My Heart’s Desire
A short story about a family secret and a mysterious lover
With all of the holidays this week, I thought it would be fun to save the next chapter of The Boy Who Can Taste Color for next week, and instead share a magical short story. I originally wrote this based on a Rory’s Story Cubes prompt from Stop Writing Alone. It won an Honorable Mention in the Saturday Writers February 2020 contest.
My Heart’s Desire
I found the map by accident.
My great uncle Clarence had outlived most of his family, and no one knew how he had managed to live past 100. Some said he was more like 200 years old, but of course, that was impossible. Or at least that’s what I had believed at the time.
It was late in the evening, and after his wake, I elected to stay the night at the Birdcage, the name my family had christened his massive home because of the heavy spiked iron fence. It would officially pass down to me once the will was settled, and I thought it would be nice to spend a little time with my memories of him. After everyone else had departed, I went up to the library, which he had always kept locked. It took me a moment to find the special key that would fit this keyhole, but when it was unlocked, the door swung open easily on well-oiled hinges.
Many of the books were dusty legal tomes, as he had been a practicing attorney for many years. None of that interested me, however. I had already seen the uneven application of the justice system when my parents had died. The system had sent me to a foster home until Clarence rescued me and allowed me to call the Birdcage home.
Even then, 30 years ago, he had seemed ancient. Other family members often gossiped about how he could have clung to life all these years.
Out of habit, I spun the faded globe as I walked around his desk, seeking a book I cherished above all the others. When I was young, Clarence would read the stories about goblins, fairies, and trolls to me, and we would talk about them as if they were real.
When I found the book, I started paging through it, only to discover a folded sheet of paper wedged inside a fairy tale about an Egyptian scarab. It was a hand-drawn map of Calliope Farm, the property Clarence owned outside the city. He never visited it, and it wasn’t actively farmed, but he refused to sell it or allow developers to build a highway across it. The map was quite detailed, complete with sketches of the old farmhouse and fields, and most curious, a spot marked with an arrow.
Had he known that I would find it? I slept fitfully that night and knew that I needed to check it out further.
The Calliope Farm hadn’t been worked for decades, and the house, once a lovely Gothic revival house with arched windows and hand-turned spindles around the porch, had badly deteriorated. The roof had caved in, and weeds had taken over the gardens.
I pulled out the map and wandered around the property, searching for something that would match the spot on the map. But the tall grass prevented me from finding anything of note. Knowing Clarence, I hadn’t expected this to be easy, so I grabbed the metal detector I’d brought along just in case.
I started at the house's foundation and worked my way out, sweeping it back and forth like the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
For a good couple of hours, I found nothing, not even so much as a horseshoe or a lost coin. I was about to stop for lunch when I climbed a low rise and suddenly the machine started to squeal. I knelt in the grass and discovered a galvanized steel that had been hammered into the soil point down. Using the metal detector, I soon realized it was an entire circle of nails about six feet in diameter.
I wiped the sweat from my face as I stared at the ground, trying to puzzle out why anyone would have hammered hundreds of nails into the ground. I grabbed the metal detector and headed into the center of the circle, only to stumble quite literally over a stone cairn about a foot high, made up of slabs of limestone leaning against each other in a makeshift pyramid, the ends buried deep into the soil.
I realized that it wasn’t a treasure, but a grave marker. He had probably buried a pet here. At any rate, there was no way I was tangling with a dead body. I cursed aloud as I gathered up my stuff and headed back to the car.
He approached like a breeze on a hot day.
I had just returned home and decided to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant. After I ordered, a man approached and asked if he could share my table. As soon as I looked into his eyes, a curious combination of icy blue and green, I couldn’t help but offer him a seat.
Auberon was a quirky man, with silvery hair despite his relative youth. We quickly fell into a relationship. He was everything I had ever wanted in a boyfriend, except for one thing: he never stuck around. He’d appear unexpectedly and treat me like a princess for a few days, but then he’d leave. The first few times I figured he was traveling for work, but when I’d ask, he’d always dismiss my queries with a kiss. After each departure, I missed him terribly and waited desperately for his return.
As he prepared to leave after his fifth visit, I asked him again. As usual, he demurred. Only when I became agitated did he sit down with me to offer an explanation.
“There are many things I must do,” Auberon said. “As much as I delight in your company, I cannot remain. But do not worry, my dearest,” he encouraged me, with a tap on my nose, and pulled out a small silk drawstring bag. “You deserve to have your heart’s desire.”
“Then don’t leave again. All I want is for you to stay here with me.”
He shook his head. “Such a wish is impossible. But surely there is something else you crave.”
Playing along, a random desire crossed my mind. I started to tell him but he put his finger over my lips.
“That is your secret, and for you only.” Then he pulled open the strings.
It was a gold charm on a delicate chain. I looked up at him with confusion.
“It’s a beetle. Ancient people believed scarabs could manifest many great things.” He winked. “Wear it at all times and think of me.”
As an only child and a loner, I had always wanted to have more friends, have clients gravitate towards me, and for men to sweep me off my feet. And after he left, I started to sense that people did notice me. Everywhere I went, people seemed to go out of their way to make sure that I had everything I needed. At first, I thought I was imagining it, but salespeople always pestered me, my cell phone never stopped buzzing, and cars would stop dead to allow me to make a turn.
Months went by and Auberon never returned. Meanwhile, there were people in my face all the time, and I was getting sick of it.
One day my thoughts returned to my uncle Clarence, and the book of fairy tales. Wasn’t the map in a story about a golden beetle?
I fingered the pendant still around my neck.
It was late before I could get back over to the Birdcage. My hands were trembling when I pulled the book from the shelf and found the place where the map had been hidden.
The story “The Golden Scarab” was one I didn’t recall him ever reading to me. It told of a young man seeking his fortune on the American frontier. When seeking land for homesteading in the wilds outside the new city of St. Louis, he found a beautiful parcel of land near a crystal blue spring. As he began to build his home, he met a young woman with eyes like sunlight on a pond. They fell in love and he told her that he was so happy that he never wanted to grow old and die.
One day, she gave him the gift of a small charm in the shape of a beetle. Then she went into town to go shopping, but she didn’t return. Although he searched for her, she was never found. He lived in his farmhouse for years, watching all of his friends growing older, while he remained as young as ever. Before he knew it, everyone in his life had died and he was alone, more alone than he had ever been before.
It was only then that he realized there was magic at work. He wondered if it had something to do with the charm his wife had given him years before.
He removed the charm and hit it in the back of his desk drawer.
The next morning, his wife appeared for the first time in half a century and asked him why he had removed her gift. But although she looked exactly the same, she was no longer lovely, and no longer kind. She told him that because he had removed her gift, he would never again know true happiness. And then she vanished.
Overnight he aged, going from 25 to 95 in the blink of an eye. And although he left the farm, he never fell in love again.
My hands were trembling by the time I finished the story. Could Clarence have written it himself? I turned to the front of the book and saw it had been published in 1908. That would have made him well over 100 years old. I knew he was old, but that seemed impossible.
I started reading other stories. There was another tale he had never read to me, about a man who visited the 1904 World’s Fair. He went to see a fortune teller on the Pike hoping to find a way to keep fairies away. She advised him that fairy magic didn’t work in proximity to iron, and so when he got home, he surrounded his home with an iron fence.
I closed the book and glanced outside.
The sun had barely risen, and the trees around the fence cast pale shadows. Taking a deep breath, I snapped the gold chain around my neck and waited on a stone bench in the front yard of Clarence’s house.
An hour passed. Then two. A pair of squirrels chased one another high in the trees, and a robin shuffled through fallen maple leaves looking for worms.
But nothing happened. As the sun stretched high overhead, I berated myself for falling for Clarence’s posthumous practical joke on me. I uncurled my fingers, which had been gripping the pendant the whole time.
“Why did you take the necklace off?”
I jumped at the sudden voice and turned to see Auberon sitting beside me. He looked the same as always, but he wasn’t smiling.
“Auberon!” I cried out, my voice sounding a bit rattled. It was unnerving seeing him again, but especially here and under these circumstances. Part of me hoped the story was untrue. “I missed you,” I said.
“You didn’t answer my question.” He glared at me with eyes that no longer made my heart flutter. “Where is the necklace now?”
I opened my hand. “It got tangled in my hair,” I lied. “The chain broke when I tried to get it free.”
“Don’t toy with me. Did you not get everything you wanted?”
“Oh Auberon, don’t be angry. Kiss me?”
His scowl melted into confusion. “A kiss?”
I wrapped my arms around him and before he could react, pulled him close. Then I kissed him as if I was still madly in love.
Before he could stop me, I fastened the pendant around his neck.
“What did you do?” he shouted, grabbing at the chain. He leapt to his feet.
I was faster. I ran to the gate and slipped outside, slamming it shut. Then I stared back at him, at the beautiful being staring at me from behind the iron bars of the fence.
“All I ever wanted was for you to stay.” I smiled. “Looks like I finally get my heart’s desire.”
Happy holidays! We’ll be back on our regular schedule next week.
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