She first sees him in the mirror, over her mother’s shoulder. She’s asking about the canapes, and where to have the workman set up the marquis, and the housekeeper who had called in ill that morning, and her mother is paused in the foyer peering into one of the endless mirrors that paper the walls and tucking another jeweled comb into her hair to nestle sparkling beside its many brethren. His eyes are gray and his skin is dark and his teeth are sharp and white, and she has time only for the most fleeting notion of slipping away to speak to him before her mother’s mirrored gaze has caught hers and pinned her to the glass like a wounded bird.
Once upon a time there was a mother who was wealthy and affluent, a beauty to behold, the envy of all who saw her and a Queen among her peers. Once there was a daughter whom the mother desired only for as long as it took for womanhood to grasp her and wrap her up in black curls and easy grace and pale, unblemished skin. Once there was a Huntsman, kind and loyal and capable in his duties, but as selfish as any man is wont to be when offered the world in a plain wooden box. Take her heart, bade the queen, and bear it back to me that I might know the deed done. Give me the heart of the one who dared surpass me, and earn for yourself my boon.
He is charming, she finds, enough to butter her mother up, to slip them through her iron grasp and away from the thousands of glittering silver eyes that peer down from the walls of mirrors. He is charming enough to love, charming enough to trust, charming enough that when the time comes he has only to ask. She lays her heart gently into the box, admires its healthy beat, the way the fresh blood seeps into the clean white velvet. She watches as he clasps it carefully and tucks it away into his coat, a pocket over his heart, and the hollow space within her quivers at the thought of such closeness.
Only the foolish would waste a heart. Only the naïve would trust one to another. Only the vain would cast one aside. A wise man keeps his hearts close, keeps them safe, hoards them like a dragon hoards its coins and its princesses close to its breast. The Huntsman returned neither box nor girl to the Queen. The girl realized too late that she had never received a heart in exchange.
It is a strange thing, she finds, to be heartless. He never gives her a new one, one to fill the hollow in her chest, but it aches a little less when he is near, pressed close to her in the small apartment they share, on the wrong side of town but far from her mother and the mirrors, and for awhile she thinks that might be enough.
Sometimes, when she is left alone, the small apartment doesn’t feel small. She takes walks then, surveys the world that her mother had only ever allowed her to look at through her mirrors. She discovers that she can’t bring herself to do much more now. She hasn’t the time; the hollow space in her chest consumes all the color and light around her until all is black as coal and white as snow, greedy and growing and only seeming to cease when He is nearby. There is a house in her neighborhood that she likes to look at, however. It reminds her of a gingerbread house, dainty and Victorian, candy coated with colored paints and white trim dripping from the eaves like icing. She never draws too near, terrified to mar its beauty with her emptiness, but she watches. A man lives there, with his parents. He walks their dog and does their gardening, and once she saw him carrying groceries in from their beat up old Chevy. His hair is gold and his eyes are blue and he bursts with as much color as his home, and sometimes when she walks by he sees her, and he waves. She thinks he might be what a Prince looks like.
Sometimes, she wonders if the gingerbread Prince would have given her a heart.
It hurts, now, the hole inside of her, an unbearable ache, a craving that cannot be satisfied. He leaves her alone too often, to work, and the minutes between her kissing him goodbye and her running for the door to greet him like Pavlov’s loyal dog, holding him close to feel the bare whisper of completion that his presence grants her as she listens to the beating of the heart that should have been hers, are filled with as much void as her collapsing ribcage.
She begins to look for the box. Not to take it, never to take it, it was freely given, but- if she could touch it, could see that it is as well taken care of as she knows it must be, perhaps the hole in her chest could be appeased? If she could just know, if she could see- but there is no box. Their apartment, small as it is, is swept top to bottom in little enough time to leave plenty for despair. She empties it, carrying their belongings to and fro, until her hair is grey with dust and the neighbors are taking her gently by the elbow and leading her out of her empty home to a chair left forlorn in the hallway, drifting among the old bills and overflowing laundry baskets.
Do you have my heart? She asks them each in turn. Did he give it to you? She receives no answer save seven pitying faces. The leave her there, enthroned amongst the jumble, until elevator chimes and he is gathering her up and carrying her inside.
She was always going to find the box. In the small hours, she creeps from their bed and slinks ghost-pale to the door, to the place where she should have begun her search. She takes his coat from its peg and slips her hand into the heart-pocket. In the dim light of the stove hood she undoes the clasp, with trembling fingers she lifts the lid.
The stain has dried to the velvet, dull and black, it sloughs flakes of dead heartsblood into her hands. In its center lies the remains of her heart, a black, trembling thing, riddled at its edges with teeth marks. It beats once, feebly. Above her, the kitchen light flickers on. Gently, he pulls the box from her shaking hands. With all the tenderness a man can show, he lifts the last of her heart from the box. His smile is nothing but loving when he bites down.
Jocelyn Volz is an undergraduate student in the History program at the University of Northern Iowa, with Creative Writing and Religion minors. She lives in Waterloo, Iowa with her family. This is her first publication.
Artwork: Chie Yoshii, Deliverance