Portals and Other Lost Things – Elizabeth Rankin

Portals and Other Lost Things – Elizabeth Rankin

September 2022

There was no indication that the holes Sylvie accidentally knitted into her first scarf would be portals in space and time.

Her grief counselor had practically insisted she find something to do, now that she’d had three years to grieve over Doug, even if she didn’t leave the house to do it. The counselor had meant watercolors or soap making — not breaking the laws of physics.

Outside of a little gardening and cooking for Doug, Sylvie had never pursued a form of artistic expression. The day-to-day was enough. Working, taking care of the girls’ homework or practices, and the yearly vacations with Doug at the wheel of the minivan. Sylvie’s heart clenched. She didn’t cry every time she thought about the past, and that was progress.

A twelfth hole appeared while she wasn’t paying close attention to the pattern and Sylvie sighed. Out of habit she looked around for support, someone to laugh with, and saw the smiling faces on the mantle. Framed photos of goofy grins from summer vacations to House on the Rock and Mystery Hole, fully immersed in the kitsch. At the end of the row was an empty frame from the last trip she and Doug had taken, to the Corn Palace. She’d never gotten the photo printed out, never gotten around to checking it off their travel bucket list.

Sylvie got up to take the yawning black hole of the frame away. It reminded her of the last time things had been normal. Of Doug. Of the fact she hadn’t left the city in the three years since the funeral. Learning how to do things on her own was challenge enough. Mowing the grass. Dealing with plumbers. Remembering what TV shows she’d always meant to go back and watch, since Doug wasn’t interested. It took a year and a half before she got through a day without crying. Planning a trip on her own was far outside her comfort zone. She’d never done it. Trips could go a million different ways she’d never had to think about and wasn’t sure she wanted to start.

Her daughters checked in on her, but they had their own lives. Emma lived six hours away. Madelyn had two kids of her own now. They went camping or on bike tours, active excursions to keep the kids entertained. Too much for her, they said, but they’d invite her when they did a different type of vacation. Better for her to stay safe at home.

She returned to the recliner, determined to ignore the holes in her lovely variegated blue yarn and finish the damned scarf. She wasn’t sure how the holes had gotten there and couldn’t figure out a way to fix them. Nothing in the book she’d bought online talked about it, so it could be an advanced technique. This last one was right in the middle, where it couldn’t be ignored. A black gap where yarn should be, small as the tip of her ring finger.

Sylvie squinted at the hole. It was too dark. Had it always been like that? A matte black with no shine, no hint of light. She jabbed a finger through.

Something cold and wet nuzzled her fingertip. Like a nose. She pulled back with a yelp. Sylvie didn’t have a pet. Hadn’t for a long time.

She tried again, tentative. Soft fur brushed her skin. Sylvie checked her lap for anything that could be mistaken for an animal. She might have been letting the house go a little, but surely not enough to have animals crawling into the furniture. There was nothing but yarn and her stretchiest sweatpants.

She shook all nine inches of scarf she’d managed to complete so far, pulled it taut, and held it out in front of her. All the holes remained black no matter what she held them against, even when she brought her eye up to stare through. No beige carpet. No oversized picture of the family at Dinosaur World, Kentucky. No light. Sylvie turned the scarf over, pushed her finger through the same hole from the other side, and again fur moved under her finger.

Her phone chirped and she jumped. It kept chirping until she fumbled with the swipe to accept the call.

“Hello?” Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat.

“Mom? Are you ok?”

Maddie, her eldest daughter, lived in town and was the worrier now that Sylvie lived alone. The first year without Doug, Sylvie had broken a bone in her hand and not gotten it looked at. At her age, everything hurt anyway. Doug would have bundled her to the ER. Now that he wasn’t here, Maddie-the-nurse felt it was her duty to manage her mother’s health. Sylvie just wanted to ignore it.

“Oh, I’m fine,” Sylvie said. “Doing some knitting.”

She eyed the holes and weighed whether to say anything to her daughter. Would she believe it without seeing it? Sylvie wasn’t sure she’d believe it herself, and knowing her daughter, Maddie would schedule a barrage of psychiatric visits and CT scans.

“Ok, you sounded surprised,” Maddie said. “We’re still on for tea tomorrow at three?”

“Oh.” Sylvie stroked the lumps in her scarf and tried desperately to think of an excuse to put off the visit. “I forgot tomorrow was Thursday.”

It wasn’t that she didn’t love her daughter, but the visits with just the two of them were strained with Maddie’s worry. She would do all the work, bustling around the kitchen like she owned it, not Sylvie. Saying things like ‘you rest’ and ‘you take it easy’.

“Are you not feeling well again?” Maddie’s voice sharpened. “I knew the doctor was being lazy. I can make an appointment for this afternoon. Dr. Runyon has openings.”

“No, no,” Sylvie said. “I just forgot what day it was. They all blend together.”

She winced, knowing it was the wrong thing to say. The silence on the other end of the phone confirmed it. Maddie would be on guard tomorrow, looking for signs of deterioration. Sylvie dropped the scarf. Maybe she’d been too long inside after all.

“For tomorrow,” Maddie said, neutral, “I’m whipping up a few types of sandwiches. I found watercress, and I’ll have ham, egg, and chicken salad. It’ll be a fancy tea, just like that show you like.”

“Downton Abbey. I finished watching that a few months ago,” Sylvie said, a bit too sharp. She tried again, “I’ve already made the brownies. And I’ll make the deviled eggs tomorrow.”

One of her greatest disappointments was that her daughters loved Doug’s mother’s deviled egg recipe instead of her version. Probably because the secret ingredient Doug’s family added was sugar, which Sylvie privately thought was disgusting. She could have bought vinegar and capers to make them her way this time, but she didn’t want to disappoint Maddie.

Maddie made small talk, then said her goodbyes. The house fell silent. Its emptiness gaped from the hallways and doors, threatening to swallow Sylvie. In her lap, the scarf was a puddle of warmth. More warmth than was natural. A hole leading to a dog was one thing. What was in the others? Would she poke a finger into an acid volcano or a killer plant?

She set the scarf on the arm of the recliner and went to make herself a drink. A good scotch solved many ills.

Glass in hand, Sylvie lay the scarf on the kitchen table. The unnatural blackness of the holes was still there. Light from the fluorescent bulbs illuminated the fabric like it was on an operating table. Nothing about the uneven lines or broken pattern seemed unusual. There weren’t any strange symbols accidentally formed by her novice stitches. The yarn had come from the craft store, not an old fortune-teller or mysterious box found in the attic. All appearances said it was a totally ordinary, badly knitted scarf. Something called a straight stockinette pattern, more or less.

Could she have made something magic, without knowing? Or was it some kind of Twilight Zone thing, with forces in the universe at work far beyond her understanding? Sylvie wasn’t sure what to do next. Doug would have tested the holes. He probably would have made a game of it, rolling dice to decide which he’d poke next. He’d have made sure it was safe first, then invited her to try it, like when they’d gone on the hot sauce factory tour. No one was here to do that for her now.

She swore and knocked back the rest of the scotch. How many more adventures did she have left?

The atmosphere on the other side of the second hole washed her skin with baking heat. When she wiggled her finger, it touched sand. A strong gust of wind pelted grains against her skin. She pulled the opening to her nose and tried to breathe in, hoping for the brine of ocean water, to help tell her where it was. There was nothing, like no air came through at all. Did the holes lead to places on earth, or somewhere else? Calling them ‘holes’ seemed wrong. They were doorways. Portals that could go anywhere.

She licked her finger and tried to get sand to stick, imagining tiny spots of amethyst and ruby, but the granules fell in the wind or were pushed off by the yarn before she could pull them through. Even stretching the scarf, the clumsy weave was too tight to get more than a single finger through. Sylvie picked at the knit to widen the opening. Energy flickered, like a dying fluorescent bulb. Flashes of the wood veneer underneath the scarf blinked through the blackness. When she stopped plucking, the dark oval stabilized. Delicate things, these portals, if all it took to destroy them was breaking the weave. Which might be good to know.

Snowflakes melted on her body heat in the third portal, and in the fourth something smooth and lush as rose petals flowed against her finger. Each time, she turned the scarf over to be sure they went to the same place from both sides, and they always seemed to. In the fifth hole she felt nothing. Then a tiny pinch, and more, a swarm of miniscule creatures with teeth testing her flesh. Sylvie yelped and yanked her finger back, slapping her palm over the opening.

Could they get through? She waited. Nothing bit into her hand and when she raised it no murderous gnats escaped.

She’d been lucky so far. There were seven holes left that could hold anything. Sylvie folded the scarf to cover all the openings. This was not her imagination. It was dangerous. And impossible.

Someone should know about it. She picked up her phone and looked up the number for NASA. Or was this a national security issue? If nothing could come through, it couldn’t cause a problem. Could it? A scientist would want to study this, that was certain. They’d take it away from her, run a lot of tests, and send her on her way.

It could be worth money, she considered, as she eyed the scarf over another, very small, drink. She could sell tickets. To what, though? It was like one of the old attractions, where you stuck your hand into a box and guessed what was inside. No one did that anymore. Who’d want to pay to have their finger chewed on by bugs?

Energy drained out of her. She should mail it to NASA anonymously. If they didn’t find anything they’d just think she was a weird lady who liked to knit scarves for astronauts.

What would Doug do?

Throw it out, probably. Once those gnats started biting, he’d say it wasn’t worth the risk. He was very practical and usually right. Like when she’d kept raw chicken too long and they’d gotten food poisoning. This could be worse. If those bugs were toxic, like a rattlesnake, she could have died right there on the kitchen floor.

Sylvie opened the drawer to the trash and stared at the paper towels and wrinkled tea bags. The scarf, for all its failings, she’d made on her own. That was what everyone said she should be doing now. Making her own choices. She’d picked out the yarn and the pattern and learned the method. Then she’d made something amazing, something no one else had ever done. It didn’t belong in the garbage. Sylvie tucked the scarf into the refrigerator, on the foil covering the pan of cheesecake brownies. It was the best place she could think of for an unidentified and possibly magic object. Between the sturdy doors, the cold, and the delicious baked goods, anything that got out of those holes might stop there.

It took her a long time to go to sleep. She stared at the picture on her nightstand. Their honeymoon, at Wigwam Village in Arizona. Doug had taken a shot of her from behind, steps away. His hand got into the frame, wrist and fingers blocking the top of one of the wigwams as he reached for her. She stared at that hand every night, though lately she’d also started staring at the back of her head. Back then, her hair had been long, and streamed in the wind as she stood on the hood of the car. It had probably been their best trip, driving Route 66, stopping at every roadside attraction that caught their eye.

The back of the frame held a list of all the places they’d wanted to go. Some crossed off. Some, like the Bonnie Springs wild west resort, had closed. What was left would be enough to fill her time for the rest of her life, if she ever left the city again.

Her finger rubbed back and forth against her palm, still feeling the hard edges of the portal sand, from a beach she’d never seen.

As soon as she woke up enough to remember, Sylvie hurried to the refrigerator and pulled the door open enough to peer inside. The scarf sat on the tinfoil, undisturbed, as far as she could tell. Sylvie unfolded its length and touched the holes, in that just-roused state where the previous day’s memories could have been a dream.

No animal nudged her finger in the first hole, but the others blew snow and sand like she remembered.

This was beyond her. She needed some advice, and Maddie would be a good place to start. Sylvie rolled up the scarf and put it back into the refrigerator. After a piece of toast and a shower, she took out all the materials for the eggs. The scarf sat there, waiting, each time she opened the refrigerator door, until Sylvie had to do something with it.

While the eggs boiled, she got paper and a pencil and started a list of portals, numbering 1-12. Those last seven blanks gaped at her until the timer went off. If there was some way to reduce the risk of exploring, they could do it together without Maddie fretting. Sylvie fished the eggs out of the water with a spoon and put them aside to cool. She stared at the spoon, then set it down with a clatter and ran to get the scarf.

The spoon wouldn’t fit in any of the holes, but other things might. The end of a knife. A pencil. Tweezers. She gathered them all and used one at a time to try to pull sand from the hole, which seemed the safest option. If she had proof, Maddie couldn’t try to say she was losing her mind. The knife and pencil brought back nothing. The tweezers, though — when Sylvie opened them above her hand, tiny sparkles fell from them and brushed against her skin. She closed her fist and laughed. It was real.

She pulled out sand until there was enough to see. Things could come back through if they were attached to her side, it seemed. Against the white of a paper towel, it glinted not red or purple, but green. A search revealed there were beaches on Earth with green sand, including in Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands and a lake in Norway she couldn’t pronounce. Hawaii had the only animatronic teddy bear museum in the US, and a life-size whale statue, which would be fun, although the sand could have just as easily have been from Mars for all she knew.

Her phone buzzed with a message from Maddie: “On my way!”

Sylvie folded the paper towel and slid it under her saucer at the table with the unfinished list and set of tweezers. She’d have to wait for the right time to bring it up, test the waters to see how Maddie would react. Sylvie made the eggs, automatically tipping in sugar and mashing up the yolks. Like she’d done a hundred times, or a thousand. She still didn’t like them this way. They needed vinegar, and a pinch of dill. A spoonful of pickle relish would be about right. Maddie might be angry, but Sylvie couldn’t resist.

She chuckled when she thought of Doug’s face, appalled, but the laugh choked in her throat as it flipped to grief. That’s how it went. Things seemed fine, until they weren’t.

When Maddie arrived, Sylvie returned her daughter’s hug with vigor. It felt almost like Christmas, like a secret she’d kept was about to be revealed. There would be wide eyes, but then if she’d done it right, excited smiles.

“You’re in a good mood,” Maddie said, holding out a set of plastic boxes, heavy with food. “Are you hungry? I brought way more than we need.”

“Starving!” Sylvie took the two containers and set them on the counter with a flourish.

Maddie beamed, but her eyes flicked over Sylvie, who tried to tone down her enthusiasm. She didn’t want to get Maddie worked up before she had a chance to tell her what was going on.

Maddie set sandwiches on plates while Sylvie prepared the tea.

“What’s in these eggs?” Maddie asked after popping one in her mouth.

“Pickle relish,” Sylvie said as she brought over the tea caddy.

“You used a different recipe?”

Sylvie couldn’t quite tell if the reproach she expected was present in her daughter’s tone.

“Well, the kind you’ve always had were your father’s version, not mine.” Sylvie sat, not sure why she was talking about this now. “I never liked them. Not with sugar.”

“Really?” Maddie’s eyebrows were up practically in her bangs. Then she put another on her plate. “I never knew that. Brandon’s family puts butter in theirs.”

Sylvie braced for more, for admonitions about betraying Doug’s traditions — the family traditions — but Maddie patted her mother’s arm.

“You can have the eggs any way you want them,” Maddie said.

Sylvie tried a smile, but it came out watery. They loaded plates and chatted about everything the grandkids were doing. In the back of Sylvie’s mind was the green sand, the fur, and the unknown. Tweezers wouldn’t tell them much about the other side. A camera of some kind would be better. Not a selfie stick, that would be too big. She needed one of those cameras they used in surgeries. Like her yearly colonoscopy.

“Can you get a surgical camera at home?” Sylvie realized after she stared into her daughter’s surprised face that she had interrupted whatever they were supposed to be talking about.

“A surgical camera?” Maddie’s brows furrowed. Sylvie cleared her throat, trying to act casual.

“You know, like the ones they use in going down your throat and looking into your stomach.”

“Laparoscopic cameras? Why would you want one of those?” Maddie frowned and straightened her back, eyes narrowed. “You’re not going to look in your own stomach, are you?”

“What? No. Don’t be ridiculous. How could you think that?”

“I’m just making sure, Mom. You’ve been cooped up in here by yourself for a couple years, who knows what stuff you’ve been listening to.”

Sylvie felt a scowl drawing her mouth down and took a sip of tea to rearrange her thoughts.

“It’s not that. For cleaning.” The lie slipped off Sylvie’s tongue. This wasn’t the right way to start. “I can’t remember the last time I cleared out the vents and want to check what’s down there.”

“Oh, you can get them online,” Maddie said, taking a packet of artificial sweetener. Not a sugar cube, like she used to. “Just promise if you are thinking about any medical procedures, you ask me first, ok?”

She smiled like she was joking, but the vigilance in her eyes remained.

“So, what are you doing this summer?” Sylvie changed the subject to travel, something fun and relaxing, that might make Maddie more receptive. “I know you said you were thinking about going out to the Grand Canyon.”

“Yep, we’re going in the beginning of June. It’s going to be hot, but you’ve got to go when the kids are off, you know?”

The Grand Canyon was close to the giant Lumberjacks at Northern Arizona University. They’d talked many times about crossing them off the list and seeing the Grand Canyon at once, but Maddie didn’t mention the statues or the list. The taste of tea lingered in bitter edges on Sylvie’s tongue.

“Mom, you look weird,” Maddie said. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s just — are you going to see the Lumberjacks?”

Maddie paused, took a sip of tea, “Are those on your list?”

Sylvie winced at the ‘your’. She counted to ten like she had when the girls were small.

“Number 59,” Sylvie said.

“Oh.” Maddie made her smile gentle. It wasn’t her real smile. Sylvie would know; she was still Maddie’s mother, after all. “I don’t think we’ll make it. The kids want to do more hiking.”

Did kids like to hike that young? Maddie’s boys were just eleven and nine.

“We took you girls all over the country. We had fun.” Sylvie’s voice quavered at the last, unexpectedly. She found herself looking into her daughter’s eyes, searching them for confirmation. Maddie’s face crinkled into genuine smile lines.

“Yes, of course we did. But that was your thing, you and Dad.”

She didn’t say ‘and not ours’, but she didn’t need to. Sylvie understood. The normal places were enough for Maddie. Seeing it so clearly knocked something loose in her. Sylvie felt curiously balanced, on the edge of grief and determination.

“There are a lot of places to cross off,” Sylvie said. “I still want to go.”

That’s why she’d stuck her fingers in those holes.

“Mom.” Maddie put her hand over her mother’s. It was slightly sticky from the brownie. “You can’t go on those trips by yourself, it’s not safe. But that’s ok. You can do other things. Make your own list, just for you.”

Sylvie looked down and swirled her tea. It made sense and was even what her grief counselor had said. Why she’d taken up knitting in the first place. She blinked and saw herself in the recliner, hunched over her knitting and watching old TV shows until she died. The balanced scales inside her tipped to determination.

“Actually,” Sylvie said, “I’ve already started one. I haven’t gotten very far yet.”

She tapped the paper under her saucer, the one she was going to show Maddie with the portals listed on it.

“That’s great, Mom.” She patted her hand and pulled away. “You can try out different deviled egg recipes.”

Maddie laughed and Sylvie managed a chuckle. Her daughter didn’t ask to see the list, as Sylvie had expected. Instead she rose and excused herself to go to the bathroom.

Sylvie half-heartedly gathered courage to tell her daughter about the portals when she got back. Then Maddie strode in and started cleaning the dishes. Sylvie scrambled to her feet, unprepared.

“That’s okay, Mom, you take it easy,” Maddie said. Just like Sylvie should have known she would.

The confession stuck in her throat as she brought plates to the sink for her daughter to clean. They finished up over idle chatter and hugged their good-byes. Maddie suggested that Sylvie knit everyone scarves for Christmas, left half the food behind ‘to make sure you’ve got enough to eat, Mom’, and hurried out the door to pick the kids up from after-school activities.

Sylvie let her go. The paper still sat folded on the table. Grief still tugged at her, for what was, and what wouldn’t be. Maddie would never let her do anything with the portals, that was clear. She went to the fridge and took the scarf out, unsure of what to do alone. The fabric didn’t feel as cold as she thought it should, just bumpy from her uneven progress. She lay the scarf amongst the salad plates and crumpled napkins on the table, as if it belonged there with the rest of her things.

Careful not to spill the sand, she pulled the tweezers free from her folded list and slid them into hole number six. They skidded across a smooth surface before encountering soft resistance. She snapped them open and closed until they grabbed on to something, and then she pulled. What came out was a white paper square, crimped around the edges. A cocktail napkin.

“Bonnie Springs Steak House now open.” Sylvie read the words the second time out loud, because they didn’t make sense at first.

She turned the napkin over in her hands. The words didn’t change. Written in a wild west type popular in the midcentury, the ink crisp and the paper as clean as if they’d been delivered yesterday. Tears clouded her vision.

Bonnie Springs, number 11 on the list she and Doug had made, had closed five years ago. Not on enough people’s travel plans, apparently. It certainly wasn’t on Maddie’s. Her daughter’s mantle full of photos would be different, and no amount of waiting for the right time was going to change that.

Sylvie took out her list and wrote out ‘Bonnie Springs’ as the destination of portal six. Her heart thrummed. It wasn’t too late for her to go on her own.

She turned the paper over and took Maddie’s advice to make her own list. There was a lot to do. First, she’d get a camera to explore the other portals. Then learn to make her own and see if she could control where they went. The last step would be finding a way to make a hole big enough to climb through. Once she figured out how she’d done the smaller ones, Sylvie could try using some of that giant, novelty yarn they used to make those puffy knit blankets. She chuckled at the idea of squeezing through one of those. Doug would have gone, and so could she.

Sylvie put the final action item of making a portal for herself at the very bottom. There would be more challenges along the way to add in. She might never get through everything, but she had to try. If she’d made holes in the fabric of the universe on accident, Sylvie could only imagine what she could do on purpose.

Your thoughts?

%d bloggers like this: