This story is paired with “The Three Apples” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
While waiting for him to arrive, I eavesdrop on a conversation at the next table.
A thin girl in black, with cropped platinum hair and a diamond nose stud, complains to her green-eyed friend. “So I called my mom and told her. She was like, ‘Do you want me to come up and beat him up? Because I will.’ I said no. Then she asked if she should call me back so I don’t have a huge phone bill. And I said, ‘I won’t be here when it arrives.’”
“I can’t believe you caught him,” says the other woman. Multiple braids the colour of dried blood snake down her back.
“What I can’t stand is the e-mails. He just left them there for me to see. He didn’t even care that much. The whole thing seems so unreal to me, somehow. What was I thinking? Why did I let him treat me like that?”
The girls get up to leave just as he is coming in. He checks them out as they walk by, that not-too-subtle flicker of the eyes. The girls swivel past him, hipbones aggressively jutting from their low-cut jeans, bright orange thongs on display. I notice these things: the way the teenage cashier at the grocery store brightens in his presence; the way a waitress lingers, chatting, after he has paid the bill. I say nothing, but I do notice.
He puts his latte between us and says, “Tell me a story.” Our daily ritual. I woo him with words. Wondering how I will hold him when that waif could not hold her lover, I weave a story of a bridge, of the links that bind separate sides into one.
The wooden bridge was once lined with railway trestles, a transportation link between north and south banks, ferrying lumber, coal, and food supplies. The iron rails were ripped up years ago, replaced with wooden boards. The bridge joins the two sides of the town, like the aorta of the heart, pumping life across the dark river.
On a windy spring day of freezing rain, two women walk the treacherous sidewalks. Rowan’s hair swirls in long red tendrils around her aquamarine eyes. Her long cloak is the pale green of new grass. Men cross the street to avoid her shadow.
Dinar has platinum hair, cropped close as a boy’s, and silver hoops chaining her ears. Above a black sweater and jeans, her face is pinched and white.
“My life is bleeding away,” Dinar gasps. Under the skin of her wrist, a pulse jumps.
“Let him go, love,” Rowan replies. “In his eyes, there is cruelty, in the thin line of his mouth. I have seen it.”
“Can you tell the heart which path it should choose?”
“Come, it’s cold. We must get home.”
By evening the rain turns to sleet. The wind lashes the frozen branches of the trees in a frenzy. Dinar leans against the walls of their tower, staring out into the whirlwind.
“I see him in the glass,” she cries, “embedded in my eyes. When I look out, he reflects back. He smiles and his fangs flash yellow light. ”
“Sleep. In the morning, you will feel better.”
But in the morning, Dinar lies drained, her skin whiter than porcelain. “I dreamed of him. His voice dripped knives. He is in my veins and I cannot heal.”
Rowan goes into the kitchen and finds a sharp paring knife. Wrapping herself in her cloak, her bright hair muffled by a scarf, she walks out into the storm.
When she knocks at his apartment, he is alone. He comes to the door, wearing jeans but no shirt. Plunging the knife into his chest, she parts lines of flesh and bone, cuts out his heart, takes it in her hand, a red apple.
Peering out into the storm, he asks, “Is anyone there?” Not noticing the drops of blood staining the threshold. Not noticing the empty space within his chest. He goes back inside, closing the door behind him.
Rowan walks home, blood from the dripping heart marking her trail. In the apartment, Dinar lies in bed, her chest barely rising and falling with each shallow breath.
“I have brought you his heart. Eat it and be well.”
Dinar sits up. Clutching the heart in her white hand, so that red drops ooze between her fingers, she marvels, “It is so small.”
“He didn’t even notice it was gone.”
“It is so cold.”
“No colder than his eyes.”
“It smells of rust and decay.” She pushes back the sheet and stands up. “We will throw it in the river. His heart is worthless.”
The wind blows from the south, smelling of warm earth and grass. Water flows down the sides of buildings in rivulets, the walls wavering and twisting in the pale light.
“Look,” Rowan says. “There are green spears of daffodils in that sheltered corner.”
The wooden bridge spans the river. Crossing to the center, they throw the heart over the railing. Two women walk home hand in hand, the spring wind warm upon their faces.
“Is that a threat?” he asks. “Are you telling me what will happen if I stop showing up for coffee every day, if I stop listening to your stories?”
“A warning,” I say. “My lover’s eyes are sharp and her knives are sharper. The heart is a valuable gift. One day I may ask her for yours.”
He does not believe me. Men seldom do when you speak the truth. That is why I tell them stories.
Katherine Cameron’s short fiction has appeared in several journals, including Descant, Prairie Fire, PRISM international, The New Quarterly, Paperplates, and subTerrain. Her collection of poetry, Strange Labyrinth, was published by Oolichan Books in 2015. She lives in Edmonton and teaches English and writing at Concordia University of Alberta.