THE LAB TECH wheels in her ultrasound machine as I lie in the hospital bed, ready to bare my chest. The hope is to know why, yesterday, my heart throttled up to 190 beats per minute and hovered there for over an hour like an angry hummingbird. I was at a journalism conference, surrounded by hundreds of people, many of whom I knew, not one of whom I asked for help. When the hummingbird threatened to fly away with my consciousness, I quietly called an Uber.
In the back seat of the car, winding through the streets of Boston, I left the land of the healthy, a privileged place I had inhabited for a staggering string of years, as sickness and death snatched too many people I loved, one step away. “Sooner or later,” writes Sontag, “each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” I had entered this new territory. I reconsidered the entire hunk of brie consumed on a transatlantic flight, just as I was reconsidering transatlantic flights at all. Indulgences clogging up the air above as much as the passageways within.
The tech is quiet, grumpy. I do as I’m told. Brace myself for the cold gel against my bare skin, but it is the pressure of the ultrasound wand that stuns, my sternum still bruised and tender from the impact of yesterday’s thumping. Then I watch.
We don’t map our interiors or redraw the maps until they falter… We call out, and what returns in the echo reveals what before had been invisible.
As the map of echoes appears on the screen, whatever fears I’m harboring succumb to fascination. There—there!—is the wonder within me. It is black-and-white scratch art, white filaments encircling darkness like latitude and longitude lines around Earth. What mysterious life force triggers that spitfire electrical jolt each second? The charge courses through the one human organ that can’t get cancer, contracting atria and ventricles in perfect synchronicity—usually. For forty-seven years, perhaps first spotted on my mom’s ultrasound, this heart of mine has beat and yet I’ve never seen it; this interior bodyscape in motion is uncharted territory. I’m mesmerized by valves thin as skin, like eyelids, like butterfly wings, like gossamer gates that open and close. Open. Close.
The tech switches dials, invites color in. Doppler readings of reds and blues. I see wind currents. Ocean currents. The planet’s circulation and my own as shadow worlds. A satellite image of a storm like the one blowing outside the twelfth-floor window, where a blizzard is blowing us into a whiteout, but there on the screen is a planetary light show—the aurora borealis I’ve always wanted to see.
The heart doesn’t break when we lose a love. The mind breaks. The heart carries on, beat after beat, like other life forces on the planet that conjure oxygen, quench our thirsts, erupt with food overhead and underfoot. We don’t map our interiors or redraw the maps until they falter. Just as scientists now rush to survey the land and ice of Antarctica by bouncing radar off the seafloor the way the tech shot ultrasound to my heart. We call out, and what returns in the echo reveals what before had been invisible.
Once, twenty years ago, in a forest in Oregon, I held a deer heart in my hands. I’d been sent inside to wash it while some others continued to undo what remained of the doe’s body, hung from the door frame of the barn. We’d given thanks before the work began: skin peeled away to be tanned into a hide with the animal’s own brain, muscle into cuts of meat, the organs into a bucket. I stood alone at the kitchen sink with the deer’s heart cupped in my hands. It was smooth and would’ve slipped but for the veins and arteries that reached like tentacles, severed where we’d cut them, and nestled into the crooks between my fingers. It was solid, substantial, still warm when I put it under the stream of cold water that followed the force of gravity down from the old-growth patch where our spring originated. I was mesmerized by the passage of water through this organ that had just been pumping blood with a rhythmic certainty—until a car struck the doe and severed its spine, until a merciful woman held a blade against the doe’s neck and ended what could not be fixed. The spark ceased as the blood spilled. But now, my hands were the spark, causing contractions as I squeezed and released, watching the deep-red blood turn pink, then clear, as water displaced it. The heart cooled to the temperature of the water, the last hint of life washed away. As my hands held the soft, slippery flesh—a miracle stilled, something still fierce—I wondered: would someone ever hold my heart in their hands?
Back in Boston, the tech finishes wordlessly. The doctor says I’ll be fine. The episode of tachycardia remains a disconcerting mystery, and he shrugs as he signs my papers. I cross the border back into the land of the well, a territory familiar but now altered, infused with new images of my insides brought out, of the outside let in, the personal and planetary mashed up in my mind alongside the muscle memory of holding the heart of a wild creature in my hands all those years ago. Boundaries between bodies keep falling away. Let them tumble.