Open Your Heart
2021, Dean Bonner
“I’d like to teach the world to sing,” Caroline complained to her grandmother.
The old woman stopped stirring the pot for a moment. “No one sings now. No reason to. Go on up and tend the sheep.”
“Sweet Caroline!” a voice accosted her from the edge of the pasture. She regretted reflexively answering, “Ba-ba-ba!”
Then Caroline saw why the sheep were skittish. Two intruders in sheep skins were advancing on all fours toward the sheep and the huts beyond.
Wolves sprang from the tree line, taking the humans as the easier prey. The white fleece turned deep crimson. The wolves left with what meat they could carry.
The grandmother who had called to her caught up to Caroline. She looked down at the tangled mess. “Hmmpf. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
“Come home with me. Shirley will stand guard.”
Caroline ducked under the flap of hide that served as the door to their hut. She stirred the thin metal pot that an ancestor had hammered. “Where’s the beef?” she asked Grandmother.
“The last of it is gone. Your brother knows a guy he can trade knives with for some. He went to Jared.”
Grandmother placed a hand on each of Caroline’s shoulders, looking her dead in the eyes, into her soul.
“I have something for you, Caroline. Something ancient. You have come of age.”
She pulled a chain from a leather pouch, careful not to tangle it. She lifted it over Caroline’s head.
Looking down, Caroline saw a heart that shone like the full moon.
“It’s beautiful, Grandmother.”
When she fingered it, the heart opened. The insides were dull and black, obscuring some symbols she couldn’t decipher even if the tarnish didn’t obscure them.
“What does it mean, Grandmother?”
“We don’t know. It’s from a long time ago. Some say from an old world,
A head poked into the gloom. “The Chief summons Caroline.”
The bit of blinding light from the flap was gone before her eyes adjusted to see who it was.
Caroline stood before a thin middle-aged man sitting on a metal throne. The elders said that the throne had been pried from a flightless bird, one left by Yusef. A throne that had cost five hundred sheep when it was new. It looked uncomfortable.
The Chief looked Caroline in the eye. He sized her up. A strong girl, just become of age, but not a warrior. He shat upon the ground through the ring of a throne that indeed bore the name USAF.
“Girl, you’ll be a woman soon,” he boomed in a voice that shook the small crowd of villagers. She looked like she had the mettle to make the journey. And all the others were too old or too young.
Caroline drew herself up to her full height. The Chief nodded to an elder, who brought forth some metal clothing.
“About a day’s march from here is the village of Datopia. Some of our ancestors strayed there in The Troubled Times.”
Caroline wasn’t used to being the center of anything, especially attention.
“We need you to find your brother. It is a dangerous trek over the mountain.”
As the Chief spoke, the elder strapped metal skin over her clothing.
“Find him and bring home the bacon. And the beef.”
She was amply covered from ribs to ankles. The elder snapped a breastplate around her. He fumbled with something behind her, a lock of some sort. “Chief, a bit less than a day. Eighteen hours, that’s the best we can do. After that it falls off, leaving her exposed and vulnerable.” The elder slipped a hammer into her hand.
The Chief continued, “The hammer holds magic. It carries the name of Yusef on the handle. That hammer alone cost The Old Ones a hundred goats. Your forefathers took it from one of the birds before they became flightless.”
The Chief picked the wax from his ear. “See The Oracle to prepare yourself, and good speed.”
The armor was light enough that it wasn’t uncomfortable. Caroline moved a hand across its surface. Her eyes widened. “It has POCKETS!” She felt ready to go anywhere, face any challenge or challenger.
She collected herself enough to ask the question. “Chief, this place…Datopia-– is it real, or is it memories?”
“Oh, it is real enough.”
The Chief finished his bowel movement, and a villager brought him a drink as he sat.
“Should you encounter bandits along your path, know that the ones outside this village are set apart by their left-handedness. Use your knife, and swipe right. If all else fails, use The Hammer. If you get injured, call upon Shunnarah in Ad Nauseum.”
A worried Caroline ducked into the stone house of the Oracle. “What will I do — what will I see?” she asked the old woman.
“Nice getup,” the old woman sniffed. She read the bones of some mice and frowned. She studied her reflection in the glass screen of an ancient box, wiping at the dust on it.
“To reach the place in your mind’s eye, you will cross a mountain. But the journey is not that difficult. You will come to a riverbank — there’s a ford in your future. Your destination lies just beyond. Bring me back some hamburger and some potatoes.”
“What of this amulet that Grandmother gifted me?” asked Caroline, fingering the heavy metal. She shook her hair briskly about to untangle it. In doing so, she banged her head on the wall. “Oww!”
“To get from our Distopia to your destination in Datopia, you must pass through Fruitopia. Buy me some of the rolls of dried fruit they sell there.” The Oracle pressed a dozen corroded coins into her hand. They bore the visage of a smiling rat upon their face.
Caroline’s head reeled as she set out. She’d never been beyond sight of her village. But they trusted her to make this important trip.
The journey was uneventful. She passed grubby farmers toiling in their fields. They waved at the strange girl and kept hacking at the soil. The mountain turned out to be a big hill, really, and the ford was only deep enough to wet her to her knees. She was careful not to fall on the slippery rocks in the metal suit. She couldn’t swim.
Caroline saw the smoke of cook fires as she clambered into Datopia. Her brother was chasing back and forth with some boys his age. He ran to his sister, out of breath. “Did Grandmother send you? I’m about ready to leave, anyway. Hey, what’s that around your neck?”
A smithy looked up from his work. He walked over to Caroline and frowned. He gently lifted the heavy locket, rubbing the heart between his fingers. “Where did you get this?”
“From my grandmother, handed down from The Old Ones. Do you know the symbols on it?”
Caroline opened the locket to reveal the tarnished inside.
The smithy’s eyes widened. “I’ll get the descendants of Victoria to tell it to you. It was her secret.” He was visibly shaken. “Have some bread while you wait.”
Caroline took the crust of bread from him and dipped it into a bowl next to the loaf. Grease. Yuck. “I can’t believe it’s not butter,” she mumbled. She spat out the bread and tossed the remaining crust into a bush.
He returned with a woman in close-fitting clothes.
“Let’s get it open and cleanse it,” the woman said. The frail woman went to the maker of wine and returned with a cup of spoilt wine that had turned to vinegar. She dipped the heart into the cup and rubbed the silver. “I cannot say its meaning, but Auntie Millicent Goodreads.”
“Millicent! Come look!”
A weathered woman arose from her perch in front of a hut and ambled over.
“I’ve not seen one in a very long time.” Auntie gently opened the locket.
Millicent rubbed the vinegar against the metal, wearing away the tarnish. The silver shone bright, but the engraved message was dark.
She peered at the first inscription through watery eyes. “I’ve been trying to reach you, it says.”
Auntie studied the construction of the heart. “But wait, there’s more!” she rasped. “It’s in several sections.”
Millicent’s gnarled fingers were slow. She rubbed and squinted. Caroline wished she would get on with it. She wanted to get home and fling off the breastplate.
Millicent took a thin knife and slipped it betwixt the grooves of the amulet. Another section swung away, revealing another message. She polished some more.
“About your car’s extended warranty.”