Picklock (The Thief) by L.M. Robinson
Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash
Long ago, when all things were possible, there was a cottage hidden in a lonely glen. In the cottage lived a woman. Some said she was a sorceress, that when the moon was full and silver she would dance among the heather with nothing more than a necklace of bones and the ghostly light upon her, summoning the voices of the dead. Others said she was a healer and that for price of a bouquet of wintergreen or the withered paw of a rabbit, she would see your future in a bowl of water or read the stories in the lines of your hand.
I do not know if she was either, but it is true she lived alone in that wild place on the edge of the world. She had no visitors, except for the birds with breasts as red as blood that flitted among the purple flowers, and the wolves that held their sacred rites in darkness. Occasionally a stag would cross her path, its great antlers splitting apart the sky above it, and she would hold out her hand to its untamed air, which struck her body with the thrill of poison.
At night she had vivid dreams and in the morning she would wake, nursing their stutters like a headache. Every day, the same. She would sit in the anaemic light of the doorway, her pale eyes half closed, listening, listening, hearing nothing. Eventually, too full of silence, she would go to the hearth and fetch a box carved from ancient yew that sat upon the mantle. In the box, wrapped in silk the colour of a witches’ Sabbath, she kept her devil’s picture book.
She shuffled, cut, fanned the cards across the table. Every day, the same. The cross. The pentagram. The spread of the gypsies almost as broad as the table itself. Her quick fingers placed the cards in the order ordained and under her breath she said their names; the cups, the coins, the wands, the swords.
There were few cards she did not see between her restless mornings and the embrace of her lonely bed. Death. The Magus. The Star with her beautiful feet dipped in a pool of dark water. Even the calamitous Tower and the Devil with his angel wings had crossed her table.
But one day, when she ran her fingers across the fan of gilded fleur-de-lis and roses, she pulled a card that she had never seen before. She examined it carefully. Beneath a darkened sky, in which the sun and moon eyed each other suspiciously, a young man held a maiden. From the card’s four corners expressionless cherubim watched a serpent coil itself around a tree heavy with red fruit and a unicorn bowed its head in supplication. The Lovers. Psyche’s card. The card of choice.
She placed the card carefully in the silken wrap and listened to the beating of her heart. Outside, the blood-tinged birds darted amongst the heather and a wolf called to its mate. The fire in the hearth crackled and died.
Something was coming.
That night a great storm rolled across the mountains. Huddled in their furs, beside their suffocating fires, the village mothers told their wide-eyed children about the crone in her cloak of lightning and the great, black horse she rode across the backs of clouds, searching for wickedness to fill her belly. In the lonely glen the wind bayed at the door of the cottage and pawed at the windows. It mouthed the roof and licked the eaves with its airy tongue. Inside, the woman lay curled up in her blankets, listening.
A knock at the door.
Or perhaps it was the wind. Or the wolves, aroused by this brethren weather.
A knock at the door.
The woman rolled over and covered her shivering nakedness. She stepped from her bed. One step. Two steps. The door shook.
“Who is it?” she asked, her heart in her throat.
The wind howled.
“Who is it?” she asked again, with the pulse of her blood in her ears.
Slowly, slowly, the latch lifted. A burst of rain pounded the slates and she felt the cold arms of the weather encircle her shoulders. She pulled her blanket tightly about her.
In the doorway stood a man. The woman hurried to close the door behind him. Then she eyed the axe and hunter’s knife she kept for skinning rabbits. She eyed the tender place between the hair and the collar of his shirt and something inside her quickened.
But the man did not appear to see her. Weakened by whatever battles he had fought before he had arrived, he stumbled across the room and fell, as though slaughtered, onto her bed.
The woman waited until the sound of his breath became a metronome then she crept silently to his side. In the light afforded by the spasms of lightning that split the sky she examined his face, ran her fingers down the precipice of his chin to the shallow bowl of flesh at the base of his neck.
Troubled, she went to the hearth and fetched the box of yew. She lit a candle and spread the cards. The cross. The pentagram. The orderly lines of the Romany taught to her by a woman so beautiful and wild some said she was a bear who conjured up a woman’s form. She said their names; the cups, the coins, the wands, the swords.
No matter the spread. No matter that she knew the stories like the mutterings of her own heart. The cards would not speak. Or if they did it was in a language she could not understand. She pushed the cards away, perplexed, and lay her head upon the table.
Outside, the wind howled. In the village the mothers drew their babies close and dreamt of black horses held between their thighs, and sighed in their sleep.
The storm raged through the night and thundered into the morning. At first light the woman opened her eyes. The man was still on her bed, one arm flung over his body, the other stretched in the space where, if they were lovers, she would be sleeping.
She went to the hearth and lit a fire. Then she paced the stones with her bare feet, counting her steps. She stopped and turned and paced again. One step, two steps.
She found herself beside him. Carefully, so as not to wake him, she touched his lids, as soft as vellum, the bluish pallor of his storm scoured cheeks, his mouth. She sighed. Every night this bed, this window, the company of wolves and cards. She slid her fingers between the seams of his shirt and unclipped a button.
But what was this? The woman drew back her hand, startled.
There, beneath the still damp shirt where his heart should be, was not a plane of flesh and bone but a hand’s span of dark iron, broken only by a keyhole.
The woman stared, wondered. Perhaps he was not a man at all, but a clever piece of clockwork like the little clockwork daughter she had seen in the company of a sad philosopher years ago, or like the tiny birds the Moorish sold from their gilded caravans.
The man stirred and opened his eyes. “You cannot open it,” he said.
The woman looked at her naked feet and the colour rose in her cheeks.
“Are you a man?” she asked.
“Yes. And still, you cannot open it,” he said.
“How do you know? She replied, petulantly.
He smiled. “Because you don’t have a key.”
It was her turn to smile. She lifted her face, looked him square in the eye.
“I don’t need one.”
The man shook his head. “You cannot open it and you mustn’t try. Do you promise me?”
But the woman said nothing. There, in that wild place on the edge of the world that was hers alone, she did not make promises.
Days passed and the storm’s fury did not abate. On the mountains, trees were uprooted and the things that crept among them hid in the hollows of the earth, overcome with terror. In the village they crossed themselves in public and in the privacy of their own homes poured libations to the old Gods, who understood the ways of the weather.
In the lonely glen, in the little cottage that shook and shuddered with the unforgiving wind, the man and the woman circled each other. He watched the curve of her back as she lit the fire, the colour of her hair illuminated by the flames. She moved about the bed in which he lay, still weakened by whatever had preceded his arrival, and felt his eyes upon her, caressing the pebbles of her spine, her neck, the arches of her hips.
At night, the space between them grew smaller. First the floor and then the quilt, and then the air between them diminished. One night, emboldened by the dwindling distance, she touched his mouth with her own, felt out, with the tip of her tongue, the backs of his teeth, the softness of his inner cheek. In return he kissed her neck, the curve of her ribs, every inch of her warm and hungry body.
Each night she ran her fingers across the square of iron. And each night he would remind her.
“You cannot open it.”
“Where is the key?”
“Does it matter?”
“Are you hiding it from me?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“Why won’t you let me try?”
“Because you might unlock it.”
But the man would look away from her and say nothing. Until one night he said,
“And then I would not leave.”
The woman laughed.
“I am not a sorceress.”
The man smiled, just a little, in the corners of his mouth.
“And this is no enchanted place. I know I cannot keep you. I don’t want to keep you.”
But still the man shook his head. The woman sighed and closed her eyes.
A moonless night. The sound of wolves and moaning wind and rain devouring the earth.
The woman woke and slipped from the bed. She crept to the hearth. One step. Two steps. She stirred the embers into life and took the box of yew from the mantle. She drew a card and placed it on the stones beside her. Watched by four impassive cherubim she raised her arms and shook out her hair. From it fell a single pin, its noise against the slates as high and slight as a gnat’s song. She searched it out with her fingers and held it to the red light.
Outside, thunder drummed over the roof and lightning split the sky.
The woman crept back to bed. One step. Two steps. She drew back the covers. The man’s skin bristled with the cold.
She touched his mouth, ran her fingers along the cage of his ribs. The man opened his eyes. He saw the pin and a sigh shuddered from his mouth.
“Trust me,” she whispered, and kissed his neck.
The man’s breath quickened. She licked at his collarbone, ran her hand down the length of his shivering body. She listened to him moan and the blood throbbed in her legs.
“Trust me,” she whispered again. She looked into the man’s eyes and brought the pin to his chest. This time he did not lift her wrist or move her hand away from him. She felt the bones of his hips hard against her, felt her whole body heating.
Her hand darted forward and she thrust the pin into the keyhole. A click and a turn. She grew faint and the blood pounded in her ears.
Outside, the world convulsed, climaxing in the arms of the storm.
The woman awoke to silence. She stretched in the cool, clean air, and then turned to the pillow beside her.
There, on the bone-coloured linen, lay a key. She reached out and touched it. It was still warm. She picked it up, smiled, rolled over in the empty bed and drew the blankets around her.
L.M. Robinson is a writer from Melbourne, and a teacher of both literature and philosophy. She has previously written short stories, philosophy textbooks, memoir and biography, and while she has long been interested in dark forests and strange occurrences, this is her first fairytale.