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By Leslianne Wilder
I‘m wearing a banker. I should have taken him off, sloughed the trimmed chest hair and frameless glasses to the floor and just been naked with her, but I’m shy, sometimes. I know, even if she’s only what she appears to be, that she deserves better than I can give her right now.
But I kiss her. I put my teeth and my fingers everywhere she asks, and I think she likes it. We drink scotch someone gave her for a birthday two years ago, the last time she ever spoke to them. I apologize for the stains on her couch. She says it doesn’t matter, but I can see she’s bothered, so I kiss her again. She’s an intermediate-level chess champion. She has trophies. Most of the food in her refrigerator is expired.
“I want to be so much more than I am,” she says. I don’t think she meant for me to hear, but I put my arm around her and kiss her forehead, anyway. We’re two warm points in the artificial chill of her apartment, things in a refrigerator. We’ll go bad more slowly here than we would out in the warm June nights, but we won’t last forever.
She runs a hand down the raised scar on my sternum.
“Surgery,” I say. She doesn’t question the story, any more than she did the name.
When she falls asleep, I open her chest. I pin the flaps of her skin to the couch sides, and she looks like an orchid. I could pollinate her diaphragm. The inside of her is twisted tight. She’s all gristle under the skin and she moans too high when I pluck it, out of tune. I wonder if I could be happy here, all through the night, playing the strings inside her, making the nightmare music.
[pullquote align=”right”]When she falls asleep, I open her chest. I pin the flaps of her skin to the couch sides, and she looks like an orchid. I could pollinate her diaphragm.[/pullquote]
But no. Her heart is such a tiny thing, brown and dingy and wrinkled. It puffs up for half a second before it shrivels again. She only has one heart and it isn’t mine. Staying now would feel empty. I reach between her ribs and scrape up a little of the ethereal to give to the Mendicant, then I pin her closed again. I lick the wound and hold her until she breathes even. Then I leave two hundred dollars and a note apologizing for the couch.
When I am out onto the street, I take the banker off and throw his skin in the trash.
I was naked as the face of God on the surface of the water. She was a heaven of ice above and fire below, and salt on my tongue in between them as I licked away the shape of her. For all I knew, we were creating a world. Something new and beautiful.
“I’ll show you mine,” she whispered, “if you show me yours.”
I cracked my ribcage back and let her touch the fluttering muscle. I let her hold it in both her cool, smooth hands.
I made love to her. It was the last time I saw my heart.
The Mendicant is splayed on the ceiling when I find him. His bare hands and feet hold him in place, and a pale membrane like chicken skin nictates across his eyes. His suit is too small for his long body. He has naked wrists and ankles.
“Hello, Tinman,” he says. I show him my hand without speaking. He slides down the wall and licks the essence of soul from under my fingernails. For a moment, he is the intermediate chess champion. His eyes squeeze closed in junkie ecstasy.
There’s a haze in the room that burns my eyes. The wallpaper is yellow, charred around the edges. There is no furniture, only donation boxes, styrofoam cups inscribed with “please,” monks’ bowls, and little Christmas cauldrons hung from tripods. Gifts balance on all these things: cigarettes, cushions, coins and dollar bills, skulls and grave dust, books of prayer. Some of the boxes have padlocks and they rattle when you hold them in the corner of your eye. “You said my heart would try to come back to me, that it would be drawn back. But it hasn’t ever been. It’s just been lonely people, one after another.”
The Mendicant lolls his head until it rocks against his shoulder. “Did you hear the one about Buddha and the dead boy’s mother? He said he’d bring back her son when she could fill a bowl with one grain of rice from every family who’d never lost a treasured one.”
“That’s no help.” I kick a box to punctuate my point then recoil when it screams like a child, and begins to weep and call a woman’s name. I wonder what advice someone holds in trade for that. I wonder if it was worth what they had to give up.
The Mendicant’s eyes close from four sides down to black periods in his face. “You going to cry out a flood to wipe away the sins of everyone, Tinman? There’s no room for you on the boat. You could take a dozen hearts, and ribs besides, but you keep chasing one that isn’t coming back. You could find it, if you tried, but you never trust.”
“I looked!” I say again. Every night for years, I’ve pinned open lovers like a mortician. No one’s brought me what I’ve been looking for.
When the Mendicant speaks again, his words have the electric shock of obvious truth. My muscles twitch and my mouth tastes like blood and pennies. “Every part of you but your damn mind knows how to find what you’re looking for.”
She could change her shape. She could be moonlight one minute, then a stockbroker the next. We played. We dressed each other up in flesh – embarrassing, exotic, silly, poignant. I was a cripple for her and she was one of those sad railroad clowns, too thin for her patched, purple pants. I was a woman stitched into fashion-model perfection with gold wire that glinted when I moved. She was a soldier amputee. I was a black cat under the full moon. She was Harpo Marx.
I never trusted anyone the way I trusted her then. I told her all my secrets. I taught her every magic I knew. I lied. I pretended I could spin straw into gold for spoiled millers’ daughters. I wanted to impress her.
When I woke up without my heart, I did not miss it more than her. It has taken me a long time to get my priorities straight again.
I want to be whole.
I am wearing a boy on the edge of adulthood, working fast food and enjoying pretending to hate my life, when the idea comes to me. It’s only my mind that cannot find my heart, that keeps me anchored in my routines, that blinds me to what my eyes should know to see. The answer, then, is obvious.
I throw my hat into the frier. The hisses and angry yells are like fireworks and confetti in my mind. I slide across the counter and sprint out the door. I grin so hard it hurts the raw, red pimples on my borrowed face. I come to the park by the river and I take my clothes off. I throw my shoes and my regulation shirt into the trees. My skinny, spotted disguise draws giggles from picnickers and it makes me smile. A policeman comes to tell me I cannot do this, but he stops when I break my fingers off and throw them into the river. The stump of my palm oozes and I break it off to offer it to him. He backs away. He prays to God. He calls for backup. I hurl the hand into the bushes with all my might. I pull my arm and my legs from their sockets. There is a dump truck coming. I try to throw my leg into its bin and miss. It rolls into a storm drain. I catch it with the other and it rumbles off down the shaded street. I put my thumb behind my eyes one at a time and throw them to the birds. Parts of me spread out in every direction.
I am one whole. I will find myself again. Every piece will seek out those closest to it and surely, one of them must find my heart.
When all the people have run in terror, and I am nothing but a mind, I wrap myself in a squirrel and join the symposium of the park. I meditate on acorns and the generosity of litters.
Everything else is in the hands of the universe.
I tried to steal a heart, once, when I could no longer stand the empty silence of still blood. I found a carriage horse whose owner had left it to woo tourists back to the velvet of his seats. The horse let its head hang. There was no grass, no herd, no freedom to run, no shade where it was allowed to stop and rub itself against a tree. I thought at the time it would be an act of mercy to take its heart. Perhaps it would die, or, maybe, without a heart, it would turn into an automobile and I would have liked to see that.
I waited until I was sure no one was looking, then I knelt beneath the horse and reached my hands into its chest. I wound my way through the viscera, between the thick, heavy spars of bone. It was a fine heart, the size of a cat, and thumping slow and steady, stately and foreign as a waltz. It was, I thought, a dependable heart.
But when I looked back I saw the animal down on its knees, with tears flowing from behind its blinders. The heart in my hands pulled back to it in an invisible tide of desperation.
I couldn’t. I gently replaced the organ and stroked the animal’s head until the crying stopped. Only a monster could ask any living thing to go on without a heart. One such as that deserved to have no heart at all.
I see a girl in my park one day. Her eyes are vacant and her fingers are on backwards. When she opens her mouth, her teeth are wrong. All of the canines are in the front, like a bulldog, and she bites at the other children when they try to make fun of her. Sometimes, she walks; sometimes, she crawls on her knees through the grass. Sometimes, she runs on all fours like a hyena. She is wearing a dirty dress that doesn’t fit her, but it’s hardly her fault. All those pieces finding their way together never had a mind to guide them.
I take a moment to look at what I am when I am undirected. The girl scratches without social regard. I think, if I had had a hand in making her, I would be deeply embarrassed, but knowing that I scattered her to the animals and the elements – and yet, she pulled herself together into what could pass for an unfortunate human – makes me very proud of myself.
I am wearing a goose today and I fly down in front of her. I spread my wings, honk and hiss. The misshapen girl throws her arms around me. I can feel the beat of life inside the uneven bars of her ribcage. The joy is better than flying.
I have it all back. I can be whole.
I see the shadow that trails behind her. There is a woman there and her face is close enough to the monstrous little girl that she could be her mother, but far enough to be beautiful, as well. She has short hair and earrings shaped like lightning bolts. I waddle in front of my twisted body and my errant heart and I hiss at her. She’s followed me here. My heart races behind me and the first thought on my mind is: Did she come back because she loves me? Is this a game to her? Some courtship I misunderstood? Did she merely jump at some new opportunity to hurt me?
“Hello again,” she says. She has teeth and eyes like a fox. “I missed you.”
I’ve lied to so many people. I’ve let them assume things I knew were nothing but hope and kite string. I’m a trickster and I can spot tricks. Except with her. She is a smooth and perfect wall, and the only way to know whether it hides a garden or a prison is to climb it.
My horrible little body hugs me close. The heart I looked so long for beats hard against my feathers. I waddle away from it, and I lay my head in her hand. She strokes me and it fills an emptiness beyond fingers, toes, stomach, or heart.
Behind me, the little girl cries. I’d like to comfort her.
But I’ve found what I was looking for.
Note: This story first appeared in Issue 4 of The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction.
Leslianne Wilder hails from Austin, Texas, but has lived in Miami, Osaka, and most recently Oxford. She has worked as a nude model, a teacher, a contractor, and an EMT. Her previous work has appeared in Shock Totem, Psychos: Serial Killers, Depraved Madmen, and the Criminally Insane, and at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.