Every house has a collection of old keys. Silver Schlages. Brass Taylors. Each branded with a numerical, indecipherable code. You have little memory of how they came to be. No one confesses to collecting them. They’ve just appeared, gathering dust in an old Chinese bowl, precious the vessel is, connoting its contents have value. But do they?
Periodically you carry the bowl from room to room trying each key in every lock, not finding a match, yet it is a lock and by definition must have a corresponding key. Perhaps you missed it. Tried each one in the bowl but the right one. Nonetheless, you return them all to the bowl and vow to try again. They must match somewhere.
And though you’ve never needed to lock that particular door, the keyless one, still, someday, the time may come when you do need to, and oh, what if you threw the key away?
If you live in an old house, as I do, and the prior owner left you a bowl of keys, as they inevitably did, you are even more likely than not to hold onto them in perpetuity and pass them on to the next occupant. Rationally, the likelihood is that they belong to locks no longer present, but who changes locks on random doors in a house? And why? No, they are like photographs of your children as babies. You are physically unable to dispose of them.
But, oh, the stories they tell.
The master bedroom in our house had three separate locks on its door when we moved in. Think about that. Two that required still missing keys plus a deadbolt. Who, you wonder, was the owner trying to keep out? It is true that someone died in our house years before and that we often smell coffee brewing in the middle of the night. But what unintended visitor frightened the prior owner so that three locks were required?
Each of the other bedroom doors demands a skeleton key, its locks hidden behind brass upside down exclamation marks. Yet not one skeleton key is in the bowl and the lock covers are painted shut. Apparently, the children were not entitled to the same protection.
There is a key that I surmise belonged to a strongbox. Decades ago, it was common to keep cash or stock certificates in them. You wonder if this is the spare key, hidden somewhere, in the event that the real key —the one the owner carried on him or hid somewhere truly genius— was lost. Or was this that key and its frustrated owner had no access to the loot? You can only hope that the strong box is still somewhere on premise and will one day surface. At least, you have the key.
So what to do with them? My husband thinks we should take a single key with us when we visit people we don’t care for and secrete it in their house. The back of a drawer. Just under the edge of an area rug. A random key in the hand of its confused owner, going door-to-door, looking for a match before depositing it into his own cookie tin of mysterious keys. We wonder, sometimes, if that is how we came to have a bowl of unmatched keys. The woman we purchased the house from was known to be quite unpleasant. Perhaps she left them intentionally, sending us a message about how she felt about us living in HER house.
It’s a mystery.