In celebration of my 37th trip around the sun, I have a present for you! This is one of my all time favorite stories of mine and its creation is one of my favorites too. It all started with a rock. A little bit of shiny with all sorts of interesting facets. This story hasn’t ever been in print but it has been on the radio and you can listen to it if you’d rather (and yes, that is in fact my voice doing the reading).
Four Hearts – Audio (Four Hearts starts at approximately 8:30 or so, but all of the Beam Me Up show is pretty good.)
By Sarah Wagner
The Texas sun sat low and fat on the horizon, its cruel heat already rising, leaching the moisture from the soil. Hetty grumbled to the tender plants beneath her hands as she ripped the weeds out of her precious garden. Every day, she fought the deathless grasses to defend her small patch of vegetables. Her husband, Zach and their two oldest sons were out counting the cattle they’d be driving north soon. With no girls to help her, she was left to manage the house, the garden and the two youngest boys on her own.
Hetty dug her hand deep into the dirt, wrapping her fingers around the tendrils of root and something else, something heavy and smooth. Tossing the broken plant over the low boundary fence, she inspected the strange rock that came up with it. Half the size of her palm, something of its size should have been removed in the tilling. It looked like silver water frozen in stages, smooth and bubbled, catching the shape of each drop as it ran over the surface of the layer beneath it.
The rock was heavy in her palm, too much so. She turned it over and over in her hand, feeling every smooth surface flowing to the next. Six-year-old Abel called to her, his voice reminding her of her duties. Hetty dropped the rock in the pocket of her dress. ‘Strange,’ she thought, noticing a thin, greasy residue on her skin. She wiped her hand on the hem of her dress and walked to the house.
The day passed quickly as she thrust herself into her chores. Hetty did not get a chance to sit down and inspect the stone with the laundry and the feeding and the milking and the cooking clamoring for her attention. She did manage an occasional clutch or caress, each time wiping away the oily residue.
Dinner was on the table, waiting, when Zach, Elijah, and Jeb, thundered in, ravenous. Over the din of conversation about the cattle and the newly purchased bull, Hetty’s thoughts wrapped solely around her pretty stone. Every time there was a pause, a shift of focus, she wanted to speak up and show off her prize, but her mouth refused to form the words. It seemed unconscionable not to tell her husband. She had never kept anything from him before, but she could not bring herself to tell him about her rock.
That night she lay in bed, restless while her family slept. Next to her, Zach snored. Hetty rolled away from him, trying to block out the sound. Sleep continued to elude her. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw the stone.
She climbed out of bed as quietly as she could and traded her nightgown for her calico dress in the dark. Immediately, she dipped her hand into the pocket, reassuring herself that the rock was still there. For a fleeting moment, she wondered at its size, she’d remembered it being larger, with more layers of pretty silver bubbles. Hetty stepped out onto the porch and smiled. The night, brighter than she’d ever seen, exploded with uncountable stars.
Drawn down off the porch, entranced by the sky, Hetty moved almost unwillingly, a smooth, graceful dance in the dark. The dry grass crackled beneath her feet. In the distance, the baleful cry of a wild dog pierced the night. Closer, in the barn, a horse nickered. Hetty turned her face to the sky, staring into its depths until she could not stand.
The earth caught her and held her, filled her with smells she’d known her whole life. Her eyes suddenly closed, held by the weight of fatigue. Hetty struggled to wake but, instead, plunged into dreams.
Huge, towering trees erupted around her, birthing full grown from the Texas grasslands. They spread their huge, rough arms out and up, enclosing her. The sky above her, what she could see of it, was shot through with undulating colors swallowing familiar stars. Shrieks from creatures she’d never heard before echoed through the thick forest. A foreign moon’s light caressed her, revealing the world around her in bright bluish hues. Huge trees with thick rough bark, plants she’d never seen, pulling in on her, closing her in. An aching emptiness she’d never felt before burned through her blood. The urge to hunt, to kill, overwhelming her sensibilities. As if she could escape the hunger, Hetty began to run. Feet pounding over soft loam, staining her feet black. Huge feathering plants reached for her, clutching at her limbs. She fought to break free of the clinging, stinging vines, somehow knowing that, if she stopped, the plants would rip her apart.
Finally, Hetty broke free, flinging herself into a large clearing. She landed hard on a pile of sticks, poking into her sides. The offending mound met her critical eye as she picked herself up. Not sticks of wood but bone of some kind picked clean by scavengers, held together by sinuous metallic threads, glinting in the moonlight, silver like her pretty stone. Beneath the bones, she saw a mass of black spheres the size of her fist.
A noise to her left, a snap of twigs and rustle of underbrush, sent her backwards, rushing for the brambled shrubs next to the vines. The thorns dug into her flesh, tearing at her, but she did not stop, pushing in until she was safely hidden in the arms of the bush.
Two strange creatures stepped into the clearing, tall and gray, walking on two legs, naked except for bags slung over their shoulders. The things were talking, at least she thought the strange twitters that passed between them were words. The taller of the two bent down to the bones, reaching beneath them to remove the black spheres. The two creatures knelt on the ground, beating the spheres against stones until they split open.
Fear spiked through her when the first sphere broke and one of the creatures held up its prize in the air. A silver stone, with bubbled edges that glinted in the moonlight. The creatures put the stones in their bags and, when they’d collected them all, moved away in the direction they’d come.
Hetty waited, trembling, until they were gone. Waiting longer, until she knew they would not hear her before creeping out from her hiding place. In the distance, something exploded, the ground beneath her feet trembling slightly. A shadow obscurred the moon and Hetty looked up to see a small oblong shape shooting up through the sky, into the stars.
Hetty tried to move, to stand and explore but found herself lying on the ground near the porch steps, staring into the face of the moon.
The nausea struck as Hetty cleaned up after breakfast. Her stomach reared up, violently twisting and sending her running outside. She moaned between heaves, kneeling on the ground. Shaking, she hauled herself to the hand pump for water. Hetty took the tin cup from the hook on the pump and filled it. The water splashed over the rim of the cup, over her face and neck when her hands refused to be still.
Hetty stumbled into the house, oblivious to the frightened looks from her youngest children. Their panicked questions went unheard as she collapsed on the floor. Consciousness slipped from her grasp and she tumbled gratefully into the dark void.
“Hetty.” Zach’s voice brushed her ear. “Henrietta Jane, you need to open your eyes.” He placed a cool rag tenderly on her forehead. Hetty struggled to reach the surface but could not seem to get there. “I’m riding for Doc Ellison. I’ll go as fast as I can. Just hold on until we get back.” He pulled the quilt up over her trembling body. “I need you to wake up, Hetty.” She didn’t know if he kept talking. She could no longer hear him.
Fragments of her dream were still quite clear in her mind, especially the wild hunger that kicked and seethed in her gut. She tried to block it out, to end the pain. She had children to take care of, a house to keep. Her home would not take long to fall apart if she remained confined inside herself. By sheer force of will, Hetty opened her eyes.
It was dark and quiet in the house. The bed beside her was empty. Hetty laid there for a moment, listening to the creaks and groans of sun-baked wood. Underneath the natural night noises, something else beat. Four steady drumbeats pounding in the dark. The hearts of her family. The need to feed, to consume, drove her to sit up. As her head lifted off the pillow, she felt something gently falling off her head. Touching her fingers to the back of her head, she swallowed a cry as she touched bare scalp. Panicked, Hetty turned to look at her pillow. Even through the darkness, she could see the coiling mass of pale lifeless hair mottled with blood. She ran a tentative hand over her head, tears streaming down her face as clumps of hair filled her hands.
The rhythm of the four hearts pounded in her ears. Hetty stared at the door, sickened by the terrible thoughts going through her head. Images of tiny pale bodies, defenseless in their sleep. Their hearts pumping. Their blood coursing. Their flesh tender beneath her teeth. The hunger spoke to her in thick, roiling waves. Calling her. Begging her to satisfy it. Hetty flung open the window and climbed out into the night. She looked at the house, trembling beneath the weight of her need.
Those defenseless bodies that could so easily satisfy her cravings were hers. She had given them life; she could not take it, too. She would not. Her babies were in there, the fraying, tenuous bond driving Hetty away. She had to get as far from her babies as she could before she forgot them completely. Their names already lost in her waning mind, Hetty ran off into the night.
The scent of it filled her nose, a lone cow in the south pasture. Hetty could feel its heart beating, steadily in sleep. It woke as she approached, thunderous heart beat racing, liquid eyes wild with fear as it began to run. As though she were two selves, Hetty watched from behind her eyes as she leapt onto the cow, toppling it, sinking her teeth deep into its meaty neck. Blood surged over her as, inside, Hetty screamed in horror.
Looking at the foul massacre at her feet, her revulsion grew. She lifted her hands cautiously to her face. Everything felt so different, so completely foreign. Her eyes grew larger, shifted towards her temple. Her nose sunk into her thinning cheeks. Her jaw expanding, lengthening to hold her new, sharper rows of teeth. Hetty ran her hands downward only to find that her breasts had deflated, her maternal hips narrowed. Only her mother’s heart remained.
Before her mind went the way of her body, Hetty raced southward. She had to get the monster as far away from her offspring as she could. She ran until the four heartbeats grew distant, then silent. Beyond the urge to return to feast.
Through the night, she ran as fast as her new, powerful legs and longer arms would allow. Hetty tried to bury the pretty rock deep in the earth where no one could find it but when she took the rock from her pocket, what remained of it melted in silver rivers, burrowing in to her palm, disappearing in her changing flesh. While a small piece of Hetty still fought, before Hetty became wholly Not Hetty, she forced her new form to turn away from the farms and towns, away from people. She dropped her bloody clothes beside a fence before she climbed it, the shredded fabric a hindrance to the new frame.
When the first hints of light became visible on the horizon, she searched for a place to rest. She claimed the den of a coyote and devoured its occupants. Digesting, sated, she slept, dreams of jungles filling the new, Not Hetty mind. The jungles that had been.
In the dark, the creature continued her journey south, seeking some remnant of the world she knew. Endless cycles of hiding and running passed before the jungle embraced her, pulled her into its dark, lush arms. Leading her deeper into its expanse. The sky lightened and darkened. The new thing hunted and claimed a small tunnel in the dirt as her den. Intent on the hunt, stalking a large, warm animal she caught the scent of others. Instinctively, she trailed it, the scent of pack. Of home.