A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 11

Lock and key

Today’s issue is inspired by a conversation I had last night with my husband, about snooping. Having been shut up together in a small apartment for over a month now, we both agreed that we’re becoming so familiar with each other that we have no desire to go looking for more information. But what if one of us had something—a diary, a box, an entire room—kept under lock and key and guarded fiercely? There’s something about a lock that invites curiosity and, maybe inevitably, attempts to snoop. Once there’s something we realize we can’t know more about, we have to know.

This urge is explored in today’s poem and story. The poem is a spin on the Bluebeard folktale; you can read its most famous written version, by Charles Perrault, here. It’s a grisly story, but in Millay’s retelling, the secret chamber of the tale is not for stashing evidence of murder but for keeping a part of oneself hidden, for having a private space to retreat to. The story comes from Helen Oyeyemi’s collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, in which each story relates in some way to the theme of locks and keys. On the surface it’s very unlike the poem, but I think they share similar themes.

Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard), woodcut illustration by Gustave Doré for Perrault’s Fairy Tales, 1862


Bluebeard (Sonnet VI)

This door you might not open, and you did;
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed... Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
The sought-for truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress,
But only what you see... Look yet again—
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room to-night
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay

Who is this lady?

Born in Maine in 1892, Millay was a poet and playwright, famous for her sonnets. She was also well-known for “her riveting readings and performances, her progressive political stances, frank portrayal of both hetero and homosexuality, and, above all, her embodiment and description of new kinds of female experience and expression,” according to the Poetry Foundation. She was a precocious child, raised by a poor but cultured single mother, and attended Barnard and Vassar. She lived for a while in Greenwich Village but also traveled widely, publishing multiple volumes of poetry, stories, and librettos. After her death in 1950 and the advent of Modernism, her style of writing fell out of fashion, but was later revived by the feminist movement.


If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think (Excerpt)

Eva's popularity grows even as her speech becomes ever more monosyllabic. Susie, normally so focussed on her work, spends a lot of time trying to get Eva to talk. Kathleen takes up shopping during her lunch break; she tries to keep her purchases concealed but occasionally you glimpse what she's stashing away in her locker – expensive looking replicas of Eva's charity shop chic. The interested singletons give Eva unprompted information about their private lives to see what she does with it but she just chuckles and doesn't reciprocate. You want to ask her if she's sure she isn't a loner but you haven't spoken to her since she rejected your advice. Then Eva's office fortunes change. On a Monday morning Susie runs in breathless from having taken the stairs and says: “Eva, there's someone here to see you! She's coming up in the lift and she's…crying?”

Another instance in which glass lift doors would be beneficial. Not to Eva, who already seems to know who the visitor is and looks around for somewhere to hide, but glass doors would have come in handy for everybody else in the office, since nobody knows what to do or say or think when the lift doors open to reveal a woman in tears and a boy of about five or so, not yet in tears but rapidly approaching them – there's that lip wobble, oh no. The woman looks quite a lot like Eva might look in a decade's time, maybe a decade and a half. As soon as this woman sees Eva she starts saying things like please, please, I'm not even angry, I'm just saying please leave my husband alone, we're a family, can't you see?

Eva backs away, knocking her handbag off her desk as she does so. Various items spill out but she doesn't have time to gather them up – the woman and child advance until they have her pinned up against the stationary cupboard door. The woman falls to her knees and the boy stands beside her, his face scrunched up; he's crying so hard he can't see. “You could so easily find someone else but I can't, not now… do you think this won't happen to you too one day? Please just stop seeing him, let him go…”

Eva waves her hands and speaks, but whatever excuse or explanation she's trying to make can't be heard above the begging. You say that someone should call security and people say they agree but nobody does anything. You're seeing a lot of folded arms and pursed lips. Kathleen mutters something about 'letting the woman have her say.' You call security yourself and the woman and child are led away. You pick Eva's things up from the floor and throw them into her bag. One item is notable: a leather bound diary with a brass lock on it. A quiet woman with a locked book. Eva's beginning to intrigue you. She returns to her desk and continues working. Everybody else returns to their desks to send each other e-mails about Eva… at least that's what you presume is happening. You're not copied into any of those e-mails but everybody except you and Eva seems to be receiving a higher volume of messages than normal. You look at Eva from time to time and the whites of her eyes have turned pink but she doesn't look back at you or stop working. Fax, fax, photocopy. She answers a few phone calls and her tone is on the pleasant side of professional.

—Helen Oyeyemi (Read the rest here)

Who is this lady?

Born in Nigeria in 1984 and raised in London, Helen Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, as a high school student studying for her A-levels. She has since written plays, novels, and a story collection, and much of her writing takes inspiration from fairy tales and folktales. "The way that people feel changes everything," she said in an interview with NPR. "Feelings are forces. They cause us to time travel. And to leave ourselves, to leave our bodies… I would be that kind of psychologist who says 'You're absolutely right — there are monsters under the bed."


Choose your favorite folktale, and write a story or poem that puts a new spin on it.

Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com