Everybody knows that Wizard Howl eats the hearts of beautiful girls.
He picks the beautiful ones, Calcifer knows, not just because Howl likes pretty things (although he does) but also because it takes a special sort of smug self-confidence to hand your heart over to someone who eats them and expect to get it back undamaged. It’s only pretty people who have that sort of conviction.
Stupid, silly girls, raised on fairy stories, thinking that breaking curses is easy and painless, thinking that because they’re beautiful they must be the heroine of the story, thinking that everyone with a pretty face gets a happily ever after.
They manage to find their way to the castle occasionally, the girls whose hearts Howl has eaten, where they hang about the door or the window, gray and dull and wispy, weeping in a dreary way, begging Calcifer to let them in (he never does) and wailing out their accusations at Howl (he’s never there).
I never should have given him my heart, they sob.
And Calcifer can never resist taunting them through the closed castle door, Why did you, then?
I thought I was special, they wail, I thought I was different.
I thought he’d give mine back to me, they say.
Stupid, silly, pretty girls, misled by their own vanity into thinking that rules don’t apply to them. Howl is prettier than all of them, and twice as vain, but when he gave his heart to Calcifer, he certainly wasn’t expecting to get it back.
Maybe that’s why Calcifer was satisfied with just the one heart, the way Howl never is; perhaps that’s why Howl’s heart still beats within Calcifer’s flames, hidden safely behind the logs in the fireplace, while the hearts that Howl consumes dissolve into nothing almost as soon as he swallows them, burning up inside him as if he’s the one who’s made of flame.
Sometimes Calcifer wonders about that, wonders if their bargain didn’t make him just a little bit human, wonders if it didn’t make Howl just a little bit demonic. Losing his heart definitely hasn’t affected Howl the way it does most humans. Howl is the opposite of gray and dull. He is fickle and flighty and fey, with eyes that are just a touch too bright and skin that is just a trifle too perfect, and a graceful way of moving that is just a shade—yes, just a shade—inhuman. Not that the stupid, silly girls he courts seem to notice, lured in by his beauty, by his pretty speeches and the tremble in his voice when he tells them how awful it is, living without a heart, how he’s suffering.
Howl suffers so artistically.
And so each one of those stupid, silly girls, when the time comes, lets Howl show them how to reach inside her chest and pull out her heart (like this; it’s easy), and each one of them hands it to him, and then they all act so surprised when Howl eats them.
I thought he’d give it back to me.
Stupid, stupid, silly girls. What a terrible reason to give someone your heart.
Howl eats their hearts up, every one of them, but it’s never enough for him.
I’m so hungry, he says to Calcifer, hand pressed to his chest instead of his stomach. So hungry.
Calcifer was never hungry like that. He was tired and frightened after he fell, but he never felt this gnawing emptiness of Howl’s. Calcifer feels an echo of it sometimes, in Howl’s displaced heart, and the feeling is both unfamiliar and slightly frightening.
(It takes a lot to frighten a fire demon.)
But it makes sense, Calcifer supposes, it makes sense that Howl is hungry the way that he never was. Demons are meant to live without hearts. Humans aren’t.
Howl can barely stand to eat human food anymore.
It tastes like ashes, he says, and for humans that’s apparently a bad thing.
Most days, he doesn’t even try. At mealtimes, Howl will make enough for two people, and then he’ll give his own portion to Calcifer, leaving Markl to eat alone. Markl never questions this, just as he never questions any of Howl’s other odd behavior.
Sophie is different. (Sophie has never thought she was beautiful, even when she was.) Sophie questions things.
Sophie, Calcifer thinks wearily, questions everything.
The first day, when Howl scrapes his bacon and eggs into Calcifer’s mouth, she doesn’t say anything, and she doesn’t say anything the next time, or the time after that, but she drags Markl to the Porthaven market with a grim look in her eye. Calcifer knows that look. It’s her conquering-this-castle-one-cobweb-at-a-time look.
Why are we doing this? Markl complains. Master Howl barely eats anything.
Sophie makes fish and potatoes and when Howl gives his to Calcifer, her mouth flattens out into a thin line.
This, Calcifer thinks, does not bode well.
Sophie tries everything. She makes spicy, exotic dishes and light, airy meals, and tasteless porridges suited for an invalid. She makes puddings and stews and pies and muffins and bullies Markl into buying cake after cake at Cesari’s bakery. Howl doesn’t eat a bite of any of it, and Sophie’s eyes get more and more narrow and the set of her mouth gets more and more stubborn.
Markl, she says abruptly one day, what does Howl like to eat?
Markl looks startled.
Oh, he says, I don’t know.
Have you ever seen him eat anything? she asks.
Markl frowns. Sometimes he’ll drink tea, he says.
The next time Howl’s home, Sophie fixes his tea herself, filling it with a ridiculous amount of cream and sugar and lemon, as if she’s trying to cram an entire week’s worth of meals into a teacup. She thrusts it into his hands belligerently and then shoves a plate of biscuits at him.
Thank you, Howl says, in a way that might be sarcastic and might be genuine and might just be confused. He takes three sips of the tea and crumbles a biscuit into his napkin and when he leaves, Sophie scours the dishes in a particularly violent manner.
Leave it, Calcifer wants to tell her. Just leave it, but he doesn’t and she doesn’t. Sophie is constitutionally unable to just leave anything.
That night, when she’s cooking dinner, Sophie gets out every single ingredient they have in the house and starts adding things haphazardly together in a giant pot, muttering be what Howl likes over and over again. The result is—well, nobody but Calcifer eats any dinner that night, and he has indigestion.
Calcifer, Sophie says, why doesn’t Howl eat?
Howl eats, Calcifer says cautiously, because it’s never been Calcifer’s place to explain the whole heart thing to any of Howl’s girls, and anyway, this is Sophie, and she’s different (at least Calcifer thinks so; he’s not sure what Howl thinks, especially when Sophie forgets to act old and her face blurs into something young and pretty and Howl watches her with an unreadable look in his perfect, flawless eyes).
Because this is Sophie, though, Calcifer can’t stop himself from giving her a little hint.
He just doesn’t eat the things that people usually eat, he says, and surely Sophie knows the rumors, knows what people say about Wizard Howl, will take this as her cue to break her deal with Calcifer and save herself.
You mean all that nonsense about him eating hearts? Sophie rolls her eyes. Don’t be silly, Calcifer; I’m serious.
You think it’s nonsense? Calcifer asks, shocked. None of Howl’s girls ever thought that it was nonsense. They all thought Howl wouldn’t eat their hearts, but that was because they thought they were special, not because they thought he was safe. Are you sure it’s nonsense?
Sophie gives Calcifer an unimpressed look, and goes back to sweeping the floor, which, Calcifer thinks, is probably for the best.
He isn’t sure what Howl would do if Sophie tried to leave.
After her conversation with Calcifer, though, Sophie does take to putting out odd things on plates around the castle: birdseed, hay, crushed beetles, raw meat, and once, absurdly, a mud pie.
(Howl, coming in one night still half in bird form, sees the seeds and goes into a paroxysm of silent laughter.)
The thing is, Calcifer is worried about Howl, too.
Because he’s stopped eating hearts.
At first, what with all that business with Sophie’s sister, Calcifer doesn’t notice what’s happening.
Do you think the hearts of sisters taste alike? Howl asks Calcifer, looking particularly inhuman as he turns the handle of the castle door, and this, Calcifer thinks, is a spectacularly bad idea, and, sure enough, Sophie gets suspicious and breaks out the seven-league boots, and Calcifer is only relieved when Howl drops the girl without eating her heart.
There are plenty of silly, beautiful girls out there, more than enough to keep Howl from needing to resort to Sophie’s sister. Howl will find another girl.
But he doesn’t.
Howl, Calcifer says seriously when he finally realizes what Howl’s doing, you need to eat. You’ll die if you don’t. Howl ignores him and goes upstairs to take yet another bath.
He starts coming downstairs later and later each morning in what Calcifer knows is an attempt to avoid Sophie’s attempts to make him eat breakfast. Sophie retaliates by feeding Markl first and then lying in wait for however long it takes Howl to come down.
Sophie! he says, drifting down the stairs into the kitchen. Howl’s feet barely seem to touch the ground these days. What do you think of my new coat? He spins, violet sleeves unfurling like petals. Sophie makes a wordless grumbling noise. Would you say that I look ravishing? Howl asks, posing in a way guaranteed to set a girl’s heart aflutter. Dashing? Ethereal?
About one good meal away from starvation, Sophie says bluntly. You need to eat.
Howl laughs. Dear Sophie. Always taking care of people.
Howl—Sophie says quietly, laying a hand on his sleeve. Her fingers are light, as though it is the petal of a flower she’s touching. Howl, edging towards the door, stops at the slight pressure of her hand. Whatever it is you eat—whatever it is you need, I will get it for you.
Calcifer feels himself flicker involuntarially, feels the beat of Howl’s heart go unsteady, because now, with Sophie’s voice low and her hand on Howl’s arm, and her face, young and beautiful, looking up sincerely into Howl’s, offering him whatever he asks for, now is the time for Howl to tell her, to show her (like this; it’s easy) and then Sophie will be just another empty girl, weeping on the castle doorstep—
A kind offer, Howl says, stepping back so that his sleeve slips from her grasp and smiling like it hurts. But I don’t need anything.
And then he’s gone, and Sophie goes to scrub the staircase landing so she can pretend she isn’t crying, and Calcifer burns low inside the fireplace grate, thinking gravely.
After that, Calcifer thinks he might understand why Howl’s doing this to himself. Although that doesn’t stop him from hating it. There’s the Witch of the Waste and Howl doesn’t eat, and there’s Madame Sulliman and Howl doesn’t eat, and there’s them moving the doors of the castle and Howl doesn’t eat, and he gets sick (Sophie tries to give him soup; he demands a bacon sandwich just to tease her and then throws it out the window) and Howl doesn’t eat, and there’s a war on and Howl. Does. Not. Eat. He flies around as a giant bird and he burns magic at a fantastic rate, and he doesn’t eat and he just gets thinner and thinner and more and more beautiful, as if he’s burning from the inside, burning away everything that makes him merely human.
Calcifer used to worry that Howl would get stuck as the demon bird because he forgot what it was like to be human. Now he worries that he’ll get stuck like that because there won’t be anything human for Howl to go back to.
And then, finally, there is that awful, endless night; the night of fire and gunpowder and Sophie pulling him out of the fireplace grate (even though no one but Howl is supposed to be able to do that, and what does that mean, that Sophie was able to?) Calcifer never used to care about the night, used to be a star, burning so brightly that there wasn’t any difference between day and night for him. Now he’s a fireplace demon without a fireplace, getting rained on and snatched up by that greedy Witch of the Waste, getting a bucket of water thrown over him (and what does it mean that Sophie was able to do that, too, without killing both him and Howl?), and the night, this night, is endless. He keeps going, keeps moving through the night, dragging the remains of the castle onwards in the darkness because that’s what Sophie told him to do, and when, when did Sophie gain this kind of control over Howl’s heart, that she can order it to disobey the fundamental laws of the universe (because fire dies when water is poured over it) and have it listen to her?
Calcifer dreams, half-awake, as he pushes the clanking, disintegrating remains of the moving castle through the dark, dreams of the night he fell. He dreams, or perhaps he remembers, the terror and exhilaration of falling and the warm safety of Howl’s hands and the feeling of Howl’s heart beating inside him for the first time, and he dreams, or he remembers, or he dreams that he remembers Sophie’s voice calling out to the two of them, that she says Howl and Calcifer and I know how to help you now and find me in the future, and then he awakens in the darkness, and that’s exactly what he’s trying to do, trying to find Sophie, the memory of Sophie saying take us to Howl merging with the memory-dream of her saying find me in the future because as far as Howl’s heart is concerned, Calcifer thinks, Sophie is Howl (Sophie pulling Calcifer from the fire, from the castle, and nobody-but-Howl can do that).
And then they’re back, Sophie and Howl, and Sophie is coaxing the Witch of the Waste into letting Calcifer go and he’s cupped in her hands (warm and safe, Howl’s heart fluttering against her fingers).
Sophie, Calcifer says, Sophie, I’m so tired.
I know, she says, I know, and tears off a little more wood from the platform that Calcifer is still moving somehow and sets it on a piece of rusted metal to make an improvised fire pit.
She slides him onto the wood and even as Calcifer’s flames leap up to devour the fuel with relief, Howl’s heart gives a throb of regret as they slip from Sophie’s grasp.
Calcifer looks over at Howl, lying, still and silent, on his back. His bird form is gone, feathers blown away by the wind, leaving behind something that is scarcely more human. Sophie kneels beside him and puts his head in her lap.
Howl, she whispers, and she’s crying now, tears falling down to sparkle like jewels in the black of Howl’s hair. Howl. She leans down and kisses him, lips brushing against his, butterfly light. I know how to help you now.
And then she’s reaching inside her chest (like this; it’s easy) and crying out, because it isn’t, oh, it isn’t easy to give up your heart, not when you really mean it, and she’s holding something small and bright to Howl’s lips and saying eat.
And—and—and then it’s over, and Howl is stirring, sitting up.
Sophie? he says. What’s happening? I feel so heavy, like there’s a weight on my chest.
A heart’s a heavy burden, Sophie whispers, one hand on her own empty chest, and Calcifer sees—feels the moment that Howl understands.
What have you done, Sophie? And there is nothing beautiful about Howl’s look of anguish, nothing artistic about the tears in his eyes or the clutch of his hands on Sophie’s shoulders.
Sophie looks at him like there’s nothing else in the world worth looking at. I gave you my heart, she says.
You’ll never get it back now, Calcifer tells her mournfully, his flames flaring blue and white around the edges, as he wonders if this is what weeping feels like for humans.
I know that, Sophie tells them, sounding puzzled, voice thin and eyes still on Howl’s face.
Why did you do it, Sophie? Howl says, voice rough and raw around the edges. Why would you do that?
Sophie reaches out a hand to touch his cheek.
Because I love you, she says, and you were hungry.
Howl turns his face into her hand, kissing her palm.
I love you, too, Sophie, he says quiet and honest and devastated.
Deep within Calcifer, something snaps, like old wood breaking, like green wood touched by fire, and he’s light, so light, and free and Howl is holding his own heart in his hands again.
Calcifer hovers by his shoulder, looking down at Sophie, with her empty eyes on Howl, looking down at the expression on Howl’s face and the heart in Howl’s hands.
She deserves better, Howl says, and Calcifer sees Sophie’s lips shape a silent no.
Maybe, Calcifer tells him. But this is the only one you can give her.
Howl leans down and presses his heart to Sophie’s lips, soft as a kiss.
This is yours now, Sophie, he says.
(And it is.)
Sophie, Howl says later, the two of them grinning at each other ridiculously as he reaches up to run his fingers through her hair. Your hair looks just like starlight, and this, from Howl, the man who loves the stars so much he caught one when it fell and made it a part of himself, this is the very highest of compliments. It’s beautiful, he adds.
Sophie says, You think so? and, Well, so do I! and throws her arms around him, pressing their bodies together, chest to chest and heart to heart.
I think we should live happily ever after, Howl tells her then, and oh, oh—