This is ONE OF 2 responses to Vol 14 John 4 ("The Door")...
[This is part seven of "Dolphin & Melanie"]
The hermitage was small and spare, but it had an ample fire. Melanie had once described the hermit to him, and called him a thief and a tempter, but in the village the opinion was mixed. Some thought him a wicked enchanter while others regarded him as a holy man and left food for him on an alter in the woods. But everyone agreed that he was the ugliest man who ever lived. Dolphin had heard some of these stories but had never seen the hermit and only half believed in him. But now, as he stared into the ruined face of the old man, Dolphin realized that the villagers had a gift for understatement.
"There must be a way!" said Dolphin.
"Two hearts or none at all."
"So you keep telling me. But you heard the mermaid's call. And you seem to know my heart. For ten years I have searched and tonight, for the first time, she has called me by name. I will not turn back now. I cannot."
The hermit spat into a brass bowl by his chair and reinserted his pipe.
"There is one way, but it's rather drastic. I wouldn't recommend it."
"I will do anything you say."
"It's quite painful. And fatal if you don't come back in time. No, I think not."
"This mermaid is my whole life. Tell me."
"And there are certain side effects that you would find most inconvenient. Frankly, I advise you to forget the whole thing."
"You know that I can never forget the things I have seen this night!"
"And then there's the matter of my fee. I'm afraid it's quite steep."
"I will pay any price! Stop toying with me, old man!"
The two stared hard at each other and the fire behind Dolphin's back hissed and crackled. Dolphin did not blink and at last the hermit bowed his head and smiled. He reached into his robe and pulled out something that looked like an icicle. It sparkled in the firelight but did not melt.
"With this knife," said the old man, "I can cut out your heart. And then you can pass through the door."
Dolphin knelt at the feet of the hermit and closed his eyes. For several moments he said nothing. When he looked up the old man was still holding the dreadful blade in his hand.
"You can take my heart and I will still live?"
"For a year and a day. Then you must buy it back or perish."
"And what is your price?"
"Keep your pearls, young swimmer. They do not interest me. I want what you want. Since I cannot have it, I will settle for a percentage. When you find your mermaid send her to me. I will sell your heart for a kiss."
"You want my mermaid to kiss you?"
"On the mouth."
"And if I cannot find a mermaid in that time?"
"Then you and I will both be disappointed."
Dolphin stood up again and began to pace. His heart beat in his chest as if to say "Don't do it!" But what choice did he have? All his boyhood dreams, and his ten long years of searching came down to this one terrible chance. The mermaid's voice rang in his ears, calling to him from just beyond the door. Surely he could find her in a year's time. A great love, after all, requires a great risk. And if he failed, then perhaps it would be good to die. Suddenly he wished that he could talk to Melanie one more time, and ask her opinion. But he knew what she would say.
"Very well, old man. Take my heart and keep it well. Before the year is out you will have your kiss and I will have my mermaid."
"If you have anything else to say to me, I suggest you say it now. After I take your heart it will be too late for words."
"And why is that?"
"Because I won't be able to see you or hear you. Without a heart, no one can see you. Beasts will smell you, but no human ear will hear your voice. You are nothing without your heart. Are you still willing?"
"It seems I have no choice."
"Then face the fire. Watch the flames and don't move a muscle."
Dolphin took one more look at the hideous old man and turned to the fire. The flames reminded him somehow of ocean waves. Suddenly the hermit grabbed him from behind and plunged the knife into his chest. Dolphin cried out but somehow managed to remain standing. He felt a gnarled hand reach inside him and pull. His heart was a frightened bird and the hermit's arm a serpent, coiling and squeezing. With unnatural strength, the hermit tore his heart out, and the night rushed in like cold water. His chest slammed shut and echoed. Dolphin was now a hollow shell, and the emptiness was so complete that he fell to the floor and tried to cry, but could not find the tears.
Then came a horrible cackling. The old man was laughing, and as he tossed Dolphin's blue-green heart from hand to hand the light in his eyes burned brighter than a fire. And then he began to dance, cradling the heart in his arms as if it was a beautiful woman. He danced across the room and into a passageway that Dolphin had not noticed when he first entered the tiny house.
Dolphin found that he could stand, and he followed the hermit. The passage led to a kind of shed buried into the hill. There was hardly enough space for the hermit to turn around, but the walls were lined with shelves, and each shelf was crowded with glass jars, and each jar held a different heart.
There were hearts of every shape and color. Some were red, and some were white as snow. Some flitted nervously like birds, others lay against the glass as if asleep. The hermit found an empty jar and slid Dolphin's heart inside it and twisted on the lid. His heart seemed to swim inside the jar and sparkled blue and green. The hermit stood in the center of this hoard and hugged himself with glee.
Dolphin blew around the room like a tornado but the old man didn't even notice. He shouted curses that no one could hear. He tried to sweep the jars onto the floor, but not one jar so much as trembled. An hour after the hermit left and went humming to his bed, Dolphin stayed in the little room and stared in wonder at the hundred glass jars, and in particular at his own foolish heart. And then with a sigh he slipped through a keyhole and into the night.