How to Edit a Heart – a fantasy short story

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I squeezed hand sanitiser from the dispenser, the smell of alcohol mingling with the coppery scent of the library. It was important to be hygienic in a place like this, especially for the writing group.

Helen had set up folding seats around a plastic table in a side room, past crowded shelves, their raw red contents pulsing with life. Not the neat, shapely hearts of valentines, but the real ones. The ones that held stories.

The other writers looked up as I came in. Each of them had a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, one of Jim’s homemade cupcakes, and a reading cloth set out on the table.

“Oh good, you’re here at last.” Helen always smiled. Sometimes, I thought she meant it.

“Sorry,” I said, though I was only two minutes late, straight off a long shift. I took my seat, unfolded my cloth, reached for a cupcake.

“Why don’t you start, now that you have our attention?”

“Me?” I fumbled my cake, hastily swept up the crumbs. They formed an awkward little pile in front of me. “It’s not my turn to start, is it?”

“Go on.” Cheryl nudged me. “Your story’s so interesting. We’re all dying to read the next chapter.”

As far as I was concerned, I was only a heartbeat away from writing cop show fanfic, but the others looked at me expectantly. I unbuttoned my shirt, opened my chest, and with trembling hands, laid my heart out on my reading cloth. Blood ooze into the thick cotton as I pushed it into the middle of the table, careful not to catch an artery on my ribs. They say that many of the best authors die young, leaving a story full of confidence and vitality, but I was in no rush to find my place on the shelves.

The others leaned in. I ran my tongue around the inside of my dry mouth, wishing I’d had time to take out my water bottle. I clasped sticky hands together in my lap to keep from fidgeting, and looked from face to face, anxious to hear what they would say.

“I like the childhood anecdotes,” Cheryl said, “but they slow things down, and it’s at the hospital that things get really good.”

I nodded, leaned forward, pinched a strand of the heart’s muscle between finger and thumb. Helen had a professional editing scalpel, with a personalised grip, and when she made changes, she cut away with confidence. I wouldn’t dare wield one of those, even if I could afford it. What if I made the wrong cut?

I peeled off that piece of heart, laid it on a small cloth next to the cake crumbs. For a moment, I felt dizzy, like I’d missed a breath.

“Your description is still clumsy,” Helen said. “Here, here, and here.”

Her finger jabbed out, and I froze as she almost touched my right atria. I liked the parts she’d singled out, but everyone said that, to write, you had to be willing to get your heart broken, and Helen was so clear on what made good writing. I pinched away a piece of flesh, then another, and another, feeling weaker each time.

“Is this the best way to resolve the new chapter?” Jim asked. “The twist doesn’t feel right.”

With a pale hand, I took that part too, added it to the pile of discarded flesh, a monument to my mistakes. Cheryl watched me from the corner of her eye. I stared at the pile of crumbs, trying not to blush at my embarrassing attempts to tell a story.

“I know it’s not my genre,” someone else said, “but does this business with the talking crow make sense?”

“The villain’s motivation feels weak to me.”

“I’m not convinced by the scene in the gardens…”

I sighed, summoned what strength I still had, started peeling more pieces from my heart. With each one, the room became more distant, the voices flatter. I could bear to hear them, as long as they came that way, as long as I told myself I didn’t care. My heart beat quieter, its steady thump fading. I grew colder, weaker, my thoughts slow.

A hand on my wrist, holding me back. I looked from my blood-slicked fingers, to that other hand, up the arm to Cheryl’s face.

“Maybe I was wrong,” she said. “Those anecdotes at the start, they give your character life.”

“But you…”

“Try putting one back.”

Uncertainly, I picked up a piece, set flesh against flesh. A small part of my story knitted back together. Someone murmured approvingly.

“What else do you think is worth keeping?” Cheryl asked.

I looked at those discarded pieces. There was a strip of description that I loved. It didn’t fit now, but perhaps it could, if I grew the scene around it. I took that piece, felt its strength between my fingers. Helen glared disapprovingly, and for a long moment I hesitated. But owning a scalpel didn’t make someone an expert storyteller.

My heart beat louder as I put old pieces of story back in a new place.


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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.