This story won second place/runner-up in the WriteUP short story competition and was featured in their anthology (University of Portsmouth, 2018). A huge thank you to the judges and organisers for hosting the competition. Here’s what judge Emilia Walker had to say about the story – thank you Emilia for the kind words!
‘This story stood out from the crowd with its unqiue storyline, drawing in the Gothic genre to create something unlike anything I have read before. As the story progressed it took unexpected paths that left me gripped throughout and invested in the narrator’s story.”
Image Sura Nualpradid @Freedigitalphotos.net
The man stood at the cliff edge and tossed the torn-out heart into the ocean. The heart was his own. He didn’t watch to see where it had fallen, but immediately wandered off, dripping blood, making a thin red trail that no one could trace through the grass. He frequented the most popular coffee shop in town and appalled everyone who gazed on him.
“Look at him and his bleeding heart, out in public like that. It’s a disgrace,” said someone’s mother.
“I think you’ll find the man has no heart. He has torn it out, yet the wound keeps bleeding,” the waiter said as he took her money.
“Disgusting,” the mother’s friend said, the corners of her mouth curling down. “Why doesn’t he just go elsewhere? Doesn’t he know this is a respectable town?”
The man, however, was unconcerned by those who talked about him behind his back and labelled him an outcast. He would read the paper, and every so often the waiter (who was himself a failed romantic) would pass him wads of napkins to mop up the blood which drip, drip, dripped from his chest under his shirt.
“Will it never heal? And do you feel any better at all?” the waiter asked him with genuine concern. The man said that he had no idea if the hole where his heart had been would ever stop bleeding, but that he did indeed feel better. Or rather, that he no longer loved and no longer pined for the woman who had so irretrievably damaged his heart in the first place.
“Well that’s something,” the waiter said, and he surreptitiously rushed off to deposit the latest batch of bloody napkins in a special bin the manager had marked as “BIOHAZARD”.
One day the man realised that something was missing. He searched his house from top to bottom but he could not recall what it was he had missed. He searched in the kitchen cupboards and under the stairs. He looked in the garden shed and picked up the snails to check in their shells. He searched under his bed and up in the attic, he even went into that room in his house which had been sealed since the day he had been born, but the only thing he found in there was a desiccated corpse and a suitcase full of women’s underwear and old post cards. At last, feeling utterly perplexed and aching from the feeling of emptiness, the man resolved to admit defeat. Perhaps it was just as he had all along suspected. Perhaps it was his own heart he longed for.
He went down to the beach. He gazed up at the cliff from whence he had tossed the heart and tried to plot its likely trajectory. After all, he told himself, he had not seen the heart swallowed by the ocean. Perhaps it had landed somewhere along the pebbles of the beach and lay there still, alone, just as he was. But as he searched for it, terrifying thoughts began to cloud his mind. What if it had indeed been washed out to sea, or eaten by birds, or dashed to pieces in the fall? What if a wild animal had spied it and gobbled it up in one juicy mouthful? Well then, he thought to himself, then that animal would feel the pain that he had felt and would surely die. No one could survive a pain like that without wanting to rip the offending organ out of their body.
He found no dead animals and no birds and no trace at all of his heart and he despaired. He did not want the heart but he could not live without it. In his misery he fell to his knees and tore with his fingers at the sand.
“I will dig and dig and dig until I reach hell,” he told himself.
Night came on and he was still clawing at the earth. The rain lashed his back and still he shovelled the handfuls of wet sand over his shoulder. He wanted to weep but without his heart the emotion seemed trapped inside him, incapable of movement, unable to be expressed at all. All he could do was continue to bleed from the wound in his chest where his heart had been. The blood trickled out into the hole he’d made in the ground until the sight of it all swelling under his feet disgusted him, and he could dig no more. He was no nearer to hell than he had ever been.
Exhausted, he stumbled over to the ocean and lay down where the sand met the water. The waves lapped over him and where they touched his body they turned the foam pink. Dusk came. It flooded the beach with a cold mist and the sky began to resemble the inside of a cut peach. That was when he heard the sound like a sucking. At first, he thought it was the movement of the water washing over the hole in his chest but then he realised it was changing. It became now a scraping sound, then a trickling. He raised his head and looked about him. On the beach he saw a woman, made entirely out of sand. She came close, and watched him for several minutes. He knew she was watching and sizing him up, as her head was cocked to one side in a vaguely human gesture. The man sat up and sized her up too. Her breasts had no nipples, they were all round, her seaweed hair was full of urchins, and her legs were studded with chips of driftwood. Her eyes shone out of the sand of her face where the moonlight struck the shells within them. The space in between her legs was uncovered; she was a woman. It did not matter that she was different. His heart no longer resident in his body; all the man could embrace was lust and confusion. Perhaps he felt excitement too, and became at once keenly aware of the emptiness dragging at his guts. He stood up and felt as naked as the sand woman. He greeted her, and she nodded. She pointed to him, to crimson stain on his shirt, where underneath the blood was gushing out half-red, half sea water.
“Oh this, this is nothing,” he wanted to say, but the words just vanished from his mouth. He tried to say,
“If you break your arm, or your leg or you vomit then people know you’re sick and they leave you be, and maybe they are even kind to you. But when you have a broken heart no one can see how much it hurts, and no one knows unless you tell them, and then they pity you and that’s worst of all.” The sand woman nodded even though he had been unable to utter a sound.
Encouraged and undaunted by this the man continued with his silent speech.
“I cut out my heart, not because I thought it would make me feel better but because I thought then at last people would see how much I had been hurt. I thought then people would know that I wasn’t weak, but that the pain I carried around with me every day was just more than I could stand in silence. That a broken promise hurts infinitely more than a broken arm or a broken leg. That no one knows how to put a splint on shattered hope. That no doctor can crawl into your head and remove the dreams you have of the one you love after they are gone.”
They stood for some time together on the beach watching each other. Birds settled on the sand and hunted for worms; the man idly wondered if they were the ones who had eaten his heart. Finally, the sand woman approached him and pulled up his shirt with her fine grit fingers. She plunged her fist into the space where the heart had been, and filled it with sand. In an instant the gap was closed. The man sighed, he felt complete again. He embraced the sand woman, and clutched at her seaweed hair. He wept and the tears came out in grains; sand trickling from his eye sockets like rivers of gold.
He visited the beach every day, to bring gifts for the sand woman. A watch on a chain, a scarf made of turquoise silk (which he wrapped around her, but which fell off and was carried away by the tide), a ring that he had found in the suitcase with lingerie and the old postcards, a bell that was so exquisite he was almost afraid to touch it himself, and a bird in a cage (she threw away the cage and the bird took up residence in her seaweed hair). He told her how she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen and how even though she never spoke, he would never grow tired of talking to her. When he tried to hold her in his arms the salt of her skin stung him but it was a pleasure of sorts, and even though he couldn’t quite feel love he could feel the excitement of her nearness. Oftentimes he thought about the people in the coffee shop and how they might wrinkle their noses and call out in horror at the sight of him and his new sand sweetheart. But he never went back there, and the manager eventually replaced the BIOHAZARD bucket with an expensive wicker basket for discarded paper hand towels, because since the man’s disappearance business had doubled.
In the meantime, the man completely forgot about all his old loves, all the women who had broken his heart inch by inch. The sand woman had erased them all the instant she had replaced his heart with her own essence, with all the grit and stones and sea creatures so small you could never hope to know of them. Each dawn the beach reclaimed her, sucked her back into the earth and he would return to his bed. On the long walk back to his empty house he would think of her, imagine that it was her shape he saw rounding a hill, or walking somewhere behind him. Every tree was the beauty of her body, and all nature had something of her in it. He would lie awake and feel his guts churning and wish that he could be just like her. So one day he told her, in his way of speaking but not talking, and she reached out and ripped at his skin and tore out the strands of his intestines and he didn’t feel the pain because as she removed his insides she replaced each ounce of flesh with sand.
“I love you,” he said out loud, because all his insecurities were gone now. The words blew away on the wind and the sand woman merely nodded.
They bottled his guts into jars which he buried (although glad to be rid of these, he had not forgotten the worry that the loss of the whereabouts of his heart had caused him). Standing beside his love he thought he felt whole, that she balanced him. But then dawn came and the ground swallowed her up again, leaving him shivering and alone, and ripped apart, half-made. He went home and tried to cook a meal but his appetite was gone, food was now meaningless to him so he threw out everything he found in the fridge. He even rooted out the toffees from down the back of his settee, and poured away all the fine liquor he kept for Christmas.
Finally, he resolved to make his love his forever. He found the local vicar and dragged him down to the beach after sunset. He didn’t want to dress the sand woman in yards of material that would hide who she really was, so he compromised with a garter he had found in the suitcase and a bunch of wild flowers he had gleaned from the road side. The vicar put up quite a fuss at the lateness of the hour, and the damp and the lack of witnesses and the gaping holes in the man filled with sand, but he went along anyway to see what all the excitement was about.
The sand woman was waiting, as still as stone, tall and inelegant. The man swore to the vicar that he would know her silhouette anywhere, that even if she were transformed into a real woman, he would know her instantly by the way she stood. They approached her, and the man gave her his gifts, but the bird that had taken up residence in her seaweed hair stole the garter to make a nest, and the flowers he had held so tightly in his hand were now wilted, so the man scattered them to the wind. As the moon rose high in the night and the stars punctured the purple darkness with yet more holes, the couple stood before the vicar.
“Dearly Beloved,we are gathered here-” he began, and there was something like an earthquake. For just as the man had reached out to grasp the cold, soft hand of the sand woman, the beach became alive with shapes. A man rose out of the earth as tall and improbable as the woman. The sand bride stepped back to join the man and before anything could be said or done, the whole beach was filled with watchers, shells for eyes, seaweed for hair. The man searched the figures for his bride but in vain, for as he watched they had become a series of sand dunes. They had joined hands and hips and arms together and become each other. The man roared out at them but nothing stirred, no shape resembled his beloved, and he could find no trace of the bird or the bell or the garter, or any of his gifts to her.
The vicar went home and said his prayers vehemently, kneeling before his bed. He clutched his wife all night as if she might disappear into thin air the second he let go of her. The man waited on the beach until the dawn came, and the sand dunes had disintegrated into pitiful humps. He began to dig again through them, searching for any trace of his bride or the jars that contained his entrails, or his heart. But he found nothing, and so he went back to his house, utterly bereaved but emotionless, empty as a glass jar filled with sand, but without a message inside. When he returned to the beach that night the shapes were waiting.
“I only ever wanted to be one of you,” he said.
The shapes nodded. In a rush they came forward, and swallowed him up; swallowed him, as the ocean had swallowed his heart.