Circle of Keys by Wanda Kiernan

Where was that musty damp smell coming from? Was it coming up through the vents? I should check that later. For now, I just wanted to sleep. I tried to roll over but was too stiff to move. I felt chilly and achy. Did I have the flu that was going around? Then I heard the chanting, and felt the familiar dread. I woke up just enough to realize I wasn’t in my bed. I drifted off again wondering if I was in the safe room.

“Mom?  Dad?”

“We’re here, hon.”

“Are you feeling it, too?”

“We are.”

“I’m scared.”

“We’ll get through it, and then we’ll go on another adventure.”

“Promise? Mom! Mom!”

I woke up again, terrified, and knew I wasn’t in the safe room. The room where our family bible was kept. The room where we stayed waiting for the dread to pass. The room where we waited for the hoard of panicked butterflies to find their way out of our stomachs. The butterflies eventually left, but the chanting never stopped.

When I was younger, and my parents said that everyone heard the chanting, and that most fell under its evil spell, I didn’t believe them. Evil chanting? And why were we spared? Because, they said, we were immune to the full effects. Dread, yes. Killing, maiming, hating, wreaking havoc. Not us. We stopped just short of the evil. They had to be making this stuff up.

But once I hit puberty, I started hearing the chanting too, and felt anxious and afraid. With the fear came anger, and an overwhelming feeling to do something bad. So into the room we’d go, and wait it out.

And after the butterflies left, we went on adventures looking for a mysterious circle of keys, a set of keys that would make the chanting, and its evil go away. The family bible, that went back eight generations, held clues about where to go, and what to look for. Each trip we’d gather clues that led to another biblical passage, and then to our next adventure. We travelled everywhere. It was a complicated, intricate, obsessive, and fascinating puzzle to solve. Even after two generations, and 25 years of my own life, the keys remained elusive, but we never stopped believing that we’d find them, and save the world.

Where ever I was, I must have been following a clue. I stood up slowly and looked around.

How did I get here? I remembered a vineyard, a shack, dusty shelves, rusty tools, an old chest, the sound of stone grinding against stone, then free falling through a trapdoor and hitting the ground hard.

So I was in a cellar. No, in a catacomb. In the dim light I made out tidy rows of skulls and bones stacked against the wall opposite me. On the walls around me I saw niches, each holding a baseball sized stone. Maybe the keys were hidden in the niches?

As I headed towards one my foot caught the edge of something sticking out of the dirt floor. In the shadowy light I could tell it was more than just a rock. I forgot about the niche, and started clearing away the dirt instead.

I uncovered a round white marble stone beautifully sculpted, and etched with musical key signatures. The signatures were divided into twelve sections by etched lines that met at the center. I remembered my music theory, and recognized the pattern as the circle of fifths. It took three generations, but I had finally found the elusive circle of keys.

But finding them didn’t mean the puzzle was solved. I had to figure out how the last two clues played into this. The first clue – the keys had to be weighted. Weighted how? I stepped and stomped on the stone like a two year old having a temper tantrum but nothing happened.

Now what? The chanting in my head grew louder, and I felt like smashing the slab into a million pieces.

But instead I gently touched the cool stone, and refocused. I stared at the twelve sections in the dimming light. Soon it would be too dark to see. I took another desperate look around the room. The niches with the rounded stones, there were twelve. I looked back at the marble slab, and saw hollows carved at the top of each section.

I went quickly to work. I removed the stones from their niches. My instinct told me they should be placed in the hollows in the order that the keys entered the cycle. Silently thanking my piano teacher, I placed the first stone in the cup for the key of C, then G, and so on. When I placed the final stone on the key of F, I held my breath.

I heard stone grind against stone again, but this time there was no trap door to fall through. Instead, the stone was inching its way up, stopping a foot above the ground. I looked underneath the slab, and as the last light faded, I saw a book.

In the darkness I reached for the book, and felt hopeful. I could feel it was ancient, its pages made of vellum. I knew what I had to do. The last clue, my favorite one, was “light the skin; sing the songs”. I touched the vellum pages, and they lit up.

I was holding a book of age-old mystical chants, and I started singing.

After a few measures of music I heard a door open. The light of the full moon filled the chamber, and I saw a staircase that led to the vineyard where my adventure began. I saw a small band of people make their way towards me, but I wasn’t afraid. They started singing with me. More people followed, and we knew we’d silence the evil, one light filled chant at a time.

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