Atria (Short Story)

Two friends and I decided to do some short-form writing based on io9‘s Concept Art Writing Prompts. The furthest we got was 2/3 of us did it once. This is my entry based on the image below, titled “A Boy in the Hall of Hearts“. The piece is by concept artist Brun Croes, via Concept Art World.by Brun Croes

The boy stood perplexed at the scene in front of him. Arranged in a regular grid were wooden pedestals, atop them bell jars containing what could only be hearts. (He’d studied organs in science class last term and the heart was his favourite because he liked the word “ventricle”). Stranger than the appearance of the suspended army was the sound. Each heart was still beating, but not in unison. A deep cascade of thuds expanded throughout the room, unceasing. There were so many hearts that the first had beat its second before the last had beat its first. It created a tension as the tumbling sound had the listener expecting a crash at the bottom of the fall. But the crash never came. He closed his eyes, screwed up his face and shook his head, attempting to lift the mesmeric effect of the rumble. He reached toward the nearest jar but stopped as he noticed the undisturbed dust covering the stately container. Below the glass he could see a small brass plaque, too dusty to read. He ran his finger across it, lifting a layer of dust and leaving a line of shining brass in its wake. He played with the dust between his fingers and felt its grainy texture resolve to nothing as it rejoined the air. The plaque read

Meredith Finchley
How he looked at Sarah in Ivory

The boy could derive no meaning from this other than the obvious name, so he moved to the next.

Hiroyuki Watanabe
The flower in Chaos

At this point, if pressed to guess, the boy would have offered “authors and the titles of their overwrought high school poems”. Well, he would have if he had known the word overwrought.

“It’s a title.” said a voice from the shadows behind the boy. It was deep, but strained. It startled him and as he span to face its source he knocked into one of the pedestals. It teetered back and fourth silently, the sound masked by the beating of the hearts. The boy looked on with the guilt already pooling inside him in anticipation of the breaking jar. It fell, taking the pedestal with it, but when it struck the ground it merely bounced, then rolled back and forth a little until it came to rest. The unsettled dust floated down above the scene of dismay. The boy noticed now that the base of the bell jar had a set of thick wires running from the bottom of it, into the pedestal and on down into the floor. They were the kind of wires he knew not to touch, like the ones attached to his brother’s amplifiers in the garage.

The voice behind him let out a raspy and, he could have sworn, sarcastic sigh. A shape shuffled out of the shadows; a tall, thin man in a grey chequered suit with an unbuttoned shirt. He was pale, with greying temples and messy stubble that betrayed a lack of vanity. There was a warmth to his face, though, despite the displeasure it now displayed. He moved slowly towards the fallen vessel, staring at the boy through a frown and never breaking eye contact. The boy stood speechless, afraid. The man first picked up the pedestal, uncoupling it from the wires. He then crouched in a weight-lifting pose and fumbled to get purchase on the jar, sliding his fingertips beneath the curve. He exhaled and lifted the heart with a strained grimace. He managed to place it back on top of the pedestal, exhaling again through puffed cheeks, sweat moistening his forehead. He returned the wires to their proper places and caught his breath, then patted the top of the jar and stared at it wistfully for just a second. A faint, knowing smile crept into his lips. He turned his attention to the young wrecking ball.

“Don’t be afraid.” he said. “You can do no harm here.”

“But sir,” said the boy. “How come it didn’t break?”

The man smiled and raised his eyebrows as if he expected the question “Because these hearts are already broken.”

“They’re broken hearts? But they look fine to me. But my mummy says that great aunt Ashley died of a broken heart but my teacher didn’t tell me what that was when I asked in biology class. Are these broken hearts!? Can one of these escape and kill a person? Do they need to get a knife first?”

The man couldn’t help but show a toothy grin at the fervour of his young companion. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“A knife…? Relax. These hearts can’t hurt you. They’re alive but they’re not…sentient. Do you know what that means?”

“I think so. Like a monkey?”

“No, that’s simian, but close. It means they can’t think. So they can’t…design to harm you. Do you understand?”

The boy nodded.

“I’m sorry,” said the man. “It’s been a long time since I had to talk to a child. I forget the things they don’t know.”

“Can I ask a question, sir?” said the boy.

“You didn’t ask my permission for the previous barrage.”

The boy simply stared expectantly.

“Of course. Go ahead.”

“Why…are you standing alone in a room full of broken hearts in jars with wires coming out of them and weird words on plaques below them?”

“So direct. And detailed. Science really is your favourite subject, isn’t it, young man?”

The boy nodded again.

“This chamber contains all of the broken hearts from all of history, all the way back to the very first broken heart. But I haven’t seen that one; it’s too far back and I have weak knees. When someone in the world has their heart broken, I get a knock on that door you stumbled through and a small man hands me a jar and a brass plaque. I take the jar and, with some difficulty, place it on a pedestal. When I touch it I experience its owners heartbreak and then I engrave their name and a little sentence on the brass. I try to do them justice, without robbing them of their private pain.”

The boy tried to pretend he understood by nodding at what he guessed were appropriate moments, like “pain” and “knees”.

“So, what you’re saying is…that if someone falls over and breaks their heart…they send them here to…get better?”

The man pressed into his tear ducts with his thumb and forefinger while he scrunched up his face, frustrated with himself.

“No. Someone’s heart breaks when something makes them feel very very sad in such a way that they never ever forget it and thinking about it always makes them sad. It usually involves someone they think they love, but not always. Do you know what love…is?”

He sighed at his closing remark.

“I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that question.” said the boy.

The man smiled again. “Did you steal that line from your father?”

“I did. What broke Hi…ro…yuk…i’s heart?” He struggled with the unfamiliar name.

“Well, Chaos is the title of a book. He gave a copy of the book to a girl in his university class and wrote a very lovely little poem on the inside cover. He became friends with the girl but he liked her very very much. He wasn’t sure how she felt but he was hopeful. One day he was in her room and she left him alone for a moment. He decided to look inside the book to see the poem he had written. When he opened it, a pressed flower fell out. A yellow rose. He knew who had given his friend the yellow rose. It was another boy and he knew then that his friend and this other boy loved each other. He was very upset that she had put the flower in his book and he ran away from the room with tears in his eyes and never spoke to the girl again. She never found out why.”

“That’s sad.”

“Every story here is sad, but at least they’re all true.”

“What about Meredith?”

“Ah, Ivory is the name of a club, where people go to dance. Sarah is the name of a girl who is not Meredith.”

“So all of these hearts belong to someone who liked a person who liked a different person?”

“I’m sure they’d all argue at a deeper tragedy but that sums up at least 80% of the hearts here.”

“But what’s with all the wires? Are you trying to fix the hearts?”

“No, these hearts can’t be “fixed”. We call “them broken”, but they can no more be fixed than you can be made a bird. Broken is simply what they are.”

“So what do the wires do?”

“Well, that’s really what all this is about; why I work here. We use these broken hearts to make new emotions by mixing them with some other things. And then we send that back into the world for people to experience, and not just the people with broken hearts. This is how we keep human beings as an emotional people. And it’s why it seems like people’s feelings getting more and more complex. You have rooms like these to thank for most cultural renaissances. It’s sort of a positive feedback loop, but don’t try to do any conservation of energy equations on it because we’ll only end up with more questions and we have enough of those.”

“So it’s like mixing paint? When I mix blue and red paint I get purple paint and I like purple the best!”

“That’s…an incomplete but useful analogy.”

“So what do the hearts make?”

“Well, we can use broken hearts to make a few things, but we do have a primary export. But it’s a complicated emotion and you’re too young to feel it, sort of crucially so.”

“But I want to know what it is! What’s your purple?”

“Nostalgia. Nostalgia is purple.”

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