The Witch’s Heart

February 15, 2011


Rhysling Award nominee

Nicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, two ferrets, one Changeling, and many many books. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Apex Magazine, and Fantasy Magazine. She is the author of Desideria, Demon Lovers and Other Difficulties, and The Winter Triptych. Her current novel-in-progress is a blend of steampunk and mythpunk, with a Lady Explorer, a fake Tarot, a workers’ rebellion, a demon-possessed airship, and other miscellany. She can be found online at

Well, it ain’t like the shotgun isn’t loaded,
like he gets the shakes to aim, like he couldn’t
plug a flying nickel at four dozen paces, soused, blindfolded,
in a foul wind, turned round thrice and told to fire. Ain’t like she’s
some kind of looker, neither, nor a lady, not this
tinpot saucebox with her rusted key, her rusted teeth, the field mice
in her hair, her gravedigger’s hands, her grave, the way
the coffin reeks of long-cooled copper, long-dried blood. Ain’t like
he hasn’t blistered with the digging, hasn’t peeled back two nails
prying up the lid; it sure as hell ain’t like he didn’t come here
with a grudge. Well, more fool him, unmissed, unmourned, without
the good sense God gave any kicking mule, he doesn’t shoot. He kneels
down in the muck to reach her spine, that place her wings would be
if she had wings instead of brawl-scars, love-bites, verdigris.
And turns the goddamn key.

Opening, her eyes are arclights; her mouth a gash; her voice a knife
drawn rasping down a wall. Another one? she says.
Ain’t you lot bored of trying to kill me yet?

What he recalls: the house his mama birthed him in.
First kiss, first fight, first tree he fell out of, first time
mouthing hymns between a lover’s thighs, first man he shot
pointblank for looking at him wrong. The way his poor dead wife
would thrash her way through feverscapes he couldn’t see,
drowning in her traitor heart’s own blood. Not his name. Not
where he’s from. Not anymore. Just that he needs to best this
she-monster, chop out her heart, and wring its metronome to surcease
and a steady drool of gore, and maybe then—
Her laugh’s like chewing glass. She says:
You’re all the same, you gunslingers, you ne’er-do-wells, you seventh sons,
each looking for a dame to rescue, a curse to lift, a witch
to kill, a reason to keep walking, to keep fighting, to not lie down
and die. You think this is a game? You think they buried me, all warded
against walking, ’cause I’m dead? You think killing me’ll bring whoever back,
your sweetling, your firstborn, your boyhood pet? You think I don’t
know you?—She feints at him, he ducks and fires. That laugh’s
the last thing that he hears.

Well, it ain’t like this one didn’t shoot, she muses after, picking teeth
out of her teeth, tossing the gun, the boots, the skull, onto respective
cairns. Ain’t like he didn’t try. She’s been around a while’s all; she’s learned
a heart’s a weird hot willful thing, just won’t stay where you put it. Hers
has been love-letters, bullet-casings, baby shoes; a hangman’s knot, a door,
a tomb, a dream of fire; a single looping flare of memory like a glass caught
in the instant that it breaks. And in the moment that the shot rings out,
each time ’round she holds her breath and shuts her awful eyes, for
in that moment, far as she can figure, the lost thing that they’re firing at
could be anywhere at all.

© Nicole Kornher-Stace

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