This is the way she knew he was gone: The door was open. His boots were missing. The cage where he kept a hawk was empty. He’d never said a word. The night before he went missing he’d gathered the firewood, cleaned the pots, fed the hawk.
She ran out the door, barefoot, crying his name so loudly that all the birds in the trees rose up in one achingly blue cloud. She went to the edge of the lake and saw him on the other side. The water was black that day. His boat was on the shore directly across from her. The hawk was on his shoulder, but it flew back to her. The hawk, at least, was loyal. He, however, did not answer her calls. And he wasn’t alone. There was a woman waiting for him. That was when her heart broke into two pieces that fell into the grass. She went home, her heart in her hands. She kept her broken heart in a glass jar on her bedside table. In the dark, the glass glowed with pale red heat.
She shared her dinners with the hawk. Bones, turnips, onions, only bitter things. One night she dreamed the man who had left her told her he’d never really loved her. When she woke she took a knife and cut off her long hair. It was the part of her he’d said he loved best. He insisted she wear it long, and she’d done as he asked, even though it was often tangled and difficult to comb. Now it was in a pile in a corner.
People started to talk about her, so she stayed away from town. Everyone knew she wasn’t the same. If you looked at her carefully you could see the space where her heart should be. It was empty, like a cloud inside her, the color a dim gray. To hide what she was missing, she took two sticks from the kindling and then reached for the pile of her own hair. She began to knit a vest so that no one could see what was missing inside her.
Without her heart she could no longer feel and she was grateful for that. She had felt enough when she lost her heart by the black lake. She worked in the garden in the hot sun all day long and was never tired. She stood knee deep in the ice-cold lake to catch fish and didn’t shiver. When she knitted, her fingers never hurt even though the needles were made of splintering sticks. When it was dark she curled up in bed to knit by the light of her own heart. Moths were drawn to the red light. But she felt nothing.
Her heart was like a caged bird. It called to her, but she didn’t answer.
The vest was done in no time. She wore it day and night so no one could tell how empty she was. Then one day the hawk flew into the woods and she followed. She found a man in the woods whose legs had been broken when he fell from a tree. She helped him home. When he leaned heavily on her, she didn’t feel any pain. He was a carpenter who’d been looking for wood he would make into tables and chairs. She let him sleep on her porch and she didn’t feel a thing when he thanked her and took her hand in his.
But the pieces of her heart encased in glass burned even more brightly through the night.
The doctor came and set the carpenter’s legs and said he couldn’t walk for four months. He would be a burden, but she didn’t mind. She had no heart, she didn’t care about anything, not how handsome he was, or how kind. When the hawk ate from his hand, nothing bitter, only berries, the carpenter said nothing should be kept in a cage. She thought of her heart, that bird in a glass cage.
The carpenter ate supper with her, and in the evenings he made a set of beautiful wooden bowls as a gift. He fell in love with her when the snow began to fall.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she told him. She showed him her heart in its glass container. She said it could never be put back together. But he was a carpenter, used to fixing things. He shook his head and smiled. He vowed he’d find a way.
“Impossible,” she said. The carpenter’s legs were now healed enough for him to leave. “Go before I’m awake. Don’t say goodbye.”
Instead he stayed awake all night. He’d often watched her knit in the evenings, and now he took up the needles. In the morning she saw what he’d done. He’d cut off all of his hair and used the strands to knit a pocket on her vest. Into that he’d placed the pieces of her heart. The longer she wore her heart in the pocket, the more it mended, until one day it was a whole heart, inside her once more. She still wears that vest, even though she’s a married woman now, and her husband knows all there is to know about her heart. He gave it back to her, and no matter what happens, she doesn’t intend to let go of it again.