Ellie and Zera are best friends from different worlds, separated by a wardrobe door that has closed without warning. Cut off by circumstance and by time streams that flow ever further apart, the friends realise that sometimes you must open your own doors. A Merc Rustad gives us a Nebula-nominated portal fantasy.
This is Not a Wardrobe Door is one of those stories that I can feel growing on me the more I think about it. Taken at face value, it started out as charming, went to work creating a little knot in my heart, but never quite cut my strings. A fine story, but not a new favourite. But now I come to write things down and I’m thinking a little harder, that knot has come back.
The points of view here intertwine: as a young child, Ellie writes letters to The Gatekeeper asking for the door to be fixed. They are simple, childish, heart-breaking (and complete with a perfectly dismissive nod to Narnia; I laughed). When Ellie’s mother moves them across the country, they become panicky: if Ellie moves, will the door move with her? Finally, Ell, now a teenager, pours her heart into an angry letter rejecting her powerlessness, seizing control of her own destiny. Ell will make her own happily ever after, and share it with those she loves.
Her character and her growth is finely-illustrated through the letters – if this were the only aspect of the narrative, it would be enough to win me over. But then we have Zera, too.
For Zera, far less time passes: the Narnian problem in reverse. She must persuade others to help her quest; the fantasy world is lightly-sketched, fairyland imagery with science fictional flourishes, the world of a child’s imagination. It’s easily discarded, but I like what underpins it: a determined young woman facing down an arbitrary power driven by a self-inflicted curse. It inflicts despair because it believes nobody cares, locking itself – and everyone else – away, compounding its loneliness.
Both sides of the story, then, have a powerful message embedded in them.
Overlaid with Ell’s exploration of her gender identity and sexual orientation, her decision to construct a door to the world of her dreams (where she is understood and accepted) takes on an extra resonance. And surely it’s no coincidence that all the women in her life have doors that closed on them: I don’t know whether I’m meant to read this as a metaphor for compromise and the childhood dreams we let go of as we grow up, but I do.
And that’s the bit that has me knotted up again. It elevates the story from being merely charming. That said, it still falls short for me at the end, which feels simplistic, even childish rather than delivering on the richer, heartier emotions stirred up along the way.
This Is Not A Wardrobe Door can be read online at Fireside Fiction.
Illustration by Galen Dara (an awards nominee in her own right)