Sunday
May032015

Heart Site

Janalyn Guo


 

Long ago, before I was born, there had been a community meeting to decide which body part should be buried to represent the dead. The decision had been between the heart, the lungs, and the brain, with one vote for the eyes. The rest of the body was fed to birds and the bones were burned and mixed into a paste we used to fortify our homes. They became a form of memory.

My mother's heart is buried at the heart site. She was a big woman, loud and direct in love and anger, absolutely transparent. After my mother died, I missed her clarity. My father was more disguised. I called my efforts to decipher the things he didn't say the Father Algorithm. It required great effort. My mother ran hot baths for me in the mornings and bundled me up at night to ease my arthritis up until she was too sick to help. I noticed her swollen, purpled extremities when she brought me blankets. My mother's was the last shiny, embalmed heart to be buried before the practice stopped in our town. It was with some eyebrow raising that my father and I witnessed the source of all her ailments lowered into the ground on the day of her funeral. The attendees ogled at its size. It was the largest and brightest we had ever seen. It was truly beautiful.

I visited my mother's heart from time to time, unsure of what to say or do with my hands. A woman named Elsinore tended to the heart site. She made her rounds riding in a hand-controlled pink scooter strapped down with tools because she didn't have lower legs. She lived in a small zome on the periphery of the heart site and placed strange jelly candies in my hand, breathing loudly as she asked me questions about my day. I left the jellies for the ants and the disinterested birds at bus stops I passed on the way home.

 

For a time after my mother's death, my father stood awkwardly at the entrance to my bedroom at bedtime and asked me if I was keeping up with my studies. My father had an aversion to emotional discomfort and was a perpetual hoverer. I called the unoccupied emotional space around him the Father Bubble. I followed the Father Algorithm to understand that my father felt great love and concern for me. For example: in the cold days after my mother's funeral, my arthritis flare-ups hit me like a dramatic weather change. I woke in the mornings unable to move my legs. Walking felt like lifting two fat tree trunks. My legs lagged behind the rest of me like a lip-sync error on film. In those days, my father whisked me up and took me to the hospital to get infusions where we silently watched reruns of swimsuit modeling competitions.

Another example: My father ordered a cane that resembled a green light saber that lit up in the dark. I had selected it from a tear-away catalog included in a book called So Your Child Has Arthritis. I walked to and from school with the others. I was a normal teenage kid, terrified of weakness.

After school, I went straight to the bath to loosen my joints and read comics, the pages lit by the last of the afternoon light streaming in horizontally. I read all the stuff from Japan, those infinite volumes. I read Akira, Lone Wolf and Cub, The Drifting Classroom, and Astro Boy until my toes pruned and puckered. While my friends learned how to play sports, I wrote fan fiction based on The Enigma of Amigara Fault. In that comic, a fault line appears in the mountains after an earthquake raises up ancient rock that's never before been exposed to air. The townspeople discover that there are body holes up and down the fault. Everyone in the town is obsessed with finding their body hole. One by one, the townspeople find and vanish into their holes. I dreamed up stories about what might have happened to them.

When I stopped reading my comics, I'd suddenly be aware of the silence around me, and a sadness would take over. My room shared a vent with my parents' bathroom. I used to be able to hear them talking, sometimes arguing over me, through the vent. It was weird to hear the new quiet.  

 

In the island town of Crow, to graduate eighth grade, we had to complete a project where we were paired with a civil servant to learn about the benefits of community service. I was paired with Elsinore, the keeper of the heart site, our town expert in historic preservation and horticulture. She was recommended as someone who understood my condition and could provide the necessary amenities. We were to spend one week at our assignments, all faced with specific challenges: mushroom picking, bridge repair, and mail delivery, for example.

On the first day of my assignment, Elsinore picked me up from school, and I rode behind her on her scooter. The grounds of the heart site were fenced in gold, at the center of which was an anatomically correct bronze sculpture of the big beating muscle. It was a gray day, rainy. My mother's heart was buried in winter. Spring vegetation changed the scenery, making it hard for us to find the sites. Elsinore was quiet, preoccupied. She offered me no jellies. I wondered if my presence was bothering her. The gears in her scooter whirred in the silence until she parked it and cut the engine.

I couldn't stop staring at that place where her leg ended too soon under her loose flowery skorts.

"Is there something bothering you, Elsinore?" I asked.

She looked at me for a moment, forgetting she wasn't alone. She said, "The hearts are doing something weird underfoot." We tidied up each heart site one by one, removing brambles and dead flowers from the monuments. There were a number of bronze statues in the area to maintain. We went from statue to statue—each dedicated to the heart—and Elsinore taught me the preservation procedures. As we rinsed and soaped and carefully applied a sacrificial coat of wax onto the large greening bronze anatomically correct heart at the center of the grounds, she told me about observations she'd been accumulating over the past few years.

She had noticed, first, a great increase in the presence of birds of dark plumage in the periphery, like she was being watched. She had also noted that the heart site had grown in circumference, her scooter route taking up more time than usual. "The earth at the heart site is cracking, and the cracks are growing deeper and more pronounced, disturbing the order. For example," she said as she pointed to the monument, "this giant thing is leaning dangerously to the left. Careful, don't make it overly shiny."

I eased up with my brush. The detailing was hard work. Every section of the oxidizing sculpture required brushes of varying size. There was an art to the polishing. After we finished with the giant heart, we got back onto the scooter, and Elsinore drove us to a specific heart site to show me more evidence. On the way, she told me about a great exodus of frogs that cleared out of the area all within two nights. In their rush to leave, some had covered the glass windows of her zome. "It was freaky," she added. Elsinore cut the engine. It was dusk, and I was exhausted from a long day's work. I could feel my legs cramping up, and my hands were dry from the rubber gloves. The cicadas were starting to sing.

"Finally," she said, growing excited, her forefinger raised close to my nose, "my scooter wheel got lodged in this, and I almost flipped over my handlebars." She showed me a thick red tube protruding from the soil like an opening to a sewer.

"Is it a piece of an old heart statue?" I asked.

"Well," Elsinore paused. "I think it is a heart, a real one, buried long ago. I'm not sure why, but it has swelled with time." She pointed at the gravestone nearby, the name on it having been worn smooth.

I got onto my belly and peered in. "Don't you want to see inside?"

We studied the opening in silence. It was as if the aorta had just grown out from the heart, breaking the soil, expanding outward toward the sun like a plant.

"I've tried as recently as yesterday," she said, "but it's dark and winding in there. I've had trouble navigating."

Then, my father arrived at the agreed upon hour to pick me up, and I had to leave Elsinore hunched over the heart, her head halfway in.

 

Later that week, I woke at 4:30 in the morning hearing pebbles fleck against my window.

Elsinore was wearing stealth colors—all black—and beckoning to me from atop her scooter. She was unmistakable, her permed black hair billowing behind her in the humidity, her scooter glistening in the moonlight.

"I think the time is now," she scream-whispered into my window. "It's slated to rain soon."

My father was sound asleep, having taken his routine sleeping pills. Walking in the dark, I eased myself with my saber cane past my father's office and the motivational posters hanging in the hallway toward the door and stepped outside. I slid onto Elsinore's scooter. She smelled soapy and fragrant and soft, like she had just bathed and used a lot of bath salts.

When we arrived at the heart site, the soil shone silver against the sky, the moon huge and close to the earth. I got off the scooter and sat in the dirt to do my morning joint exercises.

"I'll have to leave the scooter behind, so I'll need some assistance," Elsinore explained. She handed me a labeled diagram of the heart ripped out of her encyclopedia.

"Okay," I said. I held my saber cane. I was glad she had chosen me. I thought through what to say next for a little while. "I might not be the right person," I said. I thought about my classmates, who were starting to develop athletic bodies and … form. Some of them would be capable of lifting Elsinore, of holding her up. There would be this trust.

Elsinore was already entering the heart. She pulled herself forward with the strength of her arms, and I followed her with my saber cane into the intersecting arterial and venous corridors of a heart on its side. What started out narrow and claustrophobic when we entered expanded outward into a cavernous space. The sound of the cicadas was thunderous in the underground. I shined my saber cane into the darkness and admired the interior heart structure that was now hollowed out and empty and huge. How huge it was! Everything ancient is immense. Elsinore called out into the darkness, on her elbows, lighting the way with the glow of her cellular phone. When we stopped to rest, we had not reached the center of the heart yet.  

We paused for some time. Elsinore handed me a granola bar. We ate in silence. I thought about the ease with which Elsinore navigated the heart terrain without her scooter. I couldn't help asking. "What happened to your legs, Elsinore?"

"It was a birth defect, nothing terribly tragic. Are you disappointed?"

"N-no," I said. "I just don't think you actually need any of my help."

Elsinore said, "Of course not. When I was a child, I was forced into gymnastics classes. I have a cabinet full of pommel horse medals; maybe one day I can show you. I just thought you'd enjoy this."

"Yes," I said. "I'd like that. I am."  

"Now where are we?" Elsinore inquired.

I looked at the diagram. "We might be coming across the mitral valve," I suggested, pointing at the structure nearby, which towered like a shark's giant jawbones. It was in a half-open state. The other side was dank and cave-like.

 

In the green light of my saber cane, we saw that the room we had happened upon was full of blinking crones. We studied them in their black outfits, some with severe hunchbacks and some without teeth. Some fat and some skinny. Some with such wrinkled faces that all their features were hidden. Some were attractive, like they could still be young. There were crones with spring temperaments and crones of summer and crones of autumn and crones of winter. They stood shoulder to shoulder and on top of each other like circus performers; they were stretching the ventricle taut.

Elsinore and I guided the crones out of the subterranean maze. They chattered behind us. Their cacophony was like the crunchy sound of technology, creating a curtain of turbulence that woke the town in the night, thinking there were earthquake tremors. The crones followed us out of the heart center with matched slowness until we were overtaken. My legs throbbed beneath me, and I was carried out by the sea of crones. When we finally managed to escape the heart, the big moon against the horizon cast strange light, dragging behind it the new day. A crowd had already built up, worked into a panic by the unsteady ground beneath their feet.

With a proper count by our town census official and his apprentice eighth grader, the number of crones matched the exact population of Crow. There was a one-to-one correlation. We could hear the collective breathing of the crones, clustered together in the periphery. They reminded us of a movie we saw one summer splayed out on the lawn of the school—Hitchcock's The Birds. Elsinore led a group of townspeople to the heart center to show them the great mystery. Those who went brought back sketches. They each drew the little tear in the heart wall from which the crones emerged differently: like a hornet's nest or like a geometric cut space at the back of a skirt or like a crack in the earth due to drought or like a great big wound.

 

Our initial attempts to communicate with the crones were unsuccessful. It was as if they did not hear us or did not know our language. The crones traveled in giant black balls of appendages that rolled to and fro, knocking passersby off their feet and, on occasion, pitching an unsuspecting pigeon, cat, or lapdog into the wilderness. There was one casualty, involving an elderly woman. We studied their frenetic stereotypy patterns. Our town mushroom picker and her apprentice eighth grader observed that their movement patterns were similar to the cytoplasmic streaming of slime mold. They snatched things from our town and left it cleaner. They collected the litter from the banks where the land touched the water. We kept a tally of all of our possessions that went missing: wristwatches, necklaces, a hat now and then. I called these balls the Spirals, and numbered them by size.

Spiral 3 frequented my street. My father was revived by this occurrence. It was likely in the ball-like form that they traveled through the vortex into our town, my father observed, the shape having some evolutionary advantages, especially for warmth when traveling through chilly climates. "They are building something," he said, "with the items they take, like bowerbirds." My father was the town hobbyist in biomimicry. He studied his apiary in our backyard and treated his bees with tenderness, admiring the pollen baskets that accumulated on their hind legs as if they collected pollen just for him. It was his obsession with bees that helped us communicate with the crones. After studying their habits for some time, the idea came to him that it was possible to pry the giant black balls of crones apart, that perhaps somewhere hidden in the mass, there was an alpha.

My father decided that we needed to make a peace offering. We purchased milk, bread, honey, pomegranates, and hardboiled eggs. We had Walt at the local grocery store put everything into a gift basket and tie it with a bright red bow. We left it outside, sickling the basket handle to a tree. It must have been days since the crones had eaten, if they'd ever eaten. Spiral 3 tumbled in our direction, and for the first time, it skidded to a halt. A vibration spread through the ball like a cat shaking off water until a small, hunchbacked crone dressed in white broke away from the ball to collect the offering. As if on cue, my father made his entrance upon the scene.

The alpha's white garment was soft, almost fleecy like a sheep's coat, the buttons on it pearly and clean. It contrasted with the starchy black dresses worn by the crones that were now standing in a circle around our house waiting for their next order. The alpha's face was small, like I could cup it in my hands. Her facial features were tucked behind folds of loose skin, the droops far more elegant and far more pronounced than the faces in her cohort.

She studied my father and me and the crowd that was forming around her. My father tried to keep people back, but they inched closer out of curiosity. Some even took pictures.

I tried to undress her face. I wondered if she'd be pretty if all the pouches were taken away, if she would resemble my mother at all. But it was impossible. She must have been as old as the earth, the layers of flesh around her face like ancient rock. I wondered if my mother could continue to grow old in some other world outside of this one, where the laws of aging and dying were different and she learned other ways to move through space, like a star. Maybe given time she'd recirculate and return as a crone.

The crone in white slipped back into her ball before my father could talk to her. I heard the news later that all the Spirals in the entire town had frozen in place when this happened, that crone heads peering out in curiosity replaced their other appendages—making the black balls a lighter shade. For a time, they rolled to and fro in giant ashen balls of heads. Keeping their ears attuned in their daily rolls, they must have learned about us and our language, looking for a way to give back.

 

For a few weeks, there were nabbings all over town. The Spirals swiped people as they walked to work, school, or even the grocery store. Our town went into lockdown; we were all banned from stepping foot outside of our homes. But when the first batch of people was returned, they were returned glowing and vibrant. It was as if they'd stepped into and out of a cryogenic chamber, their entire circulatory system reignited. They spoke about their experiences of being taken into a particular lair decorated in their own detritus—strands of hair, fingernails, baby teeth, photographs, credit cards, food wrappers—and then being granted a wish. They each stared into the milky eye of the one crone that chose them as they explained how they wanted to be transformed. They came back as basketball stars, cello prodigies, multilingual speakers, and more beautiful forms of themselves. After that, we all looked forward to the day when the crones would snatch us up. We waited and felt that thrill of anticipation when a Spiral passed us on the street, hoping for our turn. Parents warned children not to wish for something frivolous. But they could hardly control what we wished for; we were just teenagers. One day a girl in my grade was whisked away and the next day she arrived at school with a pair of perfectly plump breasts. A pimply boy who had been snatched came back with flawless skin. They all came back changed and refined: having grown inches, silky hair, and clarity of voice.

 

The Spirals dwindled in size as each of us were returned to our homes. Once a wish was granted, the crone that granted the wish left their place in their ball and integrated into Crow. Whatever could be replaced and left to a crone was given over to a crone. Crones were better than automated services, so the replacement was made. Crones answered phone calls and transferred people between lines. Everybody talked to crones on a daily basis, to pay their bills, their traffic tickets, their loans. Crones answered questions about electronics. They explained why certain people were not in their offices. Crones were better than phones themselves, so we replaced our phones with a chain of crones that whispered our words into each other's ears until they met in the middle.

Some crones could perform the jobs of mannequins, so the replacement was made. They wore wigs and hats. They stood still on street corners holding signs or in shop windows modeling all the latest clothes.

Crones performed the jobs of certain machines better, so the replacements were made: washing machines, assembly machines, ATM machines, voting machines, self-checkout machines, computing machines. The crones learned to provide the services. Crones were better than certain equipment, so the replacements were made: farming equipment, medical equipment, sports equipment, amplifiers.

Crones told stories better than books, so they were available at the library. Crones were more entertaining than games, so we revised rulebooks for games to involve them. Crones were better than pillows and beds, so we slept upon a thatchwork of them.

 

I don't know what my father wished for when he was gone for a week. Adults usually spent a longer time with the crones. I stayed at my friend Petey's house across the street until he was returned. Petey and I played board games where crones kept score. I stared out the window waiting for a light to turn on in my house. During those long nights, I watched Petey's mother walking through the garden by lamplight silently observing the fruits of her work. Plants grew wild and huge and thriving under her care. Lush produce emerged from the stalks, shiny and bright like gems.

When my father was finally returned, he struck me as having a haggard look, like he'd gone through an operation. I noticed no new skills and no new objects. No new formations on his body that I could see. My classmates told me that the length of time anybody spent with a crone corresponded with how obtainable these wishes were without the help of a crone. There was a girl in my class that we didn't see for the rest of the school year, or for the rest of my time in Crow. Her dreams must have been big and specific. Maybe she wanted to be able to help a lot of people, or bring somebody back from the dead. Maybe she just didn't want to leave the magic.

 

I was the very last person in the town of Crow to be granted a wish. For some time, I thought I'd simply been skipped. On the night of my crone visit, my saber cane emitted a green light as I walked home from the comic book store. My father had gone out to have dinner with a friend, so I had the key ring around my wrist. Having no more crones to form a pattern around her, the alpha dressed in white walked up to me as I was unlocking the door.

"Would you like to come in?" I asked. Her fortress had already come down around her. She didn't look like she could snatch me up by herself. She was about as tall as my shoulders.

"Yes, that could work," she said.

I let her in and asked if she was hungry. She refused food but requested the taste of milk. When I fetched a glass and handed it to her, she lapped at it with a small gray tongue until she couldn't reach. Then I poured the rest of the milk into a bowl. Thereafter, I fetched bowl after bowl of milk until she was satisfied.

"I didn't think anyone was coming for me," I said.

"Why not?" she said.

"I don't know," I said. "I was just worried."

"Everyone gets something," She took out a yellow matchstick and held it before me. "Tell me, what is your desire?"

I gazed into her milky eye. I realized that probably everyone in our town heard these words come out of the mouth of a crone, sitting just the way this one did, like a bundle of compressed, hardened dust that carried magic inside. Facing a crone felt, suddenly, like an inevitability, something that everyone had to go through, like puberty.

I thought about all the teenagers, their hearts racing the way it does when you get something you want, something that matters. I thought about how we would just wander around aimless after school searching for a place to go, not wanting to go anywhere but not wanting to go home. Home was where we stagnated. My friends had all returned from their crone visits polished and beautiful, athletic and smart. I felt like I was seeing everyone for the first time for all the desires and dreams we each carried; our transformations made us specific. I thought about Elsinore, who now sang as she tended her heart site, her new voice projecting into the clear air a sweetness that I'd never known before.

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe superpowers."

"What's that?" she said.

"I've always wanted hair grasping powers," I said, "where my hair could shoot out in any direction and pull the rest of me to its grasping point."

"You want lush, thick hair?" the crone said. The yellow match lit up brightly.

"No, no," I said. The flame went out.

"How about a love spell?" I asked.

"We are not the ones that grant wishes for love," she responded.

I pointed at my saber cane. "It's the obvious choice," I said.

The crone stared at her match, which didn't light. She shook her head at me. "That is an irreversible thing." She explained to me that she could grant a wish even if there was the faintest hint of a flame. But if there was none at all, I was out of luck.

My spirit was crushed in an instant. "Infinite youth!" I shouted, to test. The flame did not light. I cursed at the top of my lungs. The crone put her hand on my shoulder.

"I don't know what I want," I said, "I'm just a kid. Could you come back later?"

"You will have to make up your mind now," she said. "There isn't much time, I'm afraid."

I took a close look at the alpha. I learned from my mother how to detect whether a person was unwell, despite their best efforts to hide it. I learned from my father how to read into silence. I could recognize the invisible signs. The alpha seemed, suddenly, more frail than I remembered. She was producing an ashy trace, like she was deteriorating into stardust. 

"What is happening to you?" I asked.

"I am dying," She said it the way someone would say 'I am going to the store.'

I stared at her in disbelief. She stared back, patiently waiting for my wish as she diminished and the trace of her grew.

"What will happen to the other crones?" I asked.

"They will retreat to the forest, until the next alpha comes."

I thought about my friends who visited their crones in their new roles and pointed them out to me, like they were family members. "Will we be able to visit?" I asked.

"You won't remember them. A sort of amnesia will wash over you when I go," she said. "And then Crow will more or less return to the way it was. The holes we leave behind will fill with activity. They always do. Have you decided on your wish?"

I thought about a comic book I'd recently read where a girl discovers a key that can unlock her mind. The top of her head would flip open like a lid, and she could add anything or take anything out of her choosing. I tried to think of something that I'd want my head to hold forever, that wasn't impossible or painful to keep.

"I want passage into the forest," I said, "where the crones live. A body hole." The alpha thought for a minute. We both stared at the match until a small flame lit the dark room.

"That is possible," she said.

As she chanted her incantations and weaved a ball around me, enclosing me in a pod for some time, I felt a part of me growing old and ancient and wise. As I underwent my transformation, I heard the footsteps of my father, coming in and out of the kitchen, and I could see his figure through the translucent portions of the pod. When I finally emerged, the alpha was gone. A light layer of dust coated the hardwood. I went straight to my room and huddled in bed. That night, my father visited me there, crossing the Father Boundary and taking me in his arms. "I'm sorry I haven't been here for you," he said. I called that moment the Father Override.

 

After the last wish was granted to Crow, a heavy fog settled upon our town. It required us to stay indoors for two days, the visibility levels unsafe for transport. When the fog dissipated, we had forgotten about the crones. They had given us what we wanted and had dexterously blended into our environment. People simply ceased to see them. It was like replacing the carpet in the bedroom with hardwood. After some time, we all forget the carpet had ever been there.

I could still see the crones, long after my friends stopped talking about them, long after my friends forgot how they acquired their best talents and traits. What the townspeople didn't know was that the crones had become an organizing force for us. They kept everyone on course and everything orderly. They were responsible for overseeing photosynthesis, seasonal changes, digestion, the school system. Everyone was near a crone, was moving toward a crone, because they were everywhere. They were atmospheric. They controlled us. I called them the Directions.

The knowledge was overwhelming. I was like a koi fish at the bottom of a clear pond gaping upward at the beautiful patterns of starlings. I became a poet. My moments of inspiration were a product of the Directions. The clarity that comes and settles upon my mind when I least expect it, I know, is a gift from them. They are air and atmosphere, wind and rain and canopy and all.

 

I am waiting for the arrival of the next alpha crone, returning to the heart site from time to time to see if a new heart is ready. I split jellies with Elsinore. One day, my mother's heart will open, and I will be able to step inside. I often wonder about what I would find there. Titans, Ogres.

I know that the Directions maintain a garden in the forest. They get restless from waiting. They harvest their fruits and feed them to a developing alpha. Every once in a while, teenagers sneak into the patch of land that the crones have claimed, a place that even the animals don't go to because of the magic. Their patch of wilderness smells of medicine. The teenagers snatch berries and foliage from the plantings and gorge themselves. They speak fluent German, or Thai, or Icelandic. They acquire a great skill—computer programming, bookbinding, or knife throwing—but only for a short time. It has become a destination for people with ailments or broken hearts. I am the only one who can still hear the crones' crisp noises in the night. They've adapted their voices to sound something like the animals, having some mixture of their dolorous spirit and ours.