The Girl With No Heart
by Avital Abraham
There once was a girl who, like many of us start out, was young and naive and a little too eager for love. Her name was Kai and she lived in a small cottage on the edge of town with her father, her mother, and an old cat named Melvin. One day, when she was around 13, and the cottage was getting a bit too stuffy in the heat of the summer afternoon, Kai decided to go outside for some fresh air.
She was reclining gently under a large oak tree in her garden, basking in the sunshine that sprinkled between the leaves, when suddenly she heard a rustling crack above her head. She looked up with a start.
“Well, hello there,” drawled a boy sitting on the branch above her who looked to be about her age. He gave her a heavy once-over, dragging his eyes slowly up her body.
“What do you want?” she asked, ever skeptical of strange boys in trees.
“Come now, princess.” The boy raised an eyebrow mischievously. “Won’t you be sweet with me?”
“Maybe. Who are you?”
“Just a young, curious thing, not unlike yourself.” The boy gave her a smile that was halfway between sweetness and secrecy. It was a tempting smile and Kai could not help but notice he was a tempting boy.
“Tell you what, sweet thing, let’s cut to the chase. We’re young; we’re wanting; so why don’t you kiss me?” He slid down from the branch to sit next to her.
“What?” She recoiled, surprised by his boldness. “I - I’m not sure.” She knew from her mother that she was not supposed to kiss boys she just met, especially when they suddenly appeared in trees. However, she also knew that this would be quite the story for her friends at the market the next morning, and she was getting kind of sick of all of them coming in day after day with their first-kiss stories when she had nothing to share of her own. It’s these kinds of thoughts that can sneak their way into the minds of little girls and convince them to do things they’re not sure they want to do.
“What’ve you got to lose?” The boy grinned.
She shrugged, weighing her options. “Well, I guess.”
His eyes lit up with poisonous delight, “Good choice.” The boy placed his hand against her cheek and leaned in. “You can close your eyes now,” he whispered, saccharine soft and sweet.
He pressed his lips to hers then, gently as he possibly could, and Kai sighed into him, thinking that this whole kissing thing really wasn’t as bad as she had expected. But then, as he tilted his head, deepening the kiss, she suddenly felt a sharp tug deep in her chest. Kai pulled away, startled by the sudden pain.
“What was that?” she gasped.
“It’s nothing to worry about sweet thing, nothing at all.” The boy laughed, but when he moved away his eyes were cruel. “It’s just your heart.” He took his hand away from her face and reached into his mouth, pulling out a smooth grey stone from beneath his tongue. “You shouldn’t be needing this anymore.”
“No!” Kai cried out, her hands fluttering to grasp at the stone in his hands, but the boy was already gone, disappeared into thin air.
She sat under the oak tree for many hours, heartless and hopeless, crying softly to herself until her mother called her in for dinner. She knew she could not tell anyone about her stolen heart, lest they think badly of her for going around kissing strange tree boys.
Well, many years passed by, but they were filled with the kind of anxious pretending that boils beneath secrets. Kai learned to weave from her mother and she was sent each week to the village market, selling brightly colored blankets and cloths. On one of these mornings, when she was 19 years old, another girl from the village came to Kai’s stand to say hello. The two sparked together almost instantly and they became very close. They spent the winters curled up by the fireside and the summers laughing in the sunshine; in spring they picked each other fresh flowers and in autumn they went for long walks holding hands.
You know, friendship stuff. Except it wasn’t friendship stuff, no, it was so much more than that. It was actually the romantic sort of stuff that people write movies and fairy tales about, hence this tale right here.
One day in autumn, the two girls were going on one of the aforementioned walks, talking about anything and everything that young lovers talk about, when they decided to stop beneath an old oak tree. Our heroine looked up at the changing leaves, admiring their colors. Suddenly, she noticed that her companion, Freya, was looking at her intently.
“What a look, my dearest,” she hummed. “Tell me; what are you thinking?”
Freya smiled, bashful. “Just you, my darling. Just you and how beautiful you look on this gorgeous day with the light dancing through your hair. You and the way we are able to talk for hours and hours and never grow bored of each other’s company. You and how I think I might love you.”
Now, if Kai had had a heart, it would have swelled with joy at such sweet words, never spoken between the young girls before, but instead, she just felt a dull ache where it should have been. “Oh my darling.” She let out a yearning sigh. “I care for you so deeply, but I have no heart with which to love you.”
“I - I don’t understand.” Confusion clouded Freya’s eyes. “You don’t love me?”
“No, no, please, it’s not like that. I want to love you, so badly I want to love you, but I can’t. I have no heart. It was stolen from me when I was young and trusting and foolish. You must believe me.” And because the two girls were so close and so understanding of one another, Freya did. “Tell me what happened,” she said, settling in.
So Kai began.
“I have heard about this boy,” said Freya, when Kai was done with her story, “this trickster who goes around stealing young girls’ hearts. I have heard he runs an old tavern on the southernmost tip at the end of the world; there he sits, surrounded by all those hearts, still beating. To get there is a dangerous and long journey, though.”
“I have to go,” Kai replied. “I must get my heart back so that I can love you like you deserve.”
Freya nodded. “We’ll do it together. We can leave tomorrow at dawn.”
Kai paused, shaking her head. She didn’t know very much about magical fairy tale quests, but she did know that one doesn’t usually bring others along. “I don’t think you can come with me, my darling. I have to do this on my own.”
Freya started to protest, but when she saw the steely look in her partner’s eyes, she knew that it was no use. “I understand,” she said, “but if you change your mind along the way, and decide you should need my help, take this bit of string and tie it around your wrist. If you break the string, I will be by your side.”
Kai did as Freya asked, trying not to cry at the thought of leaving her for so long. They sat under the tree for a little while longer, holding onto their last moments together. Eventually though, it began to grow dark, and they knew it was time to part ways. They shared a tearful embrace, knowing they would not see each other for quite some time, and then each headed home.
When morning came the next day, Kai was all ready to set out on her journey. She had packed a little bag full of food and water and, of course, had Freya’s string tied tight around her wrist. Still too ashamed to let her parents know about the heart trouble, she told them instead that she was just going for a trip to a faraway market, and although they were sad to see her go, they wished her the best as she set upon her way.
She traveled for many days, walking through a deep, dark forest, stopping only to rest for short periods of time when she hoped it was safe. Strange sounds came out from the trees around her, and she kept thinking she heard the rustling of footsteps behind her back, but when she turned to look, there was nothing there. The very nature of the forest made her skin crawl. Abraham-6 She thought she was traveling towards the other end of the wood, but had no way of knowing beyond the fact that she was following the path.
Kai had been walking for what felt like weeks of circling around and around with not much sleep or food when she came upon a large tree in the middle of the road. She tried to look around it, but it seemed to be only a dead end. “Oh, are you kidding?” she cried out in frustration. “Which way am I supposed to go now?”
“Well, I suppose it depends on where you’re trying to get to.” An old voice came seemingly out of nowhere.
“W-what?” the girl stammered, looking around in confusion.
A horrible crackling sound came from the tree in the road as two round eyes and a mouth appeared between the bark. “I said, I suppose it depends on where you’re trying to get to,” said the tree again.
“Oh!” Kai stepped back, startled. “Well, I suppose I’m trying to get to the trickster’s tavern at the southernmost tip of the world.”
“You guess? You’re trying?” scoffed the tree. “Or you know and you are?”
“I know,” clarified Kai, beginning to feel a bit put out, “and I am. I need to find the trickster’s tavern so I can take back my heart and love my Freya the way she deserves to be loved.”
“Ah, love.” The old tree laughed. “You say you want love, but answer me this, sapling:
This carries your thoughts from your head to your tongue
You’re never born with it, but you learn it quite young
For two to both share it, it must be the same
Now use it to tell me, what is its name?”
“I don’t have to solve your riddles.” Kai crossed her arms, now feeling quite put out.
“You do if you want to know the way to the trickster’s tavern,” replied the tree, who was used to the antics of naive, young girls who thought they were better than old trees.
“You know the way?” Kai stared incredulously.
“Of course. And I would be more than happy to tell you, if you would only answer my riddle.” The tree looked rather annoyed, or got as close to looking annoyed as a tree can.
Kai thought for a moment. “Ok, I can do that,” she said. “Just give me a moment to think. It carries your thoughts … you learn it when you’re young … I have to use it to tell you what it is … oh! Is it language?”
The tree grinned. “Quite right, my little sapling; you might very well be wiser than you appear. Just step around me and you’ll see that the path you were looking for was there all along.” With that, the tree’s eyes closed and its mouth faded back into the bark.
“Thank you,” whispered Kai, pressing a kiss to where she imagined the tree’s forehead was, and then she continued on her way.
It was not long before the woods became less dark and less dense and she was finally able to make her way out.
As she continued on her path, a few days later, she eventually came to a large chasm, shrouded in fog so thick she could not see the bottom. All she could make out as she came closer was a small wooden sign at the cliff’s edge.
WILL YOU TAKE THE FIRST STEP WHEN YOU CANNOT SEE THE LAST?
As soon as she read the sign, the fog cleared for a moment and she could see what appeared to be the first plank of wood in a thin rope bridge reaching across the chasm. She paused. Kai had no way of knowing what was on the other side, could not even be sure that the rope bridge was intact all the way across. If the bridge were to break, there was no telling how far she would fall. She thought of her sweet Freya, though, back home and waiting for her return, and, with a deep breath, took the first step.
The wood held beneath her feet, waving slightly in an unseen wind. As soon as her right foot touched the first plank, the second one became visible. She took another step and the third plank could be seen. And so Kai went, all the way across the shaky rope bridge, even though she could not see the end.
When she got about fifty planks in, the fog suddenly cleared entirely and she could see that the next step was on solid stone. She had reached the other side. With the fog gone, Kai could also see the bottom now, and she realized she had been a terrifying thousands and thousands of feet up in the air. She took the final step and continued on her journey.
Two days later, Kai came to the edge of a small village, bustling with people. She tapped the shoulder of a hunched merchant. “Excuse me,” Kai said softly. The merchant did not turn. “Excuse me!” she uttered a bit louder.
The merchant whipped around to face her, annoyance written plainly on his leathery face. “What do you want?” he snarled.
“The trickster’s tavern please, if you don’t mind,” Kai volunteered.
His voice dripped with derision. “And what business would you have going there?”
“I’m on the search for my heart, please.” Anxiety boiled in Kai’s throat, but she swallowed it down, made bold by how far she had come.
The merchant barked out a cruel laugh. “Oh I’ll tell you where the tavern is alright, but don’t be thinking you’ll get your heart back.” He sneered. “The trickster of this town is a clever creature, and let's just say he’s not known for returning hearts.”
“The tavern, please,” Kai repeated, insistent. She smiled sweetly, but there was steel behind it that the merchant couldn’t miss.
“It won’t go well for you.” He scoffed, but began to back down.
“I think I’ll find that out for myself, thank you.” Her smile dropped away then, to reveal only a sharp glare. “Now, as I was saying, which way is the tavern?”
The merchant shook his head slightly. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s at the center of town, can’t miss it.”
“Thank you.” Kai grinned in a way that was a little too pleasant to be kind, and promptly headed towards the town center. She continued down the main market road until she got to a large building that loomed ominously over the town square.
A raucous shrieking and laughter came from the open windows, but it was sharp and brash, unlike any sound she had heard around the tavern back home. In front of the enormous red door stood a large bear that growled menacingly at passersby.
Kai took a deep breath, clenched her hands into fists, and gathered all of her courage, before walking forwards towards the looming tavern. As soon as the bear caught sight of her, a wide grin spread across his face like warm butter. “Well, hello there, sweet thing,” he hummed, low and rumbling.
She looked up at the bear, trying not to let her nerves seep through. “I need to get in,” she insisted.
“I would assume that is your intention, yes.” The bear smirked. “But why ever should I let you do that?”
“I need my heart.” Kai’s jaw clenched, her brow furrowing in determination. “The trickster who owns this tavern stole it from me 6 years ago and now I’m here to take it back.”
The bear laughed. “And you think you can manage that?”
“I’ve travelled long and far through a deep, dark woods, across a great foggy chasm, and now through this bustling village. Do you really think you can stop me?” She glared up at him.
The bear raised an eyebrow, smirking slightly. “Feisty now, aren’t you? And pretty, too.” He stepped closer until his scent surrounded her, sour and musty. Kai swallowed nervously. “Well, if you think you’re so brave, tell me this then: what are you most afraid of?”
Kai looked warily up into his smoking ember eyes. “Come on, now. Everything comes with a price, sweet thing.”
She glanced back to the ground, voice suddenly small.
The bear gestured for her to continue.
“I’m afraid my missing heart isn’t the problem - that I am. I’m afraid that even if I get my heart back, I still won’t be able to love Freya as she deserves to be loved. And I’m afraid that even after this whole journey, even after I’ve travelled so long and so far with very little food or water to sustain me, and very much danger to make me want to turn back, that at the end of the day, I’m afraid I still don’t deserve to love her.”
The bear grinned, big and toothy and cruel. “Very well, pretty thing, then you may enter.” The door creaked open as he moved to the side. A gust of warm foul air floated from the opening, coupled with the raucous laughter she had heard before. Fear bloomed deep and low in her belly, but Kai knew she could not turn back now.
“In you go.” He beckoned as she took the step inside and the door slammed shut behind her.
Inside the tavern, the room was lit dimly by only orange candlelight. All the sunshine that she had seen outside was completely gone. Each table and surface was filled with creatures of different shapes and sizes and colors, all bumping drunkenly around each other, spilling amber liquid across the floor. Kai pushed through the crowds, searching for the trickster. She spotted him behind the bar, sliding mugs to a group of singing frogs at the end of the counter, looking exactly the same as he did all those years ago.
Glancing around, she slid onto an open barstool, watching him work. He flirted effortlessly with everyone who asked for a drink, spinning bottles and filling cups with ease. He kept glancing in her direction, so she knew he could feel her gaze on the back of his neck, but he took his sweet time in getting to her. When finally every mug was filled, he sauntered over to where she was sitting, leaning onto the bar with a glint in his eye.
“Sweetness,” he grinned, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”
She glared back. “My heart. Now.”
“Oh, come now, princess, can’t we have a bit of fun first? Won’t you indulge me in some banter? A drink or two? I seem to remember us having some history.”
Kai bit back a laugh. “History? You kissed me. You stole my heart. Now I want it back. And that’s all there is.”
He smiled, seemingly pleased with her determination. “Very well sweet thing, follow me.” He opened up a door in the side of the bar and beckoned her behind the counter. They passed through a curtain and down a long winding hallway, twisting through turn after turn until Kai wasn’t sure where they had come from and where they were headed. The halls were lined with door after door, some concealing glowing bright colors, others echoing shrieks and sobs. On and on the trickster led her, deeper into the tavern, until they got to a plain wooden door, painted deep blood red.
“Here you are.” He gestured toward it. “Your heart lies behind this door.” She reached for the knob.
“But - ” the trickster hummed, “are you so sure you want it now?”
Kai looked at him, surprised. “Well, of course I do. I’ve gotten this far, haven’t I? How could I turn back now?” Her voice was laced with confusion, unsure of what he was insinuating.
“Well princess, a heart is a scary beast to be in charge of. I’ve taken care of my fair share and they are fickle, fickle things. Are you sure you can care for yours?” The trickster looked at her, his once mischievous stare now unnervingly intense.
“I - I don’t think I understand.” Her hand fell to her side; her mind reeling with the trickster’s riddles.
“Tell me, sweet thing,” he purred, “if Freya leaves you, will you still want to keep it then? If she is hurt, if she dies, if she decides she loves another, will you still want it? Because once I give it back, it cannot be taken away again.”
Kai looked at him, brow furrowed. “What does it feel like? When it breaks like that?”
“They say nothing hurts more,” the trickster replied, “that you can’t eat, can’t sleep; you just sit there, numb. It’s excruciating. Some people die from heartbreak.”
“And if she were to leave me, I would feel that?”
“Presumably.” He nodded. “If you really loved her, heart and all.”
Kai looked away, down either side of the hall. Suddenly, the decision to get her heart back didn’t seem so easy.
“Won’t you stay here?” the trickster whispered temptingly. “Stay at my tavern. You’ll be well taken care of; I’ll give you a job, food, shelter. You’ll never want for anything again. Come stay with me.” He held out his hand for her to take. “Isn’t it so much easier to know you’ll never feel that heartbreak?”
Kai glanced down at her hand which inched ever closer to the trickster’s. Was he right? Was her heart even worth it if it came with the knowledge it could be broken? Looking down, she noticed a piece of tattered string tied around her wrist and was suddenly overcome with the memory of Freya. She stared up into the trickster’s seductive eyes, wrapping her fingers around the string. Fairy tale adventures might be something one does on their own, but learning how to love someone certainly is not. She tugged at the string, snapping it.
Suddenly, the sound of hurried footsteps filled the hallway and Freya came running around the bend. “My darling!” she called, arms outstretched. “Oh how I missed you!” The trickster jumped back as Freya pulled Kai into a tight embrace and held her fast, pressing kisses into her shoulder.
Kai wiped away tears she hadn’t realized she’d been shedding. “I’m so sorry, my dearest; I know now I should have never left you. I thought I could do this on my own, but I can’t; I can’t. Why, I’ve never been so afraid and unsure in my life as I am now!”
The trickster glanced back and forth between the two girls nervously, still in shock at Freya’s sudden arrival.
“What worries you, my dearest one? Haven’t you come so far?”
Kai sniffled, fresh tears flowing. “I want to love you so badly, but I’m so afraid. How can I be sure it’s worth it? How can I know it is worth it to love with the knowledge that it could be lost?”
“Oh, my darling.” Freya brushed her thumb across Kai’s cheek, wiping away tears, “It’s perfectly normal to be afraid. A heart is a scary thing. Don’t you know that I am afraid, too?”
“You - you are?” Kai stared back, confused.
“Of course. It is a scary thing to put so much into something you know can vanish so quickly. But listen, my dearest, are we not two people who care for each other? And isn’t this what two people who care for each other do?”
Kai blinked, shaking her head slightly. “How can you make it so simple?”
“It is that simple to me.”
Kai swallowed hard, taking a deep, settling breath as new determination ignited in her belly with Freya’s hand in hers. She turned back to the trickster. “A heart may be a fragile, scary thing, but I’ve decided that it is worth it. Even if it hurts me in the end, I am willing to take that risk. So I do want my heart back now.”
The trickster glared an icy glare, but he knew that he could not stop her from opening the door if that was what she wanted. He gestured toward the knob.
With a glance at Freya, Kai reached out her hand and threw open the door.
Inside, on a small marble pedestal in the middle of the room, sat a smooth grey stone. It seemed so unassuming, so insignificant sitting there, but Kai immediately recognized it as her heart. She didn’t know how, but she suddenly knew exactly what to do. She crossed the room in confident, long strides until she got to the pedestal and picked up the stone.
It was warm in her hand, beating softly in a way that was so comfortingly familiar. She popped it into her mouth quickly and swallowed hard, feeling heat blossom where it slid down her throat.
Kai gasped as she felt her heart click back into place. Warmth spread through her whole body. She reached for Freya, pulling her close.
“I love you,” she said, once again crying at the sheer rush of it all. “I love you; I love you; I love you!”
Freya laughed into her shoulder. “I love you, too,” she breathed. “Oh my darling, how I love you, too.”
And so I think we’ll leave our heroine here, with some privacy for this moment. You can assume, if you like, that she and Freya travelled home, happily in love, and lived out the rest of their days in a small cottage on the edge of town, eventually adopting Melvin the cat. Or perhaps you’d like to think that they stayed at the tavern of the trickster, working behind the bar and earning their keep. I suppose, though, in the end it doesn’t matter, just as long as they were together and in love — and living happily ever after.
About the Author
Avital Abraham hails from Fanwood, NJ, but is currently a rising junior at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. She’s studying Sociology with a double minor in Environmental Studies and the Ithaca College Honors program. Avital has been writing poetry and prose since second grade and now writes mostly spoken word poetry.