He schleps through the swamp, grateful he’s brought only a t-shirt and jeans, no backpack, no food, no nothing. He’s forgotten what it felt like to wear his own people’s clothes, forgotten how to take off the glamour. So he trudges to the alchemist’s smithy in human form.
He remembers the day he decided to become the Heartsmith’s apprentice-she’d shown up to the city to ‘see the reckless boy’ who would succeed her when her own heart gave out. A small woman she was-her eyes had barely reached his chest. Wrinkles covered her, as if her skin were a shirt crumpled in a travel bag for a week. She seemed ancient beyond her five hundred years.
But Peu had never seen such a face. Never before looked into eyes like hers.
“Heartwork is a trade for the insane.” She had said. “Not for a boy.”
But even now, after three years spent among the humans, in their cities and villages, in their work fields and war zones, he still wants that face, those eyes, for himself.
The swamp is everywhere green; the murky waters sleep and yawn with life, the trees climb in and out of the water, flaunting the moss and water flora that cling to them, slowly dragging them down into the depths, like the most patient of human lovers.
Peu knows he disturbs their peace-even as the mosquitoes welcome him. Even the air buzzes with life-everywhere he can hear the murmur of frogs, salamanders, dragonflies. He presses on-aching already for the alchemist’s teachings, aching to be freed from the clumsy glamour of the humans.
Living among them, he’d thought himself wild.
But this place, where he is to live now-even he doesn’t belong here.
Peu slips on the moss and falls face-first into the water-he grins. Nearly laughs, but restrains himself out of respect for the living swamp.
He can’t wait to begin-can’t wait to belong here.
“How we begin.” Hisses a voice beside him. “Must we, begin like this?”
Peu looks up, dripping, into the alchemist’s face.
He can’t help grinning like an idiot.
“So, I fear.” He bows his head. “Maestra.”
“Heartsmith, to you.” She takes his hand with her bony blue fingers and pulls him after her, with surprising strength. He stumbles, nearly falling on his face.
She finds a gully scattered through with trees, and leads him down, down, down in a spiral. Water and mud slide lazily along with Peu’s stumbles, drenching him to the bones. He loses sight of the cloud-torn blue sky.
The bottom of the gully is a tree.
Not a tree-a cypress, reaching ghostly branches to the sky above the gully, big enough in its roots to be a house.
The alchemist laughs-she slips down into a hollow nook in the tree, one Peu isn’t able to see until he slips and slides right in front of it.
“Hurry, crazy boy.”
He tries to squeeze into the nook-slips and falls instead, scraping and bumping, bruising his way inside.
“Wipe your feet!” The alchemist cackles at the human expression-the hollowed-out cypress is hard, packed earth beneath Peu’s feet.
He stands, rueful, and hits his head on the wood above him. The mosquito stings start to itch his human skin-he crouches. The alchemist is even shorter compared to his human size-her shoulders barely clear his waist.
“Heartsmith.” He says. The alchemist’s bugged, yellow eyes turn back to him. “How do I…” He gestures to himself.
“You did that.” The alchemist shakes her head. “You undo it. Come.”
The alchemist isn’t going to help him-she’s already crouching into a tiny door, carved on the far side into one of the cypress’s folds. Peu starts to itch suddenly everywhere. He feels himself too big for the cypress-his human hands start their human sweat.
He bites back a groan-he’ll figure this out later. Later.
“Come.” The alchemist repeats.
Peu will not fit in that door.
He takes off the wet jeans, the wet shirt, the shoes and socks. He bunches them up in one corner of the cypress-he’ll deal with them later, too. It’s out of the question to push them on the wild swamp. He must earn his place here and that would not help.
“Come, crazy boy!” Snarls the alchemist, sounding far away. “Must we, begin like this?”
“I come.” Answers Peu.
He squeezes through the door- and falls, down, down, down.
He smacks on a hard wooden floor.
“Everything here is clean.” Says the alchemist, handing him a damp towel. “I want you clean.”
Peu does his best to clean the mud from his feet and limbs, crouching beneath the low ceiling. The alchemist gives him a careful once-over, takes the towel from him and hangs it on the ladder that leads up to the small door.
Then she pulls him further in, closing the chute.
Peu takes in the archemist’s workroom.
Everything here is clean. Shining.
It’s like a laboratory in a human academy-but where metal tables and cabinets would stand, cypress grows for the alchemist’s use.
Cabinets and shelves and clear water trickling through a crack in the wall. Peu can’t imagine where that comes from. A row of buckets stands by that wall, ready to collect every drop that falls.
The central table is flat and smooth, like the floor. It’s high enough for Peu to sit at, even in his human form-and that’s why the alchemist’s chair has high, long legs. Peu can almost imagine her falling sideways and breaking something.
“Let us organize.” Grins the alchemist.
Though everything sparkles, the room is strewn with tools-cloths, knives, clamps, tubes, spools of thread and needles-long, thin things capable of skewering Peu’s feet, if he isn’t careful.
“Blue thread, green thread, white and black.” The alchemist points to different cabinets. Peu lumbers through the room, picking up tools, trying to keep up with her.
Needles by length and width, cloths by material, tubes by shape and length. The knives all have their special place in a wooden case bound with leather. The hilts are beautifully carved, the blades vastly different. One knife, curiously made of warm copper, has five blades, all curved, one over the other like scythes.
The alchemist explains how to use each of these tools in heartsmithing: which hearts to sew with each needle and thread, how too cool, warm and protect the muscles with certain cloths, how to measure the tubes and pumps to each size of heart.
Only when the work is over does Peu realize the alchemist has two saws-one with teeth sharp and close together, another with smaller teeth, further apart. She also has a cleaver.
“What are those for?” He asks.
The alchemist grins. It sends a chill down Peu’s spine. But she says nothing.
Peu’s back hurts from crouching, by the time it’s all over. He’s sweated rivers-but at least he’s not itching anymore.
“You clean it up.” Says the alchemist, handing him one of the buckets, a rag and a mop. “Your human made it dirty.”
Peu bows his head-his muscles groan. “Heartsmith.”
She climbs up to the upper room and comes back with food, sits and eats on the stair while she watches him clean. When the room is done, to her satisfaction, she stands, palming her hands.
No food for him, Peu realizes.
“Come, crazy boy.” She grins again, not caring that Peu is exhausted. “I will show you how man should smith.”
She enters into yet another room-just a couple steps down from the workroom. No sliver of daylight enters here. Peu feels he can take a bite out of the pitch blackness if he wishes-the room hums, as if alive.
The alchemist lights a firefly lamp and hangs it on the ceiling. And Peu sees them.
Some of them writhing, grey-brown, slowly pumping dark blood. Others have black sections and barely pulse-slender tubes run them through, trying to relieve their crumbling arteries. They all seem to float in the air, contained in perfect blue orbs.
“Hello, loves.” The archemist whispers.
Peu cannot suppress a shudder.
The alchemist walks forward and jumps into the air-practically landing on one of the orbs, making it float down with her weight.
“A black blanket.” The alchemist orders. She murmurs still, softly, as if afraid to wake the heart. “The biggest, please.”
Peu obeys. He’s surprised to find, when he returns to the lighted workroom, that his knees shake. He retrieves the black cloth and makes himself go back inside the little room full of dying hearts.
The alchemist takes the cloth from him and wraps it carefully around the orb. Then she pricks it, sharply with her finger.
And the heart, wrapped in black cloth, falls into her bony blue hand.
Only then does Peu notice his new Maestra’s hands-four times as large as his own human ones.
“Come.” She murmurs.
She places the heart on the table and orders Peu to bring her tools as she needs them. She speaks tenderly, endlessly to the heart all the while.
Endless black space
For hearts to grow
For them to shrink
For hearts to die…”
Peu watches over her shoulder as she works-carving runes into the heart with her delicate knives, digging with tiny instruments for dead arteries, from time to time winding the little pump she uses to keep it beating.
“One heart I had once
But now it’s gone
Gone, gone, gone
Hollow chest and ribs around it
Beat for me
Beat for mine
For mine is gone
“Come here, crazy boy.” The alchemist says.
Peu hesitates-she jumps down and drags him to the table.
“This heart is dying.” She says, pokes it once, frowning. “Do you see? It’s dying.”
Peu does see-the big heart, once strong, beats faintly and turns white at the edges.
“Wind the clock.” The alchemist orders.
She means the pump-Peu obeys.
The alchemist calls for a big cutting knife. Peu doesn’t want to give it to her, but when she orders again, her quiet voice is unyielding. Peu watches in horror as she bluntly cuts into the heart-slicing away the white parts with some living flesh still attached and letting it bleed.
“Get the cleaver, crazy boy.” The alchemist grins. “Now you’ll know what’s what.”
“Heartsmith-“ Peu feels sick.
“Go, boy.” She repeats, her voice still gentle, tender. “If you can’t see this through, you’ve no reason here.”
Peu takes a deep breath. He should trust the Heartsmith. Trust the Heartsmith. Trust in those warm, bright, depthless yellow eyes, trust in that wrinkled old face, the most beautiful face he’s ever seen.
Though he doesn’t recognize the heartless blue imp in front of him now.
He gets the cleaver.
“Go into the inner room.” The Heartsmith says-refusing to look at him, entirely taken by the bleeding heart. “There’s a heart in the center, a big healthy one. Cut it up, so I can sew this one closed.”
“Trust me, crazy boy.”
“Do you want this heart to live or not?”
Peu shakes so hard, he might drop the cleaver.
He turns and runs to the inner room. He lights the lamp.
There’s the heart in the center-some glamour must have kept it from his eyes before. It floats unaided, exposed, dark red and the size of ten hearts in one. Every inch of it is crisscrossed with scars and stitches, some fresh, others decades old.
Peu has never seen something so abused-or so powerful.
This heart could take being torn. The one in the workroom could not.
Peu braces himself.
And he carries out the alchemist’s task.
The Heartsmith sews the healthy bits of muscle onto the bleeding heart, after hours of careful tending. And Peu sees it slowly recover strength, as the Heartsmith murmurs lovingly, almost breathlessly to it.
When the heart starts to beat on its own, the Heartsmith smiles.
She takes a deep breath, blows the air out-it becomes another blue orb and wraps around the newly healed heart.
“To the inner room, crazy boy.” The Heartsmith whispers.
Peu returns to the inner room; he takes a step forward and the blue orb floats upward to its place by the dark wall.
The steady hum of the room skips and glitches.
The red heart bleeds slender drips down to the floor-it beats rapidly, desperately. Now Peu can see that it pumps good, dark blood out into large tubes, towards the dying hearts, even as it suffers.
Peu’s own heart twists in wretched sympathy. No heart can hold out such a task for long-not even this one. In a few minutes at most-
He runs back out to the workshop for the gauze, frantically scrabbling in his mind for what he learned just this day. Scissors, gauze, antiseptic. He returns to the bleeding heart, his own heart brinking on arrythmia.
It takes him an eternity to stop the heart from bleeding.
He finds himself murmuring softly, like the alchemist, to still his own hysteria more than anything. His big human fingers make the work no easier-but the alchemist seems not to care that this heart she holds hostage is dying. She doesn’t come to help him.
There is no space left in Peu’s brain to wonder about her.
“I came today
I thought I knew
What I was in for.
Live for me,
Live for me
And show me how
Show me how
You have lived.
My own heart
I cannot help you.
You’re on your own
My own heart will grow
When my own heart grows
I will not have you hurt.”
He doesn’t dare disconnect the struggling, suffering heart from the ones who are dying. He returns to the workroom. His eyes scan for the alchemist, sparking revenge-she’s nowhere to be found.
“How dare you.” He snarls, his hands and feet bloody brown. “How dare you harm a heart?”
Quiet, gasping laughter answers him.
The Heartsmith lies at his feet, curled up and pale, her veins marked harsh on her skin. She pulls in hard for air.
“Now you know what’s what.” She cackles. “A trade for the insane.”
“Kist.” He curses.
He carries the Heartsmith up to her bed, wraps her in all the blankets.
“Why?” He demands. “How?”
“Much practice, crazy boy.” She grins. “First, you care for hearts. Then, you learn to heal your own. When it begins to grow-then, and only then- you can begin heartworking.” She laughs again, and it devolves into a gasp. Her yellow eyes glow. “How the muscle grows stronger, each time it is torn.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Peu’s voice trembles with anger. He takes her pale hand and watches his own transform-the glamour falls off him. Finally.
“You must have decided for yourself. Once you saw. Is this your trade?”
Someone must care for the alchemist’s heart, still fighting below.
“Get the clock. The cabinet is in the floor, underneath the table.” She smirks. “Wind the old thing, yes? Until she sings again.”
Peu obeys. He finds the pump in the workshop, three times as large as the one the Heartsmith used. He returns to the darkroom, lights the lamp once more.
He connects the heart to the pump and begins winding patiently. His long, thin arms, the color of wood, and his spiderlike fingers fit perfectly around the machine. This pump does not hold out-he must work it manually. Steadily, until his arm grows tired, until it becomes numb.
For two hours. He doesn’t mind.
Peu sits on the floor, bent over the pump, his sinewy legs splayed out. As he sings with his real, seven-decade voice, a yellow spark lights in his black, pupil-less eyes.
And her trade for the insane…”