When I think modern fairy tale, I think of one person: Cate Gardner. Cate’s been kind enough to allow us to reprint one of my favorite stories of hers here. And for the record, if you like what you see, this story is available in print and ebook along with several other weird, wonderful, scary tales, in her collection from Strange Publications: Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits.
The Forest of Discarded Hearts
by Cate Gardner
On a Tuesday morning in October, Ruby Ash discovered it is possible to disappear overnight; that all it takes is someone willing to wish you away.
At first, she thought the mirror in Jerry’s hallway was malfunctioning. The truth was it simply didn’t see her. A meow drew Ruby’s attention away from her non-reflection. Freckles stole by without a glance, followed by Spice, who always ignored her. The troublesome pair moved at full alert with fur, ears and tails set at startled. As she followed them into the parlour, Ruby’s skin prickled.
Jerry Spurlock had not only wished her away, he had replaced her. The girl’s laugh tinkled like icy rain on glass. His guffaw threw miniscule balls of spit across the room. One hit Ruby in the nose.
Ruby’s scream should have shattered the glass vase, the television, and Jerry’s oversized skull. Instead, it didn’t even disturb the tassels on her grandma’s old lamp. Her hands clutched her knees as she gasped for breath and tried to make sense of the situation. Several seconds later she realised there was no sense to be made of it.
The girl, who was not her, sat down on the sofa and flicked through a magazine as if she was accustomed to being there. As if it was her rightful place and Ruby had not filled the space the day before. Her scent clung to the furniture, and Ruby knew if she were to return to the bedroom, it would mingle with the sheets.
Ruby wondered how long she had been sleeping.
Jerry’s right eye twitched, as if he caught a glimpse of her just in the corner. An annoying gnat he believed he had swatted away.
“Do you bare a scar on your chest?” she asked the girl, though in truth neither party heard her. “Did he slice you open and rip out your heart? Or was he gentle?” She looked up at Jerry. His shadow climbed up the wall, crept across the ceiling and loomed over her. She asked, “Can I have my heart back, please? It’s not an unreasonable request and you can keep the lamp.”
He ignored her.
She thumped her hand against her empty chest, the echo resonating within her shell. It sounded as if he had also removed her lungs. Either way, she was finding it hard to breathe. Gasps of air exploded with a half-dozen questions per breath. She pushed back panic, aware it would suck her down into the carpet pile.
“So what would you like to do today?” He asked the girl who was not her.
The walls shuffled forward as if Jerry wanted to trap her within them like a souvenir. The skirting boards scurried like mice. Ruby ran for the door as cats, a rug and the coat stand tried to trip her up, as the house attempted to swallow her.
“Did you hear something?” The girl asked.
“No,” he answered, as Ruby slammed the front door.
The world half-noticed her. Dogs sniffed at her ankles, a pigeon took flight as her footsteps vibrated through the pavement, and a blonde child leaned out of her pram and offered her a lick of a heart shaped lollypop. Ruby pressed her hand to her chest. The skin ached from where he’d removed his heart, his stitches crude and uncaring. She supposed he’d drugged her wine the previous night and then performed the operation. She wondered if his new girlfriend had lain beside her and waited for him to place his heart in her chest. Perhaps he’d drugged her too. She thumped her hand against the stitches. The sound echoed. At the least, he could have given hers back.
She needed a drink.
A hand painted sign, propped against the frosted window of the Weeping Widow Tavern, asked – Do you feel as if the world has forgotten you? She wanted to scream yes, yes, yes. She stole into the tavern and sat at a stool located beneath a spotlight. As you do. The bartender, a stooped fellow with yellow teeth and nicotine-stained hands, placed an empty glass in front of her.
“I’m guessing you’re having that kind of day,” he said. “Would you like some advice?”
“If you think it will do any good.”
“If you’re on the telephone and you hear a door opening, don’t assume the sound is coming from the other end.” He threw a stained bar towel over his shoulder and dislodged a few inches of dandruff. “Though I’m sure you’ll agree, beware of men wielding sharp knives is more appropriate advice.”
“If a little late,” she sighed.
“My mother always said, ‘don’t come weeping and wailing to me if he cuts your heart out and then stomps all over it.’”
“Wise woman,” Ruby replied.
“Not that wise, she thought I was gay and tried to set me up with a surgeon who had his own platinum engraved set of scalpels.” He filled her glass with a light blue concoction that gave off a radioactive glow. “So, now you’ll want to know how to get your heart back.”
“Well it’s a lot easier than you’d expect, but also harder than I am making it out to be. Ever heard of the Forest of Discarded Hearts?”
If she still owned her heart, it would have sunk to her shiny shoes. “Yes.”
“It’s not a fable.”
“I guess I knew that already.” Her sigh rippled through the blue liquid. She pressed the glass to her lips.
“Drink up. The only way there is through this bottle.”
Despite being small-boned (with no hips, as Jerry often bemoaned), she knew no amount of squeezing would force her into the bottle. Even her lost heart wouldn’t make it through the slim neck.
She sipped the drink – it tasted like rusted metal on a frosty morning. Something wriggled at the bottom of the glass.
“You’re not very bright are you?” he said, refilling her glass. “Never mind; all will be revealed. Drink up, drink up, unless a timepiece will prove sufficient tick for you as it did for the Tinman in Oz.”
After about her third glass the world began to tip, with her fourth or fifth the blue liquid darkened to a forest green, and that was when she knew the truth. Or at least she knew the location of the Forest of Discarded Hearts.
It’s amazing what you can find at the bottom of a glass, Ruby thought as she landed on a patch of damp leaves.
A thump-thump-thump echoed like a distant drum beat through the thick forest. Her heart. A shush-shush shivered through leaves, causing them to tremble. A bush picked up its roots and shuffled across her path. The bush coughed. Ruby took a step back, but then realising that her journey would be futile if she didn’t actually journey, she walked around it. Her mother was right—obstacles did get in the way in matters of the heart. Could she really find her unwanted heart here?
Three children, a boy and two girls dressed in sepia coloured clothes, sat on a beat-up trunk. They watched her as she stumbled towards them.
“We know what you’re doing here.” Steam billowed from their mouths, and wisped toward Ruby. They spoke as one.
“The same as everyone else who wanders through, I expect,” Ruby answered. She wondered why her own breath did not mist. “What’s in the trunk?”
“Cobwebs and lustful things.”
The lid creaked as they tore it open. The same white mist fogged and obscured the contents. Curiosity did not propel her forward; instead, it urged her to take a few steps back.
“What are you afraid of? Someone ripped out your spine as well as your heart?” The boy spat. “Go on, take a peek, you never know what or who you might discover.”
“She’s scared… She’s scared,” they whispered among themselves. The sound of rustling paper issued through the forest as they rubbed their hands together. “She should be; we’ve seen who is inside.”
The trunk began to buckle and rock. The distant beat of her heart drummed louder and more persistent. A windstorm swirled within her empty chest. Ruby hated to admit it, but she was scared and wondering why she hadn’t asked for the route map home. Without intending to, she had stepped closer to the trunk. The earth buckled beneath her feet. Worms wriggled over her exposed toes, slithering under the yellow leather. Ruby slipped out of her shoes and stepped onto the writhing ground. Bile pushed up her throat.
A man crawled out of the trunk. Sandy hair glistened with sweat and slime and a grey pinstripe suit hung loose on his bony frame. Saucer-shaped eyes looked up at Ruby, as a dry tongue licked black teeth.
“Isn’t he a handsome fellow?” The children giggled, and then they pushed the lid of the trunk back down and sat on it with their arms folded. “Jeepers, look who I brought home, ma. Wilcox Fisk.”
The man crawled along the path, stopping only to cup his hand to his ear. From the way he was inching along the forest floor, Ruby wondered if someone had ripped the muscles from the man’s legs
“Oh Mr. Fisk hasn’t lost anything.” Their crisp voices unnerved Ruby. “If you take a closer look he has a scalpel in his hand and a rose in his buttonhole. We believe that gentleman is out to woo.”
“Where’s he going?” she asked. “What is he about?” They couldn’t mean to offer him her heart.
“Better be quick, he’s almost there.”
Wilcox Fisk was gone. A trail of slime led into the thick of the forest. Jerry often accused her of being slow on the uptake, today she would agree with him. Trees stretched their roots to trip her up, branches grabbed at her clothes and leaves fluttered about her eyes and scratched at her hands. It was a conspiracy.
Thump-thump-thump pulsed louder with each step. Ruby picked up her pace. Just as it seemed she would never find a clearing, she fell into one. She spat out slime and dirt, wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and picked herself up.
Ahead of her, Wilcox rapped at the door of a log cabin. Yellow light issued from a window to his right.
The door jerked open. A thing with purple hair, sagging breasts and a beard looked at the man with distaste.
“I have nothing to sell to you.” The thing said, and then closed the door.
Wilcox rapped at the door again. Slime oozed down his back, and lay in a puddle at his feet. He cleared his throat. As the door opened for a second time, Wilcox lodged his foot in the gap.
“Go away. I’m closed for the holiday season.” The man/thing’s finger scratched through its beard and picked out a dead bee. “Okay, your persistence has won me over. I give in. Stand well back though. I’m afraid my aim isn’t good over short distances.”
Having decided that the thing was a man, Ruby watched as he pulled a bow and arrow from between his breasts. They emerged with a pop and his chest deflated. He then held the middle finger of his right hand up, then he shook his head and slapped his forehead. Without further hesitation, he turned and disappeared into the cabin.
Ruby ran up to the cabin. Wilcox didn’t move, or blink, or show any comprehension that they shared the same adventure.
She cupped her hands to the window.
An arrow tapped against jars that contained pulsating hearts. Stuck to each jar were labels that curled to conceal the owners’ names. She rested her hand against the window, feeling their irregular beats. When he picked up a jar and withdrew a medium sized heart, Ruby knew it was her own. He skewered it onto the end of the arrow. Pain pierced her empty chest. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
As the door of the cabin opened, she cried out. “Please don’t.”
Wilcox opened his shirt to reveal a hole in his chest. He dug his fingers into the hollow and plucked out his heart, passing it to Cupid, who placed it on the step.
Cupid twanged his bow and fired. She fell to her knees as the heart, her heart, pushed its way into Wilcox’s ribcage. Ruby pulled herself up with aid of the wall. Cupid picked up the man’s discarded heart.
“I don’t think so.” Ruby shook her head as he aimed.
Ruby Ash felt something wet hit her in the back as she fell. It felt like a sodden sponge ball and it was creeping under her clothes, headed for her breast. She looked out towards the playing fields. Where on Earth? A man wearing a pinstriped suit held out his hand to help her up.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I feel a little dizzy,” she replied.
“I think you need a shot of caffeine. There’s a café across the road. Oh, and my name is Wilcox Fisk.”
“The Forest of Discarded Hearts” first appeared in Three Crow Press.