A fish flopped on the shoreline; from where I sat, it was nothing more than silver. A stoic bald eagle stood over it and gripped it in his robust talons. The eagle lowered his head and eviscerated the fish. He excised the soft side muscles and tossed his head back. Scales rained down on him. They twinkled brightly against the bird’s dark chest. From the passenger seat, I was enchanted.
Against the backdrop of mountains encrusted with iridescent glacial caps, I reminisced about sinew, muscle, and bone. Here in Alaska, along a waterway branching off from the better-known Cook Inlet, I wondered how many chambers make up a fish heart. Through intermittent phone service, I quickly amassed that it has one atrium, one ventricle, and two other structures. Humans, pigs, and birds have four chambers: two ventricles and two atriums Superficially, a heart is a tough, hollow muscle guided by automatic impulses. Symbolically, it can be made out of red construction paper, tokens from cherub-cheeked kindergarteners or earnest paramours.
I continued to watch the shoreline as it teemed with activity. Low tide revealed the Turnagain Arm’s sandy underbelly as dozens upon dozens of bald eagles wandered the mud flats lowering their heads and casting side-eyed glances at future breakfasts. The lip of the road was spangled with small islands of bright-pink fireweed flowers; these stalky perennials are said to be the boastful signs of summer. They called out cheerfully through the still-cold embrace of the Alaskan springtime. I was too early to watch the cetacean visitors—white beluga whales that feed on salmon up and down the waterways—that mark the arrival of summer. Still, the small enthusiastic streams along the mountainside hinted at the warming temperatures and the season to come.
The road gradually veered toward the mountains and away from the water. A light rain pressed down on the deep green that is the most northern rainforest in the world. As I stepped out of the vehicle, the bitter winds bit through the valley and shook the dew out of the treetops. My nose was raw and my breath wrapped around my head like a sagging, broken halo. Outside the relative perceived safety of a fiberglass and steel Jeep, I walked behind my childhood friend as we marched toward our hiking trail.
A thin sheen of rain coated my friend’s tresses. When she moved into the light, the gold threads in her hair danced wildly in the mist. Her cheeks were ruddy and her legs moved quicker than mine. At the mouth of the trail, we stopped at a lone stand of trees. In a registry housed in a pull-down shelf fashioned out of timber and nails, we signed our names under a handful of other hikers'. A weathered map curled under a plastic case; its red dotted lines crisscrossed across landmarks and keys. A few worn out signposts sprinkled the first couple feet; reminders to tread lightly and leave no trace. Another marker—a crooked piece of paper in a plastic sleeve with a bear outline—bore a simple declaration, “Bear Country.”
Months prior, I couldn’t tell you what color the sky was. Now the sun never slept. I had left work in a research lab to pursue other avenues. I had no plans to go back—partly burnt out, partly unsure of some of what I had seen, and partly curious to see what I took with me.
As a lowly research specialist, I often felt like a glorified eviscerator or a janitor, depending on the day. Generally, though, it was interesting work. We use comparative medicine to learn about ourselves: we dismantle things then assemble ourselves with the information. We’re a hodgepodge of knowledge. A mashup of all the creatures around us; a figurative chimera, if you will, as we add to collective knowledge and figure out what makes our bodies work and how to fix them when they go awry. But at what cost, I wonder. The lives of thousands of rodents and pigs? Or perhaps the price for knowledge is something intangible, something that defines who we are as a species? But if we didn’t search out answers under physical skin, what would we lose?
I watched graceful ballets of tiny reapers arc across soft skin and glistening sutures meticulously woven to connect this tissue to that or bring together edges of flesh that would one day be whole again. The acrid smell of cautery filled my nostrils. Someone always says bacon, but I smelled the chemicals from prep: iodine or chlorhexidine laboriously swiped along taut rosy pig skin to mask the smell of feces. It’d mingle with the scent of charred muscle and skin—not quite a whiff of sizzling bacon.
The usual dance of scalpels and flesh would eventually open up to a chapter of anatomy. I looked forward to cases that involved the heart. I marveled at the tenacious nature of it. There under the ethereal lights of the operating room, the physical barriers of the sternum and skin that protected and separated the rhythmic motion of the heart laid open to the world. A fine veil of tissue encased the heart—the pericardium. It moved and wiggled like children’s feet under the covers at night. As the covers were peeled back, the heart steadily beat on.
A lone syringe filled with fuchsia-hued liquid marked the end of the case. As the plunger was pressed, the liquid—a fatal overdose of barbiturates—crept along the plastic tubes leading to the pig. As my own heart added to the electrical pulses in the room, I watched the porcine heart surge forward then grow quiet and still—slowly, there was one less addition to choir of pulses.
Researchers from other laboratories would swoop through the hallways to recycle the remnants, like utilitarian vultures picking the remains clean. One such person from a neighboring laboratory waited. His white coat still smooth and unadulterated, a glimmering pint-sized plastic cup filled with saline in hand. He had come to collect heart tissue and aortic valves for his own lab. I leant him a hand and held the heart out as he carefully separated it out from the chest. With one last motion, he sliced through the heart’s last foothold and it pulled away freely from the cavity.
I held the heart in my hand. It was not nearly as heavy as I had expected. Vessels wrapped around it, and I traced them like roads on a map. I turned it over in my hands and inspected it from each side. Its warmth fled as it entered a liminal state between function and experiment. I tipped the heart into the cup. He screwed the lid tight; his white sleeves smudged to the elbows. It was accepted as ordinarily as a tulip root plucked from the earth.
At first I didn’t think much of the fist-sized ruby of flesh and blood. It was like the twinkling fish scales cascading around the eagle: just pieces of silver, indistinct and dismantled. A texture in my mind. Now I could hear the staccato steps of conscience and wonder chasing after me.
From a timeline punctuated by seesaws and monkey bars, I remembered an image from a book on ancient Egypt. At the foot of giant scales sat Ammit, a creature with a lion chest, a hippopotamus lower half, and the head of a crocodile; a mythical chimera constructed of perceived man-eaters. She was the faithful spectator to the weighing of the heart ceremony in the Egyptian underworld. Hearts were weighed against the feather of Maat—the goddess of truth, or order. If the heart was heavy with wickedness, the heart would topple toward Ammit, who would devour it, and the soul of the individual would no longer exist.
The Egyptians believed the heart was the center of the person—the intellect and emotion. We now know that the human heart is about the size of a fist and it’s divided into two sides. The heart’s right side sends blood to the lungs to be oxygenated; the oxygen-rich blood then makes its way to the left side, where it’s pumped out to the body. The heart is further divided into four chambers and four valves. Like the bald eagle. Like the white belugas. Unlike the fish that has two chambers and some miscellany. Unlike the paper heart that has two rounded corners and a point. Even though the identity of the heart has emerged, the symbol and significance still lives on. Still, it’s not hard to picture Ammit’s unabashed crocodilian eyes as the scales sway in the neural hallways of a daydream.
Our footfalls echoed softly on wood planks until the boardwalk dissolved in soft earth and moss. Droplets of water clung to the curled fingertips of the ferns and lichen around us. The deep, saturated color of the forest consumed all degrees of sight. Movement was hard to discern, the depth of darkness and the gloss of new rain made vigilance numb. As we walked, the gradual incline and glacial mist added to feelings of otherworldliness. In the shade of the forest, creamy-white quarter-sized flowers luminesced in small groups. Each flower radiated out from its center in four oval petals—bunchberry or dwarf dogwood flowers. Eventually, glossy red berries would take their place and splatter crimson across the forest floor.
My friend assured me that she had never actually seen a bear in the decades she had lived in Alaska. Aside from the bears at the zoo that paced up and down fenced-in enclosures, I had never seen one in person either. Even with that said, she kept a bubblegum-pink Walther PK380 handgun in her purse and a can of bear mace—just in case. I wondered about the practicality of bear mace and a gun marketed toward people with small hands. The distance and time it takes to react to an attack didn’t seem to equate to a solution remedied by propelling metal and chemicals, but neither did a situation without mace and a gun. In the novelty shops that line downtown Anchorage, bells with keychain attachments advertised as bear deterrents lured me. I refrained from buying any when my friend called them dinner bells. She jokingly reassured me that I was more likely to be murdered than mauled by a bear.
To placate any sense of uneasiness, we talked loudly to ensure creatures in the vicinity were aware of our presence. Neither of us could sing so we recited nursery rhymes, bringing “Humpty Dumpty” and “Frère Jacques” to life in the subpolar forest. As we recalled any or bits and pieces of rhymes from our childhood, my heart effortlessly contracted. Without a conscious order, I moved forward as channels and pumps in my cells conducted the duties of my cardiac system. As I avoided crushing the bunchberry shrubs, hikers in front of us called out, “Bears!” and my friend’s arm reached out across my chest. Around a twisted bend, a dark-colored bear sat on her haunches in the center of the trail. Bears have four chambers as well.
The hikers in front of us sat on an inclined slope as they observed the bear between us. My friend no longer wore her confident smile. We called out and made sure the bear knew we were there; it acknowledged us, then disregarded us. My body produced ample quantities of adrenaline and my heart rate quickened. My pulse rung out unpleasantly in my ears. The forest around us trembled and cubs tumbled forward onto the trail. We counted three and kept losing them as they rolled in and out of view. They had the advantage and spatial leverage.
After spending our adolescent years together at the foot of the Dolomites in northeastern Italy, my friend and I now stood in glacial mist at the feet of Alaskan bears. We had learned about heartbreak, acne, and social food chains as budding teenagers, and now as adults, we were becoming uncomfortably aware of the hierarchy of the natural world. Her brow furrowed as she let me know that her bear mace and gun were in the bag she had left behind in the Jeep. Whatever sense of security we thought we had evaporated as the collar of my jacket grew damp with sweat.
We continued to watch the cubs. They playfully bit each other, grunted, and pounced. They were each roughly the size of a small dog. Dark like their mother. They were probably black bears, given their size and straight forehead-to-nose profiles. The mother sat still in the trail and watched on, bored. They were almost like characters from the children’s book Little Bear, except everything is much softer in childhood: canines less prominent, eyes more lashed, corners more rounded—I suppose you can’t capture bear urine in a picture book.
A bear’s heart functions like ours. If you shoot the bear, it’ll bleed. If it bites you, you’ll bleed. There, beyond physical barriers, I watched on as the bears adapted and ignored gawking bipeds. I rejected flowery hyperbole of man-eating bears, whimsical children’s book characters, and the bubblegum-pink Walther PK380 handgun, and simply admired them for what they were.
As we retreated back the way we came, we could hear the other hikers call out that the bears had departed. The tips of my ears felt cold and I shivered as perspiration cooled on the back of my neck. My friend’s smile returned. I smiled too.
I’m persuaded to think that the heart is more than crimson muscle. I can see why it has held steadfast as a deep-rooted symbol. I find it encouraging that most of the images of Ammit only show that liminal moment of judgment followed by the reunion of a person to their heart—to their soul.
Enthralled, I held my hand over my chest and felt the steady rhythm. As the electrical pulses carried me, I tried to recite:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candlelight.
Three score and ten or seventy years, a lifetime. A lifetime—or less—to assemble what I know until the silver comes raining down on me too.
E.E. Hussey was born in the Philippines in 1988. She was raised in Japan and Italy and has lived in the United States. She holds a BA from the University of Texas at Austin and an MA from Johns Hopkins University. She can be found at www.eehussey.com