All artwork on loan from the Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art
detail, The Heart of America
Like Ahab, but no longer after a whale, not a scientist either: I was a human on the hunt for the heart of America. I began in Washington. Oh, I see you rolling your eyes, what naiveté- put it aside. Go along with me. You can’t find a heart without being a lover, even a heart as dried up, as desiccated as you might suppose this one to be. Who is to say it might not have been in the Smithsonian, cleverly disguised as a furnished room from the Colonial era, chairs that turn you out onto the floor, portraits and busts that eye you severely, a lamp that either bathes you in a syrup of golden light or grains each pore with shadow. The halls and hallways of the Smithsonian as chambers and ventricles usher me in and though I make myself small I do not find the last and tiniest chamber of them all, complete with early American doll furniture.
So I became a rat and ran the sewers until I reached the shield, the coat of arms, the breast plate of Washington, the most defended and secret cell of all. I wormed my way from the Smithsonian down through dark pipes and flushed secrets of prominent politicians until I emerged in a den of mystery: the Pentagon.
Quel disappointment. All men and men-like people and all suits, all ties, all desks and desk jobs. I go after the passion, the deep aaaah of inamorados, and find no lair but that of beurocrats engineer details of death for export. As a rat I was beloved in the Pentagon, stroked and fed endless remnants of chips and snack mixes and pretzels, and sometimes the tail end of a candy bar, taught to roll over and have my belly tickled. I knew I had to leave before they hired me and so late one night by the blue light of data crunching its teeth on death I slunk out, one last cheese doodle under my scrawny arm, yellow dust on my whiskers.
Who is physician to America? The cardiologists and cartographers will have to get together and procreate themselves a love child, and that child will have the eyes of the hawk and the hearing of a dolphin or whale.
The brain, the brain: banks of Google computers? A vast fungal system in the Oregon rainforest? Nervous system: cell phone towers. Pancreas: Great Dismal Swamp, VA/NC. Belly: Texas. Eyes, seven, silver with green flecks, eyes of a behemoth: the Great Lakes, threatened by cataracts of algae.
Now on to commuter flights I went, sometimes as stewardess, sometimes as business commuter. By a combination of triangulation and deduction I placed the center somewhere in the midwest. I was on the scent and this wild heart beat everywhere. If only, if only it were beneath the floorboards, I could find it, but it is under the floorboards of America. I employed a pacemaker, a geiger counter, a dowsing rod and a pendulum and I walked in fits and starts up and down the central plains and crossed cul de sac and pasture. In fits and starts- I start, I am struck. The beat is striking, beating, pulsing, pounding, it requires the gerund, the echo ever after. Again and again I woke to find myself tangled in barbed wired, hooked into clothes and beard. My clothes tattered and my skin bled, it weathered and cracked and my leather shoes curled. One day I woke up by the rail yard, surrounded by broken glass, and I got on the first grain car that came through- back porch riding, Chicago-bound. Boxcar Bertha is my name and under my many coats I wear a locket with only a question inside. In the Chicago yards I change to a Dtown line. It has come to me, where I must go, sharpened in my mind like an etch-a-sketch in reverse. The ghosts of hobos ride with me and tell me stories, sing songs to pass the time. When I arrive I climb the fence and walk the roadside, confident of my direction. At the factory the locks fall open, the doors swing wide; it is like the parting of the thorny woods upon the prince’s return to the castle to wake Sleeping Beauty from her glass casket- no, that part was Snow White. I carry a key but I don’t have to use it. I stride through the silent production floor and a cemetery of stillborn cars in hopes that at the center of the tomb I will find a still beating heart.
Unassuming, in a small wooden casket lined with bullets, set in the center of a metal desk, chair pulled back as though whoever was keeping vigil just left. As I look upon it, the charges detonate, and the whole factory blows.
The Heart of America, courtesy of Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art
Now I travel with the wind, over all of the land, and hear all of the sighs of every heart rise out of chimneys in a flock that darkens the sky. People think it is weather. All of the coos become feathers, and all of the tears turn to dust and blow in the air. When the wind settles the dust sinks into the rivers and turn to tears again and I go with them. I flow with the rivers, I trickle from spigots and fill kettles and baths and run down drains. I go into cells and facilitate mitosis and I also go in and through the bedrock where it is so dark I become light. I shine out of lamps, candles and the twinkle in your eye. I go through the dark in order to re emerge as light yet again.
And everywhere I go, I hear it in the land. Striking. Beating. Pounding. It is not the ticking of machinery. I hear it in the cement fortresses of Attica and Riker’s Island and Angola, especially strong and low. Every day, bolts are slid to and fro, locks are latched and opened. Every day, rust. Every day, bullets.
A red herring. A heart in a box. A sleight of hand, a trick. A tick that is not a tock. I become a rat again, I sleep in a hole in the earth. Every night I am lulled to sleep by thrum of a beating heart.
This story is the first in a series of collaborations between the hummingwhale and the Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art. The art and story may or may not agree in their meaning and content. We leave that to their discretion.