Selections from The Heart Has Many Doors

Emily Dickinson Homestead Night

Excerpts  The Heart Has Many Doors

1.     You cannot put a Fire out          Amherst, September 1847

Her auburn hair floated about her shoulders in the early autumn light. Otis Phillips Lord stopped at the edge of the garden, to watch Emily unobserved. She dug a hole, placed the bulbs, and sprinkled light brown dust over them, then rested on her heels, lifted her head and smiled at the sun, as though enacting a conspiracy with the element of fire.  She swept back her radiant hair and bent over, her hands tamping, her slight body in communion with the earth. He noticed that she had matured physically since a few months before, her small breasts more evident under her apron and dress, her body more rounded.

Lord suddenly didn't know what to do at the sight of his friend Edward Dickinson's daughter. She was not beautiful, but her graceful movements and absorption in her work aroused his wild surprise. He took a deep breath and stepped toward her. Did Emily know that he had watched her commune with the sunlight as he took in her presence? He wanted to lift her up and whirl her around, then collapse beside her on the grass. Yet here he stood, formal and self-contained in his black gabardine suit and high collar, polished shoes and stiff, shiny hat. He tried to control his voice to speak like a plain, familiar man.


"Mr. Lord! Welcome to my garden."

He removed his hat and walked toward her with ease, as though he visited the Dickinsons every week instead of every few months, on business for Amherst College. She held up a daffodil bulb for his approval. Phil Lord was no gardener, but admired the bulb's plump teardrop shape and papery veil.

"Court in Northampton tomorrow. My first appearance here on behalf of Essex County. Your father has promised to advise me."

He sounded young and untried, when he meant to sound confident. He had been a lawyer for over ten years, and felt embarrassed at his gawky self-consciousness. Still, he had managed to speak, and nothing terrible had happened, except that his body was flooded with uncanny heat.

He asked permission to remove his jacket, and watched Emily's large brown-gold eyes taking in every detail of his appearance—the high stock collar, his silk waistcoat, the beads of moisture on his upper lip. Amber sunlight flowed over his head and shoulders. The breezeless, vivid September day felt like mid-August.

"Might I trouble you for a glass of water? I'm—it is warmer than I thought."

When she brought him the glass, he drank the fresh well-water in large gulps, thinking he should have asked for two glasses, so that he could pour the other one over his head, silk waistcoat be damned.

"Please don't let me keep you from your work, my dear. It's a pleasure to see you make yourself just a little bit dirty."

Emily grinned, and Lord admired her white, even teeth.  She gathered her hair, searched in her pocket, and fastened pins to secure the thick mass on top of her head.

"You can leave your hair as it was. I have known you since you wore red fur on your pretty skull, like a kitten's."

"Mr. Lord, you utter outrageous things, and you have a way with metaphor. 'Red fur,' indeed."  With two quick moves, she removed the pins and shook out her hair. "I wish I could remember when I first met you. It seems unfair that you remember and I don't, simply because I had the disadvantage of being a baby. When I shut my eyes, I can see on my eyelids a whole world before I was born—points of light ascending a blue-black sky, floods of silver balloons, then a warm tunnel and a big shout. I wonder if the silver balloons were December snowflakes. I should ask Father if it snowed the night I was born."

Lord wondered if Edward would give Emily a sharp look for asking such a question. Dickinson had a lawyer's concern about family matters—names, births, deaths—and might remember the details of that night, December 10, 1830. A junior at Amherst College, Lord had been taking a late walk when he saw Edward Dickinson hurrying down Main Street. Dickinson knew every Amherst student, their names and backgrounds. When he slipped on the ice, the younger man rushed to help him. "My wife is in labor," Dickinson panted, as he ran up the steps into the house.

Lord wanted to tell Emily that he had stood across Main Street on the snowy night she was born, listening until past midnight. When he heard the cry of a baby, he retreated to his dormitory on freezing feet. He began to speak, then thought better of it.  If he told her about that night, the story would no longer be his to guard until the perfect moment when they could marvel together at the celestial machinery of winter stars that had brought her into his life. ...

Gift to Emily

2.  The Judge is like the Owl    Amherst, March – July 1862

...Phil fingered her sleeve, and she gave him a slow, cat-like blink. She liked to hold his coat for him, and sometimes imagined running her fingers through his brown-gray curls.

Emily's father always brought out his best drink for the annual Commencement party. Phil helped himself to another sherry. "I'll be fifty years old tomorrow. Think of it! One foot dangling over the abyss." He loved hyperbole as much as she did.

"Judge Owl, you are filled with nonsense." Teasing him revived her energy.

"What did you just call me? Judge Owl?"

When he gave her a piercing glance, Emily thought Phil looked more like an owl than ever. She drew forth the poem from her pocket.

"Please read it to me, Emily, if you dare."

The Judge is like the Owl –
I've heard my father tell –
And Owls do build in Oaks –
So here's an Amber Sill –

That slanted in my Path –
When going to the Barn –
And if it serve You for a House –
Itself is not in vain –

About the price – 'tis small –
I only ask a Tune
At Midnight – Let the Owl select
His favorite Refrain.

"'Amber sill. Midnight. Favorite refrain.'" He shook his head. "I'll study it for deeper meanings."

He liked the way she rhymed "vain," and "tune." The poem fashioned an intricate landscape with the Dickinsons' oak tree, the barn, and the house. Familiar things, given a quirky playfulness. But there was more to the poem than playfulness, and it intrigued him.

She waited to hear him speak about deeper meanings.

"I don't want to patronize you, of all people. I'd gladly read more of your poetry. It's not like anything I've ever read, but you know how old-fashioned I am. Shakespeare and more Shakespeare."

She told him about her habit of taking her Shakespeare book up to the cupola, where she read passages aloud to the trees and hills.

"I wonder if both of us could fit into that cupola. We could read scenes together, and startle the passersby. You could play Romeo, and I could play Juliet. Ah, at last, a smile from you, just for me. I like owls, and I'm proud to be in your poem."

If she showed Phil her poems, she would have to select carefully, concealing loss and desire in favor of puzzles, wry philosophy, snakes, deer, snow. She would copy the poems and give them to him, then endure the exquisite nervousness of waiting for his response.

He squeezed her hand quickly. His face wore his Honored Wife Nearby expression.

Looking over his shoulder, she saw that they were about to be interrupted. "I must resume my role as hostess, or whatever I am." She picked up the tray, a lighter burden than before.

Elizabeth Lord and Emily's mother, in pastel silk dresses, walked toward them, their wide skirts swaying above their hoops and crinolines. Phil folded her poem into his pocket, and she winked, a wren daring an owl to breach her territory. ...


5.   Let my first knowing be of thee     Salem, Amherst, Boston, December 1872

..."Here Be Dragons," she whispered.

"Say again?"

"My mind, Father, playing silly games. Shall I sit next to you, so that we can warm each other? The end of my nose would chill a specter."

"Yes, Emily, that would be welcome." She moved to the seat next to his, then wrapped one end of her thick shawl around his coat, encasing both of them in paisley. Groping around the dark seat, she found his hat and settled it on his head, then found her gloves, put them on, and felt for her father's hands. It was too dark in the train to hunt for his gloves, which he was probably sitting on. In a few minutes, he seemed to have fallen asleep again. She placed his cold bare hands between her knees and packed her heavy skirt around them. Praise God, she had tucked winter underthings in her case.

The train seemed to be nowhere. She tried to remember if she had ever been nowhere. No small houses nearby, no town or factory or farm. On a Saturday night between Christmas and the New Year, the whole state slumbered. Cows, chickens, and famous pianists had retired to their rooms. She and her father might have been harbored in Salem, comfortable among quilts, savoring the fires lit in every room. The men in leather chairs in Phil's library, sipping brandy and talking late. The women reading, retiring early. How could her heart, stoked with kindling, have borne two days near Phil's ruddy fireside? She might have spilled her wine or stayed awake, her eyes pasted open and her ears pricked for any domestic sounds—laughter, murmurs, the clink of glasses.

Or Salem might have been more like home than she assumed. Conversation, firelight, comfort.

She drifted off to the sound of her father's light snores. Snow multiplied itself, white on white. She conjured up Phil's blue eyes above his white stock and tie.

In the middle of the night, Phil opens the door to her room. She is still awake. He climbs into the bed and wraps her in his arms. At last she sleeps.

"Emily. My dearest. My own wife." Father's hands climbed out from between her knees to gather her against his chest. He slept deeply.

She dared not disturb his dream of Mother. How long, she wondered, since her parents' bodies had realized this dream?

Back and forth, half asleep, she crossed from world to world, home to elsewhere, nowhere, anywhere. Her mind was a boat, a carriage, a train, a sled, a cradle, a bed in a town near the sea, or a room guarded by snowy hemlocks. Hours passed.

The porter's footsteps awakened her. Her father unwrapped her shawl from his shoulders and placed it around her, tucking in the ends.

"It appears we are to wait out the storm. Are you afraid, my dear?"

"Not yet. This is not the Yukon, or the High Sierras. It is little old Massachusetts."

She didn't want to say that her worry was for him, not herself. He was older, grayer, not altogether well. But he was still Edward Dickinson, and irreplaceable.

"All will be well, Emily. We won't starve or die. We'll stay on the train and wait. There are provisions, and sooner or later they'll re-light the lamps to alert the rescuers. Remember, I am still involved with railroads in this state."

She took pride in the pride of his voice.

Father could stir the snow with his finger, and make it melt. ...


18. "Emily Jumbo!"   Amherst, Salem, December 1882

...On the train she unfolds the letter Phil wrote shortly after her mother died, inviting her to Salem, and the answer she copied. Her reply was populated with rhymes:

...You said with loved timidity in asking me to your dear Home, you would "try not to make it unpleasant." So delicate a diffidence, how beautiful to see! I do not think a Girl extant has so divine a modesty. You even call me to your Breast with apology! Of what must my poor Heart be made? ...The tender Priest of Hope need not...allure his Offering—'tis on his altar ere he asks. ...

The train chugs past the backs of brick factories, shuttered in the December dark. So many people, living close together! She could never live in such a place, but others have no choice. Northeast Massachusetts is not a pretty corner of the state—except that Phil Lord lives there, and Salem is famous for its beautiful architecture, as well as a history of heartless crimes and worldly trade.

Over her book, Emily sneaks glimpses at people she will never see again. The faces of her fellow passengers appear tired from daily burdens—harried businessmen, mothers with fretting children, women in black. She, who rarely leaves home, rides in the fitful light of wonder and chill.

Beneath these sensations is the warm ripe throb—anticipation, the pendent fruit that will soon drop into her lap. Emily shuts her eyes and sees Phil's beautiful hands, gray curls, strong arms, and sneaky smile. In her heart and head lie the compliments he has bestowed on her, cordials to make her blood caper in her veins. She shifts in her seat. One never knows what wildness lurks beneath a respectable woman's dark clothes.

When the train arrives an hour later at Salem's neo-Gothic terminal, a man in his late forties approaches Emily to help her down the carriage steps. He immediately knows who she is. He tips his hat. She gives him her hand.

"I am Tim O'Leary, ma'am. The judge sent me to meet you. He is guarding the castle for your arrival."

Tim has astonishing red hair that stands up straight from his forehead in a brush. His limbs seem fashioned of wires and knobs, and his wide, long-toothed smile is charming.

"I am glad to see you, Mr. O'Leary." Here is someone she instantly trusts. Phil has told her that Tim has many talents, not the least of them discretion.

The huge house has a light in every window. No castle, but a passenger ship waiting for her to glide up the gangplank and be saluted by the captain.

Phil comes toward her, helps her remove her dark cloak, muff and bonnet, and kisses her. He is dressed formally, his white silk stock in place, his hair freshly trimmed.

"I can hardly believe—" they both say at once. ...


Images this page:  The Emily Dickinson Museum on FaceBook (top) - The Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, MA

A gold mesh bracelet given to Emily by "Phil" Lord around 1880 (middle). Inside the clasp is engraved the nickname she supposedly called him "Little Phil." Copyright Harvard's Houghton Library Dickinson Collection


The Heart Has Many DoorsJumbo and Phil—The Evidence