Heart of Gold, Heart of Coal

by Marjorie Tesser

It was said that Midas had a heart of gold. What is generally understood by that is that the subject is benevolent, but Midas was curt and demanding with his staff, and no kinder to anyone else. His heart wasmade of gold, though; in the prime of his alpha malehood, Midas had in his chest a lump the shape and size of a small fist, of solid 12K. Gold is not ideal for a heart. It looks warm but is cold. It is malleable, a quality excellent for shaping into coins or jewelry or crowns or breastplates, but not as desirable in an organ, where constancy is prized over mutability.

Once Midas had a heart of flesh and blood. But with his first big deal, an acquisition that displaced a number of people—he always had a new scheme shaking, like plates spinning atop a juggler’s poles, with busy underlings shuttling beneath to tweak them when they started to wobble—a tiny crumb of gold appeared at the very center of the heart. With the next successful enterprise, it stretched, snaking in and out of the muscle. It grew to a vein, which branched and became a network, tangled and knotted. It didn’t beat, but jingled, like coins hitting against each other when jostled in a pocket.

Midas loved gold. His palatial home was adorned with golden rugs and hangings, gold carpets and gold fixtures in the loo. His giant bed was fitted with a massive gold headboard, and the chair reserved for him alone was an oversized throne of pure gold. The only part of Midas’ home that bore no gold was the kitchen, where great feasts were prepared for Midas and his guests. The kitchen was white as bone, except for its coal black oven, a gaping hell-mouth large enough to roast whole the game Midas’ hunters had dispatched with bullets of the purest gold.

*

Midas’ maid Sora came from a tiny village far away, where the only gold was in the color of the parched earth. Sora worked in the kitchen of the great house. She scoured the marble floors and cleaned the massive oven where whole beasts were roasted, leaving an oily residue that left her scrubbing for days.

Her job, too, was to tend to Midas’ gold. Not his money—he had counters and keepers for that. Sora had to polish all the golden stuff of the household, her soft cloth carefully coaxing the gleam out of every surface—dishes and lamps, picture frames and gravy boats, bibelots and what-nots all needed her touch to shine.

Sora was one of countless cogs that kept the machine of the great man’s realm in gear, maids and valets, cooks, stunted and bleary-eyed from the heat and constant smoke, drivers and builders and those who worked in the fields of the great man, their backs bent, the soil of his land deeply embedded in their hands.

At work, Sora performed her tasks well and quickly. She rarely spoke. She was slender, with glossy hair like a raven’s wing, and so was often assigned work outside the kitchen; unattractive maids were utilized in less public areas of the house. Midas had a high regard for beauty, and the other maids had warned Sora of the nature of his appreciation. Thus far, though, Sora had been able to sense him coming and slip away. Sora did not love her job, but she made do; she considered it her duty to her dead ancestors to live, and she did.

*

A clear river encircled the domain of Midas, and it was stocked, at great expense, with specially-bred golden fish. Bright and flat as coins, they seemed to ride the current more than swim, bobbling along in the flow. How he loved his golden fish!

Underneath them, another school swam. These fish were smaller, copper-colored and pewter, and they moved more quickly, darting through the water. Midas never noted them, so entranced was he at the vision of his bright and valuable gold fish.

Sora loved to spend her lunch break, a scant eighteen minutes, at the riverbank. She’d dangle her feet in the water. The large golden fish were shy of her, but the smaller ones liked to swim in and out her legs, tickling her toes. She pinched off crumbs from her sandwich and tossed them in. “O little fishes,” she called, and they answered in no way she could hear, but she felt them as brothers and sisters.

Sora’s real brothers and sisters, along with her parents, a grandmother, aunts and uncles and all of her neighbors and friends were the victims when someone whispered in an ear and a bomb was dropped on their small village. The bomb was dropped to settle some old or new score, or perhaps even by accident, burning every dwelling to the ground and incinerating the inhabitants. Sora had escaped this fate only because she was several miles away at the time of the blast, having gone with her clay pot to fetch water. She returned to a village reduced to ash, every dish, book, and being charred beyond recognition.

Upon seeing the devastation of her village, Sora dropped the clay pot she’d been carrying. The jug shattered into a thousand tiny terra cotta fish-shaped shards that swam down beneath the dry ground on the stream of water spilt from the jug.

With much hardship, Sora had made her way across the sea to the land of Midas and found work. Somewhere in that time her own heart changed from a red pumping muscle to something cold and dark, but capable of withstanding great heat—charcoal, black as the residue of her old life. It was shaped like a smooth bowl with thick sides, empty but for a thimbleful of ashes. There were times during the arduous journey that she lost her heart altogether, but she always managed to find it again and keep on.

*

Midas had an advisor, a troll by the name of Bright Billy. His grey-green skin was sticky with a slime he excreted. His heart was tiny and had the papery brown shell of a stinkbug. Bright Billy whispered in the golden ear of Midas. There was something, too, that whispered in Bright Billy’s ear.

One afternoon, Sora was on her way down to the river to visit with her finny kindred when she saw Midas making his way along the riverbank. Some ten yards behind him the squat figure of Bright Billy shambled. Sora could see the faint gleam of a sticky trail he left as he passed, as do certain slugs and worms. Sora did not care for Bright Billy. In the house, he had a habit of fondling all the objects within reach, and in the process leaving thick, gelatinous fingerprints that were murder to clean away.

Midas took the shore path in a strong stride. He looked down into the river and searched for his familiar golden fish, their bright beauty, the exorbitance of their cost a source of pride. Yes, there they were, his lovelies. He bent a little closer, frowning. What was that in the water, among them? Why, it was some other fish, smaller and darker. On closer look, there seemed to be quite a few of them.

I don’t like the look of this, thought Midas, and resolved to discuss the matter with Bright Billy. Turning, he was surprised to see that very gentleman coming up behind him.

“Where’d those come from?” he demanded.

“Clearly they were planted by your enemies,” extemporized Billy.

Something whispered in Bright Billy’s ear. Bright Billy said, “See how the darker ones swim faster? Lest they compete with our golden fish for food, we must restrict them. Let there be cast a great net, the length and breadth of the mouth of the river, to catch them as they enter.”

“Fine,” said Midas, “But let the net be made of gold.”

And as it was ordered, so it was done. All of the goldsmiths in the kingdom were employed, by emergency order, to construct the net, weaving together giant strands of gold spun into thick ropes. Workers had to be diverted from other projects, and the gold itself was not cheap. It required the lion’s share of the annual budget, but they made it work. Of course, certain accustomed amenities and benefits had to go.

*

A few days later, Sora returned to the river. She smelled it first, a high cat-piss stink. The golden fish bobbed listlessly atop the water, some floating on their sides. She peered in and deep below saw a golden mesh and behind it a roiling mob of dark fish, pressed together tightly in the narrow space between the net and the riverbed.

She called to them, “Oh my brothers and sisters! How I wish I could help you.”

The shell of her ear caught their high singing, like a shimmer of far-off bells.

The fishes’ tale has been foretold:

The golden net will not un-hold

Until you melt the heart of gold.

Sora now knew what she had to do, and to whom. But she could not, for all she wracked her brain, figure out how.

*

“I told you it wouldn’t work,” Bright Billy said, wagging a finger, when Midas had complained. Midas was furious. His realm was in financial peril due to the resources used for building and installing the huge net, and all that had been accomplished was a clogged river, a royal stink, and several dead fish. “Do something,” Midas said before he strode off.

Alone in what Midas called his throne room, Bright Billy paced. He waited for the words of his whisperers. Would they order weapons? Some sort of bomb? He paced, and as he did he fingered surfaces, leaving his dank residue on clocks, lamps, vases, and furniture.

At last he settled himself down comfortably on the golden throne reserved for Midas alone. He sat there waiting for the whispers for several minutes, and at last they came, and he slid down and shuffled away.

*

Sora groaned. She’d been at it for an hour, cleaning up after him; she was rubbing the last lamp smeared with Bright Billy goo, and thinking about the fishes’ song. Heart of gold, it was clear who that was. How to melt it was another story.

While she pondered, Midas burst in, fuming. For Sora, there was no escape; he was between her and the door. She tried to camouflage herself but nothing was at hand, so she shrank as close as she could to the wall. Midas’ head swung left and right. When things went poorly, Midas often found it therapeutic to lambaste someone. A nice refreshing rant, harangue, scolding, castigation, bit of invective, even the chance to make a snide remark cheered him right up. Midas was looking for something to set him off.

But the place was irritatingly well maintained, the maid tending the area suitably meek, lowering her eyes as she edged toward the door, little feather duster at her chest like a shield. “Stay,” he commanded her. He strode to his chair and sat—and immediately sprang up, frantically rubbing his hands on his trouser legs, pulling at the seat of his suit. “WHAT IS ON MY CHAIR?” His words began at a growl and grew to a roar. Springing from the offending furniture, he charged Sora, arms outstretched. He was upon her, his mouth agape in a tortured howl.

The ashes of her family in the bowl of her heart told her what to do.

Quick as a hummingbird, Sora plunged her hand into Midas’ open maw and thrust it down his throat, almost to her shoulder. She felt his wet innards, the tangle of veins. She deftly threaded her hand through them and fished for it. Her pinkie grazed cold rock. She hooked her fingers under the hard lump and with a jerk, flicked it out. It rocketed out of the gaping mouth and Sora sprang back and caught it. The heart was small, especially for a man as large as Midas, but heavy and dense. Midas sank to the floor.

Sora fled to the kitchen with the cold metal heart. She set it down on the steel countertop, and then listened again.

A chorus of voices from the ashes told her to be brave. It was lovely to hear her family again. Of course, their dead voices were dusty and papery and dry, whereas in life they had been melodic and robust. But lovely to hear them just the same. Her love for them rose in her like a river.

She did as they’d instructed. She fired up the big oven. Taking a deep breath, she plunged her hand straight into her own chest and extracted her charcoal heart. Unlike Midas, she had no problem moving without it; there were many times on her journey from her old land that she’d lost heart and yet kept on. The heart was black and smooth as pottery, with a muted luster. She thanked the ashes, and pursing her lips, breathed them out to the free air. Then, she placed the hard little gold heart into the bowl of her own charcoal heart, to make of it a crucible in which to melt the golden heart of Midas.

When the oven was roaring hot, Sora placed the hearts within it, and shut the door. After a while, she opened the oven and with long tongs extracted the crucible, filled now to the brim with molten gold.

Sora went out, past the kitchen garden to a field that had lain fallow since the building of the golden net. She walked to the exact center of the field, and poured the molten heart out. The gold sank down into the mountain and nestled deep in the core-rock where it loved to hide of old.

All that was left in the bowl was a shriveled pebble, the size of a dried pea, which was what remained of Midas’ own natural heart. Sora returned to the kitchen and placed it in a glass of water, to plump it up.

Sora’s own heart was now empty, but it was no longer charcoal. The heat had fused it so that it was clear and hard, a diamond. I’d better keep this, thought Sora, and slipped it back within the protection of her chest.

She returned to the throne room. Midas lay in a lump on the floor. “Mr. Midas, some water?” Sora asked. She fetched the glass from the kitchen and Midas sat up and gulped the contents. The wrinkled little heart went down his throat and lodged in the area that his metal heart had occupied. In a moment it began, tentatively, to beat. Whether he would grow this heart with deeds of kindness or re-gild is yet to be told.

*

Sora slipped out the side door and ran to the river. At the banks she reached into her chest, pulled out the diamond heart, and hurled it into the water. When it struck the golden net, the ropes began vibrating, faster and faster until the net burst into tiny grains of gold that sifted down into each crack and cranny in the seabed, to nestle into the bedrock. The fish, suddenly free, swam out to the river. Sora waded in waist-deep, and reached down and retrieved her heart, which had taken on the form of a starfish. Three of its legs had been chopped short, but were growing back. She gently stroked the bumps and nodules of its surface, and then set it back in her chest. There was work to do.

Back at the palace, Midas was still on the floor, mesmerized by dust motes floating in on a golden sunbeam. Sora picked up her bucket and cloth and set to work, washing down the golden throne. She had to change the water six times, but at last the thing was clean. Midas looked up and clapped his hands. Sora spied the paper on which was printed Midas’ edict establishing the golden net. She crumpled it and tossed it to him, and he began batting it around in delight.

Sora wiped her hands. She removed her apron. She smoothed her hair. She ascended to the golden throne and sat.

In came Bright Billy. He tried to greet Midas, but the latter was busy with his new toy. Billy looked up, saw Sora on the throne, and made some swift calculations. He oozed over to her. “We are pleased to supply guidance to the new administration,” he began.

Sora shuddered. “Your services will no longer be required,” she said.

Bright Billy looked back at Midas, as if to appeal, but then seemed to recognize the futility. She won’t last a week, he thought, as he slunk out the side door. Now he’d have to endure the displeasure of his own advisors. He wondered what actions their next whispers would direct.

Sora bowed her head in thanks to her family for love and guidance. She vowed to do them proud. She had many deeds of compassion and courage ahead of her before her own heart could be restored.

 

marjorie TesserMarjorie Tesser is the author of poetry chapbooks THE IMPORTANT THING IS (Firewheel Award Winner) and The Magic Feather. Her poems and short fiction have appeared in Drunken Boat/Anomaly, Akashic Press’ ThursdazeEarth’s Daughters, and others. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Mom Egg Review. You can find her on facebook.