Heart of December

by Dia VanGunten

Winter has a black muscle in its frozen core, an oily machine that pumps starry matter into plumed breath, and underneath the surface, there are spreading veins of frost. There’s a part of you in there, being burned for fuel. You chased a snow monkey into a tree, but lost your grip, with that rock in your fist, dropped from the icy branch and broke your neck. For 3 million years, you’ve been frozen in stratas of civilization until finally you’re mined by the new men and burned for your accumulated knowledge.

Frost crosses the world, a crackle of sugar poured out and smoothed flat like stained glass, dotted with flower petals, and you share yourself in shards which you hand out to the children so they can imagine a time when the earth was still golden. You’d think death would be like the cave of a hibernating bear, but it’s a thousand family recipes, scratched out and written over, floured and translucent with grease.  These recipes call for items not known to our world. 

Once upon a time, you believed in love because you were beating hard in the heart of December. You shimmied from your window for romantic strolls at Walbridge Park, even creeping onto the solid surface of the Maumee River. You walked through walls and penetrated icicle ribs.  

You called it love. But it’s a padlock, legally. The word “husband” is a band around your body. You’re a head of broccoli or a bundle of purple carrots, organic, your leaves limp like hag hair.  Animal--fur, mouth, innocence--has been overtaken by “woman.” You are chained in the basement. That’s how they keep you good and dead. But the animal snarls under your skin. 

This husband person, dearly beloved, master of his domain, masturbator, negotiator, maybe the World Wide Web needs 37 minute videos of that fraud in a Che Guevara t-shirt talking about Iranian oil as if he knows even one iota. You do, since being dead.  You meet the mountain. You feel the oil, a river of blood. You’ve gone fluid: blood, oil, fossil. Raptor. Spermatozoa.

You rake fingernails over the paper, unwound to protect this blue vinyl from your sores. Paper tears on the ends of your fingers. You kick quacking duck feet, rattling the examination table, and a doctor bends to untangle the corded laces. He towels salty residue from your duckboots, leather uppers and blood red vinyl. He double-ties the bunny ears. He is your real husband, stuck in this other, far superior, well-formed body. You love him. You loved him. Someone loved him. 

Fake Husband says, “She believes I'm a bodysnatcher.”

Real Husband says, “Brother, you need to pace yourself because this lesion is still small.”

With his stethoscope out, he holds your husband’s wrist and now they’re connected by black tubes, by puffing air, by pulse and fingertips, overlapped by elaborate loops of light and hoops of code, by endoplasmic intersecting bits of the alphabet. An SOS breaks through the static. There’s an unloosed glacier and a red squirrel. The cold heart of December.

“Tish, get it together. Six weeks ago, you loved me. For two hours last week, you played The Cure and sent mushy texts. So don’t you mention the Che Guevara t-shirt again.”

“His socks say ‘Hi! I'm one of the good guys!’ He says I bought them, but I didn't buy them.” 

The rectangular doctor relaxes and laughs, because you’re funny now that you no longer care to be funny. You don’t care about being good, and you’ve never been better. You don’t need to be desired or admired. You got no agenda, no need for validation. Without all of that, you’re flawless, benevolent, a beacon of love, because you love nothing and no one. You wouldn’t save this man from an oncoming truck if it meant the driver would die in a fiery wreck. One man is the same as any other. You can’t concern yourself with the fate of men.

The veins in your husband’s temples bulge like two purple worms. 

“Capgras is a symptom. Her brain is sure you’re an imposter.”

He’d been a false face since 2012, but you put up with it for years. Everyone said if someone’s still walking, talking, looking like themselves, goes by their name, well then, clearly, they’re the living person that goes with the face. But what’s a face, anyway? Twins have paired faces, plain old relatives even. Masks exist. Deep fakes. Clones and mirror copies. Being dead, you know for absolute certain that a person can be long gone and everyone will still say, No, it’s fine, it’s a lesion, it’s a virus, you’re still in there, you’re still you. The other doctor has your arm. He unpeels the skin, rolling it towards your wrist. You say, “I’m not in there.”

Fake Husband says, “I put that rubber band there so she can snap it. To verify that she’s alive.”

The doctor mutters, using that word again. “A rubber band is not effective against negation.” As if you’re a simple matter of mathematics; negative and positive ions in the right combination, but something went awry and now you are no more. He grumbles about circulation, about purpled flesh and cell death. Sepsis will kill you for real, he says, but this death ain’t no phony. The second doctor offers a pair of silver scissors. The first works by slipping the blade between twisted band and pinched flesh. You shriek: high-pitched and machine-like, a monkey in the trees or a bug in the system. Fake Husband intercepts.  

“Leave it. She likes it.”

“Hate it! Cut it!”

You want it gone, but as soon as the scissors flash, you remember your real husband, wherever he is. You feel his snowy lips, warm cold, cold warm, turned inside out. The doctors show you the blue hand, fingers tumescent, but you recall the bride who always wears a ribbon around her neck and when it comes undone, her head pops off like Barbie. The scissors glint. 

You shriek again, a sound like a siren, a banshee, dial-up internet.