AUGUST WAS NOT YET BORN, less than five months in the forming, when I
learned the secrets contained inside his heart. There was the physical
secret—that it beat too fast against the narrow bones of his rib cage,
that it would always work twice as hard as it should to sustain the
coursing of blood through his veins. But his heart held another kind of
secret too. The kind bound so tightly to our own, we dare not imagine
the possibility of it. His heart’s secret was in the knowing and the
free- ing of other people’s secrets—secrets of loves gained and
(almost always) lost. The erratic, syncopated beats of my son’s heart
had the power to draw stories from the ordinary-hearted with the ease of
a magician pulling a rainbow-colored scarf from the innocent hollows of
a young girl’s mouth.
And for some, the sharing of their stories (the remembering, the
re-living) was enough. Whether the experience filled them with joy or
comfort or only a sadness so great they had to pull away from my son for
fear their sorrow would consume them, the fact that their tale had been
told was, for them, a burden lifted, a weight shed, a freedom gained.
But there were others. Others who somehow had a need for
something…else. And my son’s heart easily obliged. These people
would get to see, at last, the full truth of their own stories: how each
heart connects to the next, how it looks from the other side (to feel
what others felt, to know what others knew) to finally understand.
This was the secret that would draw people to my son or push them
away—a burden and a relief wrapped into a tiny fisted muscle keeping
him alive, though by all rights he should not be.
The day I learned these secrets was an otherwise ordinary day. I had
left work at the flower shop early, had eaten lunch in the park, and had
maneuvered my way, as usual, through L.A. traffic. The ordinariness of
the day fell away only when I lay in the examining room—my belly
exposed and my heart mesmerized by the pointil- lism portrait of my son
(my son!) on the small monitor. To temper the anxiety I felt during
this, our first ultrasound, I let everything fall out of focus—the
kind doctor with her long, dark hair and full lips painted frosting
pink, the almost life-size poster on the walls mapping the female
reproductive system in color-coded objectivity, the counter with glass
jars holding cotton swabs and tongue depres- sors, even the stale air
and sterile smell possible only within the cold, pale walls of a
doctor’s office. Everything fell away, except for the image of my
child on the ultrasound monitor. I focused only on his metamorphosis. I
tried to make out the shape of an ear, the slope of his forehead, the
minute arcs of his feet. All of which told me: YES! He is here; he is
alive. There is still a chance. And then I heard it…the tinny beat of
But, I had only just begun to hear its soothing rhythm beat- ing
softly—tiny wings tapping against the walls of my eardrums— when the
doctor pulled the probe from my belly as though it were hot and we were
both in danger of getting burned.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” the doctor said, her hand moving to her chest as
if suddenly reminded of her own heart. Color spread up her cheeks, and a
silence flooded the room and I felt I might drown in it. I stared up at
this young doctor, awkward in this news she now carried, awkward in
everything she did not want to say.
The only sound was my own heart, beating furiously now, as if trying to
claw its way out of my rib cage.
“Your son’s heart is still growing, changing, but, still
right. Something is…different.”
She shook her head as if trying to purge the thoughts that swam there.
After a few moments, she regained herself, the crimson color draining
from her cheeks.
“I’m afraid your son has an accelerated heart rate, Ms. Rose. His
heart beats at a pace much faster than normal.”
“How much faster?”
“About three times too fast. It sounds, well, I don’t know. I’ve
never heard anything like this before.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, panic rising in the back of my
throat, leaving its bitter, metallic traces on my tongue.
“We’ll need to keep close tabs on this, monitor you both very
closely. I would like to call in a specialist. But, the important thing
right now is for you to remain calm. Look, I just need one minute.
I’ll be right back,” she said and quickly left the room.
And with nothing else I could do, I waited for her to return, waited for
her to say everything I feared she could not. Would she tell me my son
would not live to see anything? Would she smile sadly and say with this
heart he has been given, he should have been dead long ago?
As had happened many times before, I felt myself suddenly los- ing
contact with the objects around me. I no longer felt the rough surface
of the sheet beneath me but hovered just slightly above it. I
desperately gripped the edges of the examining table trying to keep
myself from floating away.
I was five years old the first time I lost control of my own grav- ity.
I had been living with my new foster family for only a few months. The
woman, Charlotte, was so large entire rooms shrank in her presence. Her
smile, her husband Mark used to say, could tame a pack of wild wolves.
What I remember most about her though is that
I never saw her cry. I never saw her on the verge of her own life. I, on
the other hand, cried for any reason, or for no reason at all. She
jokingly chided me for this.
“You’re a sweet kid,” she told me, “but way too sensitive. Will
you try not to cry so much?”
“I’ll try.” “Promise?”
“Promise,” I said over and over. But each time I felt wronged or out
of place, or simply unloved, the tears came, and I unwittingly broke my
promise to Charlotte.
The day I finally kept my promise was also the day I first drift- ed out
of myself like a seed caught among the ripples and tides of the sea. I
had been playing among the brown and golden leaves that had collected
beneath the trees in our backyard. I crinkled them in my fingers. I
tossed them in bunches and watched as they drifted, twirling to the
ground. One leaf in particular caught my eye. When it settled to the
floor I realized it was not a leaf at all, but instead a single bird
feather—long and slender. I grabbed the end of it be- tween my fingers
and held it before me—amazed at all the colors, the blues and greys,
purples and greens. The entire feather was per- fect, and its fragile
iridescence drew me instantly into the imagined life and death of its
owner. Now, I had never seen death up close. I had never felt its pointy
finger worrying the bones of my spine, but, in my limited experience, I
believed death must be a lonely enough endeavor. I thought it only fair
and right that this bird be laid to rest with all its feathers intact. I
became obsessed with finding whatever else remained of it.
I searched the garden looking for telltale signs of the departed: more
feathers, its slim and hollow bones, perhaps even the small, curved
frame of its skull. I scrambled beneath the recently watered
rosebushes—nothing. I pushed aside the soggy leaves and dirt cov-
ering the roots of the lemon trees, but there was not a sign. I parted
the overgrown grass like curtains and came up empty handed. The less I
found, the more determined I became. Finally, after hours of looking, I
failed to find any other evidence that this bird had once lived and died
somewhere in the vicinity of my life.
Frantic, I stumbled up the back steps and pushed myself
through the kitchen door, feather held firmly between my fingers.
“Charlotte! Charlotte!” I called. “I found a dead bird. I found a
Charlotte came bounding into the kitchen. She took one look at me, at
the dried leaves in my hair, the feather clutched to my chest, and the
mud covering my hands, my knees, my shoes and now the kitchen floor.
“Well, that’s a shame, dear. It was probably eaten by one of those
damn neighborhood cats! They’re always creeping into our garden,”
she said, pulling the mop from the closet, setting the buck- et, tilted
to fit, into the kitchen sink. She opened the tap and let the water run.
It made a harsh, violent sound as it hit the bottom of the empty bucket,
and I began to cry.
I cried, not only for the death of this bird, but also for its ab- sence
from my world. I have since learned too well that that, after all, is
the problem with death. It has not so much to do with the dy- ing, but
with the ones still left behind.
Charlotte approached me and knelt down to look me in the
eyes, her hands cupping my shoulders.
“Come on. Don’t cry. Remember what we talked about? You promised.
Look, we’ll get you cleaned up and give your feather a proper
I wiped the wet from my eyes, my cheeks, my neck and breathed deeply.
“Okay,” I smiled.
“God has a plan for all of his creatures. It was this bird’s time is
“Did God kill this bird?” I asked.
Behind my words, came the rush, rush, rush of water as it filled the
bucket and began to overflow, splashing onto the linoleum floor.
“Shit!” yelled Charlotte as she scrambled to the sink. Her socked
feet hit the puddle of water sending her skidding inches across the
floor. She fumbled for control and came to a halt against the sink. She
pressed her hand to her chest to soothe her pounding heart.
“Whoa, that was close,” she said and smiled as she turned off
The incessant rushing of the water now the slow drip…drip…
drip of a leaky sink.
She turned back toward me, and one leg, caught off guard by its own
ineptness, slipped out from underneath her. She tried to grip the sink
for balance, but her hand caught the edge of the buck- et instead,
sending it down, tumbling over her, spilling its liquid guts until it
seemed as if a giant river had erupted, bubbling up from whatever depths
lay beneath the kitchen floor. As she fell, her head made contact with
the edge of the stove. There was a crack like an eggshell against a
glass bowl, and then her body hit the floor. I watched the blood—murky
and dark—ooze onto the tiles, mixing with the water, diluting it to a
soft, swirling pink. Charlotte just laid there, her eyes wide open.
Charlotte! I tried to say her name but found I could not will my voice.
I could not force my tongue. For five years I had evaded it, and now
death had come twice to my door. I looked up at the wood- en cross
hanging above the kitchen window; the person suspended there stared
back. I refused to cry. I would not disappoint Charlotte again. This
time, I would keep my promise.
I shut my eyes and swallowed hard against the building in my throat. I
bit down on my lip and forced myself to breathe.
Don’t cry, don’t cry, I repeated over and over in my head. And
Looking back now, I suppose the fear, the loss, the guilt—ev- erything
I felt right then—had to go somewhere. If I would not re- lease it, it
would find its own means of escape.
It began with a lifting of pressure from the soles of my feet and the
sensation of sharp pin pricks at the tips of my fingers. Slowly, I
became aware of each pore of my body, tiny holes that let the pain in.
And I felt myself rising—not the same as flying—not a willful act
with a purpose or a destination. I was just floating. I tried to grab
onto the door jamb, to push myself against the wall to make it stop. I
dropped the feather and watched as it floated, arcing and drifting, past
my torso, my mud encrusted knees, past my shoes; it contin- ued to fall,
past where I stopped and before the floor began. I floated like a
balloon on a string, inches above the ground, my feet a-dangle in shoes
that slipped, just vaguely, at the heels.
I don’t know how long I was there, suspended between myself and
nothingness, when I heard the door creak open. Mark, Char- lotte’s
husband, entered the room—a cry warbling in his throat.
That was enough to send me crashing back to solid ground. I
hit the floor hard and ran.
Days later, I was sent away. Mark was there to see me off with a hug. As
I was leaving he pulled a feather, long and fine from the left-hand
pocket of his jacket. Without words he held it out to me. I cupped my
hands, and he placed it in my palms. It was weight- less and blameless.
I held it there as I walked down the steps and entered the car. I held
it there for the entire car ride and all the way out of his life.
Years later, I went to the library to try and identify the former owner
of this feather (for I had kept it hidden in a cardboard box). That was
when I learned birds molt their feathers every year, and chances were
good that this bird, this maker of my feather, had not died that day.
Perhaps it was still flitting through the trees, show- ering
children’s gardens everywhere with its jeweled feathers—its
emeralds, its amethysts. I wondered if Charlotte had known this simple
fact. From then on I began to collect found feathers, though
I rarely could identify the bird from which they came. To me, they were
no longer a symbol of death but one of beauty, of mystery, and of
There was a knock, and the doctor timidly entered the exam room, closing
the door behind her. She once again turned on the ul- trasound machine
and set the probe against my abdomen. I braced myself for the sound of
my son’s heart, for the cadence that could signify yet another child
who would not make it beyond the con- fines of my body. Another child
lost to me before he was ever mine. “Okay, this is it,” she said.
And I heard the thump-shuffle-whis-
per-thump of my son’s irregular heart.
The doctor involuntarily inhaled sharply.
“There is something you’re not telling me. Please, I need to
“It’s just…” “Tell me.” “It’s crazy…”
“If it’s about my son, I have to know.”
She looked down at me and sighed. “No, it’s…” she laughed. “It
really is crazy. The sound, the beat of his heart, I swear it re- minds
me of a sound I haven’t heard in a very long time. But that’s not
right either. It is the same sound. I’m sure of it.”
“If anyone knew I was even thinking this, much less consider- ing
saying it out loud, I think I would lose my license.”
“Whatever you say stays between us. I promise. I have to know.”
“Okay.” Then she inhaled purposefully, deeply, closed her eyes, and
let out a long sigh.
“I’ve heard the exact same tone and rhythm, the exact same
everything before.” She lightly, almost unconsciously, touched the
lines of her neck. Red crept above her collar coloring her cheeks to
match her poorly chosen lipstick.
She placed her hand gently on my belly. I waited, watching for the words
that were there, teetering on the edge of her tongue. When she parted
her lips, I waited for those words to spill like drops of water tumbling
from the sky, slowly growing heavier and heavier with their own weight
before falling, breaking into a million more of themselves each time
they hit the ground.
But she did not say a word—or if she did, I heard nothing. I was only
keenly aware of the flat of her palm resting, forgotten, on my abdomen,
and I felt, suddenly, a prickling sensation creeping up the base of my
skull. I tried to still my heart. But the more I tried the faster and
more arrhythmic its beating became. The doctor placed her other hand
over her own chest and I could hear both our hearts now, distinct in the
secrets they kept, but now beating, thump-shuf- fle-whisper-thump, in
perfect unison with each other and in perfect unison with my son’s.
But while our three hearts moved faster, everything else seemed to wind
down, to slow; the second hand of the clock on the wall taking much
longer to tick down each second, until everything stopped.
Except for the sound of our beating hearts.
Excerpted from "In All Things" by Marta Curti. Copyright © 2016 by Marta Curti. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.