The Tree of Keys


Every heart has a key. That’s what the poets say, anyhow. Most people take the imagery as gospel, or at least close enough to it. They well and truly believe their heart has a key that will unlock it. Of course, rational people whose minds and emotions are solidly in the world of the here and now know that’s just bunk. Hearts don’t have keys. Never have. Never will.

Those people have never seen the Tree of Keys. They’ve never seen the hundreds upon hundreds of keys that hang there, swaying in a breeze that moves nothing but them. They never get to feel the wires from which the keys hang, impossibly thin and strong, woven from heartbreak and hope. They’ve never closed their eyes in front of the tree and let the long years of emotions in those keys wash over them so that the one they seek will show itself. They’ve never felt the soul-breaking sadness when I must snip the wire and the key falls to dust.

They’ll never have the chance. The grove in which the tree grows is guarded by a great serpent, known by many names. In legends, it lies curled up at the center of the world, or around it and not around a single meadow in which stands a single towering tree. The serpent is mighty and clever, and also a bit of an ass.

“Hey, Legs! How do you spell my name?” It voice boomed across the meadow.

“Get bent, scaley-boy,” I shouted back. “You know I never went to college.”

“You don’t know much, do you?” it said, and laughed loud enough to hurt my ears.

“I know the world doesn’t end today,” I called back. “Now leave me be. I need a key.”

The grove grew still, the serpent settled. “So soon?”

I nodded. It couldn’t see me, but it could feel me in the currents of air. It was that large and that smart.

It rumbled and shifted a bit. I saw the ridge of its horned head rise just above the horizon. That’s as much as I’ve ever seen of it. The serpent never shows itself, not even to those who command the power I do. Not until the very end, when the serpent and I will not be the friends we are today.

I faced the tree, quieted myself, reached in to the teeming, swaying mass of keys, and took one in my hand. I could feel the last warm feelings of love and hope and bright mornings of joy fade as I gently pulled it away from the others and gave it a sharp yank. The wire snapped with a click that resounded through the meadow. The serpent shifted again, uneasily.

The key sat in the palm of my hand for just a moment, then it blew away, bit by bit, dead as a crumbled leaf in late autumn. I could hear the arguments, feel the impenetrable walls of anger and stubbornness. The despair set into my heart like a great stone. I winced. That was the worst part. The last part. When it dies for good, for ever.

“I’m sorry,” the serpent said. “You come here too often. I do not like to see what it does to you.”

I shrugged and took a moment to focus on where I was again. “What can I do, wyrm? The tree must be trimmed. Dead keys have to be removed. It’s not my fault hope dies. I don’t control the mortals and their stupid, arrogant, short-sighted…” I threw up my hands and looked down, through the lush meadow, toward the World that Is.

“Go easy,” the serpent said. “It is only your job, not your identity. You are the Gardener. You trim the Tree. You do not make it grow and thrive. That is their job, foolish and fragile though they be.”

“You’re right,” I sighed and looked down at my hands, where the last grains of dust — the last memories of a love long gone — blew away in the breeze of time. “I only wish it mattered to them more. Maybe if they could see how much it matters.”

The serpent laughed. “Not bloody likely, little crying man! How long did it take you to understand your job here?”

“Have I already told you to get bent today?” I asked, a smile coming to my lips. The serpent knew me far better than I knew him. Then again, that was his job as Guardian of the Meadow of Time. I turned my back on the tree and its many, many keys. He really was right. I hated the job of pruning, but it was necessary. Death has no place here. Not yet. What fades here always comes back. That is the way of all things living. Until the end.

Until the serpent and I are no longer friends. Until the day we end each other’s lives.

But that is a great many days from now. I hope.

I have a key on that tree as well. My love for this place,

May it remain forever.

I think this is the first time I’ve blown through the 250-word limit in this incarnation of the Friday Fiction prompts (prompt here so you can play along). The story came in at 850 words, which I think is about the right length for it. It simply needed more room. That is the way of stories, sometimes. You can’t argue with them very effectively. They’re quite stubborn.

(Photo Credit: brenkee on Pixabay)