And not just doors.
The power of the key to lock the ballot box, the chastity belt, and all the trappings of patriarchy is beyond symbolic. The key, ipso facto, is power. For women, there is nothing in their wile or charm that can outdo the power of the key, except possession. Beg, steal, or borrow, by hook or by crook, through subtlety, stealth, or ingenuity, a woman’s task is to gain possession of that elusive key.
For me, a daughter of the manse, keys have always figured in my life. Our parish was a fishing village on the East Coast and our church, dedicated to Saint Peter. Peter, we were frequently instructed from the pulpit, was impetuous, hot-headed, gutsy. Under pressure, he was the coward who denied his Lord. Yet he was a Rock, a Fisher of Men and, ultimately, the Keeper of the Keys. My father called me Clephane – according to my mother, after Cleopas, one of the men who saw Jesus on the Road to Emmaus. My father wanted a son. I have always been a disappointment.
My sister, Alice, younger than me, always got her way. With or without keys she could charm her way into or out of any situation. Alice was coquettish, dimpled, blond. Her milky-blue eyes with naturally-exaggerated lashes would open wide, even if guilty-as-hell, and plead innocence. Unlike Peter – and me – she was an expert in denial. If my father accused her of not doing her piano practise, she’d flutter and pout until he believed or forgave her. Even in music, I could never get to grips with keys. And I didn’t learn the poker-face until my teens.
Our house was a rambling, Victorian Manse; dark and foosty, with a permanent tinge of furniture polish. Being a modest, protestant family we could barely afford to heat, let alone live, in such a palace. Many doors were, therefore, shut. The cellar was locked (and haunted, supposedly) and the third floor was out of bounds, even though the doors to the bedrooms only were lockable. Alice, as always, found a way in. The huge clutches of keys that hung on the brown hooks in the hallway were in common use, but the ones in my father’s drawer in his dusty study were his secret stash.
In my father’s house were many mansions, and he had keys to the lot. Keys were the indication of his position in a community that had the power to open and shut doors, systems, or ceremonies of whatever was deemed worthy, proper, sacrosanct. The Church was at the head of this corrupt, divisive, systematic cant. When he was installed in the Parish, keys were handed to him like badges of office. The church-key was the biggest, most elaborate thing my sister and I had ever seen! He was gifted with a Bible, with a lockable clasp, and, even though he didn’t know a thing about fishing, was granted possession of one of the sacred Box Keys.
On the day of the Fisherman’s Walk, he’d proudly strut at the front of the parade, holding his key with the other two bona fide fishermen, and present the Box Gifts to the poor as if he had put the treasure there himself. We’d all straggle – women and children – behind the men. Even when she was still a girl, one of the young fisher-boys would take Alice’s shawl. When she was older, they’d take more than her clothes at the Fisher Dance, after the 23rd Psalm. Alice was never left wanting.
For me, the symbolism of the keys was more potent than the fact that men, women, and children were only allowed to mingle after the Meeting, once the Box was locked for another year. I wanted, needed, was determined, to get into that Box. When I did, however, I unleashed desire far greater than any hierarchy of land, or sea, or heaven. For me, this was the key. And the root of my evil.
The penny dropped when I turned 18, three years before I didn’t receive the key to the door. If by Machiavellian means I was to find a position on the ecclesiastical ladder, I had to learn how to give. I gave my (unpaid) services as the first female Parish Secretary – a position my father, no enemy of influence, opened for me. I had access to unlimited places of wealth, and quickly learned how to fiddle figures with more subtlety than my sister’s finger-twisting flirtations. Entrusted to the secrets of The Box – the only bastion of faith, love, and charity of this parochial community – I yielded to temptation, and I took. I took, and I took, and I took.
It’s amazing how much wealth a woman can amass in a couple of years. My sister married young, and fed her family while I cooked the Parish Books and nourished my new-found greed. My Father tried to get me off the hook with ‘delusional kleptomania’ – but madness is another method of incarceration meted out on women when men cannot contain them any other way. Besides, he was in denial and, like Saint Peter, proved a far-from impervious rock.
All the protestation of Saint Peter cannot free a person whose natural position is to be oppressed (or, as Alice puts it, sat upon) by the heaviest book society possesses. I’ve learned far more about keys in recent years, not to mention Patriarchal Institutions – although, ironically, most of the key-holders here are woman. My room is a box, and every night as the door is slammed shut, I hear the rattle of retribution.
Somewhere, in this post-Edenic hierarchy, the God of an older testament, whose angels stand as sentinels with keys of flame, far mightier than the sword, sits in Judgement.