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Letter From America: The Tell-Tale Heart

Ronnie Bray recalls the haunting, fear-inducing heart beat that thunders through Edgar Allen Poe's story, The Tell-Tale Heart - then he tells of the unsual clicking sound of a much-loved heart that he reassuringly hears during the night.

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"TRUE! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses - not destroyed - not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily - how calmly I can tell you the whole story."

In these chilling words Edgar Allen Poe begins his Gothic horror story, The Tell-Tale Heart, in which a man whose sanity, despite his lengthy protestations, is doubtful, kills an old friend whose sclerotic eye feeds a paranoid delusion. After suffocating him with his own bedding, he dismembers him, deposits the remains beneath the floor, taking care to catch his blood in a vat to leave no clues should an investigation ensue.

But a neighbour, who heard the single shriek emitted by the victim as his stalker pounced on him to commit murder most foul, called the police, who come in the power of three. The killer’s conceit at his cleverness in concealing his crime begins evaporates when he hears a trifling but unexpected sound in the room where he and the constables stand on the very floorboards that conceal the still warm cadaver. The sound is soft at first, and he thinks it was nothing more than a ringing in his ears. But it is not.

"It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness - until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears."

Before long it dawns on him that it is the old man’s heart beating in its hurried tomb beneath his feet. It grows so loud that he fears the policemen will hear it and find him out.

"No doubt I now grew very pale; - but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased – and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound – much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton."

He could hear the old man’s heart beating, threatening to betray its presence and expose him as the murderer. The pulsations grew louder, but the officers seem not to notice them. The praetorian imagines that the policemen are mocking him and he grows wilder in voice and gesture in futile efforts to make more noise than the still-beating vital pump.

"It grew louder – louder – louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror! – this I thought, and this I think."

But he and he alone can hear the deafening ‘lub-dub,’ that is the common melody of human hearts. In his mind it swelled and would not be drowned out. So much so that he could bear its insistent cries no longer. Certain that he was undone and that further protestations of ignorance or innocence were fruitless, he is forced to make confession.

"I felt that I must scream or die! And now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! "Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart!''

With this screaming confession, Poe ends his tale, sure that his readers do not need to be led by the hand to the obvious conclusion of the account.

I read Poe many years ago when I was an impressionable young man. I enjoyed his insight into worlds not exactly congruous with ours. I knew that the victim’s heart did not beat beneath the floor, and that it was the guilt of his brutality that was haunting him, robbing him of his peace.

The story of the Tell–Tale Heart came to mind this morning when Gay told me that she had been unable to get to sleep because of the noise her heart makes. She is right in that her heart is noisy, and what brings comfort to me, is distracting to her. It would be exaggeration to suggest that her organ of circulation has anything like the volume of Poe’s Tell–Tale, but it does have a voice, and that voice is extraordinary.

It came about on this wise: Gay evidently had an unrecognised bout of Rheumatic fever as a child, and the bacteria settled inside the left ventricle of her heart and established colonies that roughened the myocardium’s lining. In time, this roughening disturbed the normal functioning of her bicuspid and mitral valves to the point where she suffered myocardial insufficiency. Her blood wasn’t circulating because the non-return valves were so compromised with bacterial damage that they would not close, and allowed reflux. The result, while not actual stagnation, was a severe reduction in circulating blood volume.

Any thing that required the slightest amount of effort on her part was visited with breathlessness, fatigue, and the sense that her life was at an end. In Montana we were blessed to have a gifted doctor, John Wilcox, who listened to her heart, immediately understood the problem, and referred her to cardiologist Dean R Hill of Spokane.

Gay had previously had a heart valve replaced, and that held her for the better part of five years until the aortic valve failed. Dean Hill’s surgeons replaced Gay’s valve and threw in a double bypass as a package deal. The results were startling. Although it took her more than a year to overcome the physical insult that open heart surgery delivers, her heart was fixed and so remains to this day.

Her lack of sleep is all down to the patron saint of hopeless causes – Saint Jude! This is the name given to a Teflon-coated mechanical valve that is used to replace an afflicted person’s natural valves. They have an excellent track record, and have been proven over many years. I used to have to watch carefully in the dim of the night’s last hours to see if my quiet darling was breathing. Now I have only to listen!

Alongside and betwixt the "lub" and the "dub" of her remaining natural valves, are the clicks of two Saint Jude valves opening and closing in almost perfect harmony. I hear them dancing merrily away in the night and I am comforted to know that she has not been taken. She, on the other hand, hears them cavorting inside her and wishes they would stop just long enough for her to fall into the sleep that she so often so badly needs.

In sleepless desperation she calls:

"And now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! "Villains!"

I stroke her hair and shoulder and pray that sleep will come to comfort and refresh her, because I am not ready yet to let her go into that long goodnight whose dawning on a distant shore brings sleep to all who wish it, and peace fills all hearts. There, not only hearts, but fading eyes, squealing joints, numbed minds, and colanderical memories are healed, and remembrances of sleepless nights are smiled away in the bright sunlight of a place where it can be said with confidence, "All is well!"

Copyright © 2007 Ronnie Bray


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