If I Had a Heart by Marta Martan

“My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here…”: it sometimes happens that you have left your heart in some other time or place and can never move on and you can never feel that you belong. Set in an alternative history of this corner of the world and seasoned with a tinge of magic realism the story tells a tale of reclaiming one’s heart in times of turmoil and change.

I need to go to the North, so I arrange a meeting with the Spice Merchant. I happen to know him just like anybody who operates in the twilight zone does. His office is located behind a real spice shop: Kolonial, say the big, gilded letters over the entrance and glisten in the gas light of streetlights. The place smells with memories: when you set your foot behind the threshold you suddenly remember some moment, gesture, voice, place, feeling and you drift away and try to hold on to it for a little longer but it is gone before you managed to fully savour it. Such is the power of smells. The Spice Merchant is well aware of that: he receives me with a smug smile of a person who knows their craft and sees through their customers even before they walk into the shop. I settle down opposite him, in a large, comfortable armchair. There is a bottle of ink on his desk: if you look closely, you will notice little gold fish that swim there and occassonally churn the dark blue liquid. A pretty trinket. I explain the matter at hand without further ado: it is trade, nothing more. Times are changing, tables are turninig, the wind may be against us but our banner is still high, although tattered and stained. We are still here, still alive. The Spice Merchant is not happy with my request: he leans forward in his armchair and asks why, why the North, why V–, now that everybody is fleeing from there. Everybody like you. Some like me, I retort in my thoughts. The borders are tight, you cannot get in without a solid reason and a clean slate; you can still get out but who knows for how much longer. And you, with such eyes… He pauses and looks into my eyes and I know what he sees there: a sky as black as loneliness, the three stars from the Archer’s Belt, the writhing body of the Serpent Constellation, the comforting light of the Dog Star. A comet. The vast space slowly turning around its axis, pulling you further and deeper. These are Coeli eyes. You can hide your foreign body under a local garb, you can hide your foreign language behind a silence but you cannot hide your eyes, he says. I strongly advise you against this venture, he continues and goes on to list all the stories he has recently heard: those gathered and those made up. I start to feel exasperated: I need to go, have to, must go there. But why, he asks again. Because I left my heart there, I say a bit too loud, too sad. There is silnce for a moment and then all he says is oh. Oh I see. Now it is simple, it is as plain as day. You can hardly live without your heart. You can hardly start a new life without your heart. And now that the world is toppling, I will need it so badly. After that we come to the agreement: all details discussed, all expectations set. He understands me now, for who would not? Life is difficult without a heart. Yet, it does happen and you may also know this feeling: you leave your heart on the desk in your room or in somebody’s pocket and you say, I’ll be right back but you never really do. Or you come home and you start fumbling for it only to realise that you lost it, now that the moment has come and you need it like never before but it is gone. We have all been there.

Now on the agreed day I travel to the agreed place. I set out early in the morning. An enormous sun hangs low over the cathedral of St. Petra and Pavla. It looks likes a glowing orange or a burning peach. I reach out and touch it: just as I thought, it is warm and fuzzy under my fingers. I feel rejuvenated and full of hope now. The whereabouts of my destination are of no interest to you: suffice it to say that those senstive to such places feel its energey well before they reach it. It sends ripples all around it that feel like a gentle thrum that sooths you and fills you with confidence. Some call it magic and say that it is unscientific and from now on should be done away with. I ask: what is unscientific about things that exist and are real? Why are our fates subject to whims and ignorace of those clever enough to wield power but too dense to look past their personal interests and pride? A perennial conundrum, a riddle with no answer. But I stray from my tale. I reach the agreed place and my guide is already waiting for me. We greet each other with a mere nod of head: remember, it is only trade. I follow her into the cavern: you can feel how cold and silence emanate from its corridors. One more turn and the sunlight stays behind us but before I ask she snaps her fingers and a ball of blue light appears before her. Our eyes meet and we smile: she is Coeli too. The blue light or the blue fire is our signature. You cannot mistake it for anything else. I feel now even more confident that my matter is in the rights hands. Who knows, maybe she was once a fox catcher like myself. We continue to walk and while we are walking, let me shortly explain to the less knowledgable readers who Coelis are. There are two Coelis: the Rosa Coeli and the Porta Coeli. You could call us an order. We sometimes like to call ourselves a Hansa. The Rosa Coeli is a sisterhood. The Porta Coeli is a brotherhood. Some less learned explain that our name comes from the beauty of a rose that is an attribue of femininity. A dime store explanation, indeed. The truth is that we see a rose as a symbol of the human mind. Multilayered, unfolding, beautiful in its complexity. We have sharpened our minds, forged our futures, honed our characters for centuries. And now we are told to go away, to close our schools and dissolve in the dusk of the days bygone. That I will not heed, mark my words. Now, we finally arrive at the cave we need. It is large and you stand in awe of the place. I can discern that it is circular and the ceiling is like a enormous silent dome over our heads. Suddenly a voice breaks the silnce and startles me. Fortunately, it is only my guide but my pulse quickened nevertheless. Once you’re there, she says quietly and her words resonate clearly, give it to the river. She puts in my hand something that looks and feels like a small copper coin. I will, I reply shortly and nod. We are sisters now. She motions me towards the centre: I do so and notice runes carved on the floor. A bit of help never harms. I close my eyes and feel the tremendous power of this place: it fills me and leads me. My guide commences her chant: I know the drill and after a while I join her. Our voices are now like a vortex with me at its core. The cave around me moves and I open my mind’s eye and focus on my destination. Silensi, I am coming.

When I open my eyes again I need a moment to gather my wits. I feel a bit dizzy as always when one travels in such a manner. Yet, the adavantages are undeniable especially when you need to make haste. Before I continue, let me make it plain: to travel in time is a nonsense idea of lesser writers. To traverse the space, however, is a completely different story. Imagine space as fabric: there are two points marked on it and you need to pierce through both of them with a needle. How do you do this? Of course by folding the fabric into two, so that the marked points are exaclty on top of each other. The fabric itself has not changed: you only changed the way you work with it. Some call it magic. I call it sense. In any case I am now a stone’s throw from my city: I stand at top of the mountain that emerges from the surrounding fields like a lonely ship. A long time ago it was a holy place, people would come here to drink full of its power and be closer to the vast unknown within and beyond us. It may have lost its significance but not its might: I feel it. To ignore it would be reckless.

It is a one day journey to reach my city. When I finally arrive at its gates, figuratively speaking of course, I feel joy and anxiety. Allow me to amplify: image that you are to meet a person very dear to you. You are very close but now have not seen each other for a long time. When  you are about to meet you wonder if the other person has missed you with equal intensity and what should be the best manner of greeting. More profuse or rather restrained? Are your feelings the same as the last time you met? Are your lives the same as back then? It is no trifle and this is how I feel now that I enter my beloved V–. I decide to indulge myself and loiter around it first. I look upon its streets and houses as one looks upon the face of one’s beloved. I visit every nook and cranny that was once dear to me. Many things have changed: I see and feel it. When I stand in the market square and look at the clock on the east elevation of the town hall I reflect on all those days that passed since the time I lived here. The world around me has changed and so have I but the gothic building before me seems to exist outside of time or, rather, against it. It stirs in me wistful thoughts. Once I felt part of this place: my heart beat in accord with its heart. We belonged to each other. When I left to join the Coelis I never left for real: when I walked the streets of B– I walked the streets of V– in reality. I thought of my city, I dreamt of my city although at the same time I made a new home in this new, not so far away place. I was a scion that grew and blossomed but never forgot where it came from. Now the time has come to move forward with full speed and ferocity.

The evening is drawing near, so I start to head for the river bank, to this special spot when I would come so often to watch the river flow. People pass me by and I can almost read their thoughts: they too are birds caught up in a storm and try to escape it. I try to make myself inconspicuous and walk with my eyes on the ground. Every now and then I pass by the guardians of the new order with its emblem visible on their chests. The Spice Merchant warned me for a reason. Finally I leave the crowd and find my quiet spot under one of the numerous bridges here. It is a peaceful evening: perfect for a good-bye. Without looking I take out the copper coin from my guide and throw it into the river. Nothing happens. Yet I know that some story has just received its end. Now it is time for mine. From my pocket I produce a bundle of red yarn: there is a small weight and a silver hook on its end. Almost as for fishing except it is not a fish but a heart that I am after. I aim at the middle of the current and swing it into it. Then I wait. Rivers tend to be a bit slow, so you need to be patient with them. With my feet planted soundly on the ground I keep looking at the place where the other end of the string vanished. The setting sun glimmers in the grey water of the river and I think of a time when I stood at its bank on the other side of the border and thought that rivers are like seams that join different lands. Stand in its water and it is as if you visited all the towns and cities on its way to the sea. A curious but comforting thought. As everything is still perfectly quiet around me, I take a step forward and start to gently pull the string. A moment passes and then it happens. A sudden jerk almost tears the yarn from my hands. My pulse quickens. It is my heart, my heart that is struggling at the other end.

Dear river, please return it to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s