The Maiden’s Heart

Once upon a time, there was a maiden. She was young and fair, and according to the custom in the kingdom, as she grew her parents gave her a heart. This heart was made of blown glass in a rich, deep ruby color, bound with silver wire and hung from a silver chain. She filled its hollow with her hopes and dreams.

In the same town there lived a young man. He was witty and charming, clever and handsome, and knew how to make people laugh, and he flirted with many of the young women of the town. The maiden caught his eye with her sweet ways and generous nature, her beauty and her lovely heart. Together they would walk along a river path, or dance in the town square, or sit under a tree and talk for hours. She felt fortunate to have such a handsome suitor.

When she offered him her heart, she told him, “This is the most precious thing I have, and you must promise to take very good care of it.”

He promised most solemnly, and she hung her heart around his neck for everyone to see. He gave her his own heart, and she thought her happiness was complete. But his heart was a false one, made of cardboard and cheap sequins, and filled with cigarette ash and high fructose corn syrup.

As time went by, the maiden realized that the young man was careless with her heart. Sometimes he would wear it proudly. Sometimes he would slip it into his pocket so none could see. Sometimes he would toss it from hand to hand, its ruby color flashing in the sun. More than once the maiden found her heart lying abandoned on the ground or on a table. Each time she would return it, imploring him to keep it safer; each time he promised to do so.

One day he began to juggle her heart to amuse his friends. As they cheered and applauded, he added a stone, and a bottle of wine, and a small iron cannonball, and other items. Soon he began to drop things, and the fragile, glass heart slipped from his grasp and smashed into flinders upon the ground. The maiden gasped in horror and grief. The young man, however, pulled from his pocket another young woman’s heart, this one of opalescent blue and lavender filigree. His friends laughed and shouted at the sight, and urged him to juggle it, higher, and higher, and higher still.

At the end of the game he caught everything with a flourish and bowed low to cheers and applause. When the maiden began to protest the destruction of her beautiful heart, he shrugged as though to say such things will happen and cannot be prevented. Then he invited all his friends, laughing and joking, into the tavern for a drink.

The maiden ran home and opened the box in which she had carefully stored the heart he had given to her, only to find it had rotted into a sticky mess.

In her grief and pain she left the town and walked a long way, all alone. When night came, cold and wind and pitiless stars, she sheltered in a tumbledown cottage by the road. It was filled with dead leaves and owl castings, and nobody had lived there for years and years. She curled up on a pile of leaves and sobbed herself to sleep.

When she woke, she saw the cottage as bleak as her own deserted spirit and did not walk on. She sat in the doorway and watched the clouds move across the sky, waiting for the wind to scour her as clean and misshapen as an old, dead tree. She believed that she would live out her days in this cottage, desolate and alone.

When she wanted water, she fetched it from the spring. When she wanted food, she gathered her supper from the woods and fields. When the sun shone, she patched the holes in the roof, and when it rained she swept out the leaves and built a fire in the fireplace and wove furniture of twigs and rushes. She made a blanket of rabbit skins, and gathered wool which she wove into a bright rug. When spring came she planted a garden, and in summer and autumn she gathered and preserved the harvest. She caught fish in the brook and captured a swarm of bees for a hive and kept chickens and tended an orchard that grew apples and peaches and plums.

When travelers passed by, she would offer them food and a place by the fireside and listen to their stories. Sometimes they would ask for her own story, and she would tell it very softly; and afterwards they would pity her, because seemed so terrible to live without a heart. They would hold their own lovers’ hearts close, and be glad of their fortune.

After many, many years, the maiden, young no more, but strong and skilled, found a briar gnarl in the forest. It looked interesting, and over time she carefully carved it into a pleasing shape. She carved designs inlaid with pieces of red oak and white ash, and made a polish from beeswax and sweet-smelling oil. She carved a hollow and filled it with the taste of honey, the smell of mint, the color of spiced peach preserves; with the feel of a cat’s purr and the scent of high, thin clouds passing over the moon on frosty nights; the taste of brown filled earth, and the feel of hoofbeats approaching her gate; with the anticipation of a good tale, the satisfaction of a swept floor, and the calm of a heavy snowfall.

When finished, she strung the briar on a piece of ribbon she had saved. It was not as beautiful, perhaps, as the fine glass heart her parents gave her once upon a time, but this heart was strong, wise in the ways of the world, and wholly her own.

Perhaps someday she will meet a man , weatherbeaten, with calloused hands and worn, sturdy clothes; and around his neck wearing a heart of hand-shaped clay, decorated with colored glass and pearly shell; filled with St. Elmo’s Fire and the scent of seafoam, the sound of ship’s bells and the taste of a mermaid’s laugh. Perhaps he will stop for the night, and tell wild tales of the high seas and all the places he had been. Perhaps he will stay with her in the cottage with the garden and the owls perched in the eaves. Perhaps he will invite her to travel the wide world.

Perhaps someday she will meet this man. And perhaps she will not. That is her business, and none of ours.

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