The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Little Doors of Blood and Bone

The first thing Ida unlocked was the cat.

The cat’s keyhole was on its breast, a few inches under the chin. It squirmed hard when she held it, but once she thrust the old iron key inside, it went quite still.

best keyA little door made of fur and bone swung open.

What was inside? Not bone and blood and beating heart, as Ida had thought. Bone and blood were there, of course, but were not what this key revealed.

Instead, when Ida peered inside the little door, she saw a blue flame, teased and roused by a silky wind that swirled around it, smelling of smoke and sunbeam-dust. As Ida’s peering face blocked the bone-and-fur door, the wind withdrew, and the flame sank almost to nothing. Scattered around its embers were sharp, curving things—fangs, or claws, or both—and the tiny bones of birds.

Ida closed and locked the cat’s chest. It leaped away without looking back.

All this happened a good while ago, back when your grandma’s mother was a girl. Times were hard then, hard enough that a young girl worked after school in an old folks’ home, sweeping floors and serving mush to help her parents pay the rent. That was Ida. She wasn’t afraid of work, or of very much else.

In that old folk’s home was a woman named Mae, who had not said a word as long as Ida had worked there. She was thin as paper, with hollow eyes and frizzy gray hair, and she rocked back and forth in her bed, smiling to herself. After a while, Ida stopped noticing her, only set the bowl of mush on her bedside table and picked it up, usually untasted, half an hour later.

But one night, when Ida reached for the bowl, a papery brown claw snapped around her wrist. She looked up.

“I see your lock, little miss,” the old woman hissed. Her black eyes had some old fire in them. “I have the key, and you can’t hide nothing from me!”

Ida tried to pull away, but Mae’s long yellow nails dug into her wrist. In her other thin hand, she held up an old iron key.

“This . . .” Mae began. She stopped, wracked by a violent cough. “This!” she said, and her eyes glowed, looking at the key. Then, “This,” she said a third time, and now her eyes, still on the key, clouded over with fear and despair. Round, sticky tears rolled slowly down Mae’s face.

“You take it now,” she said to Ida. “I don’t,—“ she coughed. “I don’t . . . I don’t want it any more! Take it, please, take it from me now!” Her voice climbed, frantic.

Ida put the key in her pocket, more to get it out of the woman’s sight than anything else. Mae turned over in her bed, back to Ida, her bony shoulders shaking silently.

It was busy that day at the home, and Ida forgot about the key until she was walking home. Slipping a chilly hand into her apron pocket for warmth, she felt cold iron.

And with the her hand on that iron, everything looked different. At first she couldn’t tell how everything looked different, only she saw that it did. But in a second or two, she saw.

When she had her hand on the key, everything had a lock. Not just doors and mailboxes, but everything. The trees had locks, and so did each schoolbook under her arm. The postman who tipped his cap at her in friendly hello—he had a keyhole lock in the side of his face. So did the woman driving by in an automobile — her keyhole was right in the middle of her forehead.

Ida took her hand off the key. Everything looked normal again.

She put her hand back, and saw, she saw, that even every flower had a tiny lock on its stem. And ever person around her, all of them were locked up tight.

And, as Ida realized: she had the key.

As soon as she got home, she unlocked the cat. After she’d had her look, and the cat had fled, she tried unlocking a book. Books were expensive, but Ida loved to read, and over years of birthdays and Christmases she had carefully collected a whole shelf full. She brought the key to the shelf, and selected a favorite old story to unlock.

Inside, she found dead flowers, and a broken sea shell, and the faintest seagull cry. That was nice.

In another, she found an old candy wrapper, and wet tea bags, and a sigh that touched her skin with a breath as cold and moist as a ghost’s. She locked that one back up quickly.

In a third, she found a tipped-over bottle of blood-red ink, a pile of rusting iron nails, and a small gray bird with a little black cap, still and dead, one onyx-bead eye wide open and staring at her.

Ida snapped the little door shut and locked it, and didn’t unlock any more books.

Instead, she went outside to a tall, broad cottonwood tree, walking around it until she found the keyhole buried in the deep creases of its trunk. At first she thought she’d found a diamond inside—but then she saw it was sunlight shining through a single large dewdrop, even though the sun had already sunk below the horizon. All around the sun-water jewel were chanting voices, rising and falling on vowels of a language Ida did not know.

Ida listened to the lovely music for a while, until her mother called her to dinner.

At the table, over a very small chicken and very large bowl of potatoes, her father asked how her day had been. His voice was kind, but his eyes were tired and distracted. Ida could not help but notice, when he stretched out his hand for more potatoes, pulling his shirt askew, that there was a rusting keyhole in his chest.

Her mother put dinner on the table without much talk at all, and at one point put her face into her palms and squeezed them hard against her eyes.

“Honey . . . ” said her father.

Her mother interrupted him. “It’s all right, forget it,” she said.

Ida saw that her mother had a keyhole in her throat, just above her collar bone.

That night, when she heard their breaths turn to long, slow sighs, she crept into their room with a flashlight to see what she could see.

Delicately, she pulled back her father’s pajama shirt and fitted the key in. His skin gleamed under the bright moonlight. Inside him, she found a blue jay’s feather, sky-blue streaked with midnight. Beside it were the scattered seeds of a dandelion that someone’s blown to make a wish.

The third thing inside her father was a locked metal box, that you might keep files or money in. It was dented as if it had been pummeled with fists or heels, but it was still locked, and even Ida’s magic key did not work in it.

The feather and wishing-seeds and locked metal box made Ida sad, though she couldn’t say why. She locked her father back up, and moved to her mother.

Inside her mother, Ida found dead grass folded into the shape of a St Brigid’s Cross, and a violet hair ribbon tied in a tight knot, and a glass fishbowl full of murky green water, too clouded and filthy to keep any fish alive.

This made Ida sad as well, more sad than she could say, so she closed her sleeping mother back up and went back to her own bed, key still in her hand, and cried a little. She wished that terrible, crazy Mae had never given her the key. She was hugging herself and sniffling, face buried in the pillow, key still in her left hand, when with her right hand she felt something just over her left shoulder.

Something hard. Something metal.

A keyhole.

She stopped crying. She sat up, key in hand.

She thought very hard, very hard indeed. She thought of the dewdrop sparkle and chanting sun of the tree; and the little dead bird; and the thick, green, fishless water.

Ida did not turn her own lock that night, and Ida didn’t sleep.

When dawn came, she slipped out of the house in the gray light, key in her pocket. She half-ran all the way to the nursing home, jiggered the back door where the lock was loose, and slipped in. In seconds, she had crept into the room of mad old Mae.

Mae was sprawled in her bed, muttering in her sleep. Her keyhole was just below her collarbone, a little to the left. Careful and silent, Ida slipped the key in and peered inside.

Inside the old woman, the dawn lit up a dusty space as empty and hollow as the inside of a doll.

“It all came out,” Mae whispered. She had not moved, but her eyes were open, staring at the ceiling, bright and mad. “See? I opened myself up, and it all came out, and rolled and ran and flew and drained away.“ She laughed, a high, unhappy laugh. “I’m empty now. It’s all gone, it’s all gone, all gone.” She laughed her mad laugh over and over.

Mae’s roommate was awake and crying. Nurses and orderlies were calling each other in the hall to come.

Ida slipped out the window and ran.

She ran. She ran not home, but in the opposite direction, as far as she could. She ran till the sun was high, ran through the farms and pastures surrounding her little town. She ran until she came to an empty field; no cows, no crops, no wildflowers, even, nothing but dirt and scrub. She dug, then, using sticks and her own hot, sweating fingers. She dug as deep as could, pulling out rocks as she went, ignoring their keyholes. Then she put the key at the bottom of the hole, piled rocks on top of it, filled it with dirt, and walked home.

When she came in after being gone that whole long day, her mother exclaimed and shouted and hugged her and cried. Ida didn’t mind the shouting. She only hugged her mother, and said “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” over and over.

But she was not apologizing for what her mother thought she was apologizing for.

So years passed, and more years passed. Ida grew up, then Ida grew old, then Ida died.

Meanwhile, the rocks of the earth didn’t want the key. They pushed it slowly up and up, back near the surface of the earth.

And meanwhile, a builder bought the scrubby field and covered it with brand-new houses. During the building, many a tractor and backhoe only barely missed digging up that old iron key. Soon the scrubby field had become a new neighborhood. Years passed, and it became a somewhat older neighborhood.

It became your neighborhood, in fact.

And in the backyard of a house in that neighborhood, the key still lays there, just under the surface of the ground—buried so shallow, a dog could dig it up.

It’s buried in your backyard, in fact.

That’s why I’m telling you this story today. Just in case you find that key.

I’m not going to tell you what to do with it, if you find it–if your dog digs it up, or you dig it up, or the earth casts it up at your feet.

I just thought you ought to know.

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