February 18th: Strange romance
The Gift
, by Grace Hertenstein

The witch smiled and said to herself, he who is willing to give up all he has for his friend has more than he could ever lose.


The sky stretched thin over the sea, like skin stretched tight across a drum. The thunder beat against it like an angry giant, roaring low. The sea was calm, no wind to stir it, no rain to break it. I’m lonely, called the sky, are you there? I’m here, the sea rippled, what is it you want? The sky shook with worry. Talk to me friend, he said, I’m not ready to fall, not yet.

Two boys lay in the uncut grass, by the shore. One had golden hair and sun-kissed skin; he had a heart, big and wide as the sky. The other had black hair and pale white skin; he had a soul, deep as the sea. The first boy was called Noam and he had heart, but no love. The second boy was called Cassius and he had soul, but no feelings.

The grass tickled Noam’s eyelids as he rolled to face his friend. The heart inside his chest rolled with him, thumping against his sides because there was nothing weighing it down within him. His sigh was one of great despair. “This heart of mine is empty,” he said. “I have no love with which to fill it.” He reached out to touch Cassius’ cheek, but there was nothing in his touch because he had nothing to give.

Cassius closed his eyes at his friend’s touch, soft fingers grazed his cheek. Nothing stirred within him, because in his soul there was a gaping hole through which all his feelings had fallen when he was very small. He didn’t remember what it was like to feel. “There’s a tear in my soul,” he whispered back “It must be patched for me to feel at all.” And he pushed the hand on his cheek away because he was numb to its touch.

The sky seemed about to burst, but he was still afraid to let go. The sea’s gentle hum was his distraction. The sea was waiting anxiously for the storm, longing for it to break over him, but he could see the sky was still hesitant. Tell me more, shouted the sky, what happens next? The sea sighed and continued.

There was a tin house on a hill, high above the sea. It was said that a witch lived there, hidden from the world, alone with all her secrets. The hill was steep and Noam fell many times, tearing holes in his trousers and bruising his face. When he reached the tin house, rusted and bent, Noam knocked three times on the door. “Who’s there?” called a raspy voice and Noam had to gather his courage to reply. “I am here for some glue,” he told the witch, “the kind to patch a soul.” At his words the door swung open and the golden haired boy was pulled inside. “Some glue, you say, to patch a soul,” The witch cackled and limped, “Oh, I have just the thing.” She pulled a tiny green bottle from the many clustered on her shelf and turned to him, her hand outstretched, asking for payment. “I have no money,” Noam began, “But I have something else.” For what use was a heart when there was nothing inside of it.

The two boys knelt together on the beach, each one scared and excited. “I have something for you,” they cried in unison. Cassius laughed quietly and threaded his fingers through the night-cooled sand. “You first,” he whispered.
Noam held out the tiny green bottle, it sparkled in the half-moon light. “It’s glue,” he said with a smile, “to patch your soul.”

Cassius’ pale face grew paler as his eyes grew wide. “Oh thank you,” he said, but his smile seemed forced. “Thank you so much.”

Noam was disappointed, but he asked, “What have you got for me?”

Cassius held up a tiny purple bottle. “It’s love,” came his quiet explanation. There was no heart in Noam’s chest to fall, but his smile certainly did because the bottle Cassius was holding was identical to the green one in Noam’s hand. He knew where Cassius had gotten the love and he knew what he had given to get it.

But this is dreadful, trembled the sky, where will Noam put the love now that he has no heart? And what will Cassius do with the glue, without a soul to be patched? The sea was restless for the rain, but he spoke again to comfort the sky.

It only took a moment for Noam to shake the regret away. He took the bottle from his friend’s hand. “This is fantastic,” he cried, “I can’t thank you enough.” He pulled out the cork and downed the whole bottle even though it had no where to go. Cassius’ face broke out in joy as he took the green bottle and did the same as Noam. Neither boy revealed what he had done, neither of them had to.

Hang on, muttered the sky as a thought came to him, but Noam gave away his heart just to fix Cassius’ soul. He didn’t even know that Cassius was doing the same for him. He must have had love all along! The sea chuckled as the sky went on. And Cassius must have always had feelings or else he would never have given away his soul for Noam’s love. They were never broken to begin with, the sky cried as he reached his epiphany.

As the boys embraced each other they gasped, something that they had never noticed was suddenly there. They pulled away quickly and stared at each other in shock. Noam reached out and ran his fingers across his friend’s cheek and the emotion that filled him made him blush, which had never happened before. Cassius was no longer numb to Noam’s touch and he shivered at the rush of feelings it brought. He reached out to place a hand on Noam’s empty chest. “But you have no heart,” he whispered. Noam smiled. “And you are soulless,” he said. The two boys laughed together as raindrops began to fall, speckling the white sand.

With the sea’s last words the sky broke forth in sobs and the rain fell down splitting the sea, making it rock back and forth in happiness. The sky wailed, blowing the sea into waves that crashed along the shore. The sea laughed with joy as it was flung against the rocks and it reached up as if to touch the sky.

The witch, who wasn’t really a witch at all, stood on the hill above the sea watching the waves crash and the sky roar while the two boys knelt in the sand, their arms around each other. She pulled out a tiny red bottle from her pocket, uncorked it and took a sip for it was only water with two spoonfuls of sugar and a crushed mint leaf. She smiled, looked out at the horizon where the sky met the sea, and said to herself, he who is willing to give up all he has for his friend has more than he could ever lose.

But maybe she wasn’t really talking to herself at all.


Grace Hertenstein is a graduate of the New School in New York City. She draws inspiration from such writers as as Junot Diaz, George Orwell, and Flannery O’Connor. Grace tends to write about secrets and dark corners, jealousy and humility, strange beginnings and bittersweet endings, and enjoys tackling her work from different angles and different points of view. She hopes someday to write from the rooftop of a houseboat somewhere in a moderate clime. Her work has appeared in Sleet Magazine, Ozone Park, Midway Journal, Inkapture, The Wayfarer, and in the anthology The Gothic Blue Book (the Haunted Issue). She is currently at work on a novel.

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