Once upon a time, some years ago, there lived a girl. Her fine auburn hair and bright green eyes could easily lead you to believe she was just another girl in just another story, but what would be the point of telling it if that were the case? No, this girl had something distinctly different about her, namely a small door in the centre of her chest. Now do not let your mind fool you, this is not a door to anywhere in particular and it is certainly not wooden or made of anything other than flesh. It was not put there by some witch’s curse or anything untoward at all; she was merely born in possession of a door to her heart.
Her mother, acknowledging that this was quite a peculiar situation, took the key born inside her navel and attached it to a fine silver chain that she wore around her neck, ensuring the security of her daughter’s heart. As she grew, her mother taught her as much as she could about life and love, filling their home with books of love stories of all kinds and regaling her with her own encounters so as to balance the knightly chivalry. But, as is often the case in these stories, not long after her sixteenth birthday, her mother fell gravely ill. Upon her deathbed, her mother took the fine chain from the safety of her neck and gave it to her daughter.
“Take care my wise and beautiful girl, for one day your heart will belong to another, but be sure that they offer their own to replace it.”
The girl had the gravediggers put her mother to rest in a clearing by the river so that she could always enjoy the rush of the water and the sway of the leaves. Every week the girl would walk the long journey to sit by her mother’s side at the water’s edge and tell her stories of her life. On one such day, as she dipped her toes into the cool river, a loud splash rang out from upstream. Poised to jump to the rescue she cast her eyes across the surface. After a moment or two a head broke through and proceeded to bob about in a most contented way. Relieved she settled herself again but found she was distracted from her usual routine. Instead she watched. Watched this boy with hair like corn and eyes like the sky swim from one bank to another, and as she did she felt a strange shift in her chest.
“I’ve seen you here before,” he said
He had caught her in a daydream, something similar to this but in slow motion, and so she hadn’t seen him swim right up next to her.
“Really? I haven’t seen you before.”
“I’m here every week as you are. I’m usually much quieter but I felt it was about time we met.”
“You’ve been spying on me?”
“At first I didn’t want to risk missing out on your stories, but then I realised if I didn’t introduce myself I might miss out on your stories.”
A smile flew to her lips and the shift in her chest became a pull, like her heart was trying to escape right through the door.
“What kind of story would you like to hear?”
They talked for hours until dusk fell. Every week she returned and he was there waiting for her. For months this continued until one day as they sat beneath the trees, droplets of rain began to fall, getting rapidly faster and harder. The boy took hold of her hand and they began to run. She lead him all the way back home and once inside she set a fire for them to warm themselves by. By the light of the flames he leaned in close, traced the line of her cheek, and delicately placed his lips to hers. As he pulled away he nervously whispered, “my darling girl, I think I love you.”
At that, a smile flourishing across her face, she took the fine chain from around her neck and placed the key carefully into the lock. With a small click, like the pop of bone, the door swung open to reveal her heart. She took it carefully in her hand, lifted it from where it had rested all her life, and held it to his chest. Gently, and without resistance, her heart melted through his skin until it disappeared, and as it did so did a heart appear within her momentarily empty chest.
“You have my heart,” she said
He looked into her eyes and shone a smile full of warmth, “and you mine”.
I would love to say, dear reader, that that is where the story ends, but as I mentioned before, what would be the point of telling the story if that were the case? They were together for many years, living happily, loving much, until one day the girl awoke and felt something quite strange. She sat up in bed and as she did so she felt a rattle come from inside her chest. She took the key from around her neck and fit it into the lock. As the door swung open she saw the boy’s heart, where it had been for many years, and yet there seemed to be a piece missing. She reassured herself it was nothing, closing the door in her chest.
Later that day, while the boy was out at the market, she settled down to read. As she did so she felt a sharp pain strike her chest. She once again took out the key, but this time as the door swung wide she found half a heart gently beating. Her breath caught in her throat and her eyes filled with tears. What had happened for her to lose his heart?
She set out for the market to find him, to try to understand. But everyone she asked at the market insisted they hadn’t seen him all day. All week in fact.
That night as the boy returned home the girl was sat there waiting by the hearth, embers growing cold.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“At market, as I said.”
“You’re lying. I went to the market and no one there had seen you. Not seen you all week they said.”
“Well then they are as blind as they are old.”
At that, the girl turned towards him and the boy saw the door to her heart wide open. Empty.
“Who has your heart now?” she asked.
“You lie. You do not fall out of love in a day. Tell me to whom it belongs.”
The boy looked down to his feet before replying. “I met her at the market only last week. We talked for hours each day, as we did all those years ago, then yesterday she kissed me. I’ve never felt anything like it. I saw her again today and now… She has my heart.”
“Then return mine,” replied the girl through gritted teeth and salty tears.
“I don’t think I can.”
That night, as the boy slept soundly on the sofa, the girl tossed and turned, unable to settle without the familiar beat of his heart in her chest. She rose from her bed and stood over him awhile, watching the familiar rise and fall. She reached out and placed her splayed palm over his heart to feel the beat. She thought back to the moment they declared their love and how easily her heart had slipped through his skin. As she held that memory in her mind she pushed gently with her index finger and felt the familiar pressure of his body slip away. Slowly, carefully, she pressed one finger after another through his skin and closed her hand around his heart.
The boy awoke with a start to see the girl looming over him and he could feel her hand clamped around his heart. It was like he couldn’t breathe. He swallowed great gulps of air but it made no difference. He tried to cry out but the pressure was so great he quickly choked on his own voice. She met his gaze with a calmness that felt colder than anything he had seen.
“I am taking back what’s mine.”
At this she drew back her arm and with it the boy’s beating heart. She watched him stare at it, pulsing pink in her hand, before he heaved one last breath and the glisten of life disappeared from his eyes. She took the key from around her neck and opened the door with a click, placing the heart carefully inside her own chest and shutting the door after it.