Hidden Keys

“She wants the key,” my step-sister said.

We were both now in the 6th grade. It was a weekend and I’d come to spend the night. This time, when my step-mother left, she kept N. in school, and so I learned where they were if not why they were there. N. wanted to stay friends and invited me to spend the night. We never got along so well.

Now she stood in front of me and told me her mother wanted my house key.

after the divorce and before the second wife, mom takes a picture of my dad and me
after the divorce and before the second wife, mom takes a picture of my dad and me

“Why?” I asked, looking up from where I sat on the pavement.

N. shrugged. “She wants you to give her your key.”

I tensed. J. had worked most of the weekend and I hadn’t had to see her much. N. and I stayed outside when she was in. In when she was out. “I’m not giving her my key.”

N. raised an eyebrow, but went back inside. She returned quickly. “She wants to clean.”

“She doesn’t need to clean. I can clean,” I said.

“Just give her the key. You know how she gets.”


While I waited for her to deliver this message and I fidgeted. I’d only said no to her once before–when she tried to change my name. N. let the door slam behind her. “She’s really mad. She’s says she’ll take you home if you don’t give her the key.”

“Fine.” I felt flushed and shaky. I wished I could walk home, and thought about doing it anyway.

A few minutes later we were in the car. I sat in the backseat alone. N. must’ve decided it was in her best interest to pretend I wasn’t there. My step-mother, however, couldn’t let me forget. “You’re father works so hard for you and all I want is to help him out and clean the house. But no. You are too selfish to help. All you do is think about yourself. I can clean that house for you.”

“I can clean it,” I whisper.

“I can’t believe you said no to me! How is your dad going to feel when I call him and tell him you won’t help me. I’m doing something nice but no, you can’t help. You’ve always been ungrateful and selfish. You don’t care what you put your dad through at all. All I want to do is help.”

“I can clean it.”

“Don’t be stupid. You don’t know how to clean a house. Your not grown. Besides, your dad will give me the key. You can’t stop me.”

I cried because she was right.

She pulled into the driveway. “I don’t know why you hate me,” she said. “All I do is try my best.” She says many things. “You’re dad thinks your so good all the time, but I know you’re a spoiled little brat.”

I got out of the car without saying goodbye to N. and I walked to the kitchen door, afraid to get out the key while she’s there. “You so stupid. You know, I’ll get that key,” she shouted out her car window and threw the car into reverse.

I cleaned the house like crazy. I washed the curtains and the inside of the microwave. I walked through the empty house shouting, “I’m not giving her the key!” I was cleaning the baseboards when Dad got home.

“Why didn’t you give her the key?” he asked. He sat on the sofa and I stood in front of him. I couldn’t speak.

“You’re a good girl. I don’t understand,” he said.

The words stuck. It hurt to talk. “I,” was all I said.

“She’s only trying to help,” he said.

“I don’t,” I said. My chest hurt. “Want.” My dad talked about being a family. “Her,” I said interrupting. “In this house.” My dad looked as if he’d never seen me before. I was not the good girl he thought.

“I’m going to give her the key,” he said.

I nodded. About a week later J. moved back in. He was shocked five months later when I left and didn’t come home.

Symbolism. From apples (forbidden or poisoned) to rings (hidden from view or thrown into fire), from winters of discontent to summers of love, from this color to that number, and from what this professor said a symbol meant to what it meant to you, stories have symbols. Intended and otherwise. Meaningful and missed. Silly.

I don’t try to put symbols in my stories. I use a color or a number or a name because of the sound. My first novel (though I’m still reluctant to confess such a thing) I called The Blue Jar and a friend and I joked how it wouldn’t work to call it The Yellow Jar or The Pink Jar or The Plaid Jar. That blue is associated with the spirit, water, and sky is just nice. But the sound of things comes first.

In school I hated it when I missed a symbol in a story and a teacher would look at me like–what? Didn’t you get that? What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong? Where do I begin?

Well, when you read do you look for symbols or ignore them? Think they’re important to spot or fine to take them as you see fit? Or do you see them in a way I haven’t thought of yet?

9 thoughts on “Hidden Keys

  1. We all have symbols which use in so many differing ways, as omens, as elements defining a relationship or a hoped-for relationship, as mementos, They either have power or we impart power to them, and thus does power take on personality. It is a wonder to come across some symbol tucked away in a drawer or forgotten part of a desk, look at it with bewilderment until the memory of its power returns. To answer your question I will ignore them if they let me, but it is not always clear that they will let me.

  2. Well, okay, Shelly. Yes. My life is certainly filled with symbols, and so is my fiction. What bothers me, I suppose, is when they appears forced. Of course that is annoying. The other thing that baffles me is when a reader makes an object a symbol all on their own. I once had a reader tell me a pillow I’d used in a story represented a character’s baby. But I’d just been casting about for something for the character to do while she talked. She was nervous and sitting on a sofa. I know, I’ll have her put the pillow in her lap. I hadn’t given any thought to the baby.

    So, while a writer can force a symbol in a story or let it appear naturally, a reader can naturally find the symbols or can force their reading. Or something like that.

    This makes me wonder if what I intend (pillow is pillow–not baby substitute) is relevant. Readers take what they want (she misses her baby). Is the reader right?

    Ack. It’s like I’m back in school….

  3. Readers will do that–see symbols where you intended none. Best you can do is be truthful to your own feelings about the story, then truthful to the characters and what they want to happen nor not happen. For me, it helps to make such symbols as there are details that play out in the investigation of the character. If that seems unuseful to you, the next step would be taking a stand on symbols that feels right for you. Then from time to time you have a chat with your characters where you tell them how it is.

  4. I like symbols but not overt symbols. (Unless you’re talking about fantasy or children’s writing.) I don’t think much about symbols when I’m writing, but I like it when they just happen unconsciously. I think if you write from your heart, the connections and symbols will come out in a story just like in life. For example, not giving that key to your step-mother could symbolize that you finally put your foot down. You locked her out of your life. And soon you would be gone. That’s so cool, by the way. I’m so glad you got out of there.

    And I think everyone will see different symbols depending on their own experiences. They will take what they need from a story. And that’s okay. That’s what I love about writing and literature.

  5. P.S. I just read your comment, and yes, I don’t like forced symbols. As for seeing symbols where the author may not have intended it to be, I think that’s natural. Sometimes it may be frustrating to an author, but I think it’s something we have to live with. Like I said, I think that’s the cool thing about writing or art – we all take different things from it.

  6. I love it when people find symbolism in my work that I didn’t intend, both art and writing. I think that’s a sign that we are tapping into the subconscious, the soup where it all starts to make sense on a level deeper than logic. And maybe perhaps, when we write a story, we are only providing the architecture for the imaginings of our readers. They decorate that house to make it their own, and within our words, they see connections that resonate with their own personal symbology. I think that’s cool.

  7. I agree, I agree, I agree. I’m not sure what is really bothering me about symbols in my own writing–unless I think they prove I’m mentally ill or something. Oh well.

  8. Symbols seem to have a life of their own. Readers can’t be barred from assigning their own “meanings” to arbitrary objects and events, and in a way that’s actually pretty healthy: it’s a sign (almost said “symbol” *cough*) you’re engaging readers on more than one level.

    I don’t like forced ones, either, and I seldom (never? who knows) try to create something which stands for something else. (Like, cigars and neckties??? Come on, Dr. Freud, who are you trying to kid?)

    OTOH, when I’m looking at a painting I probably see things which the artist never intended. Intentional or not, those things are there — if for no other reason than that “art” isn’t a product just of its creator, but of its observer as well. It’s a kind of creative transaction. If I manufactured sewing needles, I’d be hard-pressed to find insult in somebody’s using one for a surgical suture. More likely I’d be charmed.

  9. Pingback: Lying Daughters and Bad Writers « writing in the water

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