Her lover was a monster—long teeth, fur, claws and all. People called him this, a monster. The Monster. Never a brute, never a beast. She was not beautiful, so that cliché didn't enter people's minds. In fact, she was hardly noticeable, a sort of monochrome blur of pale browns. Her hair, her eyes, her skin—they would what one would call "dun" if one were fond of old words, and I am.
Most people supposed she worked behind a counter somewhere—a flower shop or bookstore or bakery, they said, before they returned to putting her completely beneath their notice. Her lover drew almost all of the attention. He was a monster, yes, and quite horrible, but at least he was interesting—or so they thought. Women, bored with their own lovers or husbands, called her the Mouse when they thought to call her anything, and spent most of their time devising plans to draw her lover away from her.
Men have accused women of having many traits. They have called women fickle, devious, jealous, manipulative, irrational, lascivious, deceitful, plotting and cruel. I can tell you—though whether from observation or experience you will have to guess—that they can be, have been, all of these, in turn, at once. But they have been many other things, too, I hope you will see.
The romantic in you would like to think that the Monster withstood the assault of attention from these women, many of them pretty, some of them beautiful, all for love of his Mouse, but the Monster was a monster after all, lusty and fierce, and you can't expect such a creature to completely understand loyalty and fidelity. Monsters have hungers, more than one Mouse alone can satisfy. Still, the Mouse remained the Monster's only constant lover; other women grew bored of the novelty, and his ugliness became mere ugliness. And, besides, many these women had keen intellects and quick wits that they admired in themselves, and such qualities are entirely wasted on a monster. They returned to their husbands or lovers who were writers, artists, musicians, back to their former lives; but having known something strange and savage, they were never quite the same.
Nobody would have ever really known what the Mouse was like—except the Monster, but he wasn't one to be able to describe people—if one of these women had not decided to meet her. This woman was not the most intelligent, talented or beautiful of the Monster's former lovers, but she had enough smarts and education, accomplishments and pretty features to gain more admiration than most women ever receive.
I don't know if it's true of all such women, but this particular one—let's call her the Minx to keep our theme consistent, though she would dispute the name—did not enjoy admiration without a twinge of embarrassment and a strong element of wonder. But, still, she was self-possessed enough to hold the Mouse in a certain amount of disdain.
"We're not very different," she said of the Mouse once, "not on the inside, anyway. But I don't let myself become part of the scenery. Do you think she's happy like that?"
But she was asking the Monster, and so it was a wasted question. He had only grunted and gone on stroking his long, wavy hair with his claws.
The Minx left him shortly after that. Of all the lovers she'd ever had—though there hadn't been many, many fewer than most of the other women who'd seduced the Monster had—he was the one she kept for the shortest length of time. She'd thought perhaps that the Monster was brooding and secretive, with torrid emotion roiling behind his stoic, fierce-jawed face, but it didn't take long for her to realize that he simply had nothing to say.
She couldn't say exactly why she had decided to talk to the Mouse. After everything was over—and rarely had over had such finality—she told herself it had been pity or curiosity or her own loneliness for friendship, but none of these seemed entirely correct. So she sighed and asked herself what did it matter why? She had done what she had done, and it had led to other things, which led to it all being over.
As it turned out, the Mouse did not work behind the counter at a flower shop or bookstore as some supposed, but behind the key-making counter at a hardware store. Awkwardly enough, the Minx had seen her there when she'd had a second key made just in case she might want to give it to the Monster. As the Mouse had taken her key and set about the grinding and filing it took to copy it, the Minx had nervously crossed her arms and ducked her head, thinking the whole time, Oh god, she knows. I know she knows. Oh god.
The anxiety seemed ridiculous later, when the Minx thought about the picture they must have made—the small, slouching Mouse with her stringy hair hanging in her eyes, her baggy tan cardigan unraveling at the sleeve, and the slender Minx, at least four inches taller, dark-haired, dark-eyed, a red silk rose pinned on her lapel. Anyone else seeing them would have thought it was the poor Mouse who was cringing inside.
The Mouse did recognize the Minx as one of the Monster's lovers—the Monster was not cunning enough to hide any of his affairs—but she didn't let on, not then. She made the key without saying a word and smiled vaguely and said, "You're welcome" after the Minx thanked her. And that was that. The key remained in the Minx's purse; she never gave it to the Monster. She gave someone, a man, a key—not one the Mouse had made—eventually later, after it was all over. She told him as little as she could about her time with the Monster—she couldn't get away with telling him nothing; by that time everyone knew. It was all over now, she said, and it did no good to think about it more than necessary, and it was really never necessary.
When the Minx returned to the key-copying counter at the hardware store, this time to talk to the Mouse, she didn't know quite how to approach her. So she poked through the aisles of the hardware store, pretending to examine drill bits and wrenches and lengths of copper pipe. After she'd wandered into the garden center and the third sales clerk asked her if she needed help with anything and she had smiled and said, "No, thank you, just looking" again, she sighed, put down the box of Slug and Snail Death that she'd been pretending to read and went to the key-copying counter.
The Mouse was already copying a key, turning the blank over the grinding wheel with fingers that seemed waxen and boneless. Under the store's green apron she wore the same tan cardigan, its cuffs dingy, smudged with ball-point pen marks. Her hair was pulled back this time, and the Minx noted that she was much prettier in profile—prettier, but not quite pretty.
"I'll be with you in a moment," the Mouse said, glancing up—and seeming to start in surprise—and then quickly back down at the key.
"All right." The Minx shifted her weight, smiled, sighed. "Have you been making keys long?" she asked. The question sputtered out of her, as words do when you think about them too long before you finally say them.
The Minx waited, but the Mouse offered nothing more. She took the key the Minx gave her and returned to the wheel without even looking at her. It was the Minx's house key again, and she didn't really need another copy, but she wanted to seem as if she had some business standing there and talking to the Mouse.
"How... how did you learn how to do that?" the Minx asked as the Mouse returned to the grinding wheel. "Make keys, I mean."
"They trained me," the Mouse said, not looking up, though she seemed to be done making the key.
"Oh." The Minx put her hands on the glass countertop and studied her fingernails. She listened to the whine of the grinding wheel and said nothing else.
After some time, the wheel stopped, and the Mouse blew on the finished key.
"I know," she told the Minx.
"About you — about the Monster. So you don't have to stand there pretending to make small talk." She still didn't look up, and her little chest heaved beneath her green apron. "What do you want?" she finally asked. Her voice was hardly more than a whisper.
"I don't know," the Minx said. "I just want to talk to you.”
"Why?" The Mouse turned away from the wheel, but continued to look at the key, which she held delicately between her thumb and forefinger. It was shiny, bluish steel. "Why would you want to do that?"
The Minx shifted her weight, annoyed. Look at me, goddammit, she wanted to say. Do you think it's easy for me to look people in the face? Do you think it's easy for anyone? Little fool.
"Why do you put up with it?" was what she did say. "All those women. Why is he worth it?"
The Mouse finally looked up, and her eyes were a clear, pale brown. "I wouldn't expect you to understand," she said. "Here's your key.”
The key, when the Minx took it, was not warm from the grinding wheel and the Mouse's hand, as she expected; the iciness of the metal stung her palm. She dropped the key onto the countertop, half-expecting it to shatter when it hit the glass.
"You see?" the Mouse said, still looking up at the Minx.
"No," the Minx said, rubbing her palm against her thigh. "I don't understand."
The Mouse dropped her gaze nervously. "I guess not," she said. "Please just take your key." She slid it across the counter and began to turn away.
"But--" the Minx fumbled through her mind, trying to think of something to say. "Don't you care?”
"I don't know.”
The Minx shook her head. "I feel sorry for you," she said, taking the cold key once more, this time closing her hand around it until the iciness disappeared.
The Minx's hands trembled on the wheel as she drove home, trying to shake the feeling of foolishness. But she kept seeing the Mouse's hard little face, saying, "I know," and feeling her superiority dissolve into mortification, again and again.
"Stupid," she said.
You might think this a moment of epiphany, or at least change, for the Minx—brought down to face her faults by a woman she though she pitied. But this particular moment was a familiar sort to the Minx. She could recall, if in a mood for self-flagellation, any number of incidents when she'd done something stupid: The time she'd been stopped by a waitress when she'd tried to take a wooden sake cup, thinking it came with the drink; when she'd said to a woman she'd only just met "It's like faking an orgasm" when they tried to dance to intensely un-danceable music; when she'd merely smiled self-consciously at the most curiously interesting man she'd ever met, unable to think of anything to say.
But the moments that mattered, that would truly hurt her to think about because they were the moments when she'd hurt someone else, these she was able to keep out of her thoughts. The Minx didn't think of the exchange with the Mouse as one of these, not yet, so she could not make herself stop reliving it.
As she walked to the door of her little townhouse, she muttered random words to try to occupy her mind—"Gumdrop, grapeade, pell-mell, marigold, mattress, subterfuge...." When she began to open the door, she stopped, and instead used the new key the Mouse had made, which had steadily been growing cold again in her coat pocket. Might as well see if it works, she told herself. She'd never tried the first key the Mouse had made.
When we tell stories, or hear or read them, we see situations from the outside, so we can see what those within them cannot—at least not while they live them. And when she forced herself to consider her past, the Minx did so as if telling herself a story—an attempt to keep the painful parts at arm's length. Later, when she told herself the story of this part of her life, she understood that her decision at that moment changed everything. Had she used the key she always used, she would have finished the evening like any other night, and the incident with the Mouse would have been just another one of those stupid moments when she'd done something she should not have.
But she used the new key, cold and shiny, its edges still sharp. It turned easily in the lock, and when the Minx put her hand on the doorknob, she thought it was colder than it should have been. Inside her dim little townhouse it was cold, too, cold enough to turn her breath to mist. Her hand stopped short of the light switch, and she leaned against the wall in a sudden wave of sorrow. The tears that spilled from her eyes were hot and stinging, but cooled as soon as they reached her cheeks. She fumbled back toward the door, throwing it open and then pitching herself onto her front porch. After pulling the door back closed with a thud, she leaned against it, wiping her eyes and face with her hands, trying to calm her breathing as sobs shuddered in her chest.
The Minx got in her car and returned to the hardware store. The windows were dark, but she could see the Mouse when she peered in. She was sweeping the floor, wisps of hair that had escaped from her ponytail hanging around her face, shuffling as she walked. For a moment, the Minx considered rapping on the window, but instead she leaned against the wall near the exit and waited, arms crossed around her middle. In the translucent reflection of herself in the store window, she saw that her eyes were ringed with black smudges. She dabbed at them with a tissue, not really helping things much, but at least doing something. She told herself that she couldn't leave, that she couldn't just throw away the new key and forget everything—forget the Mouse, forget the Monster, forget it all had ever happened. She wished she could, but the Minx knew she would always wonder what had just happened, what it all meant.
The Mouse finally came out of the store, folding her green apron as she walked. The Minx had never seen the Mouse unguarded. Every other time, the Mouse had been conscious of at least the possibility of being watched, and her eyes took on the darting, nervous quality that the Minx had always associated with her. But now, the Mouse sighed, eyes cast downward, not really seeing the apron in her hands, which she was clenching too tightly. She was angry, perhaps, or nervous. Or sad. The Minx sighed herself, and stepped away from the wall toward the Minx. She held her palm out, open, the key cold and gleaming on it.
"What did you do?" she asked the Mouse.
The Mouse seemed tinier than ever. The Minx realized her boots raised her more than a head taller than the other woman, that she was wearing black with flashes of red, that her eyes were ringed like a night-creature's, that she loomed over the pale brown woman as if she could very well devour her. But she did not move away.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said the Mouse. She clutched her apron tightly against herself, as if for protection.
"There's something wrong with this key," the Minx said.
The Mouse looked slightly alarmed, her mouth opening a fraction with no sound before she spoke. "Didn't it open the door?"
"Of course it opened the door," the Minx said, not understanding exactly why it was a matter of "of course." "But it changed things inside my house. It was cold." She paused, licked her lips. "It was sad," she added, her voice almost turning to a whisper as she realized how ludicrous she sounded.
"I think you're crazy," the Mouse said quietly. "Please leave me alone."
She tried to walk past, but the Minx stepped in her path, still holding out the key. God, what are you doing? she asked herself. You are crazy. "No," she said. "You did something to this key. Feel how cold it is."
She stared down the Mouse, who shakily reached out and placed a finger on the key. "It is," she said. "Very cold.”
The slight, wobbling smile that twitched across her mouth convinced the Minx that the Mouse knew exactly what was going on. Impulsively, she reached out with her other hand and grabbed the Mouse by the wrist.
"But you have to see what it does," the Minx said, holding more tightly as the Mouse tried to jerk her arm away. "Aren't you curious about your handiwork? I know I am. Come over to my house, and you can tell me about it.”
She pulled the Mouse to her car, surprised that the smaller woman didn't resist, the whole time wondering, Oh, girl, what have you gotten yourself into now?
In the car, the Mouse sat quietly, her waxen hands folded in her lap. "I know what the key does," she said.
The Minx said nothing.
"I just wanted you to feel what I feel," the Mouse said, raising her hand to the window. "Like glass. Do you understand?”
"I think so," the Minx said.
"But you can't. The Monster and I are made for each other. I know people say that kind of thing all the time, but it's just a figure of speech for them. I can't leave him, as much as I want to.”
The Minx shook her head. "Maybe you think that, but it can't be true.”
"It is. I'll break into tiny pieces and then melt away.”
"I've felt like that, too, but it never happened," the Minx said. "I got through it.”
"You think I'm just saying that. But I mean it—that's what will happen.”
The Minx didn't answer. She glanced at the Mouse's pale profile at a stop light, silhouetted against the dark outside the window, her little body lost in her cardigan. Only when the light changed to green did she say anything. "I'm sorry," she said.
Later, the Minx would be glad that she at least said that, though she didn't know if it helped anything at all. She hoped it did. She hoped the Mouse understood that she regretted it all, that she saw at that moment the difference between pity and sympathy, and between sympathy and empathy. But the Mouse didn't say anything to that effect. The Minx would wish for the rest of her life that she had made the Mouse acknowledge it. There was nothing worse the uncertainty in regret, she thought.
But the Mouse only said. "What happened to the other key?" There was something provocative in her voice that the Minx didn't understand, not then.
"I don't know," she lied, picturing the key at the bottom of her purse and knowing at that moment that she would find out what it did, that the Mouse, expecting sadness, would enter her house and feel something different. Her cold façade would shatter, and she would tell the Minx something different from all her riddles. "I lost it.”
"Good," the Mouse said.
So on her doorstep, the Minx found the key beneath her make-up case — it was brass, dull and yellow-brown, the same color as the Mouse's hair — placed it in the lock, turned it. She stepped aside to let the Mouse in, followed her. She felt instantly the steamy heat in her townhouse, saw the orange light that filled the room. Before she could close the door behind her, the Mouse had pounced on her, pushed her hard against the wall. Her little hands were hot and damp, pressed against the Minx's throat, and her eyes were wild and desperately angry. But she was still the Mouse. The Minx pushed her, hard. The Mouse broke her fall awkwardly and sat for a moment on the tile floor, clutching her wrist.
"You shouldn't have used that key," she said, before rising again.
What happened next is a matter for police reports and court testimony. The Minx never repeated it for any other purpose, not even to the man to whom she finally gave a key — for a different lock, a different door; the Minx would try to escape her past merely by changing her location, which never works entirely. Let us just say that the Mouse found the knife block in the kitchen, and that when the police arrived the Minx was bleeding from her arms and hands, covered in blood, not all of it her own, and the Mouse was very quiet and very still while the Minx shook and cried, but still somehow felt vindicated in it all. The small, dead thing near her feet had been too slight to live, she told herself, like the scared part of herself that she had pushed below the surface and suffocated.
The Monster faded in everyone's memories, dimming even in the minds of his former lovers, though there was always something of his fierceness in their looks. The key that the Minx kept—hidden away, but kept just the same — to remind her of the despair that could have destroyed her, became just a key, its iciness gone. And so it was all over, as I said it would be, and the Minx sometimes said cruelly that no one would have remembered the Mouse at all if she had not died the way she did. The Minx shivered a little as she said this, as if some part of her had gone cold.