Weddings prove to be the perfect hunting grounds.
My brother—with his ridiculous scythe—prefers them, harvesting the overly excited elderly in the midst of their joy. He finds those who’ve imbibed too much, attempting to drive home instead of into a telephone pole. On occasion, a jilted lover will show up, armed and reckless, doing most of his work for him. Fortunately, there are also tiny bones in fancy fish and overweight aunts who dance until their hearts give out.
Hearts are normally my thing.
I smile, giving the young couple a thumbs up. The fake shutter sound of my digital camera is remarkably unsatisfying for what I’ve just done.
The groom’s frozen smile dissolves the moment he looks at me. We understand each other. I know he hasn’t been sure of this union, this marriage, these vows, this girl. In a flash, what tenuous strands that have connected his heart to hers have permanently been severed. Sure, he’ll soldier on through his sham of a marriage for the next five or six years. He’ll develop a taste for six-packs and affairs with insecure women. But with a flash of my camera, there’s now a hole in his heart where the affection for his bride had lain.
I put my digital camera back into its case.
From across the room, I see the dark shadows of my brother fade. Women nervously laugh, feeling a chill, asking for their husband’s sport jackets to hang over their shoulders. Middle aged men clear their throats, double down on telling raucous stories from their profligate past, as if their memories of youth were going to lengthen their lives. Even children pause amongst playing with their never-before-seen cousins to consider their mortality—if only for a moment. But death has passed them by.
But I am still here—looking for cracks in the hearts where I can affix my lens, taking a picture the moment a person falls out of love with another. Platonic or romantic, I am not picky. I’ll take as many hearts as I can—like our poor groom’s. His heart is now safely stowed in my digital camera, now a series of 1’s and 0’s.
At the wedding reception, I sip my wine white. I watch a little longer while the groom ferries his new bride around the hall, wondering when his ardor will reignite. Perhaps he’s had too much to drink? Perhaps it’s just wedding day jitters? Certainly when things settle down, he’ll feel the familiar warmth towards his beloved once again. Won’t he?
Of course not.
Don’t look at me that way, as if I were the one with a fragmented heart.
It’s not like I kill anyone. I am not my brother, although some of those whose hearts I’ve taken had wished I were.
My job is janitorial in the greater cosmic scheme of things. It’s quite simple. My brother is the gleaner of souls. I am the reaper of hearts. What’s remarkable is how weak the body of clay is—how useless without either heart or soul!
They aren’t innocent, these so-called victims of mine. They’ve flirted with the idea of not loving those that they should—and when their hearts crack open, even a fissure small enough for me to insert my long fingernails into—voila! A click. A flash. A picture of a face surprised at how easy affection can die.
My digital camera is an improvement on the other devices I’ve had to use over the millennia. Since mankind emerged from the Garden of Eden, drenched in sin, (or if you prefer, when mankind flopped onto dry land in its primordial amphibian form), my brother and I were already here keeping order.
My brother is partial to his curved weapon of choice to do what he must. Mine is a gentler task. In ancient days, I culled hearts by drawing the lovelorn’s portrait on clay tablets. It was not difficult for me—an artist at heart—but it was a little more time consuming than my 21st century method. But back then, there were far fewer people and time seemed longer.
To practice, I’d find an older man who’d taken on a new concubine, easily spotting the chasm in her heart. With my reed stylus, I would sketch the Mespotoamian mistress until she looked at her keeper with nothing but disgust. It was similar to my capturing the fraught relationship between master and slave, yieldlng very little affection for my considerable efforts. Unclaimed love was overly abundant, but the brutality of life in the Bronze and Iron Age did not encourage many seekers. If the Middle Ages brought man anything besides conquest and plague, it was the desire to love and be loved.
In days past, I recorded former lovers’ images on Egyptian limestone stela and Chinese oracle bones and papyrus scrolls. I’ve used quills and parchment and vellum. From daguerreotypes to 35mm film to Kodachrome, each technological marvel made my job easier and easier.
The digital revolution ensured my efficacy in keeping track of the vicissitudes of today’s 8 billion hearts, so many of them false—the poisoned fruit of the postmodern age. With the surge in population, my brother hired minions to keep up with the breakneck pace of collecting souls. Don’t think he doesn’t lose sleep delegating that kind of power.
As for me? I prefer my solitary work.
To be sure, ethical dilemmas arise on occasion when I go heart reaping. I wonder sometimes, is the fissure temporary? Could time sort things out between the two (as if it ever did)? Is it fair to harvest affection from one just to give to another? Much like my brother, I don’t wring my hands over our services. Just as man cannot be immortal in this realm, similarly man cannot accumulate a lifetime of love. Some of it must be retrieved.
To be clear: I take love away from the people who don’t value it. Contrary to what most people believe, there isn’t an endless supply of love in the universe; love is elemental—as finite as water. And like water, it takes many forms. And also like water, love is recycled in much the same way: collection, evaporation, condensation, precipitation.
As the Reaper of Hearts, my job is collection. The other three parts are chiefly controlled by man’s thoughts and, more importantly, man’s actions.
I work best at night. Homes with teenagers and young adults yield an especially bountiful harvest. Nothing like discouragement and guilt to cleft a heart in two! Listening outside of homes, I can practically hear the schisms rip from block to block:
“We didn’t raise you to be this way. How could you break your mother’s heart? It’s unnatural!”
“What do you mean a college degree is worthless? Your father has scrimped and saved to send you to engineering school.”
“I found this in your room. Don’t lie to me. Where did you get it?”
“I don’t hate you. I’m just disappointed in you.”
I look at the digital prints after I finish killing off their affection, one for another. How shocked the parents are in my pictures when they admit to themselves that the love they felt for their child was not actually love—but more of an obligation? An obligation that evaporates like dew, just after their child decides to live his own life and not the one that his parents have prescribed.
Regardless, freeing up the love supply from older parents ensures that new parents have an ample supply, as they hold their infants, sparkling with possibilities and promise.
In this business, sometimes even I’m fooled. I will see a person taking care of their elderly parents, tenderly helping the infirmed navigate their way to death. The care that’s required of these old ones rivals that of an infant: feeding, bathing, dressing, cleaning.
I think to myself, now that is the epitome of love. And sometimes it is.
But then I catch the glimmer in their eye, the eye that sees the untended checkbook and bank card, the eye that sizes up the real estate value of the house, the eye that sees how my brother’s visit can be hastened.
Taking their picture poses no ethical dilemma at all. But those particular pictures are dim and the return is low. How easy it is to no longer love the useful.
So weddings are my preference. Such complicated emotions, all disguised as love, all vulnerable to a sharp word, a sideways glance, a thoughtless gesture.
And while I see my brother lurk around the perimeter, nodding to me when he sees his work is done, mine never is. Because of all the fragile and fickle things in creation, man’s heart is the most tenuous.
And unless they guard their hearts very carefully, friends and lovers who pledge lifelong love can easily find their hearts missing, resting at the bottom of a camera bag.