The Open Country of a Woman’s Heart

Catherine Carberry


When Amy told Gloria about the biopsy and lost test results, Gloria called Dr. Howard a matasanos, spitting the word over her cubicle. She translated for Amy. “It means killer of healthy people,” which sounded even more ominous in Gloria’s accent, the vowels sharpened scalpel-like. Amy felt loyal to Dr. Howard, whom she had known since she was a child. Dr. Howard had diagnosed her mother’s breast cancer, her father’s hypertension. He had knocked her kneecaps, measured the changing angles of her adolescence.

“See?” Gloria had said. “Your parents are both dead, yes? Matasanos.”

She had a point. Amy promised to see a new doctor.

The waiting room looked more like an art gallery, a museum of medical curiosities. Amy was used to Dr. Howard’s office with its peeling coral wallpaper, its framed prints of minor impressionists. Amy took off her coat and draped it on one of the chairs in the middle of the room, and then, because she was not sure what else to do, she walked the perimeter. There was a framed poster advertising The Amazing Miracle Leech!, a medicine cabinet lined with glass bottles labeled Snake Oil and Lover’s Tonic, an enormous palmistry map, laid out as though the hand were a country with rivers called Cancer and Cholera and Spleen. The doctor, Amy decided, must have a sense of humor.

There was no receptionist, no file cabinets, but behind a frosted glass door she saw the shape of lab coats, heard someone asking about test results.  Amy wondered if she should open the door or wait for a nurse. She sat in one of the chairs and considered calling Gloria. Gloria was the top saleswoman in the county. She was ruthless. She would not allow her own body to become a battleground. Amy was described as polite, the worst compliment. Of course her body would welcome disease, would freshen its pillows and pour sugar in its tea.

Gloria was right about Dr. Howard. At first he had told Amy not to worry. She was young, her breasts had fatty tissue. There were so many false alarms, he said.

But hers was not a false alarm. The lump was the size of a pearl, of a ball bearing, of half a bullet. She would dig it out herself if she could, and she would not be polite.

Where Dr. Howard would have a table of outdated magazines, here there was a ceramic phrenology model of a smooth-scalped man, thick black brushstrokes cutting across his head, dividing Mirth from Beauty, Time from Tune. Amy wondered if this was part of the doctor’s process, to make her locate herself somewhere in the timeline of medical malpractice.

The front door opened and an elderly woman entered, taking the chair farthest from Amy. Amy smiled. The presence of the woman made her feel comfortable. Old women didn’t subject themselves to bizarre New Age doctors. Any minute, a nurse would come out and ask Amy for her social security number and health insurance.

Amy turned in the chair and saw The Open Country of a Woman’s Heart, printed in pastels and hanging in a gold frame. There was the Ocean of Prosperity, a Province of Deception, a walled and gated City of Love. Amy imagined her own heart, pocked with craters like a small moon. She tried to sit completely still and see if she could feel the cancer cells multiplying, creeping like fog from her breasts to her other organs. The country of Amy’s heart would have a new civil war every week. Sons would murder mothers, dogs would eat their own tails. People with cancer would be thrown into the ocean, gulp-swallowed by whales.

Amy looked at the old woman, at her thin chignon and black dress. She looked like an extra in a Hitchcock film: Widow #3. The woman was wearing a wedding ring that Amy instantly recognized. She looked at her own hand and saw its twin. It had belonged to her grandmother, whom she had never met.

“What are the odds?” Amy said, holding up her hand. She instantly felt foolish. The woman looked startled, and frowned. Amy studied the woman’s face. It was her grandmother, it had to be.

In the country of Amy’s heart, people nailed black cloth over windows. They shut off the lights. They prepared for bombing. Amy knew how family trees worked, understood she belonged to a rich genealogy of illness. She cringed. She knew what was next.

The door opened again, and this time three men came in. The room quickly became crowded, stale with cigar smoke. One of the men was wearing a Navy uniform. That was her grandfather. That was what he looked like at seventeen in 1945. Her mother had kept the photograph in her wallet. The people kept coming. They all had variations of Amy’s strong chin, her pale complexion, her widow’s peak. Amy recognized her great-aunt, a face she had only seen in black and white.

“Excuse me,” Amy said. One of the women had put her purse on Amy’s lap as she took off her coat. The men crowded the doorway. She wondered how they had died, what other diseases lay coiled inside her DNA. Her great-uncles were blocking the door to the doctor’s office.

The front door opened again and a mass of people came in, a tangle of antique dresses and top hats. Amy felt her heart beating quicker. There was her mother, talking to a woman dressed as a Pilgrim. Amy couldn’t understand their words, but she saw their mouths moving, she saw the twin cancers. She watched them and saw her own cheekbones, her own thin hair. The room was warm with bodies, thick with history. Amy stood up and pressed herself against the wall. She had to make room for the others.

Catherine Carberry lives in Ohio, where she is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green. Her fiction has been featured on NPR and is forthcoming in North American Review. 

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