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Heart Stitch

Jose Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer and teacher living in Central Florida with his spouse and their two teenagers. His fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Fantastic Stories, Fireside Fiction, and other professional markets.

You pieced it together decades ago; so far back that you don't remember not knowing. The way it works is this: you see the pain in people's hearts, the way somebody else might notice a rend in fabric or a run in a pair of stockings. And just like one might repair and reweave damaged cloth, you repair the pain, by removing it and connecting the threads of life that surround the damage.
But there are rules. They have to be willing. Some people are so attached to their pain that they cling to it and can't let go. The pain is all they have, and if you were to remove it there would be nothing left. You can't help those.
And the repair is not without cost. Each pain you remove stays with you, becomes one of your memories. Over the course of a long life, you have experienced every heartbreak known to humanity. You've been abandoned. Betrayed. Abused. Beaten. Disappointed. Unappreciated. Widowed by war and crime and once even by spaceflight. You know the sheen and strength of each type of pain, like a master weaver knows yarn.
But there's something about other people's heartache that makes it easier to bear than your own. And you feel as though you have been sent into people's lives to ease their burdens. Who would turn down a mandate like that?
Your thread, like anybody else's, will come to an end. Your abilities are noticeably diminished. Each time you use your power, you are a little more taut, a little less elastic. It hurts, and it takes longer to recover. What you don't know is what will happen when the last bit of give is gone. Will you die?
When you first see her on the bus, you try to talk yourself out of helping her. But her pain calls to you, and you realize you've been doing this too long to stop now. Mending damaged souls isn't what you do; it's who you are.
You stall, though. Strike up a conversation, though that's not at all necessary. And the more she tells you about her life, the more you realize you wouldn't withhold your gift even if you could. In her you sense a kindred old soul, and so when she gets off the bus, you claim it's your stop too, and then you ask her to join you for coffee.
In the coffee shop you lose track of time. You talk about life, about careers, about families. About loved ones lost. And you begin to notice the gaps in the cloth--the child who is mentioned, but only in passing, and never as an adult.
And so finally you look in her heart and find the rend inside. The son who died, but not well. Not mournably, but in an act of cowardly brutality. The son she still loves and misses, but who can sympathize with her?
You can, of course.
Taking her hand--something else that's not actually necessary--you look within her for the tear. You reach for it, but in the act of reaching you find that the last of your strength is gone. There is no more to give. What you do have is pain. Pain from every sorrow you've absorbed over the course of a lifetime, and pain from your own loneliness as well, from a life spent working the weave but not being a part of it.
Diamonds and stars blossom in your vision and you lurch sideways, knocking over both your empty cups. In slow motion you tumble to the ground, and then everything goes dark.
When you wake she is with you, riding in an ambulance.
"You had me scared," she says. "I thought I was going to watch you die."
"You've had far too much death in your life already."
She looks at you oddly. "I have," she agrees. "But that's the price we pay when we get to be our age. I'm sure you've seen a lot of suffering as well."
Nodding, you look inside yourself, perhaps for the first time. Everything you've experienced is there, not so much staining as dyeing your tapestry different colors. It occurs to you that you are in less pain now than you were in the coffee shop, on the bus, when you woke up this morning. You look forward and see new heartbreaks, but they will be your own. Your days of soaking up strangers' pain are behind you.
And that's when you understand. You weren't sent to her; she was sent to you.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 20th, 2017

Author Comments

"Heart Stitch" was written for a summer flash fiction contest put on by the Codex Writers' Group. I spent several hours freewriting to the various prompts, which is my usual technique, only to come up with nothing I liked. A day later I revisited the prompts and focused on where my heart and thoughts were outside of my writing life. It hit me that what I was most caring about in that moment was the idea of having a tribe, of feeling woven into the tapestry of relationships that forms our social groups. From there the metaphor evolved to weaving as healing the pain in people's hearts, but I still found myself dwelling on a protagonist who was in some way outside of our usual relationship bonds, and how healing for them would have to look. The story is told in second person because that was the only way I could hear it.

- Jose Pablo Iriarte
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