“Assembly Heart” by Laura Valeri

Issue 16 / Winter 2019

 

The girl kept her heart in a purple velvet box by her bedside. Every morning, she removed her heart from a latch under her ribcage, her hand reaching up into the damp warm mucus of her insides. Her long, thin fingers, like spider legs, untwisted the cogs and mechanisms that held the heart in place until it dropped with a soft thud into the palm of her hand. The girl arranged her heart on the velvet cushion of her jeweled box and placed it on the bed stand. Her morning routine was fixed and reassuring. Remove the heart. Replace the latch on the opening under her ribcage. Wash the hands of the thick mucus that sealed her chest cavity. Brush the teeth. Get dressed. Head out to school.

The girl without a heart could then endure the day’s long hours of Algebra, English, History, and Spanish, the incessant droning of talking teachers enunciating, Hoy Carlos no acabo’ su tareja, peers buzzing with gossip and boredom. The worst of it was Biology lab, where the girl dissected frogs that came in sterile, vacuum-packed plastic pouches bought from catalogs that advertised “Young Scientist Dissection Kit!” in large cheery fonts. Without her heart, the girl did not need to consider where the frogs came from, if they were ordered from a company specializing in raking herpetofauna from ponds in South Carolina and Georgia, nor did she have to spare a thought for those whose job it was to fetch the frogs, knee deep in mud, from beneath the leafy greens and over fragile lily pads. She need not imagine the machines that shot the frogs, the fetal pigs, the lizards, and stray cats available on the catalog with embalming chemicals, then vacuum-packed and stacked them in airy refrigerated rooms.

At night, after dinner, after brushing her teeth and wearing her pajamas, she would reopen the latch beneath her ribcage and replace the heart inside its mechanism of cogs and screws, the girl’s spider fingers apt, after years of this practice, at screwing and unscrewing the right bolts, nuts, and washers, setting them firmly in place while the heart continued its beating and pumping, undisturbed by her toiling, by her assemblage and dis-assemblage of biomechanical complexes.

The girl dreamed of pastel rainbows and crayon-colored seas, and stick-figured children chasing striated beach balls across emerald green carpets of grass. Flocks of V-birds dotted a sky that knew no rain, perpetually suspended near a lemon-drop sun that sweated orange and yellow lances of light. The heart grew fat and content, connected to the dream-world of the sleeping girl at night, but cozy and peaceful in its velvety cushions during the day. Each morning, the heart occupied a slightly larger space on its plush and bejeweled box, and it would soon need a roomier one. This was especially true if at school the girl would try to draw her dreams with crayons on the lined notebooks on which she was supposed to write her teacher’s dictations. The thought of her heart pumping peacefully on its bed of purple cushions played her mind like fingers on a harp, seducing her attention from the teacher’s atonal buzzing, and luring her via secret cosmic interfaces into the dream world of the heart.

Once, the teacher’s assistant looked over the girl’s shoulder and cried, “She’s doodling again.”  The other children clanged and whirred in their sits while the teacher glided over to her desk, crumpling the drawings to the rhythm of her ticking tongue. “It is forbidden to draw,” the teacher explained. “Didn’t you turn off your heart before you came to class?”

The girl nodded.

“Then, why do you persist with this disturbing activity?”

The girl said: “My drawing is an instinctual response to the manifestation of diverse and vivid dreams, which are themselves manifestations of the psychic forces that are in collision or collaboration within my subconscious mind.”

“Outrageous,” the teacher ticked as she confiscated the last crayon scribble the girl had sketched on her ruled notebook, the picture of a perfect strawberry. She reported the girl to the principal’s office, putting checkmarks next to “spontaneous behavior” and “subversive elocution.” The girl then sat in the principal’s office with her hands folded in her lap, while the principal lectured on the dangers of escapism, and his assistant tinkered with the hatch in her chest, oiling the mechanism and testing the circuitry.

Still, at night, the girl dreamed, and while she dreamed, the heart, safe in its sequined velvet box on her bedside stand, grew. Over time, the heart would occupy a collection of jewelry boxes that grew like Babushka dolls, mahogany finished and scallop-bottomed; lacquered and musical; Chinese enameled and sterling silver-plated; gold, cameoed with mother of pearl motifs. While other girls whose hearts, left unused, shrank and shriveled inside the husk of a walnut, hers grew so large with her dreams that she soon rested it on a silk cushion under a bell dome, wherein the heart’s ticking hummed and resounded like clinking crystals, harmonics rattling the girl’s empty ribcage, loosening screws.

The dreams, too, became sonic, choirs of angels singing praise to the blade of grass, cherubs intoning canticles to sunflowers and hymns to the seafoam, vibratos that resonated silently across the ether into the dreams of orphaned children. The girl slept with her forehead pressed against the glass dome, crouched, crumpled on her knees, unaware of the heart as it labored to feed itself on her dreams, its sounds and images caught in the silvery webs that the heart’s oneiric symphonies wove through the black starless sky.

One morning, she kissed a frog-skinned boy whose hair oozed a faint scent of embalming fluid. She liked that his complexion, under the sun, glowed in a pale shade of chartreuse. It put her in the mind of an absinthe dream, in which she floated like liquor over a sugar cube and melted on the tongue of a snail. The boy and the girl held hands at recess, studied together in the library at lunch, took SATs, ACTs, and career aptitude tests on weekends. So focused on the study was the girl that she hardly noticed how, right before her eyes, the boy had turned into a lizard-skinned man, his purple tongue unfurling to catch insects, his mouth snapping shut on the small lies of his affection for her: “You are very clever” and “Your whirring is mechanically precise.” When she tasted his kiss, she smelled the rain and shamrocks like the color of his eyes, but she didn’t feel much, except the muffled, long-distance vibration of her heart’s beating. Only at night did she fully appreciate the companionship of the lizard man, when the heart, under a pewter dome the size of a church bell, unfurled crystalline odes, vitrified las and dos spewing like diamonds from a nightingale’s yellow-rimmed beak. Then she savored the exotic thrill of the boy’s kiss, the novelty of her sexual attraction divorced from the mechanics of reproduction diagrammed in biology books that otherwise possessed hers and the lizard boy’s thoughts.

She worked after school in air-sealed, refrigerated malls, serving meals that she assembled on Petri dishes, warmed on Bunsen burners, and plucked with tweezers from fragile porcelain bowls spun out of clay and glazed by torch-fire. The world, she observed, was a dry cracked scab pulverizing under the industrial obsession of her age, but inside the mall, as if inside the fat-heart’s dream, people swathed in cellophane gleamed in Morse code flashes that emanated from their digital portables. On break, observing the flow from the gallery at the mall, the girl heard her heart’s long-distance beating in her mind, and she experienced a most unusual occurrence—a lucid dream. An urge possessed her to scour for crayons and paint brushes, so thoroughly forbidden at school. Separated from the heart, she nonetheless was caught in its web-like vibrations, sensing them on the hair of her skin, pleasurable shivers of invisible frequencies traveling up her spine, tickling her pineal gland, where, the ancients had written in their now all but forgotten books, was the seat of God.

Her long spider fingers dipped into paint and traced the twine of ribbons of color, amaranth, vermillion and Venetian red, gradated shades spreading on pristine linen sheets like prenatal visions of plasma formations. After the mall closed for the night, she used her key to get in its cavernous emptiness and hung the sheets from the mall’s gallery with the help of her avocado-hued boyfriend, noticing only barely that, when she had kissed him earlier that night, he had tasted like spiders.

“What do these mean?” he asked, his periwinkle tongue snapping as he pinned the edge of the sheets to the balcony’s railing, as instructed. “They do not look scientific or especially instructive.”

The girl remembered the principal’s diatribe on the day that teacher had sequestered her strawberry drawing. She placed a hand on his chest, on the hutch where she knew he had dutifully removed his pea-sized lizard heart, yet she thought she could feel a faint vibration.

She said: “Subversive behavior is the mechanism by which the established values and principles of a system are undermined, contradicted, or reversed, to protest an established social order, and its structures of authority and power.” But, seeing the light dimming in her boyfriend’s eyes, she added, “I have tasted a variety of strawberry ice cream flavor combinations, and it is my informed opinion that strawberry-basil is the best.”

“But was your sampling comprehensive?” he asked as he trotted behind her, though he pressed it no further.

In the morning, when the mall opened, the painted sheets impressed themselves like bruises in the minds of those who beheld them. A woman looked up, saw the red swirls, the billowing sheets, and screamed, believing herself to have fallen into an unplanned dream. Her toddler rose from his baby carriage and pointed, chanting dahdah…dah…dah…dah!

Reactions progressed as people gradually grew aware of the sheets: from an initial indifference, they turned to each other in growing agitation, until someone cried: “It seems red, but not quite like…” and another, “Perhaps they are flowers, but inexact.” There was a temporal phase of denial: shoppers passed by the sheets with heads lowered, fists clenched, and lips trapped between teeth. Then came bargaining, which a pair of shoppers undertook with a store owner, then with each other, though no one quite knew what agreement they were attempting to settle. Then finally, all at once, all the people in the mall erupted in a causeless and bewildering rage.

Riots. Store fronts were broken into, merchandise looted. Molotov cocktails crashed against the shields of helmeted police, and flames licked at the sheets, charring them before they blazed in the glorious colors of their swirls. The wounded hugged each other, then rolled on the floor of the mall over the litter and shards of glass, crying and laughing in wild, high-pitched streaks, while the police broke up the pressing crowds with cudgels and tear gas. News channel helicopters buzzed above the mall all day. “The painting must have disrupted the flow of photons and quarks,” TV pundits speculated. “Satellites have picked up unusual vibrations,” news anchors reported, “and authorities are at this moment homing in on the source.” Reporters, demanding answers to the inexplicable eruptions of unchecked emotions, shoved their microphones at the mouths of politicians whose eyes flashed with the clicking cameras as they tried to reassure the public that justice would be swift.

The girl watched the riot on television, while the heart pulsed safely under its dome. It had been some time since she had tried to replace that vital organ in her chest cavity, to reconnect its wires to her internal mechanisms. It had grown too large, for one thing. It seemed to drain her of energies, for another. And she had grown used to the soothing rhythms of its predictable beats while she slept. But when the news camera homed in on the woman with the toddler crying in the back of an ambulance, she could feel a rhythm of heartbeats crowding her head.

“Do you think we’ll get in trouble?” the girl asked her boyfriend, who said nothing as he stared at the images of violence on the screen, his skin glowing a butternut yellow in the glare of the HDTV. Then he got up. She heard him open and close the refrigerator door. Later, she found him in the freezer, his eyebrows crystallized, his smooth iced skin a sheen of emerald. He had gone into hibernation.

The girl, with nothing left to be done, went to sleep with her cheek pressed to the pewter dome, her body slumped against it, a trickle of saliva sliding down her chin. The heart’s rhythmic pulsing inspired jungle dreams of tribal rituals, painted faces dancing around a pyre on a faraway beach, the slap of the waves inviting her.

*

As she slept, the SWAT team came. They came like ninjas, in black bulletproof vests and black tabi socks. They lowered ropes from the rooftop of her residence and rappelled down to her window. Their gunshots shattered the glass, the glare of their flashlights blinding. They hoisted the terrorist heart with chains and pulleys, lowered it into a steel tank, torched it sealed, and buried it twenty feet deep into the ground. It would not be enough to stop the heart’s reverberations from penetrating the earth’s core, and for years, its pulsing would cause whales in the northern Pacific to respond in its rhythms, and unsuspecting bank tellers would dream of a purple sunshine, and immured bureaucrats yearned unreasonably for week-long vacations in exotic tropical islands.

Through it all, the girl kept dreaming.

In one of those dreams, feeling the cool sand against the soles of her feet, tempted by the shock of water wetting her toes, the girl dove deep into the dream abyss. It was a warm immersion, the waters closing instantly above her, sealing her in. She made her body into a spindle, her hands conjoined above her head, and she swam with the current into the depths of the sea, the water, heavy above her, but ceding to her form as she descended.

Already, through the murky green and salt-sting in her eyes, she could feel the heart’s pounding sending waves that caressed her skin. Then, as she grew closer, that pounding resounded inside her mechanical bones, rattling the screws and washers that held her together. She saw it, then, the heart at the bottom of the abyss, crowned by the lip of a perfectly round crater. It pulsed as fiercely as ever, red hot like lava. She would not have known how to stop herself, even if she had wanted to, and she did not.

She swam toward the crater, the heart looking fierce and raw and hungry as it drew her in. It would devour her, she knew. The closer the heart, the louder the booming of its beat, the more her memories detached themselves from her mind, flakes of hopes unshared, the kisses of the lizard-skinned boy, their wet tongues sizzling like burning coals—all of that rose to her conscience like disturbed ashes in a fireplace. The gothic spires of the ancients’ cathedrals she had seen in textbooks and recovered postcards, and the vermillion brushstroke of her sheet-painting, too. The words of unwritten poems in her head; the half-hummed singsongs of children playing in a park, so young their hearts still ticked inside their chest cavities—the memories and the dreams bubbled on her skin, then detached and swarmed into a spire, moving fast toward the beating heart. As each memory struck its skin, the heart responded with a sound, and all the sounds of all her memories together formed a name, her name. It was a gift uniquely for her. She knew no other name.

She felt no fear as her hands reached the heart’s smooth, reflective skin. It gave with a pop under the pressure of her hands, and her fingers slipped into the viscous pulsing muscle, then her wrists, then her elbows, then the crown of her head. It smells like strawberry in here, the girl thought, as the skin closed around her toes, and she became one with the heart.

*

The police searched the apartment and found no trace of her. They woke and thawed her lizard-skinned boyfriend in the tub, soaking him in warm water, his skin shining bright mint. In spite of this rude awakening, even under the interrogation lamps, he could not remember a girl, nor could he explain how he found himself in her apartment. And so it was with the girl’s former teacher, and so her employer at the mall.

Once the heart was buried deep, the authorities explained its tumorous growth and disruptive frequencies as the effects of a solar flare. As for the girl, she never existed. She was a consensual hallucination induced by radiation, they said, and buried her file deep into the vaults of unresolved cases. In no time, the world settled again into mechanical order.

Yet there remained a few believers, who claimed to hear the girl singing in their heads, who swore they glimpsed her smiling eyes reflecting light from a passing car, who saw her twirling and skipping as she spoke a name they could never later remember. And if perchance they dreamed of her, splashing with vibrant paint the blank canvas of their minds, they woke up humming in harmonics.

 

Laura Valeri is the author of three story collections and a book of essays. Her debut story collection, The Kinds of Things Saints Do, was an Iowa John Simmons Award winner and the winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Award in Fiction, while her second book, Safe in Your Head, was a winner of the SFA Prize in Literature contest. Her latest book, The Dead Still Here, came out with SFAU Press in August 2018. Valeri’s stories, essays, and translations appear in numerous journals, including PRISM, The Forge, Your Impossible Voice, Conjunctions, Waccamaw, The Adirondack Review, Glimmer Train, Creative Nonfiction, and others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she teaches in the undergraduate program at Georgia Southern University and is the founding editor of Wraparound South: A Literary Journal.

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