Keybones

Chizine1. The bones are broken. The skeleton rests in a gap between rocks, below a red cliff. The sand has blown away from the bones, and the sun has bleached them white. Vultures have eaten the flesh. Some of the bones are buried; these remain yellowed. The skull is exposed and white. The skeleton is human, with a wide pelvis. On the spine rests a tiny skeleton. A young rattlesnake slithers through the pelvis and curls up to sleep in the hollow skull.

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2. The key is for a heart that has never been opened.

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3. Her skeleton is a series of keys tied together with string. She has two hundred and six keys–large femur keys for locking dungeon cells, and tiny stirrup keys that were made for Victorian lockets. Her legs clack together as she walks. The keys of her ears vibrate and pick up sound. If she turns the giant weight of her copper skull, she can tell what direction the noise is coming from.

She is beautiful, with the shine of copper in moonlight. Her hair glitters gold. Her eyes are lapis lazuli in a treasure chest, and the secret places of her sex are ridged like the key. She carries a bone in her hand–the wishbone of a smaller species–and uses it to pick locks on doors.

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4. I do not love her the way I should.

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5. My wife lies curled up on the bed. The moonlight slants through the window–a shaft of light into the dark room. It lights her hair, transforming it from blond to silver. It fades her tanned skin, and she looks like another woman. Sometimes I wish she were.

We have been fighting. The tension of the fight has eased into a weakness in my muscles, a draining of anger. I know my wife is not asleep, although she pretends to be.

I lie down on my side of the bed and stare out the window. The stars look back. The air conditioner hums, and the room stinks of lavender. Her scent, not mine. The box of birth control pills lies in the corner by the vanity. The box is dented from the strength of my throw. I scratch underneath the elastic band of my boxers, hard enough that my fingernails break the skin. The scratch throbs with sudden pain.

She murmurs, “Once it’s born you’ll love it.”

My muscles surge with energy again, ready to fight. “You betrayed me,” I say.

“I shouldn’t have.”

“You did.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t change it now.”

“We agreed: no children in this marriage. That was what we agreed on.”

She opens her eyes to look at me. Her voice is small. “You can leave if you want. I’d understand. I can handle being on my own.”

I am haunted by my past, by girlfriends who left me because I didn’t want kids. “You lied to me. That’s why this hurts so fucking much. I love you, and you lied to me.”

Her voice hardens. “Love requires forgiving someone when they make a mistake.”

I hear the tone in her voice: she doesn’t think this was a mistake. She didn’t think it was wrong when she stopped taking the pills. The broken skin under my boxers itches. “This is an 18-year mistake.”

“Kids grow up and become adults,” she says, turning away. “At least, most of them do.”

The air conditioner hums incessantly. The lavender wafts through the air, soaking into everything I own. My wife sleeps next to me, slender in her silk pajamas, touchable yet completely out of reach. I am calculating. Divorce is not an option, not with me. Not with such a betrayal. There must be punishment.

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6. Making lists helps me feel better when I cannot control something. My wife is the same way, except her lists are the way she controls things.

Shopping list A:

a. vitamins

b. ginger root

c. non-alcoholic champagne

d. newborn-sized diapers

Shopping list B:

a. fried chicken

b. picnic basket

c. .38 revolver

d. shovel

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7. She rattles when she walks, like a too-heavy purse. She lumbers up the hill to the highway. There are no cars. She drags herself down the stripe of road, clattering against the blacktop. She walks for hours, never resting, never thirsting. A car passes by late in the evening. The driver sees her, but erases her from his mind as something unworldly. He puts a hand on the ignition, making sure the keys are still there, even though the car is in motion. Something troubles him but he can’t remember what. He decides that he forgot his sunglasses at the last gas station.

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8. The bed is cold without her. I sit on the side, my hand on the nightstand lamp. The picnic basket stands in the corner, full of dried-out chicken bones, dirty napkins, and an empty bottle of non-alcoholic champagne.

I hold my copy of the police report in my hand. The cops are used to calls about missing wives. Usually the wives have a flat tire somewhere, or are at their lovers’ houses. The cop had talked a mile a minute and waved his hands a lot. “She’ll come home soon enough, sir, don’t you worry. At the gate before you know it, with some crazy excuse about being locked out.”

I glance at the bedroom door. It is closed. I sit back against the headboard and stare at the moon through the skylight.

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9. Numbered lists break down when items are crossed off.

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10. Six weeks later, and now the cops say she won’t come back. But I know she will. I get up and put on my slippers and robe. I pad downstairs to check the front gate. The desert wind is cool and dry through the silk of my robe. The gate is locked, as I thought.

She’s coming home. I feel it. I look down the empty street at the palm trees rustling in the wind.

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11. I park the car by the blacktop road. We step over rock formations–red rocks, jutting irregularly against our feet. I clutch the wicker picnic basket in my hand. My wife walks ahead of me, her white sundress billowing around her legs. Her stomach is gently rounded. I try not to look at it.

“Where the hell are we going?” she asks.

“Just ahead here. A little spot I know. There’s shade and a great view.” I point to a small cave ahead.

“I thought we were going to have a picnic in the park.”

“I wanted us to be alone.”

“You sure there’ll be shade?”

“I’m sure.”

“Good. I don’t want to start puking again. I just got through that.”

I don’t answer. Instead I touch the red-and-white checkered cloth. Inside the basket are two plastic glasses, two plates, some fried chicken, and a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne.

Underneath the chicken is a dishcloth. Underneath the cloth is the revolver.

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12. She makes her way to the edge of town, to the suburbs. Gated houses stand back from the road, like soldiers allowing their queen to pass. Swimming pools dot the grassy lawns like aquamarines in ceremonial armor.

All the dogs start barking. The cats screech and run. Where she passes the well-tended hedges, they wilt and die. Sidewalks crack where she steps, and weeds spring up in the gaps. Deep scratches appear on cars. She is drawing power now, here from the orderly world of mortals. With time the desert will take this land back, and no grass-armored suburbs can stop it.

She turns down the street to a particular home, one with white pillars and an iron gate. The gate’s key is locked inside the house. She doesn’t need it. She approaches the wide gate and raises her wishbone. Silently she picks the lock, leaving bits of marrow in the keyhole.

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13. My wife has eaten two breasts and a wing. The wishbone lies discarded on the ground. “I’m still hungry,” she says.

“Don’t you want to make a wish?” I ask.

“I’m afraid of what you’d wish for.”

We are silent. The shade of the rocks shelters us from the sun. We are in a small red-rock cave, one that ancient Navajo lovers probably used for privacy. It overlooks a sheer drop-off, with rock structures and a dried-out ravine at the bottom. I look at her profile, her sun-bronzed skin and gold-bleached hair, the pale blue of her eyes. I thought I loved her once, when I was young and foolish. I think to myself: no wife, no problem.

“What do you think I’d wish for?” I ask.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You brought it up.”

“Well, forget I said it.”

I pick up the wishbone. “Come on. Make a wish.”

Reluctantly, she grabs the other side. We both pull. The wishbone, still greasy with chicken meat, flies out of both our hands and tumbles down the cliff.

“Oh, damn,” she says. Her hair blows in the sagebrush-scented breeze. There’s no sound but us for miles. I reach into the basket. She, wanting more chicken, reaches into the basket at the same time. We both touch cold metal.

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14. In medieval times, castles were constructed with extensive underground dungeons. These dungeons were locked, generally with a set of keys that were closely guarded by soldiers. Early locks were less secure than modern ones. Given enough time, a skillful spy armed with a set of picklocks could open the doors. But a faster technique involved the skeleton key–a device that could open nearly anything.

To prevent the freeing of certain prisoners, someone invented the oubliette: a dark hole in the ground with no doors. No door, so no locks: no skeleton key could penetrate its darkness. A prisoner would starve to death in isolation. But the clever spy, in the habit of freeing people, might extend a rope into the oubliette. The prisoner could grab it and escape–if not rendered mad by living in the darkness with the skeletons of his predecessors. A prisoner without the strength to climb had the option to hang himself.

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15. I hear clanking on the stairs. I know it’s her. I push the vanity in front of the door. The air conditioner hums. The room still smells like lavender. I am sweating in the cold of the bedroom. I hide under the bedcovers, a child’s defense but the only one I know. Under the quilt it is dark and stuffy. I hear her rattle against the door. The door slams against the vanity and stops. Wood splinters and cracks away. The door crashes again, three more times.

Then all falls silent. I curl up in the heat of the bed. Something clatters away from the door. After some time, I peek out from the covers. I hear nothing but the sound of my own breathing. Then the skylight above me crashes under the weight of her body. The keys jangle to the floor and land at the foot of the bed. She stands up and looks at me with the empty holes of her skull. My hands feel like ice, and I draw the quilt close as if it could save me.

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16. I have been punished far more by the things I haven’t done than by the things I have. I’ve never fired a gun. I’ve never loved my wife. And I’ve never forgiven myself for anything, nor even known how. It’s dark in here, and I’ve forgotten what light is. I’m so starved that I’ve forgotten I’m hungry. In complete darkness I can’t see the skeletons that haunt me. I don’t know how much strength I have left.

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17. She’s found the gun. She sucks in her breath and says, “So that’s it.” She’s faster than I expect, and she doesn’t grab for the gun. Instead she grabs the whole basket, and knocks my hand away with the wicker edge. I’m surprised enough that I fail to grab the weapon. She fishes the gun out of the basket and stares at it. “Bastard,” she whispers.

I reach for her, but she leaps away and points the gun at me. Her eyes are wide and her hand shakes. She screams, “You fuck!”

“Set it down. Let’s talk.”

“No!” She backs away. “Bastard. You goddamn bastard.”

I wonder if she’ll kill me–she’s hysterical with rage. Her hand is shaking so badly I don’t know what she’ll shoot. “Put it away, and we’ll both talk.” Will we? I don’t know. There’s no stepping back from this point. No pretending, and no return. I have fallen into darkness, and cannot see a way out.

“You asshole. You fuck. You were going to kill me, and kill our baby.” She takes a step backwards.

“Let’s talk.”

“There’s no talking. You were going to kill me.” She waves the gun at me, and I wonder whether I can tackle her before she shoots me. She backs up further. I dive for her feet, hoping I’m fast enough. She fires a wild shot and falls backwards.

I hear her scream, and then a distant thud. All is silent. I move forward and peer over the edge. Her body is crumpled on the rocks. This is what I wanted, or thought I did. I close my eyes and feel a wave of guilt. If the gun hadn’t fallen with her, I might have shot myself.

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18. I can’t say it was an accident; not when I was the only witness. It takes me all afternoon to make my way to the bottom. When I get there, I can’t even reach her. She’s between the rocks, in a natural oubliette. I shovel some sand and pray that she’s never found. As I walk away, the wind carries dust in front of me. I wonder how long she’ll stay buried.

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19. She stands before me, glittering in the lamplight. My throat is tight. She says nothing–only focuses those empty copper eyes on me. My heart races. Finally I say, “Are you going to kill me?”

“No,” she says. Her voice sounds like a rusty hinge.

“I was going to kill you.”

“I know. It doesn’t matter now.”

“How can it not matter?”

She rattles at me, her keys like windchimes in a storm. “How can anything matter after what I’ve seen?”

I shiver. “What have you seen? Have you seen what comes after death? What is it?”

She says nothing, then: “I’ve come to forgive you.”

At these words–unexpected–I hold my breath, waiting for the trap. She continues, “When you have seen death, you will understand why none of it matters now. I forgive you for being afraid, which I held against you. I forgive you for trusting me blindly, which I did not earn.”

I am dumbstruck as she speaks. She is lighting a place inside me with her words.

“I forgive you for hate. I forgive you for greed.” As she speaks, keys fall away from her body. Her thumb falls off and clatters on the floor. Her finger follows afterward. Each key, all two hundred and six, falls to the floor as she confesses her sins–all her sins of omission, the things she never did.

My stomach twists. I remember that once I loved her, or thought I did. When did I fall into darkness?

She is a pile of keys on the floor, a jumble of metal and string. “And in forgiving you, I forgive myself. I am free of my life’s cage, and I bring you a warning. I was given keys to help me out. Those in oubliettes will find keys useless.”

The keys vanish, leaving the string. I fall to the floor and embrace it, my wife, the slender rope she has thrown me.
End Swoosh

Originally published in ChiZine #29 (2006).
Copyright © 2006 by Vylar Kaftan. All rights reserved.

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