One night back in the late autumn I got whacked with a shovel and shoved in the trunk of a beat-to-shit Nova. The tweaker who whacked me drove me out into the country and dumped my body in a corncrib.
It was a cold night, and as I rocked at the edge of consciousness my heart was removed from my chest by an old and tiny man with strong hands. This little man, who was wearing a miner's helmet, perched on my breastbone and opened my chest with a rusty saw. There was a stiff wind whipping across the fields, and to keep himself from blowing away, the man --he was from a long line of heart deliverers-- had secured his body to the framework of the corncrib with strands of baling twine. He worked long and diligently, and the procedure was precise but bloody work.
When he had finished he wrapped my heart in burlap and loaded it into a waiting carriage pulled by two peacocks and driven by a fox wearing a red velvet top hat.
The carriage traveled many miles along dark roads. At some point during its journey snow began to fall, and the snow grew heavier the further the carriage traveled.
Eventually the carriage entered heavily wooded country, where the sky was suddenly blown free of clouds and a bright moon illuminated mile after mile of evergreen trees heaped with snow and mottled with shadow.
The fox drove long into the night, all the while singing and whistling quietly to the drowsy and plodding peacocks. In the early hours of the morning they arrived at a lake deep in the woods.
The lake was a vast thing, dark and ceaselessly rolling shattered moonlight ashore. It stretched to the far horizon, and was so black in the distance that the constellations appeared to be complex geometrical diagrams drawn upon a chalkboard.
Out in the lake some distance was anchored a miniature sailing ship with a scurrying crew of mice. My heart was a very small thing by this time, and it was carefully unloaded from the carriage, unwrapped, and packed in a nest constructed of pine needles and birch bark. It was taken aboard the ship by a contingent of mice in a rowboat.
While the peacocks drowsed and pecked tentatively at the snow-covered earth, the fox watched these proceedings from his perch on the carriage. Though he had been trained to not eat the mice, he was distracted by their presence all the same.
Once my heart was safely secured in the ship and the crew members were back aboard, the captain, a fat old mouse with long whiskers and a jaunty cap, gave the order to set sail. The ship eased out into the darkness of the lake, rocking in the turbulent waves, its sails providentially bowed by the stiff breeze that carried my heart north at a steady clip.
Two days and two nights the tiny ship sailed. Just after sunset on the third day the ship came within sight of an island rising out of the lake.
The island was shaped like a large puff pastry, and was dense with sturdy pines, many of which had survived generations in that inhospitable place. Jagged rocks were piled up all around the circumference of the island, and the wind was driving waves against these boulders, creating loud and frequently spectacular explosions of cold water that rose high into the night sky and were scattered like luminous fragments of colored glass.
The Captain gave the order for his crew to drop anchor. My heart was once again loaded into a round tub of a rowboat and lowered into the heaving water. A dozen of the stoutest crew members manned the oars and wrestled the boat through the waves. My heart, frozen and lacquered with ice, was now a surprisingly heavy and awkward burden.
A weathered dock jutted almost imperceptibly out into the lake at the bottom of a trail that emerged from the trees. The mice maneuvered their rowboat into a position alongside this dock.
A trio of young women came down the trail through the woods, their way lit by a swaying lantern. No words were exchanged as my heart was transferred from the rowboat to a wheelbarrow. As the women began to push the wheelbarrow back up the trail, the little boat was already straining back out into the mist of the lake.
The trail zigzagged through the trees, purposely digressive and worn over centuries at sharp, almost forty-five degree angles designed to ease the steep incline. The growth of old trees obscured the fact that the island jutted out of the lake to such an extent that its exact center was a strenuous climb from anywhere around the island's perimeter. The trees also hid from view a large chalet-style cabin that had been constructed on a stone foundation at the top of the island.
A sort of tribe had occupied this cabin for many generations. They were quiet, purposeful people, small of stature and somehow not entirely human. Though possessed of keen senses, every member of this strange tribe was mute. All of them, everyone that had ever occupied the island, was descended (in a manner of speaking) from a man who had settled there long, long ago, this after having traveled a great distance by boat, accompanied by three giant mastiffs.
This man had fancied himself an alchemist. Once established on the island, however, all of his attempts at alchemy had been failures. Undaunted, and gifted with a prodigious and magical imagination, he had nonetheless succeeded in time in conjuring, out of the raw materials at hand, companions for himself. In the laboratory where he had hoped to turn base materials into gold he had learned instead to produce breathing beings. And having failed at alchemy in a literal sense, this founder of the island became instead a recycler of human hearts. The generations that followed him learned this delicate craft as well. They were surgeons and they were artisans.
The first heart had arrived on the island in the middle of the 19th century, on a cool June night when the moon was full and the sky was so clear that the moonlight had made of the calm lake's surface a glimmering jewel box. The original heart made its journey alone in a boat.
Perhaps its arrival in that place was purely happenstance, and it is entirely possible that had not the moon been so bright that night, the heart would have drifted right past the island and continued on its solitary journey north. As it was, though, the heart had glowed like a luminous garnet floating far out in the lake, and some of the island's residents had spied the mysterious object and rowed out to investigate. Puzzled and amazed by their discovery, they had towed the boat ashore and lugged the heart up the trail.
The founder had known immediately that what he was looking at was a human heart, badly damaged if not entirely broken. Without hesitation he had determined that they would repair this heart, and after much trial and error he and his assistants succeeded in restoring it to perfect working condition.
Having mastered the most difficult task of all, they were faced with the question of what to do with the heart. For a time they kept it in a jar in their laboratory, where it pumped and gurgled and provided continual astonishment. The old alchemist was troubled by its presence, though; he felt certain that the result of their hard work was destined to find its way south, back to the human world, where he knew good hearts were always in great demand.
Eventually, as is so often the case, birds provided the solution. A charm of finches, which often spent summers on the island, had established a sort of telepathic communication with some of the mute residents, and when the finches flew south in advance of the first snow they carried with them the story of the repaired human heart. In the land beyond the lake the word traveled through all the animals of the forest, and finally was passed along to an ancient Guild of heart deliverymen. Though the members of this Guild hated the designation, they were, at least technically speaking, fairies.
The Potentate of the Guild of Heart Deliverers worked closely with a network of animals and angels (this sort of thing, of course, is always difficult to understand and explain), and had been providing heart transplants centuries before human medical science had ever dreamt of such a thing. Before connecting with the island laboratory, however, the guild had always had to work with whatever raw materials (often damaged) they could get their hands on, even as they were diligent in attempting, as often as possible, to replace bad hearts with hearts possessed of genuine goodness.
Once a relationship --however unusual, mysterious, and informal-- was established between the Guild of Heart Deliverers and the old alchemist, hearts began to arrive at the island on a regular, if unpredictable, basis. Some were transported by geese; others, like my own, were ferried by boat.
These days each of the hearts is boiled in a mixture of fish oil, cedar berries, and quicksilver, jostled for days in a contraption that resembles a giant rock tumbler, and then outfitted with all new plumbing.
Twice a year --once in the early spring and again in the late autumn (usually as a harbinger of the first snows)-- a flock of sub-angels arrives at the island. These creatures are grimy and ungainly, seemingly part geese, part human. They are, though, celestial beings, but crippled, still tormented by mortal dreams and aspirations, and as the lowest order of angels they are assigned a majority of the grunt work.
The repaired hearts are fed to these angels, who fly them back south and implant them in the chests of their intended recipients as they sleep.
The ragged angels will be making their semi-annual trek to the island in a few weeks. I'm holding out hope that I'll be one of the truly rare and lucky recipients and will get my own heart back. Only bigger, I hope, and better.