Eight Hearts

Stephanie Rael


The Shadow

How strange, my heart, that fist-sized organ locked away inside my chest, pumping, working, keeping me alive, more than alive, that enigmatic cluster of cells, that lump of flesh, something so much a part of me but that I will never see or touch. A beating, living thing, shrouded in darkness, destined to remain in that mysterious cavern, tucked away from the world, the outside, the sun. It is me and I am it, and yet still my heart is as foreign to me as if it were a tuber swimming in the black depths of the sea, as if it were an ancient fossil buried far underground, as if it were a speck of dust floating somewhere out in the frozen void of space. I want my heart to see the light of day. I want it to be exposed, external, sovereign. I shudder at the power it could have if it left my body, if my heart could step out into the world, into the sun, and set off on its own.

I break into the hospital in the middle of the night. I take some instruments, sterilize them. I lay myself down on the operating table, untie my gown. I bring the scalpel to my chest and press down firmly, slicing an incision the length of an outstretched hand. I dig into the cavity and I fish out my heart. It throbs, pulses, seems to blink in the bright lights of the operating room as if waking from a long, deep sleep. I clamp the veins, the aorta, cauterize the arteries. Next, I sever my heart’s many umbilical cords, freeing it from my body.

My heart slides down from the table and leaves the operating room, a thin line of blood trailing on the floor behind it. I place my hand inside my chest, my fingers move around the hole where my heart used to be, feeling its absence. The space is cool, vacant. Air drifts in like a summer breeze through an open window. I stitch myself up with thick black stitches. I take my time. The scar on my chest will be a glorious one. I will show it off to my friends and I will say, “Look, see! This is where my heart used to be. It is there no longer. It is now out in the world, in the sun, on its own, doing heaven only knows what!” My friends will nod and smile, bringing their hands to their own chests in knowing, in longing.

When I leave the hospital, it is morning. I see my heart standing on the corner, glistening in the sunlight, its back to me. I look at the ground as I pass, afraid to meet its eye. On the sidewalk, I see my heart’s shadow—a dark, fist-sized splotch on the ground. Finally! I think. Finally, my heart is no longer in the sea, or underground, or floating aimlessly in space, it is no longer hidden away. My heart is here, right in front of me. I can see it, I could reach out and touch it if I wanted—though I wouldn’t dare, not now.

I cross the street. My heart and I will go our separate ways, we will heal on our own. “The operation was a success,” I will tell my friends. I am not whole, but I am well.


The Catch

You pull the hook from my heart as it squirms in your hands, flopping back and forth, a fish out of water. Too small, you think, not worth keeping. You toss me back into the sea and I linger at the surface for a moment before swimming away. Gulls squawk overhead, waves lap gently against the hull of your boat.

Somehow, it will always be like this with you and I: You are the catcher, I the one caught. The fishing line, our love, sometimes taut, sometimes slack, always thin, always tentative, never sure. We embrace our destinies, our roles, pull them on like a pair of galoshes that don’t fit quite right, and we get to work. It is simple: You sail, cast your line, wait for a tug, reel in. I swim, watch for the lure of a dangling worm, bite, get dragged up by my lip from the womb of the sea. We are no leisurely Saturday afternoon hobby. Our love is work, it is those cold, lonely hours before sunrise, it is the daily grind, the aching muscles that never once stop for a break. You are exhausted by me—first by the wait, then by the labor of pulling in my heart. And me? I am exhausted by your exhaustion, I am tired of being hungry, bated. I am tired of that painful pinch on my lower lip, of my helplessness at the end of the line.

Today, the sea is rough, the sky is gray. Gulls circle overhead. You have been waiting longer than usual for the tug of my heart and when it finally comes you are relieved. At first, I resist and you have to square your shoulders, brace your legs and hold fast to the rod, but I soon give up and my heart goes slack, surrendering to the process. The fishing line gets shorter and shorter, the distance between us shrinks. Soon my heart is in your hands. It is wet, scaly, slippery. It is a sickly, grayish hue. Blood drips from the hook in my lip. You examine it, my heart, turn it over in your hands. Disappointment moves in like storm clouds over your thoughts and you sigh, shaking your head. My heart is not enough, it is never enough and removing the hook with a quick yank, you toss me back into the sea.

As usual, my heart flounders for a moment at the surface and then gets its bearings. It swims down and away. You return to the helm, turn your boat back to shore. At the pier, you clean your hooks, put away your poles, ready the sails for the next day. You check the weather report. Smooth sailing.

Out at sea, my heart welters, the pain on my lip dulled, only a memory now. I nibble on small bits of sea gook and I keep my eyes turned towards the surface, watching for that juicy worm dangling at the end of a hook, the bait I cannot resist despite the hidden barb within it. Thus, the cycle of our love repeats eternally, as frequent and predictable as the twice-daily tides.


The Puddle

You said to me once, “Your love is a downpour. It is wet, cold, driving. It is unexpected and fearsome. It comes from the clouds, the heavens, from on high. It is too good for this earth, too pure to be sullied by the ground, by our feet, by gravity.”

I laughed, turning away to rummage through a cabinet in the kitchen so you wouldn’t see my face and written on it, how near you were to the truth.

The day I leave you, it storms. Clouds gather, dark and cumulonimbus, rain begins to fall, streets abandon. Debris whirls, leaves shake off trees, panes rattle, shingles quiver. The roads are wet and slick. The city looks like the inside of an old man’s gaping mouth as he chews his meal—a dark void, rubbish sloshing around, teeth chomping, saliva breaking objects down into smaller and smaller pieces, enzymes churning, vaguely grotesque, garbage like food in indecipherable, unsightly combinations, peas and potatoes, branches and twigs, flyers for a shoe sale. Utter disarray, but no matter, it all goes to the same place in the end. The howling wind is the old man’s breath, inhaling, exhaling. Thunder his satisfied belch. You stay inside, sitting near the window, a witness to the storm, yet safe from harm. You watch the rain, you watch as sporadic bolts of lightning set the falling droplets on fire.

Later, finally sated, the old man closes his mouth and wipes his lips with a napkin, sits back, pats his belly. The sun appears, the world stills, and you venture outside. You inhale the cool air, that sweet, wet redolence of freshly-fallen rain, a meal digested. You walk through the streets, avoiding puddles until you come upon the one shaped like my heart.

You recognize it at once. Sunlight glints upon its surface, making you squint at its brightness, its radiance. You consider my heart, the stillness of it, a modicum of peace after a storm, a lake in miniature. It is almost beautiful. But the rain has mixed with the city streets, nature has mingled with the excrement of humankind, streaks of oil, cigarette butts, crumpled straw wrappers, a flyer for a shoe sale. The world has tarnished my heart, sullied it, and at this, you are filled with disgust, with a steely, metallic violence only love can beget. 

Your feet hit the puddle hard, with purpose, and you stomp and stomp, sending water droplets flying, spraying all around as you try in vain to send my heart back to where it came from, the sky, where it will be pure and good and safe amongst the clouds.


The Fruit

Many months ago, you planted my heart with care and gentle hands, a single seed pressed into the loamy soil, covered with a scoop of earth. I germinated. The sun beat down on my heart as it burst through the soil, first a tiny but determined tendril and later a firm stalk, its soft, green leaves turned towards the sun. Chilly spring rains gave way to hot, dry days. Weeds grew all around but none could keep up with my heart and they remained stunted in its shadow.

You watered my heart every day, you knelt down in the soil to inspect its progress, you covered it at night if the weather turned cold. My heart prospered. It basked in our love, the sun, strengthened and nourished by its rays. My roots grew deep, stretching down into the earth, weaving a fine tapestry around grains of sand and rocks, past nitrogen, flakes of mica, and earthworms. My heart turned from green to yellow and from yellow to pink to red. It became swollen, heavy, sweet. The vine sagged with its weight.

Each morning, you entered the garden with a basket and I watched you pull the other fruit from their vines. You inspected each one and, finding it satisfactory, placed it gently into your basket. But never, not once, did you reach out for me. I was perfect, I was ready, and yet every day you passed me by, every day as if you did not see me at all. I tried to shout, “Pick me! Pick me!” but hearts cannot cry out, fruit has no voice to speak.

With time, my heart develops one sore, then another, two brown bruises, rot that spreads, softens my flesh, eats it away. My heart, too weak and too heavy to cling to the vine that sustains it, falls to the ground. Our love, the sun that ripened my heart, brought it to fruition, now expedites its decay as my heart lies rotting in the soil, turning to mush. I look up at the other fruit still on the vine and I know that soon you will be out with your basket. My heart sighs, my bruises pulsate. You won’t want me now. I am too far gone. If only you would have picked me sooner. If only I had not stayed so long in the sun.


The Attack

It is late. Snow falls in heavy clumps, the sky’s dandruff illuminated by the orange glow of the streetlights. My heart walks alone down an alley. Its head down, collar turned up against the wind, scarf tied around its neck. Ahead, it catches a glimpse of you as you turn the corner into the alley. You are rushed, cold, purposeful. My heart picks up the pace. It follows you. At first far behind, then closer. Then closer still. You hear my heart’s footsteps. You turn. Our eyes meet.

My heart is upon you before you can move, before you can run. It tackles you to the ground, pins you down. The chances of being attacked by a stranger are slim, the chances of being swindled by someone you know and trust, by someone you love, are much higher. You recognize me. You know my heart, what it wants. You know too that it will never find it, at least not on you. So you stop struggling, you let my heart search. You are not afraid, you know I will not hurt you. Any danger of that passed long, long ago.

Frantic, its hands shaking, my heart turns the pockets of your trousers inside out. They are empty. It searches your wallet, pulls out credit cards, your ID, a crinkled twenty, receipts for dinners and movie ticket stubs. Empty. It checks your coat pockets, a pack of cigarettes, a set of keys. Empty. It reaches up your sleeve where it finds only your arm—warm, strong, familiar. Empty.

My heart stops its search and stands up, distraught. You get up too, brush the snow and street grime from your coat. We look at each other for a moment before you nod, turn, and walk away down the abandoned street. I let you go. My heart is freezing, its teeth chatter, snow collects on its shoulders, its head. There are some things you cannot take, some things you cannot steal. When it comes to you, my heart will always be left empty-handed.


The Meal

You set the table: Forks, knives, spoons, a linen napkin. You light a candle, pour wine. Music plays in the background. Melodies bounce off the walls, the ceiling, shadows dance in the candlelight. You take my heart from the oven. It has been roasting all day and you smile when you see it has cooked perfectly, its skin a glistening golden brown.

After it cools, you take a knife to my heart, a blade you sharpened that morning. You pierce its flesh, confident as a surgeon at the operating table as the blade cuts through the skin and into the juicy middle, smiling as my heart yields to the pressure, to the sharpness of your blade. From there it is easy and you carve systematically. You divide my heart into segments, separating white meat from dark, discarding the odd bits of gristle, stores of fat. When you have finished cutting, you arrange the pieces on a silver platter.

Alone, you sit down at the dining room table, a slice of my heart on the plate in front of you. Your stomach growls. You pick up your knife and fork, cutting my heart into smaller, bite-sized pieces. You savor the meal, you chew slowly. The meat is tender and juicy, marinated for the recommended time in oil and spices, in salt, in hopes and dreams, in longings and in fantasies, and the flavor is exquisite.

When you have finished your meal, you put the rest of my heart into a baggie and you throw it in the icebox, saving what is left for later. You walk into the den and sit down in your favorite chair. You put your feet up and sigh. The music stops. The candle snuffs out. The room is dark, silent. Your stomach growls. No matter how much you eat, you will never be full.


The Spill

You sit at a café along the tree-lined promenade. It is spring. The air is clear, thawing, the sun bright, clouds soft and sparse. Birds chirp, green buds peek out from the tips of tree branches, blossoms open. Mothers push their babies in prams, children run, their arms spread like windmills, gnawing on bon bons. You finish your croissant, drink your coffee, read the newspaper. You think: Good things happen too, but no one writes about them, no one wants to know. When we read about horrible things we can pretend our existence is so much more than it is. We can unite. Bad things make us happy, make us whole. A stray cat wanders up to you and nuzzles your leg. You look down and see it is missing an eye. You think, smiling: We are the same, you and I, mostly blind.

A waiter comes to clear your table. He holds too much and the half-finished glass of orange juice slips from his hands. It lands on the table, the juice spills. Apologizing, the waiter rushes back into the café to find a rag. You look down at the sticky mess, the juice dripping in thick, heavy drops from the edge of the table, like sugar rain. The spill is familiar to you somehow, in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. It reminds you of someone, or perhaps something. A memory, a feeling, a moment, a shout from so far away that when it reaches your ear it is as faint as a whisper.

Then you know. This mess is my heart. You recognize its strange shape, its opacity, its eagerness to consume everything around it. A shudder runs down your spine. You look around, wonder if I am watching you. Satisfied I am not, you run your finger through the spill, my heart, blurring its edges, rendering it unrecognizable. You bring your finger to your mouth. The sweetness of it lingers on your taste buds, memories from ages back dance like couples waltzing on your tongue. You laugh at the waiter’s blunder and what became of it. You think: Is this not how all great loves come to be? The result of a series of mishaps—a clumsy hand, an overturned glass of juice, an accident?

The waiter returns, rag in hand, but you stop him. “Wait,” you say, reaching out, “here, let me do it.”

Smiling, you move the rag over the spill. It gives you pleasure, wiping away my heart, making it disappear, knowing it can impose itself on you no longer. When the table is clean you hand the rag to the waiter who shrugs and walks back into the café. As for me, as for my heart, it finds its way to the back of your mouth where its sugars begin to worm a tiny, pin-sized hole into one of your molars, just enough space for my heart to curl up and go to sleep—close, warm, and almost happy.


The Fossil

You put your tools aside, lay your brush down. You stand up. Step back. You look down at the rough, cragged earth and at the fossil pressed into it, white, gleaming, the greatest discovery of your career. You close your eyes, rub your temples. You expect the fossil to be gone when you open them again, like a mirage, a dream, a shadow. But it is there still, this artifact, this relic of the past, my heart.

You take it back to your laboratory. You examine it under a microscope. There are miniscule holes in the bone, little nicks and scuffs on its surface. My heart laid exposed to the elements for thousands of years before it was buried finally by a flood, or a downpour, or by debris from an earthquake. Weathered, worn down, its flesh stripped from the bone by wind, or by a predator, rotted away by disease, or slashed by murder, torture.

There is no way to know the story of the fossil, my heart, that you hold in your gloved hands. It is merely an outline, a sketch, a blueprint of what once was. Stripped of a name, a face, a soul, a story. Buried treasure. How cruel, you think, that this is all that is left. But there is beauty in it too, in the sheer, unabashed anonymity of the fossil. This heart could be my heart, or it could be yours, or his, or hers, or theirs. Its remains the only evidence to tell my tale, any tale, every tale. It is a collective heart, a shared history. It beats no longer in one chest, but in billions.

Many years later, after you are long gone, a child will stop before the fossil in a museum. She will press her face to the display case, squish her nose against it, leave smudges of small fingerprints on the glass.

This child will recognize at once the outline of that strange, beating thing hidden away inside her own chest, something so much a part of her but that she will never see or touch. Gazing at the fossil, she will share its joys, its heartbreaks, its healing, its millennia of beating. Like the others who came before her and those who will come after, this child will know at once what you knew the day you discovered my heart pressed into the earth. She will know that something of love can be preserved. Something of love survives the passage of time.

Stephanie Rael.png

Stephanie Rael divides her free time between reading, writing, eating cheese, and delighting in the antics of squirrels and other small rodents. She has a fondness for Central/Eastern European and Russian literature and two of her favorite authors are Fyodor Dostoevsky and Witold Gombrowicz. Stephanie resides in Boise, Idaho, USA. Her work can be viewed at http://stephaniecrael.wixsite.com/stories.