Once upon a time, in the middle of a forgotten countryside there was a tower. It was a lonely structure stuck on the edge of a forest where shrubs and vines covered it like thick carpet.
Over the tower’s doors and windows were bricks and wood, keeping something out… or keeping something in…
This tower was the source of many a tale for the people of the countryside. Traveling gypsies told stories about the tower, remembering it as a beacon of hope; while village elders said they remembered the tower had once been a place of torture and death. Firelight would often bring these stories to life on moonless nights, and it was the hungry eyes of little children that drank in these stories like air.
It was one of these children who oohed and awed and then went back to spin the tale of the tower to his father. He repeated what an old vagabond had told him as they had supped on dinner as cold as the earth.
“He traded me a tale for a coin,” the boy said. “He spoke of a girl locked away in a tower. A tower so tall and so strong that it was like a cage. It was the tower’s job to keep her safe from the world and the horrible old man who had attempted to make her his suitor. She was there for only three hundred days, with only rats as company. On the last day, a cat came along and gobbled them all up, and her along with them!”
But the boy’s pa, worn to his bones by a day spent plowing a farmer’s field, smacked his son upside his head. He said, “That coin was for milk, son, not for a story. Our stomachs will grow even smaller and our hearts will get weaker, since all you brought us was a lie.”
“It’s not a lie,” the boy said near tears. “Her father tried to save her. She was the most treasured soul in all the land and had a heart of gold. And when her father tried to get her out of the tower, the bad man showed up and slew him. She died alone in that tower, pa, she did.”
The man hit his boy again and sent him off to sleep with a belly full of moldy grain, while he himself lay under the stars.
The boy and his father were vagabonds themselves, and they lived their lives wandering the countryside for a place to setup home and field. Each time they passed a patch of untouched land, the boy would exclaim how perfect it was, how fertile and cozy it was. But his father would shake his head and they would move on.
Some pieces of land were too close to the city, some too far from town. Some had obvious signs of caravan travel which meant gypsies and magic. But it only took them a day to walk to the edge of a dark forest where they happened upon the field.
The boy was the first to exclaim how spongey and soft the earth was. “Great for planting,” he said. “Great for fielding mares and sheep. We could have a flock.”
“Not great if it’s prone to flooding,” the father said, and they came out one side of the forest and into another.
Even the air was heavy with moisture. It was darker on this side of the forest, they saw, with moss clinging to tree trunks and fallen branches. They felt a mix of doubt and hope when they noticed the stone tower on the other side of the field.
The walls were thick with vines and at the base of the tower were bushes bursting with flower petals. If not for the bricked up archway and boarded over windows, it would have looked comfortable. But, as they drew closer, it was hard for them to deny the dead, stagnant air that hung in the land.
“See?” said the boy. “I told you there was a covered tower hiding away a girl.”
But they didn’t know what it was hiding, and soon curiosity got the better of them. They approached the tower and examined the camouflaged doorway.
“Do you suppose the stories are true?” The boy asked.
“If there was ever a girl in there, she would be dead.”
“I would save a girl so kind, if I could. A girl with a heart of gold.”
“Night falls, son, we’ve wasted too much time. Let’s make camp by the treeline for the night.”
As they ate another stale meal by moonlight, the father couldn’t help but think about the girl in the story. If she had been so good, so kind, it was likely she had a heart of gold. Even his own boy coveted the idea. If he had even a nugget of gold, he knew he could give the boy a life unlike his own. He could give him a roof, give him purpose, and give him support. They could live the rest of their lives getting fat, as a thick-lipped beauty waited on them hand and feet. He would ask for her hand in marriage. When she said yes, she would birth a pack of healthy, strong sons who would make their farm flourish so much that even the king would ask to hunt on his land.
The father dreamed while staring at the shadows of the brick-filled doorway. If he went inside and found the golden heart, (he felt confident no one had entered the tower since the supposed girl) he could make a new life for himself and his son. And even if she didn’t exist, a boarded up tower had only treasures left to find, right? His feet ached and his back pulled after countless nights spent sleeping on the cold earth. And even now, something pricked at his spine like a hot nerve.
He dug his hand under his back and paused- because his fingers touched more than stone. It was cold steel. In the moonlight, the father sat up and saw, buried half in the dirt of their camp, a trowel.
The tool was left over from the bricklayers who had encaged the tower, he realized. Spots of rust dotted the blade, and yet the edge was still sharp. The tip of the tool pricked his finger and he gasped as a bead of hot blood welled on his skin. He looked up at the tower. Then got to his feet.
He crossed the moonlit field and came to the arched pattern of bricks. After a moment of hesitation, he dug the tip of the trowel into the clay. It wasn’t as easy as he had thought it would be, but little clumps of dried, aged clay fell away with his persistence. He dug the tool into the clay and felt the vibration in his chest whenever he scraped against one of the bricks. Time passed and soon the sun was rising, and by his feet were two loosed bricks as red as blood.
Unbeknownst to him, his son had awoken to the sound of scraping and with silent steps wandered up to the tower. His father sat there, entranced. The boy tried to appeal to his father to no avail, and so began searching for more tools nearby to help.
Night fell, and by the father was a growing pile of bricks. The doorway was not big enough for a grown man to slip through, so he continued to work. At one point, his son asked to try to get inside since he was small enough to make it. But then he saw the concrete-covered padlock and his hopes fell. He wandered back to the camp, starved and exhausted, and filled up on a meal of nettle roots and the last of the bread. He fell asleep on the cold ground while his father continued to work away at the door, and the sound of chiseling rang clear into the night.
The father ignored the padlock and instead dug his way across the door where the hinges lay. They were thick with rust and as full around as a wrist, but when he hit them with the trowel they fell into dust. It was when the last brick moved from the archway that the father admired his job well-done and pulled at the wooden door.
It caught in the high grass for a moment before he pulled it open wide, and a rush of stale, hot air rushed out. The tower was like an oven, and would have cooked the poor girl. It smelled like decay, moss, and forest undergrowth. He could see inside by moonlight and gazed at the towers insides. He allowed the trowel to fall from his fingers as he took in the fullness of what he was seeing.
It was a single room, with a ceiling as high as the tower and only the round walls of the outside. Inside, he saw split barrels and torn bags that spilled grain all over the corner of the floor. He saw clothes hung from windows and little pieces of fabric scattered along the ground. He could see a hearth and a kettle, and in front of a chopping block was a stool covered in forgotten wool. It looked as if someone had up and left the room. Gone. Disappeared. Forever.
There was a fine sheen of dust over every surface, but no evidence of an escape or break in. Where could the girl… or the remains of the girl… be?
In the very center of the room, was a large flat panel with a handle- a door leading somewhere below?
A cellar? The father thought.
He glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping form of his son. His silhouette was enough of a sight to propel him past the threshold and into the darkness of the tower.
It was cooler inside, he realized. But there was nothing in the room that he hadn’t seen from the door. No bed, no books, not even the skeleton of a rat.
The father approached the cellar door and hefted the handle until the door creaked open. He wished he had a torch to see by, but he realized that something was illuminating the floor from below. He could see a ground floor and even the remnants of a meal on a plate. Was someone still here? Could the girl have survived all this time?
“Anyone there?” He called, but heard nothing but a chilling scraping sound. To him, it sounded like a sword on stone. Had the girl learned how to defend herself? Or were their soldiers here to defend her?
The father lowered himself into the cellar next to the ladder that lay on the ground. He fell next to it where it was glowing in the soft underground light, and he propped it back against the cellar door. He looked around.
Boxes, barrels, bags, filled the cellar. Most of which were shattered so that their contents were strewn upon the ground. Rats scurried between rocks and squeaked at him as he stepped through their food. He peered around stacks of wooden cases and even found himself a nice dress the color of lavender. If he found a wife, he would give this to her, he reasoned, and threw it over his shoulder. But what interested him was where this light was coming from. He followed it and sped up as the light grew brighter and brighter the deeper he crept. Soon, the light became so bright he thought he had stumbled upon a torch. But when he leaned close, he felt his own heart stutter.
He had managed to find the girl’s missing things. There was a simple roll of cloth and wool with a book propped up on a pillow. And there, in the center of the pillow, was a golden rock the size of the father’s fist. He knelt and observed the glowing rock and then picked it up and cradled it. It was warm and sweet and made his heart feel lighter. He wanted to put it in his mouth and swallow it, or shove it against his chest so that it could melt into his skin and become his own heart. He could feel the goodness and the greatness that this heart held and he wanted it, he wanted it for himself.
There was a sigh, and the strange metal-on-stone sound stopped. But he heard what could have been a whisper.
They all wanted her heart.
In his mind, flashed a scene.
The father watched as if he were a spectator as the girl had, centuries before, entered the tower for the last time. She had brought everything she needed for her life in the tower. She had brought her books, her friends (the rats), and she had brought wool to help pass her time by making clothing. She didn’t tell her family, but she had wanted to make clothes for the poor villagers who would pass by her window. Nothing else gave her joy like the smiles of the people who she helped. She grew full of hope when she saw their souls glow with gratitude and joy. The father watched as she would sew and hang the clothes out of a half-boarded window for the poor villagers to take. Even though the world wanted to take everything from her, she still offered what she could. But that was never enough.
They always wanted her heart.
The father felt a sense of foreboding as the scene in his mind changed. He watched what he soon assumed to be the last day of the girl’s life in the tower. It was the day she decided to carve out her heart; the day she became so full of despair for all the trouble she had caused.
It was also that morning she had heard through the windows the destruction of her village. People, friends, and family cried out when her spurned suitor had demanded her freedom. He wanted her for himself. He wanted her golden heart. The people of her village loved her so, and they had refused him. That was the last she heard until the sound of flames echoed through the valley. She smelled the burning flesh and heard the silence descend on the village through the trees. It was then that she had decided her heart wasn’t worth keeping if it caused so much harm.
She had climbed into the cellar and shut herself inside where the girl cut out her own heart. She left it on her pillow before she climbed into a corner and died.
The suitor and his guardsmen did not know this, though. After they razed the village, they had burrowed below ground and burrowed into the cellar. The suitor dreamt of her capture and bringing her golden heart back to the royal city. But in those last hours, her spirit had grown vengeful. Without the heart to stop her madness, she descended upon the suitor and his guardsmen as they came upon the cellar.
The father watched the scene unfold from a bird’s eye view. At the bottom of the cellar, far beneath his feet, were skeletons and skulls that had once belonged to the young guardsmen and the suitor.
Sorrow would have welled in the father’s soul at this sight, but he was instead filled with the joy of the heart. It warmed every part in him while deadening his senses to the cellar that darkened, darkened, and then went black.
The father did not notice this change; he was too absorbed in the purity and wealth of the heart. He did not know that when he had descended into the tower, the front door had been bricked back up. The sound he had heard was not sword on stone, but the girl’s spirit trapping him inside, just like the world had trapped her. He did not know that her shadow had followed him into the cellar and hovered at the ceiling. It watched and waited as he grabbed at the heart and held it close. He did not know that the same trowel he had used to get in was going to carve out his heart. He did not care, either, because when his world went black he had felt peace and happiness enough to last a lifetime. And it did last his.