Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | September 26, 2012

Boy

To find me, find the silver key. To get the key, go to the twisted tree. The tree you’ll see is by the sea. A sea of red and blue and green, and deep beneath, the me you seek.

The rhyme played over and over in Rico’s head. It was a silly kids’ riddle. Just something you sing when you’re picking corn all day or playing toss coin. It didn’t mean anything.

But then he saw the twisted tree.

It was right at the edge of the ocean, where the land dropped down suddenly in a short cliff of broken rock and clinging barnacles. Above, grass went right up to the edge and a single tree had grown in the strangest crooked, twisting shape Rico had ever seen. It looked like an old shoe string.

Rico might have ignored it, but there was a man sitting beneath the tree. A white-bearded man playing a funny-looking instrument with just two strings. He plucked one, then the other, and sang the rhyme, over and over. “To find me, find the silver key. To get the key, go to the twisted tree…”

Rico’s father hadn’t noticed. He kept walking up the road pushing the cart full of feed they’d just purchased for the goats. He wouldn’t mind if Rico lagged behind a little. As long as he was home in time to do all his chores.

Rico took a few steps towards the man. Was he drunk? Crazy? He didn’t want to get too close, but he was too curious to keep walking.

“Hey!” Rico shouted, but the man kept singing.

“What’s the silver key for?” he asked.

As soon as he said “key,” the singing and strumming stopped. The man looked up and smiled, showing a mouth full of missing and broken teeth.

“For you, boy.”

Rico turned and ran after his father, heart pounding. The man was definitely crazy.

But for the next week, he couldn’t get the rhyme out of his head. He tried to tell his friends what happened, but every time he opened his mouth to say, “Hey, you guys ever seen a freaky old guy playing music?” His tongue would feel too heavy and his head would hurt and somehow, he never said anything.

He fed the goats and watched his little sister Alma but somehow, things were different. He felt unsettled, like eyes followed him wherever he went, like a stranger was breathing just over his shoulder.

“Leave me alone!” He shouted one evening at nothing, and Alma woke up crying.

“Rico!” His mother picked up the baby and glared. “Get some air. You’re too cooped up lately.” She brushed her hair back into place over the burn-scarred half of her face. The fire three years ago had killed Rico’s older brother Uri, and almost killed his mother. Rico and his father had been sleeping out with the goats that night, keeping watch over the pregnant one. Now his mother covered the scars on her skin and no one talked about the bigger scar. The one that no amount of combing and brushing and smoothing could ever cover up.

Rico walked out. It was almost evening — that bright-yellow-sky time of day when the edges of everything sharpened and shadows stretched long and thin. He didn’t want to play toss coin or even football. He walked and stared at his shoelaces. Watched the untied one twist and contort with each step.

He looked up. The tree.

Pluck, strum, pluck, strum. The old man wasn’t singing this time, but the tune he played was the same. So was his toothless smile.

Rico shuffled forwards. “The key is for me?”

“Ah-ah, boy. The silver key is for you. The me is beneath the sea! Hee hee.”

“You, then. Can… uh… you have it?”

Pluck, strum. The man lifted the instrument, tipped it to the side, and out dropped a tiny key.

Rico bent to pick it up, but the man put one bare foot on top of it. His toes twisted together, full of bumps and boils like the bark of the tree.

“If you take the key, you must seek me.”

“Yeah, deep beneath the sea of red and blue and green?” Rico felt silly saying this, like he was five or six instead of ten, but suddenly he needed that key. More than anything. If he had it, he could fix everything — help them all forget Uri, or maybe remember him better. Or maybe the key would even turn back time. Rico would walk into that kitchen and pour buckets and buckets of water over the old stove, before it could smolder and burn.

The key was the answer.

The old man moved his foot, and Rico picked it up. It glinted silver in the evening light, no larger than his thumbnail.

The ocean would be cold tonight, but Rico knew what he had to do next — swim.

Photo by Wilfredor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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