by Beverly Forehand
Maggie James was a handsome woman with money to spare. She lived in a house, large and well-kept, by the shore. She was young yet to have been widowed at twenty-nine and younger still to have lost three husbands. But it was true none the less. Folks said she was unlucky in love. And though fortunate in all else, it did seem that Maggie and a husband were not meant to be.
Her first husband was a Captain, almost twice her years. When he died abed, some felt sorry for the young woman, but few were surprised. Captain James had left young Maggie with a fine house, but no children. A pity. And when she married in a year, it was only to be expected. She was young, and a widow; and women have needs.
Maggie’s second husband was the first mate on the schooner, Pearl. He left twice a year on long voyages to the Islands and back again, and he always brought Maggie a fine gift or two from his travels.
But one day he didn’t return. Folks reckoned he’d met foul play in a far harbor where he and his purse parted ways. Though his body was never recovered, such is the fate of men that go to sea, and since Maggie waited a full two years before she wed again, there was none to question it. Many thought her brave. A woman alone in that house by the sea.
Maggie’s third husband, by all accounts, was a scoundrel. A year or two her younger, Malcombe Davis had little to offer but his pretty face and his foul temper. Though he was a sailor, he took to drink and left the sea after he met Maggie and spent his days lording it up in her fine house.
When he left her for a barmaid at the “Jolly Jim” after only six months, most folks said it was good riddance. And when he didn’t return after a year or more, some said he was no doubt dead in a ditch and the world better for it. Maggie was alone, again, in her fine house. She walked the Widow’s Walk in her house by the sea and watched the shore and for two years she did not marry again. Then she met Elias.
Some say now his name was Percy or maybe even Robert, but I have it from the best sources that the young man’s name was Elias. He was a sailor too, but it was a sailing town. A port. So that was only to be expected. But young Elias was a first mate on a fine ship with a shining future and the manners of a gentleman.
Many said he had a sad story behind him. A gentleman or even a nobleman fallen on hard times. Perhaps a family disgraced or fled for some indiscretion for which young men are always prone. But for Maggie and Elias it was love at first sight. The red-haired widow and the raven-haired boy fell head over heels.
And though Maggie was twenty-nine and a woman grown and Elias but just turned twenty, none doubted the match. Elias, for all his young years, was a quiet, stern fellow with eyes as grey as the sea. He seemed steady and devoted to Maggie. And all the town said what a fine match it was and how lovely that Maggie’s bad luck had finally turned to good in matters of the heart.
But Elias for all his good dark looks had a brooding heart. Sailors are often taken that way. For any man that loves the sea knows that she is a hard mistress and as often to wreck and drown a man as to carry him safely home.
Elias took to following Maggie everywhere and even paying boys to follow her about town. If she spoke to another man, even a shopkeep, he fell into a black and furious mood and it took all of Maggie’s doing to turn him to happier thoughts.
But Maggie, used to inconstant men, took Elias’ rages as a compliment. Still, the same folk that had praised the match and stood smiling at Maggie and Elias’ wedding, murmured after a few months that the match would come to no good and that Maggie, poor soul, was as cursed as ever. Some said that it was Maggie herself that would go early to the grave this time instead of her groom and, most likely at his hand. But Maggie just smiled and shook her head. The more her young husband brooded and fumed, the happier she seemed, as though fury was her bread and butter.
When Elias’ ship was called to sea in the Spring, Maggie stood on the Widow’s Walk and watched him go, all the time waving, though she knew the ship was too far out for any soul to see her. Long months passed before Elias returned and many a letter he wrote to Maggie and she to him, though mostly, they kept them to themselves, hoping their beloved would read their missives at their reunion.
A life at sea is a hard one. But a life of waiting, if you ask most, is worse. For men go to sea and to war and ever to adventures, both fair and foul. But it is a woman’s place to wait and watch and wonder. And often, the news that comes to her is not hopeful. Still, after a year, Elias returned to Maggie and their reunion was merry.
But within a few weeks, Elias turned to his old suspicions. He told some friends of his that he believed Maggie was hiding something from him. But they only laughed and said a woman was nothing but secrets and he had no more to complain of than others and less than most. But Elias was not satisfied.
Elias knew that Maggie kept a tiny key on a silver chain about her neck. The key itself was not remarkable. But the fact that she wore it ever, waking or sleeping, was a mystery to him. He’d asked her once if not a hundred times about the mystery of the key. It was old and worn and too small for any doors that he knew of in the house. But Maggie only laughed and told him it was the key to her heart.
At first, the key seemed a light thing. It charmed him that Maggie had a secret. What could it be? he thought. Surely nothing more than a woman’s whimsy. A key to some diary or box of sweet-nothings. But as Elias’ suspicions grew, so did his obsession with the key and, after a time, he began to plague her day and night about it.
He followed her about hoping to see the secret of it. But never, not once in all the months and then years did he see Maggie use the key. Once, while they idled in bed late in the morning and she was in a fair mood, he asked her prettily about it, as if it meant nothing to him.
Maggie, smiling as he played with the dark curls of her hair, took the key from around her neck and held it to the light. “It is, as I have told you, the key to my heart,” she said, “But I’ve no use for it these days since my heart, as you know, my dearest darling love, is in your keeping.” Then she smiled sweetly and put the key back round her neck and lay back on the pillow with a laugh. “Would you strip me of all my secrets, then, my love?” she asked, “For every woman has a heart of darkness and a soul that a man could never understand.”
Elias took this for more of her evasion and frowned, though to her face he laughed and kissed her head. “I’d take you as you were, secrets or no,” he said to her. But in his heart, he resolved to know the secret of the key no matter the cost.
After that Elias doubled his watch and there was seldom a moment that he took his eyes from Maggie. If she ventured to the market on a sunny day with a basket on her arm, Maggie would find Elias not far behind her. If she woke in the night and tiptoed silently out to the Widow’s Walk, she would turn only to find Elias standing still as a cat in the shadows.
Once, when she thought she was alone on the shore, having taken a winding route, Maggie stood barefoot in the wash and sighed looking out to sea, only to hear her lover’s breath behind her. “What is it you want?” she asked then, not angry, but only tired and a little sad. But Elias said nothing and only stood staring at her in the dusk.
One night when the moon rode low in the sky, Elias watched as Maggie left the bed and closed the shutters. He lay, feigning sleep, until he heard her steps mouse-quiet in the hall. And then he stood and followed behind her, keeping always to the darkest shadows.
Maggie crept to the library and, moving one book and then another, revealed a door he had never seen before. A door with a small and ancient frame and a hole just the right size for a small silver key. Her hand at her neck, Maggie turned and stood wild-eyed, her back to the door and the key clutched tight in her hand. And there in her own shadow stood Elias.
“What is it?” he demanded, “Is this your secret then? Where does it lead?” When she said nothing and stood staring and dull, he grabbed her by both shoulders and shook the woman. “I’ll have it out of you yet,” he wailed and threw her out of the way. But after the door held fast despite his kicks and beatings, he turned to her, his eyes red with fury. “Give me that key,” he said softly.
Then Maggie shook her head slowly. “No,” she said, “But if you will, I will show you what I keep inside.”
“What is it, then, a passage to your lover?” he cried.
Maggie looked him dead in the eyes and finally smiled her slow and secret smile. “As you say,” she said, “It is the route I take to see my loves — every one.” She pushed him then and put the key in the door and stepped back. “If you would lead, my Love,” she said.
And he stepped forward and turned the key. The door opened, shyly it seemed to him, as if it had not been visited for some time. Behind him, he heard Maggie moan and then the scrape of iron across the wooden floor.
The blow took him unexpected and he fell into the room catching himself only barely with a hand. It was dark and the smell was unpleasant. A waft of age and dust and something far worse. Behind him, he heard Maggie sigh, disappointedly as one would at a disobedient child. “You said you’d never leave me,” she said. And then, more quietly, “They all did.”
As his eyes filled with the dark, he could see around him shapes unmoving and then Maggie’s slender feet. She leaned down and caressed his cheek and then hit him once more hard on the brow with the poker that she held.
“A pity,” she said, running her hand around his stubbled chin, “I would’ve liked to have seen that beard. It’s coming in so nice. Black and fine, almost blue in the light.” She smiled again as his eyes grew dim.
“I’ll be back in an hour or so to see you again. You may see me then, or not. But I will see you every day, my Love. And as you promised, you will never leave me alone.” Maggie turned with a swirl of skirt and then he heard the door close and the rattling of the lock.
He lay alone, but not alone, in the dark and tried not to think of the dark pool growing around his head or the numb feeling in his hands. He turned his head slowly and saw, not far from him, what must’ve been Maggie’s first husband or her second. Maybe a lover. Who could tell now? Even in death, the boy looked young, yellow hair streaming mercifully across his ruined face. Maggie had caught him by surprise too, because even from here, he could see the glint of a dagger’s hilt protruding from the boy’s boot. A sailor’s boot.
Maggie would be back in an hour or so, so she said. And by then, perhaps, he would be able to crawl across the room and take the dagger in hand. One way or another, they’d always be together. He smiled and the dust moved around him as he sighed and tried to rise on one hand. And for an eternity he crawled toward the boy and the boot and the dagger. At times he lay breathing heavy on the floor and then moved again. Always toward the boot.
The room was shadowless. No windows to mar the perfect dark and only the light from under the door as a guide. A room full of lovers and enemies and lovers who were enemies, kept close and safe and secret and forever. If only no one ever asked for the key. If only no one ever turned the lock. If only the door remained closed. He reached for the dagger and found it cold in his hand. The key turned in the door, and in the dry, hallowed dark he smiled and waited for his love to meet him.
Copyright © 2007 by Beverly Forehand