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Illustration by Jack Teagle

THE STRANGE HEART BEATING WHERE IT LIES

Lee Upton

*

Is this a good one? Was he most like this one? No.

Too serenely contemplative?

Maybe. This one with his hand nudged up there by his head comes close. The right hand seems enormous though – like someone else’s hand.

What about this one? He looks a little pasty, the tie’s all  crooked….

That’s closest, maybe, for the funny expression. He was so unwilling to be skeptical, but all pensive and bundled into himself. At first.

He thought you were a witch. Of course.

Even a bad one.

No. The curtains were lace and I tied one around my head. Nothing about me looked evil.

All right. He thought you were a common  whore.

There was a patch of moss at my door from which all the greenery of the world might have issued at once. Or did I dream that? No. The moss must have seemed like a sign to him, that and my grandmother’s purple cloth that I hung on the wash line despite the never-ending drizzle.

You were probably wicked then.

No, never. That was lifetimes ago. So, as I said, I was wearing the curtain…. It would be such a relief at last to cry.

Don’t think about it.

No. I’m thinking of his suffering face.

He must have known how to suffer well. To make something out of his little patch of suffering.

Yes.

He wasn’t a brute? No. Anything but. He wasn’t helpless?

No … not entirely. He was such a striking young man – and I wasn’t the same from the moment I spied him down the lane to the moment he sat before me. And at the time, at that very time, with him on the other side of the table sitting upright all alert and urgent, what was I doing but worrying about the commonest thing. I was worried that the little statuette on the table top might break as he petted it. I snatched it up. He looked so startled I laughed. He looked like he’d never been accused of anything, never had his patties slapped. What a gorgeous frail reed for God to put so much worry  into.

He was a worrier. That makes sense. Worry is passion of another kind.

So when were your clothes off?  Not that I’m interested.

I could have said anything to him – he had such a willingness to believe. He was stubborn about belief.  I would like to find  him…

But if you can’t?

… The heart was eaten out of him even then. Positively eaten bit by bit, like a sparrow bit it out, little by little. A toasty fire and the wet coat on him steaming and I was soon naked but have no memory of taking off my clothes.

Everybody’s story.

He was the bewitching one. He breathed everything I was wearing off me, I think. He talked everything off – and then because I believed the statuette was safe I set it back on the table between us and quicker than spit he fingered the wings on it again and I said Don’t you be –  …

Don’t you be what?

Don’t you be hurting that…. It was a beautiful white – what is the name of that stone?  I can’t remember.

Ivory.

No, silly, it was made of stone. Marble?

Maybe. Could I have afforded marble? It was whiter than white, whatever it was, and I was terrified the thing would shatter. And then I didn’t know what sort of show I was to put on for him.

Cards or the tea cup?

…Until I took the curtain off my head and let my hair down. I tell you, honestly, even with my hair down I was thinking about the statuette. I sorely wanted to tell him, Don’t touch that again, you wanker, you sod.

Is that how you talked then?

Probably not. But I remember this: him skidding the statuette across the table. Don’t let her drop, I told him. He had a brain heavier than a horse’s head, and the veins on his hands were raised up like, like, like … and anyway his heart beat against my heart.

Stop it. Those hearts crumbled into ash and twine a long time ago. And he caught the soul of me in his hands like – like a ball of sunshine

– like a bottle of honey set against a klieg light.

You’re jumbling your lives now.

You can’t know what it was like for my body, that decayed afternoon that he lit up –  ….

I have an imagination.

I can’t help but think he was searching for me ever after, looking everywhere for that drama I made for him out of a simmering fireplace and the mist clinging to the very air in the very cottage. And I wasn’t a beauty, no, but I had him going – …. And now my memory’s a   sieve.

There are uses for sieves.

Don’t feed me baloney – is that the right expression?

We all keep losing words.  Even though they’re the evidence.

I know I had a body then because of him. It’s sublime to a man, that experience of a woman’s body – the elevation of his hopes –

Not to mention  –

I remember a young man expecting table rapping and candles that blew out for no reason – and a beam of light to flood the darkening windows.

He was that miserable.

… His pitiful thinness. His skin flickered. The flesh of his cheeks flicking – twitching.

And so now you want to find what you can.

It was like he meant to will all his beauties to me. I saw his intentions by the light of his eyes. And there I was, a girl, an ordinary liar with    all my hopes hanging like vapor between us. So I ask you again, what’s become of him?

I can’t know.

The white mist rolled up from the gullies when I first saw him all the way down the lane. White mist rolling like it was coming from the spouts of hell itself. What a country, he said. He said that with his head in his hands, poor dear. He was inexperienced. As I was. The statuette was glazed so whitely, and I looked up from that statuette and into   his eyes, my own eyes reflected off his eyes and soon enough I had no memory until –

Until what?

Until I saw the back of him. In that nice felt coat and the drizzle wetting that dark hair of his all over again after he left me. When the lane rose he turned back and I saw that he had put on eye glasses. They flashed when a cloud was passing off the sun. Earlier he must have taken the glasses off and slipped them into his jacket pocket – when he first saw me.

Ordinary vanity.

No. Not even his vanity was ordinary….These are all the photographs you could find?

Oh yes.

That almost looks like him. So tell me: where is he?

We don’t know these things anymore. It’s not like I haven’t tried anything at all. Here. Look at this. It’s evidence. His exact words: Did she put on his knowledge with his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop. Very  nice.

He was a lovely limber fellow, but I could have saved him the trouble of wondering. No. No.  I didn’t.

*

Lee Upton is the author of a number of books of poetry and literary criticism. Her most recent are the collection of poems, Undid in the Land of Undone (forthcoming, New Issues Press), and the literary criticism, Defensive Measures. Her fiction has appeared in The Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, Shenandoah, and Epoch among other journals. She is Professor & Writer-in-Residence at Lafayette College, in Easton, PA.