On the morning Joseph buried the key, he wrapped it in white silk and placed it in his winter coat. Night rain had glossed a thick sheen of ice over the earth, forest, and all the manor’s windows. Joseph melted the bathroom window seam with hot tap water and wriggled through it since creaking floorboards and mothers had signed a pact centuries ago. He had to shove his coat out the window ahead of him so he was small enough to fit. Once outside, he shivered violently in his boots and pajamas as he jammed his arms into his sleeves and blew breath down his collar to defrost his freezing heart.
The massive weight of the key pressed on him, heavy enough to split his pocket lining. He walked with a limp, one foot pounding the ice-crusted earth as he roamed the forest, seeking a hiding place to guard his strange and precious gift. The unfairness of his promise rang through the leafless wood, and Joseph imagined mournful wind-whispers that told him he shouldn’t surrender the one thing his father had given him, no matter what he’d vowed.
Frightened by the shadows of the trees, Joseph’s feet turned back toward the shelter of the tall house with the second story room where he’d met his father for the first and only time. His father had passed away in that same room two weeks before, eighteen days after Joseph had seen him.
Again the icy unfairness choked Joseph, but it couldn’t subdue the fire of his promise. A small sound, insistent but unobtrusive, tapped like a drum on Joseph’s soul, which was already stretched tight with longing.
His eyes roved the frozen lily pond, then turned up to the frigid sky. Christmas sparkle had faded with the passage of the old year. A few clouds in the pre-dawn firmament crumpled like discarded wrapping paper, and the woodpile reeked of mold. The house’s tears tumbled down two big drainpipes, the largest of which opened onto the ground in front of Joseph’s feet.
It was this ping – tap – thump that had woken him earlier. The drainpipe’s drip had summoned him here. Where else would frozen earth be soft enough for digging than under falling water? He knelt, ignoring the mud that seeped into his flannel pants, and dug earth chunks free with his fingers. He rinsed his palms in the falling trickle and withdrew the key.
Rest in peace, he thought. He imagined the tired, hopeless eyes of his father and their bewilderment when Joseph’s mother introduced Joseph and his sister to him with, “Percy, these are our twins.”
That day, Joseph’s father had given him this key and made him promise to hide it. Joseph had agreed with as much earnestness as his heart could command. He couldn’t deny this first and only request.
Suddenly it wasn’t just the rain pipe dripping, but his eyes were dripping, and then his nose ran. Joseph lowered the key carefully into its hole, the pale silk wrapping bright against the dark earth. He placed a large stone over the key, then stamped the sodden earth closed, gritting his teeth to hold a sob captive. He glanced once more at the second story window, then looked away.
He hung his head, wiped his nose, and prayed. He prayed for security and protection, for warnings and obstacles against the key’s discovery. He pressed a handprint into the earth, then stood, scrubbed his palm on his pajamas, and prepared to scramble again through the bathroom window.
Dark lashes and a round face observed him like his own reflection from the other side of the windowpane. He’d begged his twin not to follow him, but now that the deed was done, he couldn’t shut her out anymore.
Joseph touched the window, and a curl of ice fell to the ground as Hazel opened it for him. They crept back to their room with the twin beds, and he pulled his blanket over their feet as they huddled together on his bed.
Hazel hugged her knees. Her flannel nightgown had a pattern of moons and shooting stars, and the collar was wet where she’d chewed it.
“Did you do it?” she whispered.
“I buried it.”
“Is it safe?”
“The house is guarding it. It’s as safe as I can make it.”
That afternoon, as Joseph and Hazel drove away from the house, their mother tight-lipped at the wheel, he stared at the iron bars along the outer gate. Withered bouquets still clung to the fence, left by strangers who mourned the death of the great Percy Humboldt, his father.
Joseph squished his palm against the cold glass of the car window and watched items pass: the funeral flowers, the looming gate, the forest beyond, and finally, looking over his shoulder, the outline of Humboldt Manor with the key below in its earth until, at last, everything faded into the sheathing protection of distance.