“Lockets are where you keep something precious.”
Marie held her shoe above her head and struck down hard onto her locket. Nothing. She looked around for something heavier, a chair or bedside table, but she hadn’t the strength to lift them.
How did this thing open anyway? It had no clasp, no hook, but there was a thin soldered line where two halves joined, and it was lighter than if it had been solid, so it must be hollow, and wasn’t that the point of a locket, to open it and put something in it?
And why did it feel heavier in the mornings?
Marie felt so tired and she knew that the unscathed heart shaped locket on her bedroom floor was the reason.
“It’s just an ornament,” her mother had said after she’d given it to Marie. “A pretty thing for my pretty girl.”
Marie didn’t think it was pretty.
“This thing has brought nothing but badness,” Marie said as she tried the shoe again, but her second attempt was feebler than the first.
Singing came from outside her window. Marie looked out. In the garden, her mother sung while hanging the washing. It wasn’t usual for her mother to be cheerful and productive at this hour, but then she’d been happy now for several days in a way Marie had not seen before.
The locket - it had to have something to do with that stupid, ugly locket.
“My mother keeps acting funny too,” said Claudia as they walked to school. “She wears my ribbons in her hair while leaving mine like this!” Claudia turned to show them her unbrushed, greasy hair tangled in a clump.
“Mine as well!” piped in Eva. “She keeps making new clothes for herself and I have this rip all up my school dress and I hate having to wear that locket at night!”
Nearly all the girls in Marie’s class had a locket, each given to them by their mother at the same time.
“It was the spring fair,” Claudia said, “remember, when we were not allowed to go that day?”
Marie remembered. They’d had to stay at home. No one had told them why. And she also remembered the noise downstairs when her mother, along with two of the mothers from town, had returned, like excitable children, waking Marie with their shrieking and laughing. But when Marie had gone downstairs to see what the fuss was about, their laughter had fallen away, and Marie was sent back to bed with a stinging slap to her behind.
Marie avoided speaking to her mother about the locket, as had all her friends with theirs.
“Master Jakob will help - he said he would,” said Marie.
Master Jakob was an old teacher, one too lame to fight, or too clever. His face always hung with sadness, but his words were kind, and he spoke of things that made them wonder about the world, about what life could be, when hardly anyone else dared talk about what tomorrow may bring.
“Lockets are where you keep something precious,” Master Jakob had said.
“But there’s nothing inside!” said Marie. “We can’t open them!”
“Bring me one - I will try for you,” he’d replied.
They stared at each other as Marie recalled the conversation.
“But we’ve been trying to bring one in for days!” said Eva.
“Bring what in?” said Sonia, who’d joined them from the end of her road. “Oh, you’re talking about….”
The other girls said nothing. Unlike the rest of them, Sonia’s face shone like the sunny day, her hair had been brushed, and her clothes cleaned and pressed.
They knew Sonia possessed no locket, and just like the arrival of their lockets and the changes in their mothers, none of them believed this to be a coincidence for the lack of locket and bright complexion wasn’t the only difference between Sonia and her friends; Sonia had a father. Well, they’d all had fathers, at one time, but Sonia’s father was one of the few who remained.
Marie barely remembered her father, in the same way she thought she barely remembered a time when the cars that still dotted their way to school actually moved, or when round lights shone in buildings instead of candles. She had been only two years old when everything changed, when the ‘troubles’ brought much darkness and the crying, and then, only children and mothers were left.
Older children said that it may have been a war, or an invasion, or that something terrible crept through the land and snatched away the men. No grown-up wanted to talk about it, and children stopped asking through fear of reprisal or worse, watching their mothers plunge into days of despair.
But since the arrival of the lockets, the mothers had been smiling, laughing, talking of the future for the first time, something akin to hope.
“Did anyone get theirs open?” Marie said as they continued walking.
No one replied. Of course they hadn’t.
“I’ll try and bring mine in tomorrow,” said Eva after a deep breath. They all stopped, waiting for someone else to speak. Their mothers always removed their lockets before school. Each of them had tried to take one to school before. And each one of them had failed.
“No,” said Marie, “it’s my turn to try. I can still see your bruise.”
Eva looked relieved. Claudia put her hand on Marie’s shoulder.
“Be careful,” she said.
Marie found it hard to concentrate for the rest of the day, and not just because she was worried about trying to sneak her locket to school. The classes seemed hard, the words and numbers too dense for her to take in, as if it were all pointless.
Only a few weeks ago she felt excited by school but lately, even Master Jakob’s lessons seemed futile and laden with information that mattered little to Marie and her friends.
By the time bedtime came, Marie’s exhaustion took over. Her mother sung her to sleep, and as usual, secured Marie’s locket around her neck.
When the locket first arrived, Marie had always waited until her mother had left the room before taking it off and shoving it in a drawer. Once she’d even thrown it out of the window, but her mother must have checked, for each morning, Marie awoke with it back around her neck.
“It is for luck and protection my pretty girl,” her mother had explained.
“But it presses on me, I am scared it will choke me,” said Marie.
“Just be happy you have a mother who buys you such things!” came the non-negotiable reply.
For the last few nights, Marie’s tiredness meant she’d not been awake to take the locket off. She feel into sleep, a silent sleep full of nothing, and when morning came, it was as if night had never arrived, such was the fatigue that filled every thought and movement.
This morning felt worse. Marie knew she had to do something and it was only when she saw the locket around her neck that she remembered she was supposed to sneak the locket past her mother. But as was the routine, her mother took it from around her neck, kissed her on the cheek, and patted her off along the path.
As Marie walked away, her mother’s singing caused her to turn. The song called out, full of light, like a song Marie remembered singing to herself long ago. Marie waved feebly but her mother did not see - she was too busy singing the song to the locket clutched tight to her chest. Alone, Marie trudged away from home.
“I’m sorry,” said Marie once she met with the others. “I...forgot.”
“We can still talk to Master Jakob,” said Eva, who like the rest of them didn’t look surprised Marie had failed to bring in her locket.
“What if he tells our mothers?” said Claudia, her eyes flickering with fright.
“We can’t just do nothing,” said Marie.
They waited until Master Jakob’s lesson was over and the rest of the class had gone. They told him about the lockets and how and why they’d failed to bring one in for him to look at. Master Jacob observed them while they spoke and his grey glassy eyes seemed like they were hiding tears.
“You look very tired, Marie,” he said.
“Please, don’t send me to the nurse,” said Marie in protest, for all of them had seen the nurse recently, and all she’d say was to rest more, or try to smile.
“Oh no, I was thinking you should go home.”
Marie’s mouth opened wide. No one ever went home during school time. It was not allowed.
“Are you sure?” she said.
Master Jacob pushed his lips together. He was trembling as he spoke.
“I am certain your mother will be out doing her chores in town-but hurry.”
“Go!” he said when Marie failed to move. She walked through the school as quickly as she could manage before heading out along the streets and into town.
Some strength came to her. Master Jakob believed them. She was sure he knew something about the lockets and what they did. And he was right, her mother would be about with her morning tasks about town, bartering for food, swapping goods, waiting for news.
But as she turned the corner of her street, Marie stopped dead still. Her mother and three other women hurried to her front door. Marie hid herself in case they turned, but their giggling excitement had no interest in anything other than themselves.
Once they’d entered the house and shut the door, Marie quickened her steps and crept beneath the kitchen window. She sat there panting, exhausted by her efforts. From the open window, she could hear their laughter and bright voices.
“I feel my life is stretching out in front of me once more,” said her Mother with a satisfaction Marie had never heard before. The next voice she recognized as Claudia’s mother.
“I haven’t danced so much in ages. Anything is possible now it seems.”
Without realizing, Marie had risen to her feet and was looking inside her own kitchen. There, at the table, sat four mothers, all shining and happy, and in the middle of the table, lockets - golden, heart shaped, lockets.
One of the women picked up a locket and thrust a needle into the top. A golden light shone from the incision. The woman held the locket to her breast and golden light pulsed out of it, seeping through her skin, until the locket fell empty and the woman exhaled.
Marie’s heart pounded. Her thoughts screamed for attention. Then, her mother looked straight at her. She seemed to take a second to recognize her own daughter, then looked at the other women before returning her attention to Marie. Marie froze, preparing for punishment.
“Come inside, my pretty girl,” her mother said, beckoning her into the house. In a haze, Marie stepped through the doorway, into the kitchen, while the golden glowing women with face splitting smiles watched her closely.
“What…what is…,” said Marie, trying to find words.
“Oh you look so tired my dear,” her mother said. “Let me take you to your bed, so you can rest.”
Marie had no strength to argue. Her mother led her by the arm to her room, laid her down, then took a fresh locket from her pocket and put it around Marie’s neck.
As her mother fastened the chain, Marie felt tears run down her cheek as her eyes closed.
“Sweet dreams my pretty girl,” her mother said, “sweet dreams my pretty thing.”