Sewing for the Heart

By Yoko Ogawa

I can make any kind of bag a customer wants: bags for artificial limbs, bedpans, rifles, eggs, dentures—any size and shape you can imagine. But I have to admit I hesitated when she told me her request, one I had never heard before and I’m sure I’ll never hear again.

“I would like you to make a bag to hold a heart.”

“A heart?” I blurted out, thinking I must have misunderstood. Then I coughed to cover my confusion and offered her a seat. She slipped off her coat and hung it over the back of the chair before sitting down. The coat was too heavy for the season and a bit too big. Her movements were graceful, but they seemed calculated somehow, almost intentionally seductive.

“A heart—” I began again.

“I was told you could make any kind of bag.” She took off her sunglasses and tapped the table with her long fingernails.

“I can,” I said, slowly opening my sketchbook as I struggled to collect myself. “And you want a bag for a heart?”

“That’s right,” she said. Her voice had an impressive coldness to it—I could almost imagine its tone freezing my eardrum.

She was tall and slender with gently sloping shoulders—all wrong for a shoulder strap. Her hair was curly and long in back. She kept her eyes lowered, but her manner was anything but timid.

There was a moment of awkward silence. Something about her had set my nerves jangling, even before she had uttered her request. Perhaps it was the crocodile purse on her lap. It was a beautiful piece of work, but it was stretched out of shape and the leather had lost its luster—probably from improper cleaning. It seemed weary. Customers who come here to order new bags naturally bring their old ones with them, and they tell me a lot about the people carrying them.

“A number of places have turned me away,” she said, taking me into her confidence. She brushed a wisp of hair away from her eyes and turned to look at the row of samples on the shelf.

It was then that I realized that I had been bothered not by her purse but by the unnatural bulge on the left side of her chest. It was clearly not her breast; the swell of a breast is different. This looked more like a tumor that had grown between her collarbone and her armpit, unbalancing her natural symmetry. But it wasn’t a tumor. 

*

“I’ve tried everything,” she said. “Silk, cotton, nylon, vinyl, paper… nothing is right. It has to be kept warm—heat loss can be fatal—but then there are the secretions. If the material is too absorbent, it sucks up all the moisture. But then again, something like vinyl doesn’t breathe.”

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine. It worked normally enough, but its unique location made it extremely vulnerable. She had to avoid bumping it or exposing it to the air, yet still keep it supported next to her body. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a bag she wanted—at least not like any I’d made in the past—but she was a customer, and I was determined to do my best to satisfy her.

“I think seal skin would be ideal,” I said, going to the shelf to get a sample. “It’s soft and strong, and it repels moisture while providing superior insulation—just what a seal needs. And it’s easy to care for.”

“It sounds perfect,” she said, taking the piece of leather. She stroked the surface, turned it over, crumpled it in her hand. “But I’m afraid the shape will be a bit complicated, like a bra for just one side. It has to be very sturdy but still not damage the membrane. Do you understand?”

“I believe so. Just tell me exactly what you want,” I said, starting to sketch in my book. In fact, I had no idea what I was trying to draw, but I didn’t want to disappoint her.

“It needs to have a snug fit. Too loose and it rubs the sack around the heart, but if it’s too tight, it cuts off the circulation. It’s a matter of striking the right balance.”

“Exactly so,” I said. “But that’s true for any bag, and I think you’ll find my work to your satisfaction.”

“I hope so,” she said, and then she smiled for the first time since coming into the shop. She crossed her legs and sat back, fidgeting with the temples of her sunglasses. Her subtlest movements caused the lump on her chest to shift, as though she had stirred a small, slumbering animal. I noticed that she kept her left arm cradled next to her body to protect the heart; no doubt she wore the heavy coat for the same reason.

“But it’s not just a simple sack,” she continued. “You’ll need holes for the veins and arteries. I suppose you should baste it together first to make sure everything matches up. And it needs a strap to hang around my neck.”

It occurred to me then that I would have to see her exposed heart at some point in the process—a prospect that disturbed me. I had never seen a human heart before, and the thought filled me with fear and disgust.

*

The woman removed her blouse and bra without a moment’s hesitation, as though I weren’t even there. I had led her upstairs to my apartment and had drawn the curtains. The hamster’s cage had been stored under the sink; he was sleeping peacefully.

I was shocked to see the heart beating—for some reason, I had imagined it would be inanimate. But there it was, pulsing and contracting. It seemed to cringe under my gaze. Then there was the blood flowing in the vessels. It was clear, not red, pumping through the fine veins and arteries and then disappearing into her body.

Her left breast hung lower than her right, and there was a slight hollowing above it to accommodate the heart. But the skin was firm, like that of a younger woman, and the nipple was perfectly normal. It seemed odd to be looking at a woman’s breast but feeling no desire to touch it or to take the nipple between my lips. Instead, I found myself longing to caress her heart.

It could fit in the palm of my hand. A pale pink membrane of delicate muscle tissue surrounded it. What extraordinary, breathtaking beauty! Would it feel damp if I cupped it in my hands? Would the membrane rupture if I gave it a squeeze? Could I feel it beating? Feel it shrink from my caresses? I wanted to run my fingertips over each tiny bump and furrow, touch my lips to the veins, soft tissue on soft tissue, the pressure of her pulse against my skin… I could easily lose myself to these thoughts, but I knew I had to keep this desire in check, had to play my role and make the perfect bag for this heart.

“Let me wash my hands first,” I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling.

“Please do.” Her tone was impassive.

The hamster stirred, startled by the sound of my footsteps coming to the sink, but then he fell silent again.

I washed my hands with great care. Like a surgeon in a TV drama, I lathered the soap and scrubbed right up to my elbows, then used a brush on my nails and cuticles. But when I went and stood in front of her, I found myself paralyzed, unsure where to begin.

The woman stood, back straight, arms at her side. The slope of her shoulders was even more pronounced now that they were bare; it was most likely due to the cavity in her chest, which had caused her ribcage to contract. She had a mole on her right shoulder, and her collarbones jutted sharply above her breasts. There was no excess fat anywhere on her body… I allowed all of this to distract me from looking at her heart, even though it was directly in front of my eyes. The desire was overwhelming.

As I stepped closer to her, I sensed that I had somehow shrunk in her presence. Then I pulled out my tape and started taking measurements. Its shape was complicated, and it was a long process. I had to delicately measure the diameter of each vein and artery, the subtle tapering of the ventricles, and every centimeter of its beating surface. I worked with great care to avoid any more contact with the heart than was necessary. What if the measuring tape stuck to the viscous membrane, or if germs passed on from my hands to the vulnerable organ? I was a mass of anxieties.

“You needn’t be so timid,” she told me. “It’s tougher than it looks.” She must have sensed what I was feeling. It was unlikely she had allowed many strangers this view of her heart, yet she seemed perfectly comfortable with the situation and not the least bit wary or embarrassed.

But the heart itself still appeared to be cowering in fear, the blood vessels trembling with each contraction. From close up, the sinews and folds of muscle seemed to conceal a mysterious code.

Then my finger accidentally brushed against it.

It was so warm! Warmer than anything I had ever touched before! The heat shot through my hand, filling my body and emptying my head.

The measuring tape dropped at my feet.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered. I gathered up the tape as she stood over me. My fingertip was still tingling. I could hear the hamster sucking at his water bottle.

*

I learned she was a singer, and that she performed regularly at a club nearby. After I had stitched together a sample of the bag for her heart, I went in secret to hear her sing. It was the first time I had ever gone to see a customer outside my shop. In fact, even in the shop I tend to have no more to do with them than is absolutely necessary. I feel that my connection to them should be solely through my bags. So if I had to explain why I made an exception in this case, I would say that I had no particular interest in the woman herself, but that I simply wanted to see her heart in the outside world.

The club was larger and quieter than I had thought it would be, which I hoped would allow me to spy on her without being recognized. The candlelit tables scattered around the room glowed in a haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke; the floor was littered with peanut shells. The woman stood next to a grand piano in a circle of orange light at the front of the room.

She was wearing a long, tight purple dress made of silky material. And over it was a sequined cape that sparkled in the spotlight—a clever disguise for the lump on her chest. Still, she probably would have preferred something more stylish; the cape reminded me a bit of a nun’s habit.

I sat down at a table in the corner and ordered a beer. It hardly mattered what I ordered, since I can’t drink alcohol. The waiter put a bowl of peanuts on the table and left.

The people at the other tables were drinking quietly. No one seemed to be looking at her, though I suspected that some of them must have been aware of her secret.

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into each other, bone on bone… her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.   

The song ended, and like everyone else in the club, I applauded. When she bowed, I worried gravity would pull her heart from her dress. But almost immediately, she began another song.

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