Locksmith and Primrose

Posted on September 10, 2008

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Two men:  one not precisely a man, the other enigmatic, not definably anything.

The first was a locksmith and he had a primrose on his palm.  It had been there since birth.  The second had no obvious characteristics, nothing to account for him, no moth wings, or catlike eyes, or long over-supple fingers.  He was simply the stranger, the man on the bus.

The man on the bus said, “There’ll be an angel on your roof at 4 a.m.”

The locksmith had no way of knowing to whom the stranger was speaking.  There’d been no intermediate gesture, the meeting of eyes, the touching of a jacket sleeve with the fingertips.  No clues.  No signs.  The stranger, in fact, could’ve been addressing anyone.

The locksmith glanced around.

The girl over there with the short skirt, for instance.  Or the old fat woman with the scar above her eyebrow.  Or the sweaty looking teenager reading a novel.

‘Who is he talking to?’ the locksmith asked himself, ‘with his messages of angels?’  Suddenly he felt frightened, cold.

‘If I ask,’ the locksmith thought, ‘he might tell me it’s somebody else.’

He stared down at the floor of the bus and argued silently.

‘This is not an ordinary messenger,’ he thought, ‘not the kind that is careless with messages. Errors, no.  Misunderstandings, no.’  He understood somehow that, for the possessor of such messages, a misunderstanding was as good as a lie.

The locksmith touched his hand briefly to his forehead.  ‘And people who know the schedules of angels don’t lie,’ he thought.  Not even accidentally.

The locksmith realized that he had to leave.  He bent his head over, and kept it bent until he got off the bus.  He didn’t turn around as the bus pulled away, because he did not want to look back at it.  In fact he lifted his hands to his ears the moment his feet touched the sidewalk.  A kit which had been tucked underneath his arm dropped and spilled, and various tools and keys fell out.  He paid no attention to this.

Spilled keys, spilled tools were not important.  It was important that the stranger get no opportunity to signal him, to tell him somehow that the message was intended for other ears.  That was the important thing.

He stood with his ears covered and his eyes turned away until the bus was well gone, beyond sight and hearing.  Then venturing a sudden glance to see that the stranger was not near him, he stooped to gather his tools and keys and began to walk to work.  He’d gotten off the bus a kilometre before his usual stop.

————

The locksmith worked in a shop that designed and constructed locks.  He did none of this himself.  His was the important work of discovering the weaknesses in the work of others.  If a lock was brought to him he examined it, tapped it, listened to it, probed it.  Then he opened it.  He could do the same with any lock.  Locks from the larger commercial manufacturers he could open like the lifting of a latch or the turning of a knob.  The measure of a lock’s effectiveness was not whether it resisted him, but how long.  The specialty locks made in the shop where he worked resisted longer.  An expensive design could baffle him for five, perhaps even ten minutes.

The locksmith’s work was important to him, even essential.  Yet he loathed locks, he loathed the implication behind them, that there should be doors only certain people could open, exclusive doors, exclusionary doors.  He wanted to enter any room, pass every gate.  That was what made him choose his trade.  He couldn’t abolish locks.  They would continue to exist and people would persist in using them.  He wanted to open doors and refused to be prevented by the lack of a key.  So he entered a profession which permitted him ten thousand keys.

He arrived at his job several minutes late, his thoughts unsettled.  When he went to his workbench, he found there was nothing for him to do.  But he was restless and nervous, so he wandered over to the manufacturing section.

“I’m going to do some checking,” he told the foreman.

Then he took up and examined every lock he was permitted to handle.  Eventually, a supervisor was called who tactfully escorted him back to his own section.  Fortunately some work had been found for him by then, and he was kept occupied for the rest of the morning.

By the afternoon, he was calmer.  This was fortunate because once more his workbench was idle.  He sat at his bench speaking to no one, glancing around sometimes at the other tradesmen but catching no one’s eye.  When he wasn’t glancing around, he was staring at the palm of his left hand.

The primrose birthmark on his palm was a rich burgundy, delicately shaded.  The shape and detail of the primrose were as precise and intricate as a miniature painting.  Even at birth, it had been so.

A nurse had noticed the mark the day after he was born and had shown it to his mother.

“Odd that I didn’t see that myself,” his mother said.

“Your mind was on other things, dear,” said the nurse, simply.

“It’s still odd.”

Others gathered around to examine the infant palm.

“How strange,” they said.  “How wonderful.”

“But it’ll fade after awhile,” said one.

“That, or it’ll lose its shape when he gets older,” said another.  “I’ve seen it happen before.”

But with time the mark had not faded, nor lost its shape.

“Well, it’s very pretty now,” said his mother.  “I wonder what it means.”

“Does it have to mean something?”

“I think so,” she said.

The infant that he was grew into a strange wayward child: a child without laughter, yet capable of pleasure; a child without anger, yet capable of cruelty.  He was restless, uncertain, directionless, and sometimes there was in his face and manner a look, a hunger, that nothing in the world seemed capable of satisfying.  His mother did not love him with the love of mind and heart, but of the body only, with a love kindled by his small limbs pressed and clinging against her.  His father did not love him at all.

One night, when he was seven years old, he stood listening in the dark by his parent’s bedroom door.

“What’s wrong with the boy?” he heard his father say.

His mother answered almost irrelevantly, as if the conversation was an old one which she could enter again at any point.

“He’s very clever,” she said.

It’s true the boy was quick in some things, almost sudden.

“But he can’t seem to learn the rules,” his father said.

“He obeys them.”

“He didn’t always.  That time, do you remember when he ….”

“He obeys now,” his mother said quickly, cutting short his father’s example.

There was a short silence.

“But he doesn’t believe in the rules,” his father said.

“That’s just like other boys.”

“No,” said his father.  “No, it isn’t.”

Later, his parents made love.  He stayed at the door and pictured to himself what the sounds meant.  When the sounds eventually subsided into the slow exhalings of sleep, he went to bed himself.

His father left when he was eight years old, and didn’t return.  His mother died when he was ten.  For several years he lived with various relatives, but their charity seldom lasted.  He finished his childhood moving from foster home to foster home, until, to everyone’s relief, he was old enough to go out on his own and no longer was anyone’s responsibility.

Some who knew his history felt guilt at how damaged he had been by his childhood — so empty of lasting love, so full of rejection — felt guilty at how it had warped him until he hardly had human emotions anymore.  Yet the man was just as the child had been:  older, more aware of himself, yet in his basic self altered hardly at all by his experiences.  But people couldn’t have known that, and knowing, wouldn’t have understood.

And they would’ve understood even less if they’d been told that the key to it all was the primrose inscribed in the flesh of his palm.

The woman had told him.  She was slender and alien with cool flesh, and she’d been his lover.  She had told him but he hadn’t believed.

It was not that her explanation was strange — he didn’t care that it was strange — but the evidence was so slight.  Yet he had new evidence now.  The man on the bus was evidence.  The angel was evidence.  Tentative still, indirect, inferential:  yet evidence.

What did the birthmark mean? — That the locksmith was not his mother’s child.

——

After work was over that afternoon, the locksmith quickly accomplished all his tasks:  he bought the tar and mixed it;  he searched out a nylon rope and found the appropriate fittings;  he took the ladder out of storage and propped it against the side of the house.  But having done these things, he had nothing left to do to fill out the time.  Impatient, he went through his house opening doors.

He came to his library.  It was a small room with not enough light, and a dark oaken desk pressed against one wall.  On the walls he had hung reproductions of the diabolical hellscapes of Bosch, the bleeding skies of Munch, the haunted wheatfields of Van Gogh.  He looked at these a moment, then turned to his books.

They were stacked in shelves that reached from floor to ceiling on the wall opposite the desk, and they were a queer assortment with no poetry and little fiction.  He couldn’t abide writings that dealt with the world in conventional ways.  What fiction he had, however, the dark grotesque fantasies of Lovecraft, Hodgson and Peake, were in volumes that were well worn.

Most of his books were non-fiction:  folklore, obscure histories, even more obscure religions and philosophies, and much else that betrayed a taste for the morbid and the recherché.  He searched among the shelves of folklore and removed a particular volume containing medieval depictions of elves and gnomes.  He turned the pages smiling ironically at the distorted faces, the crooked, disproportionate limbs.  Several hours went by.  It was past midnight when the book ceased to amuse him, and he once more became impatient.

Doors.  There were so many doors, so many locked gates.  He stood for a moment at a window looking out at the city.  Then he took up his coat, stuffed a small bundle of precise tools into the pocket, and went out.

He had the gift of stealth, which is more than simple quiet movement.  He walked downwind from shadow, passing along streets and into houses.  His tools let him silently into stranger’s hallways, and he crept in and out of gates and doors, past sleeping dogs, indifferent cats, unwary children in their beds.  In office buildings, he peeped in cupboards and desks.  In stores, he wandered among the aisles, touching nothing.  Finally, hours later, he returned home like a chameleon in flux, still unnoticed by anyone.

Three-thirty a.m.  It was almost time.  He took the two buckets of tar which he had mixed earlier and climbed the ladder to the roof, teetering dangerously with his load as he climbed over the eaves.  The substance that he had mixed with it before was meant to thin the tar, prevent it from hardening too quickly.  His job was now to spread it on the roof.  The roof was pyramidal.  An intuition told him that the angel would alight at the peak.  That is where he poured the tar, careful to keep his own feet clear of the slow-moving sticky substance.  When he had done this, he climbed back down and fetched the nylon rope, also — on a foolish impulse — getting his locksmith tools.  Then he returned to the roof and lay down to watch the sky and wait.  At 4 a.m. the angel came, in silence and light.

As expected, it was beautiful, like and unlike a man.  Its limbs and torso were slim, and its albino wings were wide, growing out of the lower portion of its back.  Its hands were symmetrical, with three fingers of normal length framed by long double-opposable thumbs.  It flew naked, clothed only in light, and it was apparently sexless and motherless, for it had not genitals, no umbilicus and no nipples on its breast.  Its eyes were large and widely-spaced, and behind its head trailed a glow of long fine auburn hair.

The angel set down upon the roof and its birdlike feet sank momentarily into the tar.  They were not stuck for long, but long enough for the locksmith to twist his rope about the angel’s waist.

“Leia deraelin shanerah!” it cried, and flapped its wings.

The locksmith felt the feathers brush against his face, and a tugging at the rope, but he held onto it with a firm hand and the angel did not escape.

“Ho lyla!  Loannae lyla!” it said.

“Your language is strange,” replied the locksmith.  “But I’m a changeling and your magic of tongues cannot reach me.”

“Doe leichi dovaeleth?” asked the angel, hovering, the tar dripping cleanly from its feet, its hands open, flexing aggressively.  The hands questioned the locksmith, along with its voice and its large sudden eyes.

“I’m a changeling,” he said again, and he held out his left hand, palm upward.  “I have no soul for you to conjure.”

At last, the angel comprehended.  Its eyes examined the burgundy mark, then turned to look into the locksmith’s face.  After a moment of indecision, it began to do as the locksmith hoped it would:  it began to fly upward, bringing the locksmith with it.

The city dropped away, and as it did so, its lights altered hue, shifted alignment, and the city took on a new and alien shape.  And the sky through which the angel bore the locksmith became another sky, not dark but merely opaque, and each star in it withered to a vague directionless glow.  Soon the city faded also, and the locksmith was alone, falling through limbo, with only the angel retaining any clarity of all that was around him.  And he began to remember.

He remembered his lover, the woman who had told him that he was a changeling.

“We are alike,” she said.

In his memory the woman lay against him, one leg draped over his.  The palm of his hand was pressed against the firm nipple of her breast.

“I think we are,” he said to her.

“It’s more than this,” she said, shifting the cool flesh of her thigh against him.  “We’re of the same race.  Changelings.”

He knew what a changeling was:  an elf creature substituted for a human child at birth.

“Changeling,” he whispered.  An image grew in his mind.  Elves in a hospital corridor, creeping amidst the medical machinery, flitting in and switching babies while the nurse was attentive elsewhere, and leaving an elfling child behind to be raised by a human mother.  His mother.

“How do you know you’re a changeling?” he asked.

“My homunculus,” she said.

And then she had shown him her own birthmark, a small foetus-like creature tattooed in the flesh at the back of her knee.

“Why is the birthmark there?”

“To show what I am.  Like yours.  To show we have no souls.”

He frowned.

“It’s good,” she said, seeing his expression.  “Shouldn’t we return to the soil that made us?  Death is the seed of life.”

‘No soul,’ he thought.  ‘No soul.’  So now, many years later, he had roped an angel and was ascending to heaven to petition God to give him one.

By then the angel had brought them to the far edges of limbo.  The locksmith saw indistinct shapes around him, shapes that clarified with each passing moment.  He saw that they had entered a place of great caverns.  Spires grew up around him, towering from below, reaching endlessly from above.  Passages as wide as the valleys between mountains formed their aerial pathway.  And as they progressed, the spires began to shine in remarkable colours, ever brightening, until his mind could stand no more and he had to close his eyes.  Opening them again some time later, the locksmith discovered that he had reached the end of his journey.

He found himself in a simple shrine.  It was an amphitheatre, a quarter of a sphere, which opened towards the bright caverns behind him but obstructed his view above and before him.  Before him, where the shrine converged, was a blocked archway beside which stood the angel on splayed bird feet.  It did not stay there long.  Before the locksmith had even the chance to speak, the angel turned toward the archway and passed through it, not even pausing at the blockage.

“Stay!” he shouted.  “No, stay!”  And his voice echoed in that place which was now empty except for him.

He was not at the true gate of heaven.  The locksmith realized that immediately.  The amphitheatre and the archway were for one purpose only:  to prevent him from seeing the true walls of paradise and being blasted and withered by the light of it.

He went up to the place where the angel had passed through and saw the outline of what might have been a door.  But there was no apparent way to open it.  Pushing against it, he found it unyielding, solid.  Puzzled, he stood there for a moment, and one of his hands idly came upon the small bundle of locksmith tools which he had brought with him.  He took these out of his pocket, and, laughing, tossed them on the floor.  It didn’t seem likely now that he could pick the locks of heaven’s gate.  But how, indeed, did one petition God for a soul.

“I’ll have to pray,” said the locksmith, deciding.

How long he stayed before the outline of that door kneeling and mumbling his prayer, he could not know.  Perhaps eleven hundred years, as heaven reckoned it.  For half of that, he prayed without believing it.  For most of the rest, he prayed without knowing truly what it was that he asked for.  For the last small while, knowing what it was, he wasn’t truly sure that he wanted a soul at all.  But for a moment – and it was no more than a moment – all the doubt he had deserted him.  His faith was cloudless.  And he shouted:  “God, grant me a soul.”  And he was answered.

The locksmith stood up and walked the three paces to the door.  Lifting his left hand, he pressed it against the door, which still did not open.  However, he felt a change in his palm, and when he took his hand away, the burgundy primrose remained upon the door for a moment before dissolving.  And there was no longer any mark upon his palm.  Even as he was marvelling at this, he began to sink through the floor and fall in a long tumble toward the earth.

———-

If it was a story that could be told, that he wanted to tell, the locksmith could’ve claimed great fame because of it.  He was the only elfin child to have ever received a soul.  He had opened to himself the gates of heaven, or of hell.  But fame was not interesting to him, nor, he found, was the prize that he had won.

He was for twenty years a priest, but he gained no true happiness.  Then he met one day the woman who had once been his lover, the other changeling.

“Are you playing at having a soul?” she asked.  “No,” she said, peering at him closely, her nostrils flaring, “I see it’s true.”

She had simply sneered at him and walked away.

The prayers in the changeling-priest’s mouth turned bitter.  He tore off his robes, angry at himself for being so foolish.  He renounced his soul.  “But I’ll have to do more than renounce it,” he told himself.

After many more years and much searching, he found a woman who could do it for him, and like an appendix, he had his soul removed.  She sucked the soul out through a tube and spat it into a jar of water which seven priests had consecrated.  The changeling took the jar and brought it into a church, giving it to the blackrobed minister.  “I return my soul to God,” he said, and left.  The minister misunderstood, and blessed him, and set down the offering by the altar.

Standing outside the church, the changeling said:  “An elf should die.  A changeling should return to the soil.”  He repeated what that other changeling had told him years before.  “Death is the seed of life.”  And he added to this, speaking with a conviction which had been lost to him for years, “Should I suck at the tit of the universe for all eternity, refusing oblivion?  Or should I make way for others to follow?”

He got a bundle of keys and placed it in one pocket and bundle of locksmith tools and placed it in another.  He had decided to search for where others of his kind might live.

“I’ll be a stranger,” he said.  “They won’t welcome me.  But that is my true home.”

Then he set out, descending for the final time the front steps of his home, leaving the door unlocked behind him.

 

© 2008 by Theo G. Collins.  All rights reserved.  Changeling image © 2008 by Haisla Collins.