1. A Kate is a key
In March, I learned that my name was used as slang for “skeleton key” by thieves in the early eighteen hundreds. I had been reading a crime novel about New York where the detectives referred to Jenny, a minor character, as “a kate.” I hastened to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English to find out if this usage of my name meant that Jenny was beautiful, hideous, a seamstress, a strumpet, or a woman whose life was destined–if not for greatness–at least for contentment. I wondered what light or shadow this definition might cast on my life, as if old slang were prophecy. It turned out that Jenny was a kate because she knew a crucial piece of information, a clue that helped unlock the crime, and the detectives were speaking figuratively: a “kate,” a skeleton key, can open anything.
This made a field of red poppies bloom in my heart: my name contains the promise of egress and entry. What a gift, since my life so often feels like a hallway of closed doors.
2. A rose is a rose is a rose, Ms. Stein
“What’s in a name?” Juliet sighs. And it’s true a rose would smell as sweet if called either prune or lily, and Romeo would tear off his name as fast as he tears off his clothing, but according to de Saussure, we are bound by our signifiers. We can argue that our names are simply an amalgamation of letters our parents attached to us, a handful of Scrabble tiles pulled from the bag, that what really matters is what we make of them. Still, in Genesis, Adam named the animals not only so they would be under his dominion but also, in the first act of definition, so they could become themselves.
3. Once I was the key-master
I want to believe my name’s meaning matters, not only because I grasp any rope tossed to me, but also because I’ve always imbued keys with a cheap mysticism–“key to my heart,” “keys of knowledge.” Years ago, after clambering up Notre Dame to gawk at gargoyles with the other tourists, the guard at the first viewing point asked if anyone spoke French. When I said yes, he replied, “Donnez-lui cette clé” and, handing me a key, waved me towards the bell tower. I scurried up that stone spiral (the tower guard, impassive, thanked me with a simple “Merci” when I gave it to him) and then for the rest of the trip drove my companion mad: The key-master of Notre Dame wants a croissant. The key-master of Notre Dame prefers to walk instead of take the metro. It’s true I was more of a key-delivery girl, but I watched Ghostbusters so many times as a child that, though I neither was possessed by a demon nor resembled Rick Moranis, the phrase Keymaster echoed in my head like bells.
I don’t remember what the key looked like. It may not even have unlocked anything in the cathedral; it could just as easily have been the tower guard’s house key that he’d let fall from his pocket, but I felt chosen when I carried it, picked out to perform an important and mysterious task. How easy it is to cling to symbols that make–for a moment–magic of our lives.
4. Then I had a series of locked doors
I learned about my name’s secret meaning at a time when I felt particularly trapped. My book was a finalist at a number of presses, but hadn’t found a home, each “also recognized” notice another reminder that though the editors liked it, it wasn’t good enough to win. I’d founded my own independent press that I constantly worried would go under. Then our poets’ books would fall forever out of print and I’d be responsible for failing my authors. I hated one of the schools where I was an adjunct, but could not afford to turn down the work, still paying off medical bills from a broken hand that had required surgery the year before. I imagined fiscal solvency as a balloon and I the stupid child who had let go of the string–there it was, my debt-free life, floating higher and higher, a tiny red speck disappearing.
Even when surrounded by friends, I often felt a deep loneliness, as if my bones were hollow. In my thirties and single, I yearned to fall asleep curled safe as a nautilus in the arms of someone I loved who loved me. I wanted children and did not have any. Although I had moments of wild joy and weeks where I felt content, like I was hiding safe as a lucky coin in a coat pocket, mostly I was exhausted. My body felt thick and golem-unwieldy, my womb an empty teacup, my manuscript, as it made its rounds, the Flying Dutchmen–sailing from port to port but never finding shelter. I was afraid I had ruined my life.
The person I talked to the most during this time was a former student: for a year and a half we maintained a consuming epistolary relationship. It was more intense than a friendship and more sexualized too, but it wasn’t exactly a romance either; a shadow relationship, like a stand-in or a body double.
I’d taught him for a semester when I was a guest writer at my old boarding school: six years later he sought me out after a graduate-school breakup. I sent him books and spices and promised his misery would pass. He’d been infatuated with me when he was my student and I found him attractive as an adult, but for as often as we talked about sleeping together, we never even kissed. The one time we could have, at a school reunion when he asked me to join him in the woods with a bottle of Scotch, I refrained. I had been his mentor, distant and on a pedestal, and was afraid I’d disappoint or hurt him if he knew me as a body.
We began talking because he wanted a guide to help navigate his way out of heartbreak, but as the months passed and we wrote to each other for hours, he became the person I spoke to last before falling asleep and first as I sipped coffee trying to brace myself to face the morning–his words unlocked the door I passed through on either side of each day.
I was not a real person, but a record playing tunes in the night for him, music to fill up an otherwise silent room. Our friendship ended (sometimes when I think about it, I wish someone had kicked my ribs apart instead) because his life began to fall into place: a better job, a move back to the city where his friends lived, a new girl. I’d spent the past year promising “things will work out; you’ll get the life you want,” but now I felt abandoned. I wanted him to be happy, but I also needed reassurance as he made his way forward that I’d been useful and mattered to him, a sort of “thanks for being there” retirement speech I could take out and polish like a gold watch to remind myself here was a place I hadn’t failed–proof my advice was of value; that our connection wasn’t just more time wasted.
Of course, I wanted to be a key. A key is an escape. So is writing. A key leads you out of a room; words take you out of your body.
5. A list of famous keys
Surprisingly, there aren’t many:
St. Peter’s keys cross a gold and silver X on the papal arms as an emblem of the Roman Catholic Church’s authority on earth. Though Hell has an open-door policy (and, according to the ancient Greeks, a welcome party of snarls from a slavering three-headed dog), in Italian folklore, if you are good, St. Peter will use his keys to unlock those pearly gates for you.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key,” Randolph Carter’s dead grandfather appears in his sleep to tell him of a key hidden in his attic; when Randolph finds it, the key returns him to his childhood and his adult self disappears forever. The story was published in Weird Tales. Farnsworth Wright, the magazine’s editor, told Lovecraft it was “violently disliked” by readers.
The Ceremony of the Keys occurs every night at the Tower of London when the Chief Yeoman Warden secures the main gates; occasionally in Edinburgh (at Holyrood Palace when the monarch arrives, as well as at the start of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland); and twice a year in Gibraltar when they lock the gates to the Old Town. Each of these ceremonies, of course, has its own key.
In the Major Arcana of the Tarot, The Hierophant appears with a pair of crossed gold skeleton keys at his feet, representing the perfect balance between the conscious and unconscious mind.
Bluebeard’s last wife was betrayed by a key. Before he leaves their castle on a hunting trip, he makes her promise not to enter his private room; inevitably, she unlocks the forbidden chamber and finds his previous brides’ mutilated corpses. She drops the key in a pool of blood and cannot wash the stain from it. In some versions, the key sings to Bluebeard of his wife’s transgression to goad him into killing her.
6. Facts about skeleton keys
Skeleton keys contain three parts: the cylindrical shaft (the shank), the rectangular bit (the tooth) and the bow (which you hold while inserting the key into the lock). They’re called skeletons because of the shape of the opening they fit. Rounded up top with a narrowing triangle below, the keyholes resemble skulls; the key is the body. Designed to circumvent the wards in warded locks (the oldest type of lock still in modern usage), they’re less common now that more complicated locks are more easily manufactured. They still have their uses (a few doors in the UK, cheap padlocks in America), but the skeleton key’s heyday stretched from the Middle Ages through the late 1800s. It saddens me that my name opens fewer doors now, but a key echoing the most common symbol for death (Old Bones, The Grim Reaper) can’t stay useful forever.
7. Some keys are homonyms
In music, keys indicate either the tonic chord of the composition or, for harpsichords and pianos, the parts that the hands move across to call forth sounds. A key light, in photography, is the primary source that illuminates a scene. In western Scotland, “keys” is a truce term–schoolchildren say it to break from their games. A key is also a small sandy island formed on the surface of a coral reef (e.g. the Florida Keys) and sometimes surgeons replace shattered bones with treated coral, making a prophet of Ariel for saying “Full fathoms five thy father lies; of his bones are coral made.” The collarbone (or clavicle) receives its name from the Latin clavicula (“little key’) because of how it rotates along its axis–such strange associative echoes, these connections between real skeletons and different keys.
A key (or a legend) is the table of symbols that explains the map. Similarly, in cryptology, a piece of information that controls the operation of the algorithm, which is to say that if you have the right key, you can crack the code. Such knowledge is an escape. Isn’t this why, when things end, we want explanations? If we really understand what happened, we can find a path out of what hurts.
“To understand all is to forgive all,” according to Spinoza, Evelyn Waugh, or the French, depending on your sources, but I don’t know if that’s true, no matter how much I want to believe it. Still, my version of Heaven is a room where I sit down with everyone I’ve ever harmed and everyone who’s harmed me and we hear each other’s side of the story so we can finally make amends and love each other again: I want every last person who carries a fragment of my heart returned to me.
This is the key that I wish I could embody: the one that gives you a different way of reading the map or cracking the code, that opens a door in the wall you never even knew was there. What I want from the secret meaning of my name is what I think we all want when we don’t get the job or the lover, when we lose the bet or the friend, when the bills are an insurmountable paper mountain, when we find ourselves having said something that sliced someone we love open from groin to sternum, when our hands are so tired from battering the glass walls between us and the lives we want to live: to understand what led us here in the first place so we can find our way out.
Kate Angus is a founding editor of Augury Books. She has received the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando prize for Creative Nonfiction, Southeastern Review’s Narrative Nonfiction award, and residencies at the Betsy Hotel’s Writer’s Room in South Beach, the Wildfjords trail in Westfjords, Iceland, and the BAU Institute in Otranto, Italy. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Court Green, Verse Daily, The Awl, The Rumpus, Best New Poets 2010 and Best New Poets 2014. A former Writer in Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy, she currently lives in New York.