Yoke

“And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment…And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” —Mark 5.25-30

Put your hands at the hip yoke, she says, above the lapped V-seam where the skirt gathers then flares. You feel where the womb waits? Where the weight gets carried? This is the center of all gravity. You feel it? She guides his palm with both her hands to the yoke of her dress. The young man blushes and tucks his face away. Her feet are flat on the road, straddling her bicycle, dress bunched up. She releases the warm hand of the stranger walking by and returns her hands to the handlebars.

You feel it, she says, as he hurries off like a lamb.

Every so often along this road by the sea she does this, stops the forward movement of time—time that unmakes our skin and sight and takes in more of our finite heartbeats like someone filling a basket of barley—and she touches a stranger. Sometimes she puts both hands on his face as if a lover, sometimes she traces a woman’s life line, sometimes she meets a young man like this one, with a shy face under a derby cap, who blushes when suddenly they are no longer strangers.

She pedals on. The jasmine blossoms quiver in the bicycle basket, peeking from the paper.

■ ■ ■

Can I come? her son asked.

Not this time, maybe next. She kissed his hot eyes, he toddled into her legs to hug goodbye with face and body, all his small strong bones.

■ ■ ■

She pedals on, comes to the wide place at the mountain’s base. There is no throng but she pictures the throng. She leans her bicycle against a cedar and departs from its shade into the sun with her cut jasmine. It happened here, and she closes her eyes to hear the voices and scuffling soles, the forceful presence of bodies, and to feel herself again an emaciated husk of woman, eyes hollow, skin like crusts of bread, when she moved through the crowd without memory or plan. And they raised their many voices to someone coming. She saw him in profile, hair simple and dark, shoulders narrow, he was not large. Despite the crowd, he seemed to be among no one, like a man on the shore watching the boats raise their sails. She felt nothing, her fingers curled in like prawn bodies, she was carried by the crowd’s current, and he passed by with his simple body walking.

She is in the dust and presses her face to the huddle of tiny blossoms wrapped in paper, white with a blush of yellow at each center.

When he walked by, she felt as though she had passed through a curtain of ribbons each stitched with a line of lilies wilting, like a beaded curtain leading into a backroom but unstrung with beads and sewn with flower petals. Their softness touched everywhere her face, so many petals grazing her face like little hands. The curtain of his sadness—she passed through, and on the other side of the curtain, the air in the backroom was all changed air, charged with her own sadness, her twelve years of hair and flesh going to dull metal, and before that, the years of all she ever was—girl on bike, girl tasting fig, girl spitting venom, girl with hem high slip shown slipped up, woman coming, O the tip of her life—then the menses draining, twelve years niddah, untouched, with blood that would not stop.

She stanched it with rags, raw cotton, with sheep’s wool. Untouched, she stemmed the flow alone, knitted pads of rabbit fur, scrub grass, moss. She ran from the city when she still had strength to run, out onto the dunes where she let the blood drain out and blacken the sand like animal dung, and she reached down to dip, touched it to her wasting cheeks like rouge, like war paint, like she was mask-making. Niddah, niddah, her life iron, her deepest food a filth, drained but never dry. For her inner thighs there was no bath, no mikveh, immersion and rising up pure and touchable, only plunge baths in the cattle trough, in the swamp eddies, soaking until she stained the water red and moved on.

Because she felt all that when he passed by with his sadness-curtain of a hundred petals on her face, with his eternity in a viscous skin sack holding all of time so she remembered so he remembered so he could hold her sadness— because he can hold my sadness—her hand went out for a clutch of his coat—wait. Wait.

The hem was rough in her hand and it happened in a moment, the backward rush of twelve years, the feel of the inward blooming bath, a wash, up through capillary marrow lobe and dark lip: some girl on bike, some woman tipping falling into green grass, womb like plum and other fruit again, like dawn, like fleshy dawn, or unwithered night.

Who touched me? he asked in the horde that flanked and hounded him on all sides because he knew what touch is. Her lips red with shock. His blush to show the fury of the flood.

■ ■ ■

No one knew her name. When the wind blew west she was

Martha, when it blew east she was Beronike and later Veronica, Vera Icon, true image, true face. In encyclopedias and church records in basements, in whispers of relics and cloths with secret properties, she was many legends. She was said to be pious, to be there with her white veil to stanch the blood from his forehead when he’d had too much sadness to hold, and the veil she pulled back bore the imprint of his face. In the Greek, in the Latin, in the third-century pages of the bishop Eusebius who went himself to the old Roman city, to the base of Mount Hermon, and said he saw she had made two statues of half-finished faces at the gate of her house: a woman bent, a man about to touch. In brass, in bronze, the bishop wiped the snow from the faces himself, the patina arresting, his own memory suddenly aching.

But no one really knew her name. She had lovers after, she had a child, a son. She put her hand on her boy’s head, where he sat with the other children—You feel that? she asked. She fluttered her hand on the top of his coarse cropped hair to say, I choose you—Duck, Duck, Duck, Goose, I anoint you, the center of all, the great risk of joy. And she loved to touch strangers, on the face, the back, the wrist.

■ ■ ■

She leaves her paper of jasmine in the dust and pedals home. She will come again soon with a clutch of lily and rose mallow, snapdragon and phlox, a mayapple with one pop of white—one day maybe with her child. Hyacinths, hibiscus, tulips and the Damask rose, carnations, cabbage flowers sometimes, and sometimes orchid. All the upturned skirts, the cups of want creased at the stem very like skirts at the yoke of the dress—all the blossoms in the basket of her bike for him because he remembers, he whose sadness passes by. Because he knows what flowers are, that they are tiny hands touching.

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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