The Heart

Once a girl had a heart.

It was big and red, tender and full of life and joy.

She was so happy with this powerful muscle she thought nothing would ever overpower it. There was no sadness too deep, no anger too great, no trouble too hopeless for her great heart. She was proud of this, and felt sorry for people that were hurting, so she often used it to give hope to others with hearts not as strong as hers. She tried to listen to them when they were sad, help them see choices when they thought they had none left, and find hope under the ashes of their lives. She could see these things because of the way her heart made her eyes work, and people usually trusted what she saw because they knew she wanted to help them and not hurt them.

She didn't know though, that the heart had a flaw. Because it wasn't like other hearts, she couldn't clearly see the little hearts and black hearts that some people had. Oh she knew they were out there, and she had met a few, but she always saw them with the eyes of her heart, full of hope and trust that there was more to them than that. There always was more, but sometimes it wasn't enough. Sometimes they were dangerous. Sometimes they just joked around, or maybe played games with her heart. Sometimes they even ate hearts for fun. They thought that she was very stupid because she always believed them and kept thinking the nicest things about them, even after they had been very mean to her.

She knew they couldn't help being mean because their hearts were small or black. She thought that maybe if she gave them little pieces of her heart, they might get better. The first time she tried it, it seemed to work and her friend was happy and she felt very good about that. Even when the friend went away, she knew that the person would have a better life because they could see a little more happiness through the gift of her little bit of heart. She did not mind since she still had most of her great big heart left and there seemed to be plenty and after all, she really could not help it because she always wanted people to be happy.

After a while, when she was a young lady, she met a man who was very quiet. When she looked at him with her heart, she could see that his heart was as big as hers but it had bars around it. She wondered about that but he never would say why the bars were there. They spent a lot of time together, and she liked the way his heart made him smile at trees and birds, clouds and wind, but he never smiled at her. Finally, unable to control her curiosity any more, she asked him why there were bars around his heart. He looked at her with very sad eyes and she felt bad that her question made him sad, but still she wanted to know. He was afraid, he said.

Now this was not news to the girl since she had already felt his fear through her sympathetic heart, but she could not understand why anyone with such a big heart would be afraid. She had never been afraid because she believed that a big heart was stronger than any danger so there was nothing to fear. She said as much to her sad friend, and he told her the most amazing thing. He said that he had to keep his heart in a cage because if it got out, someone could use it to hurt him. That was what made him afraid.

She laughed at this foolishness. "Why would anyone do that?" she asked, still smiling.

"Haven't you ever met anyone with a black heart?" he asked her.

She thought about it and realized that when she had, they'd not stayed around her very long. She always thought it was because she gave them some of her heart and they left, following things they could see with it after that. She had often felt sad when they left, especially if they hadn't said goodbye, but she always had more heart left and other things to see and feel with it, so she wished them well when she thought of them and moved on.

He had met a girl with a very black heart, he said. She had not taken a little and left. Instead, she had tried to steal the whole thing, which had hurt very much because he would have given it to her if she'd asked nicely, but she had grabbed it with both hands and pulled very hard. Her grasp had bruised it and he couldn't see very well because it had hurt so much. Finally, it tore out in spray of blood, and he let her carry it around, hoping it would make her happy.

"Did it work?" the big-hearted girl asked her sad friend.

"No," he answered, and explained that because her heart was so black it had blinded her to everything good and she finally had wanted to eat his heart while he watched. He knew that was wrong and that it would not help her, so he grabbed his heart back while she was teasing him with it and had kept it in a cage ever since.

The young lady thought about this. It seemed very odd but she could tell her friend was not trying to lie to her. She felt sad for him and offered him a piece of her heart, hoping it would make him feel better. Now even though his heart was locked in a cage, it still felt things and he was pleased by the offer. It also made him honest and he was afraid he might not take good care of the heart-piece, thinking that his might have black spots in it from being used by the other girl. He refused the offer and didn't want to see the girl any more.

She left, but could not help thinking about her friend and the girl with the black heart. It made her very angry that the other girl had been so mean to her friend so that now he was afraid to share his heart with her. It was the first time she was ever jealous about a thing. Inside her, a little tiny spot of black grew on her big red heart, but she did not know it.

Time passed and she met more people with all kinds of hearts, good and bad. Each time she gave a little more of her heart away. She noticed that she was getting tired more easily and had less patience for people with small or black hearts. She thought it was just because she was getting older and ignored it. She always felt better after a little while and the people around her still seemed happy when they left, so she thought, like always, that things would work out just fine. Her friends and family, however, started watching her. They noticed that she did not smile as much and that sometimes when people left she would even cry.

One day when she was sad because someone had left, she remembered her old sad friend and decided to give him a call. She realized that she'd been missing him the whole time and wondered if he had taken the bars off his heart yet. She was afraid that he would not want to talk to her. Her heart, still large in spite of missing so many pieces, jumped in her chest when he answered the phone and she realized, for the first time, that a heart could be afraid of pain. She was very nice to her friend then and tried not to tell him she was sad even though she was. When she lied about being sad, the black spot grew a little bigger and she cried when she hung up the phone.

She didn't know what could be wrong with her. Why was she so angry, and afraid, and sad? Weren't there little bits of her heart all over the world? Wasn't she still happy seeing things with her most of her own heart? She thought maybe if she went somewhere with her friend, she would remember how to smile at birds and wind, even if his heart had bars on it. She was sure it would help, so she waited a few days and called him again. He agreed to spend some time with her and she was glad. Even through the bars, he showed her things with his heart and it helped her feel better. They started spending a lot of time together and the girl thought maybe if she rested her heart a little that she might be better in a few weeks. She asked her friend if he might lend her his heart for a while, so she could rest. He was worried but since she had not tried to steal it and asked, that maybe he could lend her his heart for a while and he unlocked the cage.

The girl was very happy with this. She used his heart as carefully as she could and felt like she used to, fearless and happy and full of hope. She thanked her friend for his trust and generosity and vowed to give it back safely. Meanwhile, her heart rested, and rested, and rested. Since no one was keeping an eye on it, the blackness grew a little more. She felt so good, and was so glad not to be sad anymore, that when the time came to use her own heart again she did not want to. She knew it would hurt and that her friend might not like her when she was sad. Her friend had known she might not want to give his heart back so he told her firmly that she could not keep it and made her give it back. She knew he wanted to lock it up again and knew that if he did he might not feel all the joy she had felt when she used it, so she offered him a trade. She would give back his heart if he would let her have the key. He had no choice but to agree in order to get his heart back.

She put the key next to her own heart, and used it as a shield against any more people. She understood now what fear could really do. Sometimes she took the key out and played with it and considered building a cage. When people came around and offered her pieces of their hearts, she sometimes took them so she could feel better for a while. She told herself she was just resting her heart, and after all, she deserved it since she had always helped people. She used her own heart less and less, trying to avoid feeling sad, never seeing how much the blackness was growing.

Her friend, unable to lock his heart up anymore, started thinking of her more and more. He remembered how to worry and care about other people and wondered if she was all right. He called her and they talked for a while. He noticed that she had learned how to be afraid and she noticed that she no longer wanted to give him any of her heart, which for some reason he suddenly wanted. She tried to see if he was sad or lonely, since that was usually why people wanted her heart, but it seemed that she was trying to see through a black mist and she didn't trust what she saw. All she could think of instead was that he would let her use his heart again and then maybe the mist would go away.

Instead of letting her use his heart, however, he gave her a little piece of it. While she was laughing and smiling in happiness over the gift, he quietly took the cage off his heart. He crept up to her and kissed her, stealing the key to the cage while his arms were around her. Suddenly, a clang in her chest made her look up into his dark eyes. She felt her heart struggle from inside the cage. She screamed at him in anger. How could he steal her heart that way? He gave her a stern look as he tucked the key away in a dark, secret place, then he held up the cage. She was stunned at what she saw. Not a huge red heart with a few little pieces missing, but a dark blob, cut and spotted with black lay behind the shiny gold bars.

She began to cry, afraid and ashamed.

He dried her tears and shook his head. He would help her, he said, taking out his own heart. "I will keep your heart safe in this cage. I know it is still good underneath, but you mustn't give any more of it away. We will share mine until yours heals and then you can use it again as long as you keep it in this cage."

The girl agreed, having no other choices and no good big heart to look for any with. She watches quietly now as the world goes by. She doesn't bother with hearts at all any more, except when her friend makes her use his. She is afraid to look at her own anymore, safe in its cage.

Sonja Torres 2000


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