Our Secrets, In Keys
by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Edited by Brian J. White
This used to open the door to the first room where we locked you up, before you stole a light and burnt it down. I was too late to contain it, too late to quench it once kindled. I thought we’d lost everything. Then you returned in the middle of night, once the firemen were gone. You came as yourself, teary, parsing through the rubble, unearthing this melted mass of copper from the door. You said the thing inside you was too great to tame, a twisty eel at the bottom of your belly that squished and squirmed and bit your insides, until you had to let it out.
I held your cheeks, kissed your lips. We would get another place. We would go far away, so no one would get hurt. We would keep the key to remind us that we may melt and twist, but we will always have each other.
This one opens the front door to the new place we got out of town, a large patch of land off the highway into Benin City. Heavy, rusted lever lock, black like the iron door itself that I had specially made. The metalworker was amused when I gave him the specs.
“Can it be destroyed by fire?” I asked.
“Only hell fire,” he said.
So pleased, weren’t we? No neighbours, ground floor to yourself: empty, windowless and devoid of all light and life. The brick walls coated in black intumescent paint ensured we’d never be burned again.
We bought a steel safe, stored lethal pesticide in it. “In case I become dangerous and you need to— ” You couldn’t finish, so I put my hand over yours.
We put the safe key at the end of the bunch.
I ignored your longing stare at the walls. Never wondered if you pined for voices and faces other than mine. Never thought the heat of my skin against yours wouldn’t be enough.
“Let me go,” you whispered as we lay together one night, coated in slimy sweat and an after-sex gleam. “Let me go because this hurts.”
It was the upstairs study that kept me daft, you know? Kinda like this tiny piece of bronze-covered runt of the ring that barely fills its own hole. I might’ve gone in there everyday, but I stopped looking after year one. Once I realised that the only info out there about you was stuff we already knew, like:
“One who carries the blood of Oshumare, this rainbow serpent, shall be forced to pay the price of a halved humanity. One shall forever and henceforth, share its existence with a blasphemous behemoth.”
“There are two things that rouse the rainbow serpent within: pure fire and pure sunlight. Once this happens, as the Yoruba natives here tell me, primal urges will take front-and-centre in any case.”
See? A cure wouldn’t compare to what we already had. We were here together, and that’s all that mattered.
“I will always follow you,” I said to you some other night. “Always.”
“Then you will burn,” you replied, breath misting. “You will burn with me.”
So I clicked open the door tonight, with this new silver one, since you stole the black. The candle in my left hand cast a rich, hard shadow, the right amount I needed to cloak the knife in my right.
“Stop!” I’d never heard you shriek like that, never seen you back into the corner like that, fear the light like that. “What’re you doing?”
I put the light up and it licked your skin. Your mouth gave to a shrill cry. The wings came first, beating, sinewy. Then gleaming scales invaded your skin and your body yielded to a slinky middle, your throat red with fire. Nails to claws, legs to hind limbs, pupils to yellow slits; the dregs of your humanity winking away.
I wouldn’t look upon your transformation as I crouched closer, your upper arms— the flabbiest part— my only focus. This was where I went for with the knife, drawing blood. Wetting my fingers with it.
Putting it to my lips. Tasting your beast.
“Now we’re the same,” I said, triumph in my voice. “No longer divided.”
No one told me a beast does not love.
I ducked out the door as your first blast hit the wall, coated it in soot. I swung the door, but you pinned me back with a large sweep of one wing. I pushed, pushed.
I was not strong enough.
You rammed out of the room, a leviathan of smoldering golden and red.
“Stop!” I couldn’t hear myself over your bellowing. “Stop, please.”
Their urges will be purely primal.
And love is too complex.
You bounded up the stairs, slammed into the steel door at the landing. Once, twice. The door bowed to your strength. Not even a glance for me as you crashed into furniture upstairs, burst out of the front door and leapt into the night.
Your cell of intumescent paint and concrete walls is where I now fight sleep, begging dawn not to come. My chest pinches with heat and rage, my throat cramped and airless. I ache for nothing but to breathe, and dawn’s light is my salvation.
Will I not seek breath now? Will I not become you?
These keys, the story of our lives, they mock me. I stare at this one at the end of the ring. I know I should leave this room and go upstairs, to the safe that it opens. But as dawn draws nearer, I can’t stop asking if it will be, really, the key to freedom.