Angela Woodward’s short fiction has appeared recently in Whiskey Island and 13th Moon. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Iron Keys
One morning the workmen digging the new lime kiln found a set of five iron keys. The keys were black, heavy, with curious ridges half worn down. Instead of tossing them onto the debris, they set them aside for Mr. Latrobe, an assistant banker and amateur geologist.
By the time the foreman ran across Mr. Latrobe, two of the keys had been lost. Mr. Latrobe roped off the kiln and began sifting through the shelly soil where the keys had lain. He found nothing else. But he thought the keys had come ashore on an ancient Portuguese wreck.
Mr. Latrobe gave a speech before the Perth Historical Society linking the keys to this disaster. The Mendonca, blown off course, had foundered on a reef some five hundred years ago. Half the crew drowned in the breakers, and those that made it ashore were hacked to death by terrified natives. Only three survived, to be brought back to Lisbon in chains. They were grilled secretly for years about what they had seen on that unknown coast. The Lisbon sailing master made a map based on the men’s regurgitated recollections of the shape of the inlet, the current, and the rocks.
A spy smuggled the sailors’ map of the Great South Land out of the archives and spirited it to France. There it was reproduced by an artist in Dieppe. But the French were unable to take the time to explore the distant island the sailors had marked. They were busy at home, splining apple trees to garden walls. The French coaxed pear blossoms into glass bottles, so that their brandy swirled around a whole, untouched fruit. They drowned their witches and burned their Protestants. The navy stayed close to home.
The Dieppe mapmaker’s business partner had a daughter who had been raised by an aunt in the country. She had some talent for drafting, so her father allowed her to take lessons from his friend. One day while her maid dozed, the mapmaker seized Julia’s hand and laid his lips along her wrist. They contrived to meet after dark. At first they only spoke softly of color and line, sea views and the shapes of leaves. But later they lay down in the long grass, where they kissed and tangled. One evening he navigated among her petticoats, his beard scratching through the lace, and at last he reached the Great South Land.
The father, roused to go out to the stable and check on his carriage horse, soon discovered all. He chucked the artist out and shredded his belongings. He married his daughter off to the first comer. The Dieppe map of the southern continent disappeared until 1879. An English archaelogist found it in a butcher shop, tacked above the chalkboard that showed the price of chops. Its intricacies of coastline were absolutely yet inexplicably accurate.
Here Mr. Latrobe clanked the keys against the lectern, more from nervousness than oratorical effect. Are these iron relics, he asked, from the wreck of the Mendonca? Did the purser clutch them in his fist as the wave tumbled him ashore? We are concerned here with the discovery of our beloved Australia. Have we now traced the link, gathered evidence, found out more than the little we knew before?
A man rose from the crowd and asked to examine the keys. He had some like this at home, he said. They were quite ordinary keys, only a hundred, a hundred and fifty years old. As for the Portuguese wreck, it was a fairy tale, a bookseller’s fantasy. The appetite for cruel natives and the intolerant sea, he said, was very large. Butchery, cannibalism, beaches of gold, there was no truth here. The Mendonca had never left Lisbon, still less run aground near Wyndham and lost her crew. These keys, he said, were carried by a night watchman on a sheep farm. A hired man locked the pens with them, he said. Women carried such keys, even. The laundress, he said, had them knocking against her hip as she heaved the basket of wet things out to the lawn.