Beating Heart by Anne Gudger
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, February 23rd, 2017
"After he died I’d lie on my bed. Sobbing. Skinless."
Heart: two bass clefs glued together—one backwards, one forwards. The inner curves touching. The tails touching too.
Hearts. Rocks. Clouds. Clover petals. Muscle shells splayed open. The spider web I spied one fall, heart shaped, spun by a rebel. The heart in the melting snow I almost stepped on last winter hiking a trail. Owl’s face. Fireworks. Lightening. Horse blaze. Elementary school Valentines, sticky with glitter. A stain on my pants. The dregs of coffee on the bottom of my favorite TinTin mug. The marking on our best dog’s head, a mostly white Brittany Spaniel with rust colored spots. “We have to pick the one with the heart,” my then nine-year-old and five-year-old said and of course they were right.
Or the Once Broken Still Here hearts. Charcoal heart, a seared love note. Torn moss heart, that tear like a lightening bolt. A heart shaped scar on a tree limb. Pandora’s Cluster in the night sky, a bruised heart shape at the center.
Tiniest heart: hummingbird heart. Beats up to 1,260 times per minute. Weighs less than a feather. Big biggest heart: blue whale. Heart VW Beetle sized. Heart half a ton sized.
Human heart. That mucus muscle that beats without direction, beats on its own our whole life until it. Stops. Fist sized, blood pumping, life sustaining, hollow muscle, four chambers, weighs less than a pound, guarded by breastbone. Slippery engine. Rhythmic contractor. Boom, boom conductor.
What if the heart had a fifth chamber? Or more? What would be stored? More love. Hurt. More of what makes us,us. People say eyes are the windows to the soul. Okay. But the heart. The seat of the soul. I love you with all my heartness. Heart and Soul: the piano duet played endlessly with Mom holding the rhythm when my tiny fingers stretched half an octave.
Boom, swish heart. Tough and tender. Caged and untamable. Small as a comice pear. Big as the sky. Bigger. Milky Way heart. Grandma’s purring heart. Aunt Jean’s stitched up heart. A hole in her heart her surgeon sewed closed. My own heart murmur, a leaky valve, a whispered gurgle like rippled water.
Rose red. Carmine. Chili pepper.
Corazon. Coeur. Herz. Kokoro.
Stretched, moved, touched, battered, broken, mended, healed, swollen, drenched in honey. “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
No vacations. No breaks. Beats about 72 beats per minute, about 2.5 billion times in an average 66-year life. When it’s had enough and wants to grab coffee or a beer or something fancy, a Manhattan, a dirty martini: I just need a cigarette. I swear I’ll be right back, it says with a wink. Boom. You’re left for dead. Gutted. Shriveled. Heartless.
I used to lie on my husband’s chest and listen to his yummy heart pushing blood, feeding lungs, muscles, bones, cells. His oceanic heart beat for 36 years. About 1 billion beats. I’d count. Up to 100. More. Some nights he’d read to me (He almost finished Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman) and I’d count those beats in time to his words, his silky voice with that allergy rattle, his breath a little night sour. I’d count, thinking: This heart. It beats him. It holds him. It beats for him and me and this other thing, the couple. It had a big job.
When he was driving to the mountain for night skiing when snow flooded the windshield when he hit black ice in a curve like a big C when his Honda Prelude slipped and spun when headlights sliced the snow-white dark night, lights from an oncoming car, a station wagon, heavy, heavier with four club-bouncer-sized men inside when instinct steered the car, faced the empty passenger seat into the headlights when he crashed, the scream of metal and glass, when his seat broke free when his head hit the steering wheel when he cracked his brain when his heart. Stopped. Dead before the man in the car behind could open his door when what made him him—essence, spirit, whatever you call it—did the story problem and said Hell no I’m out and left, snap, when he floated over his mangled car and beat up body and all that blood, his atoms turned, swoosh, to light and heart, when this new self watched and wondered, What Now, wondered how he was going to hold me without a body, how he was going to let me listen to his heart that was going cold.
After he died I’d lie on my bed. Sobbing. Skinless. Muscles and nerves pulsing. Tears flooding my ear scoops. Stones on my chest. Buried by an avalanche of boulders. Breathing through a straw. Like I was some drying death mask, breathing through a swizzle straw while the plaster hardened. I’d hear the tick of my heart, feel the up and down behind my ribs and wonder how it pumped all broken, how the once comfort beating turned to beating me up. Even when I held my breath, praying, Stop. Will you just fucking stop, it beat–pumping, pushing and pulling me with it. I’m not done with you sister, it whispered. It’s his death not yours. And I’m right here.
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Header image courtesy of Erik Jones. To view his Artist Feature, go here.
Anne Gudger is a Montana writer, transplanted from dewy Oregon to Big Sky Country. Sea and sky live in her cells. Her words have been in Real Simple Magazine, The Rumpus, Slippery Elm, VoiceCatcher, Third Street Writers, Unchaste’s first anthology, and She Holds the Face of the World. More words in Writers’ Digest and Willamette Writer’s contests. She’s lucky to be married to a sweet man and have two beautiful children. Plus a fabulous son-in-law too.
Photo credit to Robin Damore.