Paper Heart

by Ally Malinenko

When she was born the doctors suggested she not be named. She wouldn’t last the night. No one had seen anything like it. Ectopia Cordis was an extremely rare disorder, a child born with their heart on the outside of their chest. But even then it is always at least flesh and blood. It is always a pulpy red organ.

What Mr. and Mrs. Kagit saw on their daughter was not. They called in the specialists who did not speak Turkish.

“But I don’t understand,” Mr. Kagit said, careful to speak slowly so as to not trip over his accent.

“Neither do we,” the doctor said. He still wore his scrubs and Mr. Kagit, who fiddled with the hat in his hand, couldn’t stop his eyes from darting down to the blood and then back to the doctor’s face. Blood. So much blood.

“Is she all right?”

“Your wife?”

He nodded. One at a time. His feet were sweating in the plastic booties.

“We must warn you. Mr. Kagit, the child will probably not survive the night,” the doctor said on his way back through the swinging doors.

Later, by his wife’s side, he held the child. Her dark eyes, stared up at him, a wintery midnight cold. She didn’t seem to blink. Nor did she fuss. On her chest, the child’s small heart expanded and contracted, crinkling, made of paper, like an origami box. It was white and seemed to have the exact consistency of tissue paper. He lifted a finger, wondering.

“Don’t touch it,” his wife said, stirring in her sleep. “They said she will not survive.”

“Shhhhh,” he soothed his wife. Her eyes closed and he brought his daughter closer to his body as if he could pass to her something real, something red and liquid. Something organic. His daughter. With her paper heart.

The reporters came when she survived the night. Then the vigils started. There were candles and weeping women. Baby Kagit was declared a miracle.

More specialists arrived from Istanbul. They took the child and laid her on cold metal and with more cold metal they poked and touched at her beating paper heart. She did not stir. She did not cry. In fact, she had yet to make a sound.

“We’re sorry,” the specialists said, passing the child back to her mother. “She will not survive. One cannot live with a paper heart. There is nothing we can do.” The specialists packed up and left town that night.

They loved her hard and fast, knowing she would not survive. But she did. After the first week they started to wonder, what if? They asked the doctors again but their answer never changed. She cannot live with a paper heart. When a week turned into a month, they named her, Narin Kagit.

When she was two months, they began to play music for her, watching her little paper heart flutter with excitement.

When she turned a year old, the whole town had a celebration; long lines of people filled the dusty streets, their hands full of warm food covered with cloth. The doctors let the Kagit family go home. Why not? Her one year was like a lifetime to most. Each morning, when Mr. Kagit lifted darling Narin out of her crib, her mouth still quiet, her throat fluttering but soundless, her eyes bright and laughing, it was a gift. They doted on her, they loved her, they kissed the dark hair that grew on her head. They kissed her downy eyelids, her round cheeks. They kissed her slender toes, her long arms. At night they wondered, inside never aloud, what she would have looked like if she were able to grow. Her warm mocha skin, her dark hair, her black black eyes. She would have her mother’s beauty and her father’s strength. She would have the best of both of them.

They performed a ziyarat and took her to the türbe, lifted her in the air, and pressed her face against the chalky stone. Even then she did not make a sound. They prayed hard and fast for a cure.

When she turned two, they had another celebration. She was a blessed thing. A child of great importance. She was a message from Allah, from the Great Spirit. The town gathered to watch her walk and run, Narin’s dark hair flowing behind her, her paper heart fluttering. She must be a message, they said, a message from the heavens. We should all live so free, they said. Praise, Allah. She’s a prophet. Will she ever speak?

When she turned five, they decided, with a shrug of their shoulders, that she should go to school. What choice was there? So they packed her a small lunch and brought her to the schoolhouse.

“Don’t let anyone touch your heart, okay taçyapraği?” her father said. He drew with a finger a little circle around her chest and she nodded. “And you stay far from the water, okay?” The water would melt her paper heart, turning it to mush and stopping whatever force flowed through her veins.

As so she did. And the years came and went and came and went and Narin grew up, tall with a strong spine and long fingers and dark hair and black bottomless eyes. And eventually they all stopped thinking of her as their little miracle and the people of the town went back to work, back to their lives and when she passed them on the street they nodded as custom instead of gesticulating and kissing her palm which was by all means, just fine with Narin.

But still she didn’t speak. She carried a slate at her hip and an endless supply of chalk was always dusting everything she touched and leaving little pocks of powder along her cheek or the back of her hands. She seemed unable to speak. Or unwilling. Her parents assumed it was part of her condition. A paper heart and no voice. But still, Narin was happy and light and good.

The day he arrived was just like any other. He hadn’t planned on coming to this town, he told her later, but he hadn’t planned anything, he said often and with a sigh.

His name was Damla and he did not know his parents. He was thin, wiry, as if his body had been stretched too far over his delicate years. He had no memory of his parents. Only of the orphanage, the hot kitchen, later the workhouse. He left when he was eleven and had been walking ever since. He worked when he could and he walked. He couldn’t remember how old he was.

He could not read so when Narin wrote on her tablet he shook his head. Instead he just stared into her eyes and she into his and they understood one another as millions of lovers have for centuries. Damla, like Narin, was born different. But he was never thought to be a message from Allah. Born without tear ducts his eyes leaked all the time. Even when he smiled, even when he slept, glistening tears, dripped down his face, staining his skin, like a river corroding rock. In the workhouses of other towns, they called him the devil. “Serpent tears,” they hissed, spitting at the floor near his feet.

“I cannot stop,” he told her, dabbing a stained cloth at his eyes. “I am always crying.”

The first time they made love, she unbuttoned her shirt. Her breasts hung delicate and light, her nipples turned upward. Between them her paper heart fluttered. She climbed on top, and when he entered her, he touched her briefly, one slender finger just brushing her paper heart. His tears formed a halo around his head, staining the blanket.

They were not to be together, so naturally they always were. He wore no shoes so that he could steal into her home and climb into her bed. When he left she touched the warm dark spots on the pillow, left by his tears. He told her she was beautiful, kissed her slender arms, the nape of her warm neck, the hollow of her throat. He traveled down her body carefully, always so careful to not let a single tear fall on her paper heart.

“Leave with me,” he told her under a sky like a soap bubble. Damla propped himself up on one elbow, his long hair brushing his shoulder. The tears fell, one two, landing on the side of Narin’s cheek as she gazed up at him. “Leave with me.”

She shook her head and smiled, always smiled. Her sweet Damla, with his big plans.

“We can run away together. We can leave here,” he begged.

She pulled him to her, her mouth closing over his to keep all those words inside. He kissed her back, pulled her on top of him, her paper heart fluttering.

But Damla had been right. They should have left. One miracle can bless a town, give it new life, and inflate it like a paper lantern to create a light against the darkness. But two miracles rub up hard against luck. Two miracles are suspicious, greedy. And a third miracle, secret love, is the most suspicious of all.

Towns talk. After the rains, they pull from the mud all the things that people bury. They pull up gravestones and fear. They pull up broken toys and hope. Sometimes they pull up lies and suspicion.

The fire started in the workman’s camp where Damla should have been sleeping. Should have, but wasn’t because Damla was in the poppy field, naked and entwined. The smoke rose like a living thing, tamping out the sky. The flames, new to this world and hungry, licked and tasted everything they could find. They even licked the workers whose screams reached the ears of the two lovers in the poppies. Narin and Damla dressed hastily, racing hand in hand towards all that death and destruction. By then people had gathered, passing bucket after bucket after bucket to try and snuff out the flames. Narin saw her father, sweat on his face, his hands shaking as he passed bucket after bucket after bucket and he saw her. He saw her quickly unclasp hands with the boy. He saw her shirt mis-buttoned so that the collar was split wide and through it one could see the slightest crinkle of fluttering paper.

And the rest of the town saw it too. One miracle is a good thing. Two is spoiling it.

The people saw Narin, her clothing askew, her hair wild, tangled with bits of grass. They saw her now as a woman; as a dangerous woman. No longer was she theirs alone, their gift from Allah. And next to her, they saw Damla, the stranger, whose hands did not clutch bucket after bucket after bucket of sloshing water. Instead they wiped at his face, at his serpent tears which continued to fall, now mocking their pain. And they decided that he had taken too much. First, their sweet Narin and then their peace. He could not stay.

When the smoke cleared, the bodies lay scorched and still. Raw skin bubbled and popped. The death smell drifted everywhere. Eventually, it was all that they could smell.

When they threatened him, she did not speak. When they banished him, she did not speak. Damla did as he always did, took to the road, one foot and then another and then another.

“I told you not to let anyone touch your heart, taçyapraği,” her father whispered as they watched the boy with the serpent tears leave. The soap bubble sky popped. Her father did not stay to hear her first words, created by sorrow and birthed in pain, the harsh guttural words of a torn paper heart. When she cried, she let the tears fall until it turned first pulpy and then red and then, strangely organic.

ALLY MALINENKO writes poems and stories and occasionally gets them published. Her second book of poems entitled Crashing to Earth is forthcoming from Tainted Coffee Press. She currently lives in Brooklyn where she keeps re-writing the same novel over and over again.