By Christopher Barzak
When my heart was breaking, I went to my grandmother and said, "Grandmother, my heart is breaking over and over. My insides are like broken glass. Tell me how to cure this pain."
Grandmother leaned on her gnarled crook. She tapped it against the floor and said, "Your heart, dear girl, cannot break over and over. It breaks once. What you feel afterwards is the memory of its breaking. A broken heart cannot be healed."
Unsatisfied with her answer, I said, "Grandmother, you have healed other hearts. Why not mine?"
"Enough," she said, and struggled up from her recliner, pulling her red shawl tighter. She waved me into the kitchen. On her stove, a pot boiled with something vinegary. "Sit," said Grandmother, and I sat at the Formica table patterned with red and white roses.
Grandmother ladled the liquid out of the pot and peered at me over her shoulder. "You have always been weak, girl. Are you sure about this?"
"Yes." I nodded. "Take it out of me, whatever it is. Make me me again."
"As I suspected," she said. "You are one that he eats from the inside, rather than devouring you whole."
"Yes," I said, remembering how he slid down inside me, and how at first I thought him special—a beast, but honest and noble.
"This is my special recipe." She shuffled over to the table with the ladle steaming. The liquid slopped over the sides, hissing against the linoleum. "But be warned. To heal can be as painful as hurting."
"Anything," I said.
She grinned. "You are a child of my bloodline. He hasn't ridden you too far, so far. Now open wide." She lifted the ladle to my lips and poured.
The liquid went down scalding. I almost screamed, but as I started, Grandmother punched me in the stomach. "Out!" she shouted. "You have no power over her!"
She continued punching until I began choking. He was coming up fast. My throat bulged with him. A moment later, his claws unhinged my jaws to exit, and he pushed himself through my mouth. Grandmother lifted her crook as he slipped in the slop on the floor. She cracked his backside. He howled. She struck him once more. "Out!" she bellowed, and he ran through the door, a flash of fur and feral madness.
I slouched in the chair and held my mouth together, crying.
Grandmother asked if it was worth it. I nodded.
Anything, I had said, and I had meant it.
"I'm sorry," she said, stroking my forehead with a towel, wiping the blood from my mouth. "In the old times," she said, "this was easier. We used an ax to open up the people he'd crawled into, but they never survived. This is the best," she said, placing her cheek against mine. "The best I can offer."
I groaned, and she nodded in sympathy.
"A piece of advice, though," she said. "Next time, dear, love carefully.
Stay on the path."
Copyright © 2002 Christopher Barzak
Christopher has published stories in Nerve, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, Icon, the Penguin Review, and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. He attends Youngstown State University, in Youngstown, Ohio, where he's currently pursuing his Master's Degree in English.