I read today that most creatures
will live around a billion heartbeats.
Isn’t that strange? To think
there are people out there
counting the heartbeats of
a hummingbird. A man with
two gloved fingers laid gently over
a little white-gold feathered throat,
saying, “Be still now. It’s almost done.”
Nine hundred and ninety eight million.
Later the man takes off his white coat,
hangs it up, takes the train home.
Over dinner, his wife asks about work.
He thinks of the hummingbird, pinned.
He takes a bite, thinks, nine hundred and
ninety eight million and one,
says, “It was good”, loses count.
Drops it in the soup, rather.
Sleep is easy. In sleep
the rhythm steadies,
forty-nine beats a minute,
the continent a mass
of syncopated rhythms,
The dilemma is upon waking.
Is it raining? Take two beats away
if it is lightly tapping at the window;
add six if it demands to dance.
Have leaves started to fall?
Subtract four because we remember
we are shedding too. In winter,
remain still at forty-six unless
drinking hot chocolate. Save ten for
the moment the cherry blossoms open.
Spend recklessly in warm weather,
counting off five beats per dive
into the ocean from the highest cliff,
one extra if you open your eyes
before you hit
Children will stop
at their games, fretting
that they’ve lost count.
Their mothers, who have held
every pulse since the first
throb of their aching bellies,
set them back on track.
Middle schoolers do the math
when no one is looking,
but fail to understand
what the answers mean.
In Japan, schoolgirls decide that
soulmates, if they exist,
have the same heart rates.
They start stitching their loneliness
into their skirts. Boys start looking.
Certain men will be frugal.
On dating websites they write
about visits to art museums
and walks on the beach when
the tide is out.
Others will want to run. A billion
seems so far, the world so wide.
On occasion one slips. His lover,
who had only just started the difficulty
of counting two heartbeats,
will think about all the time
they could have had, and realize
a billion is not so much after all.
In retirement homes, nurses
become experts at subtraction.
The residents have lost track
of their own numbers. They think
in fractions, calculating
a figure for each person
they’ll love and leave.
Back to the hummingbird.
The man thinks of swings and
art exhibits. Of sewing needles and
cragged cliffs. Do hummingbirds
build nests on the shore? If so,
do the little eggs (off-white,
the size of his fingernails)
ever get swept away by the tide?
He realizes he’s never seen
a hummingbird nest before.
He realizes it would be stupid
to build nests on the shore.
He realizes how stupid it is
that he’s counting the heartbeats
of a hummingbird. This helpless,
little thing trapped beneath his palm.
As if it knows what a billion means.
As if any of us do.
Tell them it’s sweet. That it sinks into
the tongue like snow – untraceable
but for the finest hint of change
in the bloodstream. That it goes well
scraped across their morning toast or
drizzled into their tea. That they might
even spoon it straight into their mouths
and let it clot in the back of the throat
so their next words can carry just
a few glistening strands of it.
Tell them it’s fire. That they should not
fear the sloughing of skin that was only ever
a barrier between their nerves and the world.
That the pieces that fall away never mattered.
That they only have to lie back and let it wash over them
like they are the forest and they are waiting
for the blaze to turn the underbrush into
white ash that dissolves in the wind.
Tell them it’s to remember. That
so much has already been lost,
sent away with the worn out toys,
the chipped vases, the diaries with
only the first few pages written in.
The things we loved once, and then
But most of all tell them that
it is essential. That if not for blood
it would be the pulse of each line
break through our bodies. That
they will say the words and yet
never say anything if not
for this, this smear of language
across an unwilling mouth, this
lingering hiss of ash, this memory
languishing in the attic, waiting
for someone to look in the right place.
THE FAMINE OF LOVE