Death Stories: Heartless

Photo by Dee Puett

Open the Pericardium widely from in front. Study its interior (Middle Mediastinum) and note the reflections of its serous layer onto the great vessels. Take a blunt-pointed pair of scissors and split the Pericardium up to each of the great blood vessels and trim it away from around each of them. Be especially careful not to injure the Inferior Vena Cava (postcava) when freeing it. It is safer to leave intact that portion of the Pericardium which is attached to the left border of its opening in the diaphragm, along with the portion that is attached to the upper surface of the diaphragm. Otherwise, remove all of the Pericardium. Do not remove the heart and do not cut it open. It must be kept intact and in its place. Use another specimen for comparison and for the study of the interior of the heart.
 --from an antique manual on dissection

Lena came in with a heart in her hand.

It was a humid 95.  I and four or five friends, all of us poor college students, were pooling our resources to come up with a decent meal.  Lena and Nate had gone to the creek and gigged bullfrogs while I stayed behind to clean up the kitchen; it was my policy in those days to wash dishes at least once a month.

Lena had never eaten frog before, and she was struck with wonder at the whole process.  She came in from the patio where she and Nate were skinning the frogs.  “Look at this,” she said.  The frog heart in her hand beat, heaving itself against the air.  She poked it with her finger; it kept beating.

“So?” I said irritably, scrubbing at a crusted skillet.

“It’s still beating.  I didn’t know they did that.”

“Of course they do.  Didn’t you take high school biology?”  I thought back to my first frog dissection--the stink of formaldehyde, like nausea and cold and lilacs together; the delicate work of chipping away the skull to get the brain out intact, its thick optic nerves anchoring it to the eyes, which were larger than the brain itself.  The eyes, when severed, would bounce like rubber balls.  In the stomach I found an entire beetle, thick and shining and black and over an inch long.  The liver felt like cold velvet.

Of course, the highlight of the dissection was the shock: The teacher touched an electric probe to the thigh muscle, and the leg spasmed.  He made a circuit of the limbs: all of them moved to the electric touch.  The frog must have been dead for weeks, but when the probe spoke, the muscles still answered.

I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

 A man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me.
 --from Frankenstein
Mary Shelley

Lena went back outside, annoyed with my failure to wonder.  I went back to my dishes.  A moment later I heard the back door open again.  I turned and saw my friends, and one of them was holding something wet and red and staring that leaped up and had to be held back.  I leaped too, and Lena was happy with my humbling.

It was a bullfrog, of course, big as a football, still scrambling to escape even though it had been gigged and clubbed and skinned and gutted.  Its heart lay on the counter beating.  Its bloody striated muscles pushed against the hands holding it.

The legs tried to jump out of the frying pan.  We served them on a bed of rice.

This story originally appeared in Food Chain.



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