Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Crossing the Threshold

I was walking to my car from San Francisco’s 22nd Street Train Station when I first saw the old man. He was on the wrong side of the chain-link fence that separated the sidewalk from the steep rocky slope that led down to the train tracks.

The station was an asphalt platform beside the train tracks, set at the bottom of a ravine. Steps from the platform led up to the street, but no steps led where the old man was walking. The only way to reach that particular spot was to climb a six-foot concrete block wall and then scramble up the slope on hands and knees, at great danger of falling onto the tracks.

The old man did not look like he had been scrambling in the rocks and dirt. He was wearing a hat and a tweedy coat with patches on the elbows. He carried a walking stick and he strode forward with conviction, like a man who knew where he was going.

He was headed for the corner where Iowa Street meets 23rd. There’s no gate in the fence at that corner. To the right, there’s a steep drop where the train goes into a tunnel. To the left and in front of him, the fence. Nowhere to go but back.

I crossed 23rd Street, heading for my car and leaving the old man behind. He could take care of himself. I was tired. I was heading home after a long day and I had many things to do. My father had died three months before and I was trying to clear out his flat.

On the far side of 23rd Street, I glanced back to see what the old man was doing. By that time, he was halfway up the chain-link fence.

I stopped. It’s not every day that you see an old man in a hat climbing over a fence. He was doing a good job of it. He had started where the fence turned the corner, putting one end of his walking stick through the wires on either side of the corner. Supported by the fence at both ends, the walking stick acted as kind of a step.

While I watched, he reached the top of the fence and swung one leg over to the other side. That’s where he got stuck: one leg over the fence, both hands clinging to the top, about six feet off the ground.

All the other commuters from the train had rushed to their cars. I was the last one. Me and the old man at the top of the fence.

I went back. “Can I help you?” I asked.

“Very kind of you to ask, young lady,” he said. He sounded remarkably calm for an old man stuck halfway over a fence. “Maybe you could move my stick?”

Under his direction, I pulled his walking stick through the fence, then reinserted it so that he could use it as a step on his way to the ground. He seemed to know just what I needed to do, as if he had thought all this out beforehand.

“Now if you would give me your hand and welcome me to your side of the fence, I would be very grateful.”

I offered my hand to steady him—though he hardly seemed to need it. Once the stick was in place, he stepped on it and down to the sidewalk. He was over the fence, smiling above his pointy beard.

He asked me the way to the nearest bus stop, nodded when I waved toward Pennsylvania Street, then strode off in that direction.

I stood there for a moment, baffled. The old man shouldn’t have been there, climbing that fence. It didn’t make any sense. The neighborhood around the station was not the sort of place you’d expect an old guy in a tweed jacket to be visiting. The sun had set and it was getting dark.

I walked to my car, half a block away. By the time I got there, I had decided that the man was lost and confused and needed help.

I drove over to the bus stop, looking for him. He wasn’t there. I drove up and down the streets. No sign of him. Feeling uneasy, I gave up and went home.

I live in the top flat of an old Victorian. It’s my father’s house and he used to live in the bottom flat. But he died three months ago.

That evening, after helping the old man over the fence, I went to my father’s flat to drink wine and sort through his papers. I felt compelled to look at each letter and paper and ancient receipt, but I needed the wine to get me through it.

In the last few years of his life, my father had suffered from dementia. Unable to distinguish between junk mail and important correspondence, he kept every paper that came across his desk. The boxes that filled his study contained a random mix of journal articles, grocery receipts, academic papers, coupons and advertising fliers, letters (personal and business), keepsakes from his travels, and—ever so occasionally—something valuable. A month ago, I discovered a check for five hundred dollars, payment from a speaking engagement.

I took a box of paper from my father’s office and sat down at the kitchen table to work. I turned on the radio to the news station my father had always listened to. It provided a soothing background murmur as I worked.

My father had been an anthropologist, an archaeologist, a crackpot, and a curmudgeon. He studied dead people—probably because he really wasn’t very good with the live ones. My mother died when I was nine, and my father raised me.

At that very kitchen table, not long after my mother died, my father told me about the Heat Death of the Universe. We had just finished dinner—Chinese takeout, I think. My father was drinking whiskey. I stood up to clear the table, and I must have said something about washing the dishes.

“Sit down. Take it easy,” my father said. “In the long run, that doesn’t matter.”

I sat down, looking puzzled.

“Have you ever heard of entropy?”

I shook my head.

“It’s the tendency of things to turn into a mess. Here’s what you need to know: Entropy always wins. Physicists figured that out. The whole world—the whole universe—is always getting to be more and more of a mess. You can try to stop it—you can wash the dishes and dust the bookshelves and vacuum the floor. But it does no good. Do you know why?”

I shook my head.

“Because all the work you do uses energy. To get that energy, you eat food and your body breaks down the molecules, adding to the disorder in the universe. No matter what you do, there’s always more disorder than you started with. You can’t win.”

Maybe he was trying to be educational. I don’t know. I’m sure I was staring at him, wide-eyed.

“Ultimately, you get to the Heat Death of the Universe,” he said. “All available energy is evenly distributed throughout the entire universe. Everything is as big a mess as it can be. The universe has reached maximum entropy. Nothing is hot; nothing is cold. Everything is lukewarm, motionless, unchanging.”

The way he said it, it sounded like the heat death of the universe might happen next week. We were doomed.

I made the best of it. “I guess I’ll wash the dishes anyway,” I said.

That had been sixteen years ago. And here I was, once again doing battle with entropy.

I poured myself a second glass of wine and continued sorting the box of papers. I was about halfway through the glass and the box when I found an article by my father, sandwiched between a flyer for discount vitamins and a 1983 issue of Archeology Today. The article was titled “Crossing the Border.” The first line caught my eye: “The devil cannot cross the threshold without Faust’s help.”

The article dealt with the folkloric meaning of thresholds and borders—specifically, their power over demons and devils. In the first paragraph, my father described how Mephistopheles wouldn’t come over the threshold until Faust welcomed him.

I frowned, thinking about what the old man at the train station had asked me to do. “Welcome me to your side of the fence,” he said. Such an odd thing to say.

I realized that I could think about that old guy in two different ways.

Here’s option number one. He was an ordinary old man. In that case, he must have been lost. Why else would he be trying to climb the fence? Was he still wandering around in the neighborhood by the train station?

Then there’s option number two, an option that might occur to you in the dark of night a couple of months after your father died when you’re drinking red wine and reading an article about the devil. Suppose that old man was really the devil. I had invited him over the fence and into the world. No doubt, he was out to cause trouble.

I tried to dismiss that thought. After all, nothing bad had happened.

At that moment, the radio announcer said that an earthquake had struck Nepal just four hours ago—right after I had helped the old man over the fence. Buildings were flattened. People killed. Much trouble.

Obviously the timing was a coincidence. It was ridiculous to think otherwise. I knew that. Option number two was unacceptable. He had to be an ordinary old man. But if that were the case, he might be in trouble. Someone should be looking for him.

So I called the cops.

“I want to report a missing old man,” I told the cop on the phone.

“Name?” the cop asked.

“I don’t know.”

I could tell by the quality of the silence over the phone line that the cop was not happy with this answer.

“What’s your relationship to the missing person?” he asked at last.

“He’s an old guy I helped over the fence,” I said. Then I told the cop about how the old man had been stuck at the top of the fence and how I had helped him over. “I keep thinking I should have offered to give him a ride to wherever he was going,” I said. “My dad had Alzheimer’s and I keep thinking maybe this old guy was confused and he’ll be found in a ditch tomorrow morning or next week sometime. I thought you guys could look for him.”

“Sure,” said the cop. “We don’t have anything else to do.”

He didn’t sound sincere, but I thanked him anyway and answered all his questions. He took my name and address and phone number and that was that.

At least for a while, that was that. The next day was Saturday, and I was once again at the kitchen table in my father’s flat.

I had cleared and bagged all the papers I’d sorted the night before. I had four grocery bags of recycling, one bag of shredding, and a small stack of bills to pay. What remained on the table were small items that I had found nestled among the papers in the boxes. I just wasn’t sure what to do with those. The items were:

  1. Twelve arrowheads,
  2. Two stone knives,
  3. A tobacco pouch made from a buffalo scrotum,
  4. One necklace made of rattlesnake vertebrae and another made of bird leg bones,
  5. A authentic shrunken head (about the size of a baseball; eyes and mouth sewn shut),
  6. Two dried lizards from a Chinese apothecary, and
  7. A shadow box containing a display of six iridescent tropical beetles pinned to cardboard.

I had just put on the kettle for a cup of tea when I heard the doorbell ring. Two cops stood on the doormat—a smiling woman and a man in sunglasses. They were looking for me. It seems they had found the old man.

Before I could ask them anything, the teakettle started whistling. “I’d better get that,” I said.

The cops followed me in. I shut off the burner and turned from the stove to find them studying the artifacts on the kitchen table. The woman was looking at the shrunken head and frowning.

“That’s my father’s,” I said by way of explanation.

Her frown deepened.

“I mean, my father got it in Ecuador. This is my father’s flat.”

The woman was looking around the room, taking it all in. On one shelf: a mummified crocodile (about four feet long), a set of canopic jars (designed for storing mummified lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver), and a winged penis carved from bone. (This last was a replica of a charm popular among the Romans of Pompeii, just before Mount Vesuvius blew up.) On another shelf were four big glass jars filled with dried seahorses, dried tree fungus, seedpods, and what looked like beetle larvae.

“Is the old man okay?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s fine,” she said. “He was having coffee at the café near the train station. He was very grateful that you had helped him over the fence.”

“I’m so impressed you actually went looking for him. I didn’t think it would be a high priority.”

“Coffee was a high priority,” the man said. He had taken off his sunglasses and he looked a lot more human. “He was between us and the coffee.”

“We got lucky,” the woman said.

“You got lucky, too,” the man said. “He insisted we bring you something to thank you for your help.”

He pulled a gold coin out of his pocket and set it on the table beside the shrunken head.

I picked it up. No, it wasn’t one of those chocolate gold coins. It was heavy, cool to the touch. My father had shown me a gold doubloon once and this looked and felt like real gold.

“And you just brought it over? That so nice.”

The woman looked sheepish. The man was smiling a little. “Well, technically, we should have logged it in at the station first and had the transfer recorded officially,” he said. “But then we’d have to write a report and you wouldn’t get it for months. And the paperwork would just piss off the sergeant. So we skipped all that.”

I turned the coin over in my hand. It was worn almost smooth—I could make out an animal stamped on one side, but couldn’t tell what it was. A horse? A goat? The cool touch of the metal in my hand was unnerving. Who gave a gold coin as a reward?

“Where is your father?” the woman asked.

“He died three months ago. So I guess all this is mine now.”

“Wow,” she said in a tone that was anything but congratulatory.

“Don’t you have anyone to help you sort through this stuff?” the man asked.

I shrugged. “Not really. I was an only child. And I can’t think of any service that specializes in . . .” I hesitated, looking around the kitchen, then concluded, “. . . stuff like this.”

“I suppose you could have an estate sale.” The woman sounded doubtful.

“I know someone who could help,” the man said. He didn’t seem at all worried by the shrunken head. “My sister is kind of a witch.”

I should have warned you. These were San Francisco cops. They’re cops with badges and guns and sirens, just like regular cops, but they can be a little weird, being surrounded by San Francisco and all.

“How could she help?” I asked him.

He shrugged his dark-blue cop shoulders and pulled a notebook and pen out of his pocket, like a detective on a TV cop show. But instead of taking notes, he wrote down his sister’s phone number. “Give her a call,” he said. “She’s good at this sort of thing.”

I really wasn’t sure what sort of thing he meant—the gold coin, the mummified crocodile, or the heaps of paper—but he seemed pretty sure of himself. After the cops left, I called the witch. She came over first thing on Sunday morning.

She went by the name of Aradia, and she was a Northern California sort of witch. By that I mean she dressed in earth tones, she was warm and nurturing, and she had an incredible network of contacts on her iPhone.

She looked at the mummified crocodile, the iridescent beetles, the shrunken head, the bones, the statues, the leering masks on the walls, the dusty books on the shelves, and all the other treasured possessions that my father had left behind and she smiled.

“You need help,” she said. “And I know people who would love to work a trade.” The very first trade she worked out was her own: After a quick tour of the house, she offered her assistance in finding appropriate homes for my father’s possessions in exchange for two fertility dolls, originally used by women who wished to conceive a child. Both were from Africa. One had a tiny head, a stretched neck, and a beautifully beaded body and the other had a large, disk-shaped wooden head on a thin, unadorned body.

I had no problem letting her have them. It had always seemed to me that those dolls would be better off with someone who understood them.

I agreed, and Aradia gently and efficiently took charge. She had me walk through the house and set aside things I wanted to keep. There were only a few.

I kept a ratty-looking phony shrunken head—I remembered my father pointing out the features that told him it was a fake.

I kept the thangka painting that my mother had brought me from Nepal. It depicted Kala Bhairava, a six-armed god wearing a garland of human skulls and brandishing a sword, a trident, and blood-filled bowl. I remember that my mother explaining that this terrifying figure would guard my room, just as it guarded the temple in Nepal. A guardian had to be fierce.

I kept a few other things: my mother’s jewelry, a few books I had read as a child. Everything else could go.

For the rest of the day, Aradia worked the phone. She called an artist who specialized in collages made with insect parts, a woman who created jewelry from bone beads, a small natural history museum, the special collections librarian at a university where my father had once taught, and others. People came and they offered to trade.

Sometimes they offered cash and sometimes they offered services that I wasn’t sure I needed but I wasn’t sure I didn’t need either. Aradia listened, sometimes nodding, sometimes regarding the person making the offer with a slight frown—until they offered something better.

By the end of the day, the kitchen had been blessed, cleansed with sage smoke, and scrubbed from top to bottom. Oh, yes—and the windows were washed inside and out. Late afternoon sunlight filled the sage-scented air.

Aradia was ready to keep going on Monday. (Witches, it seemed, didn’t have nine-to-five jobs.) So I called in sick and we kept working.

The special collections librarian sent over some graduate students to sort and box up my father’s books and academic papers. The owner of a vintage clothing store packed up the contents of my father’s closet. An artist who worked in fabric took dusty weavings from the old steamer trunk that served as my father’s coffee table, exclaiming with delight over each one.

I watched rooms emerge, like ancient ruins that had been buried. Aradia kept meticulous notes on what went where. She explained to each person that I had six months to change my mind and reclaim the possessions.

It took four more days—a day for the bedroom, a day for the living room, and two for the office. The graduate students (a cheerful and excitable group who were thrilled by every dusty paper) unearthed a box of correspondence between my mother and father from before their marriage. They also found two hundred dollars tucked in a book on burial customs and another three hundred in a book on Anasazi pottery.

Everyone was so happy. And I was happy, too. These were my father’s treasures and the stuff of my childhood. But they were not my treasures. I was glad to see them going to good homes. But I was also uneasy.

On the fourth day, Aradia’s brother, the cop, stopped by. He surveyed our progress and waited until Aradia completed her negotiations with a heavily tattooed man. The man was offering to pay for the mummified crocodile in sandwiches. Apparently he ran a sandwich shop. I’m not sure why he wanted the crocodile, but Aradia had known he would.

“Your client’s not happy,” the cop told his sister.

“I’m happy,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“She’s not fine,” the cop said. “I can tell.”

“What’s wrong?” Aradia asked.

“Nothing.”

“What’s in your pocket?” the cop asked.

“My hand,” I said, pulling my hand out of the pocket where I had been clutching the gold coin.

They didn’t let up, and I’ll tell you: It is very difficult to withstand questioning by a cop and a witch.

“Do you feel guilty about getting rid of your father’s stuff?” Aradia asked.

I shook my head. “Everyone who is taking it appreciates it more than I ever would.”

“You’re still grieving,” Aradia said.

“That’s not it,” the cop interrupted. He was very sure of himself. “You don’t look sad. You look worried. What’s worrying you?”

I looked around the kitchen with its dusted shelves and clear counters. “It’s all so clean,” I said.

They got the truth out of me—though I hardly knew it myself.

I was worried about two things. First, the balance of entropy and order. The house was reaching a state of order—and that meant somewhere else was becoming more of a mess. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Heat Death of the Universe.

Second, I still had the gold coin. Gold from the devil, maybe. What was I supposed to do with that?

“So you’re worried about entropy and the devil,” the witch said. “That makes sense. Many cultures view the devil as the embodiment of chaos.”

“Oh, come on,” the cop protested. “It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The witch gave him a look. “Let me handle this,” she said.

The cop shrugged. His sister was a witch and he’d apparently learned that there were times when it was better to shut up.

She turned back to me. “Maybe you helped out the devil and maybe you didn’t. But clearly the situation makes you uneasy and we want to err on the side of caution. So how about this?” She proposed a plan, I agreed, and the cop assisted with implementation.

The cop—his name was Dave and he was actually a really nice guy—took me to a coin shop where the gold piece was appraised. The shopkeeper offered me a thousand dollars for it. I accepted the offer, but rather than having him pay me, I arranged for the money to go directly to a relief agency assisting victims of the earthquake in Nepal. It would be used to help restore order.

“Cosmic money laundering,” Dave observed.

I returned to my father’s tidy flat with a clean conscience and sat at the kitchen table. The only thing remaining on the table was the box of letters between my parents. I read the first one, a letter that my father had written to my mother three decades ago.

“Embrace the chaos,” my father wrote. “Love and entropy are not in our control. It does no good to fight them, to fear them. Chaos will always be with us. And, if we’re lucky, so will love.”

Maybe, when my father told me about the Heat Death of the Universe, he was trying to tell me not to fear entropy. If so, he did a terrible job of it.

That evening, I went for a walk. In the coffee shop on the corner, I saw the old man sitting at a table by the window.

The light was fading and his face was in shadow, but I recognized him immediately. There was a mirror beside him, and I noticed that he had no reflection. It could have just been the light. Maybe he was just an old man with an impressive coin collection. Erring on the side of caution, I did not greet him.

I am glad that someone in Nepal will restore order in their home. Perhaps that person will hang up a thangka of Kala Bhairava to protect against an old man in a hat who might or might not be the devil.

In the meantime, I have plenty of sandwiches.

Pat Murphy

Pat Murphy

Pat Murphy writes fiction that inhabits the borderland between genres, where life is interesting and the rules are slippery. She is very grateful that science fiction exists, since it has provided a happy home for seven of her eight novels and many of her short stories. Her work has won numerous awards, including two Nebula Awards, the Philip K. Dick Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Seiun Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Her novels include The Falling Woman, The City Not Long After, Nadya: The Wolf Chronicles, Wild Angel, and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell. Her short stories are collected in Points of Departure and Women Up To No Good. With Karen Joy Fowler, she co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender roles. In her day job, she is the resident Evil Genius at MysteryScience.com, where she creates science activities to inspire and amaze elementary school students.