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As the Queen lay sleeping on the enormous bed, the King asked the doctor to leave them alone for a few moments. He said that he wanted a word with his wife.
“My Queen,” he said with a harsh breath.
The Queen awoke slowly and uneasily, groaning about an ache in her back. “I have been lying here for too long,” she said. The Queen was a young woman, barely thirty years old and a treasure that the kingdom held so close to its heart. It felt as if she had always been Queen. To the King, her husband, a man of nearly fifty years of living, she was even more than that. She was his life. She was everything.
“My Queen,” he repeated. “I have just heard that the medicine is not working. It seems,” he looked out the window, away from the beautiful Queen’s eyes, “it seems that there is no more that the doctors can do for you.”
He turned his face back to see her reaction. The tears on his face were so human and so bare that he had never seemed so weak, but never more so like a King to the Queen.
“One’s strength is in one’s honesty and love,” she whispered. “You have searched everywhere for a cure to my illness, my King,” she felt tears of her own. “How long?” she begged.
The King sobbed, “Not long.”
As the following days passed, the streets of the Kingdom were silent, as if everyone who walked them was a ghost. The people remained in a state of despair, but quiet despair, in the hope that in their silence, the Queen’s last days might be free from the discomfort of a stressed and busy Kingdom. They collectively hoped that she would rest more easily. It was only a small gesture, and an unspoken one, but one that everyone did together for the Queen they loved so dearly.
The following Sunday morning, the King stepped out of the bedroom for the first time in three weeks. He was alone, his head sunken, his eyes closed, and his feet shuffled him slowly in the direction of nowhere. A maid spotted him instantly and called for the doctor. Upon the doctor’s inspection of the room, it was clear that their beloved Queen was dead.
“Your Majesty,” the doctor said sadly, “are you alright?”
The King clutched his chest. He couldn’t speak.
Again, the King clutched his chest but spoke no words.
The maid held the King by the arm and helped him to a seat in the next room. “He’s heartbroken,” she cried softly.
“Heartbroken,” agreed the doctor.
The King slumped down into the seat and began to lose his balance. With a quick jump, the doctor steadied him and held him securely upright.
“Fetch the nurse, I’ll need her help,” the doctor ordered, putting his hand on the King’s forehead to test his temperature.
It wasn’t more than a few seconds before the nurse dashed to the King’s aid. “What’s happening?”
“The Queen has finally passed,” the doctor said, sadly, “and the King appears to be taking it very badly.”
“Oh, Your Majesty…” the nurse began.
“He cannot hear you, he’s unconscious.”
“We must get him to a bed for rest then!”
“Yes, that is why I called you. Is there a bed ready?”
“Certainly,” the nurse responded, signalling for a guard nearby to come help them as they readied to lift the King.
After inspection with a listening device, the doctor made his prognosis. “It appears that the King’s heart is in fact broken. It is very slow to pump, and I think it will stop completely unless we do something about it.”
The guard who’d helped earlier didn’t look pleased. “But the King has no heirs. The kingdom will tear itself apart fighting over who should be the new King!”
“Yes, I know.”
“Word of this had better not get out of the castle,” the nurse added. “This must be a secret.”
“Yes, otherwise there will be major trouble. The people respect, love and admire their King, but if he dies, they will not be slow to challenge for their rights to be successors.” The doctor mused on something. “We must get the King a new heart.”
“Where do you propose we get one?” the guard pondered.
“Well,” the nurse spoke slyly, “we could give him the heart of one of the pigs. There are three of them scheduled for slaughter today for dinner at the inn and the hall. I could arrange acquiring one without any trouble.”
“That’s not actually a bad idea. It’s worth a try,” the doctor smiled. “Get one immediately.”
The nurse made her leave and shut the door behind her.
“A pig’s heart?” the guard asked, as if he’d heard the wrong words in his ears. He looked at the doctor with shock on his face. “A pig’s heart in the body of our King?”
“Yes, it can be done. I’ve done it before. Difficult, but possible.”
When the nurse returned, the doctor had arranged the room so that he could perform the surgery.
“I got two hearts, just in case one of them doesn’t look good enough to you doctor.” She handed him a paper bag, stained red with blood.
“Can you wash them carefully and then place them on this tray,” he asked her, handing over a silver tray shinier than a chandelier.
“I’ll be right back.”
As the doctor waited, he began the difficult procedure of cutting into the King’s chest. In order to reach the broken heart, he had to cut some ribs, which proved difficult, but done slowly and carefully so that they could be placed back to heal later.
“Come here,” he said to the nurse once he was ready.
She came over to find that the doctor was holding the King’s heart in one hand, pumping it lightly with his fingers and beckoning her to come closer with the other hand.
She walked over slowly.
“You must hold the heart, and keep pumping it, just like this. Not too fast, and certainly not too slow. Understand?”
She nodded silently, with fear evident on her face, and took the heart carefully in her hand and began pumping.
The doctor cleaned around the cavity in the King’s chest and placed the new pig’s heart inside. Holding a point of the main artery and vein with one hand, he severed them from the original heart and attached them as quickly as possible to the new one.
The nurse was still pumping the King’s old heart for no reason, except perhaps out of fear that it might still kill him. She looked on in horror as blood seeped out and looked like it would never stop.
Before they knew it, the pig’s heart was attached fully and pumping by itself.
“You did it,” the guard said, his first words since the procedure began.
“It’s not working enough,” the doctor said, grabbing the second pig’s heart, trying desperately to find room inside the king’s chest for it.
“What are you doing?” the nurse begged.
“It’s not strong enough! It’s weak, just like his old heart. We need to give him two.”
He worked faster than before. The doctor managed to split the blood flow from the main arteries and veins with some of the bits of the pigs’ hearts. They both pumped out of sync but slowly started to match up and beat in one louder rhythm together.
“Astonishing,” the nurse said, never taking her eyes from the sight of the two hearts. “It’s like a grandfather clock…”
The doctor worked feverishly to put the King back together. His ribs were placed back into position, although with a bit of difficulty, and once satisfied, the doctor began to stitch him up.
That night, the doctor was surprised to find that the King was still not improving.
“What are we going to do?” the doctor asked himself.
“How well do you know him?” the guard asked.
“How well do you know him?”
“A long time. I’ve been the Royal doctor for over twenty years.”
“That’s not what I asked you,” the guard went on. “Is he important to you? Do you know him like a friend would know him?”
“What makes you say that?”
“The way you worked earlier. I know it’s your job, but you seemed ever more determined to get things right.”
“I suppose I owe a lot to the King. He has been very kind to me over the years and I would consider him a friend.”
“Explains why you’d be desperate enough to give him a pig’s heart to save his life,” the guard joked.
The doctor laughed. “Yes, but I don’t think it’ll be enough. Maybe he’ll need more hearts to keep living. He’s the most heartbroken man I’ve ever seen. He adored the Queen. Lived for her. I don’t know what he’s going to do without her.”
“Hmmm...” The guard looked sullen.
“Can you get the nurse?”
“Nurse,” the doctor said once she arrived by the bedside.
“Can you go back down to the barn and acquire another two hearts for His Majesty.”
“If you like. But I don’t see how two different hearts will be different to the two he has now. Pigs’ hearts are only so different from one another.”
“We’re not going to replace the two he has,” the doctor explained. “We’re going to give him another two.”
The doctor’s new plan required them to move the King to his throne room. His reasons for this were not clear to the others yet but would be soon. The doctor had a small hole cut in the wall directly behind the throne leading to the room behind and another through the back of the throne. He gave no explanation, except that it was essential for the King to survive. Once these small modifications were made, they moved the King to his throne and locked the door, closed all the windows and curtains and the nurse helped him prepare for the second operation.
After an hour, the doctor successfully cut through the King’s back and with the help of a very long length of vein and artery made from those of pigs, he trailed a link from the King’s hearts in his chest through the back of his throne, into the room behind and once in there, linked them to two more hearts, each in a separate jar, suspended in water, pumping in sync with the two in the King’s body. The procedure was inventive but scared the nurse and guard. Once it proved somewhat successful, their doubts were cast aside for the time being.
“There!” the doctor proclaimed, sitting the King back in his throne. If one stood in front of the King, as one should unless asked to come closer by His Majesty, one would not notice the strange external veins trailing to the room behind. They were resting in a small gutter of water, fashioned quickly by the guard.
“We have to cover the veins up,” the guard suggested.
“Of course. That is what I was planning next.” From the room behind the throne he revealed a long glass tube, long enough to go from the King to the other room. “This will do it.”
A few more minutes of inventive surgery and careful cutting made the King’s glass tube a reality. He was stuck to his throne, but he was alive. He was able to go on.
With some shock to the three of them, he awoke not long after.
“Pain,” he whispered.
“Your Majesty!” they all chorused together.
“I feel a lot of pain,” the King said.
“You’ve had an operation…” the doctor said slowly. “There is no easy way to tell you this, but you are confined to your throne in order to live, Your Majesty.”
“How?” he said with a groggy faulting voice.
“Well, it’s quite difficult to explain…”
“No,” the King stopped him. “The pain is not from that.”
“My Queen. She is dead?”
“Yes, she is.”
“Oh…” the King wept dearly. “Oh, I remember now…”
The nurse came to his side and wiped his brow. “We are all so truly sorry about the Queen, Your Majesty,” she said.
But the King did not hear her, for he had fallen back into sleep.
“Let me examine him,” the doctor pleaded.
After a few moments, he despaired. “It’s still not enough!”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s still not recovering.”
“What more can we do?”
The huge funeral for the Queen was somewhat alarming to the people of the land, because their King was not there. Many people assumed that he would speak to them; try to encourage them that life goes on, or something, anything that would lift their spirits. But no, nothing. The King wasn’t there. The people were alone. Their King was alone. The land seemed dead. Dead with its wonderful Queen.
Of course, the reason why the King was not there was because he was stuck to his throne. In the throne room with him was the nurse, feeding him intravenously, cleaning him, moving him to avoid bedsores and generally nursing him, much like her job described.
In the room behind the throne, the doctor worked frantically, waiting on the guard’s regular returns with bags full of hearts, taken not just from pigs, but also from cows, deer and even sheep. In order to keep all the hearts beating together, and thus keep the King alive, they also needed extra blood. This was more difficult to come by because the doctor insisted on clean, carefully selected blood, human if possible. For the most part they had acquired a lot of the right blood from volunteers, but the volunteers didn’t know that it was all, every drop of it, meant for the King.
The doctor was working for five whole days and nights at this stage, and it was when he decided that the King would be stable for a few hours that he took a quick nap, still in his surgical outfit, still by the countless jars of hearts, on the blood-soaked floor.
“Four hundred and eighteen,” someone said, rousing him from sleep sometime later.
“That’s how my hearts he has,” the guard said, delivering a huge container full of hearts. “Four hundred and eighteen.”
“And no sign of it stopping either.”
“How many will it take to keep him stable?” the guard asked.
“He can be kept in stability for a few hours after adding a few more hearts, but he needs more and more continuously it seems. I can’t let him die. What more can we do but keep going? We must keep giving him hearts.”
“That’s madness,” the guard suggested. “We can’t keep him alive in here like this.”
“We have to; otherwise the kingdom will tear itself apart…”
Time passed by and the doctor, the guard and the nurse were growing somewhat accustomed to their lives of spending up to twenty hours of every day doing their job. The nurse continued to nurse the King, clean him and feed him and keep him company during his rare bouts of consciousness. The guard continued to collect hearts and jars and blood, all of which were becoming more and more difficult to come by as time went on. It got so tough some days that he would have to take a cart to the next nearest town and barter away some of the King’s most beloved treasures. They all agreed that the King would approve in order to stay alive, so after a while it felt normal for them to trade gold bracelets and beautiful cloth for piles of animal hearts and buckets of blood.
The doctor was becoming something of a weaver. His work of combining the hearts together and attaching them to the great main artery and vein that led back to the King on the throne was becoming so fast and so normally second nature to him that he was adding dozens of hearts every day. After two months passed, the king’s body was supported by over five and a half thousand hearts.
“Doctor,” the nurse and the guard approached him one day.
“Yes, what is it? Please tell me it’s the delivery of blood from you,” he begged, looking at the guard.
“No, sir, that’s not it. The blood is here, but there’s other things we need to discuss.”
“We can’t talk yet, I need to get that blood through to here, so we can connect these three hearts. We’re running out of room in here too. I need this much space to work,” he said, making an invisible line around his work area with his fingers, “and soon enough the jars will take that space up. We need to convert the room below this into another heart room…”
“Doctor!” the nurse shouted.
He was startled. “What is it then?” he shouted back.
“You look terrible,” she went on. “It’s too late. The King won’t survive. We have been trying to keep him alive for months now!”
“It’s been a long time now, sir,” the guard added.
“We can’t give up!” the doctor cried.
“We must let the King have his rest. His time has come. In fact, his time came with the Queen’s, and we have just been delaying his passing.”
“No!” the doctor shouted. “We can’t let him die!”
The guard and the nurse both went to speak, but the doctor stood up. “No!” he shouted again. “Now go and get the blood,” he roared at the guard. “I need it in here now. Then I want you to organise the clearance of the room below this one and make it off limits to the rest of the staff and everyone except us three. We’ll need to let another guard in on this so that he can guard the room below. That will be your decision. Pick someone you trust.”
The guard looked on at the doctor but didn’t dare try to argue with him again. “Very well,” he said.
“I know,” the doctor then spoke more calmly. “I know it’s a little bit difficult for us, but we can’t let him die.”
“I know,” the nurse conceded.
“Maybe we could get him to name an heir?” the guard suggested.
There was silence.
“That would make it easier for the people to accept it,” the guard added.
“And what if they don’t listen to him? What if they decide to ignore it?” the doctor suggested. “It’s too risky. We need to find a way to stabilise him and let him decide what to do. Until then, more hearts. Alright?”
They got back to work and in turn, doubled their efforts. Within two weeks, they had the King living just shy of eight thousand hearts when they realised that they could get no more. Most of the animals in the land were dead. The people were angry and hungry. They would not part with the few they had left. Rumours had begun to circulate that the King was feeding on the hearts of animals and nothing more, all in a madness of grief.
“He has seven thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight hearts,” the doctor said, standing in the second room full of hearts. “But it’s not enough.”
They returned to his work area in the first room full of hearts.
“You did everything you could…” the nurse smiled.
“Not everything…” the doctor said.
“What do you plan on doing now?” the guard asked.
“We’ve got one pig’s heart left,” the doctor said, looking at it on the tray in the middle of his work table.
“It probably won’t make much difference to the King,” the nurse conceded.
“Indeed. Which is why you’re going to give it to me,” the doctor said proudly, “and I will give the King my own heart.”
“That’s madness!” the guard cried. “You can’t live on a pig’s heart!”
“I’ve given a pig’s heart to patients before the King. I’ve told you that. And they have survived, most of them anyway.”
“But I can’t do the surgery! Please don’t make me,” the nurse pleaded.
“You’ve seen the procedure every day for the last few months done repeatedly. You’ve had more experience with it that anyone in the world, aside from me, of course. I think that makes you most qualified.”
The nurse looked shaken.
“We don’t have any time to lose.”
With seven thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine hearts, one of which was given to him by the doctor from his own chest, the King sat up by himself and went to sit forward.
“Careful now,” the nurse said. “You don’t want to tug the artery too much. You’re being kept alive by it.”
The King looked confused. The nurse, who was now used to talking about exposed arteries and veins, blood and heart surgery as if they were everyday things, took a moment to understand the King’s confusion, and once she explained to him the main points of the story, he seemed somewhat amazed by the whole thing.
“Where is the doctor?” the King asked.
“He needed some rest after the operation. Even though he just went through one himself, he insisted on giving you his heart personally.”
“He did the operation himself?” the King was shocked.
“He wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Am I going to be alright?”
“The doctor says you’re recovering much more quickly than he could have dreamed.”
The doctor sat in a chair in the throne room, eating dinner with the King. It was over a month since the last operation, but to the King it may as well have been years ago. Despite being confined to a small radius around his throne, he was happy, able to stand and walk two or three steps before needing to return to the throne, and was full of energy. He ate with newfound strength. He knew that it would only be a few more weeks before the doctor could remove the artery and the only heart, he’d need would be portable, like his own had been once before.
“How do you find your food?” he asked the doctor.
“It is fine,” he responded.
“Ah, so you are speaking today!” the King seemed delighted by this.
The doctor looked blankly at the food in front of him and tasted another bite of meat. He looked unmoved by it.
The King went on to ask him about how he was feeling, but the doctor was unable to answer. He sat, ate mechanically, unable to do anything more, and every now and again thumped his chest, trying to feel something, but always to the same shallow dissatisfaction. His complete lack of energy was disheartening, but he always smiled when he could, for he was happy that the King was able to go on living, but had no aim, no direction, for his heart was somewhere else.