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Heart-Shaped Box

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"The heart is forever inexperienced.”—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers


In May, John has a terrible dream, a nightmare divergent from blood and sand: The good light is sharding on the Thames’ runoff. The dust of London plane trees has fallen on John’s shoulders, his coat, his hair. He has been walking a long time.  His hands are cold, and his mind is clear. 

When the black car pulls up, he stops and gets in.

“You’re in shock,” Mycroft says.

"No,” John says.

“An explosion in central Switzerland,” Mycroft says.

The dust from the plane trees sifts to the floor of the car like ash.


Awake, and choked, John thinks of the question he was asked not long ago, the only one that really matters: What might we deduce about his heart? He told Mycroft that he didn’t know, but of course he does.

Sherlock is in the kitchen, remote and alive. 

“Good morning,” he says. “You didn’t sleep well.”


In May, the constellation Virgo rises over the city. It’s full of double stars (or so Sherlock said, having googled it by accident.) John can sometimes spot it from Baker Street, the light island faintly ticked with its fixed binaries.

Hawthorns bloom on Primrose Hill.


The hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a heart tonic. (Thorns, chastity, something impenetrable: John is an expert on leaps of faith.) What might we deduce about his heart? He says he doesn’t know, but of course he does: The heart is a locked box.  The heart is a puzzle. The self is a cypher.


“Broken heart” may be a root metaphor, John types, (what rubbish is this?) but nothing is clearer for it.


Sherlock is talking to him about surfactants and crime scenes, about OH groups and secondary bonding.

There’s a dead girl in the thin grass, one arm flung out, a hole in the center of her chest.

“Face of an angel,”  Lestrade remarks.

Sherlock is fixed on the crimson depths. 

"John," he says,“Come have a look.”


John has always looked at the world tenderly, but set Sherlock loose in a vortex of desire and he doesn’t know where to turn his gaze.  X-rays will tell you some things, but not what you really need to know.


“You stand with your hands behind your back,” Sherlock says, amused,”to keep from doing work you don’t want done.” 

Or work that I do, John thinks.


John’s hands are quick and dexterous, and his aim is admittedly very true.

But one must be careful what one breaks into; one might have to duck, get shot at, discover something one doesn’t want to see.  Houses, devices, complex beings: One must be careful what one unlocks.


Sherlock: drugged and sleeping. At three AM, John leaves the door open a crack, sits on the bed as lightly as he can. 

Sherlock mutters,"John? What are you doing? "

"Just seeing you’re all right," John says.

Sherlock takes his hand and presses it flat against his ribs.

"Well carry on then," he says.


John thinks about explosions that didn’t happen: The pool, the ghost plane, his terrible dream.

In June, an artist raises fake constellations all over the city. At the Bethnal Green Tube station, a tribute to Londoners who died there in 1943, over a bombing that never was: Stars as memorial, as elegy, as tombstone. The dead are contained here; they’ll never get free.  John’s free to go, but he knows he never will.


There are puzzles shaped like ships and birds and stars.

Some need thousands of moves to unlock; some demand only the right one.

There are charms inside, or poisoned thorns, or something worse, or something better.


The pain of loss. The joy of redemption:  So give him a puzzle. Put his hands before him.