The Girl with the Door in Her Chest
A modern fairy tale.
Katie was born with a door in her chest. When she cried as a baby, things spilled out. One night, she wouldn’t stop crying. Her father went into her room to find it full of brightly coloured, shining beetles. They crawled across the crib and flapped about the room, smacking into walls and buzzing against the light fitting. He stared, bewildered, so deprived of sleep by this tiny person that he couldn’t tell if the beetles were real.
He went over to Katie. A beetle buzzed and flapped round the side of her door, one wing trapped in the portal. He leaned over, took the small golden handle between his finger and thumb and opened.
“Is it happening again?” Katie’s mother stood behind him, face pink and creased on one side from the pillow. She shook with cold, newly torn from sleep.
Katie’s father opened his mouth, but fear and confusion stole away his words. The beetle he’d freed flew into his mouth and scuttled down his throat.
He left them the next day.
Katie’s mother took Katie and moved to a small cottage in the woods. She was afraid, but she tried her best not to show it for Katie’s sake.
When Katie was eight, she ventured beyond the woods and met other children. She was delighted. The other children were all fascinated by her door. One by one, they went through. Each returned with a tale of the land they’d found. There were so many wondrous tales, Katie was pleased at first and let them go through again and again. But soon she grew sad, because she could never see the world beyond the door. She wondered if it was really inside her or in another place. Perhaps it had nothing to do with her at all and she was only a way in.
She wanted to understand more, to touch and feel the fabric of the place, so she asked the children to bring things back. They brought her small gold animal statues which moved when the moon shone, rare blue gems in which tiny fish swam, insect kites crafted from beautiful iridescent paper, and books written on the shimmering skin of snakes who still hissed whenever the pages turned. So many beautiful things.
One brought back a brightly coloured, shiny beetle that made Katie indescribably sad.
Sometimes the children would come back unhappy or afraid, saying they’d seen terrible monsters or walked for days across barren plains and not seen another soul. The loneliness had eaten away at them. One child returned soaking wet and shivering and spent days in bed with a cold. Her parents wouldn’t let her play in the woods anymore.
As Katie grew older, loneliness ate at her too. She began to resent the children their journeys through her door, those magical adventures she could never join. The gifts they brought back weren’t enough. They only made things worse, taunting her with small glimpses when she wanted so much more.
At sixteen, she bid her mother farewell and left the cottage in the woods. She went straight to the nearest city, to a locksmith, and bought a padlock for her door. It was too easy to let others open it, to watch the wonder on their faces when sunlight spilled out, when a stray cloud wafted through the doorway, when lightning forked somewhere beyond, letting out only its brilliant flash. It was too easy to let them through. Much harder with the lock in place. She wore the key on a chain around her neck, as much a reminder as anything.
Katie travelled. If she couldn’t visit the world beyond the door, she was determined to see the whole of the one world she had. She travelled light, with only the bare essentials, moving from place to place, across oceans, continents, hungry for new lands, for sights as wondrous as her childhood companions had described. Although she saw many wonderful things, as she grew older she found herself drawn to the places where people gathered. She’d sit on crowded beaches on sunny days, in restaurants on rainy ones, outside cafes as leaves fell and skittered across the ground, and watch and listen, delighting in the stories that unfolded. So many lives brushing past her own.
One windy autumn afternoon, as Katie sipped tea outside a café in Berlin and ate the best apfelstrudel she’d ever tasted, a young woman caught her eye. She was leaving the café with a paper bag in one hand and a cup of coffee steaming in the other. With her winter coat and oversized scarf, Katie nearly didn’t see the woman’s door peeking out of the top of her blouse.
Katie rose without thinking, watching the woman’s back disappear down the street. Had she not seen Katie? Perhaps not. She’d seemed in a hurry.
Katie picked up her shoulder bag and began to follow, the heels of her boots clacking against the pavement as she picked up speed.
“Excuse me,” Katie called. And then as an afterthought, “entschuldigen Sie”.
She was right behind the woman, who turned, wide-eyed. Her silvery-blond eyebrows raised and there was something so beautiful in the way they framed her eyes, and the way her dark blonde hair spilled from her felt hat, and the way her lips opened just a little, as if a word waited there to be spoken, but never came. She wore lip gloss and blusher and other things Katie had never worn, never thought to wear. Her cream coat was flawless, draped softly over a grey-pink suit. All her colours were colours that were found in shells and on hazy summer days and they felt so alien and for a moment, so frightening, Katie’s courage almost failed her. But Katie needed her to know, needed to know her, so she let her own dark grey coat fall open and unbuttoned the top buttons of her shirt. The cold of the padlock brushed the bare skin of her wrist through the fabric. It was then she noticed the woman had a padlock too.
The coffee cup fell to the ground and burst open as it landed, sending a black steaming river across the pavement. They both watched it trickle away and then looked at each other once again.
“Come,” the woman said, grabbing Katie’s hand.
Katie let herself be led through the streets, faster and faster, until they both ran, frantic and exhilarated, the chill wind blasting their faces and biting at their lungs. The woman led her into a courtyard. An old apartment building towered over them on all sides. They entered by the door in one corner and climbed echoing stone stairs. Their strained breaths bounded around the stairwell as they finally reached the top.
The other woman fumbled with her front door key in her haste. Dropped it, picked it up. Katie rested her hand on the woman’s arm to steady her. “It’s all right,” she said. “I won’t leave.”
The woman didn’t turn to look, but nodded and focused on unlocking the door.
In the apartment, the woman led her into a bedroom, dimly lit from fabric draped across the windows. Only a slit of light fell across an old dark wood dresser with a deco geometric design. The woman opened one of the small drawers and pulled out a key.
Katie’s heart pounded as she slipped her coat off and took her own key from the chain at her throat.
They stood facing one another and swapped keys. With shaking hands they undid their padlocks and let them thunk to the floor.
Each opened the other’s door and put a tentative hand inside. They shared a smile and Katie let herself fall into the unknown world.