Heart Moon – R. Gatwood

Heart Moon – R. Gatwood

Metaphorosis cover, April 2023
April 2023

The old pop song says it’s in his kiss, but of course that’s nonsense. The only way to know if your man’s love is true is to cut out his heart and eat it, still beating, by the light of the full moon.

You’ll dither over the decision, of course. You’ll collect the ingredients and sharpen the dagger, only to abandon the project halfway. A few months later you’ll start again. For him, a simple infusion of opium and valerian and chamomile, to drug him to sleep. For you, a mix of lemon and mugwort and green tea and a smidgen of psilocybin, for alertness and perception of liminal things. It’ll be the biggest spell you’ve ever done. The one that makes you a real witch and not just a bullshit herbalist who knows a few parlor tricks. (Let’s just say the ritual consumption of a human heart is a serious power boost.) You won’t have to feel inferior to your witch friends anymore.

Scheduling your camping trip for the full moon shouldn’t be hard, but it is. At the last minute his buddy will invite him to a beer tasting in town, and the two of you will argue irritably over whether to change plans. (If he loved you, would he give in? Or is that a ridiculous question?) Finally (maybe because you love him—or think you do), you will agree to go to the tasting and leave for the campsite right afterwards. It’ll be more fun than you expected. You’re not much of a beer lover, but they will have an amazing grapefruit shandy that you buy a six-pack of, and watching Dave lick IPA off the stubble above his lip will make something flutter inside you. For the hundredth time, you will reconsider whether to kill him. But you’ve already got the battery-powered bone saw and ritual dagger and folding shovel stashed away in your camping pack. And you’ve already agonized over this long enough. He will let out a burp and grin. The moment will pass.

On the way back to the car his hand will be a soft knobby animal in yours. “That was good,” he’ll say.

“Yeah,” you will admit.

He will stop, tug you close, and kiss the top of your head. Beer and mustard on his breath. “Thanks for, you know, compromising. Don’t worry. I’ll get us there safe.” He’ll have promised to drive the whole way to the campsite.

“I know.” You’ll mean it.

Sometimes you think you hate him.

He says “I love you” like it’s easy. Maybe too easy. Your friends tell you he’s the perfect guy. Maybe too perfect, is what you’ll think as you sit beside him in his comfortable old Prius, listening to him hum along to the playlist you made him. There’s got to be something wrong with him. Why else would he be with you? Mentally, you’ll list off your flaws: constantly seeking reassurance; obsessed with your witch career; depressingly mediocre at most things, including witchcraft; tentatively murderous. Also just generally perverse. When your best friend got her breast cancer diagnosis, you were frantic—but when it turned out to be terminal, you felt relieved. You prefer certainty to hope.

Dave grew up with parents who loved and supported him, you’re pretty sure. You grew up with well-meaning but self-absorbed types who hugged you tenderly one day and forgot your tae kwon do match the next. Now your mom is too wrapped up in her Valium and her church gossip to think much about you or your siblings, and your dad has gotten gruff and politically off-putting the way older men sometimes do. The birthday cards they send you are as generic as something you’d get for a casual acquaintance. You don’t waste time on family these days.

In place of family you have your witch friends—most of them more advanced than you—and Dave. You watch his face a lot, preferably when he won’t notice you’re looking. When you ask what he’s thinking about, he says, “I dunno. Work stuff. You. Uh, what we’re gonna have for dinner.” Maddening. There has to be more. If you pry—if you dig up his exes, his unspoken ambitions, his childhood traumas (?), his taboo fantasies (??), his doubts about your relationship (???)—will he leave? You know he at least thinks he loves you; he’s too decent a guy to lead you on. But people don’t always know their own emotions.

Case in point: You’re not absolutely sure you love him. You’re obsessed, certainly. You have secret Excel spreadsheets detailing his likes and dislikes. Squeezing his biceps, scenting his arousal gives you a shot of adrenaline and desire. You’ve inadvertently memorized the threads of gold in his eyes. You’re also planning to kill him.

You once read a book about Sada Abe, a woman who famously strangled her lover in the 1930s and kept his penis as a precious souvenir. “I loved him so much,” she said, “I wanted him all to myself.” Abe was on to something. If she’d been a witch, she would have appreciated the power of quite a different organ.

A real witch, the kind of witch you’re studying to be, knows there’s no such thing as a love spell. You can’t make someone love you, can’t really keep them all to yourself. But you can gain knowledge of another person’s soul, at the cost of destroying them. Which is worth it, isn’t it? To sacrifice your relationship on the altar of certainty? To gain power, too, beyond what you’ve ever dared to hope for?

Isn’t it?

By the time you arrive at the campsite, you’ll have only an hour and a half before the moon is directly above. He’ll think you’re adorably eager, rushing to lug your packs out of the back the second he’s parked. When you tell him you want to camp in the clearing near the creek, he’ll say sure. The clearing will be open to the sky and the creek will help you wash off the evidence.

Calculating the trajectory of the moon, you’ll hang your pot over the fire, and you’ll make your two cups of tea. One for him, one for you. You’ll ask him to try the new blend you created, and he’ll perk up. He loves being your taste tester.

“Hmmmmm,” he will say after his first sip. You’ll hold your breath, wondering if you pulled off your attempt at a smooth earthy flavor. It doesn’t matter, you’ll tell yourself, as long as he drinks the whole thing (he always does), but you’ll resent how badly you want his opinion. He’ll say, “Sultry, strident, with a playful impertinence.”

You will throw a twig at him.

“It’s delicious, Amy, seriously. Little strong, but good. Some chamomile in there?”

“Yeah. Good eye.”

“More like good tongue,” he’ll say, the innuendo casual, incidental.

You’ll smile at each other, enjoying a shared private knowledge. You’re almost certain he doesn’t tell his buddies about your sex life. Which doesn’t prove anything, of course.

“What are you calling it?” He likes the names you make up for your potions.

You’ll ponder a moment. “Heart Moon.”

He will nod. “Perfect,” he’ll say softly, and he’ll take another sip, his hazel eyes golden in the firelight.

Soon those eyes will start to droop, and when you tease him, he’ll mumble with faux grumpiness about not being sleepy. He’ll invite you into the sleeping bag as he plumps the pillow, and you’ll say, “Later, I want to sit by the fire a while.” It might be the last time you see him awake. His eyes will fall shut too fast.

What you’re looking for isn’t to be found in his eyes, however, any more than in his kiss.

It won’t take him long to slip into a deep, deep slumber. Deep enough that when you roll him onto his back (he’s a side sleeper, always seeming to reach out to you across the mattress), he won’t so much as twitch. You’ve watched him sleep many times. As ever, he’ll be handsome in his sleep. You’ll hate it. You’re certain you’ve never looked that good in your sleep, and you suspect if you asked him, he’d lie to spare your feelings.

You’ll open the sleeping bag with damp, shaky fingers. The zipper will sound louder than it should despite the murmur of crickets, the rumble of the distant road, the hoot of an owl. The moon, six minutes away from being exactly overhead, will feel like a spotlight. You’ll strip efficiently despite your trembling, leaving your clothes on the other side of the fire.

You’ll draw the dagger and anoint it with the daisy oil just like you practiced, then lay it beside you. You’ll grip the bone saw. Your own heart will pound as you straddle his hips, jostling him just enough to tip his head to the side. You’ll push up his thin T-shirt. Beneath it his skin will be scattered with pale hairs that vanish briefly as a cloud passes overhead. His breastbone will thump with a strong, slow beat.

Your eyes and fingers will trace along the bottom of his rib cage, then, for no real reason, back up to where the T-shirt is bunched under his armpits. There you’ll find a hard lump in his shirt pocket and, curious despite or because of your nerves, you’ll pull it out. A square box flocked with velvet.

You’ll stare at it, run a thumb over the seam of the lid, and find yourself shaking with rage. You’ll be holding the bone saw in your dominant right hand, so it’s with your left that you’ll hurl the box ineffectually into the grass. Of course. Of course he had plans of his own this whole time. It will feel like a sick joke. Something deliberately placed in your path to derail you. This whole time you’ve been brewing your selfish, pathetic, needy scheme, he’s been dreaming of white picket fences and His-and-Hers towels. No, you’ll think, that’s not fair. His imagination isn’t quite that bourgeois. He’s been dreaming of—what?

Still quivering, clutching the bone saw close to you, you’ll think for the thousandth time about how you’ve never quite figured out what’s going on inside him. That’s the question that haunts you every time he smiles, every time he says love. The question you’re so close to getting an answer to. You’ll stare at his peaceful profile.

The sound of your phone will make you jump. The alarm will be set to play a carefully chosen song. It’ll be timed so that when the singer hits the high note in the third verse, the moon will be directly overhead to the minute, and your dagger will sever his—

And then you’ll do it, of course. You’ll have come all this way, prepared so carefully. The saw will buzz powerfully as you run it up his sternum, spattering warm wetness over your naked body. You’ll toss the saw to the side and pry his rib cage open. You’ll raise the dagger and slice through the vessels that surround the squirming fist of muscle. And at last, muttering the words of the spell, you’ll seize the oracular organ in your bare hands and bring it to your teeth.

You’ll know.

You’ll know he loves you. Loved you. The ring box in his breast pocket, yeah, it’s a cliché, white veils and tossed bouquets, but it was real. It was sincere. All those times you tried to decipher his silences and thoughtful gestures, he was loving you. The knowledge will flood your bloody mouth, almost too much to swallow.

Or: You’ll know he didn’t love you. Bitter knowledge, but as satisfying as canines tearing through raw flesh. All those times he whispered to you in the sweaty dark, brought you chocolates along with the tampons you asked him to pick up, shopped hopefully for a ring, he was just being his good-natured self. He may have thought he loved you. He never wanted to hurt you—of that you’ll be sure. Like so many people, he’s spent his life blinkered and clueless, chasing what he thinks will make him happy, and why shouldn’t it make him happy to marry a witch?

Or: You won’t do it after all. You’ll never find out what you want to know, never be as great a witch as you could be. You’re such a cliché, you’ll think, sniveling, unbloodied but bowed over his dozing form. One little token of affection and you cave to the conventional life. Do you even want to get married? Maybe it wasn’t the ring that changed your mind, you’ll think as the song from your phone reaches the high note and plays on. Maybe it was just him. Maybe it was just you.

So those are the possibilities. You’ll have a choice to make, or not just one choice but many along the way. You may have a grave to dig. You may have a ring box to search for in the tall grass, waving your phone’s flashlight around and cursing under your breath. You may have a man, a good man, an oblivious man, to roll back onto his side in the down sleeping bag. You may have a lonely hike back to the car in the dim light of dawn. You may have regrets: a full moon wasted, or a lover dead.

Now choose.

Your thoughts?

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