson woman.
As other scholars have noted (see Klaus Bergnon, “An Essay on Destiny and Blood-right in Medieval Works,” delivered to the American Antiquarian Society, 1872), the significance of blood and parentage is an oft-repeated assumption in many fairy tales, myths, and fables.
She became something else entirely, something so radiant and wild and fierce that a single world could not contain her, and she was obliged to find others.
The name Adelaide—a lovely, feminine name that came from her great-great-grandmother, a French-German woman with the same washed-out barely-there-ness of Adelaide’s own mother—was doomed to failure. Not because the child herself raised any objection to it, but simply because the name slid off her back like water off a tin roof. It was a name for a delicate girl who read her prayers every night and kept her jumpers clean and cast her eyes demurely away when adults spoke to her. It was not a name for the scrawny, grubby wildling who now occupied the Larsons’s house the way a prisoner of war might occupy an enemy camp.
By her fifth birthday, every woman in the house except her aunt Lizzie (whose habits could not be changed by any force short of cannon fire) had admitted defeat and called her Ade. Ade was a shorter, harsher name, better suited to shouting warnings and admonishments. It stuck, although the admonishments did not.
Ade spent her childhood in exploration, crisscrossing through their seven acres as if she’d dropped something precious and hoped to find it again or, more accurately, like a dog on a short lead straining against her collar. She knew the land in the way a child knows the land, with an intimacy and fantasy few adults have ever managed. She knew where the sycamores had been hollowed out by lightning and become secret hideouts. She knew where the mushrooms were likeliest to raise their pale heads in fairy rings, and where fool’s gold shimmered below the surface of the creek.
She met a ghost in the old hayfield.
In particular, she knew every board and beam in the falling-down house on their back acres, a skinny jut of hayfield that was once a separate homestead. When the Larsons had bought the property the house had been abandoned, and it spent the intervening years sinking into the earth like some prehistoric creature trapped in a tar pit. But to Ade it was everything: a moldering castle, a scout’s fort, a pirate’s mansion, a witch’s lair.
As it was on their property, the Larson women did not expressly forbid her games. But they looked narrowly at her when she returned smelling of wood rot and cedar, and issued dire warnings about the house (“It’s haunted, you know, everyone says so”) and about the likely fates of those who went wandering off. “Your father was a wanderer, you know”—her grandmother gave a dark nod—“and look what good it brung us.” Ade had often been invited to consider her father’s life—an abandoned wife, an orphaned daughter, all for the sake of his restlessness—but it proved a toothless warning to Ade. Her father had abandoned them, certainly, but he’d also seen love and war and perhaps some of the intoxicating world beyond the farm, and such adventure seemed worth any price.
(It seems to me that Lee Larson’s life was more defined by impulsivity and cowardice than an adventurous spirit, but a daughter must find what value she can in her father. Especially if he is absent.)
Sometimes Ade wandered with purpose, as when she hid aboard the Illinois Central line and made it all the way to Paducah before a railway man nabbed her, and sometimes she simply moved for the sake of motion, as birds do. She spent whole days walking along the tangled riverbank, watching the steamers huff past. She pretended sometimes she was a member of the crew leaning over the railing; more often she imagined she was the steamer itself, a thing made for the sole purpose of arriving and leaving.
If we were to draw her childhood wanderings on a map, represent her discoveries and destinations in topographic form and trace her winding way through them, we would see her as a girl solving a maze from the center outward, a Minotaur working her way free.
By 15 she was half-mad with her own circling, heartsick with the sameness of her days. She might have turned inward then, bent by the weight of the unseen labyrinth around her, but she was rescued by an event so powerfully strange it left her permanently discontent with the ordinary and convinced of the existence of the extraordinary: she met a ghost in the old hayfield.
It happened in early fall, when the tall grasses of the field were burnt auburn and rose and the cawing of crows rang sharp through clear air. Ade still visited the old house on the back acres often, though she was too old for make-believe. On the day she saw the ghost she was planning to scale the rough blocks of the chimney and perch on the roof to watch the starlings in their mad patterns.
As she approached she saw a dark figure standing next to the ruined house. She stopped walking. There was no doubt that her aunts would advise her to turn around immediately and return home. The figure was either a stranger, who ought to be avoided at all costs, or a ghost from the house itself, which ought to be treated similarly.
But Ade found herself drawn on like a compass arrow. “Hello?” she called.
Strange boys who wandered onto your property dressed in sheets claiming to be from elsewhere ought to be treated with suspicion.
The figure twitched. It was long and lanky, boyish even from a distance. He shouted something back at her, but the words sounded jumbled in his jaw. “Scuse me?” she called again, because good manners were advisable when dealing with either strangers or ghosts. He answered with another string of nonsense words.
Now Ade was close enough to see him clearly, and she wondered if she ought to have turned around after all: his skin was a lightless reddish-black that Ade had no name for.
The Larson household didn’t subscribe to the paper on the grounds that they got all the news they needed in church, but Ade sometimes scrounged copies secondhand. She was therefore familiar with the dangers of strange black men—she’d seen the columns describing their offenses, the cartoons depicting their appetites for innocent white women. In the cartoons the men were monstrous and hairy-armed, with tattered clothes and buffoonish expressions. But the boy in the field didn’t look much like the drawings in the papers.
He was young—her own age or perhaps a little less—and his body was smooth and long-limbed. He wore a strange arrangement of rough woolen cloth, draped and folded around him in an intricate swooping pattern, as if he’d stolen a ship’s sail and wrapped it around his body. His features were narrow and delicate-looking, his eyes clear and dark.
He spoke again, a series of many-syllabled words arranged almost like questions. She supposed it might have been a dialect of hell, known by ghosts and demons alone. The words switched suddenly in his mouth and familiar vowels fell into place. “Pardon, lady? Can you hear me?” His accent was utterly strange but his voice was mild, mindfully gentle, as if he feared startling her.
Ade decided in that moment that her aunt Lizzie was right: newspapers weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. The boy in front of her, with his startled eyes and bedsheet clothes and gentle voice, was hardly a menace to her person.
“I can understand you,” she answered.
He stepped closer, bemused disbelief in his face. He stroked the heavy heads of the grass, seeming surprised to feel the bristles against his palm. Then his hand drifted upward and came to rest, pale-palmed, on Ade’s cheekbone. Both of them flinched away, as if neither had believed the other might be solid.
Something about the gentleness of him, the innocence of his surprise, the delicacy of his long-fingered hands, made Ade suddenly less cautious. “Who are you? And where exactly do you come from?” If he was a ghost, he was a lost, hesitant member of the species.
He seemed to be searching in some disused closet of his memory for the right words. “I come from . . . elsewhere. Not here. Through a door in the wall.” He pointed back toward the dilapidated house, at the sagging front door, which had been stuck in its frame since before Ade was born, obliging her to climb through the window instead. Now the door was wedged open the width of a thin boy’s chest.
Ade was a rational enough girl to know that strange boys who wandered onto your property dressed in sheets claiming to be from elsewhere ought to be treated with suspicion. He was either mad or lying, and neither one was worth her time. But she felt something shudder in her breast as he spoke, something dangerously like hope. That it might be true.
“Here.” She stepped back and unrolled her flannel blanket in a red-and-white circus tent over the stiff grasses. She stomped it flat and sat, gesturing beside herself.
He looked at her with that charming surprise again, rubbing his bare arms in the autumn chill.
“Looks like the weather is warmer in elsewhere, huh? Take this.” She took off her rough canvas coat, a garment handed down so many times it had lost all color and shape, and handed it to him.
He pulled the sleeves over his arms the way an animal might if he were asked to wear a second skin. Ade was certain he had never worn a coat in his life, and equally certain this was impossible.
“Well, c’mon, sit down and tell me all about it, ghost boy. About elsewhere.” He stared.
At home, Mama Larson greeted her with a wailing diatribe on the fates of girls who stayed out alone late at night.
If you will permit the indulgence, allow me to pause here and reintroduce the scene from the boy’s perspective: he had stepped out of someplace very different from the old hayfield and, while still blinking beneath the foreign sun, seen a young woman unlike anything he had ever seen before. She came toward him in wide strides, dark-buttoned dress shushing against the grasses, winter-wheat hair snarled beneath a wide hat. Now she sat below him, her upturned face clear-eyed and perhaps a little fey, and if she had asked him for anything in the world he would have given it to her.
So the boy sat, and told her about elsewhere.
Elsewhere was a place of sea salt and wind. It was a city, or perhaps a country, or perhaps a world (his nouns were imprecise on this point) where people lived in stone houses and wore long white robes. It was a peaceful city, made prosperous by trade up the coast and made famous by their skillful study of words.
“You got lots of authors, in your town?” He was unfamiliar with the word. “People who write books. You know—long, boring things, all about people who don’t exist.”
A look of deepest consternation. “No, no. Words.” He tried to explain further, with lots of stuttering sentences about the nature of the written word and the shape of the universe, the relative thickness of ink and blood, the significance of languages and their careful study—but between his limited verbs and her tendency to laugh they made little progress. He surrendered, and asked her questions about her own world instead.
She answered as well as she could but found herself limited by her shuttered life. She knew little about the nearby town, and only as much about the wider world as could be taught in two grades of education at the one-room schoolhouse. “It’s not as exciting as yours, I bet. Tell me about the ocean. Do you know how to sail? How far have you been?”
He spoke and she listened, and dusk swept over the two of them like a great dove’s wing. Ade noticed the settling quiet of the day and the rhythmic whip-poor-will-ing of the night birds and knew it was past time to be home but couldn’t make herself turn away. She felt suspended, hovering weightless in some place where she could believe in ghosts and magic and other worlds, in this strange black boy and his hands flashing through the dimness.
“And no one in my home is like you. Did something happen, to take away your skin? Did it—what—” The boy’s English devolved into a series of guttural exclamations Ade felt could be translated universally to What the hell is that? He whipped left and right, staring into the shadowed field.
“Those are fireflies, ghost boy. Last of the year. Don’t you have those on the other side of your door?”
“Fireflies? No, we do not have these. What are they for?”
“They aren’t for anything. Except telling you it’s dark, and you’re in 20 heaps of trouble if you don’t get home soon.” Ade sighed. “I have to go.”
The boy was looking up now at the evening stars shining with disapproving brightness above them. Another string of words that Ade had no difficulty translating. “I must go also.” His eyes found hers, dark and shining. “But you will return?”
“Shit, on a Sunday? After staying out late? I’ll be lucky if they don’t lock me in the hay barn till Christmas.” It was clear the boy missed several important nouns in this statement, but he pressed her and they agreed: in three days, both would return.
“And I will take you back with me, and you will believe me.”
“All right, ghost boy.”
He smiled. It was such a giddy, starstruck expression, as if the boy could imagine nothing better than meeting her in this field in three days, that Ade saw no other recourse than to kiss him. It was a clumsy kiss, a dry brush that almost missed his mouth entirely, but afterward their hearts racketed strangely in their chests and their limbs tingled and shook, so perhaps it was not such a poor effort after all.
Ade left then in a whirl of skirt and red blanket, and it was several minutes before the boy could recall precisely where he was and where he ought to go next.
At home, Mama Larson greeted her with a wailing diatribe on the fates of girls who stayed out alone late at night, the fear and anxiety she’d caused her dear aunts (Aunt Lizzie interrupted to say she’d been mad as a hare, not fearful, and Mama Larson could just speak for herself), and the inevitability of the decline of womanhood in this country. “And where is your coat, fool child?”
Ade considered. “Elsewhere,” she answered, and wafted up the stairs.
From The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. Copyright © 2018 by Orbit. All rights reserved.