On the mantelpiece in my living room there’s a small jar, sealed shut. Inside it’s a heart. A real, actual factual heart. Not human of course. It was given to me one year by my significantly better other half, Carla, who preserves organs – human – in jars. This piece of flash is about it.
On the window sill sits the heart in the jar. She gave it to me two weekends ago.
We’d been walking in the woods, as we had done each weekend for the last two years, when she stopped under a fledgling oak tree and presented me with a box, square and tightly wrapped.
She’d said to open it right there and then, but I wanted until we were back at my flat. It was cold outside and my fingers had been numb, but that wasn’t the reason I waited. There’s a seat I sit it, that i always sit in, whenever anything significant happens. Opening important letters, working on a new project, reading the first chapter of a new book. It always has to be in that seat.
“It’s a heart” I said. My hands, now warmed, having finished tearing each edge of the wrapping away. “A Heart in a jar. Whose is it?”
“It’s yours” she said. Obviously it was now mine, such is the nature of presents. But she wouldn’t be pushed any further of the original owner of the heart.
It looked like a lamb’s to me. Frequently I’d seen them sold in the shops, though never went as far as buying one. But that’s what it looked like. It was probably a lamb’s heart.
Thanking her, unsure what to do with my new ornament, I took it into my spare room. It was spare because it was too small to be anything else, but too large to be listed as a cupboard.
In it there was a chair I’d never sat on, a window only as large as an opened book, and a box of things I wasn’t sure where else to put.
With no other surfaces to put it, I laid the heart in a har on the window sil and firmly closed the small curtain.
“Why have you done that?” she asked.
“Condensation. I don’t want light to pour in and damage your gift”. Though the window was too small and too close to next door’s fence to receive much lgiht at all. Better safe than sorry, though.
“There’s really no need,” she assured me. Apparently it was very well secured and excellently preserved. There was no chance of light damaging. Still, I didn’t want any chances.
I thanked her with dinner. Broccoli soaked with cheese sauce and a roast of pork I hoped was just right, but was certain was just too dry.
That was the last meal we had together before I went away. Work had sent me on a new assignment, which involved a long trek among the highlands collecting moss samples. The moss wasn’t part of my work, but it was soft and satisfying to handle.
By the time I got back, the rich green moss, as it had been when I first plucked it from the cool rocks, was dry and crumbling in my bags, leaving traces of my trip across the lime carpet.
The heart was as I’d left it, sitting alone on the window sill, bathed in just a glimmer of what autumn light managed to break through the crack in the curtain.
Hard as I tried, I couldn’t curtail the last sliver of lgiht that came in. Whichever way I pulled the meagre curtain another crack appeared as another left. Accepting the task as futile, I made a sandwich, ham (two slices) and cheese (one slice) on dry, white bread and settled at the desk in my bedroom to write up my notes.
Barely a paragraph or two in I had to stop. My mind couldn’t even begin to focus. A ticking, loud and obnoxious, rattled in my ears.
That clock on the wall. Ugly and cheap. I’d always regretted it. But with my watch broken, it was a necessity.
“Get rid of it” she told me, hearing of my trouble settling back to work. “What use is knowing the time if you can’t get anything done within it?”
I resisted at first, but she was right. The clock had to go.
It went to the dump. I didn’t look back.
Yet the tickling continued. Monotonous, unceasing and hungry.
Perhaps my watch wasn’t as broken as it tried to appear. Holding it to my ear, I could hear nothing. But it had already fooled me once, it wouldn’t do it again. It went too. Wasting no time in going to the dump, I tossed it out the window, narrowly missing the bin outside.
“Still the ticking continues” I called to her in desperation. “Look – there’s no time piece in the house.” We sat side by side on my bed letting the ticking fill the silence between us as I stared at my impotent desk.
“What you need is some rest” she said, taking my hand and leading me away from there. Rest? I’d only just started. Barely a sentence I’d written today. My notes were due any moment and I couldn’t make my mind think of anything but the tick tick flicking in my ears.
“Here. Work in here,” she said, walling us to my spartan spare room. “There’s no reason why you cannot.”
I looked around and couldn’t argue. There was space enough for a desk, though a small one only. And no drawers. Just the desk. She was right, I saw that.
“You’ll have to open this curtain though. You’ll never get anything done, ticking or no ticking, in the pitch black.”
Whatever ticked ticked within my room alone because the smaller room was silent, save for our voices.
Working quickly, she threw open the curtain and moved the unused chair to the corner below the small, square window where she felt my new desk should be.
“We’ll get you a new desk tomorrow.” she said, sweeping the heart in a jar from its home on the window sill. “I’ll put this in your room for you. I know you don’t want it basked in so much light, though there really is no need to worry.”
“No, I know” I said. “But it’s still better to be safe. You did give it to me, after all.”
My new desk was perfect. It was as if it should always have been. Why I’d never chosen to work in the spare room before, I couldn’t recall, but it was the change I’d needed. Free from the ticking, I continued to write up my notes in double quick time.
For two days I worked, revising details and mapping diagrams that I felt highlighted important points along the way. Everything was almost as it should be, when the ticking began once more.
No longer wasting time, questioning timepieces here and there. I set upon the room like a dervish, tossing out anything that was a suspect. Every electronic gadget went, as did anything that flashed or blinked or chimed or moved. Soon there was nothing left but the bed, my own desk and the heart in a jar.
Still the ticking continued, like two hammers on my brain.
“The ticking! It’s the bloody heart you gave” I said, speaking to her through a payphone down the road. “Is it some kind of trick, or prank, a mechanical, beating heart? I saw it beat, I know I did. Why did you give me such a gift? Was it the dry pork, the cold hands?”
“It’s no trick” she said “But it it beats or ticks, it ticks for you. And the pork isn’t dry. Your hands aren’t cold. If you don’t like it, you can get rid of it. I just thought of you”.
My money ran out and the phone went dead.
Back inside the heart continued to tick. Now it could be heart clearly from the kitchen. My teeth rattled as I tried to get through a sandwich (ham and cheese), and the cup jangled as I pour coffee.
It began to beat with such fury the desk visibly vibrated. THe liquid inside the jar rippled violently with each pulse.
No matter I thought. Half the madness is in not knowing and now I know where the infernal ticking comes from, I can put it from my mind. THat is, as soon as it stops. But like all mechanical objects, it’s powered by something. It’ll run out soon, I was sure. Especially at the pace it was going.
It was just a matter of concealment. Of waiting.
The hardware store had a solid looking box. Made of steel, it was designed to lock away cash or some such valuables. The heart was locked inside, the ticking, beating, pulsing, all but gone. A distant muffle. But still too loud.
Burying did the trick. That beating heart had done all the madness it was going to do and would do more more. A foot deep at least and there was nothing left to do but return to my desk, my old one in my room, and finish the work that was so nearly through.
Then I could go out for a walk, perhaps in the woods. It’d been such a long time since I’d been for a walk. My fingers had grown accustomed to the warmth.