It’s not all bad, a whispering heart. If you listen closely, it can tell you what you want.
Isabelle Sterling pulled the pickup truck off the gravel road and bumped her way to the windbreak thirty feet in. With the engine off and the windows rolled all the way down, it was quiet—at last. A soft breeze whispered in the tall grasses and rattled cornstalks.
Isabelle jumped from the cab. The tallest stalks reached well beyond her waist. She peered down row after endless row, all black earth and rich green. The scent of soil was thick in the air, warm from the July sun.
Farming wasn’t one of her skills. Marilyn wouldn’t let her near the enclave’s gardens—not even the potted herbs—for fear she might wilt them. Still, even Isabelle knew this was a good omen.
She headed for the passenger door and the precious cargo belted in the front seat—like a toddler. Her truck still wore the dust of Georgia, the black paint flecked with red, the deep rust the color of blood. She wore it too. Every time she licked her lips, she could taste the red clay earth.
Isabelle eased the wooden crate from the cooler in the front seat, kicked the door closed, and headed for the road.
The rest of the trip would be on foot. She wiggled her toes inside her combat boots. Since being discharged, she tugged them on once a year for this trek up the bluff.
They’d carried her through Afghanistan; they could carry her here as well.
At the crossroads, she inched forward, just enough to stand in the shade cast by the stop sign. Her truck waited patiently behind her.
Anyone traveling this road would disregard it, maybe figure a farmer was checking her crops. Or more likely, a farmer had abandoned it there in the windbreak, keys in the ignition, and left it and everything behind—a relic to relentless toil and debt. She’d seen three such pickups on her way to the bluffs.
Isabelle sighed. It wasn’t the truck she was worried about.
This was her fifth year up the riverside bluff.
This was the year she wouldn’t come back down.
She felt the rumble first through the soles of her boots. All the hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention. She spun, jumped back, heart pounding a cadence she couldn’t control.
Breathe, breathe, breathe.
In the distance, a white pickup truck barreled forward, a cloud of dust blooming behind it—just a farmer, and nothing more.
Just a farmer.
She was, in the words of Marilyn, overreacting. Or hyper-reacting. After five years back on the soil of Black Earth, Minnesota, she knew better.
Or at least everyone thought she should.
The dust cloud grew larger, billowing like a sandstorm. Instead of slowing for the stop sign, the driver was gunning the engine and planning to run straight through.
She backed up, stumbled over the edge of the ditch.
It wasn’t far enough.
The damn truck was coming straight for her.
What. The. Hell.
The truck swerved, and she pitched backward into the ditch. A spray of pebbles pelted her bare arms. She lost her grip on the wooden crate. It fell to the ground with a crack, the sound like a gunshot. Its contents spilled among the rocks and weeds.
The truck flew through the stop sign. Then the driver jammed on the brakes, backed up, and came to a halt on the road right above her.
Isabelle blinked and braced her feet against the earth. The rumble of the engine competed with the roar of her pulse. Dust floated on the air, filled her mouth, scratched her eyes.
From inside the cab came the relentless hammering of death metal. The driver lowered the volume and then hung himself out the window, fingers drumming the flame decal on the side of the door.
“Sorry about that, honey. I didn’t see you there.”
Like hell he didn’t. Isabelle gave him a stare, the one she’d perfected in boot camp, the one without a trace of emotion except for silent contempt.
“Need a ride?”
“Oh, I’m good.” Her palms stung. Her tailbone ached. But what hurt the most were the remains of her cargo scattered all around her.
There was no salvaging that.
“You sure you don’t need a hand?” The driver drummed the side of his truck even harder, a strange, staccato beat that made her heart pound a warning.
“A pretty girl like you, out here all alone? Someone might get the wrong idea.”
“Someone might, but not you,” she said, weaving magic into her voice. “You’re smarter than that.”
She could see the spell weave around the guy’s head, tangling with sweaty strands of blond hair, clouding his blue eyes. And she saw the moment he shook it off, too.
Sadly, he wasn’t smarter than that.
“Those peaches wouldn’t be for me, would they, sweetheart?” His gaze went not to the scattered fruit but to her chest.
“No.” This time, Isabelle dispensed with magic. Instead, she infused her words with all the Georgia sugar she could muster. “But these are.”
With that, she raised both her middle fingers.
It was a dumb move, but after all the searching, the bartering, and thirty-six hours of driving, she didn’t need to deal with some dude-bro joyriding around the area, scaring livestock and running over cats.
He wasn’t local. Local boys (and girls) knew better than to get stupid around the river bluffs. They’d head into Mankato or even drive up to the Twin Cities.
This guy? If he didn’t leave now, he might not leave at all. Not today of all days.
His fingers stopped their drumming. The knuckles of his hand went tight.
She needed to end this—quick.
Isabelle bared her teeth. The glamour was simple, barely a spell at all. She preferred fox or coyote. Today she wasn’t taking chances.
She went with mountain lion.
During her first year in college, after her roommate’s disastrous encounter at a frat party, Isabelle had taught her the trick—along with some hand-to-hand combat moves. Despite evidence to the contrary, the enclave insisted that there were those who could weave magic—and then everybody else.
Isabelle didn’t believe it. Everyone had magic. Of some kind.
Except for maybe dude-bro here.
He blanched, blinked, and gaped, his mouth open like a fish left to flop around on the dock. Without taking his eyes off her, he put the truck in gear and inched respectfully up the road. At the stop sign, he took a right, the way leading to the interstate.
“There’s a good boy,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “And don’t come back.”
* * *
Isabelle used all but one bottle of water to give the peaches a bath. She cradled each one in her palm, the way a mother might hold an infant’s head. She washed away the dirt, used a fingernail to pry pebbles from the tender flesh, and placed each one back into the crate as if tucking it in for a nap.
And she still had the three-mile walk ahead of her.
“Uphill, both ways,” she said—ostensibly to the peaches—and laughed. Then she placed her palm against her heart and waited.
She wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was waiting for. But the gesture calmed her, reassured her that her heart was still where it should be, that it still beat, that neither it nor she was completely broken.
A breeze chased strands of hair from her cheeks. The crossroads were quiet once again.
It was time.
She tucked the last bottle of water into a knapsack, hefted the crate to her hip, and started her trek up the river bluff.
* * *
The barter had come through at the last minute, as barters tended to do. Isabelle needed twelve perfect peaches. And no, she couldn’t dash into a grocery store and toss a handful into a shopping basket.
Peaches, plucked by hand. And not just any hand, but that of enclave matriarch. And not just any peaches, but ones from Georgia.
Peaches were plentiful. What Isabelle lacked was something to offer in return. Then, she connected with an enclave courier in as desperate of straights as she was.
After that, it was nothing but the whisper of wheels against the interstate and some truly terrible talk radio. At last, she reached the red clay of Georgia, where her counterpart, a woman named Denisha, met her at the southern enclave’s peach orchard.
“Oh, snowdrop,” Denisha said when Isabelle hopped out of her truck. “Let’s get you out of this heat.”
Isabelle laughed. She’d been to Georgia before—three weeks of airborne school in August, no less. But that had been a lifetime ago, and her blood was sluggish and thick from Minnesota winters.
She grabbed the cooler from the seat. The thing was icy, even after all that driving. A trace of its contents filtered into the thick Georgia air, at odds with her surroundings. A harsh, cold, fishy odor that—judging by Denisha’s wrinkled nose—was overwhelming the sultry, sweet scent of peaches.
Inside the orchard’s office, they headed for the kitchen area. Denisha poured them both some sweet tea. She was about Isabelle’s age—late twenties or so, and she wore her hair in a coil of braids on top of her head. She looked like a queen capable of ruling her own enclave.
With the first sip, the sugar flowed through Isabelle’s veins. Enclave brewed. It had to be. There was enough magic mixed with the sugar and caffeine to not only revive her but fuel her drive back home.
“So this is really a thing,” Denisha said while Isabelle unpacked the cooler.
“It’s a thing.” Isabelle held up one of the packages. “Straight from the lutefisk capitol of the world.”
The dried cod, soaked in water, then lye, and then water again—because who the hell eats lye—was a gelatinous, smelly, and baffling delicacy. She’d grown up in Minnesota and didn’t understand it. She had no hope of explaining it to someone out of state.
“I thought she was joking with this request.” Denisha shook her head. “I’m really hoping she doesn’t ask me to share this year.”
Isabelle’s hand stilled on the package, the cold burning her fingertips. “She shares?”
“Sometimes. Depends on the request. Honestly, I think it’s partly a test, you know—will you do my bidding and all that. But it’s worth it, right? I wouldn’t give up being a courier for anything.”
Oh, how Isabelle wanted to ask. She wanted to ask so badly. Did Denisha see their enclave’s patron? Speak with her? Share the yearly offering? What was that like? The thought of it made her heart drum against her ribcage and her palms sweat.
“Yeah,” Isabelle said, heat prickling her cheeks, betraying her. “I wouldn’t give it up either.”
Denisha collected the packages of lutefisk. “So, I cook this … how?”
“You can boil it, but it’s probably better if you bake it. And if you have any bacon or pork drippings, you can serve that on the side.”
“Everything’s better with bacon.”
“In this case, it might just save you.”
Denisha laughed. “This is going to be an adventure.” She packed the lutefisk into the refrigerator and then filled a thermos with sweet tea. “For your drive back.”
“Oh, yes, I do. You saved my ass. Those.” Denisha pointed to where a crate of peaches sat, twelve perfect ones in a bed a straw. “Are for your patron. But these?” She hefted the thermos. “And those.” Denisha gestured to a canvas sack overflowing with even more peaches. “Are for your drive back. Trust me, those things are magical. You’ll eat the entire bag before you get home.”
Denisha walked Isabelle to her truck and then gave her a hug so heartfelt it chased the air from her lungs.
“Text me if you need any help with the lutefisk.”
“Count on it.”
Isabelle drove off, opting for back roads rather than fight Atlanta’s rush hour traffic. She felt as if she were leaving behind a friend, although really, she’d only known Denisha through messages on the courier group chat.
What did couriers do before the internet? In the Black Earth town hall, there was a photograph of a woman—a Sterling woman, one of Isabelle’s ancestors—carrying a basket of something dear cradled in her arms.
The woman’s feet were bare, her dress faded and frayed. The entire town looked as though it’d been coated in dust. In the background, an ancient Model T sat, discarded, forgotten, or most likely, both.
Isabelle thought about that woman on her drive back to Minnesota, wishing she could ask whether being a courier had been worth it.
* * *
Halfway up the bluff, the urge to pluck a peach from the crate and take a giant bite nearly overwhelmed Isabelle.
Denisha had been right. If not for her own bag of peaches, Isabelle would’ve eaten the offering. After that, driving past Black Earth and heading straight for the boundary waters—and paddling into Canada—would’ve been her only option.
It was one thing to scramble for an offering at the last minute, quite another to deliberately sabotage yourself.
Oh, but the peaches were tempting. They honeyed the air. The phantom sensation of juice running down her chin, sticky and tart, had her swiping at her skin. She’d eaten the entire bag within hours, amazed they hadn’t sent her racing for a rest stop bathroom.
But these were enclave peaches, picked by a matriarch. Overindulging wasn’t a danger; it was mandatory.
From this point on the river bluff path, she spied the cave opening, but only because she knew where to look. It was the darkness between pine needles and leaves. It was the cool that chased away some of the day’s heat, sending a wash of goose bumps across her bare arms and legs.
She reached the spot where the mosquitoes stopped nattering in her ears and biting the back of her neck. The spot where most people turned around, their legs suddenly and oddly tired, their sunburn fierce despite thick layers of sunscreen, their water bottles mysteriously empty.
Isabelle kept going.
The path turned rocky. During her first run as a courier, she’d pulled on the combat boots on a whim, more from nostalgia rather than practicality.
Turned out to be a wise decision.
Her heart pounded again. Isabelle paused, shifted the crate on her hip so she could hold it with one hand, and pressed her free palm against her chest, waiting once again.
Her heart thrummed with a steady thump, thump, thump. During her last Army physical—one for yet another deployment requiring yet another round of shots—the doctor had paused, stethoscope pressed against Isabelle’s chest.
“Has anyone ever told you that you have a heart murmur?”
Isabelle’s breath caught in her throat. She gave her head one slow shake.
The doctor listened, the crease between her eyebrows deepening. “Strange no one has ever … huh, this is weird. I’m going to order some tests.”
The words froze Isabelle in place. She knew, even without the tests. It was the enclave.
She was being called home.
Even now, when her heart pounded or skipped a beat, when the air felt odd in her lungs, she’d hold herself still, listen with all her might, as if somehow she could hear the defects of her own heart.
She continued the trek, the climb registering in her thighs now. This last stretch always made her doubt. Was she on the right path? Would she walk in circles, searching for the cave and never finding it?
Then the entrance loomed, dark and foreboding, a place for bears or wolves or definitely something that might swallow you in a single gulp.
And well, yes, their patron could do that. But she—like all patrons—had a particular palate. Human flesh wasn’t on the menu. Isabelle adjusted the crate in her grip.
Apparently peaches were.
She stepped across the boundary where the path ended and the flat, smooth surface of the cave entrance began. Cool air washed over her, chasing the sweat from her skin. A burst of color filled her eyes. Gemstones glinted in the sun—blood reds to dazzle, blues the color of midnight, and greens that made her think of those endless fields of corn.
The gems looked ripe, like they were their own kind of fruit. You could reach out and pluck one from the wall—if you were foolish enough to try, that is.
In the center of the entrance stood a small altar made of marble, its surface only a few inches larger than the crate she carried. The first time Isabelle had placed an offering there, relief filled the breathlessness in her lungs. Certainly she’d never be asked for something she couldn’t carry.
In all five years, she hadn’t. Perhaps that was enough of a reward.
She crouched and brushed the marble surface and then exhaled to chase away any errant grit or dust. The altar was clean; it always was. But it felt right to do this, to make this final gesture before she left.
Assuming she would leave this year.
As always, if her patron lingered inside the cave, Isabelle couldn’t detect her. No sigh filled with smoke. No tail scraping the cave floor. Nothing but the gemstones glinting playfully and the altar waiting for her offering.
She eased the crate onto the surface and stood—one step back and then another.
Perhaps she’d been wrong about the five years. But no, when she’d returned from the Army, Marilyn had specifically said the previous courier—Isabelle’s second cousin—had “finished” with her duties.
Her matriarch hadn’t elaborated on what “finished” meant, exactly, only that the woman was nowhere to be found. And that it was Isabelle’s turn.
And ten years ago, before she’d enlisted in the Army, there’d been another such turnover. Indeed, it was one of the reasons she did enlist. Out of sight, out of mind.
Now, here she was. Another Sterling woman after five years of service to a patron she’d never seen, never mind spoken to.
She’d tried, of course, that first year. She called out, peered into the cave, even dared to take a few steps inside. The hollow space swallowed her voice. The light from the gemstones faded a few feet inside the void. No scent of brimstone or smoke, only that of clean, dry earth. If her patron lingered somewhere beyond, shrouded by the dark, Isabelle couldn’t tell.
If not for the vanishing offering—last year’s had been Mozart Kugeln from Vienna—she’d say nothing inhabited the cave at all.
So that was it: five years and nothing. Perhaps Marilyn would meet her at the crossroads where she’d left her truck and relieve her of her duties. Maybe this was like the Army. She’d done her time, served as best she could, but lacked the … heart for anything else.
But it had been a good five years. She’d gotten her degree and traveled the world—this time to places where people weren’t shooting at her.
That was worth something.
“Thank you,” she said into the stillness. “It’s been an honor to be your courier.”
Isabelle was at the boundary, toes of her combat boots flirting with the edge, when a sonorous voice sounded behind her.
“Oh, my child, that sounds like a goodbye.”
* * *
It was only after her discharge from the Army that Isabelle found herself freezing at the oddest provocations. She couldn’t account for it.
After all, she’d stood in the open door of a C-130, the pines of Georgia thick beneath her as the plane banked for another run at the drop zone. She was out the door the second the light turned green, no hesitation. She could work in the sand, the mud, the rain. She knew when to be still and when to move.
But here in the civilian world? Here with her patron?
“It’s all right, my dear.” The words were low, infused with brimstone and heat, mist and flowers.
It was such a strange, enticing combination that Isabelle found herself turning around. She froze once again, this time in awe. Her patron was a shimmering green that changed with the light—from one angle, the icy green of new growth, from another, the deep somber skin of a ripe avocado. Flecks of red raced along the surface of the scales. The forked tongue was red as well.
But the eyes were a glowing amber. And it was those serious eyes that surveyed her now.
“Are you really a dragon?” It was an impertinent sort of question, and Isabelle almost wished she could bite it back.
“Some people call me that. I prefer to think of myself as myself.”
“Indeed. It’s a Sterling trait, one I’ve always admired.”
Isabelle glanced about the cave. She knew that she wasn’t some sort of damsel-in-distress sacrifice. Why now and what next both hovered on the tip of her tongue. At last, she went with:
“I don’t understand.”
“The enclave still needs you, my dear, they have always needed you and the Sterlings before you.”
“To do what?”
“The hard work of making ends meet, I’m afraid.”
“But, the gardens, and the farm, and the—”
“Etsy shop?” The dragon’s voice rose, more amused than sardonic. “Not enough to survive on, never mind thrive. We have always sent the Sterlings into the world. They’ve always been the most capable of handling the vagaries of life.”
Like making a thirty-six-hour roundtrip for a crate of peaches or dealing with dude-bros in their pickup trucks.
“Yes, exactly that.” The dragon grinned.
At least, Isabelle assumed that’s what all those teeth meant. She recalled the glamour she’d used on dude-bro. Forget fox, coyote, or even mountain lion.
Maybe she’d been a dragon all along.
“Indeed,” her patron said. “You’ve also been a soldier and a scholar. For five years, you have catered to my … whims. You’re ready to strike out on your own.”
“I’m to leave the enclave?”
“Not permanently, but for the time being, yes.”
“Will the enclave call me home again?”
Wisps of smoke rose from the dragon’s nostrils. She shook her head as if startled by Isabelle’s question.
“My child, didn’t you know? That was me.”
Isabelle touched fingers to the left side of her chest. “But—”
“I had to break one small part of you so that you could come home to us.” The dragon paused, and it was as if she spoke the next word with great reluctance. “Intact.”
The meaning of that word—intact—sank in immediately. Isabelle had kept herself from watching the news, from keeping up with her old unit, searching the internet for details. Somehow, she knew. She knew exactly how that last deployment had ended.
The dragon blew out a smoke ring. It broke against Isabelle’s chest, soothing but not healing her heart.
“It’s not all bad, a whispering heart,” her patron said. “If you listen closely, it can tell you what you want.”
“I’m afraid I can’t hear it.”
“You will. With time.” The dragon inclined her head toward the peaches, still on the altar. “Now, will you stay and join me for this repast?”
Isabelle took two steps forward and knelt at the altar. “I will.”
* * *
A full moon helped Isabelle navigate the path down the river bluff. Once in her truck, she rested her arms on the steering wheel and gazed through the windshield. Above her, through the fringe of cottonwood leaves, a field of stars littered the night sky.
She was going to miss this view.
Her phone, which she’d locked in the glove compartment, buzzed. She fumbled with the latch and pulled it out in time to see a text message flash across the screen.
Denisha: I never did ask. Were you on your fifth year too?
Isabelle: Get your walking papers?
Denisha: Sure did. I could use a brainstorming buddy if you’re available.
Isabelle: I’ll start driving south.
Denisha: I’ll head north.
Isabelle: Meet you in the middle?
Denisha: Meet you in the middle.
When Isabelle returned to Black Earth, she found Marilyn on the town hall steps, haloed by lamplight. Two duffle bags, a suitcase, and three boxes—all of Isabelle’s worldly possessions—surrounded her. In her hands, Marilyn held a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine.
Without a word, she handed it to Isabelle. Inside was the picture of the barefoot woman, cradling the basket, chin tilted resolutely for that journey up the river bluff. Now, when Isabelle studied the photograph, she noticed something new.
The woman wore the barest trace of a smile as well.
“Her fifth year,” Isabelle said.
“Yes, indeed.” Marilyn hugged her then, arms thin but capable. “We will miss you, but you are ready.”
“And when it’s time to come home?”
Marilyn raised her gaze to the river bluff. “You’ll know, one way or the other.”
On her way out of Black Earth, Isabelle passed a truck pulled over on the side of the road, a white pickup with flame decals. It sat there, discarded, forgotten, or most likely, both. A relic to something, although she wasn’t quite sure what.
She drove into the night, listening to the whisper of wheels against the interstate and for the quiet murmur of her own heart.
Heart Whisper is (yet another!) dragon story written for The (Love) Stories for 2020 Project.