That Hollow in His Chest, Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick
What do you do with a cheating husband?
You call your friend. “I found texts,” you cry. “Pictures. Much younger, much blonder. Tits so big she looks practically deformed.”
This is an exaggeration, and frankly an unkind thing to say, but your friend doesn’t interrupt you. She lets you wail over the phone about how your dreams are ruined, how your life is crushed, how he threw away everything you two worked so hard on. The tears are so thick and briny, running down your face and into your nose and mouth, that you begin to think you might drown. And wouldn’t that serve him right, to find you dead here, lungs full of water and salt that he caused you to make.
“Another heartless man,” you sob. “I should have listened to my mother.” (Your mother quite likes your husband and approved of the match, but this is no time for facts.)
Your friend is still on the line. She has been very calm, very patient, murmuring exactly the right things whenever you pause to cry. You are finally quiet; you have worn yourself out. And in that space between your ragged breaths, she is able, at last, to speak.
“I know someone who can help.”
No name, just an address. A bit outside the city, you need to drive to it. It’s nicer out here, you think, once you turn off the highway. So many trees that it must be ten degrees cooler, the sun barely able to break through the canopy of leaves and branches that cover the country road you drive down. Eventually you come to a sign marking the entrance of a long and winding path.
“Mrs. Morgan’s Apothecary and Tea Shop,” it reads. “This way.”
You turn down the road, and drive for another mile or so. The trees are thicker here, and you wonder if this could be a state forest or something like that. You had a boyfriend once who loved hiking, and to prove you were a good girlfriend you used to go with him. He would move quickly through the trees, leaving you to scramble behind him, trying to catch up. You would emerge from the trail sunburnt and bitten by bugs, splotches of poison ivy springing up around your ankles. You always pretended, though, that you had a great time. Come to think of it, he cheated on you, too.
The road ends at a neat little cottage that’s completely surrounded by every type of tree you can imagine. Oaks and birches and pines and weeping willows, plus many more you don’t recognize. You park your car and walk through the shop’s front door. A small bell rings, announcing your presence.
“Be with you in a second,” a voice calls from the back.
You take the time to look around the shop. Straight ahead is a register, and there are a few small tables tucked into random corners, but otherwise the entire shop is covered with shelves, each weighed down by rows and rows of jars. Some of the jars are labeled as tea, or herbs you recognize: sage, rosemary, coriander, normal things. Some you don’t know: valerian, knotweed, belladonna. Wait, that one’s poisonous, isn’t it? You think you read that somewhere, once. Then there are things that must be a joke: eye of newt, tongue of dog, wool of bat. Many jars are not labeled at all, which for some reason makes you nervous. Some of these contain things floating in liquid, pickled and shriveled, and you decide not to examine them too closely. You’re being silly, you think, but still, you pass by these jars quickly, seeking the comfort of cinnamon and nutmeg and thyme.
“How can I help you?” You turn and there is the voice that called out from the back, attached to the body of a small, dark-haired woman with too-bright blue eyes. She’s quite pretty, you think, though it’s hard to pinpoint her age. She must be wearing contacts, no one’s eyes are that blue.
“Do you need something?” she asks again, giving you a strange look. You’ve been staring, you realize. How embarrassing.
“Yes, sorry,” you say. “A friend recommended that I visit you, actually.”
The woman brightens.
“Right, of course,” she says. “This way.” She leads you into a back room.
She introduces herself as Mrs. Morgan, the owner of the shop. You’re in a small sitting room, seated in an overstuffed arm chair. Mrs. Morgan brings you a cup of tea, and then settles herself on a loveseat across from you.
“A broken heart?” she asks, knowingly. You nod your head. “I have just the thing for that. Of course, what I do here is a bit of an extreme solution. Before we go any farther, I just want to make sure you’re comfortable with the outcome.”
And then she tells you what she is going to do to your husband.
You think for a moment. What she’s suggesting is a bit harsh. But then you think again of the pictures on his phone, of all the years you wasted on him. At thirty-five, you don’t have a lot of time left, looks-wise. He’s stolen a valuable period of your life, your youth. He deserves what he’s going to get.
So you tell Mrs. Morgan yes, you’re sure. And she gives you a list of things you are going to need to get for her.
The list is a little more complicated than you anticipated:
Menstrual blood (one drop)
Bird skull (1)
Squirrel skull (1)
Semen (at least a tablespoon)
Amethyst (just a sliver will do)
Ring finger (left hand)
Heart (animal or human)
“The semen must come from him,” Mrs. Morgan tells you. “The menstrual blood ideally should come from you, but I’m not too picky. The finger can come from either of you. Doesn’t matter where you get the heart, but it needs to be fresh. Don’t rely on your butcher.”
“In the old days,” she adds, “they used to think the heart should come from a virgin, preferably one related to your man. That isn’t strictly necessary anymore, though it does lead to some interesting results.”
You look a little worried.
“If you’re squeamish,” she says kindly, “you can skip a few of these. The potion won’t be as powerful, but it should still work.”
You get all of the ingredients on the list. Every last one.
You bring everything back to Mrs. Morgan right before the full moon, as requested. She tells you to take a seat. Making the potion won’t take very long, she assures you.
You sit on a stool in her kitchen and watch her work. She adds the semen and your blood into a large pot. She tosses in the finger, and you try to distract yourself. You vaguely remember a story you read once, when you were young. In it, a beautiful woman stole knowledge from a great magician. He was stupid and horny and gave everything up at the first sight of a pretty face. Once she had what she wanted, she turned him into a tree.
You ask Mrs. Morgan if she knows this story. You aren’t sure if you’re remembering it right. She’s concentrating on the potion, and you have to repeat your question twice before she answers.
“There’s good money in knowledge,” she says absently, crushing bones in a mortar. “But there’s better money in heartache.”
She doesn’t say anything more on the subject.
Mrs. Morgan hands you a small vial.
“You should get him to drink this as soon as possible,” she tells you. “One week at most, though it will be most effective if he takes it in the next day or so.”
You reach for the bottle, but she stops you.
“And you’re positive about this?” she asks. “There’s really no way of reversing the process once it starts. I just want you to be sure.”
You are very, very sure.
“Now, let’s talk payment,” Mrs. Morgan says. Your stomach drops. Stupid you, you never once asked her what this would cost. You think back to all the fairy tales you read growing up. Things like this always come at a price. What would yours be? A firstborn daughter? Your voice? She can’t really take your soul, can she?
Mrs. Morgan names a figure. It is very, very reasonable. “I can take cash or card,” she says.
A few weeks later, you call the police and tell them that your husband is missing.
“I’m so worried about him,” you cry to the officers who come to your house. “He was acting strange, distant, and then a week or so ago he just got in his car and left. He didn’t tell me where he was going, and he won’t answer his phone.”
No one can get a hold of him, not his parents, not his brother. That poor family, the past month has been so hard on them. Why, only a week or so before your husband went missing, they found the body of his niece in the woods. She had gotten lost during a Girl Scout trip. The body was horribly mangled, an animal must have gotten her. She was missing at least one organ. It was a real tragedy. And now this!
The cops are kind. They promise to do their best to find your husband.
“Please bring him home to me,” you sob, and you play the part of a devoted wife so beautifully one of the cops falls a little in love with you. He hands you his card and tells you to call him if you need anything, anything at all.
In the fall, you take another drive out to Mrs. Morgan’s. The leaves have all changed by now, and it’s like driving through a tunnel of flames to get to her shop. Trees always look so beautiful when parts of them are dying.
You park outside, but you don’t enter the shop. Instead, you walk around back and into the forest.
You wonder if you’ll have trouble finding it. Mrs. Morgan drew you a map, but it turns out you don’t need it. You lead yourself right to it, as though it’s instinct. As though you recognize it.
There it is, an oak tree that wasn’t there just a few months ago. Old and weathered with an empty hollow just about chest-height. Heartless, you think, and you laugh out loud. You run your hand over the bark and the tree seems to shiver, covering the ground around you with leaves. You reach into this hollow, this heart-space, and place your wedding ring inside. Then you turn and walk back to your car.
Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick (she/her) lives in Philadelphia with her husband and black cat. Her fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Ellipsis Zine, New Gothic Review, and Coffin Bell Journal, among others. You can find her on Instagram at @shaunyfitz or on Twitter at @shauny_fitz.