It was early afternoon, the sun filtering through the trees as I walked along the path. It had been a very long time since I had come this way. The things one might encounter traveling here were frightening–they were never far from my mind. I remembered this path, although the memory was hazy. This was not an easy trail to travel, and I thought many times about turning around.
The sunlight faded, and the air grew colder the farther I traveled. I thought I heard someone up ahead, and the instinct to turn and run grew stronger. But I continued walking. And as I rounded the bend in the path and entered the clearing, I saw them.
A row of human-sized playing cards stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the way ahead. I stopped, not sure what to do. I edged closer, until I was standing directly in front of the cards. Several moments passed before one of the cards, a five of hearts, finally noticed me.
He held out his hand. “Are you here to relinquish your heart?”
I gasped and shook my head, placing my hand protectively over my chest. “No! Absolutely not!”
“Then what, may I ask, are you doing here?”
“I’m walking.” I answered defensively. “I’m following the path, seeing where it leads. But you’re in my way.”
“I warn you.” He responded. “That the way ahead is not easy.” He pointed in my direction of travel. “That path is very dangerous.”
“Who are you?” I asked. “And why are you guarding this path?”
He straightened his shoulders and looked down at me. “We are the guards of hearts. Our job is to make sure that no innocent person follows their heart down this path. We’ve seen too much suffering, too much pain waiting for those who follow their foolish, reckless hearts.” He leaned in closer and hissed. “Let me tell you a secret, little girl. A heart is a very poor navigator.”
“Oh.” I answered. “I see.”
He held out his hand again. “If you were smart, you would leave your heart here so that it can’t lead you into any more trouble. If you’ve come this far, you’re already in quite a bit of trouble.”
I shook my head. “No! Please don’t ask that again.”
“Well if you won’t leave your heart with us, then at the very least there must be some other, safer path you can travel.”
I thought for a moment. “No, there isn’t.” I admitted. “I don’t know what other path to take. I’ve exhausted all the others, and right now this is the only one I know how to travel.” I frowned. “If I don’t continue this way, I’m going to be…lost.”
“Well, I think.” He leaned forward menacingly. “That you should try harder. A broken heart is a very painful thing. So painful, in fact, that it’s best to never experience it. Everyone who’s traveled this way has experienced disappointment. The smart ones have turned around before they were disappointed again.”
“But there’s so much more ahead,” I protested. “How do you know that something wonderful isn’t waiting just around the bend?”
“Or something horrible!” The card shouted. “You’re crazy if you continue this way.” He held up his hand. “Make your choice. We won’t stand in your way now that you’ve been properly warned.” He motioned and the cards all stepped aside.
I looked down the path ahead of me. It was dark, and I could see very little. I had no idea what lay ahead. Maybe it would be better if I stayed a little while. Just to be safe. I sat down on the dirt. The card applauded. “Good choice!” He said.
“Now what?” I asked him. “What do I do now?”
“You sit there!” The card smiled. “Or you can go home and never travel this way again. Either way, you’ll be safe from pain.”
But was I? I thought about going home, about giving up. Would that save me from pain? The wondering, the what-ifs, the regrets, wasn’t that just pain too? Wasn’t it worse? And the fear. Wasn’t the fear the most painful thing of all? When I was moving, the fear didn’t hurt me so much. I was tired of being afraid. Nothing that waited for me could hurt like the feeling of not doing something because I was too scared.
I stood up and turned to the card. “I’m sorry, and I appreciate your help. But I’m afraid that if I stay here, I’ll never be happy. At least if I continue this way, there’s a chance that I might.” Before I could change my mind I turned back around and headed down the path. I felt eyes following me, until eventually the feeling faded.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the path I’m traveling. It’s not a new one for me, but it’s one I haven’t walked in a long time. I don’t know why. I used to walk it fearlessly. Following your heart down whatever path it leads hurts. Sometimes it makes you feel foolish.
When I sat down to write later that day, I wrote what felt right. I didn’t think about what waited for me. I just trusted that somehow I would end up where I was supposed to be. Either way, at least I was moving.