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A Heart is a Liquid Thing

A Heart is a Liquid Thing 
by M J Francis

The sculptor assessed me through his telescopic eyeglasses. Could he see something in my tears? Maybe the design he was looking for, encapsulated in each anguished droplet? Or was he casting a guilty verdict on me? His gaze felt so impersonal, and I was embarrassed enough.

He rummaged through one of his cupboard drawers and took out a clear, cylindrical container. Unscrewing the lid, he hobbled towards me with the agility of a rusty automaton.

“Here,” he said, holding the open container to my right cheek. “I’d like to try something new.”

I didn’t flinch away. I let him catch the salty drops. It was a strange process, but I wanted whatever he could make for me. That’s why I was here, after all.

“That should do. I promise I’ll get it right this time.”

I could barely see a pool of tears in the bottom of the container. In the candlelight, the film of liquid sparkled like a sunset reflected in an ocean.

He said he’d begin work right away, but I should go home. Sleep. Dream something true, whatever that meant. I was torn between two feelings that were somehow equally true but felt contradictory.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “This one will be perfect for you.”

* * *

A dilapidated cottage on the outskirts of town had been empty for as long as any person could remember. Until, one day, candlelight stuttered in the windows. Tangled creepers and bushes were pruned back. The stonework was left mossy, but it looked inviting. And a sign appeared out front: Master sculptor. Crafting wonders from water. Consultations between 1 to 5 after noon.

Cally, the butcher’s daughter, was his first intrigued patron. She was so excited by her prize – that’s what she’d called the sculpture, as if she’d won it rather than bought it – that she invited people to view it at every opportunity.

“I’ve always wanted to see a lion,” she said, showing me the ornament.

I couldn’t testify to its realism; we’d only seen sketches of lions in books. But it was beautiful. Majestic. Housed inside a glass globe on an oak plinth. Its mane flowed as if a wind were tousling the tresses of hair. At least, that’s how it appeared if the light changed or you looked at it this way instead of that.

“And this is made from water?” I was incredulous, although the texture of the animal did appear fluid. I tapped the globe and barely perceptible ripples scattered along the legs and body like flexing muscles. It looked, for a moment, as though it might turn on me and pounce. Fascinating.

Arrant, the librarian, and Simkin, a friend from the sawmill where I worked, told me they’d been to the sculptor, too. Arrant received a caterpillar – I didn’t ask why – whose body seemed to undulate as if it were crawling. Simkin had asked for a fisherman. I presumed that was because her mom was the best fisherman in town. Not exactly, she said. She didn’t want a life like her mother’s: overworked, exhausted, her fingers cut by fishing lines. Simkin preferred the contemplative ideal of the fisherman. Waiting there to catch something, or not. It didn’t seem to matter.

The sculptor’s models were enthralling. Intricately detailed. Alive, somehow. But I couldn’t really accept they were made from water.

It was Simkin who suggested I go and see the artist. But I told her I hadn’t a clue what I’d want. I wasn’t sure if a nice table centrepiece or cabinet ornament was worth the money. She said I just needed something nice.

“What, because I don’t have anything nice in my life?” I said, perhaps a little too defensively.

And she said I have Dorrin, of course, but—

I stopped her there. Before she said it. Before she reminded me what I’d lost.

* * *

He claimed he could sculpt anything. Even something fantastical. A fire-breathing dragon, he proposed. I told him no, thank you.

What drew me here, really? Curiosity, perhaps. Or envy. My friends’ pieces were fine works of art. But I didn’t want something for others to admire. I felt almost stupid, sitting here, indecisive. I almost settled for the dragon so that I hadn’t wasted his time.

“You must know what it is you want,” he said, almost laughing with frustration.

I found myself echoing Simkin’s words. “Something nice.”

A memory had returned to me since my conversation with her. Lazy springtime sky, pillows of cloud. Morning sunshine spread across a meadow blanketed with daffodils. Bright rays highlighting a face I feared I’d lost to the passing years. Tucking a daffodil into her hair. Such painful bliss to recollect this beautiful moment.

Something beautiful...

“A daffodil,” I said. “I’d like a daffodil.”

He clasped his hands together delightedly, and I saw his eyes light up behind those telescopic eyeglasses. “Perfect!” And he promised he’d set to work immediately. He could already envision it, he said, and he wanted to capture the flower before that image withered.

I agreed to return the following day. He presented the piece wrapped in reams of soft tissue. My excitement surprised me; I tore the paper away and there it was. A bubble of glass. Within it, a daffodil forged from water. Its funnel glistened as if sipping from morning waterfalls of sunlight. A single raindrop clung to one of its petals, suspended in time and space like a last rainfall. And as I turned the piece this way, that way, the flower seemed to sway on its stem and the petals trembled in an impossible breeze.

Trickery, I was certain. No, the sculptor said. Nothing of the sort.

“My medium is water. Tricky to achieve, yes, but no trick.”

I didn’t really care how it was made. I thanked him and left, holding it protectively as I strolled back home. Both Cally and Simkin spotted the package nestled in my arms, but I made my excuses not to stop. This wasn’t something for them or anyone else to admire.

At home, I couldn’t stop looking at it. And I couldn’t stop remembering her. Daffodils were her favourite flower. Every spring, I’d pick one and she’d secure it in her ruby waves of hair. And all I could see in that sculpture now was her face, her smile, her lustrous amber eyes.

Now I realised why I’d let her memory fade. It was too painful to see her but not touch her. Not feel her skin, the delicate shape of her.

And what about Dorrin…? Didn’t I love him now?

* * *

I hadn’t visited her grave in four years. It was empty. The river took her body. So, what was there to visit? Nothing but a marker. A headstone, topped with an angel that wept for what – her absence?

But I left the daffodil likeness at the graveside. I couldn’t keep it at home. Not with Dorrin there. Perhaps I should adorn this place with memory, I wondered. Wasn’t that the point in shrines? Painful as it was, I wanted more memories. Whatever that sculptor could conjure, I wanted it now. And this would be my secret place. Maybe I could allow myself to remember, here. Only here.

* * *

I felt foolish, sitting before the sculptor again. Not knowing what small reminder I could have him etch out. A trinket of memory to take and then hide away at my shrine. But Dorrin and I had no other secrets. Promised we’d never keep them. But another love… Wasn’t that the worst kind?

I broke down. Tried to apologise to the sculptor for my tears, but found myself telling him everything until my sobs consumed the words. He just watched me through his telescopic lenses. Contemplated me a while. Then he collected my tears and told me he knew what to make for me. Told me to go home and dream something true. And the truth was my heart and conscience were torn. I didn’t really sleep at all.

Next day, he emerged from his workshop with another globe of clearest glass wrapped in soft tissue.

“Take it,” he said. “Treasure it. Don’t be ashamed. And you don’t need to pay me a penny.”

Grateful, I took it home, not to the shrine. Believed, for a moment, that the sculptor was right – that it shouldn’t be something to hide.

What was I thinking, though? Dorrin was home early from his work at the bakery. His eyes passed over the package in my hands – which I now clutched to my bosom as if to hide it there – and travelled back to my traitorous eyes, which stung from crying.

“What is it?” he asked me, but I wasn’t sure if he meant the package or the reason I was upset.

I shook my head, shrugged my shoulders. He wiped flour dust from his hands on his apron and embraced me. I trembled in his arms. Could he feel the murmurings of my muscles, whispering my secret to him?

He muttered something in my ear then. Maybe I chose not to hear it. Perhaps it was three words that trespassed on the afternoon bliss with her – this springtime memory that still played in my mind. Three words we’d all shared, this trinity causing a guilty ache in my heart.

* * *

When Dorrin was asleep, I unwrapped the package. Incredible. The detail astounded me. Her hair seemed to flutter in a breeze, and I swear it had a fiery tint, just like hers. She appeared to lean towards me as I moved my head, her blouse crinkling. I swore her lips were moving. Trying to tell me something that I was afraid to hear.

She looked just like Sara. Impossible. How could the sculptor know? Or was my wishful imagination transferring her likeness to the figurine?

With each creak from the other room, I shot a look at the door, expecting Dorrin to enter from the bedroom. And if he did, I knew I’d throw a cloth over the sculpture. Unable to be honest. My heart stuck between two lifetimes.

But Dorrin slept. He was turning dreamily in bed, that’s all. Exhausted by our love-making – love, a complex question now, love – yet agitated. Did he wonder about me? Had he somehow tapped into this other life we hadn’t shared?

* * *

She came to me. Her lips still moving. Moonlight kissed her dimpled cheek, and pooled in the recess between her neck and shoulder. Her skin glistened with moisture. I heard her, or read her lips – I’m not sure which, but she asked me to let her in. Dorrin slept beside me. Still, she asked her inaudible question. And I couldn’t refuse her, my heart, my mind.

I lifted the sheet. She slipped beneath it. Flowed around me. My eyes filled with tears, with her. She was a stream running around me and through me. My body tingled delightedly. Her lips pressed to mine like a fresh spring, babbling and gentle.

Dorrin still slept beside me.

* * *

If it weren’t for the damp patches on the floor, I’d have believed it was a dream. They led into the dressing room. To the sculpture. I almost expected her not to be inside her globe any more, but there she was, shimmering in the dawn light, unchanged in posture.

Dorrin was already up. I could smell warm milk and oats and steaming black tea before I saw the breakfast he’d made. When he noticed me, he smiled and moved to kiss me. But he stopped with his hands on my arms, studying me.

“Something you want to tell me?” he asked.

Had he seen the pools on the bedroom floor? Or awoke last night and caught us together?

“I had a bad dream,” I said, but it was nothing of the kind. It was wonderful, and somehow real – and my skin recalled the sensation of her fingers like a summer rain on my stomach, circling my navel.

But his fingers stroked my arms now. His touch made splendid shivers cascade down my arms. Both touches were equally sensational…

“You sure you’re okay?”

I told him yes, and it was true but untrue. How could it be both? How could I feel love for them both?

* * *

Each of his soft smiles, his tender embraces, the kindness of his heart, his generosity. The cakes he made especially for me when he should have been taking his lunch break. Or the hearts he wove from daisies on his walk home, to leave on my pillow. Silly, perfect things. All the times he listened to me when I could no longer bear the sound of my own voice.

Or those nights she came back, emerging from memory. Rising up to love me again, to find the love I had for her still bright and true inside me.

How could I want all these things? Both these people? Was there a place between, where I could leave my guilt?

* * *

The sculptor looked at me, then he looked at his creation. I held it out for him to take back. He didn’t look at me with disdain, I hoped, but definitely with disappointment. I was asking him to unmake it. Nobody, I guessed, had rejected one of his pieces.

“I can’t,” he said, pushing it away. “It’s yours.”

I told him it was too painful. I couldn’t live with what I’d done.

He laughed. “What, fallen in love again?”

It was true, and all I could do was nod shamefully in answer. How could I still be in love with her, yet in love with him? I’d replaced her. How terrible was I?

The sculptor removed his eyeglasses. I could see, now, the crow’s-feet round his eyes. They were smiling, warm eyes. Not judgemental, but empathetic. Reassuring.

“You get to my age and realise that a heart is a liquid thing,” he began. He looked aside for a moment. His eyes held on to wistful tears. For how many lost loved ones? How many people had come and gone in all his years? “It’s a multitude of oceans. And it’s a river that flows between them. A pool that evaporates in the heat of passion or vexation, only to precipitate and reform.”

I kept the sculpture. I decided not to hide it. And I would answer any question Dorrin asked. If I hesitated with my answers, I promised myself I would remember what the sculptor had told me.

That night, I lay in bed with my husband, embraced in the moonlight; I slept in a field of daffodils, with midday sunbeams brightening Sara’s face. Both moments were real. They were timeless. They were true.

* * *

M J Francis lives in the heart of England with his fiancée and a mini lop rabbit named Starbuck. When he isn’t writing, you can find him trying to play piano and guitar, photographing wildlife (or, blurry things), and rocking in a corner as he overcomes a caffeine addiction (and even then he’s still writing, really, somewhere in the corridors of his mind). You can also find him on Twitter @AuthorMJF.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Don’t fear rejection. Don’t be afraid to click the send button on that submission. Not everyone will like what you write (and neither will you, some or even much of the time), but that’s okay. Just keep writing, reading, learning, and submitting.