From the Archive: Rumpus Original Fiction: Mustard Seeds



This was originally published at The Rumpus
on June 12, 2017.

When Ben left Miri, for real and forever, he left her heart in the kitchen sink, along with the dirty dishes. It was her day to do dishes, and so somehow the gesture was fair to Miri, even as it unearthed unimaginable pain.

He was gone.

He had never said that he loved her, not once in their years of romantic entanglement, not after they moved in together, not even as she fought the many tentacles of depression. And he didn’t say it when he left, either.

“Please,” Miri begged. “Just once, just say it.” But he never did.

For a week, she left her heart in the kitchen sink, left it there to languish, and to rot. She let herself stew in the facts of her failed relationship: that Ben did not love her, and that he likely never had. That she was alone now, or maybe she’d been alone all along. That he had likely cheated on her with that tall blonde from his office, a stereotype. Her suffering wasn’t even unique.

At the end of the week, which was long with sleepless nights, Miri picked her heart out of the kitchen sink, put it in a paper lunch bag, and took it to the witch.

“Please,” Miri begged. “Help me fix it.”

The witch was an old woman, with innumerable bracelets and lines around her eyes. She was also a notary, to pay the bills. She let Miri into her home, which was very small and very warm, and had a fire burning even in the height of summer, which it was then, and Miri felt the sweat dripping down her back as she sat in the witch’s kitchen.

Plants hung from the ceiling, their vines withering and dragging, a preponderance of them browning with pending doom. A line of potted Venus flytraps stood along the windowsill, their mouths agape.

The witch put a steaming mug of tea in front of Miri. It smelled of licorice and cumin, and tiny black leaves floated on its surface.

“Drink it,” the witch said. It was less an invitation and more an order.

Miri took a long pull that burned her tongue, her throat, and all the way down. It tasted the way that Ben’s sweat smelled, and it forced heavy, rolling tears down her cheeks.

“I can help you,” the witch told her. “And all I need in order to do so is an ingredient. If you want my help, you must fetch me what I need, and you must pay me a fair price.”

“I’ll do anything.”

“Know this,” the witch told Miri. “A thousand mustard seeds are easy to find. However, should a single one of them come from the hands of a person that has ever experienced heartbreak, the spell will fail.”

“And your price?”

“We’ll arrange upon your return.”

Miri reached to take her heart with her, but the witch waved her off. “Leave it with me. You can collect it later.” She placed the paper bag on the windowsill, perilously close to the Venus flytraps.

A flash of distrust, but Miri agreed, and she left to collect the mustard seeds.

Miri lived in a duplex carved out of the one of the city’s almost ubiquitous Victorians, and though she’d never known her upstairs neighbor well, she had, on occasion, knocked on his door. To deliver misplaced mail, and once, to ask him to turn his music down. He was a young man, but older than Miri, and he wore the khakis and oxford shirt of an office worker.

“Please,” Miri asked. “Can you spare any mustard seeds?”

Of course, he said, of course, and he invited her in so that she didn’t have to wait outside in the glaring sunlight as he rummaged about his spice cabinet. His kitchen was large, larger than Miri’s, with new appliances, shining and chrome.

“Just take the whole jar,” he said. He smiled warmly, and Miri tried her best to smile back.

Miri took the jar from him, but she did not move to stand. Instead, stuttering and stumbling and starting over again, she asked him: “Have you ever had your heart broken?”

The smile dissolved into something else, something quizzical and something with walls. “Do I seem like it?” he asked. He pulled out a seat at the kitchen table, also chrome, also shining, across from Miri, and rested his chin in his palm.

“No,” Miri said, no, but she needed to know, had he?

A pause, an uncomfortable beat, silence a breath too long. “Yes,” he said, yes. He’d been married, you see, not long ago, to his first love. She was beautiful, he said, and she was demanding, and she demanded that they were wed, and he happily complied, even if they were young, perilously young to make such a choice.

But marriage didn’t make her happy, and he knew it.

“I tried everything,” he said. But he could not deliver her happiness. And soon, she was gone. “But she never said why,” he said. And he had marinated in that, in his unknowing, and in his ignorance of her true heart, ever since she had left.

“I’m sorry,” Miri said, and she meant it. Distantly, she could feel her own heart aching for her neighbor, for his pain and his confusion. She knew what it was to linger in pain, to be locked in the room with it, and she could see that, could see her neighbor locked into that same room without doors.

She did not take his mustard seeds, but they did hug, the chaste hug of new friends.

Next door was a meth addict whose heart had surely been broken, and so she skipped his house, and knocked instead on the door of the lady who lived across the street. She was tall and white, with grey hair that had likely once been blonde.

“Please,” Miri said. “Do you have any mustard seeds?”

The woman looked at her suspiciously, but invited her in. She did not offer Miri a seat, but rather bade her wait where she was. Miri stood, alone, in the foyer, examining the strange marble statue that stood at the foot of the stairs. It was two circles, entwined, and standing on edge.

On one stark, white wall, a painted portrait of the woman, younger, blonder, hung enormous. It stared at Miri with symmetrical coldness to its real life counterpart, to the marble she stood on, to the cold, to the summer sun that drifted in from the skylight above her.

“Here.” The woman thrust a ziplock bag of seeds out to Miri.

She seemed in a hurry to be rid of Miri, but Miri had to ask. “Have you ever had your heart broken?”

The woman’s hand dropped, so that the mustard seeds hung at her side. “That seems awfully impertinent,” she said. “To barge in here, asking for handouts and then prying. Do you always pry? Is this just your way?”

The statue, Miri realized, looked like wedding rings. “I promise you, I’m aware of how strange I sound. But I need to know.”

The woman adjusted the stiffly starched collar of her white shirt. “I suppose you have, and that’s why you’re here? Asking queer questions?”

Miri nodded, ashamed.

She led Miri into a large, formal sitting room, all grey and white and shining gold accents. It looked, Miri thought, like a two-page spread of an interior decorating magazine, not like a place a person would live, not a place where you could actually sit and talk about things like love or heartbreak.

The woman pulled a shining gold box down from her mantel. With a key that she wore around her neck on a golden chain, she unlocked it, and inside, still and red, rested her heart.

“I’m no fool,” the woman said. She held the box such that Miri could see her heart but not touch it, not without overreaching.

“How long have you kept it like this?” Out of order, Miri thought, broken.

“Since I was old enough and wise enough to know that this was the smartest and safest place to keep it,” the woman said. “It is the folly of youth to think that love can bring anything besides pain. Love does not last, but pain does. Accomplishment does.”

There was something strange about the heart, something unnatural. “It does not beat,” Miri said.

The woman snatched the box back, and snapped it shut once again protectively. “Get out,” she said. She turned her back to Miri then.

“I’m sorry,” Miri said, and she meant it. She could see the woman, just as she could see her neighbor, trapped in the same room with no doors. But there had been a skylight in her neighbor’s room. In the woman’s, only cold, white walls and a marble floor—and a golden key that did not open anything.

It was enough for that day, Miri thought, to know not just her own heartbreak, but her neighbor’s and the woman across the street’s as well. And so she went home. She packed a pinch of weed into the bowl of her pipe, and she let her mind drift into a softer place.

Tomorrow, she told herself, tomorrow I will find the mustard seeds.

She slept.

The next day, and for weeks, Miri knocked on doors. For weeks, the people of her city told her of their heartbreak. Down the street lived a woman in a house meant for two. She’d lived there with her girlfriend, until the horrible day the girlfriend decided their time together had been only a phase, and she’d struck out to find a man.

“He cheated,” one woman told her. She had a friendly smile and strong arms, but Miri could see pain etched in her face like worry wrinkles. “All of our friends knew, but I only found because I read his text messages. They went back for a year.” Her ex was with that other woman now, the woman he’d chosen over her, and they were engaged to be married.

“One day, he just stopped saying that he loved me,” the clerk at her comic book shop said. They leaned across the counter, like the memory of it was enough to exhaust them, all over again. “He never said why. He just stopped.” They were tall, and lean, and Miri could imagine them packing their things and leaving, which was just what they had done.

“I chose her,” Miri heard, again and again. “But she didn’t choose me back.”

“I told him the truth of who I am,” Miri heard, again and again. “And then he didn’t want me anymore.”


One day, several weeks in to her search, Miri knocked on an unfamiliar door. It was attached to a Victorian not unlike her own, a duplex, except that it was on the opposite side of town, on a hill with a view. At first knock, no one came, but on the second, the door opened and there, in all his horrible, beautiful reality, was Ben.

“What are you doing here, Miri?” His voice was cold.

So startled was she by his presence, that she told him the truth. She told him that she had gone to the witch to fix her broken heart, the heart he broke, the heart he’d left in the kitchen sink with the dirty dishes, and of her bizarre quest to mend it, as best she could, without his help and without his caring.

“And so I have to ask,” Miri said. “Can you please spare me some mustard seeds? It’s the least you can do, after what you’ve done to me.”

He leaned against the doorframe, his arms crossed, and she remembered the feeling of those arms open to her, the way they felt folded across her in sleep. He was a room closed off to her now, she could see it, he held no door open to her, not now, not ever again.

Anger radiated off of him so powerfully she could smell it, like cinnamon and lightning.

“I cannot give you any,” he said. “Even if I had any, they’d be no good to you. You broke my heart, Miri, you broke it when you refused to care for yourself, when you expected me to do it for you. You broke it when you made it clear to me that you would never stand on your own so long as I was there to hold you up. You broke it every day when I’d come home and you’d be stoned and distant. You broke it by showing up here, and asking for help from me, again, and always. You always need help.”

“I called you,” Miri said. “I texted.”

“No,” Ben sighed. “You didn’t.” His eyes were a deep brown, so dark that that were nearly black. Miri loved his eyes, even as they narrowed at her, even as they blinked away tears. “Get off my porch,” he said. “And leave me to tend to my heart, just as I’ll leave you to tend to yours.”

He shut the door then, and Miri stood, alone. “I’m sorry,” she said, and she meant it.

Inside the witch’s kitchen once again, Miri drank the tea that was offered. The witch had not even asked for the seeds, just invited her in, and given her the same seat at the table, given her the same tea to drink.

“You lied,” Miri said. “You gave me an impossible task, and you lied and told me you could fix my heart.” She wasn’t even mad, just confused. “Why did you tell me you could fix my heart, when all hearts are broken? Why, lady, why, why, why?”

And she wept. She wept for herself and her broken hope and her broken heart, she wept for her neighbor and his confusion, for the woman across the street and her loneliness and for all the people she’d met. She wept for all humans, destined for heartbreak, and with heartbreak in their wake.

She wept for grief, hers and everyone’s, and for the horrible truth that it was not unique, that it was universal.

And she wept for Ben, whose heart she’d broken so irrevocably that he had broken hers.

And all the while the witch crooned and she sang, “Cry, lady, cry, cry, cry.”

Miri wept chest-rattling sobs. She wept, and she wept, and soon her weeping was so great, so full of all the pain of the world that it fell from the ceiling, raining down on the witch’s kitchen, on all the dried-up plants, on the Venus flytraps, into her mug and onto her head. She wept until the witch’s grey hair was soaked through, until the plants, once brown and withering, stiffened green with life and vibrancy once again.

Several days later, when Miri was done crying, the Venus flytraps closed their mouths, and the witch smiled.

“Your tears,” she said, “were the price of my spell. Pain begets life, my dear, and life begets pain.”

She stood, and went to her windowsill. There, she grabbed a terra cotta planting pot, full of deep brown soil. She upended it on the table, spilling the dirt. To Miri’s surprise, out tumbled her heart. It was caked with the soil, but hers again, warm and beating.


Rumpus original art by Megan Goh.

Maggie Tokuda-Hall has an MFA in writing from University of San Francisco, and a tendency to spill things. She splits her time writing for kids and for adults and her debut children’s book, Also an Octopus, has been called “wickedly absurd” and “a perceptive how-to” that will “inspire kids to imagine a story of their own.” You can follow her @emteehall, or on her podcast, Let’s Not Panic. More from this author →