Santian Vataj

The bags under his eyes were slightly puffier than usual. His hair, receding and unkempt, pointed above his head like antennae. He appeared tired but never was.

We stood up as was custom, but Kuka ignored us, and set a large brown bag on the table. Do you want to see a heart? he asked.

A real one?

Yes, he said, only it belongs to a cow.


Someone mumbled cuckoo and twirled an index finger around their temple. Mister Kuka tore the bag open, splaying it flat on the desk, then peeled off a sheet of wax paper until the large, glistening heart of a cow was visible. He’d acquired it very early that morning from the butcher.

With both hands he invited the class to gather around his desk. There we were, all twenty of us, wondering in our own way if the teacher had gone irreversibly deranged. Make a fist, he instructed, and we obeyed. That’s the size of your heart—give or take. Some of us pressed a fist to our chest, while others held it at face level as if seeing it for the first time.

A cow’s heart is much larger, does anyone know why?

Because they’re braver?


Because they need it?

Go on, said Mister Kuka. But no one could go any further. We just stood there on the brink of incomprehension. Mister Kuka didn’t wait for an answer. He dipped a knife into the bovine heart causing it to spurt a little coagulated blood. Split in half, the organ had a perfect symmetry not unlike a tropical fruit.

With the point of his knife he traced the smooth, contractile strains of muscle while speaking to no one in particular. A cow’s heart pumps thousands of gallons of blood a day. All that blood enters here, through this atrium, before rushing past this ventricle where finally it’s pumped to the lungs and the rest of its body. Beautiful, huh?

Some of us nodded.

Mister Kuka handed the heart over, asked that we observe it carefully and pass it around. Holding the magenta lump of flesh felt oddly comforting; it was cool and moist—heavier than expected. We passed it to one another as if it were a collection plate. A girl with poor vision held the heart too close to her face; it touched the tip of her nose, leaving behind a pinkish smudge. Mister Kuka used his bloodied hands to write notes on the chalkboard until the black slate was covered in hastily written medical terms and their definitions, most of which were indecipherable. He was an excellent draftsman though, and in the ten or so minutes we remained transfixed, he managed to draw a simple diagram detailing the main parts and functions of a heart.

We were permitted to ask questions. These questions covered all manner of topics surrounding not only the heart but life itself.

Does everything have a heart? Why? What does it taste like? What keeps it beating? Is there a god? Do Albanian hearts differ in any way from others? Where did the cow come from? Did it suffer? How do you know? What will happen to the heart after class?

He answered every question without hesitation; without a hint of irony or sarcasm. He answered them unlike the math teacher Zhivko who was missing a front tooth, and, on occasion, reeked of alcohol.

What happened to the heart after class? Well, it was given to an old man who cut it into cubes and fried it with some onions.

Copyright © 2019 by Santian Vataj

SANTIAN VATAJ was born in the former Yugoslavia to Albanian parents and raised in the Bronx, New York. Santian is a Fellow of The Academy for Teachers and currently works as a history teacher at a public school in the Bronx. His work has appeared in the anthology The Writers Studio at 30Prelude magazine’s website, 100 Word Story, and Silver Needle Press.