When I was born, a clever mage, who was also my mother, made for me a triptych: three panels, attached in a row by hinges, depicting paintings of our home. The middle panel depicted our capital city, where we lived. The left panel depicted my mother, her hands raised as if in the casting of a spell. The right panel depicted the Arx, the great tower of knowledge where mages learned their trade. The flanking panels were each half the width of the middle one, so they could be folded inward, and the image could be hidden. And strangely, my mother had built a lock into the triptych. Once folded, the triptych could be secured. I did not know why it would need to be locked. There were no secret or blasphemous things depicted in the paintings, as far as I knew.
My mother wore a key around her neck, and I asked her once, when I was very young, if that key was the key that locked my triptych. She only smiled in answer at first, then she said that she would reveal the answers to my questions when I was old enough and wise enough to hear them and understand them. This I accepted. And I did not ask about the key for a long while to come.
My mother always gave me gifts on the anniversary of my birth. When I turned eight years of age, she presented me with a key. It was not a fancy key. It appeared to be made of brass. The shaft was smooth. The bow was a simple shape, like half of a heart, and hollow in the middle. Before she could tell me what the key opened, I was already dashing toward the triptych that sat on the dresser along the west wall of my bedchamber.
I sat down and folded the triptych. I inserted the key. I locked the triptych, and then unlocked it. My mother was standing behind me. I could sense her watching me.
I folded open the triptych, and I gasped.
The paintings had changed completely!
The middle panel now depicted a rippling world colored in shades of green and blue. I recognized it from my lessons. Tall towers of seaweed. A school of bright red and orange fish. A great turtle, its fin-like feet outstretched. This world was undersea. The left panel depicted a merqueen. Her entire body was covered in glittering blue-purple scales. Atop her head was a crown of coral. The right panel depicted a castle sitting at the bottom of the sea, its pearly spires rising over a great city.
Mesmerized, I reached out to touch one of those fish. As my finger brushed the surface of the painting, those fish darted to the left as if they’d sprung to life. Bubbles rose through the water. The kelp began to waft to and fro.
“There are many different worlds,” my mother said. “I have visited but fourteen of them. I will share them with you and teach you of them through that triptych. And perhaps, someday when you are ready, we will attempt to travel to some of them.”
For a long moment, I said nothing. I only gazed at the images of the merqueen, the fish, and the castle with the pearly spires.
At last my mind took in and pondered my mother’s words.
“Why only ‘some’?” I asked.
My mother gestured to the triptych. “Opening a window is somewhat of a challenge. But opening a door is quite difficult, even for the greatest of mages.”
My mother told me that I had earned the key by doing well in my lessons. And if I continued to do well in the coming years, she would give me a new and different key every year on my birthday until I had earned all fourteen.
So it was that I tried my best at my lessons and behaved myself as best I could all year. And when my birthday came around again, I received the gift I was expecting, another key.
Again, I closed and locked the triptych, and again I opened it to another set of images. This time, all three panels were painted with flowers. In the middle was a meadow with a many-colored stem from which sprouted many different kinds of flowers. Bluebells swayed in time with the wind, knocking heads with daisies and sunflowers. On the left panel, a field of wildflowers bowed their heads in unison toward a single red amaryllis, whose long leaves were raised to the sky. On the right panel, moonflowers bloomed as the sky grew dark, and they gazed up at the stars. And I understood that this was a realm ruled by flowers.
The very next year, I earned a third key. With that key, the triptych opened to a world of brass and bronze and silver and iron, a world ruled by machines. As I brushed my finger against the middle panel, gears began to whir and pistons pumped. To my surprise and delight, I could hear the sounds of the mechanisms, dimly but clearly. And as I watched with wide eyes, little bolts of lightning sparked within one small machine, causing it to emit a bright and steady glow of soft white light.
In the coming years, I would open the triptych to a world ruled by animals that spoke the languages of people, and a realm inhabited by dreams, where nothing was as it seemed.
As each year arrived and my mother handed me a new key, I began to wonder about the key around her neck. I wondered if it was the last key, the fourteenth key. And on my fourteenth birthday, I asked her so.
“No,” she said, gripping the key around her neck between her thumb and forefinger. “This is not the fourteenth key.”
“But…it does appear to fit my triptych. Is that not so, mother?”
“Oh? You have been observing my key that closely?”
Suddenly, my curiosity overwhelmed me. “Can I touch it?”
“I do not think that would be wise. You are not yet ready.”
And suddenly my curiosity waned, and I remembered the key that was already in my hand, the one I had not yet tried. “Forgive me, mother. I do not want your key. I am just curious.”
My mother swept her robes aside and sat next to me. “This key will someday belong to you. You will not earn it by merit. You will come to inherit it.”
“After I have earned the fourteen?”
My mother shook her head. “You will not inherit this last key until the day of my death.”
I frowned. “Then I hope to never inherit it—and before you tell me that my hope is foolish, I know it is, and yet I hope it.”
My mother smiled her mysterious mage smile. “There is nothing foolish about hope.”
She kissed my cheek and then my forehead. “If I should perish before you earn the other keys, you will find them hidden throughout our home. And you must find them and use them before you take possession of this last key.” She rose and gazed down at me. “But do not worry. I have no intention of perishing for quite some time, and certainly not before I deliver you the fourteenth key, provided you continue to earn them.”
Comforted, I smiled and nodded. And I tried they key I had earned that year, and opened the triptych to a world ruled by pixies with dragonfly wings.
I did not remain comforted. For I began to wonder about that key around my mother’s neck. She called it “the last key.” And I wondered what world that key would show me when I turned it in my triptych’s lock. And I wondered why I could not earn that key as I had been earning the others. I wondered what was different about that key. And I wondered why my mother would have to die before it came into my possession. I did not want the key if it meant my mother was gone.
As my mind spun around the thoughts of the last key and my mother’s death, I began to suspect that the world that last key would reveal was the last world. The last world that all we mortal creatures visited. The realm of death.
Perhaps that was why I would not inherit the last key until my mother died. And then I would wear it around my own neck until I died. And then I would pass it on to my own heir.
I tried to comfort myself with my mother’s words, and convince myself that I would be far older than my mother was at present before I inherited that key. And my mother would be so old that she would be ready to journey to that last world. But I could not stop fear from gripping my heart. I could not stop dreaded thoughts of looming death from gripping my mind. A superstition formed in the noxious brew of that fear and dread. I convinced myself that my mother would die once I earned all fourteen keys from the fourteen worlds she had visited. With her task complete, and nothing more to give me, she would die.
Anxious and unable to devise a logical plan to prevent my mother’s impending doom, I chose an irrational course of action the following year. I purposely did poorly in my studies, and I failed to earn the key on my birthday.
My mother expressed comfort at first and encouragement, believing I had honestly failed. But in the days that followed, when she tried to give me extra lessons and when she watched me practice more closely, she realized quite quickly that I had failed on purpose. Having told no one of my fears, not even my closest friends, I was unable to stop myself from blurting out the truth. I told her I hoped to stave off her death, by derailing the sequence, or at least prolonging the time it took to earn the keys, and therefore ensuring that I would not inherit that last key, not for a long, long time.
My mother listened, then she put a hand on each of my shoulders, and she gazed into my eyes. The image of her gentle gaze blurred as my eyes filled with tears. My mother explained that she had all the more reason to live if her daughter was happy and realizing her greatest aspirations. And she insisted again that my fears were irrational, and ensured me again that it was unlikely she would die in the year after I earned the fourteenth key.
I heeded my mother’s words. And though I still worried and feared, I realized that all I might be able to do, all that was within my grasp and power, was to work hard, study well, and make my mother proud by earning that next key, and all those that came after.
So it was that I earned the next key on my sixteenth birthday.
I opened the triptych to a world of mirrors where all was reflected, sight, sound, even thought and memory. And for the first time, I felt something more than wonder and curiosity. I felt uneasy. For I did not know if I would want to visit this particular world. It seemed to hold no dangers, certainly compared to the world of dreams. The dream world was full of as many nightmares as sweet dreams. And yet, it had not troubled me as the world of mirrors did.
I stayed true to my course. I earned a key every year. I opened the triptych to yet more worlds. And soon came my twenty-second birthday.
By this time, I no longer resided with my mother. I resided in the tower with my friends and schoolmates, studying to become as skilled a mage as my mother was. But I returned home during holidays, and for my birthday.
It was easy to forget my anxious superstition about my mother’s death when I was not at my childhood home. But when she presented me with the fourteenth key, I set down the plate of cinnamon cake she’d conjured for me, and I felt a surge of dread swallow my stomach.
But I opened the triptych onto a lovely world where peoples of various shapes and sizes communed in what appeared to be a center of commerce and culture. On the left panel, a group of such people gazed out of a grand window toward the stars in the night sky. And on the right panel, another group grasped various forelimbs as if in friendship.
“When you are ready and able, we should visit this world in particular,” my mother said. “The people are most hospitable, and the food is superb, even better than your favorite cake.”
I smiled as I gazed upon the triptych. All dread forgotten. Replaced by a warm hope and excitement at the thought of a future trip with my mother.
A year passed. My next birthday had come. My studies were almost done. I came home. My mother was not there to greet me. I did not find her in her study, in her laboratory, or outside in the rock yard.
I searched the whole house and the grounds. I used one of the speaking orbs to reach her. She typically carried a marble within a pocket of her robes. It would hum or chime to let he know that I was trying to reach her. But after several tries, I gave up. I began to grow worried.
I went and asked the neighbors when they had seen my mother last. Only a few days past, they said. And she had mentioned going on a brief trip before returning home for my birthday.
Though I wanted to leave the house and look for her, I decided to wait. If my mother was simply delayed, I did not want to be out desperately searching for her while she was safe and sound at home, waiting for me. But if she were simply delayed, she would have sent word to me.
Sure enough, someone came to the door with a delivery, not a message, but a small box, sealed with my mother’s seal. My mouth went dry when I saw the seal. I accepted the box, but I was afraid to open it. It was a small box. Just the right size to contain a key. There were no markings on the box itself. There was no note or message accompanying the box.
Before I could hesitate any further, I cracked the seal and opened the box, and there sat a key, my mother’s key, the last key. There was a note lying under the key. Holding in a breath, and with it, holding back despair, I read the note. It simply said, “Use it to find me. I am not dead.”
I exhaled and made my way to my triptych.
I inserted my mother’s key into the closed triptych’s lock. I turned the key. It made a sudden high-pitched whine. I recoiled.
The triptych shook, and it tumbled over onto the ground. I moved to right it. But recoiled again, when it righted itself, and began to grow. The locked triptych grew taller and wider as I stepped back and watched. When it stopped growing, it was as tall and wide as a large door.
I stepped toward it, meaning to open it. I pulled at the triptych’s latch, now a full-sized handle. But it would not open. Then I saw my mother’s key.
It had broken in half. The two pieces lay on the ground before the triptych.
I tried every trick I knew to repair the key, but nothing worked. A blacksmith’s forge did not work. Trying to fuse the pieces with magic did not work. Trying to fuse the shaft with a different bow did not work.
As I worked and failed, I was so caught up in panic that I had forgotten about my own keys. Strange though it may be, the most obvious thing to try did not occur to me, until my last failure to repair my mother’s key found me pacing back and forth before the triptych door.
“The machine world,” I said to myself in a flash of inspiration.
I fetched the key that would open the triptych to the machine world. Perhaps a machine could fix my mother’s key. I took a breath, and opened the triptych door to the machine world. This time, when I pulled the latch, it moved. The outer panels opened like double-doors leading through a doorway. There were no images on those panels now. Before me, I saw the machine world. But I did not just see it and hear it. I smelled oils and chemicals and the sharp odor of lightning. And I felt heat pulsing toward me. And the image did not look like a flat image, but a real room into which I might step.
So I took a step, toward the doorway’s threshold. I looked to the right and left and beyond. The room was filled with box-shaped machines, glowing and blinking with many-colored lights.
I had only hoped that I might speak to someone in the machine world, and ask about repairing the key. And failing that, ask if anyone had seen my mother of late.
I never imagined that I might be able to step into the worlds.
I closed the doors. If I could actually travel to all the worlds I had only seen in the triptych before, I had to be prepared.
I quickly donned my travel garb, gathered a small bag of supplies, placed my mother’s broken key in the inner pocket of my vest, and set out to search for my mother.
My journey would not be as long as I thought it would be. I soon discovered that not all of the worlds were open to me. Aside from the machine world, there were only four others that I could visit. When I tried my other keys, they only opened to the same images I had seen before.
I did not find my mother. Even those who remembered her said she had not passed through their realm in some time. And I did not find any way to repair my mother’s key. Even those who wished to help me did not know how.
But I did learn a few things.
I learned that the keys to each realm had powers that could help me to get through dangers, or that I could use as tools to help me solve some problem, usually involved with trying to find my way back home. The key to the machine world transformed into a device that allowed me to communicate with the machines, translating their language into mine, and mine into theirs. The key to the realm of waters turned into an enchanted bubble that traveled around me as I searched and questioned the merfolk. The key to the realm of pixies became a torch that burned with a fierce silver flame that warned them against trying any mischief on me.
I returned home, having gained no truly new knowledge and no clue about my mother’s whereabouts. But some feeling, stronger than instinct, stronger even than hope, compelled me to believe that my mother was behind the double doors of my triptych. I had only to use the proper key.
During the course of my life, as I had earned key after key, I often placed them on my writing desk, beside each other. I did this to admire the keys, to be proud of my accomplishment in earning them, and also to see if there were any further clues or secrets hidden in them. And I wondered from the beginning if I could combine their powers. I once tried to merge two of them together using a simple binding spell I had just learned. I had hoped that they would forge a new key, and that this new key would open the triptych to a new world, one that perhaps my mother had never visited or even seen before. I hoped to see another world, but I also hoped to impress my mother with a new discovery.
But it didn’t work. And over time, as I grew older, I did not “visit” with my keys as often. I was learning and doing so much in my own world. I did not need to gaze upon these other worlds so often.
But now, I arrayed all fourteen keys on my writing desk. I turned and flipped them around, placed them in different configurations. I peered at them. I kept getting distracted by the thought that my mother might be in imminent danger while I pondered over puzzles. But I had no other clue. My mother had told me to use her key. But I had broken it. And I could not repair it. Perhaps my own keys could somehow help me to restore my mother’s key.
I noticed something I had not noticed before, because I had never placed all the keys together like this. After earning the fourteenth key the previous year, I had put it away, and returned to the tower and to my studies.
But now, I discerned what seemed to be a pattern. The first and fourteenth keys appeared almost identical, save that they were mirror images of each other. I placed them next to each other. And I noted that the second and the thirteenth keys were similarly mirror images of each other. As were the third and twelfth keys. And so on. I rearranged the keys to put each next to the one that was its mirror image. I picked up the first and fourteenth keys, and I touched them together. Before I could even take a breath to summon a binding spell, the two keys fused together in the middle. The new fused key shuddered in my hand and then stilled.
I glanced at the triptych. I wanted to try the key, but the bit of the key was shaped too big to fit in the triptych lock. I set the fused key down. I picked up another pair and held them together. Again they fused without any effort on my part. When I was done fusing all the pairs, I had seven fused keys before me. None of them looked as if they could fit the triptych. But I did see another pattern. Six of the keys made reflective pairs. I picked up the pairs and held them together, and again they fused. I now had four keys. Two matching pairs. I fused them again until I was left with two keys. And I fused the last two keys, and as they merged, the new key that formed vibrated in my hand and shifted its shape. The shaft and bit could now fit into the triptych lock.
I noted that the new key looked simple again, and similar but not identical to my mother’s key.
I approached the triptych door. I brought the new key toward the lock. It began to shudder as I slipped it into the lock.
As the key vibrated, I feared that it would break, as my mother’s key had broken.
“Do you doubt yourself?” I said aloud, speaking to the key, perhaps also speaking to myself. “Why? You have great powers merged within you. The power to hold back the weight of an ocean. The power to foil the mischief of fairies. The power to speak to machines. A simple keyhole will not undo you. You are more, you must be more than the sum of all that comprises you.”
I raised my brows with a sudden realization. “Yes, you are more,” I said. “You are not fourteen keys merged. You are a new key forged from them all. You are…you are my last key.”
My hand grew steady them, and so did the key. It slipped into the keyhole, and the door unlocked. I pulled upon the latch, and the doors opened upon a great plateau below a night sky, twinkling with thousands of stars.
A short distance away was a stone castle. I gripped my key in my hand, ready to use it, not knowing what it would become to defend me in this place. I heard nothing as I approached the castle. No sounds of people or animals.
The castle was immense. The open gates were so tall that I could not see the tops when I stood just below them. When I entered the grounds, I saw why the castle was so huge, and I froze.
They were lying on the ground as if asleep. Dozens of them lay on the grounds. I crept past them.
I entered the castle and found even more sleeping giants within. Some reposed on the floor. Others were slumped in great chairs. Though I suspected some enchantment, I did not take any chances. I moved as quietly as I could through the castle, searching. And in a receiving chamber near the main hall, on a tall table—tall for my height, that is—I found my mother, locked in a cage.
“My clever mage,” my mother said as she watched me approach, “you found me.”
I climbed up to the table, and my mother explained that she had come to that new world to explore—and perhaps to forge a new key for me. She’d been immediately captured and imprisoned as a curiosity. And she had found that the magical skills of her captors were equal to her own.
“I was not able to open the cage from the inside,” my mother said. “But I calculated that my key would be able to open it from the outside. When they let me out of the cage to performed conjuring tricks for them, I managed to seal my key and send it to you, in the hopes that you would come and open the cage from the outside. After that, I spent all my time figuring how to incapacitate the giants so that they would not imprison you as well.”
“It would seem you succeeded,” I said. “But for how much longer will they sleep?”
“I do not know. It has been three days already. I was beginning to wonder if I would need to put myself into sleep as well.”
“Mother, I’m sorry,” I said, producing her broken key. “Your key is broken.”
My mother’s eyes widened at the sight of the key. “Then…how did you get here?”
I pulled out my own key and explained to her how I had made it.
“My clever mage indeed,” my mother said.
“Do you think it will work?” I asked, afraid to try the key on her cage in case it broke under the strain of the cage’s enchantment. My key was our only way out of that realm.
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “I have no experience with that key. But you do. What do you think?”
I peered at my key. I nodded and used it to open my mother’s cage.
Though the giants had captured my mother, they had not been cruel to her. When she saw them all sprawled in sleep, she feared that her enchantment might have been more potent than she had thought. Or perhaps they were more sensitive to it. Either way, she was loathe to leave them as they were. She woke them just before we fled through the triptych door.
Once we returned home, my mother took her key from me, repaired it, and locked the triptych. It began to shrink at once and was soon restored to its original size.
I was relieved that no giants would be reaching their hands through the triptych to try and retrieve their “curiosity.” But I was not happy to see my mother’s key restored.
“Darling, I am sorry,” my mother said. “You visited all those wondrous worlds and did not have the chance to enjoy them because you were seeking me. How foolish I have been.”
“It’s all right, mother,” I said. “I feel we have time now to visit those worlds together.” I sighed. “But…let us be done with keys for a while. I am more than satisfied with a slice of cake for a present.”
My mother picked up the triptych and restored it to its place on my dresser.
“Are you certain? You want no spells? No scrolls?”
I embraced my mother, hearing her startled huff as I squeezed a bit too tightly. I released her and held her in my outstretched arms.
“Just cake,” I said, smiling. “And you.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel