Genre: Fairytale/Myth (Slight angst)
A/N: Sometimes I write original stories to process stuff, and they end up being like a map for me in the future.
I know a girl in another place. She slumbers in a castle amidst a forest of dark thorns and between the twilight of her sleep and the midnight of her dreams, she dreams of endings, mendings, and the reshaping of things. Sometimes the place feels far away from me across vast and empty space, like the dark gaps that yawn between the stars. Sometimes it seems so close I feel like she must be able to catch the drift of my thoughts, even in her sleep… and in this way, the place where she is works in the manner that a dream will. That is, the ebb and flow of it defies logic. This is a place filled with coppery blood, with oceans of tears, with a shriek of exhilaration, with the shiver that comes when you watch a winter moon rising on the horizon and cutting cold into a deep sky peppered with stars. It’s filled with the heart-drum which comes with a first kiss, and the sadness of loss unexplained. It’s the place where the tides of emotion rule and science has no place.
To begin at the heart of the matter – which is the place where all good stories should either begin or end – we must begin with the heart of the girl. This girl’s heart was a good heart. I couldn’t tell you anything bad about it, because there’s nothing bad that I know. Oh, we all have our shadows and spectres that occasionally wrap their way around our core and twist and squeeze, coaxing words out of our mouths we don’t mean, tempting us to actions we don’t fully comprehend and which later rip us with regret. I am sure she has her own spectres which she keeps hidden and boxed just like we all do, but I have never felt the cold touch of them across my skin. So, for the concerns of the story, I will say that the girl’s heart was a good one and you will have to trust me on what I know. But here is the heart of the matter: her heart was cracked. It was a crack of soil splitting open under a parched sun; it was like the creeping fracture across a duck egg shell; it was as raw as the crack of a wound scabbed over then broken wide again by the stretch of skin. Metaphors. Similes... all serve the story – yet in the end don’t heal a cracked heart.
So, as it would naturally be, her heart was painful. Some would say there’s no worse pain in the world, and I’m inclined to agree. Believe me, I’ve been there myself and I can speak of it. If you don’t know – and if you don’t then you’re lucky – this is somewhat how it goes: week upon week upon week of feeling like a ghost, a shadow of yourself, so transparent and insubstantial the wind will blow you apart like smoke. Like a spirit that doesn’t have a place in the world, like part of you belongs somewhere else and everything around you isn’t real. Or like you’re a paper marionette, limbs held together by string ties... and if anything or anyone touches you , your whole body will break apart and tumble onto the floor. You live in tides, as though the moon governs your life. They pull you out away from where your feet can stand firm, your toes pressing into sand. They come at the most unexpected moments, brought on by the most unexpected things, and drag you away and outwards, downwards. And then your eyes belong to the sea, your insides to the cruel rocks and reefs which tear unguarded skin. This is somewhat of how it goes: memory becomes a curse. Items, places, smells, sounds that tied you together with what you lost…suddenly they all have a curious power to reach inside you and twist – just so – and it hurts. It really really really hurts. So, this was how the girl felt, and how she lived, and this was why the girl’s heart bled.
The trick, you see, is to staunch the flow of blood, because the coppery scarlet trickle from a heart can drain the spirit from even the most robust and resilient of people. What’s to be done to contain it? Well, there are ways and means, but the main thing is this: it has to heal, and until that happens, by whatever means, it’s leaching rich blood away and anyone will tell you that blood is life and spirit and energy and you cannot do without it. You can try and contain it though, for a time. As I said and as I know, there are ways, and some can learn them... and so the girl learned to make glass. This is how and why:
Sick at her core of the pain and angry at the sea, she went from the broken castle where she lived to the edge of the world, to the place where the relentless ocean bit onto the land, forever engaged in a struggle to eat up the good soil and the emerald grass, forever trying to pummel rock to stone to pebble to gravel to sand. The girl took off her shoes, all the better to walk on the beach, and then she ventured onto that middle-space between land and sea. She walked upon the battleground where the earth belongs to both water and dry land, where the war cries are the scream of the seagulls, the casualties are the silent stones and the only blood is the streaks of red seaweed drying across the beach. She gathered sand handful by handful into a ceramic jar while the wind blew strands of gold around her head and the sea thundered out its fury against the land.
When she had filled the jar she returned to the halls of her tumbledown castle, all soft footed on the cold hard floor. She coaxed a flame from the hearth, and then built a fire so big it filled the entire fireplace – a fire so white hot she could barely see, and she thought she must have captured a little of the sun inside it. She melted the sand in her little ceramic jar, took up a long tube of fired clay and dipped it into the molten liquid, then, with her own life’s breath, began to shape a vessel big enough to contain her heart. She blew a steady stream of air from lung to lips to clay to glass, and she rolled the growing shape along a stone slab, twisting, turning, molding, watching the glass take shape, letting her breath and her eyes guide her. When the vessel was made and cooling, she reached inside her breast, her fingers questing between the gaps in her ribcage, and took out her heart (and if you find that part hard to believe, what did I say at the very beginning of all this about logic and dreams?) She held it there for a moment in front of her, gazing at it. It fluttered in her hands like a weak little bird, and she could see the crack laid bare across it, a great dark line of pain and emptiness, raw and ragged at the edges. She marked the way a little blood seeped from it with each flutter, spattering on the floor at her feet, then she placed it into the empty space within the vessel she had made. Next, she took up her blow pipe again, dipped it into the molten sand and used it to seal the top of the vessel, before setting it to cool on the slab of stone.
When she was done, and when the shape had hardened, her heart was safely encased inside a shell of smooth and transparent glass. It beating was a thin echo behind the hard walls, and if one were to run fingers smoothly over the glass bubble, one would not be able to touch at the tender flesh, at the crack that ran like a river through it. Any hands laid upon it would just slip and slide and make the journey back around to meet themselves again at the other side of the sphere. The girl watched as the blood drip-dropped with each flutter, gathering for a moment at the bottom of the shining red heart, before dripping onto the inside of the underside, pooling there like a deep well of iron oxide. She watched the pool grow deeper and deeper, scarlet painting itself up the sides of the pristine glass and around the part of her that rested at the centre of the glass cage. As the warm redness surrounded it, she felt the crack in her heart swallow blood back into itself again with each shift of the muscle, and as it did so her cheeks blushed a little like winter roses and she felt the spark of life come back into the tips of her fingers again - a tingle and buzz as if they longed to stretch out and really touch and know the world again. A mist cleared from her eyes and all around her were the sharp colours and shapes of her surroundings. There the scent of woodsmoke on her nose, the press of cold stone under her feet, and the sound of the birds singing on the castle walls. She was pleased, and so she smiled, seeing her own lips make a bow in the ghost reflection on the surface of the glass. And then she put her heart back inside herself, and carried on with her day and with her life.
The story could end here - and maybe that’s how you’d expect it; the girl with her heart safely encased in its cage of glass and the birds singing on the castle walls. The sun breaks, the fire burns in the hearth casting sparks up the chimney to be whipped away by the wind, the stars move across the sky and all is well again. But this isn’t really a story so much about how to protect a broken heart, it’s a story about healing one...and though they may say that there's no one who can give lessons about that but Time herself, and most wouldn’t presume to - well, let’s just say I have both a penchant and an empathy for hearts like this, so I’m arrogant enough to do so .
So, the important thing to know is that protecting something isn’t the same as healing it, and that glass will only last for so long. Any wanderer combing a desolate beach can gather the sea-glass that lies tumbled into the flotsam and jetsam and hidden amongst the dried seaweed. They can turn between their fingers what was once a piece of shining glasswork on someone’s table in another life, another story, now cast aside and shattered into disparate pieces, worn down, smoothed and dulled by the tides. In this way, we know that the relentless pounding of salt will eventually work upon a piece of glass to take away its lustre, and bit by bit - given enough time - wear it away to nothing. Eventually, this began to happen to the glass around the girls heart. Blood dripped, pressing against the walls of glass before being swallowed again by the yawning crack. A tide of blood ebbed and flowed from the girl’s heart, wearing the shine of the glass cage away from the inside. What was once transparent as a flawless polished crystal took on the appearance of a heavily frosted window, the blood pale behind it. The girl bled and she bled and in the end the very bottom of the glass was worn away - just by a pin prick - but if you’re a reader of fairy tales you will know that a pin prick is all it usually takes. The blood wept out from the glass prison, first in droplets, and then in a steady stream. The girl began to feel her happiness and life leach away again; her cheeks paled, her fingers grew still and the world around her grew greyer. She stood on the battlements at night, looking out at the cruel distant stars, the cold air squeezing her lungs, tears freezing like pearls on her cheeks as they fell, her blood flowing from her like a river. She felt how it spilled to the floor, first pooling at her feet and then running away from her, outwards towards the crumbling castle walls. She saw how it found its way between the cracks where mortar crumbled between the old stones, and how it ran out from the castle to be swallowed up by the rich earth outside.
She wandered the battlements, weeping to the stars by night, and by day she walked the inside and outside of the castle walls looking speculatively at their decay. She noticed the cracks and gaps between the stone where mortar had crumbled when she wasn’t looking, she saw the stones that had tumbled without her noticing. She marked how nature had begun to stake its claim - ivy twisting and turning up the walls, primroses growing from the roots of the building. She saw how her castle had begun to fall while she was otherwise occupied with the matters of her heart. And so she came to a decision: she would rebuild the place. She would bring in fresh stone to fill the breaches where ivy and moss had reclaimed the form and structure and pulled the stones away. She would mix mortar to refill the gaps that had been opened, she would firm the walls and re-stabilise the foundations of the turrets. She would return the place to its former glory, and in that way she would both stop the flow of her blood out into the spaces beyond the castle walls, and in the rebuilding she would become whole and self contained again.
So, the girl went to the stables and readied her horse and cart. She took up a hammer and chisel, packed them into her backpack, and, letting the drawbridge fall, went out from the castle and onto the wide plain of tree-speckled grass which surrounded it. Her horses hooves mirrored the thud of her heart and the streak of sunrise on the horizon was like the pathway of blood she left behind her. Her destination - close by - was the place where the stone had been quarried in order to raise her castle in the first place. It was a wide wound in the land, this quarry; rock that had chosen to be hidden under the surface of the earth spread wide and bright to the sky, its colours and edges opened to the light and the air. The secrets of rock,stone and cave under the grassy surface of the land were exposed for her to look upon and now that she saw it again she looked upon it with new eyes, and her heart ached in sympathy for it. Now, you would think that it would take a full team of people with hammers and chisels singing against the stone many many weeks to quarry enough stone to reinforce a tumbled-down castle. But, you would be surprised at the determination of a broken heart. So the girl spent her days from then onwards gradually chipping away blocks of stone from the exposed earth, dragging them to the castle tethered to her horse, measuring and mixing the mortar, then setting them in the places where they needed to be. She helped them take shape and form, letting them be strong and silent, in the way that rocks are. I couldn’t tell you how many times she made a mistake, how many times the ropes that tethered stone to horse snapped, how many cuts and bruises marked her body. But I do know this much: her hands were scraped raw at first, but gradually the skin hardened over and she developed calluses that protected her as she handled the stone, so that her skin grew hard in the places where she touched the world. Her muscles ached, but soon she grew strong in her arms and shoulders, and her body adapted itself to the work. And so in this way the walls grew and were made stronger; the turrets gained confidence in their foundations and once again stretched up to kiss the sky and puncture the rain clouds. The cracks were filled by the girl's clever hands, and all was made watertight, firm, secure. A castle fit to contain a cracked heart and the girl who carried it.
But before she returned to the castle once and for all, for what she thought would be the last time, the girl did three final things.
First of all she tended to the quarry, filling the great gap of exposed rock that lay not far from the castle, and which was now even deeper than when she laid eyes on it at the beginning of her labours. She could not bear to let it stay as it was. She wanted to allow the stone to rest and sleep, to be secret and dark again. So she dug and lifted and piled soil to be carried by her patient horse, gathering it from the wilderness all around the castle, being careful not to take too much from any one place. Bit by bit the great gap in the landscape was filled until all that was left was a wide mound of soil. Lastly, she covered it with green moss and then planted the seeds of flowers and trees all over it. Bluebells, forget-me-nots, primroses, foxgloves, rowan, larch and many more - all were scattered over the mound of soil as a reminder to herself of the great gap that had once lain beneath them.
Second, she went out onto the land around her castle, wandering the fields of flowers and the small thickets of trees which dotted it, gathering seeds and plants of another nature. Hawthorn, gorse, holly blackberry, wild rose, blackthorn, fire-thorn, juniper - all plants which rely on thorns for protection, which use sharpness to make their point against those who would destroy their delicate fruits or flowers. It wasn’t an easy task for her to reach by hand and gather these plants and seeds. All of us have at some time felt the prick of the rose thorn on the tip of a finger, the scratch of the bramble across the wrist, felt the way they scrape unwary skin,creating fine laceworks and pinpoints of blood. So though the girls skin had hardened and calloused with her work at the stone, it was no match for the keen points of the plants, and her fingers and palms, her wrists and arms became criss-crossed with pricks and cuts and scratches as she gathered the them. But, I guess, nothing can quite compare to the pain of a cracked heart moving with motion and intent, and so the pain of all these things passed over her as simply as a thin cloud scurrying past the sun on a bright day. When she had gathered the plants and berries and seeds, and they were heaped high on the cart pulled by the little horse, she set to scattering them out across the earth. She started close to the foot of the castle walls at first, working gradually from the inwards to the outwards and moving in a tight spiral out across the land. She threw out seeds as she went, or planted those flowers which still had roots, until she was far away from the sturdy castle walls. The seeds nestled down deep in the soil, held safely in the dark cradle of the earth, waiting for a moment of rain to fill them and make them send out shoots questing up towards the light. The roots of the plants burrowed down, taking hold in the soil, adapting themselves to their new home and turning their faces to the waning sun. She buried all of the plants but one with berries such a deep purple they were almost black, and that last one she put inside her pocket.
When her work was done and her home was just a speck on the horizon, she stood for a moment with her hand on the muzzle of her little horse, murmuring to him in the fading light, before unharnessing him from the cart then clapping him on his flank and sending him out across the grass, into the wider world to find what fortune he could. Then she walked back to the castle, with the evening light at her back and the gloaming dusk ahead of her, blood drying on her fingers and a faint smile on her lips. She drew up the drawbridge and bolted the gate tightly, with a great clanging sound of iron on iron that resonated out across the plain of sleeping thorn. The castle was sturdy and silent all around her and the only light was cast by a single torch still burning in the entrance-hall. She took that into her raw hands and carried it with her as she ascended the stairs to her room, its flames casting shadows that danced strangely across the stone walls as she walked. When she got to her room, she bolted the door and then walked to the window. The sun was just a last streak of dying orange against the dark line of the horizon now and she could hear the evening song of the birds, more sweet and complex than any vast choir.
Then the girl did the third thing, the last thing. She took the dark plant which she had found with the purple-black berries from out of her pocket. She pinched her fingers around the fragile stem and then ran them along its length, stripping away the fat berries. Cradling them in her palms, she went and sat upon her bed.
All hearts heal in time, she thought, and I will have plenty of it, and then some more. The thorns will grow, the walls will stand, the glass will endure for long enough - and in sleep there will be nothing and no-one but the gods of dreams to sink down and sift through the dark bits of me and to see what mirrors we might find there.
She brought her hands to her mouth, swallowed the bitter berries, then fell back onto her bed into a deep sleep that could only be broken by her own will.
Predictably, the forest of thorn grew up around the castle as she slept. Bramble and rose, holly and hawthorn, blackthorn and gorse. They grew in the weird twisting shapes that only thorns know, wrapping themselves around each other, their thorns turned outwards to the world, and their thorns turned inwards towards the heart of the forest itself. They stretched upwards until they reached just underneath her window, and in her sleep she felt them surge up from the earth and tangle together, and she knew she was safe. Birds came and rested upon the topmost branches, flew in and out of her open window and began to make nests in the rafters of her room.
We spoke, at the beginning – as we should – about the heart of the matter, and you’d think that all stories should end with all hearts healed. But there’s a heart we haven’t spoken of here, because instead we were speaking of a girl wrapped in the thick web of sleep, of her healing and of her changing. So let’s speak of another heart now, just for a moment. Hearts get cracked all the time you see – some more badly than others - and most hearts heal, though the ones that are hurt the most will take the longest. But all hearts that are damaged the most deeply have scars across their lovely red shining surface, scars which run deep into them... and the thing about scars is that they remember. And in remembering, they understand.
I am the keeper of such a heart. I’m the girl who sometimes waits at the edges of a forest of thorn, for the day when it will turn to ash. I imagine the dreams of a girl in another place, sinking down from her sleep through the stone of the castle and being carried through the roots of the forest then back up through the buds and flowers and berries to my ears. I whistle and sing in the wind, sometimes lullabies, sometimes laments and I imagine she can hear me. Maybe she can, who could say? Maybe the berries and flowers send my songs back down through the pathways of tangled branches, through roots and soil and into stone, to where the girl who saved herself sleeps. Stranger things have happened. Sometimes my sleeve will catch upon the bramble that grows up near my feet and my hair will tangle with the gorse. That doesn’t matter. I am happy; when I wait, I have the wide plain around me, and on that plain is the vast horizon of possibility. There is life and laughter and love, there is the sunset every day; there are the little chirping songs of the birds who come for the hawthorn berries and there is the wind in my hair.
I know a girl in another place. She doesn’t need rescuing, you see, because she rescued herself. One day she will wake to the morning sun on her face, birdsong in her ears and a smile on her face. Then, the glass will shatter, the drawbridge will fall and the forest of thorn will turn to ash in an instant.I will be waiting.