In her third decade of self-imposed captivity, Gwendoline learnt that, in order to truly imprison oneself, a balance must be struck. This was how the prisoning pitcher of saltwater came to rest, woven, in the mass of ink-black hair that our heroine had learnt to hide behind.
The reflection of the waxing moon glimmered upon the dark waters of the canal; Gwendoline’s gondola meandered through the water with the pace of an aged tortoise who has all but given up on life. It would be cruel to say she was used to it, this treacle timespan with which she moved through the world. Every second was an infinity, and every infinity sawed through her with the unease of a butter knife through a china cup.
One thing stood between Gwendoline and freedom: an unfortunate lack of predestination. Every truly valuable moment of Gwendoline’s life had been a choice, and so, too, was the cause of her torment.
As Gwendoline looked over her shoulder, to catch the last glimpse of light before the gondola passed into the impermeable darkness beneath the bridge at the city’s gates, the pitcher began to tip. The strength of her hair-tapestry was no longer enough to keep it steady, and the saltwater began to pour, burning, into her skin. With it came the secrets, the suppression, every heart she had ever broken, and every heart that had ever broken her. As the saltwater disfigured her once-smooth skin, Gwendoline knew she could no longer bear the weight, or the water, or the balance.
She caught the pitcher before the last of its contents poured out. Few droplets remained in the base of the pitcher, and she knew who they belonged to. Some wounds run too deep to ever truly be emptied.
With tentative fingers, Gwendoline touched the skin above her hollow chest, feeling the blisters that had formed in the place where the tainted water touched her. She drummed a beat with her fingertips upon the cavity. In the years that had passed, Gwendoline taught herself not to miss her heart; it had come and gone in six month cycles, and she didn’t have the strength to wave goodbye as it departed time and time again, so she let it leave forever, let it be stolen by ink-stained hands. What use was a heart to her anyway? There was no space for love in the prison of herself; she bore the pain so others didn’t have to.
The gondola was almost through the bridge when Gwendoline chose to turn around. She frantically wove the near-empty pitcher into her hair, on top of her head so there was no danger she would lose it to the water. For the first time in years, Gwendoline stopped living in infinities. The seconds passed hastily as she clambered out of the gondola and into the canal. Her white dress clung to her skin as the water weighed it down, and Gwendoline laughed involuntarily at the sweetness of failure. Her purpose splashed around her like spilled water, and she cackled like a madwoman because this water was no longer her burden to bear.
Dry land shocked her back to reality. The cobbled street was icy cold beneath her bare feet, and she shivered in her soaked dress. The Fatemaker’s house was not far from the bank of the canal – he had always been fond of the water. If it weren’t for the large feet that stood him firmly on the ground, Gwendoline would have been certain he was more merman than human.
If there had still been a heart in her chest, it would have beat with a panicked frequency as she knocked her fist lightly upon the dark blue panels of the Fatemaker’s door. It was seconds or moments or an infinity before he answered; Gwendoline didn’t count the time that passed. The Fatemaker stood before her on the narrow staircase, dressed in a billowing white shirt—open to reveal the brown hairs strewn across his chest—and tight, fawn-coloured trousers. His feet were always bare. He was different to the last time they had met; his hair was now as long as her own, flowing down his back, a vibrant brown. His eyes, too, were brown, with long, delicate lashes reminiscent of a horse’s.
“I knew you’d come back for it eventually,” the Fatemaker said. Gwendoline caught sight of her heart, in burgundy ink upon his arm. She wished she could have snatched it straight from his skin, but alas, that was not how the Fatemaker’s magic worked. Only he could return her heart to her.
“I’m not here for my heart,” Gwendoline said as she un-wove her hair, and pulled the pitcher free.
“Why are you here?” the Fatemaker couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze. His fingers twitched nervously, unprepared for what was coming.
“I’m here to pour the salt back into the wound,” Gwendoline said. “It’s time.”
The Fatemaker shook his head in alarm; Gwendoline watched him with an unwavering gaze. She had chosen her prison – the Fatemaker would never force a fate like this; consent was the cruellest trick he played. Yes, Gwendoline had chosen her prison. And now, in an unprecedented rebellion against a lifetime of self-sacrifice, she was choosing to free herself.
To be continued…