Second Place Winner of the 2020 Voyage YA Short Story Award judged by Natalia Sylvester, author of the YA novel, Running
Some people know they can live without their hearts. At least, the people who see the world for what it really is. People who know spirits manifest in shadows, who knock twice on doorframes before entering, who stack superstition with their linens in the closet. People like my family, who carried these truths with them like spare coins in their pockets, always wary of their clinking sound.
See, you can live without your heart. Maybe for a few days, a few weeks, or even, if you’re terribly lucky, a few months. But not forever. Certainly not for years. Live without your heart for too long and you change, become twisted out of shape, wrong.
Back in India, my nana told us all kinds of stories. She warned us not to give cigarettes to strange men at midnight for fear they are the devil in disguise. She taught us to cross ourselves before entering graveyards. You never know, Nana would say, best to be careful.
My family used to be careful.
We used to know that hearts were traded with an expiration date. We used to remember bargains were meant to be cleverly worded, short things. Especially if you had something to lose. We used to fear time, the sand slipping in an hourglass, an enemy you can’t escape. But even superstitious people, families like mine, can forget.
Dad bends over the chopping board. Mum stirs curry on the stove. I used to love that my father cooked, that he learned it living alone before he got married, that he didn’t leave all the cooking for Mum, like Papa had for Nana. I used to feel grounded watching them together. Now I wish the bedroom Sara and I share was big enough to fit a desk so that we didn’t have to study at the kitchen table. Sara’s keyboard clacks. The pressure cooker whistles in our small kitchen.
Dad’s smile is like one you’d see painted on an old altar statue. All close-lipped and chipped colors. Every time he smiles these days, I turn away. When was the last time he laughed? I clutch the pen in my hand, trying to remember.
Mum and Dad used to tease each other when they cooked dinner. Dad used to chatter ceaselessly on the way to school, Sara and I rolling our eyes at each other. Now our mornings are filled with silence and dinners are as frayed as a rubber band pulled close to breaking.
Sara taps her nails against the table, pausing her work to watch Dad pinch curry leaves. Her eyes narrow. For the first time, I wonder if she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop too.
I wonder if I’m not the only one in our family who is scared. I lean close to my sister. “Did you hear them—”
“Did I hear them what?” She glares at her screen and stabs her mousepad. Everything has changed since we moved. Maybe Sara isn’t scared at all. Maybe my older sister is just angry.
“Nothing.” I droop into my chair. It’s just the muggy Brisbane heat weighing me down, I tell myself. My eyes prick with tears. I blink to make the equations in my textbook clear.
Mum calls that dinner is ready, so Sara and I pack up and grab a plate each. The food drifts up, spicy and delicious, but its taste is gone when it reaches my mouth, stolen by some silent thief. Mum’s eyes are strained. When was the last time she laughed?
The chirping of cicadas could almost drown out the small sounds of us scraping rice into handfuls. Dad’s gaze at his plate is vacant like the glassy eyes of a doll. I shiver. Mum looks sideways at Dad, shrinking. They had a fight last night. They’ve fought before, but Mum has never looked like this after.
My Aunty Jane used to have a perfect marriage. That was before her husband traded his heart. He bargained it away for a year in exchange for a beautiful three-story house in a new development. At first, none of us was worried. That all changed when Aunty Jane told us what happened, sitting with our untouched cups of masala chai in our big living room in India, how her and Uncle’s marriage strained and then broke.
I remember how she didn’t look any of us in the eye. I remember my little cousins wrapped in her arms. I remember the lamplight casting a sickly glow on her face, on the fresh bruise. That’s the problem, she said. When your heart is gone for too long, you forget what it was like to have one.
My dad traded his heart late last year so we could move to Australia. I still don’t know when he will get it back. He won’t tell us. I don’t know if one full year is enough for him to forget like Uncle. I don’t know, and I’m afraid that one day I will find out.
We get the call from Aunty Jane at the end of dinner. Dad lowers his phone and tells us the news: Nana passed away on the way to the hospital. Heart attack. I’ve just put my plate in the dishwasher, and I’m standing there like a spare part. I look at the phone in Dad’s hand. What do you mean? I want to ask. My mouth is frozen.
Mum touches my shoulder. She takes my hand off the dishwasher door and closes it for me.
“I’m so sorry, girls.” There are tears in her eyes. “At least Nana didn’t suffer long.”
Sara glances at Mum’s other outstretched hand and leaves, slamming our bedroom door. The sound echoes through the house. It reverberates against my skin in tiny shocks.
Mum hesitates by my shoulder and then goes to hug Dad. I’m so sorry, she says again, into his neck, her voice thick with tears for his mother. Dad has four younger sisters. Nana has always called him her Sonna, proud of how he takes care of them.
Dad has lost both of his parents now. I remember Papa’s funeral so clearly. I can smell the incense like I’m back in the chapel.
Mum rests her hand on Dad’s arm. “Did Jane say when’s the funeral?”
Nana’s funeral. I sit down in a chair.
“Sometime next week. But flights are very expensive. You know how they get close to the holidays…”
“What?” I look at Dad.
“What are you saying?” Mum has drawn away from Dad. “That you don’t want to see Mum? That on top of everything, Jane has to organize the funeral alone!”
Mum’s outburst rattles me.
“Don’t look at me like that.” Dad’s voice should be full of hurt, but it isn’t. He barely glances at Mum. His eyes are dry as he plugs his phone back in to charge. I stare at the Sacred Heart of Jesus tacked on the fridge. “Be reasonable. We’re trying to save for a trip to Europe. You know how long the girls have been waiting.” He flings out a hand, fingers curled, as if just remembering something. “And exam block has just started.”
I can’t believe what he’s saying. He shrugs Mum off as she tries to reason with him. I couldn’t give a fuck about Italy or France or England. Or exam block.
I say so. My words stun the room into silence.
Dad crosses his arms. He looks at me. I expect a verbal kicking, but his voice is so even it borders on pleasant. “Go to bed, Maria.”
My name, the name my dad chose for me after my grandmother, shuts something down inside of me. I don’t want to stay here and see Mum’s teary eyes, or the black, dead screen of Dad’s phone on the kitchen laminate. I don’t want to fight with him.
Numbly, I get up from the table and walk away from them both. Dad’s face lingers in my mind. Anger engulfs me, sudden and scorching. Anger at myself. How could I have not realized?
Curled around my pillow, staring at Sara’s sleeping form in the single bed across from mine, sleep is out of my reach. I’m hot and restless. So many of the hurts in my heart want to rush out. I don’t want to spill them out into my pillow though. Not tonight. I kick off the sheets.
Out in the hall, I push through the sad grieving quiet that sinks into the house. I stamp my feet as I turn away from my parents’ room to the side door. Childish. Loud. Thoughtless. For once, Mum’s reprimanding words are true. I stand there, locked inside by just a thin clear pane, my heart beating so fast I can feel it in my palms. I should go find the key. I curl up my fist. I want to smash the glass instead.
So I do. I barely feel the glass cutting into my skin. I never knew I was so strong.
I pull the broken door along its oiled tracks and step out, my bare feet sinking into the overgrown grass. Pressure builds behind my eyes like I’ve been staring at my laptop screen for too long. I run through the backyard and into the eucalyptus trees bordering it. I run until I can think of nothing but sidestepping trees in the black and white night.
There was an unending wave of stories in India about traded hearts, accounts swapped between gossiping aunties, cautionary tales filtered down to children, warnings whispered ironically with the reckless glow of alcohol at teen parties. They all blend together in my head. They all whittle down to this:
A creature that lines up hearts in glass jars.
A creature with sharp claws that slices deep into skin.
A wicked and hungry creature.
The Silken will cut out your heart and sew your desire in its place. Not some flimsy wish to be better than your sister at making boys’ heads turn when you walk past, or for a nicer part-time job or a crisp new pair of Nikes. Not the dreams that shift and change from month to month. Only the desire that has eaten you up. The one that burns inside you.
There are just trees and the night sky, the shivering of leaves caught in a slight breeze, until there isn’t. My ragged breathing evens out as I step up to the threshold of a dark cave. Glass shapes inside glint back moonlight. I hover outside the entrance, feeling like a ghost, feeling like I fell asleep in my bed and every moment since sitting up has been a dream. Then I feel the sting on my hand. I look down and I can’t believe what I’ve done.
This cave shouldn’t be here. Air gusts onto my skin, freezing cold, reaching out from the black mouth of the cave like searching fingers. I wrap my arms around myself. The tree branches behind me shake with a sudden and violent wind. I edge inside, trying to escape the menacing night, and the trees go back to a whisper. I don’t know what I’m doing.
My heart hammers. Go back. Go back.
“Maria! What are you doing here?”
It was cold when I stepped inside, but now it is frost-on-the-windows cold. A familiar face smiles at me. Soft wrinkles. Sagging brown skin. Gray hair. Even her smell is the same, like talcum powder. My eyes burn and the tears that I have been holding onto like pebbles I found in a stream rush out of me.
“Nana?” I ask.
“My little angel.” She reaches out, the gold wedding band on her finger there like it always is, bright in the dim. It’s really her. My skin warms. My heart is pounding with joy now. They were wrong, Nana’s not gone, she’s here. She’s here. I reach for her, wanting her to crumple me up in her arms like she did the last time I saw her, when we had loaded our bags in the car and were ready to drive off to the airport. Her fingers touch my arm.
I jerk back. Her fingers are claws. Her eyes are yellow and sunken.
“No, no you’re not—” I think back to dinner and the phone call and why I felt the urge to run out here. I swallow my tears. I’ve bitten my lip so hard I taste blood. “I didn’t come here for her.”
“Such a brave girl, Maria.” Her voice raises gooseflesh on the back of my neck. Honey-sweet. Not Nana’s raspy voice anymore. “Tell me what you came here for then.”
“I want it back.”
The Silken shrugs. “Your father made a deal.” Her unnatural eyes are shrewd. “His heart is still mine.”
I shake my head, my pulse galloping at my throat. If she won’t give Dad’s heart back to me, then I’ll have to take it. I scan the shelves lining the cave: crammed on them are hundreds of glass jars with wet pulsing objects inside. Bile rises up my throat. It could be any of them.
The Silken looks at me and I stare back at those horrible eyes in Nana’s face. She smiles, just a little tug of her lips at the corners. I wonder if her teeth are rotting and black inside. Maybe they’re long as a wolf’s canines.
“But you want it.” The Silken stares at one of the jars. She walks a few steps, pauses, and touches a long nail to it. The heart inside starts to jump, alive again by her closeness. “It is your deepest desire, is it not? I’ll give it to you.”
The scraping sound of her nail crawls over my skin, leaving goose bumps. “I’ll take it now. Right now.” My voice shakes.
“No.” Her clawed fingers dig into my arm, jerking me to a halt as I reach for the jar. “Not for free.”
She looks down at me, her breath foul. I was wrong. She doesn’t have any teeth. Her maw is dark and bottomless. A yawning chasm. My heart kicks into a rapid beating, just as if she had touched her finger to its glass jar. The claws of her other hand curl like they can feel my frantic heart. The Silken’s eyes gobble me up, like the wolf from a fairy tale, except this wolf is very much real.
There is a glint in her yellow eyes. She is waiting for me to decide. I swallow.
Dad gave up everything for us to have a better life here. He gave up his heart. He shouldn’t have had to. Our life back home should’ve been enough. We should’ve been enough. Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore.
“Will it hurt?” I ask.
The Silken smiles, a full smile that now shows far too many teeth. I close my eyes. My head pounds. Her claw on my arm tightens and draws blood. I gasp, and my eyes fling open. With her other hand she reaches into my chest, her long claws yellow and wickedly sharp, her sunken eyes wide and greedy. I want to flinch back, but I’m frozen like a girl under glass, my eyes stuck and staring into her wizened face.
There is so much pain. A coppery scent. A horrible tearing. Warmth.
I know she is done when I see her hand pulling back in the bottom of my vision. She wears a red glove of my blood. Clenched in her hand is my heart, still beating, still strong. She takes a glass jar off one of her shelves, and I feel the moment my body is free of her magic, see the moment that bloody still-beating heart is sealed behind glass. I hit the ground hard. I think I black out. The next thing, I’m opening my eyes, my vision full of dirt.
The Silken snorts and waves her hand at me, and I can suddenly breathe without fire scalding my chest. I look down with wide eyes. My shirt is torn and slick and wet with blood. My hands are coated in it. Even my hair is sticky.
But my skin is unbroken. I scramble to my feet.
“You’ll need to sew it back in.” She presses the jar with my father’s heart, a needle, and a spool of white thread into my hands. I listen as she explains what to do. I watch the thread turn red with blood.
I do everything she says.
My father cries every night into his pillow. I hear him. He’s not soundless like I used to be. The magic is curious. It sluices years of feelings back into him like a deluge of monsoon rains. My mother whispers to him that it’s okay, everything is better now. It’s better that it hurts. She is wrong, of course, but she’s right about one thing. Everything is better now.
I’m no longer scared. Hurting. Wanting. I’m free as a kite, drifting into the open blue sky, cut off from its strings.