A Small Blue Key
One of the first short stories we wrote…
The everything drawer jammed, one-third open. Marina rattled it, trying to shake loose whatever kept it from sliding out. In less than thirty-six hours the entire family would converge on the house. The kitchen looked like a war zone, the living room was a mess, and she still hadn’t purchased the Zinfandel to marinate the leg of lamb. The garlic cloves had sprouted too, so she would have to pick up some.
The drawer resisted shaking. Exasperated, she stepped back, crossed her arms on her chest, and glared at it.
Something snapped with a sharp wooden crack and the drawer flew open, its rollers slamming against the wooden frame with a shudder. A small object shot out and hit her between the eyes. “Ow!”
“What did you break?” Nikolai asked from the living room.
She tossed the splintered wooden spoon into the garbage can and bent to pick up the thing that hit her off the floor. A key. A small blue key, warm to the touch. She couldn’t recall seeing it before. How odd…
Her brother’s voice tugged on her attention. “What are you looking for?”
“A can opener.”
“Just open it the other way.”
No time to investigate it now. Marina tossed the key back into the drawer and rummaged through its contents. Screwdriver, Scotch tape… In her present state of mind, opening the can “the other way” wasn’t a good idea, not unless she planned on cooking the pumpkin pie straight in the can. A bamboo skewer, a small blue key again… Her fingertips brushed the key and tingled slightly as spark of power shot into her skin.
The phone rang. She picked it up. “Yes?”
“And how’s my favorite niece?” The sheen of warmth in Lilian’s voice was too thin to fool her. She had bought into it when she was a little girl. She used to love to visit Lilian, until she figured out that all her aunt wished to do was to show off her pretty bright niece to her friends. Like a cute dog that does charming tricks.
“Busy!” Marina said. “How are you?”
In the living room Nikolai raised his head from a page of nuclear physics equations long enough to roll his eyes.
“I’d like you to know that I’m putting fifty dollars into the birthday account,” Lilian announced.
“Thank you very much.”
“Well, we can’t do it very often, but then grandmother has a birthday only once a year and she doesn’t have that many of them left.”
And you can’t wait. Words hovered on Marina’s lips and she bit them back. “We all appreciate your help very much.”
“Yes, well, I meant to tell you that Kostya would like Chicken Tabacca. He’s been on about it for a week.”
Marina grimaced. “I’m making lamb this year…”
“I already promised him you’d make the chicken. You know how he loves his cousin’s cooking.”
A beep announced an incoming call. “Would you excuse me for a moment, I have another call…”
A push of a button and grandmother’s shrill voice flooded the phone. “Marina? Are you there?”
“Do you want me to come over?”
Lord, no. “No, I think we’re doing pretty well here. But I’ll call you if I need help.”
“You don’t have to worry about desert. I’m making Mishka cake,” grandmother announced.
The memory of last year’s grandma-made Napoleon thrust herself before Marina and she nearly gagged.
“Mishka?” she croaked. “That’s so nice. But it’s your birthday. Why don’t you take it easy and I’ll make the Mishka.”
“No, you don’t know how to make it right.”
“Yeah, grandma, she doesn’t put rancid sour cream into hers!” Nikolai yelled.
She hated when he amplified the sound to eavesdrop. She slapped her hand over the receiver and hissed in sharp whisper, “Stop it!”
“Marina?” grandmother’s voice came alarmed. “Marina?”
“I wish you’d rest, grandma,” she said. I have Lilian on the other line…”
“How is she?”
“I’m sure she’s well. Why don’t you call her in a minute? I really have to go now, grandma.”
She pushed the button and was greeted by the disconnect signal. Once again, Lilian had outmaneuvered her. Now she would have to make the chicken. And she still hadn’t found the can opener.
Nikolai wandered into the kitchen and picked up the can of pumpkin mix. She felt him concentrate on the seal. A thin invisible tendril of force stretched between her brother’s eyes and the can like a taut fishing line. The can turned slowly on the tip of his finger and the seal peeled itself from its top.
“She hung up on you, huh?”
“Now you’ll have to make the chicken.”
She took the can from him and dumped its contents into a metal bowl. Something clanked.
“Why do you do this every year?” Nikolai leaned against the cabinet. “They’ll come and expect to be fed and want their asses kissed for contributing a measly fifty bucks so we can buy grandma a present she’ll complain about. Nobody ever helps you.”
“You do.” She thrust the can of evaporated milk at him. He peeled off the lid and she dumped it into the pumpkin mix.
“You know what I mean. When was the last time Lilian or Svetlana offered to wash the dishes after? Or come early to help set the table. We have four cousins and how many of them went to help grandma with the apples? None. But they all got some of the jam you made. They come, they eat, they posture, and they leave. Like Mongols.”
“I don’t do it for them. I do it for grandmother,” she said.
“Why? It’s not like she cares for us all that much.”
“She loves us in her own way.”
“If she loved us all that much, she’d leave us Granddad’s house.”
The mention of the house never failed to irritate her. She put the key on the counter and got a carton of eggs out of the refrigerator. “It’s not about that house. I don’t do it for a handout. I do it because she is our grandmother.”
“She’s shrewish and manipulative.”
“She’s old and insecure, Nikolai.” Marina snapped the carton’s lid open.
“Age isn’t an excuse for being an asshole.”
“That was disrespectful to your grandma and to me.”
He crossed his arms. “Respect has to be earned. You let everyone walk over you. They did it to Mom and now they do it to you.”
She glared at him. Hairline cracks crisscrossed the egg tops.
“Don’t you have an exam to get ready for?”
He went into the living room. She picked two eggs from the carton and cracked them into a large bowl. The worst part was that Nikolai was right. It was about the house. She loved that house. Grandad built it from the ground up. They played in it as children. From spring to mid-fall, she spent most of her weekends out there maintaining the garden. And now Lilian, who couldn’t tell an apple tree from a walnut, was going to get it all.
She had seen it coming and could do nothing about it. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. First, grandma let everyone know she was making her will. Then every time she’d visited to pick strawberries, to plant tomatoes, to snip extra shoots from the grape wines, grandmother would be on the phone with Lilian. In the end, she heard the announcement from Nonna. “Oh, by the way, have you heard? Mom’s leaving her house to my sister.”
Then grandmother called, her voice tinny over the phone, “You’re not mad at me, are you? I take care of you kids for all the time.” Marina barked a short laugh, added evaporated milk to the eggs, and scraped the pumpkin mix into the bowl. Take care of us. Since when? The most she’d ever do was sweep the porch once in a while and she wanted a celebration to commemorate it. When Granddad was alive, he was the one…
Marina took a deep breath. It wasn’t any use to get herself worked up. Yes, she could’ve sucked up to Grandma and gotten the house, but in the end, it wouldn’t be worth it. She plugged the mixer in and turned it on.
Metal rang as the blades caught something. She shut the mixer off and fished in the pie mix with a spoon. The blue key.
Marina plucked it from the mix and rinsed it. She could’ve sworn she had put it back in the drawer. “Now how did you get in there?” The key glistened with indigo highlights. When she was a little girl, she used to watch the stars, wishing for one to fall into her bedroom. That’s what it would feel like – warm and comforting, kind of lit from within.
Later, with the pie in the oven and the sweet scent of pumpkin spice permeating the house, she went to see her brother. He made a show of not noticing her standing next to him.
“You’re right,” she said. “I did want the house. And you’re right about the family – they’ll come, they’ll eat, and they’ll leave. But if I don’t do it for her, nobody will. And she’ll be left all alone on her birthday.”
He shrugged. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said… stuff.”
She dismissed his apology with a wave of her hand. “Tell me about this key and we’ll call it even.”
He balanced the key on his index finger. “Odd.”
“That’s what I thought too.”
He licked the edge of the key blade. “Attic,” he said.
“Are you sure? Because the last time you said basement, and it turned out to be the attic. I spent two hours looking in the basement.”
“That was a legitimate mistake,” he said. “That hook was kept in a box full of dirt. It had soil signature all over it.”
“Okay.” She took the key from his finger. “I’ve set the timer for the pie. If it buzzes, turn the oven off and get me. I still have a load of stuff to make, but I can’t finish until the pie is cooked.”
“You don’t want me to take the pie out?” Little devilish sparks danced in his eyes.
“No, because you’ll eat it. Promise to not touch the pie, Nikolai.”
He held up his hand. “I promise.”
“There is a chocolate one in the refrigerator. Promise not to touch that one also.”
“I will touch, eat, or approach no pies while you’re treasure hunting.”
She took herself to the narrow staircase and climbed it to the attic.
Marina pushed the trapdoor open and hoisted herself onto the dusty boards. An odd mishmash of items surrounded her. A triangular window spilled sunlight on the narrow strip of the floor, the only space that had been spared from being filled.
She sat on the floor, not caring about dust clinging to her jeans, and watched the dust bunnies dance in the light. She had once asked Mom about the attic. “It’s a place where you put non-essential things,” she had said. Now their entire history sat crammed into this attic. The first year after Mom died, she used to come and cry here, where Nikolai couldn’t hear her. The ache came to her now, familiar and merciless, like an old vicious enemy. She pushed herself from the floor, in a hurry to get busy before the pain could sink her teeth into her and rip open a healed-over wound.
The key was too small for the dozen trunks in plain view. It had to go to something small. Like a jewelry box.
She crawled over a large box and stumbled onto the wooden trunk which she knew held her college papers. She flipped open the lid and ruffled through the stack of printed paper. “The Role of Retrosynthetic Analysis in the Design of Heterocyclic Synthesis.” “The Role of Women in Early Plantagenet Dynasty.” Why do I keep those, she wondered, touching the red mark of a grade in corner. The answer came to her from the faded ink of half-forgotten formulas. As long as I have them, I might go back.
But that would be later. After Nikolai graduates.
Marina opened her hand and looked at the key. It lay in her palm like a ray of blue light. She touched it with the tip of her left index finger and felt the force pulse from her. A dozen white pinpoints of light appeared and danced in the metal, illuminating the key from the inside out. They shimmered and shifted, and finally aggregated in the tip of the blade.
“Let’s play the game.” Marina smiled and leaned forward. The lights shifted to the left. She turned until they were again in the tip. Forward, right, lean over, a little more to the left… There it was, under a box, a thick volume bound in leather. She pulled it free and blew the dust from the cover. A small lock held the book closed.
No title. How odd. Oh, well, there’s one way to find out what it is.
She eased the key into the lock and it turned on its own. The flap of leather holding the volume closed fell aside; the pages rustled like birds locked in a cage, fighting to get out. Gently she opened the cover and gasped as familiar warmth cloaked her. Old power swirled from the pages, comforting and overwhelming her, and breathless, she sat in its whirlpool. A photograph graced the first page – a man larger than life, grey hair stark in contrast to black bushy eyebrows, shoulders spread wide. So much looked at her from that photograph – strength, and pride, and kindness. Her eyes filled with tears. “Grandpa,” she whispered softly.
The image smiled back at her. “Hi, sweetheart. I miss you.”
“I miss you too.”
“Don’t cry, sweetie. There is no need.”
“How are you?” she asked, trying to hold back the tears, but they streamed, hot against her cheek. “How is it wherever you are?”
“No place is good without the two of you,” he said. “But don’t be in a hurry to join me.”
“It’s grandma’s birthday,” she murmured, not sure what to say.
“Are you making lamb for her?”
“Thank you,” he said. “How is she holding up?
She tried to lie through the tears and couldn’t. “Not so well. She is forgetful and…”
“Difficult?” he guessed.
She nodded wordlessly.
“She always was,” Grandfather said. “Proud and strong too, like a wolf. It hurt her to admit she needed anybody.”
The pages turned. “Look here,” he said. A large photograph occupied the page. Two people laughing. A woman with hair like honey streaming down her back. Hot eyes on a lovely face. A man next to her, skin tanned to bronze, arm wrapped around her shoulders, not possessive but guarding gently. And above them a griffin diving off a head-dizzying cliff, a streak of gold against the red mountain. It drew her like a magnet – so much might focused into a single plunge. Marina touched the golden feathers and felt the speed, the wind tearing at the wings, the ground rushing at her with terrifying velocity. And her heart sang with an unbelievable thrill.
“Burgundy Cliffs,” she guessed.
“She loved the griffins,” he said. “Just like you.”
She sat back stunned.
“Do you remember when I used to take you there?” he said. “You were so little.”
“Yes, I remember.” How could she forget? The power her family had welded was a part of their life, as routine as driving a car or baking a pie. But the griffins falling from the mountain like a golden waterfall, falling so fast, committed so totally to their plunge only to sweep along the ground and soar above it all – that was magic.
He sighed. “She always wanted to go, but there was never enough money for the three of us. There wasn’t even enough for the two of us without my railroad dispatcher discount and that covered only me.”
She nodded, wordless, guessing what he would say.
His voice was soft. “She stayed behind so you could go.”
“I never knew…” she whispered.
“She didn’t want you to know. She always thought that doing favors bred contempt and she didn’t want you feel indebted and learn to resent her. She loves you so much.”
She bit her lip.
“You don’t resent her, do you, sweetheart?” he asked.
“No, grandfather. Not at all.”
“Marina!” Nikolai’s voice came from the kitchen. “The pie is done!”
She looked one more time at the couple in the photograph. “You were so young,” she whispered.
“One can’t stay young forever. But my namesake is calling you.”
“I better go,” she said, wondering if her heart would break.
“Come see me any time,” he said. “I will be waiting.”
She closed the book gently.
She told Nikolai that night over the evening coffee and salami sandwiches.
“There is just enough money in the birthday account.”
“They’ll skin you alive,” he said.
“That’s all right,” she said. “It will be worth it. I must do this.”
She shook her head, thinking of the young woman with honey hair and of the griffins perched upon the jagged cliffs. “For both of us, for me and her. It’s not something I can explain. You have to find out for yourself.”
In the morning she met them on the porch. They came at the same time, as if afraid to arrive too early. She watched as they parked their cars and approached the porch, her aunts, uncles, cousins. It struck her how put out they looked, as if distressed to be here.
“Are we early?” Lilian asked.
“No. There will be no party today, but you’re welcome to the dinner. It’s a modest one.”
“Where is mother?” Nonna asked, her eyes searching the yard.
“She is enjoying her birthday present,” Marina said, crossed her arms on her chest, and smiled.
They declined to stay for dinner.
Marina saw them go and sat down on the porch with a cup of hot cider in her hand. Above her the sky was gold with sunlight. She looked at it and thought of golden griffins. No wonder Nikolai didn’t understand. He never saw them. He never felt the freedom they brought, but she had, and the memory lived in her, its beauty so sharp it hurt. It sliced through the fog of time, clear as a crystal shard, and no matter what life brought, that memory was hers to cherish. A gift beyond measure. Marina smiled and sipped the cider. Funny how people you think you know can surprise you.
Miles away, Nikolai helped his grandmother step off the train.
“We will miss the party,” she said. “Why did you drag me here? Where are we anyhow?”
“Just come with me, Grandma.”
“I think we should go back.”
“All right, we’ll go. In just a minute. First I want to show you something.”
He led her past the station house to the stone trail. They walked along the curving path, guarded by a metal rail.
“You made me come all the way out here just to show me something? The tickets must’ve cost a fortune. All that money wast…”
The path turned and she fell silent. A great gorge lay before them, a crack in Earth’s armor. A silver river wound its way along the bottom like a glittering serpent. Red cliffs cradled the water, scraping the sky with their edges.
Gently he led her onto the tall bridge that sliced across the gorge and found a good spot at the rail. Wind rushed through the chasm and fanned their faces, and they breathed in the moisture of the river and the heady honey scent of melaleuca that sheathed the valley lapping at the cliffs’ feet. So ethereal and insignificant was the bridge compared to the colossal vista before them, that it was as if it didn’t even exist and they stood suspended in mid-air.
High atop a red cliff, a golden griffin spread its wings and cried out a hoarse greeting. Nikolai heard her gasp and gently put his arm around his grandmother. The majestic beast teetered on the edge and took the plunge like a living flame. It dived and turned at the last moment, defying gravity with its mighty wings, sliding along the ground and then surging up and up to soar, free and unbound. And Nikolai understood and held his grandmother closer.
Others followed the first, wings spread wide, amber eyes hot with magic. The old woman leaned against her grandson and watched as the mountains wept golden tears to match her own.