I first heard of the Portal when I was 15 and hitch-hiking through France and into Spain with my friend Beryl. We were taking the roads as they came, towards freedom which was undeniably ours.
There was still an innocence about that time which allowed us this way of travel – not possible in later years. We were Bohemians to the core, dressed in the artistic style of the outsider: drainpipe trousers; long white fisherman’s; sweater; rope sandals and ankle chains; Brigitte Bardot kiss curls; white lipstick; black rimmed eyes.
We were stopped at the frontier by the Spanish police. They had never seen anything like us. What were we? Extraterrestrials?
‘They’ve been through the Portal’, the men decided, trying not to laugh.
It sounded good and we asked if the Portal was a club we had somehow missed on the journey south.
One policeman pointed to the nearby mountain, Canigou, its peak visible on this bright day. He said the Portal was right there on the summit.
‘It leads from here to other places – so they say.’
Beryl liked that. ‘So you go from here to there . . . ’
‘And you don’t come back’, said the policeman.
Beryl said she would check it out one of these days.
I was driven north towards Mount Canigou by two men who worked for Dr. Arnaud, the Custodian of the Society – which held metaphysical information and secrets of the area. Near the frontier a group of men were peering into a ditch by the roadside.
‘He went too far.’ The man, a local farmer, pointed at the mountain. ‘You can’t see it, but I have heard it sucks you in.’
‘It’s on the summit. Invisible,” said a second man. ‘So they say.’
The Portal. I remembered Beryl all those years ago at the same frontier. However bizarre, her style of dress couldn’t diminish her beauty, which made being her friend, on occasion, a little difficult.
Dr. Arnaud took me away from the group and spoke softly. ‘The man went too near. That’s the verdict.’
‘Too near what?’
‘It’s the American, isn’t it? The one who has been here looking into things. They say he is CIA.’
Was he? I felt cold. ‘Its the Portal – isn’t it?’ I asked what he knew.
‘Human beings are not welcome up there. That man had no protection. You can’t just enter a Portal as though you are going from one room to another.’
‘If he was on top of the mountain how did he come down to this street?’
‘Not pleasantly,’ said Dr. Arnaud.
He held me back from the growing knot of men bent over what I took to be the corpse. I needed to know if it was the American or someone else I knew. Then Jordi, who worked for national security, arrived with more men and gave instructions to the photographer. Seeing me, he crossed the road rubbing dirt off his hands. I could tell he was surprised I was with Dr. Arnaud who I suspected he did not like.
‘Anyone you know?’ he asked me.
‘I would like to see.’ I turned to Dr. Arnaud for approval. ‘Just to be sure.’
Jordi, physical and effective, was used to danger. He brought people to safety. He had no time for academics like Dr. Arnaud. He had never done what Jordi considered a day’s real work and nicknamed him ‘Velour hands’.
He took my arm, not waiting for Dr. Arnaud’s answer, and we crossed the street. The men made a space and we looked down into a ditch.
The thing was like a grey paperclip pulled out of shape. The body had been electrocuted to the point of non-existence and lay twisted, shrivelled, metallic, grey, the remains of his clothes still smouldering.
I allowed myself one look.
‘The American?’ Jordi asked.
‘Could be anyone.’ I didn’t look back.
‘He was sure a curious type if he climbed over 3,000 meters to find a portal.’
‘It’s not where it is, it’s where it goes,’ I remembered; the frontier police, answering Beryl.
‘Why is he burned like that?’
‘There’s a lot of electricity around that mountain sometimes. It’s said it comes from out of space. The American was too curious.’ Jordi crossed himself. ‘He was even looking into graves. But we don’t need to bury him.’ He peered down at the ditch, ‘He’s already lying in one.’
In all directions were small burial signs; broken or sinking headstones; a cross, its message obscured; an urn half visible.
‘It’s the old cemetery outside the village, unused for years,’ said Jordi. ‘I wonder what he was doing up there.’
Whatever – you don’t come back. That other time had the answers.
The vast mountain – majestic, absolute – was unusually accessible with no shading of weather or camouflage of light to create atmospheres and promote mystery. From summit to base – it was brilliantly lit by the strong sun and challenged to give up it’s secrets; its crimes. It was too present and the light brought it nearer to our frail, only too human, group. It was innocent with no relation to our misfortunes. I could hear my teacher from the past, her voice in my thoughts. ‘But of course you have to let go. Do you think anything is yours? What do you own?’
Not much as it happened. She had shown me that on our journey of the 11 Sites under the Constellation of the Great Bear.
Jordi took hold of my hand. ‘You will have to reach his family.’
What if it wasn’t the American in that old grave? Whoever it was, twisted over like a paperclip, they had been violently electrocuted. It occurred to me it was not caused by lightning, as the news reports suggested, but more likely an atomic blast.
‘Is a Portal so dangerous?’ I asked Jordi.
‘Oh it’s not the Portal’, he said, ‘But what came through.’
‘From out of space.’ I thought he said the stone, the cradle.