heart of hearts
BY EMILY TEMPLE
When the weather was nice, her brothers would hunt squirrels and raccoons and other small scratching things and bring them back to the house so she could explore them. She’d splay them open with kitchen knives, prod at their livers and spleens. She’d take off their little heads and switch them, stitching them back together with the junior sewing kit some well-meaning neighbor or relative had gifted her. She never punctured the hearts. She kept the hearts from every animal her brothers brought her in a huge jar, which she took along everywhere she went: bringing it to school in her backpack, squeezing it between her legs at meals, swinging with it in her lap on the playground.
The other children, it seems unnecessary to say, gave her a wide berth, and so the jar became her best and only friend. At night, she’d nestle it in a little bed she’d made in her underwear drawer, with a hand-stitched pillow (that sewing kit, making itself useful again) and pull a washcloth blanket over its fat glass body. The hearts—big ones from raccoons and badgers, smaller ones from birds and chipmunks––would rub against one another, squeaking like ripe plums.
In my heart of hearts (what an expression, as if your heart has a tiny beating heart within it, and within that one, another, and then yet another, an endless progression burrowing deeper and deeper, beating in unison), I thought there was nothing wrong with her. She was a girl with imagination, our Jenny. I thought she might become a scientist, or a doctor, or a mother. Her brothers were the killers, after all. So when she finally found a real friend, I wasn’t surprised.
Donna seemed interested in the jar, but not too much. She allowed the jar to come with them on picnics, and to watch over their games, and to sleep with them in Donna’s small bed at sleepovers, so long as it stayed on Jenny’s side. She never tried to touch the jar, and instead engaged Jenny in baking ugly cakes, or listening to records, or talking about the other children they knew, speculating about their middle names and deepest fears. When Jenny slung a thin arm around the glass and gazed inside, Donna coaxed her back with a snack.
With Jenny’s attentions divided, her brothers felt ignored. They began to increase their productivity. Each time Jenny came home, she would find a slew of new bodies piled against her bedroom door: mice, groundhogs, squirrels, foxes, cats, even, once, a small pig. Jenny was nothing if not dutiful. She took out all of their hearts; she fed them to the jar. She cleaned up after herself and wiped down her bedroom door with disinfectant.
The jar grew heavy. Jenny fashioned a little sling for it, and carried it like a child against her breast, but soon her back began to hurt, and by the end of the school day, she was exhausted. Still, she carried it, and tended it, and whispered little words to it when Donna wasn’t there, or wasn’t paying attention. In truth, the heavier the jar got, the more Jenny loved it. The jar, held so often to Jenny’s skin, was warm all the time, so warm that soon it seemed to her that it began to emit its own heat. She pressed her lips against the glass and she felt the glass press back.
Jenny began to ignore Donna. She declined playdates because the jar was too heavy to carry along, and hid in the bathroom alone during recess, the jar on her lap in the stall, while Donna reluctantly joined the other children, walking the edge of the gravel pit that had opened up next to the school. One day, I watched through the window as Donna stood outside our house for an hour, waiting for Jenny to appear, her arms full of dolls and chocolate bars. I suppose it was cruel of me, to watch her like that.
Eventually, Donna cornered Jenny by the swings. “I miss you,” Donna said.
Jenny said nothing, although she missed Donna too. She hiked the jar up higher on her hip.
“I love you,” Donna said.
But how can you tell if love is real unless you can see it, carry it, feel the slosh of it against your hip? How can love do anything without a physical place in the world, without a washcloth to sleep under? How do you know anything is yours unless it hurts your back to hold it? This is what Jenny was thinking. This is what Jenny was thinking as Donna kissed her, a soft, sweet kiss, the kind an adult might give to another adult, only better.
Donna was not thinking any of this. You see, for Donna, the heart is just a metaphor. Donna knows that once the heart has been demoted from its position as pump, it can be only the signifier, never the signified. It can only be a doodle, a card, a joke. Donna knows this, and so do we. But Jenny is not like Donna. Nor is she like us.
Donna touched Jenny’s face with one finger. She kissed her again, harder, but on the cheek. Then she grabbed the jar from Jenny’s arms and ran to the edge of the playground and threw it down into the gravel pit, where it shattered, making a sound even louder than Jenny’s surprised scream, and the hearts were all punctured and slashed on the broken glass and the sharp rocks, and then all the other children gathered around and cheered and lifted Donna into the air. They threw her once, and then again, and then once more, although they were tired, because even they knew that some things just had to be done three times. From the air, Donna watched Jenny cry, and then watched her run, and then missed her, as she would for a long time. As for the hearts, they just lay around, a pile of bleeding, empty sacks, until night fell and the other animals came out and, stepping carefully around the glass, dragged them all away.
Emily Temple has an MFA from the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns fellow and the recipient of a Henfield Prize. Her work has recently appeared in Colorado Review, Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading, Indiana Review, Fairy Tale Review, Sonora Review, Sycamore Review, No Tokens, Territory, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.
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