Entertainingly Evil

I Am Your Heartbeat by H.E. Roulo

I am your heartbeat, counting down.

Evening chill turns voices into puffs of clouds while I wait for you. Ropes creak and waves slap wood. The ships are returning thick to the harbor. Some bear faded scars left by encounters with serpents and eels. I approach and stroke four parallel gouges left on the prow of the first boat, my gorge rising. A mermaid took your father, or so my mother always said.

I see us as we were this morning. My hair stretches down my back. You wear a newsboy cap and a gray cable knit sweater. We’ve been closer than siblings all our lives. The breeze stinks of tar. You’re headed to the docks to join the fishermen in their boats. The call of the morning blessing echoes to an end. This is your first time out, and you think your heart races with excitement, but it is my fear pushing the flush into your cheeks.

I am your heartbeat, dreading what will come.

We were born on the same night, in the same big storm. The men had not returned from the sea, and the women huddled together. My birth was easy. When your mother died you should have been lost, but the healer used twine and oaths to bind us together. No one speaks of it, except to joke I anchor you, but I know better.

The healer urged us to play together, a simple thing. If you ran, I chased. If I ran, you chased. We climbed trees and flew kites. The bright days along the docks, dodging fish-filled nets and dreaming of singing mermaids color my childhood memories like washed silks imported from across the sea. The days haze into each other, blending across years until I’m pricked by the sharp memory of sprawling on the sand, content. You wanted to run, and I did not; I gazed away, soothed by glimmering ripples and hissing surf. You practiced swordplay with a stick and kicked sand into the eyes of invisible enemies; I trailed my fingers in the sea.

When you collapsed, I scrambled to you. My cold wet hand covered your brow. You were pale, and your heart barely pounded. I counted the beats, and found each flutter a mate to mine. My alarmed heart raced, and color rose to your surface, painting browns and blues of life once more. Your eyes opened, but you did not see what I had realized: I set the pace for us both.

I should have said, I am your heartbeat, but the moment passed and we were both too young and proud to speak of it again.

Ever since, I have trailed after you. We stayed up late. When you needed to feel wild and free, I climbed to the roof of a building with you. We stared across the white rocks of our township, counting rooftops and naming the families within until we reached the ships in the harbor, and we named them too.

This morning, they wouldn’t let me go with you. It wasn’t my place. It wouldn’t be safe. I told them that we were never parted, not while waking, and we turned red to the tips of our ears. Your fair skin betrayed us both.

My heartbeat turns heavy. Buoys clanged and seagulls cry. I haunt the dock, never more than three paces from the edge, and wonder if the distance between us will break the connection. When you reach the end of our invisible tether will it snap? Can cold water wash away what was impossible in the first place? My laundry is not washed. The other women tease me about my heart. They do not know how much truth they speak. My mother, who glances to me and across the waters, furrows her brow.

I am first to hear the alarm bell chime from the mast of a returning ship. Before sails come clearly into view, I know it is yours and run to a row boat. I am clumsy, so a man jumps in and rows to meet the ship. There is no reason to humor me, but he does and I am grateful. I press my arms to my chest, heart beating rapidly, perhaps giving you new life. I do not know.

I come aboard the ship. You are laid out on the wooden planks, limp and pale. I press my hands to your chest, feeling for your heartbeat. I press again, and again, in time with mine. They say it was a mermaid’s touch. They say your heartbeat stopped.

I am your heartbeat,” I say at last. “Wake up. Wake up.”

Heather Roulo is a Seattle-area author. The first book in her Plague Masters series was published in 2015. Her short stories appear in several dozen publications, including Nature and Fantasy’s special Women Destroy Fantasy issue. Fractured Horizon, her science-fiction podcast novel, was a Parsec Award Finalist. Find out more at heroulo.com.

- Back to Blog Home -