Echo Echo Heartbeat

The forest where I lost my heart was full of autumn. Trees clung to leaves drenched in yellow. My chest pulsed with heartbeat echoes.

Perhaps my heart was hidden under a mossy log or in the belly of a fox, perhaps in the cold twilight of a brook.

Three roads diverged in the wood.

I took the first road, as it looked the straightest, with the leaves swept neatly away. I found a clearing with pieces of a heart cut evenly, arranged like tools in an operating theater. For three days, I assembled this heart, the pieces pulsing in my hands. Once it was done, I had a fine heart, strong and sure, but it was not mine.

I thought of all my love not returned, of the sick starched smell of the room where I’d last seen my brother, of the barn in ashes. How much easier would it have been to bear these moments of my life with a heart so perfectly made?

I held the heart, felt its strength.

But this heroic heart was not mine.

Somewhere in the woods, my lost heart knocked its quiet beat, waiting for me.

I left the strong heart in a patch of sunlight, wishing to take it, not daring to touch it, knowing that if I held it again, I would shove it into the blank space in my chest.

* * *

Unlike time, a road goes forward and backward, ending where it begins, a new beginning waiting only for a traveler to turn around and start again.

I traveled back down the first road, then took the second, which brought me to a lake where a fisherman stooped over a raft, his lantern casting a glow over the water.

“Fish with me,” he said, “and you may catch a heart.”

For three nights, I dipped a rod into the lake. The fisherman caught perch, which he fed to his pet heron, and books and scrolls and delicate journals, the pages dripping ink, and poetry etched upon bark and the soft sound of pages turning.

I caught a heart glittering with knowledge, twisted corridors pulsing, stained with writing in a language I couldn’t understand. As a child, I had hoped to grow into a heart such as this, to speak with philosophers and walk the halls of a college, to tease apart taxonomies and understand the mysteries of the world. Instead, I had made myself useful at the farm, reading by candlelight in the evenings, puzzling over words I’d never heard before.

“This is an extraordinary heart,” I told the fisherman, “but it is not mine.”

“Not mine either,” said the fisherman, patting his chest.

I longed for such a heart, full of mystery and the gentle scratch of the quill. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to live a life of full of study and quiet contemplation, to fill my mornings with archival papers and my nights with books of philosophy.

But this heart did not belong to me. It was not my heart.

I tossed the heart into the lake. It sank with a sound like a candle going out. Water rippled gently against the raft, then stilled.

* * *

The third road stretched out like a painting, a glorious growth of life. Sun-touched trees reached toward the sky like prayers, like answers.

At the end of the road, I found flowers growing from an enormous stone. Bright crocus and gentle larkspur, brilliant asters and folded chrysanthemums. Roots submerged themselves in the stone, like fingers reaching.

Vines wrapped around a hammer at the foot of the stone.

I traced an inscription, the word pulsing. To get the heart inside, I would have to smash this stone from which life grew.

I pressed my head against the stone, my chest aching in time to the heartbeat inside.

In a closet in my farmhouse lay crumpled paintings, their lines never right. I had never been able to correctly paint shadows across snow, the intricate whorl of ferns, and always, I painted only what I could see. Hadn’t I wished for a heart that would let me paint with joy and talent, a heart that would turn my crude brushstrokes into something more?

I picked up the hammer, ready to free the heart inside and claim it as my own.

But it wasn’t my own. It was not my heart.

For three days and nights, I clutched the hammer, ignoring the memory of my lost heart pulsing in my chest.

At the end of the third night, I almost smashed the stone and all that was inside it, imagined the thud of the hammer swinging again and again into the ruins of a heart, because this heart did not belong to me and never could.

* * *

Three roads diverged in a yellow wood and I traveled all of them, through and back. Three roads that flowed outward like the future and the past and the ever-pulsing present. Three roads that showed me hearts that could never be mine.

I felt the ghost of my heart in my chest, calling to me.

A heart is an easy thing to lose. When the autumn wind had teased open my chest, I’d abandoned my heart to the soft silence of the wood as easily as exhaling. Or maybe my heart had abandoned me. This heart, which all my life had knocked its constant rhythm, never asking anything of me.

Trees trembled gently, leaves falling like rain.

I made my own path through the woods, pushing through dense brush where trees ran thick like wool wrapped round and round a spindle.

I found my heart half-covered in leaves. It was a scrawny, pitiful thing. Not strong like the first heart or knowing like the second or full of life like the third.

But it was my heart. It was mine.

I wiped off the leaf mold and swallowed my heart, letting it settle into the proper place in my chest, letting its beat wash over me.


FFO: “Echo Echo Heartbeat” is such an evocative and gripping title. Do you have any method or process for coming up with titles for your stories? How do you know when you’ve settled on the perfect one? 

BG: I often struggle with titles, and “Echo Echo Heartbeat” was no exception. When I submit drafts to my critique group, they will offer me kind and insightful feedback, and then they will usually say something along the lines of: “But please, please consider changing that title.” The original title for this story was “Three Roads.” Serviceable, but not a great title. My husband, who is a great sounding board, suggested “16 Chambers” because of the 4 chambers in each heart. I thought this was a cool title, but I doubted that many readers would immediately make the connection…

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