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Once there was a girl with the wrong question on her lips.
She would’ve been quite unremarkable had it not been for the words always hovering on the tip of her tongue. She was as bright-eyed as any child, her laughter ringing with childhood’s careless innocence. People dismissed her inability to hide her emotions as a natural part of her young age, a tedious, but unavoidable nuisance. But the constant question on her lips was something they couldn’t brush aside as lightly. It unnerved them to see her eyes light up with tentative hope when she asked them if they wanted to see her heart. It rattled them even more when she put its trembling, soft form in their hands, her face shining with a genuine pride that was utterly puzzling to them.
The girl’s fault was this: she had been born into a world where people hid their hearts. They treated them like wild animals, unpredictable and untamable; were ashamed even to acknowledge their existence inside of them, much less unlock their tightly-closed chests and expose them to nature’s joys and humanity’s justice. People thought it best to kill their hearts when they were still young and feeble, before they could tear free of their leashes and turn against their unwilling masters.
But the girl didn’t see how her own heart could harm her. She let it fly with the birds and roam with the winds, and when it came back to her she bid it tell her of what it had seen and done. She let it dream aloud, and in exchange for that freedom her heart told her secrets no man should ever learn. Yes, the girl loved her heart, and her heart loved her.
But the girl’s heart could not teach her that not all happiness could be shared. She was too caught up in her newfound admiration for it to notice the way people flinched when they saw it lying in her palm, exposed and unprotected.
At first, they were appalled to feel it kick against their cupped hands; then mesmerized by the sight of it, so vulnerable yet so alive; and finally ashamed of their own empty, cold chests. Maybe it was the memory of their lost hearts that made them tighten their hold on the girl’s. Maybe it was sheer envy at her courage, or simple jealousy for another’s precious possession. Or maybe it was fear, of what it would mean that she trusted her heart enough to show it to the world, and they had been terrified at the thought of even looking too closely at their own.
Whatever it was, it changed their eyes in a way that would have made the girl snatch her heart back from their grasp, had she paid attention. But she hadn’t ever truly believed the rumor of her heartless folk. She couldn’t imagine anyone turning a knife against the very thing that made them who they were.
So at first she didn’t acknowledge that something was wrong with her heart. She barely registered the way it felt heavier than before. She noticed it tired more easily, and told its stories in less words than it used to. When she finally took it out to examine it, she was surprised to find sharp objects lodged in her heart’s soft underbelly. A pebble. A rusted nail. A piece of wire. Small wounds, small pins, pressed into its flesh by others’ hands, driven by a petty feeling of unfairness. She tried to pry the objects free, but her heart squirmed into her palm. A trickle of blood slid down one trembling finger. She didn’t want to cause it more pain. She watched scar tissue form around the foreign objects. She waited for them to become a part of her heart’s flesh until she dared touch its new, hardened surface. She recalled people telling her what a beautiful heart she had. She thought of that, and grieved.
She realized she would do her heart a cruel injustice if she kept showing it to people. She would have to learn to live with the reality of not letting them see the whole of who she was.
She began to hide her regard for her heart from the rest of the world. She still let it fly with the birds and roam with the winds, but secretly, and never for too long. She started to pick more carefully who to show her heart to. She didn’t offer it to strangers anymore, and even when she did, she didn’t let people touch it. And she kept her gaze on their faces, so she was able to see how their mouths curved with malicious satisfaction when they pointed at the scars and remarked that her heart was changed. Somehow their words opened new cuts inside of her, ones that didn’t bleed through her heart’s flesh but through her eyes. Some nights she bled so much she thought she felt the way they must feel, with their hollow, lonely chests.
One of these nights, as she took her heart in her hand, she understood what she had to do. To keep it from the mercy of the world, she had to isolate it from all others.
She picked up the knife.
Her heart writhed. Her grip didn’t slacken.
She plucked small holes in the fabric where its flesh had sealed itself around the ingrained objects. She took them out, carefully, one by one. Her palm was damp and sticky with real blood now, her heart a fistful of pain.
When she was done her heart felt so light she was afraid it might fly free and never return this time. So she worked fast. She tied the pebbles and nails with the wire and wrapped it around her heart like a fence to protect it. Or cage it.
It struggled against the makeshift barbed wire as she put it back in her chest. It gave one slow, sore thump when she turned the key into the lock.
The girl was not a girl anymore. She told her heart of the flying birds and the roaming wind, but it was never to see them again. She let it dream, but kept the dreams inside. When the strangers who weren’t strangers anymore stopped her in the street to ask her, what had happened to that strange heart of hers, she reached into her chest to prick the tip of a finger on the barbed wire. She showed them the blood. She let them think she was just like them: level-headed, empty-chested, dead.
People smiled in approval that looked a little too much like relief, and went about their business. They forgot the girl.
She was quite unremarkable, after all.