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Christopher D. DiCicco

Her Heart a Thundering Steed

Sara's little heart baffled the doctor.

It sounded different

to different people.

Sara's doctor heard drums.




"Hey nurse," he said, "do you hear tom-toms?"

The nurse lowered her ear to Sara's baby soft chest—and there it was—a humming frog singing solo beneath the Pennsylvania stars.

"No," she said.

"Are you sure?" asked the doctor.

"Yes," said the nurse, her ear against Sara. "It's beautiful. It sounds like a child full of love."

She lied.

It sounded like frogs and a river crashing against granite, like Yellowstone wolves running ravines and howling echoes.

Doctor Bom said, "Yes, indeed, I hear a girl who's going to be just wonderful."

He felt awkward,

and lied too.

They couldn't tell Sara's mother her daughter's heart sounded like Glacier National Park, like you wouldn't know unless you've been there, like bubbles popping, soap sudding on a messy baby face.

They couldn't tell her that anymore than you could.








Mother cradled baby,

Baby cradled breast, the heartbeat running water over million-year-old pebbles, smooth pops, low ripples.

Sara's mother listened.

It reminded her of a man,

of a piece of elevator music,

of a song she fell in love with,

of she stood there next to him, bobbing her head to the rhythm, travelling up, up, up.

He wore a white coat and hummed along to the violins and cellos.

He was not her husband

but she loved him,

like an unspoken connection,

like his eyes green, soft grass.

Sara's mother stood with him.



Wednesday and Thursday.

On Fridays he worked from home, he said.

Oh, she said, must be nice.

It was.

But they loved each other and neither told the other and that wasn't.

That wasn't nice at all.

And it hurt her mother's heart to hear Sara's own tiny organ sound so much like jazz played through an elevator speaker.

Because it sounded like him,

like love for no reason,

like not expressing how your heart feels.

Sara's heart a favorite song played on repeat,

Sara's heart a man in an elevator tapping his foot.

Sara's heart her mother loves him.

Sara's heart his name was Sam.

Unlike Doctor Bom, Sam was a cardiologist.

He worked on the 34th floor for thirteen years.

He examined chest x-rays and loved Nirvana.

The band, not the heavenly place.

Hell wasn't nearly as loud.

Sara's mother knew that. She wore sadness like a wool knit hat.

It covered her ears.

But baby Sara's heart blew bass drum bumps through sad.

No matter what.

It was that loud.






"Sounds steady," said Sara's father, "like traffic in the rain."

He wiped his forehead, the one Sara's mother never fell in love with, and he stared out the hospital window down at the street below.

He didn't know about the cardiologist or the elevator rides,

but he had a feeling.

The feeling was a car driving away, his wife inside, traveling down a quiet street and not looking back.

He stared at the rain falling. It soaked the street below.

He worked there, on the street. His badge and gun said so.

His policeman's mare neighed and said so too.

The beast trod iron on broken asphalt roads and galloped after criminals.

Sara's heart was loud like a horse too.

Not a pink pony floating on a cloud,

like a thundering steed.

It was excited by life.

It was young

and strong

and fast

and ready.

Her father's gun had six bullets in it and sounded like a glass bottle broken in hell.

Sara's mother heard it once.

It had been an accident.

Sara wasn't.

There's no such thing as that.


Sara's heart pounded away and when her father leaned over her and smiled Sara's heart sounded like June waves on white shores, like motorcross in Alabama.

"She's happy, I think," said Sara's father.

"Maybe," said Sara's mother.

Sara's father could hear the difference.

Well, actually he couldn't hear his wife's heart at all.

Not when he smiled at her.

He knew that.

He knew some love was different. Some love sounded like his daughter and some love didn't sound at all—even if you wanted it to play the brass section at your fifth grade recital, even if you wanted it to drop the bass or shout its feelings for you so strong kids at clubs would dance dirty to it.

Some love was Sara's mother.

Sara's father was okay with that.

It hurt, but he loved motorcross and Ocean City, New Jersey.

So not too bad, a daughter's heart pounding like Alabama and salt water waves.

So not too bad, your wife loves another man.

So not too bad, he loves her back serenaded in elevator music.

So not too bad, as long as you hear it—Sara's heart, the traffic of love, in the small of the hospital room far above the city streets.







continued. And Sara grew. Louder. Different. In other ways.

In the fifth grade Thomas Fields transferred schools.

He came from Ohio.

The teacher said, "Thomas you can sit next to Sara."

Thomas stood there, straw straight in a field of desks..

He couldn't hear Mrs. Benson,

only birds belting a tune like heaven is snowing and the angels have the day off.

Sara turned robin belly red.

"Is that you?" Thomas asked.

He had to shout.


Sara shook her head yes.


But it wasn't always.

Sometimes, "Your heart betrays you," Sara's mother said.

And it did.

When Sara hugged her father goodbye, it sounded like a fast red car zipping down the expressway.

And when Sara's mother stood in her doorway, checking to see if she'd finished her homework, it sounded like fake snoring and go away my headphones are in and I know you won't come in Mom that would mean you'd have to talk to me.

It told the truth, Sara's heart.

One way

or another.

When Sara stood next to Thomas, her heart sounded like your elementary school talent show. The loud one where Arnold Sheperdson played his dad's accordion.

And when Sara's mother left the kitchen, her father at the table, eyes wet from some awful truth, Sara's heart sounded like, why can't you two ever be in the same room together. It sounded like that and a bunch of angry tears, like thirteen on fire, like mommy you need to love daddy, like Dad why can't you be home more.

Sara's heart was you can't just love me, c'mon guys.






Sara stood at the front door.

"I'm going to Thomas's house," she said.

"What?" her mother yelled.



Time with Thomas was Sara's heart whacked out on street drugs.

It was Woodstock so loud.

It was free love.

Totally high.

So high.

High on Thomas time.

Sara's heart beat Thomas, best friend since fifth grade, and pounded out encores.

It was hundreds of Saras chanting his name.

Sara and Thomas inseparable hippy gods.

Sara kissed her mother on the cheek goodbye.

Her mother said, "I love you, be safe."

Sara looked away, her heart crickets chirping.

She didn't believe her mother,

that she was capable of real emotion.

Sara didn't know about Sam the cardiologist,

or the elevator rides,

or the music that may have come from an elevator speaker

or from a heart similar to her own.

Sara thought her mother was messed up or something..

She was kind of right.

Sara's mother was sort of broken,

confused and fragmented from loving someone else,

so she tried to be careful all the time,

no matter who she was around.

Sara's mother was afraid her heart would betray her, thumping off some out of tune melody no one would recognize.


Sara closed the door,

and left for Thomas's.

Her mother smiled small and sad on the other side. She wanted a cherry red sportser revving its hot-to-trot engine. She wanted,




on overdrive,

but Sara's heart, an empty field, occasional cricket, betrayed her.

It never learned to hide

how it felt




Not like her mother.



Once when Sara was only thirteen, she ran away, and her parents found her by flashlights and listening.

She was so sad,

like help me it hurts sad,

turtle in love with bird sad,

like portuguese man o'war in love with a fisherman's net sad,

and I just want this to stop, this isn't fair, why him God? sad.

She was that sad,

and her parents heard her—a dripping faucet.






Sara's heart betrayed her, and her father the policeman and her mother the star-crossed lover gently opened the clubhouse door.

The clubhouse was down the street and belonged to their neighbor Thomas.

At one point he was new to the neighborhood, but now he felt old and young at the same time.

Sara swaddled him in her arms.

Thomas told her parents, "Ah, you can't be here. This is private property. You should leave."

"Thomas," they said, "we love you."

They kissed his forehead.

It felt hot,

and it began to rain or maybe everyone was crying.

Sara's parents scooped her up and carried her down out of the elm tree fort.

Left inside the clubhouse was Thomas and his cancer.

It was bad.

It was "Thomas is no reason to try," Sara said into the night, "but you have to anyway."

"Thomas is exactly that," whispered Sara's mother, but no one heard her. She'd walked ahead, keeping some distance.



In Thomas's hospital room, after the doctor said the words, "some progress," there was a marching band and a seven gun salute and a hot air balloon filling with flame, and all of that, so much of that.

Sara's doing.

Thomas slept.

Sara hid in her father's shoulder and he wrapped her in his arms and it seemed like he could cry.

But he didn't.

He listened instead and waited for Sara to sound herself to sleep, her heart beating Apocalypse Now, her heart beating a prelude to your last winter in Greece.

It came as he knew it would and Sara's father listened to the waves against the shore, the steady rhythm of traffic he heard when Sara slept, her head nuzzled against his chest, close to his heart.

He cried that night.

Her head against him.

The occasional sound of Sara's heart breaking

of wildfires,

of landmines,

of faultlines,

of fathers holding daughters who will never be the same.

He held her and felt an earthquake.

The earthquake was him.

He cried and shook

and cried and shook

until Sara's mother came into the room.

Without a sound, she leaned down and kissed his forehead and swept back his gray hair and no matter how she tried, he shook.

Until it was over.

"She hurts so badly," he said to Sara's mother.

"It'll quiet down."

"Can you really control that thing?" Sara's father asked.

He put his hand on Sara's mother's

and squeezed.

"Thomas makes you think of things," he said.

"No," she said.

"Of how little time we have to be honest with ourselves," he said.

Sara's mother looked away, her thoughts on elevators and sweet jazz, on standing in doorways and doors shut tight.

Sara's mother lied,

like doctors and nurses,

like fathers and mothers,

like husbands and wives,

like daughters with their hearts broken.

"Stop it, you're talking nonsense," Sara's mother said.

Sara's father stared at the puddle on the linoleum. It came from the feet standing behind him. Sara's mother shook.

Nirvana's "All Apologies" played in the background.

It was faint, like batteries giving up.

"Stop," Sara's mother said.

The puddle grew.

Beneath the chair, feet swam.

"Stop, what?" he asked.

Sara's mother put a hand to her chest.



Sara, sixteen with a license,




was asked not to drive by her own father.

He was afraid.

"When you get angry at other drivers, it sounds like you're blaring the horn."

Sara said, "I am Dad."

"Oh, well, you shouldn't."

"Is that it?" Sara asked.

"No, there's been complaints your heart sounds like an F-1 race car."


"You scared Miss Winlin."




"I'm going to pick up Thomas and take him to his treatment," Sara said.

"Okay, well, be safe, and tell Thomas no funny business in the car or I'll arrest him."

Sara shot a look, her heart beat oh my God Dad, really?

"Love you."

"I know," Sara said.



When Sara was eighteen, an acceptance letter came in the mail.

She held it in her hand. She read the contents again. It was true. Her heart was going to college.

It pumped an extra beat.


From upstairs, Sara's super mature heart sounded like Mom I don't have to deal with you, like Dad you can't watch me now, like humming and packing, like laughing and beers cracking, like I'm older now.

Sara raced around the house, letter in hand. A flag.



"Careful, you'll hurt yourself," said Sara's mother. She stood in the kitchen doorway.

Sara's heart a balloon deflating.

"You scared me," Sara said.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to."

"You never mean anything."

Sara left the room.

Silence. Not a beat.

No boom.

No bang.

Sara's mother followed her upstairs.

The steps were nothing like an elevator.

No pleasing music.

No Sam the cardiologist loving her back through the eyes,

no steady line of care,

thoughtful questions,

kind concern.

Nothing like that at all.

"I love you and I'm happy for you. St. John's University is what you wanted. I just want you to promise me something," Sara's mother said.

Sara sat on her bed.

Her bed was shaped like a police car. A fast one. It was a twin Sara could have traded in for a full.

She didn't.

Sometimes at night Sara would lay in her police car.

In her room, it sounded like the rain.

It came from her chest,

a steady downpour

of Thomas,

of I love you,

of will you be okay?

Sara sat on the edge of her bed staring at her mother in the doorway.

"You love me?" asked Sara.

"Yes, and I want you to promise me something."

"Do you love Dad?"

"I want you to try and date other people."






"Dad, do you think Mom is happy?"

Sara's father sat down,

and told her of first dates, of sleigh bells ringing, of smooth jazz fuzz from lo-fi heart speakers.

He told her of fading, of sound proofing and dampers, of silence and waiting, of suspicions and doctors.

Sara cried.

Her father sniffled.

"I know this a fucked up thing to say, but I can understand why she might be that way. You're never home. But why is she like that with me?"

Sara's father, the silent type, the policeman who owned a gun type, the gun that sounded like hell through a broken window type, stood up and put his hand on Sara's shoulder.

"She loves you as much as I do."

"Then what is it?"

"I think it's broken."

"I'm going to Thomas's."






Sara stood next to Thomas,

and held his hand.

He smiled.

Sara's heart pounded hot summer nights on the boardwalk,

like July fireworks

over the ocean.

Thomas had an appointment.

It was in the same building where Sara's mother worked.

"If we see your mom here," Thomas said, "it might be a good time to tell her."

Sara agreed, her heart playing an awesome rock song, the chorus "Thomas and Sara go to college, though he never applied."

Thomas is a year off to make art, twisting wire and clay.

Thomas is a sculpture,

a bluebird inside an old man's chest.

perched on a little swing,

that Sara loves.



"Hi Thomas. Sara, what are you doing here?"

Inside the elevator, jazz played.

"Thomas is coming with me."

Sara leaned against the elevator wall, her head against the speaker.

It was broken.

A repairman had received complaints.

There was nothing he could do.

Not within budget.

Sara moved her head away from the speaker.

There it was.

Elevator music,

lo-fi treble and fuzz bass,


Sara's mother stood awkwardly rubbing her shoes together, her head bent down.

Next to her, a cardiologist smiled.

Only inches separated them.

Sara watched the doctor's green eyes fall onto her mother.

They were soft,

like covering her with a blanket and sipping chicken soup,

like twenty-five years of wanting to say, I love you.

Sara listened to the elevator music

her mother played.

It was a slow build,

like a mother and daughter finding common ground,

like Sara's heart a new rhythm of understanding.

➥ Bio