By Paige Wyatt
Momma threads secrets into our hair. Tiny iron skeleton keys are tucked away behind our dark tufts, behind our ears and at the back of our heads. She tells us they are the keys to her heart, the keys to a part of herself that only we will ever possess, and it makes us feel special.
Momma doesn’t like unexpected visitors, so she chose a farm that’s far away on purpose. She makes anyone who needs a lock or a key set an appointment. They are never allowed in the house and must meet her in her shop at the edge of our property, close to the dirt road. When we were small, we used to whine about never having visitors. We wanted to show the children from the village the chickens that scuttle across the field. We wanted to share tea cakes that drip with vanilla and lavender cream under the oak tree in the front yard. We wanted to make friends and offer a place of refuge from the stink and sound of the village. But momma told us that we didn’t have to share this place. Only we had the keys, and we had to keep that secret. We were her secret keepers.
Wednesdays are wash days. My sisters and I spend the morning scrubbing the sheets with homemade soap, dipping our hands in the water over and over to beat the dirt of the week’s work away. Sometimes, when it’s cold, the water is sharp toothed and snaps its jaws around our fingers. This Wednesday, it is warm, the water smells of lemongrass and honeysuckle, and every splash of soapy coolness is a balm against the coming summer heat.
Anassa, the eldest of us by two minutes, scowls at me from across the tub. “You’re not scrubbing hard enough,” she says. “These stains are stubborn. Put the soap on the spot and use the wire brush.”
“They’re almost as stubborn as you are,” I mumble.
Daeira, the middle sister, who is only older than me by one minute, chuckles as she bows her head, cheeks burning under Anassa’s disapproving glare.
“Make your jokes,” she sneers. “If you don’t start pulling your weight around here, Mother will make you work in the village.”
The threat is empty. Momma won’t let us venture into the village for longer than an hour, and she never lets us go alone. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a burden on Anassa. She is momma’s voice when she’s not here, while Daeira is her eyes when she cannot see. I am nothing like our mother, and my sisters never let me forget it.
Siris, our huge, black Great Dane, nudges me so hard I nearly fall into the water. “Oh!” I shout as I steady myself. “Lunch time already, eh?”
His tail smacks the side of the tub so it sounds like a drum. Anassa frowns as I let the sheet slip under the water and abandon my post to feed the dog.
“Kyria!” Daeira calls as I amble into the shed. “Bring more soap!”
I wave at her and continue walking to the shed. I sigh as the sun beats down on my uncovered forehead and wish it were winter again. I love the falling snow, the darkness, the cold. I am always the one who volunteers to traipse through the forest to gather wood for our fires, the one who tends to our horse in the dark, silent mornings. It’s one of the few times I truly feel alone. The blanket of freshly fallen snow mutes the sounds of the world, and I can breathe easily as my ears settle and my chest relaxes.
As I dig in the back of my mass of hastily tied hair for a key to the shed, I close my eyes and cherish the sense of being alone. My sisters are feet away, and Siris is at my heels, but even being this far helps my heart slow.
I pull a key from my hair and tuck the strand upon which it was woven behind my ear. Siris whines. “I know, I know. I’m trying to hurry.”
But as I place the key in the lock, Siris’s whines change to growls. The fur on the back of his neck rises and he faces the door, teeth bared. “What’s wrong?” I ask, thinking he must smell a squirrel. I place a hand on his back but he doesn’t calm. The growls only get louder, his teeth more exposed.
Sudden fear seizes me, but I catch myself. No one could be here. No one is allowed on the property. Momma protects the borders from prying eyes. She hides the house and the barn and the shed behind giant trees and bushes. No one can even see us from the road, and as far as they know, we live in Momma’s workshop.
I square my shoulders and take a deep breath. There is nothing to be afraid of except a squirrel or a mouse. I fling open the door, and before I can have a proper look, something pulls me inside.
I try to scream, but whoever it is claps a hand over my mouth. The arms are wiry, strong, determined. “Don’t scream, please!” a quiet, calm voice says in my ear. “I don’t want to hurt you. I promise.”
I jerk my leg up hard. The boy grunts and goes down. I take the chance to whirl away, but he grabs my ankle and I stumble. It’s dark in the shed, but I can see by the tiny beams of sunlight that shine through. He isn’t quite a boy, just as I’m not quite a girl. His blonde hair glints in a beam of light, and his face is dirty. “I just want to talk to you,” he says. “Please don’t tell anyone I’m here.”
He lets go of my foot and I take another deep breath. “How did you find this place?”
He stands, brushes himself off. He is wearing a robe that looks like it used to be white but has seen the dirt of the road. “My job is to find things. And people.”
I check his hands. He doesn’t appear to have any weapons, but his shoes are pristine gold and white. “Where did you get those?” I point down. In the brief pause it hits me. “Are you royalty?”
Momma has told us of the King and Princes in the city, but I have never seen one. No one of notoriety comes to our village, but I have seen the elaborate golden locks and bejeweled keys she has made for the King. The young man smiles. “I’m here for a message.” He fumbles with his robe and pulls out a golden envelope. “I have tried to deliver many messages for some time, but your mother takes them.”
I narrow my eyes. “She doesn’t allow anyone this far beyond her shop. Do you need a lock or a key? I can show you the way to–”
“The messages are for you and your sisters.” He interrupts me. “It might not be wise to tell your mother.”
“Momma knows everything that happens here. I can’t keep something like this from her. She will know,” I say, more to myself than him.
He purses his lips before he answers. “Read the message first.” He holds out the envelope again, urging me to take it.
As my fingers close around it, a sinking dread seeps into my stomach. “You should leave quickly,” I say. “My sisters are out there and my dog might bite you.”
Remembering Siris, I glance around, surprised I don’t hear him barking and growling on the other side of the door. “Your dog is sleeping peacefully,” the stranger says with a smirk. “I’m to wait until you’ve read the message.”
I hesitate. Anassa will be here any minute to see what’s taking me so long, and she’ll likely blame me for the stranger’s visit. I have so many questions, but I might never know what this is unless I open it right now, so I do. The golden envelope glows with an orange light, reminding me of a torch. I squint against its brightness, but it fades as quickly as it appears, leaving letters that look as if they were written with ink on fire.
“Keeper of the Keys, Torchbearer, Sin Eater. Come home. Find your way back to us.”
A vision of a black cave, my hand holding a torch aloft, my sisters at either side, dressed in saffron robes with keys in our hair. I stare at the words, try to make sense of the vision, but Momma’s voice breaks through the haze. “Kyria?”
My eyes snap to the stranger, but he is gone, leaving nothing but the letter as evidence that he was ever here. I shove the letter in my dress, taking care not to damage it before I open the door.
Momma stands there, hands on her hips, her work apron blackened with soot from the forge fires. Her dark eyes soften as she takes in the look on my face. “What’s wrong?” She always knows.
I want to lie, but that doesn’t come easily in the presence of her gaze. She knows us better than we know ourselves, and if even a small thing is amiss, she can tell. I cannot keep a secret from her. “Someone was here.”
Her face grows serious, the lines setting deeper. “Where did he go?”
I start. “He?”
She sighs. “What did he give you?” I pause, but it’s hopeless. She holds out her hand. “Give it to me.”
I step out of the shed and back into the light. My sisters are closer now, not hiding their inquisitive and judgemental glares. Sometimes it’s like looking into a mirror, we look so much alike, no matter how different we are. “I don’t have anything,” I say, trying to sound more certain than I am.
Momma puts a hand on her hip. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Give me the message and I can destroy it. We’re better off pretending he was never here.”
“Him?” Daeira echoes. “Who were you talking to in there?”
Momma turns her glare on my sister. “You two stay out of this.”
I straighten up, puffing out my chest the way Momma always taught me. “He said the message was for me and my sisters.”
Her usual mask of control slips for a moment. She never expected her lesson to be used against her. “I am the one in charge here, and you will hand me the letter.”
“What is she talking about?” Anassa asks me, her eyes meeting mine. “Momma?”
I take out the letter and hold it aloft the way I did the torch in my vision. Momma takes it, but it doesn’t matter. I already know the chant by heart. “Keeper of the Keys.” Anassa freezes. “Torch bearer.” Daeria’s face goes blank. “Sin eater.” I am transported back into the vision, once again with my sisters at my side, all three of us holding torches as we march through a cave to the sound of an unseen drum. We are glowing with power, a feast of light, guiding dark figures behind us to sanctuary.
But Momma’s voice brings us back again. “This is nonsense, girls. There’s work to be done, and you have chores to complete.”
Anassa, Daeria, and I make eye contact as Momma marches down the path, back toward her workshop, envelope tucked tightly under her arm.
“She’s going to lock it up with the others,” I say.
We’re quiet for a long time as we stare at the spot where Momma was and then again back at the shed. “You saw it, too?” Daeria asks.
I swallow my fear. “The stranger who brought me the letter said there were others. They’re locked away somewhere. They have to be.”
Daeria’s eyes light. “In her workshop. The chest buried under the forge. They would have to be there.”
Anassa nods. “Keeper of the keys,” she mumbles. She reaches behind her ear and pulls out a small, golden key. She smiles. “Keeper of secrets.”