The Long Weeping

I stand at the hand pump in the grove, young, maybe ten, having run from the signs of dying. Under the small shingled roof on the cement slab, the iron pump is smudged by creatures that licked it in the night, coons and cats and the rumored black bear. My jelly shoes are too tight over ankle socks and the downy hair on my legs prickles up, for the spring chill lingers in that threshold of time when the daffodils darken and the lilacs begin to make everything sweet and wet. Church has now let out and tall tired people spill into the churchyard, but I slipped out in the middle of the closing prayer, with Matthew who now pumps the handle, banging it against its base, coaxing the deep water to spout in the basin and arc higher and higher to my lips. I know he and I probably love each other, like two animals that trust one another’s dusty smell. His body is simply like mine in height, in muscle, though his face is more like a baby’s and so he is mean to seem older, but he wears meanness as if he has wrapped in a gauzy curtain, spun around and around, and made off with it: a boy pumping water in his see-through costume of meanness for a girl afraid of the signs of dying. One sign is the divot in the pillow on the camphor-smell bed that the women murmur about—somebody’s mother with a long grey braid left a skull’s impression like the bear-impress in the leaf pile, in the grove where it is said to sleep. Another sign is the man going blind singing only what he remembers of hymns, another is hipbone grinding hipbone with no cartilage to quiet the sound, another is each leg caked in pantyhose that plasters over the blue-veined skin that still breaks out at the sleeve, on the hands, and then there’s the balding heads or the limp hair trying to remember its home perm and the dead jobs that do not pay enough because there are signs someone is taking money from the till at the Wash n Shop to get skirt sets for her girls, the girls just a little smaller than I, holding hands going to the church outhouse with lattice around it and airfresheners and tiny spiders weaving homes in the surplus toilet paper tube hollows. Maybe these girls are running too, I know my sister has run—by now she has made it to the car, finally free to scratch her itchy pits she has begun shaving, in a sleeveless dress not fit for the chill and so she jams her arms 42 into the snap-up jean jacket, a hand-me-down from one of the girls bigger than I. My sister has stolen the keys from our mother’s purse, she turns the ignition to hear Casey Kasem’s countdown, to let the radio pull her into the world, toward names like Madonna and Prince and away from the old names: Harold, Don, Eliza, Gaye, Debbie, Sue, Walter, Jean. The seat’s vinyl must be cool on her legs, the steering wheel sure in her grip, and something is saying to her Don’t waste any time getting here, to where the living are, in the world of the radio and Seventeen Magazine where no one is old or wears polyester dresses, where your life will finally begin.
I turn to the spouting stream that Matthew has conjured with strength that equals my own. He is still pumping the handle, his baby face ruddy, his thoughts wholly unknown to me despite the commingling of our animal musk. Briefly, both of us watch the miracle at the spout that comes from the deep aquifer where snow has drenched down and seeped past dormant trillium roots, down past worm and centipede burrows, into networks of sandstone and clay, slate and sediment, to a breathspace that opens for water to pool in secret. For the rest of my life I will remember the taste of the water that somehow says Don’t waste time on water that is not water, on thirst that is not thirst. The churchyard people are heavy with imminent egg noodles and beef, a nap, a still and lacquered afternoon when flies buzz, naps like dying-practice (for the rest of my life I will fear the death-kernel in naps and will wear myself out like a flapping terrified bird just to push through afternoons). I bend to the stream of water that meets my lips like a long weeping kiss, and right then, with my face in the small echo chamber of the basin, I hear my name, Jess, called from the water. I’m startled and I shoot up and look around. I hear it again, this time from the gravel lot across the road. It’s my sister standing beside the car, sullen in the lilac-wet, in the jean jacket, draining the battery to listen to the radio. She hollers for me again, she must want to leave or must want me to hear the top hit. All at once I long for her and long for the water too and cannot help but bend to the iron basin again with its apparition of cobwebs now made visible by the water and sagging, the basin with tiny bug bodies and leaves, and still it seems that my name has come from the water spout, as if the water itself has named me and known me already, and I am small and not my own, not some new creature who has lit out and escaped, not so unlike the ones dying. Soon Matthew will push me aside for his turn, his shove the only way we ever know how to touch, but I am bending and drinking again, the water so cold, and I drink the name given to me, so cold I am startled again. Soon Matthew will push me away, soon I will barrel down the little hill to the tinny car radio to crowd in the driver’s seat beside my sister’s body and hear the top hit, but I feel like weeping. And I drink and I drink.

A West Virginia native, Jessie van Eerden holds a B.A. in English from West Virginia University and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She is the author of the novel Glorybound, and her work has appeared in The Oxford American, River Teeth, Image, Bellingham Review, Rock & Sling, and other publications. She lives in West Virginia where she directs the low-residency MFA writing program of West Virginia Wesleyan College.

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