The Keeper of Secrets sits in his office and reads something. It is a story by one of his students from the winter term creative writing course. A yellow paperclip barely holds the pages as they span out like a clumsy, improvised fan on the old, worn-out wooden desk that occupies one wall. The Keeper leans back in his tall chair, stretches his back against the soft padding, adjusts his black-framed eyeglasses, and tousles the white hairs that fell into his forehead while reading.

The door stands open. I shuffle my feet on the rug outside, squeeze my bag hiding the newest story, and my knuckles knock on the wooden frame. The sound is as light as a sleeping child’s soft breathing during a lazy Sunday afternoon nap, but the Keeper looks up. I have been expected, just like the others.

“Well, hello!” He waves me in.

I settle into another tall chair opposite him, next to another oversized desk, slide my purse to the floor, and cross my legs. I didn’t even notice until now how crammed this space is, with four desks pushed against the walls, two on each side.

The others stomp in within the next five minutes. Debbie, in her jean maxi-skirt, short grey hair, sneakers and a bike helmet swinging in her hand, looks like a sporty-feminine apparition. Mike swings in with a slight hello, his groomed beard flaming red in the morning sunlight. Norah steps in noiselessly, like a lean cat in her black boots, green eyes, and long, combed, wavy, natural brown hair. Each of us has brought a story to read.

It all started with that creative writing course three years ago. I sat there, every Thursday night, imbibing everything the professor said, things I had known from my readings, stories and novels and poetry and the writing I had dabbled in at in high school, but never did I think that the craft could be taught. This must be a North American attitude to writing, my mind whispered. So I only sat there, in the desk in the crammed lecture room, scribbled notes in my red notebook, played with words, sentences, characters, and soon stories would flow onto my computer screen, as if they had just been waiting for the right moment under the surface to bubble up.

I did not know then that our teacher, a Mr. William Evergreen, was the Keeper of Secrets. My early stories were innocent: a scar from childhood, something funny from an old birthday party, and memories of sour cherry-picking in my grandmother’s garden. I searched for old imprints of a forgotten childhood, pinkish memories of a courtship, or milk-, honey-, and sweat- smelling collages of my experience of motherhood in Toronto.

Towards the end of the course, a few of us in the group received an offer, an invitation from the professor to continue our writing in a new course. Anything, I thought, just let’s keep this going, and grabbed the opportunity with skinny hands. My fingers curled around the delicate golden pen as I wrote on the official form with all uppercase letters: INDIVIDUAL RESEARCH — ADVANCED CREATIVE WRITING; COURSE CODE ACW 1255 CTL. The new meetings emanated a more intimate, yet official atmosphere in a small conference room with only four people, higher standards, harsher criticism, and more pressure to write better. Outside the window, I could see the tops of the buildings in the sparkling summer sunshine, how the heat from the rooftops made the air vibrate, and how the workmen on the side of one building erected another glass and concrete condominium above the dark green maple trees. Inside the room, we wrote and read and talked and wrote and read and listened to each other’s stories, week after week. The process did not seem to have a beginning or an ending; rather, it felt a natural part of our lives now, a habit, like splashing water on our faces in the morning, or using the same red chipped cup for coffee no matter how many new ones lined the kitchen shelf.

When this second course ended, the editing meetings began. They were held in Bill’s office—yes, we all called him Bill by now—high on the tenth floor in the Frank Gehry Building. It looked like a morose, grey tower with its own stories, but the pattern of the windows always had the promise of something new, something unexpected, just like the sky it mirrored displayed different clouds, all shapes, contorting into never-yet-born mythical creatures that emerged and spread and united into new unnamed beings and floated away above the piercing skyscrapers of downtown Toronto.

Bill waited in his office with its faded rug and black chairs. When three or four people gathered inside, the place looked full, and somehow everyone fit in just fine. He would cross his long legs in the tallest chair—that intimidating gesture signaled anticipation—and ask us in a casual tone,

“So, did you bring a story?”

And we did, of course. We read and listened and edited each other’s writings that revealed our characters, our lives piece by piece, from meeting to meeting.

Sometimes secrets jumped up from the paper, as if happy to finally being let go. Others took their time. Often, one of us had to stop, shake their head, move their feet, and maybe take a few gulps from their water bottle before reading the story further aloud.

On a cloudy day in September, it was my turn. I almost ran back home from the subway station. The secret I was carrying in my story weighed down my backpack, and I was contemplating shredding the sheets into pieces and stuffing them into a recycling bin when I got out of the train at the Royal York Subway Station. I noticed Debbie. She was scaling the stairs on her way to our meeting. She could not see me, but I still hid behind a thick concrete pillar near the tracks. Sweat trickled down my spine.

“Go back now, and you’ll never have to share,” the voice in my head said. But I felt it in my pores, in my blood, in my whole being that this story with all its heaviness and troubling honesty wanted out. I stepped on the escalator and dragged my feet through the glass doors that separated the Gehry Building from the subway station. I stopped to stare for a while at the red ticket machine, and I read the headline of the Metro newspaper in the news box. When I reached the elevators, my hands could not decide which buttons to push: there seemed to be too many. Finally, my index finger pressed the closest one with an up arrow, and I rose up in the Tower. The fist clutching my stomach got tighter and tighter as the numbers on the floors lit up, one after another.

Norah read my story; no sound came out of my throat when it came to sharing. She read it in a soft voice, lingering at the details, as if she had known the piece. Her face looked calm, tranquil, as the words rolled off her tongue like a narrow stream chattering among the tall summer grass rushing by pink and yellow and blue flowers. Later, towards the end, where the story turned dark, her words sounded like a waterfall roaring down a cliff, washing away all the hurt and anger and shame and hopelessness, and finally, they gathered, like drops of water in a cool, fresh pool, transparent blue at the bottom of the rocks. The story finished. I sighed, relieved from the weight of my secret. And when the others analyzed the writing, it looked as if their words ground the remaining pebbles in my heart into grey, weightless dust that disappeared in the sunlight streaming in from the windows along the opposite wall.

Every few weeks, in every meeting, some secrets would spill out from someone’s writing. One of us had left their parents, one of us had cheated on their partner, one of us had run away with a truck driver before their wedding, one of us hated parenthood, one of us had daily fights with their autistic sibling, one of us had anger issues and screamed in the shower until they collapsed onto the tile, hot water mixed with tears, one of us had worked as a call girl to earn a living beside studying, and one of us often contemplated death as a pleasant alternative to their lives. We lay our stories on the table, and our secrets became visible, the way a scar or a wound shows itself, uneven and raw and throbbing, when one lifts the smooth surface of cloth off the injured body.

Sometimes Bill would share his own worries, too: a son suffering from a mysterious pain in his limbs and the endless visits to an obscure list of doctors, a teenage daughter in constant fight with her mother, a sweet doll that turned into a shrew with a tablet to shield her from the parents, suspicions of mental health issues, and no sight of relief, only silence claiming more and more space in his family room.

When one of us would ask him about his children, his hands would start to tremble ever so slightly, and he would lift his fingers to his forehead as if to flick a black thought away, then he would rest his hand against his eye so that it would cover half of his face before smoothing the white hairs on his head, as if that had been the real reason he moved his hand in the first place. And each of us would listen, and talk, and listen again, and I have always suspected that Bill has also felt relieved by the end of the editing sessions.

We have gathered countless times over the years. People have dropped out, new members have joined the group, some of us could not make it to the meetings for a while, and then rejoiced again. Only one thing is for sure: that the Keeper of Secrets has been sitting in his office, high up in the Tower, in his tall black chair since the beginning of time, waiting for secrets—stories to keep.