She eases her hand into the sack of keys and sighs, entwining her fingers with their teeth, tracing their curves. Sometimes the bag contains candles, or shoes, and one terrifying day, a bushel of indistinguishable grains of wheat. She hid the bag for weeks after that incident, afraid to touch it, until chiming proclaimed a change to bells.
Mostly, though, it’s keys.
There are old-fashioned crooked ones, cheap store-cut keys that bend in her strong fingers, tiny ones for lockets, some that are big enough to lock a city’s gates, iron keys, plastic keys. Once, she found the key to Baba Yaga’s house, carved from a chicken’s leg bone, with a few scraps of gristle still clinging to it. She was relieved to find its door quickly.
Some days she loses herself in the sheer pleasure she gets from rolling her hands through the sack, but she remains sensible today. The trick of choosing a key is to not allow a beguiling notch or a tempting texture to lull her into picking a favorite. It has to be random or it isn’t fair. She thinks about what she will eat for lunch today — a tomato-from-the-garden and mozzarella sandwich? — and allows her fingers to close over the next key that their questing tips touch.
Pulling out her prize, she examines it, trying to guess what door it will open. She is sometimes wrong — often wrong, to be truthful — but she likes to guess anyway. The easiest ones to pick out are the car keys, and glass keys always unlock the odder doors. This key is neither.
It’s made of brass, that much she can tell, and it stinks of grease. No, oil. She rubs her dirty fingers on her shorts and turns the key over to trace the filigree engraved in its squat design. Something seems wrong with it, and it takes her a few moments to realize that there aren’t any teeth on it. The shape of its head, a butterfly, rings a bell in her memory, but nothing solid.
She shakes her head and shrugs. The guessing game is fun, but it’s not really important, and she does have other things to attend to.
Grabbing a large bottle, she fills it with sweet mint tea, still warm from brewing in the sun. She once spent four days searching for the proper lock of a nondescript steel key. The hallucinations she rode for the next week as her body re-hydrated had been interesting, but she doesn’t want to relive the experience. As an afterthought, she makes her sandwich with thick slices of cheese and tomato and munches on it as she walks to the room.
“The room” is how she always thinks of it, the words outlined and in block letters in her mind, casting a sort of shadow. She is a bit nervous of it, because, well. . . the sack changes, and that is strange, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a bag. If she really wanted to get rid of it, she could. She wouldn’t, of course; but simply knowing it’s possible burns away much of the strangeness. The room is always there, except when she has friends over or when she invites the meter reader in for coffee, or when it doesn’t want to be, and this is far more worrisome. It’s probably silly to think this about a part of her own house, but so it is.
It is for this reason that she, with a sheepish but determined expression hovering on her face the entire time, installed the several bolts that she shoots back now. She has to shove her bottle under her arm to hold it as she negotiates the bolts, always stiff no matter how much oil she pours on them. Oil from bolts? Is that why the key is filthy?
The door opens outward; inside she just has to lean against it to leave. It is a little too big for the hall, so she holds the door to avoid scraping the walls and slips inside, finishing the remains of her sandwich.
Just as the bag is mostly full of keys, so is the room usually full of doors. Small doors, about the size of post-boxes, each of them a different shape and color. Some have been here for a long time, and she runs her fingers over them as she enters. The one door that is a different size, a tiny opening made of different wood splinters all jigsaw-ed together, with no door handle but a huge lock. Her favorite door, a cheerful red barn door with morning glories growing over it with a lock and handle worn from use. The door that is pure marble, smooth as ice and just as cold, with two gold handles and no visible lock. She suspects that it may only appear when its key does, and leaves it alone. It’s the sort of door built by the sort of important people who don’t like less important people touching their things.
Other doors, though familiar, she avoids. The barred one, composed of tight railings that sometimes allow flashes of red to shine through, she does not touch. Nor does she go near the pair of doors that have a chain running between their locks. One is spongy and warm and radiates lust; the other is covered in precious stones in designs that shift if she looks at them for too long. She wishes they would go away and but also hopes that she never finds their keys; there are some doors that should not be opened.
Most of the doors disappear even before she finds their key, so that the walls flicker with a cascade of change. She winces at the loss, but she has to follow the rules, or it wouldn’t mean anything. It’s the other price she pays for her stewardship.
Rubbing her shoulder, she sets the tea down in the corner, taking a sip before screwing it shut. She weighs the strange key in her hand, twisting her head to examine its markings. Frowning, she takes in the state of the current doors.
Logic would suggest one of the stranger portals. Walking up and down the length of the walls, she bites her lip and surveys the choices. The first time, she methodically worked her way from one corner to the other. After a week of this, she found the orange plastic door-labeled with a photograph of its key. Now she does an overview before she begins.
She pulls a piece of chalk out of her pocket and marks likely candidates. This brass one with a grate, a stained glass window, and a letterbox is a possibility, as is the one that looks like the door to a tent and is scrawled all over with Arabic. Sometimes she’s wrong on her initial guesses, and has to check the hard way, but at least she can make a start. She rejects a few doors out-of-hand — not that one, it’s a car — but makes sure, crossing them off as she is proven correct.
Humming, she scans the next wall. No. . . no. . . ah! She smiles and beelines it over to the square brass door, holding the key up to it. The designs match and the lock on this door is a circle instead of the usual crooked shape. She slips the key inside and hears the satisfying click of an unlocking internal mechanism.
After the usual half-turn, she tugs at the small knob in the corner, but it sticks fast. Confused, she turns the key more, and after the third revolution her face lights up in understanding. Not just a key-a wind-up key. Enthusiastic now, she rotates the tool as fast as she can. It grows more difficult to turn as whatever is inside tightens, until finally she can’t move it anymore. A squeal comes from behind the door, then a few “boings.” Pressing her ear to the door, she listens to the clunk of gears starting up. She yanks at the knob again.
The whole door comes out of the wall and the section below it crumbles, the doors shifting on the wall to avoid the break. A pair of legs emerges, and she yelps, backing away. Arms crook out and hands press against the whole section of the wall, levering the body out of it.
A tall figure steps back and shakes itself, raising a cloud of plaster. She watches, fascinated, as it turns around, still dusting off bits of the ravaged wall, which is already knitting itself back together.
The figure, revealed to be a clockwork man, bows and tips his improbable top hat to her. Its sculpted face is too perfect, with glittering eyes that she suspects are cameras. They swivel with a faint grinding, presumably scanning the room, finally fixating back on her face. “Excuse me, miss. Do you happen to know where a man named Martyn Perwellyn is?”
The clear and human tone of its voice startles her. The rest of its body, though well-crafted, shows little attempt to match the art of its face. It’s beautiful in its own way, gleaming metal and intricate fastenings, but does nothing to make the clockwork man more lifelike. “Sorry?”
“Martyn Perwellyn. Do you know him? Have you heard of him?”
She shakes her head.
“Ah.” The voice sounds disappointed, though the face remains immobile in a slight smile. “Then, if you will grant me leave, I am afraid that I must depart, miss.”
“Oh, of course. Yes.” Shaken for reasons she doesn’t understand, she steps forward and holds her hand out to shake. “Nice meeting you. Uh, good luck finding him.”
Instead of shaking, he bows over her hand. “Thank you for your kind wishes.” Straightening, he strides to the door. She notices that his feet, the only clumsy part of him, clank on the wooden floor.
“Wait!” It takes her a moment to realize why she protests before she registers the wind-up key on the floor, having fallen out as he emerged from the wall. She kneels and picks it up. “I think you’ll need this.”
He turns back. “Ah. Yes. I must thank you again.”
She hurries forward and hands it to him. The metal of his hand is warm and smooth as her fingers brush against it. She smiles. “No problem.”
Opening the door, he tips his hat again and leaves.
It occurs to her that she probably should have shown him out, when she hears the sound of her front door clicking shut and the fading noise of his clanking footsteps. With a wistful smile, she waits for a few seconds, half-hoping he’ll come back and keep her company, half-praying that he’ll stay away so she can relieve the compulsion already gnawing at her. Soon it’s obvious that he’s truly gone, and with a small sigh and a shake of her shoulders, she accepts it and turns her attention to her next task. She spares only one last thought to hope that he finds what he’s looking…
She clenches her hands in shock, dismayed at her own thoughtlessness. The key! It had one more job to do, and she’d given it away. For a moment she considers running after him but finds that she doesn’t have the heart. He needed it too. Torn between sentiment and practicality, she bites her lip, thinking. Maybe some of the rubble would do. . .?
Relieved to have another plan of action, she hurries to the pile of masonry left from the mechanical man’s release. Picking through the bits of mortar and metal, she finds a curved scrap of brass inscribed with those same twisting designs. A quick grasp of it and she lets her breath in relief. It feels like the used keys always did after she’d unlocked something. They were always warm and a little soft to the touch, almost as if — and she knows that she’s silly to think it — as if they were happy to have fulfilled their purpose. The scrap of metal in her hand feels the same way, for whatever reason.
Clutching the piece, she leaves the room, doors still shifting and clicking as they appear and disappear, and heads for the other door.
Just as “the room” has a permanent place in her thoughts, always allocated at least some part of her conscious mind, so also does the basement have a similar significance. However, it tends in the opposite direction. The floor below was a banished idea, never thought of until she was actually going down there. In fact, she usually forgot it was there at all until she needed it. She didn’t know if it was because of something to do with nature of the floor below, or her own brain trying to block it out, but so it was.
The door to the floor below is under her ugliest rug, a cheap paisley carpet that she jokingly refers to as her “body-dumping rug.” In a way, since the hole in her memory includes the rug, it is the perfect covering for the job. She kneels by it, once again rolling her eyes at its hideousness, and rolls it up, laying bare the trap door.
As always, she stares at the portal for a few minutes before she can make herself open it. It isn’t fear that stops her, or disgust, or even, exactly, guilt, though she feels all of these emotions. No, it’s the shame that paralyzes her each time, the shame of remembering why the floor below exists. Why the doors and their keys or the corks and their bottles or any of the other things that were hers to find and pair.
Of why she lives in this house at the edge of the world where there was not an edge, so long ago.
But soon she pushes through and hoists the trap door, exposing the rickety steps below.
She’s never been entirely sure how far “below” the floor below is. Certainly she cannot see the bottom of the stairs from the top, and every times she’s tried to count them, she loses track. Time moves as oddly here as it does in the room. She wonders again about her mechanical man, and how long he was trapped, wishing to be free, and she seems to walk down forever. But eventually, as the stone walls give way to wood, then dirt, then raw, uneven stone, and finally to nothing, the stairs end, and she steps into the floor below.
It is not a floor. She knows this. Though her little torch, kept at the foot of the staircase and somehow always replenished, gives her only enough light to guide her footsteps, the distant echoes of her movements, the trickle of water, and the occasional rustle of scurrying creatures all let her know that she moves within a cave. No, a cavern. However, if she thinks about her little house perched on top of a cavern as it teeters at the edge of the world, she fears she will never stop fretting. Better to call it a floor.
But even as she ponders and frets and tiptoes in her circle of light, she knows she is just distracting herself. Her fist tightens around her scrap of happy brass. He is very close to the stairs and she knows he can hear her whole descent, so he’ll be waiting. Ready for her, preparing all the insults he’s sharpened since her last visit. She holds the metal even more tightly; with her satisfied “key,” it doesn’t matter what he says.
“You’re early,” he says, not even waiting for her to come around the corner into the room where he is kept. “Very rude of you, don’t you think?”
“Early?” she replies as lightly as she can, hesitating for one last second before she faces him. “Last time I was here was. . .” she tries to remember when it was last, but finds herself unable to pinpoint the timeframe. “A week or so ago,” she finishes lamely, entering his chamber. “I’ve come every day, sometimes.”
He smiles at her, teeth perfect, grin a bit too wide. “You should have waited another few days. I was almost free. Then I could have escaped this cage, climbed those stairs in the night while you slept, crept into what I’m sure is a charming bedroom, and chained you to a wall.” He rattles his own chains for emphasis as much as he could, not noticing as the rough stone to which he was bound cut his skin. When they’d imprisoned him here, they’d chained him very well.
She steps over the skulls that littered the floor outside his cage, determined not to let her calm flicker. “I’m sure you would have liked that,” she murmurs, a death grip on her bit of brass. Stopping only to fill a cup from the rough, wooden bucket of water, placed to be renewed by a dripping ceiling, she approached him. “I brought you something.”
Dropping the pretense, he glares at her, but doesn’t bother to fight as she slips the metal into his mouth, gives him a drink of water to wash it down, and strokes his throat to make sure he actually swallows. “That wasn’t a key,” he grumbles. The tenseness that had filled the air around him, the menace that cloaked him, lessens quite a bit and he leans back against his wall.
Shrugging, as much to cover her shaking relief as to answer him, she smiles as she watches a new link form between crossing swathes of chain. “It thought it was, and that’s all that matters.”
He snarls a little, but says nothing.
It’s the way she prefers him. With a contented heart she turns to leave, only to freeze when he speaks, his voice low and urgent and almost sounding human in its desperation.
“I could still do it, you know. For real. I could do it properly, if you let me go.”
She swallows hard, feeling as if she were the one choking down keys.
When she doesn’t answer, he continues eagerly. “I could. I’ve lost no power, trapped in this cave and bound by iron. Just let me free and I’ll grant your wish. No tricks. You could have everything you thought you were asking for. A better world. . . just like you wanted. Just let me go, and I’ll give you your wish.”
For just one second, she is tempted. But then she remembers herself and laughs, a ragged, bitter version of her usual chuckle. Walking back to him, she stands close, almost close enough to touch, and whispers. “I was stupid once. And it cost me everything. You think that I forget so easily?”
“The only wishes granted in this house are the ones that I free and that you swallow. And if I have to live here another five thousand years and ram a million keys down your throat, I promise that I’ll do that. Whatever it takes to keep you locked up, I’ll endure it. It’s not near enough to make up for my stupidity. But it’s all I can do. And I’ll never stop. Do you understand?” She waits for no reply; indeed, she sprints up the steps to avoid one. But she wouldn’t have expected him to answer.
Eventually she reaches the top of the staircase again. She closes the trap door and unrolls the rug and…
“I’ve left the room unlocked,” she notices with dismay. It occurs to her to wonder why she’s standing on her body-dumping carpet, but she dismisses it to focus on the room. She peeks inside.
Her last opened door is re-assembled on the floor for just a moment, missing a piece for a reason she can’t remember, before it disappears, most likely for good. It’s rare that a door she’s unlocked comes back.
Walking into the room, she retrieves her now lukewarm tea. Unscrewing the cap, she takes a few gulps then leaves, ignoring the reappearance of the door that shakes from invisible knocking. Her right hand hurts as it’s pressed against her drink, though she’s not sure why. She shrugs and switches hands.
“Should I paint the kitchen?” she wonders aloud, slamming the bolts across with more violence than normal as she shuts the door. “Or relax for the rest of the day?” She decides to rest. For some reason she feels like she did something very important already, like she was fighting something and won.
But why doesn’t that make her feel happy?