A Thin Sliver of Her Heart

by Kelly Barnhill Read author interview March 19, 2018

There once was a Queen who desperately wanted a child.  Year after year, her longing grew, but no child came.

It is most unfair, thought the Queen.

She sought answers from her usual sources – physicians and therapists and Pilates instructors; sorcerers and apothecaries and television hosts – but no one could help.

“I’m sorry, Lady,” the therapist said. “I’ve failed you.”

“Off with your head,” the Queen said sadly. Her sadness was sincere. It’s tough to find a good therapist these days.

She beheaded the physician next.  Then the sorcerer. Then the apothecary. And with each beheading, the Queen felt more and more empty.

All I need is a child.

Finally, at her weekly pedicure, the nail technician mentioned that a witch living on Fourth Street (in the apartment under the book store) was particularly skilled in this sort of thing.

The Queen gave the technician a sharp look. “Why has no one told me before?”

“We thought you knew,” she said vaguely.

“Off with your head,” said the Queen with a yawn.

The next day she went to see the Witch.

“A child,” the Queen said. “It isn’t too much to ask.”

The Witch was small and brown and impeccably neat, and the apartment was small and brown and neat as well. Polished bookshelves. Hooks for hats and scarves. A bin to remove one’s shoes. She pressed her fingers to her lips and blinked her eyes, small and bright as buttons.

“Easily done,” she said. “But temporary. A child is built of feathers and wings.  They fly away and leave you forever.”

“That’s quitter talk,” the Queen said firmly.

The Witch sighed and extracted what she needed – muscle and bone, a bit of hair, two cups of tears, four dreams wound around one another into a tight, hard knot. And a thin sliver of the Queen’s heart.

“My heart?” the Queen said. “Are you sure? Won’t I be needing it?”

“Only a tiny bit,” the Witch assured her. “You’ll never miss it.”

This was a lie, of course.

The Witch disappeared the next day.

The baby was born in the spring – red and gooey and squalling. Muscle and bone. A tuft of hair. Tears flowing like rain from the baby’s eyes. A knot of dreams raging in her skull.

“You must never leave me,” the Queen said, tracing the smile of her heart’s sliver on the baby’s chest.

She held the baby in one hand, and started to slowly curl her fingers into a tight fist. Once the child was small enough, she tucked her into a glass locket, and closed it with a kiss.

“Only a kiss will open it,” she said, giving the locket a loving tap. “You must never leave me.”

And so the baby lived in the locket.

“Congratulations on the birth of your child,” people said to the Queen. “Um… where is she?”

“Safe,” the Queen said.

The Witch sent a gift – a clutch of feathers and a picture of a bird wearing a locket. Flying away.

“Soon,” the picture said.

The Queen screamed at an empty room.

The package arrived by post. There was no return address. That was reason enough to remove the head of the postman, and while it did her heart good to do so, its tonic effect on her nerves was fleeting at best. In her dreams she was haunted by the image of the bird. And every morning she found a handful of feathers clutched in her fist. She had no idea how they got there.

Soon.

The word was everywhere. Whispered in corners and scrawled on graffitied walls and weirdly visible in orange rinds or pizza boxes or in the shapes of clouds. The Queen banned the word from dictionaries and official documents. She banned oranges. And pizza. And clouds. Still, the word was everywhere. She did her best to ignore it.

The Princess grew. Through the locket’s pink glass she saw the world in its ugliness. Hidden grimaces; grasping hands; frightened eyes. The casual selfishness of the Queen.

Even worse, she saw the reflected faces of the beheaded, peering back at her. Fly, Princess, the faces said. Fly away.

“I can’t,” the Princess said. “I’m trapped in here.”

Every night she had a dream about a small brown woman in a small brown apartment with polished bookshelves and soft chairs for a nice afternoon’s read. The woman was pleasant and kind and welcoming. A Witch, the princess knew, though she didn’t know how she knew. “Soon,” the Witch told her every night in her dreams.

“Soon what?” the Princess asked, but every morning she woke up before she could get an answer.

On the morning of her eighteenth birthday, the Witch arrived.

The girl knew her instantly. She leaped to her feet and pressed her hands against the glass.

“Off with your head,” the Queen said through a mouthful of bonbons.

“I think not,” the Witch said mildly, her hard eyes glittering. “I’ve come to release the girl.”

The Queen clutched her locket. “She will never leave,” she said.

“On the contrary,” the Witch said. “You prepared her for flight from the beginning.”

The Princess peered through the gaps between her mother’s fingers. Now this, she thought, was interesting.

“Your dreams, once knotted in her head, have untangled. They have lit her mind on fire. Such bright thinking cannot be contained.”

The Queen screamed, and so did the Princess. The tiny locket blazed. The Queen’s hands blistered and burned.

“Her tears flow freely for the crimes of her mother. They are tears of action.”

And tears flowed from the eyes of the Princess, filling the locket, leaking from the sides, straining at the lock.

“You gave her muscle and bone. Strong muscle. Hard bone.”

And the princess attacked the glass – weakened now by water and fire – a kick, then a punch, then a kiss. And it shattered forever. The Princess hovered before her mother – all feathers and wings.

“My heart,” the Queen said, sinking to her knees, slicing her skin on the shattered glass. “Thief.”

“Don’t worry,” the Princess said as she flew away. “You’ll never miss it.”

But the Queen did. Desperately. It was most unfair.

About the Author:

Kelly Barnhill is the author of the children's novels The Girl Who Drank the Moon, The Witch's Boy, Iron Hearted Violet, and The Mostly True Story of Jack, as well as the short story collection Dreadful Young Ladies. She received the Newbery Medal in 2017, as well as fellowships from the Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the McKnight Foundation. She is the winner of the World Fantasy Award, the Parents Choice Gold Award, the Texas Library Association Bluebonnet, and a Charlotte Huck Honor. She also was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the Andre Norton Award and the PEN/USA literary prize. She has been on the New York Times bestseller list for a bunch of weeks now, as well as the Indie Besteller list. She is a teaching artist with COMPAS, a statewide community arts program.

About the Artist:

Leslie June is a digital media professional and underwater photographer. She currently builds websites and takes photos in Asheville, NC.