Saturday was the rumour of a thunderstorm. The radio garbled as the interference grew even worse, until the words of the newscaster became barely decipherable. The next second the power plunged out, and everything was gone. I blinked owlishly into the darkness. I breathe too much. Too loud. I don’t breathe enough. It’s an early night, maybe nine or ten, but all I think about is the large shadow mass inhabiting the kitchen.
From beyond the open window, the pale ring of the moon eclipses the dark, but barely. It’s sickly, ill light. My eyes are drawn to what’s in front of me. Because the kitchen stove is still on, all the ingredients out in their packaging but otherwise untouched. The flames are weak, barely there. It flutters in the stale air of the apartment, boxed in by the four cramped walls and suffocated by stillness. The luminescent blue and yellow light reflects in my face, refracted into shards of fractured glass as it pierces the thin, watery film of startled eyes.
I shut off the stove. The power floods back on.
I move like a shambling corpse, stumbling as much in the light as I do in the dark. It’s dizzying to swap between states so quickly. The water rinsed from the sink tap is cold. I reach for the glasses on the kitchen top counter, and my finger catches on something smooth and thin. I stilled. I think I’m looking at a rectangular blur of white and red? But the shades are… off.
Through the lens, it becomes clear that I am right. The colours are skewed – one darker, the other paler, close to the way that bone gleams under the lights of an operating theatre. I taste the words that are not my own – Seth whispers, ivory and crimson. It takes longer to comprehend what I am staring at. It’s a card. A playing card.
King of Hearts. It’s unmistakable.
The missing piece to a game.
My thoughts are numb. Memories have never been the kindest things, and mine have even more reason to stay buried. Disconnection is the wrong word for it though – it’s more when you are so painfully aware of something that it becomes impossible to think of anything else because it drowns you. Emotion doesn’t suddenly become distant – it’s so painfully close, like a knife hovering over the heart. In the same way that people don’t suddenly become aloof puppets.
The handwriting on the back is familiar. I would know it blind, even just by touch. The indents against the card stock, like darts against a board, piercing the cursive between the letters ‘e’ and ‘a’. The faint smell of walnut-oil and varnish – a scent I thought I had long since forgotten in the deepest recesses of the past. Specialised ink I had bought myself.
Spelled out so painstakingly clear, scrawled on the card, that ghost asks-
What have you done with your heart?
I kept it safe, I think bitterly. From you.
There’s really not much the doctors can do when you walk into ER at 3 am in the morning with a gory gaping hole in your chest. The bandages that I wrapped around it kept getting soaked through far too quickly. It was the wetness of an open wound that pooled down, sticky and warm, dripping against the sterile floor of the hospital. Ironically similar to colour theory.
I suppose it was one of the reasons that I was whisked away so quickly – to stop before I had unravelled inside out right then and there.
I had dressed myself up the best I could – old shirt, old trousers. Disposable things. Aware that I am a fount, broken, soaked dark in a matter of minutes. To the extent I could almost believe I was standing in an ankle-deep tide of my own viscera. It ran sticky down the side of my legs, the gaping chasm inside a hollow chest grim like it had been lit by a fallen star. Lungs squelching against rusting, decaying ruined fabric.
It didn’t hurt though. Most removal of hearts don’t. As a rule, children are so easily careless with theirs – you were too. Siblings could swap their hearts in a measure of comfort without ruining either school uniforms. Lovers exchange hearts thoughtlessly. Parents lend theirs out to their kids equally frequently.
Mine was almost like that. An ordinary transaction.
In the end, all that the hospital trip had earned was a fresh circular patch of stitches around that gap, sutured shut in the best way they could think of, like circular embroidery. Sewed up like a rip in someone’s jeans, and all I could think about was that I had no choice.
Or maybe I did, but the alternative was so much worse that it was never really an option.
Sarah studied the card. The blank face of the ‘King’, draped in vibrant gold and red and black, silhouetted by blue, an inverted mirror with twin swords grasped in either hand both below and above, pointed at his head. The customary keyhole shape over the centre of the chest hidden within voluminous folds of silk cloth. The thin lines of the King’s mouth were sharper than usual, pale, like the serrated edge of the stylised blades he wielded.
She flipped it over to the back and read aloud the inscription. It’s soft, accented in her mouth. “What have you done with your heart?”
She looked at me expectantly. It’s more than curiosity in that gaze – it reminds me of how a crow stares down at a crowd from high above a telephone wire, distant but interested; and if that intrigue becomes worth pursuing, well… then come hell or high water and ink-spread wings will blot the sky and descend with talons outstretched.
“It’s right where it should be.” I muttered back. My voice is low. Sitting in front of the cafe directly across from the local museum – in direct viewpoint of the nonsensical graffiti that lines the red-bricked walls of that building – and I try not to let my gaze wander. It’s- not an admittance of guilt. “Where it’s always been.”
She leaned back. Morbid fascination was back. “Can you still feel it?” She asked. “Can you hear it?”
“Yes.” I said tightly. Suddenly all too aware of the pulse in my throat, throbbing the whole way.
Two fundamental concepts that children learn in school –
A heart, once broken, will mend.
A heart, once lost, can always be found.
“Then maybe it’s as simple as that.” She said, and then comes the very thing I have tried so very hard to avoid – the pity in her voice. She has always been able to read you like a book. “You have to return back. Go home. Turn around and look at this thing you’ve been running from straight in the flippin’ eyes. The card’s a sign.”
“A sign from what,” I said, on the verge of a scoff, “The universe?”
Sarah shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“Or maybe someone broke into my apartment. And left that as a warning.”
“Then call the police or whatever.” She said.
“I’ll look like a lunatic.” I answered, my face twisting of its own accord. Nobody who’s been burnt by matches goes ahead and plays with fire again. Ever. “Especially with-” a gesture towards the general direction of my empty rib cage. “This. You know how they are.”
Her eyes were like pale blue fireflies in the mid-morning sun as they flickered to mine. Her hand reached up to the side of her head, brushing against the half-tucked feather in her hair. An undercurrent of seriousness hidden beneath humour as she said, “I could always lend you mine.”
“Now that I don’t have a good track record of.” I deflected, then softened. “No. But, thank you. I’ll be fine. I made it this far without one, right?”
Sarah doesn’t answer for a long time.
Hearts are not wood to carve. There is no singular name that can truly be engraved on pulsating tissue or the whole thing would tear otherwise. But sometimes I still wonder why I am so afraid, why I dream my fingernails to be the curve of a carving knife in my hands, chisels and gouging tools, as it pries the seams open. Why the cold of condensation against a mason jar is the same cold that haunts my bones.
(Stupid. You know exactly why)
A famous platitude hung above the cafe door, one I have studiously ignored for the entire duration of the conversation. I cannot remain blind as I pass back out into the cold, grey day. It is a wooden sign, with burnished and polished grains. It declares in cheerful printed brushstrokes – Home is where the Heart is. Signs from the universe, Sarah had said. Coincidence. Improbable, awful coincidence.
The bus leaves the station five minutes earlier than it is supposed to. It pulls away, and I am left standing in the dust, breathing in the angry huff of vehicle smoke as it heads for the horizon. But. It barely registers. Because there’s an empty space in the traffic, and the next sucker-punch of a revelation from the universe comes when I can suddenly see every speck of that same graffiti that I had so easily dismissed earlier.
A King, adorned in red and gold and black, swords gripped in both inverted hands.
But- something’s different.
There’s a missing spot in cement, scrubbed over, where his heart should have been.
And I know it’s meant for me.
Language is a medium that’s stunted when you are born speaking one tongue, then a second one, and by the time you hit third grade you become convinced that only one of those matters. English was for school, for those posh classmates and stern teachers and unfamiliar syllables. Home was filled with those extended, slightly more musical sounds. As a child, I mangled both of them up sufficiently enough that it was apparently a disgrace for everyone. This was a distinct memory of childhood, one that hurt significantly less to smile at.
But I- haven’t been home in a very long time.
The tug still lingers, like string wrapped around the fishhook shards of ribs in my chest. The forecast was right, as it turns out, but the rain is light. More like a drizzle really, but I still caught glimpses of the sky flashing white-hot with the occasional streak of lightning. If I were more poetic, I would wager a guess that it was gearing up for a truly grand thundering finale.
I have never been able to sell off my family home. If not for what lies inside that house – trinkets and memories and childhood things left in an untouched tomb, frozen in time – then for what is buried in the backyard itself. A secret-keeper unto itself.
Going home is stepping back into a watercolour-smeared painting. The nails are rust, the wallpaper is peeling, paint pulls away, and there is only dust. Nothing but ash. Fragments and shards and fog. I had spent so long blindly stumbling from one moment to the next, as time escaped from the cracks of my fingertips, from the fractures within skin.
Wandering those empty rooms, heartsick with all the probabilities of what had once been, and I think to myself that – if I still had a heart – it would have been pounding.
There is a rickety chair inhabited by a ghost no-one sees. It rocks still, alone and decrepit, on the porch – the only silent watching stone of the night. It has my eyes. It has my voice. Windchimes cling from above, like droplets of silver rain. And when I draw near, like clockwork that has never learnt to forget itself, the wood greets me home, plywood and timber, coarse and riddled by termite scars but still that ghost looks at me and smiles.
Silver is the colour I remember the most vividly. The bathtub runs. The faucets are silver tarnished with age. The cobwebs glisten. The strands are white and silver tears when the light of dawn and dusk reflects off it. Then as a child, my fingers sticky-sweet with jam as it braids the silver hair of my grandmother. I can almost imagine it again – her iron embrace the scent of medicine and caster oil and the faintest whiff of wildflowers.
The gaudy metal scales still decorate the living room cabinet. I tip the copper scales idly with a finger, the carving of a feather embossed in one end against that of a crudely shaped heart. The price tag is still there on the base; half-price, GoodSales sale. Framed opposite this, as if in orbit, is a painting of a fisherman. His line is not cast; instead, he leans over the murky waters, his bait box spilled over with writhing, live worms, shadowed by the tinged red water that laps his welly boots.
The dust obscures much of his face, his hands, but I already know this story. It’s quite a popular cautionary story, actually. The sort that’s popular at campfire gatherings, even if the lines have long since blurred and nobody truly knows how much of it is built on fact or fiction.
I still remember every word in my grandmother’s raspy voice though.
(He cut his heart out and fed it to the fishes, dying with a smile on his face and a coin suckled under his tongue to pay the ferryman on the other side)
I change those thoughts, a channel on a radio I don’t have time to dwell on. The distant thud of the rain does nothing to ease the slow drone of my own doubts clouding the basin of my skull. It’s an incessant itch. Like ants. And it tastes like copper and rust and battery-acid all at once.
It tastes like shame. A lucid daydream, where I am not myself. The freefall of a connection with something that you do not want. All that blood, but it was never beautiful. People turn it into stories and tragedies – victors of wars and violence, remnants of the dead – caught as both a thing of life and death but the only way that anyone cares if it was the latter. Poured like wine from a cut, a gash, a wound. Inciting that primal, animal thing.
But in the end, it’s not poetry. It was just red.
It’s strange that I know exactly where to dig – beneath the crooked, decaying tree; where the branches split like a serpent’s tongue, yearning for the very stars that it was cast out from. It is almost grey with rot and moss now. There is a stone tablet that sticks out of the ground, like a sore swollen tooth. My fingers scrabble for the latch in the soil, loose earth crumbling the way skin does, nails stained filthy and splintered.
I imagine myself, barely an adult, and yet already digging a grave.
It’s still there. Of course it is. It’s how it drew me back in the first place.
My fingers collide with something soft and solid. I lift it into the air, with the hitch of a half-pained breath. There’s a half-rotted handkerchief pressed around the bundle, I pull it away. It lies discarded against the ground, and this is the last I ever pay mind to it. Instead my hands wrap around the lid of the jar, twisting, and it gives way easily enough.
And for the first time in half a decade, I see it.
It’s shrunken, far from human contact for so long, but still it pulses warm. Creased like overripe fruit, the folds twisting within itself like worn origami. Like it’s afraid to bare itself again. I think of the echo of my past self, scooping out the fresh earth of a grave and leaving behind such a vital part of me because it was so much easier to feel nothing at all than the alternative.
“It’s not healing to see your childhood home.” Seth said, a ghost still, but I hear his voice so clearly in my head. “But it’s a measure of deconstruction. How broken you are, and why.”
The way glass shatters in my palm is akin to the crystal rain, cool and unforgiving. I choke out a laugh that’s on the verge of a sob. “Cryptic bullshit as always, huh.”
“Do you hate me, or do you hate yourself more?’
“Both.” I answered quietly. In my palm, the heart is warm, fed as it mixes with the shallow cuts in my hand where the shards embed. I focus numbly on the task at hand, barely noticing the sting of pain. The scissors snip through the stitches – I am well-versed in replacing every suture.
“Then what are you looking for?”
“Myself.” To say this aloud was to drop the burning match into the oil-slick of my own mind. I am surrounded by a garden of living-dead things and I myself am one of them, even more so than the ghost that I have dragged around for so long. The sound rain makes as it rattles against the roof shingles is akin to the heaving ribs of antlered animals.
“You should have let me go.” He told me.
“Yeah.” I said. “Should’ve. Couldn’t.”
Because it wasn’t my heart that I had ripped out from my chest. It was his.
Was that why there was so much blood?
(To lose enough for two)
“I thought I could keep you alive.” I said, and sat heavily against the ground. The grass is yellow, parched from sunlight, it tickles roughly the edge of my skin. Now that I’m here, it’s strange that all I feel is just so damn tired. Drained. Every excuse has long since withered up, every scrap of denial. “It was stupid. But it worked, for a while.”
“Buried yours, stole mine. Ran away.” There’s a distant musical lilt to his voice now, more charged. “Then you got too tired of carrying it around for me.”
“It wasn’t right to.” I corrected, and held out the card in my hand, outstretched in an offering. “I know that now. And I’m sorry.”
He looked at it. Every fold, every crease, and still the image of the King stares back as regal as ever. The ink running like spectral tears where the heat from skin had smeared it. “After all these years,” he said, “And you finally listened.”
“I thought it was just mourning.” I said. “Seeing things that were not really there.”
“Chalking truth up to imaginations of the mind.”
“Wanting to pretend.” I said, “But you’re right. I can’t anymore.”
Finally, he takes the card. I half-expect it to float to the ground, but it doesn’t. It is held aloft, by pale mottled skin, by the hands of that same boy I had watched being buried over five years ago now. He smiles, and something inside him gives way, the tension that held his body up like a stiff puppet melting away with the rain, sinew washed anew. Around the ghost of a boyish grin, he crouches and said, “I forgive you. Thank you.”
Then I am alone.
But not quite. My heart thumps in its chest. And there is an altogether different card in my hands.
Aces, I think. We both win.
Written By: Trishta