There’s something inherently mysterious about keys. They’ve played a role in many folktales.
Perhaps the most famous folktale key is the one that opens the locked room in “Bluebeard”. Bluebeard’s naïve new wife is given the keys to every room in the house, but there’s one room her husband forbids her to open – and the key burns a hole in her curiosity until she can no longer resist. She discovers the room’s terrible secret – the skeletons of all Bluebeard’s former wives. Then she can’t un-see what she’s seen, and the key won’t stop bleeding all over everything, giving away her transgression. Can she escape her terrible fate?
I borrowed the symbol of the bleeding key in The First Lie.
In a Turkish tale called “The Old Key”, the key is a symbol of the heroine’s lover. A poor orphan boy goes through three terrible ordeals to rescue a princess from captivity. They agree to marry, but then he disappears and she thinks he must be dead. The princess agrees to marry a prince but on her wedding day the orphan boy returns. The princess is not yet wed and she turns to her betrothed and says: “I lost the key to my jewel box so I had a new one made. But then I found the old one. Which key should I use?” The prince replies, “Of course you must use the old key.” With these words he unwittingly grants her permission to marry her former love.
In my collection of folktale retellings, Leaving Birds, the Irish ghost story “Peig’s Place” involves a mysterious key. Typical of how I write all my stories, if an idea pops into my head as I’m writing, I put it into the story even if I don’t know why it’s there. It’s a secret I have to discover. The heroine Faith has to collect a key to the old house she’s renting as a writing retreat. Then she discovers that the key doesn’t work in any of the locks. She’s tired after her journey and she says: Why did I have to get a key to the house if it didn’t work? Something about that niggled at me, but my exhaustion was stronger.
I had no idea why the key didn’t work in the locks, so I kept writing the story and the key kept being remarked about. Faith was even carrying it around with her. Why? As I got to the end of several redrafts, the issue of the key remained unresolved. So I asked my Facebook followers what role an old key might have. They suggested:
These ideas were full of possibility, but they didn’t resonate with the story I’d already written.
“Peig’s Place” is a ghost story. I researched the role of keys in dealing with ghosts: put a sieve over your keyhole to keep ghosts out and if you’re worried by a ghost throw a key at it.
Then I investigated what else a key might be used for besides opening a door. I found something! It tied into the tragic events that spawned the restless ghost. Suddenly the useless key had a big role to play in revealing the mystery from the past. It was not only mysterious, it was also magic. Or was it?
You’ll have to read Leaving Birds to come to your own conclusion.
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