The heart is a tireless peduncle of blasphemy, a monarchy unto itself. No surprise, then, that in retrospect, evolution took an unexpected twist in the Holocene epoch when a heart decidedly turned exophyte, ending the symbiotic relationship it held with Mr. Sheraton Coulee to embark on a personal journey of self-discovery, hedonism and just plain trekking until its time did come.
It wasn’t worn on any sleeve; emotions, in fact, were not its strong suit. It waved goodbye to Sheraton Coulee, of 43 years and one marriage, two children and two parents (one living). Sheraton, who practiced patent law the past 12 years, taught some, loved airplanes. His soul, ascending in light and harmony, looked down at his sleeping wife, his dead body, his children reading under their covers. He saw the disembodied heart, saw it waving from the kitchen, staring back. Stupefied at first, Sheraton’s face went from a moment of utter disbelief and impending shock to peace and understanding, and then final acceptance and gratitude. He waved excitedly back, then shot up into the afterlife, and Sheraton’s heart, nameless, purposeless, opened the front door of their ranch-style home and made its way into the great wide open. He heard the youngest Coulee scream from the master bedroom and felt a tinge of guilt.
As sacred and closely watched by the divine creator as the last living member of any species, it is also difficult, and not without an air of impossibility and hopelessness, to be the first. (Homo cardiosapiens?) Our heart stumbled, fell, made mistakes of naivety and put its trust in the unvirtuous and seedy. You could call it growing pains, and lay some blame to the atherosclerotic plaques of a diet and sedentary lifestyle the heart itself had never chosen, was more subjected to. But the heart, to its own surprise, had brains. It learned, detected patterns, reasoned, grasped the complex new reality rather swiftly, and generally adapted like a motherfucker.
Its first ordeal, the first test of its mettle, came when it met a mangy coyote ranging the highway, picking at roadkill and avoiding the shotguns of backwoods boredom. The heart was minding its own, when the coyote, aching through a piss, caught a whiff of the bloody meatball trailing along.
“What in the world is that delectable smell? My God!” The coyote’s patches of matted fur attempted to stand on end. He followed it down the off-ramp and byway that led to a trailer park. The heart was on top of a mobile home, watching the sky change color from a deep cyanosis to a blister-pale bed of capillaries. (The heart, in its infancy, thought in such metaphors.) The mongrel licked his chops, too dumb to recognize the miraculous or too hungry to care. (What vultures arrive at the cadavers of martyrs?) The heart, with its new ears, detected the click of pebble on pebble, could feel the eyes of a dangerous gulper like a dog’s putrid breath warm on its neck (aortic root). The heart revolved upon its ventriculopods and met the canonical canine, face to forsaken face. The coyote smiled.
“What are you?”
“I know that! I mean what are you doing all alone out here in the valley? Where is the body you belong to?”
“2892 El Condor Avenue, Bellehaven…”
“2892… A human’s?”
“Yes, sir. Indeed I am, a human’s. Or was.”
The coyote withdrew, afraid of anything personal, the mystical apes with their God-sticks and packs of un-wolves, their desire to kill with full stomachs and piss on the alpha-male’s face.
“Praise be to Esjalal’s hindbone, the Biscadone loveleaf and the Fur-mother raven…”
The heart looked upon the coyote befuddled, recognizing the fear and hush as a hymnal, and in response its life-beat became slowed, in rhythm with the slushing of worms before him.
The heart reached out a coronary, and laid its calming presence on the trembling shoulder.
“Have no fear. I am human no longer, insofar as I possess no hatred or anger, no kin nor sex-drive.”
The coyote was dubious, but then the auricles of the organ ceased pulsing. The coyote felt a light, the easing of his chronic pruritis, the crank of his joints go, the calvous string of a tail fluff, the melancholy drubbing inside him clear.
The heart in asystole realized his purpose had changed; despite a silenced SA node he remained sentient, an agent of free will controlling his sinew and cartilage and possibly destiny.
Together the coyote and four-chambered, independent neophyte grew ecstatic; they pumped the sky full of iron-forged fire.
He forgot what he put in his pockets that morning. He pulled out with his right hand an antique key (“My skeleton key”), a steely marble (“My Gettysburg grapeshot”) and a Bazooka Joe comic printed in Hebrew, a gift from the student rabbi who taught him jacks at the YMCA. From his left pocket he pulled out a roll of film, a paper football and some orange peels. The roll of film was a gift from his Uncle Tommy, photos of his dad (“My kid brother!”) wrestling in the JV tournament or dressed up for Prom with a peach fuzz mustache. Ellard never planned on getting them developed; he liked unrolling “the proofs” or “negatives” and holding them up to the light like they were his professional shots. He even put a red light in his desk lamp when he first got them. The paper football was from trigonometry 3rd period, Thursday. The orange peels must’ve been from last night, he thought, when he stayed up past midnight reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula under the sheets with a flashlight, and every so often putting down the book to draw some trains on his sketch pad, or Google “Transilveinya Cassles” on his tablet.
Ellard was satisfied with his findings, and was glad he’d eaten the citrus, because he was pretty sure his mom and little sister were coming down with the flu. “La gripa,” he’d heard the nurse murmur when his mother and sister sneezed in his grandfather’s room at the hospice. Ellard re-pocketed his belongings, and began whistling Mozart’s “Overture to the Marriage of Figaro” as he continued waiting for the number 9 bus to his father’s cemetery.
Ellard was dressed in denim suspenders and a white undershirt; he liked the grit of children his age in depression-era photographs, so he stole their fashion. He even wore a light-brown newsboy cap, which his grandpa called a Baker Boy and his mother a Cabbie.
“Sure is a warm March. That’s a nice Applejack, kiddo.” The old man on the bench was talking to him. “You waitin on the number 9 too?”
“Yes sir. The 3 o’clock.”
“Shouldn’t you be in school on a Friday? By the looks of your getup maybe you’re a dropout, headin in for some second-shift work. Is that it?”
“No sir! I’m in school. Last period is study hall. I got excused ‘cause I sell ads for the yearbook and said I had a bite on a portrait studio in Burlington.” Really Ellard had civics last period, but he was skipping, he reasoned, on account of his broken heart. For extra credit in English comp he’d translated Mrs. Penaple’s favorite Shakespeare sonnets into Latin and today her substitute, Ms. Skeever, handed them all back marked with zeroes. Ellard felt perhaps he should’ve gone with classical Latin rather than the vulgar, but he didn’t want to seem too highbrow or elitist. His dad had a copy of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, so he’d leave out the poetry and say he was just checking in to say hi.
“Mmm-hm. Okay son. Well looks like number 9 is coming down Cherry Street right now.” The old man grabbed his cane’s silver handle and lumbered up. The buttons on his buffalo plaid top looked ready to pop from his belly, but he stood maybe seven feet tall to Ellard’s 5 foot 4, Ellard reckoned. He was dark-skinned; Ellard couldn’t tell if he was Sicilian, Aztec, or an Inuit giant, but he mulled it over quite a while, even as he paid his bus fare and sat down.
On the bus a Hispanic girl who looked about Ellard’s age was sitting in the handicap row. Her hair was tied back in streaks of sable and Kool-Aid blue as she looked out the window. The afternoon sun glared off the five silver hoops silvering her ears, in order of size. Her olive-skinned face was narrow and scarred at the nose’s bridge and right temple – two dents from beer bottles thrown her direction by her mother’s boyfriends, in first grade and the summer before seventh. To Ellard her eyes were the color of Fenway’s Green Monster or Wrigley’s ivy, in the morning after the sprinklers and before the double-header.
Ellard sat down by the window a knight’s-move ahead of her. Slowly he craned his torso, set his left arm on the seatback next to him as the old man hobbled by. He moved his eyes past the old man to the girl’s neck, tattooed in what he called barrio calligraphy with the word SALVACION. Ellard remembered his cousin’s best friend, Juan Encarnacion, and once again saw a lugubrious Christ on the cross with chipped paint, hung on some altar in Ecuador or Guatemala, clear as a memory. He thought, whenever confronted with Spanish and the vespers or some Catholic imagery, that he must’ve been a missionary priest his last life, and he Googled “Haggeografy San Ellard” for eight months before he gave up.
“’Scuse me, miss. I got arthritis in both knees, plantar fasciitis, shrapnel in ma’ left hip and 320-odd pounds to carry ‘cross town to pick up my insulin and Lipitor, and check my blood pressure for the…”
“It’s no problem, sir,” she said looking up into his eyes, smiling like a stewardess, “I can move.”
“Thank you kindly, young lady. Much obliged.”
She stood up and turned to gather her belongings and the bus lurched forward. Ellard recognized the forest green hoodie from Wal-Mart, and figured her see-through white pants and black thong were from there as well, or Target. The Samoan’s (“He’s gotta be Samoan!”) smile remained much obliged, crow’s feet and cataracts oddly benevolent. She scooted out toward the aisle and turned Ellard’s direction; her white tank top very full of breasts and what Ellard presumed was a belly in the 27th to 28th week of gestation.
He uncraned and looked down: Embarrassed? Polite? Between his feet was a jade carving of a saint the size of an index finger. Ellard bent to get it, sat up and brought it to his face for studying. He turned it round looking for clues, stopped on the heaven-ward eyes, their sagging lids and apoplectic brow. “San Ellard?” Was there any resemblance? Maybe. Ellard frowned at the bald top.
“San Jerónimo! How did you get over here?”
She smiled as bright as an apple at dawn, forbidden and tempting, the alpha and omega of bitter and sweet.
Ellard’s interior monologue was stoppered by emotion, his voice muted by awe.
“Why, gracias senor.” She reached out for the figure. Ellard remained astonished, saliva pooled in his gaping maw. The bus driver hit the brakes and the passengers all lunged forward in unison, Ellard striking the seat before him ear first, knocking a screw back in place. He readjusted his cap and suspenders, gulped down his drool, looked up at the young chicana who was whispering a phrase in Spanish toward her belly, rubbing the bump like a saint with a sponge on the feet of the forsaken or damned.
The sun was in the bus-driver’s eyes, and he didn’t normally stop for mutts. But he swore that just now, as he pulled toward the on-ramp for I-60 heading north, this particular mongrel was ridden by a plump human heart, as red and as wet as the butcher’s fresh cuts. The pair disappeared in the grass by the road, never re-emerged, and the driver, pressing the gas, eventually concluded that son of a bitch probably had a tumor like his great-grandmother who didn’t believe in seeing Western-trained doctors. “Poor son of a bitch,” he mumbled. The skinny black man locked eyes with the road and said a prayer in praise of Vishnu.
Ellard was composed, and chivalric (some have said) to a fault. “Do you want to sit down?”
“Thank you.” And she eased into the aisle seat before her.
“I’m Ellard. Ellard Monroe Daisygardener.” He reached out a right hand, kept San Jeronimo in the left.
“I’m Ximena. Mucho gusto, Ellard.”
Ximena Muchado was 19, and riding the bus for some pre-natal care at the very same clinic the giant Samoan was headed to. She had moved from Guatemala to California with her mother and uncle when she just turned 8. Her uncle at the time was 17, already a war vet, and hoping to play baseball in America. Her mother then was 28 and had finally gotten her driver’s license while Papa was working construction in Abu Dhabi, a steady supply of income but away indefinitely. They drove into Mexico and the car was stolen in Oaxaca. Her uncle went out looking for it one night and never came back. Ximena got stung by a mosquito that caused a brain infection, and the rest of the trip is a blur. Her mother, with whom she still lives, has told her some nuns took them in and arranged for their expedient delivery to a priest who specialized in infectious diseases in Nogales. Mother says the nuns kept their word, and the gentleman who drove them was handsy, but respectful. They spent three days at the church in Nogales, but soon mother realized the priest was a phony, his methods were not only un-Christian, they weren’t even black arts. So mother filled their bag with bottled water and acetaminophen, and got them on a bus to Tijuana. There, she met an American screenwriter who offered to hitch them both up to LA in exchange for her rectum. “I don’t like the expression, Mule,” he said, “but the heroin down here is so much tastier.” She declined his offer to try some, acquiesced to a sexual exchange, and uncomfortably laid with Ximena in the trunk of his Jeep Wrangler the entire trip, condoms of illegal opioids lining her colon. They went beyond the border, through desert and Beverly Hills, until they reached the hospital where Ximena consciously began her life as an illegal alien.
“Saint Jerome: the patron saint of libraries.”
“Si, biblioteca,” Ximena agreed, and keeping eye contact with Ellard, she picked the figurine from his palm, as quick as a dashed breath, and placed it in her backpack’s front pocket with haste. And Ellard looked down at his now-empty palm, wiggled his fingers to life, sincerely unsure if they’d still respond to his commands. The heat of their split-second contact remained, the echo of truth, the transfer of feminine power to masculine shame. Appropriately, Ellard became temporarily indentured.
“You like to read?”
“Si, I like to read,” and she pulled out a beat up copy of La Chanson de Roland.
“Oh, cool! You like French literature?”
“I like immortal things.”
“I’m headed to “The House of Eternity,” the Jewish cemetery where my father is buried. Today is Purim. I was going to sing the songs he taught me about Esther and Haman, and tell him about the essay I’m writing for AP History about how much Hitler hated the holiday.” Ellard relayed this all in a voice that progressed with spurts of excitement on names. Ximena listened with an expression sympathetic and mournful, full of old world tenderness and new world pity.
“I am sorry you lost your father.”
Ellard looked at Ximena’s belly, her ringed thumbs and ringless digits. Ximena wondered, as she often did, where was Papa, what was he doing, did he think about her, have a new family?
“Ellard, you and I are not fatherless.” She reached in her bag, and placed a figurine in Ellard’s hand, kept her hands cupped on Ellard’s a moment, released. “Francisco, a child of God.”
“Who believed the bugs and the beasts, the fish and the fowl, were his brothers and sisters,” Ellard added, gazing down still at the saint in dumb reverence and wisdom.
Ximena looked concerned at an oblivious Ellard. Except Satan she thought.
Ellard sat in the waiting room while Ximena was examined by the obstetrician. Ximena heard the baby’s heartbeat, peed in a cup and watched the Indian-American doctor push on her feet. When he removed his fingers small pits remained, the doctor mentioned something called pre-eclampsia. He studied the paper strip in her urine and said, Proteinuria. Ximena denied any headaches or vision changes, said she felt great and nervously smiled. The physician rechecked her blood pressure, said it was normal, and asked Ximena to come back in two weeks, ready to pee for them again. “Drink a lot of water on the way,” he said, in a British accent, with a fatherly grin.
The two of them left the clinic, and strolled over to the Jewish cemetery. The entrance was down the block, at the corner. They strolled at the pace of young love; time was flying by, but to a casual observer they’d appear in slow motion, as if walking through water, or mud. Their experience was like a thought-experiment for a Romantic man-of-science, in a quest for the sublime outside of nature or between the pulsations of reality.
They arrived at the iron gates with their gold-plated Star of David. “Immortal things,” Ellard thought. He smiled surreptitiously, and without looking reached over to grab Ximena by the hand. But Ximena, to his left, was crossing herself, and furtively mumbling a Spanish devotion.
The gate was unlocked and slightly ajar, so Ellard opened it enough for himself and slid through. Ximena was unable to pass with her pregnant proportions, so she widened the way a bit more and smiled at Ellard’s child-like ignorance.
Up ahead, but out of sight, a human heart and coyote sat across from each other in front of the tombstone for Mordecai Maccabee Daisygardener. He discovered a second Earth, but chose to stay. “That’s one hell of an epitaph,” the heart observed. “Why don’t you call me Mordecai.”
“Okay,” the coyote said. “What should you call me?”
“What did your mother call you?”
“Nothing. I suckled her teats a few times, then she got hit by an electric beast.”
Mordecai grew warmer. The coyote could feel the heat, and understood it to mean the heart was sorry for his friend.
“Call me Adalaide Combustion.”
The heart dithered. “Isn’t Adalaide a girl’s name? Combustion I like!”
“A girl’s name…Shit, I don’t care. I like it. It sounds debonair, dandy. I’ve spent my life an ugly, flea-bitten, disease-ridden mongrel. Now, look at me! I want to be like a character in an Oscar Wilde play, a fop.”
“How do you know Oscar Wilde?’
“I’ve seen him performed in the park.”
“Alright, Adalaide. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise, sir.” The newly-reborn coyote bowed to the heart called Mordecai. He sniffed the fresh grass above Mordecai Daisygardener, could smell the herbicides and chiggers’ excrement mixed with yesterday’s rain, and it was never sweeter. But then he picked up the scent of something else.
“Forsooth!” He straightened up with a start.
“What is it, Adalaide?”
“I smell humans,” he said. His ears pricked up. “They’re walking this way.”
They both stared into each other and came to the same conclusion: They should hide. Only Adalaide, embarrassed in his ecstasy that he hadn’t smelled them sooner, knew it was too late.
“¡Ay, dios mío!” Ximena cried out when she and Ellard came upon the scene.
Ellard was not frightened. In the coyote, head bent low and tail between his legs, he recognized fear. The heart he marveled at, but not in disbelief. It was more with relief.
Ellard spoke first. “What are you two doing here at my father’s grave? Are you his new friends?” He asked sincerely, knowing his father’s fondness for animals and interest in physiology, while using the soothing tone of a horse trainer or policeman negotiating with a man on a ledge.
The coyote, recalling his old ways, fell back on instinct, began to growl and enlarge his proportions.
Ximena panicked, and shook with fear. Mordecai reached over to placate Adalaide: “You’re about to combust, true to your name, old boy,” he joked.
Ellard witnessed the exchange, but from the periphery noticed Ximena begin to tremble violently. “Ximena, are you okay?” Her eyes rolled in the back of her head and she fell straight down, cataplectic. On the ground, she jerked about in an epileptic fit. The coyote whispered over to the heart, “Mordecai, this girl is possessed.”
Ellard heard the statement, assumed the coyote was talking to his father – Mordecai Maccabee Daisygardener – and rapidly acquired the belief this human heart before him was the reincarnation of his dead dad.
“No, Adalaide. This girl is pregnant. I believe it’s eclampsia,” Mordecai replied. “Mrs. Coulee suffered this infirmity when she was pregnant with her second child.”
“Yeah! Eclampsia. Her doctor mentioned that word, or pre-eclampsia.” Ellard chimed in.
The heart, Ellard understood, was looking his way and smiling, approvingly and impressed.
“Help me straighten her out,” Mordecai said to the other two.
They laid out Ximena, trembling with less intensity and frequency now, completely unconscious, lengthwise, in front of Dr. Daisygardener’s tombstone.
“Are you going to heal her?” Adalaide hopefully asked of Mordecai.
“No,” the heart replied. “He is.” And he looked up at Ellard.
“How am I going to heal her? I’ve got a C in AP Biology, the closest thing to med school at Meriwether High.”
“Empty your pockets, Ellard.”
Ellard removed the goods he had surveyed that morning, placed them on the ground next to Ximena.
“What’s he supposed to do with those?” Adalide asked, flummoxed and upset. Ellard was nonplussed, but eagerly awaiting the answer, receptive as an antenna.
“Ellard, arrange the pieces in the appropriate manner, then say a prayer.”
The ambiguity upset Adalide further, at first. Then he remembered his trust in Mordecai, and looked toward Ellard to see what he’d do, believing he’d know what was right.
Ellard scooped up his possessions, arranged them on Ximena’s protruding belly, into the shape of a six-pointed star.
“Is she Jewish?” Adalaide asked.
“It’s the two orbits of XBN7,” said Ellard.
“The second Earth,” added Mordecai.
The orange peel, in lieu of XBN7’s sun, began to quake. The entire system continued subtly shifting even after Ximena’s seizure had completely subsided. But she remained unconscious.
“Now say the prayer, Ellard.”
Ellard thought about the most profound and spiritual words he knew: the Kaddish, Psalm 23…
“ ‘Though we have found a second inhabitable planet, as pure and untouched as Eden, we must remember where the true Eden was, and where the first humans grew, under the watchful eye of God, alongside the Tree of Knowledge.’ ”
The coyote raised its bowed head reverently. “What was that from?” he asked, a bit bleary eyed.
Ximena began to open her eyes a bit and moan. The heart grabbed her hand. “You’re okay, honey. Te tengo.”
“It was the start of my father’s most famous speech. He was accepting a prize at the White House.”
Ximena looked into the eyes of Mordecai, glanced around at the coyote and Ellard, all looking down at her. With calm she asked of the heart, “¿Estoy muerto?”
“No, Ximena,” and the heart touched her abdomen, which began to bump about with the quickening of her unborn child.
“Oh, mi hijo.”
“Are you my dad?”
“No, Ellard, I’m not. Your dad is dead. He’s on your moon.” Mordecai replied.
And the coyote ran off yelping, chasing a comet into the woods to be with his mother.
And that night the heart was alone again, lying beneath a cloudy sky. He stayed warm, without a body to blanket him, by keeping a tight orbit with his personal sun.
4/29/14 – 5/18/14
About the author
Jake Sheff is a major and pediatrician in the US Air Force, married with a daughter and three pets. Currently home is the Mojave Desert. Poems of Jake’s are in Radius, The Brooklyn Review, The Cossack Review and elsewhere. He won 1st place in the 2017 SFPA speculative poetry contest. Jake also enjoys writing short fiction, and has been published in Storyacious. His poetry chapbook is “Looting Versailles” (Alabaster Leaves Publishing).