The red door.

The red door was the door of his remembering and her forgetting. Seven simple steps up to reach it that he knew intimately. Every crack and crevice was as familiar to him as the back of his hand. He’d seen them often enough in the 18 years he wandered up the steps, always looking down.

One never entered this sanctuary any other way. It just wasn’t done. Not until she came along.

Perhaps it was because of the lapse in her religious instruction. The years between when her parents left that church when she was 5 to when she returned on her own as a young adult might have been the important difference.

He never left the faith, never saw a reason to. So he didn’t understand when she balked at going to his church when they got married. He didn’t see anything wrong with the rites and rituals, didn’t think anything was broken and in need of fixing.

He didn’t see how harmful it was to see only men up front, only men leading the service. Even boys were allowed up there, but never women. A boy of eight could stand closer to the altar than she could. There was more than just the altar rail standing between her and the central focus of his faith. Over 2000 years of tradition, of “we’ve always done it this way” stood between her and God too.

He’d never been on the outside, so he didn’t know. He didn’t know how harmful it was to exclude half the population, because he’d never been on the other side.

Perhaps if she hadn’t spent those years away she never would have noticed. Perhaps, like a lobster in a pot, she wouldn’t have noticed she was being slowly killed, her spirit squashed into a state of compliance and submission.

But she had left and she knew better. She knew that the truth wasn’t up there at the altar. Heck it wasn’t even in the pews.

So his holy place, up the stairs and through the red door – painted red to indicate the Holy Spirit, wasn’t home for her.

She tried to get him to see the error of his church, how Jesus never intended service to be a ritual but a real thing. 2000 years of wrong is still wrong, no matter what they said.So she didn’t go anymore. 

She went, at first, to please him, to go along. When she was in the middle of the Mass she’d feel an odd homesickness, the same ache she had when she came back to her family home after her parents died. It just wasn’t the same. It couldn’t be.

When she was sitting in those familiar wooden pews she forgot who she was, forgot about all the lies being told about her and about God, forgot that original sin came about because Adam didn’t stop his wife from breaking a rule she’d never been told.

Wasn’t that always the way? A secondhand story, a game of telephone where the stakes were so high they included eternal banishment and pain and work. If only he’d stood up to that serpent and defended her as a husband should, instead of mutely watching to see if she’d fall for the bait. Perhaps she was his canary in the coal mine, his measure of danger. Perhaps he didn’t believe God was that serious about the penalty, but wasn’t willing to risk it himself.

It was too dangerous to forget this. Forgetting that betrayal made her forget herself, made her betray her own sovereignty. So she stayed away.

And him? He kept going, week after week, not even minding that she didn’t go. He prayed for her to change, of course, to wake up, to see the error of her ways. He knew that one day she’d have to submit to God‘s will and stop being so obstinate and self-centered.

(Written before October 2018)

The back 40

The back 40 was beyond the saloon doors but nobody ever went there. The doors had been barred these last dozen years, the bottom opening sealed shut with a rough assortment of stones and mortar. All that remained open was the view over the top and through the spindles. It was tantalizing, a forbidden fruit.

Eight more years and the land would be open again, free to roam or graze or harvest as needs saw fit. But for now, it would rest.

The huxster came to town all those years ago, peddling his snake oil and palm readings. He was the one who warned the town about the saloon, telling them to tear it down but leave the door. He wasn’t clear about the curse he felt rested on it, the hungry ghosts who roamed the space. Were they ghosts of gunfighters who lost their tempers when they lost their poker games? Or maybe the saloon had been planted over Indian graves, not like they were marked. The whole of the west might as well be an Indian burial ground once you thought about it.

Whatever the why, the what was certain – the place couldn’t be used by the living for at least two decades, and that started that day. It was unusual that the town acted so quickly on the medicine peddler’s declaration. Normally they would hem and haw and wait for the circuit rider judge to make his way through and make a decision for them on something so large. But no, they started to tear down the saloon themselves, brick by brick and board by board, the moment he made his declaration. Perhaps he’d finally spoken aloud what they all knew in their hearts. A truth finally let out has a power unequaled.

Now the lone prairie stretched out past the front walls of the saloon, occupied by saguaro and sagebrush. No animals would step hoof or paw on the land for miles around. No fences were needed. They just knew. Animals had more sense than people all along anyway.

And what about after the decades had passed? Then the same man would return, or someone sent by him, to assess the land, to see if it was safe to use. Some hauntings have a half life that is only as long as the number of years they were alive. Some remained as long as there were still people who remembered them. Some never left on their own, their spirits so unsettled and violent that extreme measures were required to evict them. 

The first test to see if the land was clear was to see if animals would walk on it. They couldn’t be led. It had to be voluntary. If the curse still remained an animal with simply turn away from the invisible boundary. It was as if they suddenly became disinterested in whatever they had seen on the other side. It wasn’t forceful or aggressive, this turning. It wasn’t like a wall. But it worked like one regardless, gently keeping out all animal life. Even birds wouldn’t nest in the cactus there. They could fly through, but not touch the ground or anything attached to it. All they could do was fly through on their way to somewhere else.

And perhaps that was part of the haunting – an unsettledness, a homelessness. Perhaps it was possessed by a spirit of dispossession – a gnawing grasping to have and to hold forever, an empty hunger for more and more even after the plate has been emptied and the belly filled. Perhaps that was why a saloon was built on this site in the first place – a sanctuary to the lost souls who searched for spirits in bottles, not knowing the true Spirit could never be contained or controlled.