Vol. 1, Issue 1, Vena Cava

by Rebecca Dempsey

Each time, and probably eternally, I begin as a heart: a group of cells acting in unison as their DNA is written to do. I’ve always felt this and, after so long, struggle to retain it. The code for my identity spools out and is wound up again. It means this organ beat before I was born in a cave, to become a shaman dancing out its rhythm in ceremony to the old ones, on the edge of a snow-covered volcano before history was printed.

When my heart stops, the dance continues.

This change is learned. It wasn’t always like this. Once I was the warm centre of the world. I was the hearth and the fire, the mother and the daughter, the sisters of life and death. But this world is change and while I’m not the world, I’m commensurate with it, and so, like that, my fire was put out.

Thus, I can’t keep still, that’s my immutable law, and I work through the forces, insinuating myself back, below, above, between and through every life. Close your eyes: hear an echo of the tempo of the world, like a conch roaring in your ear. That’s not you. That’s me. Eternal Feminine I have been called. Goddess. Witch. Mother of All. Earth Mother. Spirit of the world. There are more names for me than languages. Here I go, sic transit gloria mundi. If you need a name for me, I suppose Gloria will do. I do have some Latin roots.

Being the centre of a closed system, my pulse persists for the purpose of everything around it. It is ebb and flow, contraction, activity and passivity. It’s a cosmos within the universe and I follow its steps. There is no choice, for am I trapped.

I knew at the volcano’s edge, life is a ballet of balance and harmony, strength and fragility, electricity, physicality and plasticity. That smoking mountain knew it too: an open vein oozing the earth’s core secrets. I felt the congealing blood, heaving and roiling just below the fine membrane of the earth, but only glimpsed through a yawning wound. That body, the earth’s body, everything in warm equilibrium. A salamander in the sun.   

Once more, I’m on the cusp of turning into someone else’s body. It’s not special - we’re all evolving. I do this because I can. They say that once, a god was born a man. That’s no big deal; I’m embodied every once in a while, to maintain the balance between flux and stasis. Imagine I am an electrostatic-sensitive device, and without grounding, I could shock you.

In this moment, there is a pause, like when the Punkinje Fibres conduct signals to the apex of the organ, and then a deep gasp, before plunging into a new life to be earthed. Sometimes I am alone, other times, I search for him.

Long ago, rather than be grounded, I took off as the flighty fairy queen for True Thomas; I was Morgan le Fay for Merlin and sunk to new depths as Ophelia of the waters, who took it all in, refusing to hold her cool breath. And, now, in this hiatus before another storm breaking another beat, who am I? Another Sylph? Or a Dryad? Which elemental will I become? And who for, since I wonder, where are you, my twinned heart?            

Muscles contract and currents spread along fine tendrils and fluids to the skin, and are then conducted out, floating into the world, like Ophelia’s hair in the current, with static. We connect and there is electricity. Our hearts beat faster. Together.  

For the length of a poem, I was far flung Penelope, and learned (again) life at the centre is the pivot for the movement of others. My son, baby’s heart thumping next to mine, grew, until he ran like a deer by my side, not knowing his father. Other people wandered, ambulated, a flotilla meandered, vacillated, and foundered. My husband’s crew fell so far and yet climbed higher. They ran, and stumbled as these new gods laughed. They breathed and rested, and died. But he returned, and showed me: we jump, but don’t defy gravity.

With a heavy heart I watched.  

Their bodies hung, jolting at first, and then twisting slowly, swaying low in a salty gust.

I had waited for my faithless husband as he traversed the universe. For twenty years I marvelled at the pattern of his cool strategies as I unwound his bloody skeins. Had we world enough, and time…but never mind. I left our grown son with him and to his wars and his corpses, and started over; free, and with so much passion the wine dark sea couldn’t stop me.

The cliff was high, but the sea took me, and another body came up for fresh air, gulping mountain chill. So, for a few years I was a simple nurse. As Highland Mary, I cared nought for the cottage nor for the squalling bairn I minded, for I was a muse. My hot blood wanted only for him in the hay. Perhaps Rob was worth a broken heart? Perhaps, he was worth my life and my child. I was sanguine, set for adventure with an eye and a fair wind to the tropics. But he died, and his poetry, with him. Ashes to ashes, his dust mingled with my tears in the sod.

The chest expands with such heartbreak, and so it is thus with another deep inhalation, for passive diffusion, where carbon dioxide and oxygen are exchanged. Voila, for my next trick, and, for my new death, there is another life. Fast twitch muscles readying. Adrenalin. Go.

But better were I Dido, spent on a pyre? Better I were Cleopatra, viper writhing upon a stilled breast? Better I was hot-headed, blood-soaked Clytemnestra? She knew all Princes he…he claimed. Little did he know. No. Not a fiery character in a drama. For me there was a later stage.

He was an actor and I, his Dark Lady, bound in perfected iambic pentameter. Theatrical, I remained in his cave, womb, hearth, all too en-globed by his desiring. Much have I sacrificed, watching the witching moon, turning each laboured breath over this blasted heath. Waiting.

I strewed rosemary for remembrance before the footlings to prevent the plague. He shall forget me not. For these little transgressions I was renounced as Selene, staked, and purged from the world to be hurled into a cold exile. Charcoaled by the sun, I waxed and waned. Trapped, I was the measure of endless months, my scarred face turned eternally with tears towards home.

Alone, I was like a self-excitable cardiac cell suspended in a culture, contracting even without connection to my nervous system. Yet, I cried to the higher heavens because I missed the ardent touch of the rounding body of the earth turning beneath me.

When I reborn, glad-hearted, I was hopeful of renewal and obedient, at all times, to that sinoatrial node which sets the pace of my lives as they expand and shrink. I breathed anew, and spring filled my lungs.

Restless without him, I linger, impatient too, for this merry jig to go around once more. Looking to follow impulses, like those that pass between special regions of cardiac tissue, I’m counting down for those messages relayed via the atrioventricular node. Febrile, pulsating, open, I feel for the spark of life.

Unfamiliar scents assail me on this New World soil. I dig in my toes and young fibres thrill and tingle as that familiar old furnace, the sun, rises. Standing firm, hair lifting in the sea breeze, I hold this hand up to shield these fresh, blinded, eyes. I am dawned upon.

Air, Water, Fire, Earth: who am I now?

Be still, this heart, and wait. 

Beat, this heart, and know. 


Rebecca Dempsey is from Melbourne, Australia. When not writing short fiction, or working on her first novel, Rebecca keeps a blog, at https://writingbec.wordpress.com primarily to review everything from Doctor Who episodes to visits to art galleries.  Recent works have featured in Tincture Journal, Danse Macabre Du Jour, as well as in projects for If:book Australia. Say hello via @becadriot.