The Heartless

I buried my heart far out in the forest long ago. I put it in the ground because I didn’t want it anymore. It wasn’t a morbid decision, or something done out of self-loathing. But a heart is a difficult thing to own. There are so many ways to feel, with so many things to have feelings about, and often there are many different ways to feel at once. I never knew if what was going on inside me was appropriate. Did I appreciate things the same way that everybody else did, or was I getting it all wrong?

Feeling was trouble enough. But the truth is that I simply didn’t want to look at the thing anymore. I was afraid that I might one day see that my heart had grown ugly, or gone rotten. Dorian Grey hung his portrait where he alone could see it. It drove him mad with its cruel sneer. Each day it grew uglier under his gaze, and incited him to further depths of depravity. Is a wicked heart and a guilty conscience any different?

But that is not the only danger of a heart.  “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall!” they say. And, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked! Who can know it?” A beautiful heart is a deadly pitfall, if you get caught gazing into it. Prideful Narcissus wasted away next to the reflecting pool. I could just as easily fall prey to my heart, deceived into beholding only loveliness in a heart that was rotten with conceit at the core.

Would my heart show that sneer of cruelty? Or would it be the haughty tilt of pride that tainted me? How could a man with a heart ever be safe from bringing it to ruin? So I decided to be rid of it. I would be no man, I would be like an animal. Better to live by my mind and do what I knew to be right, rather than be led by a heart. Then I could be assured of myself. Then I would know whether or not I was a good man without constantly feeling the need to check and see.

So I walked into the forest until I was lost. I carried a spade in one hand, and a sack with my heart in the other. The sack soaked red and dripped onto the ground. Certain romantics, who have likely never held a heart, would like you to believe that a heart is a heavy thing, but mine was not. It throbbed in the sack, though, sending tremors all up my arm. I was glad to set it down and dig a hole once I found an appropriate clearing.

The ground was soft, yielding the rich smells of the earth. My heart beat quickly at my feet while I worked. It didn’t take long. I emptied the sack into the bottom of the pit and tossed it aside. My heart beat serenely. Blood poured into the ground and disappeared below. Filling in the pit seemed to take longer. The soil that slowly piled on top of my heart throbbed each time my heart pulsed.

When the hole was filled, the movement of the dirt was just barely perceptible. I turned my back on the clearing to leave. With only the spade left to carry, I followed the trail of my own blood out of the forest. My step was lighter, my thoughts clearer than I could ever remember. I sensed myself uninhibited, unentailed, freed from former sensibilities. I exited the deep forest at ease with myself, and with my decision.

Life was good after I abandoned and buried my heart. One does not need to feel happiness to know it. I taught myself to determine my attitude toward circumstances, rather than have my reactions dictated to me by a heart. I looked objectively at life, deciding that it was good or bad based upon what I observed it to be. No more unreasonable melancholy, or baseless elation. The world was a logical place, and I navigated my way logically.

My morality was of my own creation. Right and wrong do not need to be felt in order to be known either. I didn’t need a feeling to tell me how I ought to act. The right thing to do is most often obvious. Neither did I need a guilty conscious to tell me when I had done wrong. I knew. But I lived well. I told the truth. I kept away from the ale house, the cat house, and the poor house. I took care of those in need. My neighbors knew me to be helpful, diligent, and peaceful.

My pleasure was wholesome. I took entertainment from the same diversions as everyone else. Only I felt no guilt or self-reproach at my indulgence. Some men play when they ought to be working, and it is apparent that they enjoy themselves less when some unfinished business looms over them. I only rested when I knew I deserved and needed rest. I kept away from whatever was debasing, or unintelligent.

I truly did not miss my heart. Indeed, I was so unconscious of any lack toward it that I forgot completely about ever possessing one. My heart, I am sure, continued to beat reliably out in the deep forest, undiscovered by man or beast. Whatever it felt, whatever ghastly or elegant form it took, I cared not. Still, I kept its absence a secret. My business was my own, and I had no wish to be ostracized for my unprecedented choice.

Life carried on this way for quite some time. The change, the beginning of the change, came on the day that the Stranger died. I was on a short journey along a route that was familiar to me. The Stranger traveled ahead of me. When he first came into sight, I quickened my step so that I might overtake him. Such was my nature, to acquaintance myself with any man I came across. Our path wound eventually along the edge of a cliff, with a sheer face running high upon one side, and a steep drop on the other. Although I was close to joining him, he was still unaware of me, having not yet turned back.

It was just at the moment that he glanced over his shoulder that the cliff above him gave away. There was no warning. He saw me, turned around, and stood still to wait for me. Rocks and dirt tumbled down from directly overhead. I don’t think he even knew what happened to him. He was looking right at me when the rock slide flowed over him and swept him down off the cliff. Just like that and it was over. There was nothing to be done for him. It was a very long drop to the canyon floor below. The slide had obliterated the path, I thought it likely that a bridge would have to be constructed to connect the road once more. I turned back, and went back to my own town.

I hurried. It was the kind of news that demands haste. My friends and neighbors were shocked. They put a hand on my arm and opened their eyes wide as I spoke, or else they closed up on themselves and cried. They asked if I was okay. I didn’t understand. Of course I was okay. Couldn’t they see that I was okay? The Stranger died in the rock slide, not me. I bore no guilt in the matter. I didn’t even call out to make him stop there on the path, he had stopped on his own.

My old Companion suddenly stood by my side. We have been friends since childhood. I have never known him to be anything but careful and correct in his thinking. I expected him to think just as I did concerning the Stranger. Why should anyone get upset over an unexpected accident, especially when its only effect on our town was the temporary loss of a route? He was silent for a time, watching people come and go. Then he turned to me and spoke.

“It is a bent world that takes away a man so. Life is precious, and should not be dismissed.”

The words were true, maybe the truest words I had ever heard. Immediately, a tiny shudder shook my limbs as in resonance. That was all, but that was how it began. I went home and tried to put the whole matter out of my head. But that proved impossible. People around me insisted on reminding me about the dead Stranger. They asked me questions about him daily. And at every remembrance, something disturbed the control I had over my body.

“Didn’t you talk to him?” Tremor

“Are you sure you didn’t recognize him?” Shake

“You couldn’t help him?” Twitch

Some of their questions weren’t quite so pointed, but they were just as transparent.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” Tremble

“Are you having bad dreams?” Jolt

“Do you want to talk about it?” Shudder

I didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew that my Companion’s words had caused it. He had suggested that something was wrong with the world, that men should not die so pointlessly, so early, or so lucklessly. I could agree with that. It was a shame that such an unexpected accident had taken the Stranger’s life.

But my Companion had suggested something more, hadn’t he? There was something bent in the world, but there was perhaps also something lacking in me. I should have felt sorrow and loss. I should have mourned the death of the Stranger, even though we had never met. Everyone else around me had reacted with concern and somber displays. I had not. I was incapable.

From that day on, I felt shivers throughout my body every time something reminded me of the Stranger. Sometimes they were brief, usually they were prolonged. It didn’t take much. My neighbors eventually forgot the Stranger, or else ceased to mention him in my presence because they pitied the distress it brought me. But long after, little things continued to recall him and his last day. A man seen from a distance. A cliff. Even a small pile of loose dirt. In my mind, I would see the calm look on his face. I would see the earth engulf him, and then plunge him over the abyss. It was wrong that he had died. The world was bent. Life was bent. And my body would shake, and shake, and shake.

Other things began to affect me in the same way. Any sort of inequality, or injustice would send me into tremors. The rich. The poor. The unworthy man who was promoted. The deserving man who was rejected. A widow made my hands shake. Orphans made my feet stumble. I shivered for the son of an alcoholic father, as well as for the man who washed away all his problems with the drink. It was that same sense of wrongness about the world. Somehow, the death of the Stranger rang loud enough to send cracks through everything I saw.

Even worse than this increased sensitivity was the degeneration of my mind. There is no other way to describe it, my mind began to shake like the rest of my members. My prized, logical, unclouded brain lost all sense of stability. At any hint of the unfairness that permeates our world, my mind would balk and reel. I was not a reasonable man anymore. Everything flopped and traded places to my perspective. Lies took the place of truth. Charity wore the mask of cruelty. Even the wrongness that caused me such fits began to look as though it had more right to exist than that which was good.

I got worse and worse. A lame animal would set me to twitching and muttering curses between my teeth. An abandoned wife would shake me up like an arrow quivering in the meat of a man’s back. My trembling body kept me from sleeping at night. My raging mind chased away my appetite. Nothing could alleviate my misery. No entertainment could distract me. I started to see even my survival as bent. I should have been the one killed on the cliff trail.

Many were the friends who tried to help me. They talked of pleasant things. They held my shivering hand. They listened carefully to my raving. But their words could not comfort me. Their strength could not still me. Their ears could not drain my lunacy.

“You should eat better,” they advised.

“Try to get more sleep,” some suggested.

“Take pleasure in the good things of life,” others preached.

Their compassion only aggravated my condition more. With every word, every kind touch, every concerned look, they showed me what I lacked. The more they cared, the greater my trembles, the more I gnashed my teeth. The madness that infected me eventually drove me to attack those who only wanted to be my comforters. I stalked about the streets pouring forth abuse from my lips and menacing my neighbors with my fists.

On one such occasion, I spied my Companion approaching from afar. I had long since attributed to him all the fault of my condition. Moreover, through the madness that afflicted me, I thought it likely that he was also to blame for the bent of the whole world around me. The sight of him never failed to send me into incredible fits of shaking and rage. I fell to the dirty street that day. I seized and thrashed upon the ground, cursing my fellow man, and hurling blasphemies even toward heaven.

He appeared next to me, gazing down at me with an unreadable expression. Without warning, he reached down and set me on my feet. At his touch, all my shaking ceased. My mind was quiet. It was a peace I had not known for years. I stood amazed at the stillness of my limbs and the calm of my mind. I was silent, waiting for him to speak without even realizing that was what I was doing.

“You have done wrong, friend, to these your neighbors.”

As before, his words wounded me so unexpectedly, so suddenly, so completely. Immediately, an ache set up in my chest that made me long for ease of my former trouble. A gulf seemed to open from the empty space in my chest all the way to the forgotten, bloody pit in the forest clearing.

I staggered, tottering back and forth on my feet as though I stood on the deck of a ship. I wanted to attack my Companion. I wanted him to feel the pain I felt. I balled my fist, but I did not let it swing. With my restored clarity, I knew exactly what had happened. I was just as bent as the rest of the world. Everything that had caused me such anguish to witness was lodged securely within me. I’d seen it clearly everywhere since the death of the Stranger. But I had been blind to its presence in me, because my heart was buried in a hole deep in the forest. Now I felt the full burden of the weight of my wrong. Somehow, my Companion’s words had awakened that sensibility in me. I could not blame him for what was bent in me, as I once blamed him for the bent of the world. He had simply pointed out the truth.

The next thing I knew, I was pushing my way through the forest. The brush pulled at my clothes and scratched my arms and face. I was running. There was no telling where I was, but I knew exactly where I was going. The pain in my chest was matched by another pain somewhere out there, deeper in the forest. Like a taut string, I was connected me to that filled-in pit, and it drew me closer.

I followed the agony, tears falling from my eyes. Time and the trees blurred together until I found myself in the clearing for the second time of my life. There before me was my hurt, my heart. I went to my knees. The ground still thumped with the beating of my heart. Without my spade, I clawed at the soil with my fingers.

The throbbing in the dirt got stronger as I dug deeper. The earth was still soft, and the digging went faster than I expected. I scooped out handfuls of dirt and piled up mounds on both sides of me. Soon, I had cleaned out a wide hole, and at the bottom sat my heart. Black blood pulsed out from all its valves and chambers. It saturated the ground and pooled up in muddy puddles. I reached into the hole and pulled it out, wondering at the quantity of dirt that could cause it to grow so heavy. I left the clearing carrying my heart in my hands.

Soil clogged the veins and arteries. The blood that oozed out was dark and foul. More soil besmirched the outside. It was impossible to determine how my heart actually looked, or even what shape it was in, so thick was the dirt that covered it. I held a painful, throbbing ball of filth. Somewhere inside was my heart.

I wiped and scraped as I walked, heedless of direction. Some of the dirt was soft and came away easily. Other parts were more like clay. Once I had dislodged it from my heart, I had to fling my hand violently to rid the mud from my fingers. I scrubbed and scratched with my nails, and polished with the tails of my shirt. But the more I worked, the more grime I found. Every layer of dirt concealed another layer underneath. How could I ever find my heart inside?

After a time, I heard the sound of water. My steps had unwittingly brought me near to the river. I followed the sound and came to the edge of its banks. At first, I just knelt and thrust my heart down into the cold water. But the water became so quickly murky that I couldn’t even see if I was making progress. It seemed that the current wasn’t fast enough at the riverbank to clear away the cloud of filth I created.

I stood and stepped into the river. The icy water shocked my body. But I went deeper, holding my heart out in front of me until the water came up to my ribs. The current was swift in the middle of the river. I braced my feet and leaned back. Then I lowered my heart into the water.

Tendrils of grime grew out of the dirty, beating heart in my hands. They spread out, growing and twisting across the river. The color went from dark brown to black, somewhat thinning, but without losing the depth of its shade. The reaching tips of the tendrils wrapped and twined around each other as though alive. I reminded myself that it was only dirt, but I shivered from more than just the cold. The lines continued to join, and join, and join each other until a long, ugly flow of dirt fanned out before me.

I lifted my heart out of the water to inspect it. Black water drained out in a steady patter. I rubbed loosened soil from the all over the surface. The outer layers of the dirt had washed away. But what its absence revealed was not the flesh of my heart. Another kind of filth covered it on all sides. This wasn’t like the dirt from the clearing. It was so dark it almost shone, oily, with scintillating patters across the surface. It clogged all the pathways of the blood. That which slowly oozed from the veins and arteries was thick. It slithered reluctantly into the river. The beating of my heart suddenly took on a sinister quality, as though the thing in my hands was no heart at all. It was a thing of nightmares, living and hungry. I recognized the awful truth that the dark slime was not something covering my heart. It was something of which my heart now consisted.

Here was the true source, I knew, of all my problems. I feared to put it back underwater. I pictured its seepage poisoning everything and everybody downstream, striking them with the same madness that had descended upon me. I pictured my heart writhing out of my grasp and circling around behind me to pull me underwater. As though taking a cue from my fears my, heart grew heavier and heavier in my hands. Perhaps it was trying to drag me back down to its old grave. Perhaps, I thought, I should let it. What had I done to make such a thing of my heart? What was I to do with it now?

“Here, let me,” said my Companion from the riverbank. He was already wading into the water. The thought of allowing him to see what I had done to my heart was more horrifying than anything else that had come before. But there was no use in hiding. My darkness was apparent. Still, it took great effort to remain there with my heart on display. My instinct was to hide. But my Companion stood next to me in the water, and he held out his hands.

I surrendered the wretched thing to him. I don’t know why. What could he do with it that I could not? He submerged it, just as I had. The water once again ran black. But after a moment, the color began to change. It was slow, but undeniable. Strains of pure crimson ran through the rest. The color gradually leaked into the blackness, and eventually replaced it completely. My Companion lifted my heart from the water.

It beat wholesomely once more. The flesh was healthy. Red, pink, purple, and blue. The blood pumped out strong, splashing into the river and flowering in pink rosettes.  “Blessed are the pure in heart,” my Companion said, and he offered it back. I let him place my heart in the hollow of my chest. What relief! What joy! I was such a fool before, to think that life could be lived without  such a vivid connection to all the hope and sorrow around and within me. Oh, the pleasure of a heart that has been washed! My Companion smiled, took my hand, and we fought our way together back to the shore.



2 thoughts on “The Heartless

  1. Strangely just happened to read Life and Water again right before I settled down for this one. It captivated me in a bizarre way, like I had just done this very thing. I think it should be one for the record books of vividly arresting truth.

    Posted by Janet | 04/13/2011, 9:47 pm

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