Laure Van Rensburg
The end of the hallway, third door on the left. Identical to its carved oak sisters lining the walls except for the difference that it is locked. Never touch the key, Franny. Never touch the key. It lives on a leather strap around his neck. He never takes it off apart to unlock the door and lock it again behind him. I never see, but I hear. Late at night when he thinks I am asleep—the muffled thumps of his boots as he brings them in. When silence is reinstated, I tiptoe down the stairs.
The end of the hallway, third door on the left. I press my ear against the cold brass of the lock. I listen to strange songs of jagged harmonies, of screams and whimpers laced with his raspy laughter. I know his routine and when I must get back so he believes I am obedient, a good girl he says. But. Curiosity grows in my chest deeper and deeper. Its roots coil around the curves of my ribs and the stumps of my spine until. Until the evening when he has too much wine, the evening when I refill his glass as soon as empty. Later, when the moon is high and he is snoring beside me, my fingers work the leathery knot until it is free. Never touch the key, Franny. Never touch the key. Its heavy brass radiates with his warmth and the gleam of his sweat. Every move could be my undoing but still. I brush my lips against his stubbled cheek. “Sorry Daddy,” I atone. Then. I slip out of his bed and pick my nightgown—a whiteness of gauze pooling on the dark hardwood floor.
The end of the hallway, third door on the left. I slide the key into the lock. The door whines open and I stand by the doorway. My lips part under the heavy truth, at last revealed, but no words escape. The floor of the windowless room is coloured with the pain that has been seeping out of their wounded bodies. The air in there is spoiled with an acrid rusty smell similar to the place where we kill the chickens and the sheep so I breathe through my mouth. On the left wall, the instruments he uses to make them sing are neatly lined up in a shimmery trail of gruesome decorations. A dim light outlines a hapless shape in the corner, a pile of bruised flesh under a mass of auburn hair. I don’t need to see to know. They all resemble her—the dusty portrait presiding in the old library over mouldy books. That older version of me. Was she the first? How long before it is my turn? Until he cradles me in his strong arms as he carries me down to this room, my head resting against his chest and the lulling beat of his heart. Until he makes me sing.
The end of the hallway, third door on the left. I trap my breath in my lungs and I cross the threshold—bare feet on the cold flagstones and I shiver. At the unexpected warm draft caressing my neck.
“Never touch the key, Franny. Never touch the key.”
The key, I turn and the music box plays tinkling notes of a tune from days far away. Nothing more for the family but just for me a little voice inside the melody “come and play with me Annie”. How exciting, a friend just for me, one only I can see. Imaginary, mama calls her, I call her Melanie as she does prefer. Alone at last, I turn the key and welcome back Melanie. She teaches me a game she often plays, it’s called “Crime and Punishment”, she says.
First Nutmeg, cats shouldn’t scratch a little girl’s leg it’s not nice, so on the culprit’s tail slice, slice goes the knife. Next comes Patrick, little boys shouldn’t pull on their sister’s hair so we punish him, tumble, tumble down the basement’s stairs. Next baby Alice is fun, the easiest to punish as she’s got nowhere to run. Little sisters should learn for their toys to share, so we give a little tip and topple, topple bouncy baby down the high chair.
Papa doesn’t see but mama looks at me funny so we plan Melanie and me. Huddled in the closet tight, she whispers to me at night. She tells me about her family how they locked her in the attic and called her a freak. Beat her until there was nothing left of her but she came back and their skulls she cracked. Never trust your family, she tells me. So we listen behind locked doors when mama tells papa my behaviour she deplores. For punishment, my music box away they should take and with her mean words, seals all their fate.
Finally, the family’s turn, like chestnuts in a stove, crackle, crackle bones as they burn. Be nice to your little girls otherwise up to heaven you’ll go in smoky swirls. The two of us escape, holding hands, watching the flames make a funny shape. Everybody dust apart from kitty, which already sleeps buried deep under the oak tree. They should have never threatened to take Melanie away from me.
To the orphanage, they take me, the girl with a music box and no family. My new roommates taunt and tease, mean little girls do to me as they please. I don’t mind because at the end of the day, when all are asleep I turn the key for it is our time to play.
Laure Van Rensburg is a French native residing in the UK and she currently studies creative writing at Ink Academy in London. One of her short stories has recently been published in Across The Margin and she is working on her first novel. Bienvenue au Danse, Laure.