This story is true, as all fairy tales are true.
Once upon a time there was a girl with a broken heart. It had come that way – broken. From her earliest of memories she’d always known pain. And it grew worse with time instead of better. No matter how many friends she had, there was a hole that no one could seem to fill, and she was tired of the tears.
So one day, she made a wish beneath the moonlit sky. “Take it and lock it up somewhere safe.” She laid her heart upon a silver dish and left it in the starlight. The next morning her heart was gone.
It was a curious thing, being a human without a heart. She could feel her heart beating distantly sometimes, still aching, but muted like burning coals buried under a pile of sand. She was pleased at first, because here she could finally know the world without the pain. So many things were easier! But she was also as cold as ice. She couldn’t feel joy. She couldn’t laugh. The world was a numb grey place where once it was bright colors balanced with shadows.
A year passed. And another. And then someone that she could have loved, had she had a heart, came into her life. Somewhere in the distance, her heart ached, reminding her it was still there, but she didn’t have a key to its box and she didn’t know who kept it locked away.
So she asked her one true love, that she could not love, for help. And whispers told them of a collector upon a hidden island. Someone who might have bought and paid for that heart laid out free for the taking. And her lover opened up his chest and pulled his own from his chest. It glowed red like a ruby, so bright and full. “Take it until we find yours,” he said.
But the girl knew what it was like to be without a heart, and she refused. “It is a gift freely given,” said he. “And I have no need of it until then.” So she allowed him to place it into the hollow cage of her chest. For the first time in what felt like forever, she felt warmth. For the first time in what felt like forever, she cried, and even the tears were warm.
But her love turned back, cold and still. Heartless as she once had been. “I will find your heart. Wait for me.” he said and he left for that island. She waited.
He did not return. She waited. Time passed.
She turned to her younger sister for help, because her borrowed heart told her something was wrong. Her sister, the golden one, let her lean upon her. “We’ll get them both back.” And she brought fire and wrath as they came to the island, to match the girl’s ice.
It was a dead place, full of statues. And one statue that she recognized: her love, frozen into pale marble, eyes frozen forever downcast. “Not yet,” her sister said, and pulled her away. “We need to find your heart first.”
So they threw open boxes, and rummaged through the art. Precious paintings, ancient vases. Creatures of all shapes and sizes, one of a kind, were frozen in marble around them. Their eyes followed where they went, begging for help, but the girl followed the pain. It grew worse as she neared her heart, because not even wood and iron could keep it at bay. And in the middle of a vaulted room, sat a box on a pedestal.
The girl opened the box, expecting to see a dark and shriveled thing. Instead her heart was a flame, brighter than anything she had seen. It pulsed, so full, waiting for her. When she took it, there was a scream, and she shoved the precious thing in her pocket.
“Run!” her sister said, laying fire behind them, and melting away the stone. The girl ran back to the courtyard, and to her love. She cracked at the marble with her fists, until the shell of stone fell away, and he slumped into her arms. She threw him over her shoulder and they did not look back until they were back in the warded safety of home.
The girl pulled her love’s heart out of her chest, and laid it beside her own, surprised to see the two beat in tune. She returned her borrowed one, and took her own in hand. She knew it would hurt, but she pried apart her chest and set it carefully back where it belonged.
When her love awoke, she could return the look in his eyes.
Some things are worth the pain.