There was a heart. And it was small. Wedged between a rusty car wheel and moss-grown log beneath a swaying trestle bridge. It lived on the muddy bed of a river that flowed dark and thick with the waste of man, and beast, and world. The scourge of the town, no one paid any mind to the river except to dump their unwanted things. Even withered possums would not drink from its waters, nor did the toughest thistle grow on its grime-slick banks. The river ran slow and stagnant with a black hate so that the gentle sun was unable to touch the bottom depths. And the heart just sat there in the muck of humanity as it had for years upon years, beating ever so slight within a pale, sick skin.
A traveling doorbell salesman, defeated and head-heavy, stood upon the old bridge on a low Fall night, looking over the old river, and wept. Not a soul in that town had use for a doorbell, for not a soul wanted to be bothered with visitors, or goodwill of any sort. He uncapped a fifteen dollar bottle of bourbon, cursing to the skies above, “Goddamn this town!” and poured the whiskey down his throat until his own heart pounded, and beat, and beat, and beat so hard it shot from his chest like a great cannon ball of war. It landed far with a hard splash into the sludge below. The salesman followed, sinking like everything else around him. Only hope can float, and the salesman’s briefcase stuffed of doorbells knew this. It, too, threw its own heavy self to heed the same action of the heart and body. And as those parts before, it sank with a dismal run to the bottom, jarring that green-slime log that held the sick heart hostage for so many years. The heart bumped around the murk like a drunk fish, thumping a bit harder as a faint yellow glow formed around it, rising slow but eager to the surface. It came to rest in the foamy shallows on the east bank.
A pleasant October sun showed bright and orange the next morning. A young girl, fair of skin and hair, with eyes blue and bright as polished sapphires, trekked the gray river edge to rid herself of a shabby teddy bear she had grown tired of, and too wise for, she had felt. She stopped and stood on the east shore just downstream from the trestle, looking to the bear one last time, pretty eyes pregnant with tears. She wound her arm high with the stuffed animal clutched in her short hand, and just before deliverance into the black waters she saw the heart, a little bigger than before, pulsing there in the dull pools showing that slight gold. She bent and touched the heart. It was fever-pitched and soft, as was the nearest water it beat within. The bear was left there on the bank where the heart was found. The little girl tucked it deep within her jacket pocket, near her own thumping chest.
The town’s people were of the unhappy sort, caring for one another as a late, hard frost on new Spring roses. But on this day they regarded the little girl with kind looks and nods as she walked the streets toward home. Some might have even smiled at her—might have. A good feeling came over her, and she felt she could just walk those streets forever with that good feeling hanging around her.
After the girl fed her pappa supper that night, she rose from the scarred kitchen table to tend the dishes. Pappa sat there with a curious spirit and grabbed her hand, “Honeybell, just sit back down for a patch. Ain’t no reason to rush to cleanin’ just yet.” Then they chatted like that, alone with peace and each other, until bedtime. Him telling easy stories of youth, and her listening, feeling that good feeling, with the heart buried deep and snug, expanding inside her apron pocket.
Honeybell hid the heart beneath her pillow before pappa tucked her in for the night. She could recall not another time in her being a sense of such unequaled perfection. When her pappa shut the door to shadows she took the heart from under the pillow, held it close to her body and whispered, “I love you, heart.” And the heart bloomed of fire and heat, welling up to twice its size. The girl giddy with that good feeling hugged the heart close until heavy eyelids shut her into a dreamless sleep.
Honeybell woke at sunrise, board-stiff on the wood floor. The heart had outgrown the child’s bed through the night. Pappa stood over her with eyes wide and stiff as a barn owl’s following a mouse in pitch black. “Honeybell, darlin’, we musn’t speak of this…of this…heart…this huge, beautiful heart that lies before us.” He knelt low, smiling big, and leaned his face against the flushed heart. Its thump turned loud and shook the bed springs. “Where now did you find this, darlin’? Tell pappa.” Honeybell sat up, relating the previous day’s events from morning ‘til bedtime, and even as they spoke of that good feeling surrounding them, the heart spread and pounded until the bed legs snapped with a crack like a Winter’s bone.
Pappa excused Honeybell from school on that Monday morning to keep watch of the heart while he worked the lines at the Rancor Town Apathy Factory. She promised not to leave its side no matter what happened. Folks slowed their usual rushed and negligent pace to a passive saunter going by the house of heart. Some greeted pappa a good morning, and all grinned—confused of a sort, but grinning all the same. Pappa knew their source of bewilderment and just nodded back, chest tight with excitement. He followed the path along the dirty river to ponder and beam, away from looks of suspicion.
Only three hours into the twelve hour work shift, an announcement came over the factory’s P.A. system ordering the lines be stopped for an immediate employee meeting. The speakers squealed, “Uh, good morning, Apathy employees. Recent figures from the past twenty-four hours have shown that production of apathy and general ill-will is down sixty-three percent.” The workers laughed, and not a single one of them knew what was funny, or why. The overhead voice continued after a bout of its own laughter, “Yes, yes, I don’t know what to say, except that we have decided to dismiss all production of Apathy products until further notice. Everyone is free to leave with pay until told otherwise.” The floor roared with cheers, and the mass emptied from the fifty-acre facility.
The crowds thickened on the streets the nearer pappa got to home. From a block away he could see a warm, red light rising above the trees on his end of the street. Where the home stood just hours ago, now lay the massive heart, surrounded by house scraps and concrete shard, pulsing, the reverberation echoing as distant dynamite blasts down roads and through green belts for miles and miles. Thousands of bodies, some from bordering villages, clambered and clawed toward the heart in a mass ecstasy. The streets choked full of eager beings, extending first for a couple miles across Rancor, then across many more miles through the county. Pappa searched for Honeybell amongst all the legs, arms and eyes. She was nowhere to be found around the breathing mound of towering flesh. The girl had kept her promise.
Doting hoards grew fast like mold in July, as did the heart. The people, like stupefied lambs, would not, and could not, break themselves from its advancing path in all directions. Soon it stretched across the state, then across the country, and then across oceans, wiping out everything and everyone until finally Earth was nothing, and everything, but a full heart circling the hot sun, resonating through the universe.
Heart won. And things were quite a bit better than they had ever been before.
words and photos by Jay Halsey