The Mourning Key

Olivia Hodgson


Mother died yesterday: of that, Mara was absolutely sure.

There was no hesitancy in that passing; the plans had been made for months and Mother had nailed her own mourning key to her old headboard. It was something she’d read about years ago and had this past week insisted upon. Her cannula would catch during that painful business of winding the twigs until, finally, she had announced to an empty room that she was finished. Hammering in the already bent iron nail with the heel of a shoe, the mourning key hung like a Renaissance halo above this jaundiced saint’s head.

Mourning Keys are not shaped as you would imagine, or how Mara had expected. The dying must make their own by forcing something that should probably have stayed on the bonfire into a circular, twisted shape. The flowers of the season must decorate its perimeter. Mother’s Key was dressed only with sewing needles piercing the twigs; each slender slice of nickel dangling with navy thread. At the end of each thread were no flowers, but berries: each as pungent and bursting as drops of blood.

What the Mourning Key opens exactly, if that was its purpose at all, when it’s nailed immobile at the top of the headboard, is the one thing she didn’t have a chance to explain.

Mara turned the thing over in her hands as if she were trying not to upset it. It was not much bigger than the span of her hand; not quite wide enough to be a crown. Somehow, it carried a weightlessness that actually added to its presence. The sharp slam of the doorknocker and the family on the other side of it had trained her into reverence. After habitually tying her hair back and pulling down the hem of her dress, she would return the creation to the bent iron nail and descend the stairs of her Mother’s Father’s house. She would now call him this, rather than ‘Grandfather’, since the discovery of Mother’s adoption papers in the otherwise paper-weighted hush of the attic bedroom.

Downstairs looked like a murder scene without the body. Furniture was upturned or crouching above her, always above her, on tabletops and boxes, protected from a flood that would never come. The house cradled the dry silence of a church. Diligently, Mara had passed from room to room covering their rigid forms with blank dust sheets, perhaps to protect the odd air from nurturing them into idols and gargoyles.

Georgia, her cousin, appeared in the hallway before Mara even had a chance to reach the door handle.  She didn’t even know there was another key cut.

The expectant faces of family members waiting to be catered for were standing behind her. They patted Mara’s shoulder or smoothed her hair, before mumbling their way into the kitchen for the important business of removing their food from its cling film.

‘I didn’t know that you wanted to come,’ she said to Georgia.

‘I changed my mind.’

Rarely present when married, but always the infant once more when divorced, Georgia seemed to have a particular bent for putting an ocean between herself and what was left of her family. Despite owing much to Mara’s Mother, she’d disappear to airport lounges and the hospitality of an in-law. However, she’d soon dry up whatever seabed she had created once rendered husbandless.

She ‘kissed’ Mara simply by touching her cheek to hers and making a noise with her pursed lips. Someone in the kitchen raised a wine glass as big as a fist in offering. Georgia declined, shaking her head slowly and dabbing the corner of her eyes with a scented tissue.

‘Where is your husband?’ Mara heard, as Georgia followed her up the stairs.

‘Out,’ she replied.

Mara tidied her Mother’s hair and put the make up in place with the help of her cousin. Georgia had given up affecting tears once they were privately dressing and wrapping the beaded Flamenco scarves around unhelpful limbs.

Mother had spent the first twelve years of her life in Cádiz in the Andalusian region of Spain. No semblance of her early life there had been crafted into Mara’s childhood. Colours and rituals were always dimmed. The only filter through which the children were allowed to see her amputated past life was through the morning sunlight touching the clay pots of hibiscus and Spanish basil. Why she should lose that tangibility, that knot around her earliest years under arid sun for this fable of the Mourning Key that barely belonged anywhere, even to England? It was a mystery that dripped longingly like candle wax. Mara’s questions had hit the walls of another empty room. She had hesitantly foraged through the boxes. She couldn’t find anything that once belonged to her or her cousin.

‘How did it happen?’ Georgia asked.

Mara repeated the succinct explanation: she simply slept, then never woke up. Most things weren’t out of place yesterday morning, as if death had kindly left them alone. The sheets were undisturbed, and the bedroom door still closed. The only thing she could not account for, the only oddity that had tightened her grip on the door handle, was the blaring light through the window that greeted her – the curtains had been pulled hard off their rungs, pooling in a neat circle on the floor.

And then, the thorns – pushed all the way through the cotton curtains like exit wounds.

After hosting the mourners camped in the kitchen, among bitten nails and sobs half-forced, Mara had to settle in the lone wing-back chair for Georgia’s attempts at memory recall. She asked if Mara could remember the dear little sweet shop; the huge bath towels they had both been warmed with; the spicy Iberian paste that had made her sneeze. Mara’s mind, however, was repeatedly answering the earlier question.

She knew where her husband was. He had disappeared behind the pub door, arm in arm, no need for persuasion: the sky hard against her cinder-red hair, parted slightly from the crown and bunched up, as if it needed to be out of the way ready for some emergency. There had been no single peak, no point to pick from. No confrontation. Success in marriage is an ongoing practice, as where ‘failed’ is a single event.

Mara pulled a mattress into Mother’s bedroom later that night. Thankfully, everyone had returned to their hotels with little encouragement and did not want to keep vigil with her. Have you ever slept in the same room as someone who never woke up? They’re still there in the morning – same position, bedsheets still cool. One of Mother’s hands was still peaking from underneath her duvet, as if feeling for rain.

Mara found the only satin Flamenco scarf left to wrap around her on her way to the bathroom. Bright and smooth, like freshly polished gold – once the colour of Mother’s suntan. The hearse with its wicker coffin would be there in an hour. She was pulling the nightshade over reality a little lower; crawling back from the cold of this wet, grey island. She let the tap fill the glass to the brim with water.

Mara opened the bedroom door. The glass fell without smashing. Mother was not in bed.

Knelt up, on her knees, leaning over the white sheets; her strained face in permanent rigor mortis, as if always about to speak. Hands clasped – praying towards the Mourning Key.



Olivia Hodgson was born in 1995 and grew up in Birmingham, UK. She is currently studying for her MA in Creative Writing at Birmingham City University.