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Excerpt: 'In The Valley Of The Kings'

In the Valley of the Kings

My Father's Heart

My father's heart beats in a glass jar on the mantel, a steady flickering at the edge of my eye. I try to avoid it, but by dinnertime each night I'm staring. Beneath my gaze it pulses, and perhaps it turns a richer purple. From the jar I hear a low, dull, quick sound, persistent as a muffled watch.

You may know already what a small thing a heart is. Close your fist. Dig your nails into your palm two times quickly. Repeat. There it is. But my father's heart is large — fully as large as my head. The wide-mouth jar upon my mantelpiece once held a gallon of mayonnaise. Now, with the heart inside, it takes but two quarts of saline to brim it.

Atop the fluid, faint ripples shudder. Through them, I see the stubs of the aorta, vena cava, and the pulmonary vessels wave faintly, jerking. I tap the glass, and the tentacles withdraw; as suddenly as a slug surprised the whole mass shrinks, then slowly expands, and pulsates at its former size.

It has been a difficult possession. I am nervous about letting company near it. They might flick ashes in the jar, or jostle it. They might want to take it home. Vacations are, of course, out of the question. Whether the saline evaporates, or the heart in some way consumes it, I cannot say, but each day the level in the jar recedes, and I must top it off. Once each month the whole thing needs cleaning: I plop the beating mass out on the kitchen table — a few minutes in the air don't seem to bother it — rinse out the jar, and refill. The heart retakes its seat unruffled, seemingly oblivious, except for a slight flush around the coronary arteries, a slightly grander bulging on diastole.

But I tap the jar, and it mimes surprise: Don't tap, it says; don't tap. There is a dry, bleachy smell rising off the saline, and the faintest whiff of sweat.

It has learned the trick of propelling itself around the jar. The left ventricle twitches, a wave spurts from the descending aorta, and the whole mass rises from the bottom; a delicate pursing of the pulmonary arteries steers. I have found it at times spinning slowly, tootling an inaudible tune from the upbranching aortal pipes. On each rotation, it brings into view the scarification surrounding one collapsed and knotted vessel. It sees me staring, and with an abrupt spasm turns itself. The tubules wave at me. Go away, it says, go away.

I can't remember when it came into my possession. The question seems odd to me. When I stop and consider, of course I know that it must have come to me, on some day and in some place, but I feel it has always been with me. I know I had it when I went off to school, and carried it around from rented room to room, in and out of boxes for four years, and sometimes never a proper place to put it, hidden or exposed. My sophomore year it was a doorstop, but the gesture was transparent, to me and it, and there was bad blood on both sides.

Lately, I have felt the old antagonism resurfacing. I awake at night, and feel my own heart thudding wildly. I have fears — did I dine on botulism? am I growing bald? — and hear a low, dull chuckling from the other room. It is as mute as Adam when I see it by daylight, but I have suspicions of its nights. I have these past few evenings, about the hour of midnight, tried sneaking up on it with a flashlight. The beam reveals only a sodden lump of flesh, slumped and snoozing, a bubble hanging on the slack aortal lip. My own heart quiets at the sight, although at bottom I feel there lurks a lump of anger — sleeping, but alive.

I have raged at it of late: Leech, I cry: Bloodsucker. It burps clear saline in mild protest; innocence sits on every valve. I am not taken in. It has not been so many years since I have seen it raging in its turn, swollen to the size of a dirigible, as full of gas and fire, stopping traffic across four lanes of Sixth Avenue. A cab driver had refused to carry it: "I don't haul meat." I spent the balance of that day in terror, cradling the jar in my lap (we took a bus), looking into it each time the saline sloshed. It refused to look up.

At times — the oddest times — it has reared up inside its jar and reviled me. Ingrate, it cries. Weakling. Disappointmenttome. I try to explain (I always try to explain), but the heart distends to twice its normal size. There is saline everywhere. I am afraid it will explode.

In an hour it is talking back at the small TV that sits beside its jar. It complains at the commercials. I keep my distance.

Once again I have awakened, and checking my pulse I find it slow, laboring, uneven. From the next room there is no sound. I snap on the light in the living room, and the heart starts, wrinkles into itself, and shields its blinking atria. Wake up, I tell it, knowing it is already awake, but I enjoy the violence in my voice too much to stop. Wake up. It is rubbing its bulging cheeks. I bring my face closer to the brine. Are you listening to me?

I have surprised it. No pirouetting, no calliope tunes: even the look of injured innocence is gone. It blinks up at me blankly, like a baby from a carriage, unsure. My own heart is racing.

Now I am here, I am not sure what to say. It won't wait long. Suddenly I am embarrassed, and, sensing this (it is uncannily acute), the heart starts to regain its buoyancy. Slyly, as if only at the whim of a current, it starts to rise through the fluid. I worry suddenly that it may break the surface, a gaping vein present itself an inch below my lips. I back away, mumble, "Just wanted to see you were all right."

Fantasies of revenge float through my mind all day. When I come home, I will slip it, jar and all, into the freezer. But does brine freeze? I could, while dusting, jostle it off its perch. The hearth is hard, the jar will shatter. It will flop about a minute or so, and then lie still. I am depressed when I arrive home. The key in the lock, the silence behind the door arrests me: what if something has happened? I fear the random violence of burglars.

One morning, I find the heart on the surface, lying on its side, a froth of bubbles around it. It looks an unhealthy gray. I lift it from its fluid, and, unmindful of the wet, I cradle it against my chest. I croon soft words in its direction. It lifts an artery, and quivers.

A week passes, and all is well. It was singing this morning when I left for work, sporting with the bits of toast I fed it. The doctor has taken it off salt. I am cheerful, the morning air expansive in my chest. As I come home that night I am whistling.

It is as if nothing has happened. The heart turns its back ostentatiously as I enter. The television fills the room with cheers. As I try to speak, it waves an aorta impatiently for silence: a line drive into right field; one man comes home, then another; the last holds up at third. The crowd is wild; the heart is assiduously intent. I drop my briefcase on my bed and take a shower.

As the steam climbs up the glass, water gurgles about my feet, the sounds of the next room fade. The thudding in my ears is all my own; the jar on the mantelpiece is empty, a crust of salt at its bottom. Tomorrow, I tell myself, I will throw it away. And suddenly I am sobbing as if my heart will break.

Reprinted from In the Valley of the Kings: Stories by Terrance Holt (c) 2009 byTerrance Holt. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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Terrence Holt