“The Ride” by Robert Stewart
BLAST, TMR‘s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Robert Stewart’s “The Ride” recounts the story of his wife’s determination in completing a month-long cross-state journey on horseback and the role he played as a semi-silent supporter.
We touch these stars above.
Fresh distances. Rider and Horse are one.
—Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus
I am trying to track down my wife. She rode off by horseback two days ago, not to the crests of Montana or shores of Morocco but into rural Kansas and Missouri, along reaches available to me by truck in a few hours—the subtle gravel roads of four miles per hour, among sunflowers, wood bees, ticks, and barns, sagging into history. This is beautiful country. It is flat, dry country with half-completed homesteads and suburban ranch homes among acres of fescue and foxtail or soybeans laid in along creeks. Most houses sit back off the road a ways, and for Lisa to get permission to water her horse or pitch a tent, she gambles twenty minutes or so, three or four times a day, to ride up a stranger’s gravel drive toward the front door, dismount, remove her wide straw hat, fix her hair, execute a smile, and hope someone’s home.
She got started at 11:15 AM on Wednesday, mid-May, two days ago, on a solo horseback trip of three weeks or three months, however it goes. By instinct, it seems, given my profession as an editor, I seek order in the patterns of roads and stories that I imagine we both might discover in the weeks ahead, albeit me in support only. She headed out from her horse’s rented pasture, near Edgerton, in east-central Kansas, south on Crescent Hill Township Road in the direction of Osawatomie, once home to John Brown, his Jayhawker, antislavery forces, at least two massacres, and configurations of “bleeding Kansas,” which my mind has begun to conjure.
Sparky, the dog, and I kept up with her (he on foot, me by car) for a while, until she seemed to settle in and find her pace. Then, at a curve where the gravel road turns dead south, I stood beside the car and watched her ride about a mile until she and Chief, her Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, disappeared behind a hill.
Have you ever watched your wife of five years vanish into a horizon line? Two years ago, Lisa started her own consulting business, took every job, worked nights, weekends, holidays. She banked her earnings, and this summer, as boss, owner, and sole proprietor, gave herself time off to travel. By horse. That first day, Chief’s shimmering red coat and bulk made for easy tracking from a rise on the prairie. The horse spooks easily: at a rusted tractor, a windmill, a cow and its calf; so if you were to watch the horse and rider, your wife—if you are lucky enough to have a wife you admire—you would see them shift in the road from right edge to left, to shy from monsters of all sorts, monsters under a bright sky. A trash can is a monster. A single hay bale. A highway overpass could be an opening into hell, and Chief no Orpheus to lead her out. She must walk him through and reward him with a prune on the other side.
Earlier today, she was “separated from her horse,” as the expression goes, on a chipped-rock road where a horned cow charged the fence, sending Chief into a swirl and Lisa down on the rocks. The horse paused and looked back at her from a hundred yards off, then took up a trot, as Lisa called it, “heading for home.” It turned out that a young man driving to his boss’s house about two miles down that same dusty road stopped his pickup to gather Chief by the reins and drove on, holding his arm out the driver-side window, which is how he came to lead the horse into his boss’s front yard to wait for its owner. “I didn’t figure she needed to walk farther than necessary,” he would say. Kindness.
I sped immediately southward sixty miles, when she called, to find her sitting on her poncho under a tree and the horse tied to the grille of the truck. Her left sleeve and half her white shirt blazed with blood. She had gotten a ride from a lady after the “wreck” and would later get five stitches at the county medical center, along with two hours of advice from the doc: “Call off this ride,” he said. She won’t. I have faith in my wife’s faith.
She will go on, and I will wait each evening at home for her to call and confirm that she has settled in somewhere, putting us both motionless in time, as poet Archibald MacLeish says cryptically, as the moon climbs. Acquaintances want to know of her, Why do it? She has dreamed of going off alone on horseback since girlhood, and she has in mind writing projects that later will leaf out from the trip. All good, all beside the point. A woman riding by horseback alone on these back roads helps even me with this distant aesthetic—as MacLeish has said of poetry, so it is with her—that she should not mean but be. She wants to be a dreaming girl again, the girl who rode bareback in the red-shale gullies of Oklahoma and, later, over the wooded hills of her parents’ farm in Missouri.
You should have seen the collection of bulls and cows, all horned, in the pasture we walked Chief past the day after Lisa’s abrupt dismount—some Brahman bulls, some Highland and Lowline or Zebu, for all we knew—maybe fifteen head collected under a wide shade tree, lying or standing in such tight congress and with such fierce eyes, you would understand whose law passes on life and whose on death in these parts. The law of power, the law of speed, the law of standing with one’s kind. One cow of that group had charged Chief the day before, sending Lisa’s body onto the jaw-rock road.
A public garden in Paris, France, has a Greek marble sculpture of Theseus appearing to get the best of the Minotaur, a confrontation I take, now, as factual and real. I will drive these gravel roads every week or two during Lisa’s ride, delivering supplies to her in the territory of many-shaped creatures, in a Kansas or Missouri county of dust and ditches bordered by wire fence and hedges of mulberry and sage. Our GPS-enabled phones don’t always match maps ripped from atlases, and sometimes I want simply to hand Lisa a spool of string that will lead her through the labyrinth.
The time has come, five days in, for me to once again track down my wife. I have beside me in the truck the checklist of supplies she has dictated in several calls during the week. Before leaving Kansas City, I stop at Starbuck’s for 24-packs of VIA Instant, at CVS Pharmacy for bug repellent and sunscreen, at Sutherland’s Lumber for forty feet of nylon rope to replace the length she lost, then at the Hy-Vee Party and Liquor for Budweiser and ice, which I put into the cooler, and which, after this ninety-five-degree day, I darn well better not show up without.
Farther south, I stop by Backwoods Outfitters to replace a ripped rainfly for her tent and pick up heavy-duty twist ties, on impulse. I stop at the Flying J truck stop in Peculiar for gas. I stop in Rich Hill at the Amish café for sandwiches we will share on the tailgate of the truck once Chief settles into pasture or on the new picket rope I am bringing. I have more vitamins, nutrition bars, vacuum packs of salmon and tuna, small cans of beef, and a canister of individually wrapped prunes, Chief’s favorite snack. I always forget something. I always run late. The list lying on the truck seat has directions to her vicinity, scribbled landmarks, town names, likely roads she will be traveling, all of which insinuate into my thinking a kind of purposefulness, a belief that I am a participant on this trip. I am not. Not even close.
These are roads I did not know existed. 1700 Road. 2300 Road. All dust and gravel. North of Drexel, where Lisa crossed into western Missouri, gravel roads have names; south, they have numbers. A girl about eighteen tells me this outside a Drexel Casey’s, as she and two younger sisters, all with the same round, freckled faces and Fudgesicles, open the enormously long doors of their Camaro. She laughs about the road names. I had been north of Drexel, looking for Sharon Cemetery Road, and missed it, which was a good thing. My wife was south of there already, riding down what I knew—from her—only as the first gravel road east of Drexel off of 18 Highway. When I ask about finding 18, the girl at the Casey’s describes it as a “sixty-five-mile-an-hour highway,” which means blacktopped. The gravel road my wife said to look for turned out to be 1800 road, but the girl at Casey’s told me people there just call it “Old Ballpark Road,” if they call it anything.
The afternoon has gotten on; I am hoping my wife has found a place to stop for the day. I turn onto 18 Highway and then right on what seems to be the first gravel county road, unmarked, though I pass field roads, farm roads, driveways, gravel trailing into some expanse or another. After I drive two miles or so, blowing a plume of white dust, an older gentleman working on a tractor beside his house looks up and waves me into his driveway. “She’s back there,” he says and points. “Drive on back through the yard. It won’t hurt nothing.”
My wife is down the slope a ways, in a grove of black walnut trees. How did that gentleman know who I was? I am starting to love everyone. I can’t explain it. It’s just to say, they are sweet. Human beings in the best sense. It is not my nature to drive across someone’s yard, invited or not, forty acres in size or not. I park near his truck and introduce myself. He’s Jerry, and his wife is in the house with vertigo. We talk, and I thank him for helping out my wife. “Nothing to it,” he says. “She won’t take up much room.” That’s all. When I walk down the slope to where my wife is grazing the horse, Jerry goes back to work on the tractor.
Each day of her trip now, I follow in my mind the roads she might be on, with fences behind which curious donkeys, bulls, llamas, and horses would be tracking her progress, or beside a paved road, where a fellow on a riding mower would wave and stop to give directions. This second Sunday, I seek relief at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, near my office in Kansas City. On what can I concentrate but the pale dust of country roads or satellite views of where, in my perpetual speculation, she might be now? The Gospel has Yeshua rising into heaven, and two men in white, called, in Willis Barnstone’s translation, “informing angels,” saying to the crowd that watched Yeshua rise up, “People of Galilee, why do you stand there gazing into the sky?” The sky has come to a little screen, and I spend too much time gazing into it, or down from its satellite. What kind of spiritual vision is this, in my life, that I have become unsettled by the unknown? Relief comes in seeing myself in the company of those people in the Gospel, likewise unsettled.
“We can’t be kind or courageous in the abstract,” the priest said this morning, “but only in a given place and situation.” I teach this to my writing students, or try to. Theory comforts, and comfort gets us nowhere, is how I take that message. Lisa and I like to assume the world’s general beneficence, and I wonder how much hope I can claim against how much faith. Here at home, my bed—our bed—feels embarrassingly comfortable, the coffee maker an abomination of efficiency, the cast-iron skillet wearily weighty as I carry it four steps to the stove top. These things I know, and I am their witness. I tell my students, Write what can be known. I do not say, Write what you know but what can be known; in that difference lie the world’s offerings. The phone rings, and Lisa relays the number of a particular gravel road to orient me to her location; then the phone empties itself of sound, flat and dark as cured iron.
I am often consoled by others that I can talk to her daily for progress and hear the comforting punctuation of hoofbeats among our words. Such power of connection, however, lives for me, now more than ever, within the equal power and certainty of her separateness. Spouses, parents, friends, once saw their people off on ship or train or wagon and let them go. Had to. The tantalization of satellite and cellular communication reinvents for us, in the way of technology, a new kind of separation.
A Zen monk once asked his teacher, “Both speaking and silence belong to the relative world: How can we escape these two errors?”
The teacher replied, “Partridges chirp among the scented blossoms.”
I am not so smart as to understand the range of that response, or why Lisa and I decided not to install in our phones an app called “Find My Friends.” In promise, that app would locate her at every moment, clop by clop, the sky dropping its pin like the tail on a donkey. We thought about the illusion of separateness and how each day has as its finest moment the moment of revelation. We travel, have maps, phones; and Lisa calls to say a coyote loped across the road with a rabbit in its mouth. I detect in her words a stillness. Her voice comes out of nothing, or perhaps out of the wind. We have this connection, the satellite and cell phones chosen, the loping coyote, which looked, as it ran, neither left nor right, and her on horseback mere feet away.
Is it within me, then, as for the great teachers, to neither speak nor stay silent? My mind shuttles among signs of the material good. The more she moves through the physical universe, the more transcendent she seems. “When the holy spirit moves in you,” Yeshua says to his people, “You will receive the power, and you will be / My witnesses.”
The sky early this summer burns blue—not the blue of a distant glacier but the whitish, torchy blue of an acetylene cone. This will be a summer of drought.
Before Lisa ends her ride for good, cornstalks now green will expose roots baked and shut down. Later, while she is still riding, a friend in northwest Kansas will write to say, “One hundred fourteen degrees, and wind.” We all will take this heat together, suburb to spread, as one weather wag would say on radio. The country Lisa rides through now has known all that in past years, as well. An older gentleman Lisa once knew in Vernon County, Missouri, remembers dust so thick in the 1930s, he said, “All the babies had to leave town.” These very counties on each side of the Missouri-Kansas line carried on horseback Kansas irregulars and Missouri bushwhackers in the 1860s, burning barns and homes at will, sometimes to crusade for a cause, sometimes just for meanness. Lisa rides the same land where Jake, the narrator in the border-war novel Woe to Live On by Missourian Daniel Woodrell, would flee in panic after attacking a farmstead in Missouri. “Hog paths became our highways,” Jake would relay across time. The land spreads and rolls in gullies and sections, as it did then. The people, especially the people Lisa meets on farms and ranches, however, do not hide in the barn when a stranger rides up their road. These days, they open their doors. They bring water.
Each afternoon, not too late, if possible, Lisa rides up on a house, hoping for hospitality. In my telephone earpiece or sometimes in person, I hear her detail the scenes—an extended family having a birthday party for one of the nieces in their side yard looks down their driveway at this woman riding up on a horse. She does not ride past and wave, as would a neighbor in a pickup. She turns in, like a dream delivery. My earpiece relays her stories each evening or day, sometimes vivid, extended stories, sometimes sketchy; and my earpiece does a good job relaying the ritual. But it can do nothing to relay the experience itself.
Because of Lisa’s experience, however, I have the honor of meeting a gentleman in the early stages of dementia named Harold Gene Spain, who owns and now has started to give away to members of his extended family large sections of Dade County, Missouri, western edge of the Ozarks. He’s not tall, wears a black, smallish cowboy-style hat, and repeats his stories. When he insists on feeding Lisa’s horse himself so she can go on with me into Golden City to the café, Lisa, of course, objects. But Harold Gene’s wife, Joanne—a trim, elegant woman of the farm, in complete possession of herself—whispers to Lisa, “It’ll be good for him.” Harold Gene walks off with a bucket of feed, as if the horse belonged to his own daughter.
Lisa had ridden onto their property earlier than normal in the afternoon and asked for a place to pasture her horse. It was hot. While I drove after work for my weekly run to bring her supplies, she spent a couple of hours visiting with the Spains and had met their grown daughter still at home, with Down syndrome, and the daughter from about half a mile east on County Road 182. “You know,” Harold Gene said to me when I drove into his drive and stepped out of my truck, “We’re adopting her,” meaning Lisa. His voice said it as a joke, I think. “After you two go to dinner,” he says again, “she can just stay here with us.”
“She’d probably like that,” I say.
“She’ll be staying here,” he says.
This night, Lisa wants to rest up in a nearby motel, while Chief is safe in his pen at the Spains. When we return in the morning, I attend while Lisa retrieves her saddle from the cab of Harold Gene’s pickup, parked in the pole barn, and saddles Chief. Chief stands at the hitching pole, calm, as Lisa has come to say, as a good Amish horse. We all visit into late morning, and Lisa tells me to take a photo of her hosts. “Let’s get daughter in here with us,” Harold Gene says, meaning Lisa, geared up in her wide hat and spurs. I touch the screen for its electronic click and set in time Joanne Spain, Harold Gene Spain, and my wife, all standing bravely together. Less than twenty-four hours ago, no heartbreak existed. Now, they prepare to say goodbye.
County Road 182 runs east and west, and Lisa on her horse heads west, back in the direction of flatter farmland. This will turn out to be the final week of four weeks and one day. The road swells between cool dips where creeks move, and on a rise every half mile or so, some kind of house or barn. I creep along ahead of her, keeping sight in the mirror, stopping now and then to watch how Chief reacts to a congregation of cows and bulls or a farm dog that had charged my truck and trotted back to its yard. She turns her horse directly at those dogs, faces them, while edging away. I see from the rise ahead, she handles that dog easily. Textbook: the one about horse handling she could write. Today, more than usual, I stick with her a while, not ready to drive home. In the distance ahead, I see the crossing where she will turn north; behind me, I know, she will pass a farm soon with three dogs, at least. The speck of her wide straw hat appears over a rise, then the stately bounce of her horse, approaching that yard, and out pour the three dogs, silently from this distance, like the flickering of an old film. They swarm her horse, and I see two more dogs, at least five total, and Lisa turning Chief in circles to keep them from biting his legs.
Five furious dogs swirling one horse is entirely unreasonable, so I prepare to crash through what seems to me an invisible yet palpable barrier between my life in support—an outsider, observer—and Lisa’s life alone on the actual ride. I turn back toward her, windows up, and drive my four-by-four half-ton air-conditioned Silverado through the pack of farm dogs, dispersing its fury, muffling its menace. Two of the bigger dogs persist along the road, even after the others run off, but those two she faces down and soon regains the four-beat gait of her Missouri Fox Trotter, the get-along amble of the long ride.
Days earlier, she told me, two German shepherds came up behind her horse, snarling and nipping, until she felt Chief make a jerk with his body, whichwas, in fact, Chief kicking one dog in the head, enough dissuasion to convince both dogs to go lie down a while, up on their own lawn. “Lions cannot daunt him,” says Cervantes of the knight errant, “nor demons affright nor dragons, for to seek, assault, and overcome such is the whole business of his life, and true office.” We have, here, however, not Quixote but Dulcinea, undaunted. She insists on hauling the saddle in her arms morning and evening; she cinches, halters, grazes, or grains her own horse and, at end of day, hoses him down if her host has a hydrant handy. One day, just one, she digs to the bottom of her pommel bag for the Ruger .380 she carries, which holds six plus one rounds, the “plus one” being the round she now chambers after some over-friendly farmhand stopped his truck and stood way too close, pressing his arm on her thigh, on a low section of farm road. She knew he then went up ahead to his work, where she would soon pass. This, she told me later, after she had moved through, her arm still wrapped to cover the wound from her earlier fall, her horse calmer now and used to what the road brings, hulking hay bales and wild turkeys. All went well as she passed the man. A nod. A “See ya.” A little legal silver salute lying at the top of the open pommel, never raised.
Lisa offered no animosity toward those dogs or toward the horned cow, the aggressive farmhand, or the panther yet unseen in the grass. No sentimentality, either. The dogs, she said later to a friend, were doing their jobs. Their jobs, to be dogs. “Yield to the willow,” wrote Japanese poet Basho to his pupil, “all the loathing, / all the desire of your heart.” When I now read that little poem, I imagine the willowy legs of the horse kicking out and back under its huge body. Wind then enters the image, and I begin to lose my serenity entirely; I realize that I have taken the poem wrong. That first day, when I stood on a rise and watched Lisa ride out of view, I wanted to learn to adapt to the new reality we faced, each on our own. I had my own projects to return to. I had my rationalizations, that this separation could be put to good, productive use. I did not want to be poor in spirit, as, I think, Basho suggests; I did not want to consider the willows or, for that matter, the lilies.
Instead, I had burdened that little poem with an argument for analogies—comparisons between the lilt of horse and limbs of a tree, the contrast between brute and beauty—as if Basho were asking for an appraisal. I had yet (have yet, most likely) to understand how to neither speak nor be silent. How to avoid those two errors. If Lisa needs water, she asks for water. She does not ask, How deep is the well? I speculate, but perhaps that speaks to why she has found so many welcoming folks. She needs a place to camp and graze her horse, and, in that simple sincerity, she makes good company. No one could have told me this on the first day of Lisa’s trip, that she, Lisa, would become the landscape and I a trespasser.
At about 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the final day of her trip, I am in my office, unraveling a failure of subject-verb agreement in a written report submitted to me. I become momentarily lost, forced to trek backward through the meandering trace of a sentence—from its grammatical subject, the rocky shore, to an errant participial verb looking (over the edge), as if the rocky shore were looking over the edge of itself. Road maps, even grammatical ones, take on added significance lately; so when I find syntax disconnected from its message, I imagine a telegraph line must be down, somewhere, in high winds.
The phone rings. Lisa says, “Call around and rent a horse trailer. I need you to come get us.” How much more direct can a statement be? I need you to come get us. The Buddhists would call her statement perfect sincerity. I jot it down on a ruled pad. Call around. Come get us. No shift in point of view; no ambiguity. For her sake, I had hoped that the ride would have gone a few more days and returned her by horse to Chief’s rented pasture, where she started out. I am, however, unaccountably relieved that we—and yes, my presumptuous participation shows up again in that plural pronoun—have made it through: horse, rider, me.
I have a project. I find a sixteen-foot stock trailer for rent near Harrisonville, Missouri, and that will do. Lisa had ridden—actually, alternately walked and ridden—beside a four-lane highway that June day in ninety-eight-degree heat and horse-high weeds for two miles in the wrong direction, and I am to find her in the shade of a cabin undergoing renovation off Highway E, south of Archie, her horse unsaddled in the same shade. That’s it.
When I pull onto the gravel side road, about an eighth of a mile off the four-lane and its pickups flinging themselves north at seventy-five miles per hour, I believe I will be arriving at a moment of stillness. I am wrong. Lisa seems more energized than ever, roused by drought and sun and contentment that she has arrived at her time to end the ride.
She had thought she might ride longer. She had thought she might ride shorter. The Zen scholar R. H. Blyth has written that there is a Sun Buddha and a Moon Buddha. The Sun Buddha lives 1,800 years; the Moon Buddha lives one day and one night. Says Blyth, “Wherever life is, it is life.” When I arrive, pulling the rust-scoured stock trailer, I prepare myself for any kind of emotion. I find no particular drama discernible in Lisa, just contentment in being at this place and time. She is a woman in action who tends to stay in action, and she leads her big, trusting, muscular horse up a steep hill from the cabin to the road and lets him stare a moment into the trailer. If Chief has a memory of his past, as a trail horse working in the Missouri Ozarks, he will sense that this trailer signals the end of the workday. We don’t know what he thinks, but we know that old training allows him to step with little shyness onto the trailer deck and in.
I will ride on her adventure, now. At dinner parties and receptions, wherever one person perks up enough to ask about this ride, I will find a soft seat from which to gaze again over the pieces and scraps of landscape I myself saw through barn slats and below the sun visor of a truck window. I suspect those people will be rare, and that the telling of this story will best be realized privately, in Lisa’s own writing. There, she will turn her experiences and her terms in directions that will guide us over these and other roads. One of my wife’s favorite living poets, Marie Ponsot, reportedly said while recovering from a stroke, “Syntax is a tool more important to human existence than the wheel.” More important, maybe, than the horse. So it is, now, that our rig rattles westward along Kansas Highway 52 on its way to 69 North, then 152 farther west toward Edgerton, piecing together the right roads in the right pattern.
Robert Stewart’s books include Working Class: Poems (Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2018), The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art, & Values (essays, Serving House Books, 2014); Outside Language (essays, Helicon Nine Editions, finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards 2004, and winner of the Thorpe Menn Award); Plumbers (poems, BkMk Press 1988, revised second edition 2017). He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for editing from the American Society of Magazine Editors, the magazine industry’s highest honor; he was editor of New Letters magazine for eighteen years, until March 2020, and managing editor for over two decades previously. Essays on travel and language have appeared in North American Review, Borderline, and elsewhere. He directed the Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University in Kansas City for thirty-six years, until 2018.
“At 54, Lisa Stewart set out to regain the fearless girl she had once been, riding her horse, Chief, 500 miles home. Hot, homeless, and horseback, she snapped back into every original cell. On an extraordinary homegoing from Kansas City to Bates and Vernon Counties in Missouri, Lisa exhausted herself, faced her past, trusted strangers, and stayed in the middle of her high-strung horse to document modern rural America, the people, animals, and land.”
“The Names of the Saints” by Megan Peck Shub
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In Megan Peck Shub’s “The Names of the Saints,” set in contemporary Israel, a couple’s visit to the national cemetery at Mount Herzl exposes both the flaws in human relationships and the deep dignity of enduring grief. This story is Shub’s fiction debut.
The Names of the Saints
by Megan Peck Shub
“Isn’t this the cemetery where your uncle is buried?” she asked Daniel. They were in the car leaving Jerusalem, where they’d spent the day on a walking tour. They’d seen the wall and the market and, best of all, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where a hooded clergyman had proceeded like a zombie through the room, swinging his brass thurible of burning incense, the clouds of myrrh billowing everywhere. She got a kick out of it.
His eyes pivoted to the cemetery and back to the road, a four-lane highway winding gradually down the mountain. He always drove carefully, hands at ten and two, and if he drank more than a thimble of anything, he wouldn’t touch the car keys. He was good.
“Yes, that’s it,” he said. “Mount Herzl. That’s where all the soldiers are buried. Well, many of them.”
“Is it still open? Pull over,” she said.
“Really?” he said, but he flicked the turn signal and pulled the car into the empty parking lot along the road.
“Do you remember where the grave is?”
“I can figure it out,” he said. “I came here so often with my grandmother. I’d have to be able to figure it out.”
They got out of the car and walked toward the entrance. It was after 5 o’clock; at that hour only a few other cars sat in the parking lot while traffic jammed the road, which was a major thoroughfare leading out of Jerusalem’s old city. Tour buses idled at the volume of jumbo jets, expelling streams of ash-colored clouds. As a child, at the close of every school day, she’d walked through a canyon of yellow buses in the anxious search for her own. The loud, sudden bursts from their hydraulic brakes frightened her. The hissing came randomly. There was no way to prepare for it—and that was the scary part.
They entered the cemetery through an open gate, and, as if someone had turned a radio dial, the street noise faded to the whistling of the high tree branches catching wind rushing from the valley below. They passed the shuttered visitor center and a posted map. Someone had scratched “fuuuck you” into the plexiglass over the “you are here” marker. She lingered for a second.
“Would this be of any use?” she said.
“No, I think it’s this way. I remember,” he said, and started up one side of a forking path.
Not long after they started dating, Daniel had told her about his weekends with his grandmother, Esther, and their visits to his dead uncle’s grave. Uncle Eli had died in the First Lebanon War, back in 1982, a few years before Daniel was born. “He was twenty years old,” Daniel said whenever Eli came up, his tone lined with sadness and disgust. “A kid.”
The cemetery was built into the mountainside in a series of long flat terraces, the collections of graves organized by war. As they walked along the stone pavers, she meandered, taking in the information engraved on the headstones. They had died, after all; reading their names was the least she could do; it only seemed fair. But Daniel was focused, forging ahead, once in a while thinking out loud about his grandmother. He paused occasionally, as if the precise direction and temperature of the light or the sensation of the breeze could trigger a memory as evidence, as a clue.
“Here,” he said, pointing to a particularly steep incline, which they scaled halfway before pausing.
“She had a cane, you know? She hobbled all the way up here,” he said.
“Did she?” she said, a little winded.
“And she did this every single weekend,” he said, turning around and heading back upward. “We’re getting close.”
Once they cleared the incline, the terrain leveled out again and they approached a circle of World War II-era headstones. A small tour group dispersed in their direction—a local guide trailed by three American tourists stupidly wearing their sunglasses atop their baseball caps.
“I remember this area,” Daniel said. “Hannah Szenes is buried here.”
“Who is that?”
“She already lived in Israel during the war, but she went back to Europe to try to save people. She was a spy. Yeah, look, here she is.”
They paused to take in the headstone, which looked nothing like the grave of a national hero. No statue. No monument. It was like all the others, distinguished only by the foot traffic coming and going, the American tourists aiming their pricey SLRs at the nondescript granite stone etched with a few Hebrew words.
“Eli’s grave was not far from hers,” he said, starting to walk again. They approached another group of graves, this one the biggest yet, the size of a few lots in a suburban subdivision. The headstones dated from the early 1980s, but the name of the war was unfamiliar.
“Operation Peace for Galilee,” she read.
“Yeah, not quite,” he said. “They started off calling it that, I guess. It wasn’t always the ‘First’ Lebanon war either—there had to be a second to make this one the first. But the headstones don’t change.”
“No,” she said. Gravel had worked its way into her shoe, and she hopped onto one foot to remove it.
“Eli didn’t have to be buried here,” Daniel said. “But it was important to my grandfather that he was. My grandfather wasn’t the person who had to drive to Jerusalem and climb up this fucking mountain every weekend, though. It was my grandmother who did that.”
“Why was it important to him?” she said. She knocked the sole against a palm, dislodged a few little rocks, and shoved her foot back into the shoe.
“Because this is where the heroes are buried, of course,” he said, motioning to the epic view from the mountainside. He shook his head.
She’d heard Daniel’s grandfather speak about Eli only once, a few years ago, during a visit to his apartment at an old folks’ home an hour south of Tel Aviv. After lunch, she’d wandered into the spare bedroom and saw, propped up on a stack of cardboard file boxes, a black-and-white portrait of a young man who looked a little like Daniel.
“Such a shame,” his grandfather had said in his labored English as he passed behind her. But that was all he said.
Over a stone ledge, which protected visitors from tumbling down the steep slope, distant buildings glowed off-white in the late-afternoon light, and faint construction noises echoed from cranes across the valley.
“Wouldn’t you want to be buried among the nation’s great Zionists and prime ministers and fallen soldiers?” Daniel said, winking at her before turning his gaze back over to the headstones.
“We’re getting close. This feels familiar.”
“Why don’t you start at one end, and I’ll start at the other?”
He removed his baseball cap and ran a hand over his bald head. He had shaved it this morning as she took a shower, the steam totally obscuring the mirror. He’d carried on even without seeing his reflection. He knew all the contours of his skull.
“He’s in here somewhere,” Daniel said and put the cap back on his head.
All the graves were identical: headstones a few feet tall, with names and dates etched into the stone. Simple. Stalwart. At the bases of the headstones lay rectangular planters measuring a few square feet. Manicured patches of rosemary grew in most of the planters, but a few yielded signs of personalization: pebbles, trinkets or photos, flags, flowers still in bloom.
She moved from grave to grave, sounding out the Hebrew names letter by letter and reading the ages of the deceased. Eighteen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Eighteen. Twenty. Twenty-one.
Her mother always said that having a child was like having your soul exist outside your body. She imagined Daniel’s grandmother’s pregnancy. Imagined growing a baby for nine months, enduring the pain of delivery. The crib, the nursery, the late nights, the baby becoming a child blowing out birthday candles year after year after year until he is a man. All the love and optimism. And then, one day, a soldier approaching her front door. Her son is a soldier, but this soldier is not her son. She imagined Esther seeing him through the curtains. Unsmiling, the soldier rolls a steel barrel up the driveway and knocks on her front door. He douses the barrel’s insides with gasoline, lights a match, and tosses it into the barrel. He does it just for show. Her soul is not there in the barrel. Her soul is not there in her body. Her soul is lying somewhere in a field far away.
The smoke from the barrel reaches all the way to the top of the sky.
“Here he is,” Daniel said from a few rows up. She cut over, taking care not to step on the planters. Eli’s grave looked like the graves of all the others, even the hero Hannah Szenes.
Daniel took a seat on the stone border of the neighboring grave and crossed his arms over his knees. She sat beside him.
“Every weekend I stayed with her, she brought me here. Sometimes she’d bring flowers. Sometimes we just came here and sat like this.”
She plunged a hand into the rosemary and broke off a few inches, rolling it back and forth in her palms, releasing a hit of fragrance.
“It was so hard for her to scale that hill with her cane; I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said.
“It’s difficult to imagine that kind of devotion,” she said.
“We’ll have kids one day,” he said. “And then you’ll know.”
“Will we?” she said.
The night before, at his parents’ house, the entire family had carried on for an hour debating a recent essay about the morality of having children amid looming climate change. Daniel stayed mostly silent as she and his sisters volleyed arguments back and forth. She enjoyed herself with Daniel’s family, which felt like the family she should’ve had, and their visits always felt to her like coming home.
“How about you get married, Daniel, and then we’ll come back around to this conversation?” his younger sister said, lighting up a cigarette as the seconds of silence accumulated into something uncomfortable for everyone.
“You should leave early for Jerusalem tomorrow,” his mother said to Daniel, getting up from her chair and collecting the empty dishes. “The traffic will be a nightmare.”
An old couple emerged from behind the bend in the road, the woman with a scarf tied around her head and knotted beneath her chin, her black orthopedic shoes kicking up dust. The man swatted his palm with a folded-up newspaper and then raised it, as if to say hello.
Daniel took a deep breath. “When I was a kid, it felt like Eli’s death was ancient history. But he only died a few years before I was born, and—even in my earliest memories of coming her—this grave was barely ten years old.”
He removed his glasses and, in one swipe with his pointer finger and thumb, scooped tears from beneath both eyes. She’d never been able to see him cry without doing so herself.
The sun had descended almost completely behind a mountain, creating a darkness that reduced the clusters of buildings throughout the valley to their twinkling lights. She remembered learning in elementary school that a beam of light could travel, theoretically, forever, a fact she considered often, especially when riding in her mother’s car at night, staring up through the sunroof at all the stars. “How is there no wall where this all ends?” she used to think. Even as a little girl, she couldn’t believe in God.
Daniel smiled at her, “What are you thinking about?” he asked, and she shook her head. From everywhere, the distant roar of traffic sounded like waves hitting the shore.
They’d spent a few hours at the beach in Tel Aviv the day before. For chairs, Daniel dropped some shekels into the automated rental kiosk, and they walked fifty yards through the throng of people before finding a vacant spot beside an oil-slathered man listening to Russian radio on a boom box.
Daniel had looked at the radio and back to her. “No,” he’d mouthed. She motioned to the chairs around the—all full.
A louche young attendant had come over to collect their ticket. As he waited for Daniel to fish it out of their tote bag, he stuck a Marlboro Red into his mouth, lit it, and drew in a huge breath. She’d wanted to bum one, but she didn’t ask.
“Here,” Daniel had said, handing the ticket over. The attendant took another drag of his cigarette and expelled the smoke in Daniel’s direction. He walked away without thanking them.
“I hate Israelis,” Daniel had said, sitting down. He pulled his hat over his eyes and fell asleep immediately. She opened a book and read a few lines without concentrating before shutting it. In the row of chairs behind her, an American bachelorette party discussed their upcoming manicure appointments.
“I know, but you have to go with my colors,” the bride had said in a Brooklyn accent. She was chewing bubble gum. “It’s one day of your life, honey. Some people have real problems, you know?”
She broke off another sprig of rosemary and put it in her bag, the resin sticking to her fingertips. She sometimes saved odds and ends from places as a way of holding on to them. The shelves in her apartment hosted rocks, shells, and pine cones. Pamphlets. Trashy tourist keepsakes. Little cards from cathedrals with the pictures and the names of the saints.
“Do you think your grandfather wanted Eli buried here as a way of getting back at your grandmother?” she asked.
His grandparents had divorced when Daniel’s mother was thirteen. One night, his mother drank a few glasses of wine and said that Esther had had an affair with her piano teacher. Her father had basically disappeared after that. And then, of course, Eli was killed in a tank explosion.
All of a life in a barrel and a lit match thrown in.
“I don’t know,” Daniel said.
“Would you ever ask him?”
Daniel hoisted himself up from the grave, beating the dust off his palms on his jeans. He took his glasses from his front pocket and put them back on his face.
“This has been good,” he said, extending a hand to her. “Traffic could be bumper-to-bumper, even this late. Let’s get going.”
By the time they returned to the parking lot, the sky was black as a tarp pulled high over their heads, and the stars like little punched holes, illuminated by something shining back from the other side. They got back in the car and resumed their place in the procession of cars headed down the mountain.
Megan Peck Shub is a segment producer at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Previously, she produced Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS. She lives in New York, but she’ll always be a native Floridian. This is her fiction debut.
“Serpentine” by Ember Johnson
Ember Johnson’s essay “Serpentine” was a finalist for the 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. In this piece, Johnson masterfully evokes tension and anguish through her poignant exploration of her experience as a military wife and widow, offering a unique perspective on the burden of carrying on alone.
by Ember Johnson
At the funeral home, they tell me to slide the partition door open, so I do, just enough to angle my body through, and I enter the room alone. I approach where my husband’s body lies inside a cardboard box, on top of a wheeled gurney, and I see that a white bed sheet covers him to his chin. There is a chair in the room, and I drag it across the floor and sit next to him. His lips, glued together, have dried into the faint shape of a kiss. Eyelids, too, glued shut. A ragged zigzag of sutured skin reaches from his eyebrow into the receding hairline above his temple, and a dark purple bruise the size of a salad plate has settled beneath the skin in the center of his face. His neck tilts to the side. I untuck the sheet from around his neck, draw it down his naked body, and begin.
First I trace each branch of the deep Y carved into his chest by the medical examiner. Then I touch each short dash, each stitch, that had closed him back up. All I’ve been told is that he was hit head-on, that it was not his fault, and that he died instantly. Still, I am looking for clues. Answers. I’m a military wife. And he’d come back from a combat zone alive. Twice.
I consider the dragon tattooed on his upper arm and trace a finger along the green hairpin curves of its spine, from the tip of its snout to the tip of its tiny, forked tail. His skin is cold. Refrigerator cold. A deep gouge presents between two knuckles of his hand and a large flap of torn skin with a thick maroon edge lies over his hand bones, not sutured.
I remember his eyes are gone. Donated. But the closed lids with their delicate lashes whisper against his face in the concave curvature of two small smiles. Warm tears drip from my chin onto his bare arm. I close my eyes and begin to search inside the dark recesses of my living body for a doorway. A lamplight. A path. Something—anything—to tell me which direction to go tearing after him.
“Where,” I say, frantic now that I know what I truly want, “where did you go?”
Whether he was going off to the war in Iraq or to specialized training for his army job or to VA appointments at the hospital here in Minnesota, I accompanied him, always, as far I was allowed. This meant being left in a lot of waiting rooms, hallways, and parking lots. Behind roped-off areas and security gates. And now a funeral home. And Earth.
The waiting room at the VA hospital is an upper-level atrium with large skylights and plastic plants. It’s easy to know if the sun is up or down, but not whether it’s doing any good. Rows of sectional couches with thin, worn cushions make a semicircle around a monster console television that plays the Military Channel on mute. World War II tanks silently rumble down a rutted, European road. This is what I remember from the last time I waited for my husband there, only a week before he died.
It was early enough to still be dark outside, and the large Plexiglas windows that lined the walls streamed the only light, a dim florescence from the adjoining hallways, where earlier I had seen Authorized Personnel Only lettered across a set of heavy steel doors. For a long time during the morning of his surgery I sat and watched those hallways for hospital workers to push empty gurneys by, imagining the click of the wheels as they passed from one window frame to the next.
Earlier, before I left him in his pre-op recliner, a surgical nurse issued him a tall brown paper sack with Jacobson scrawled in black marker across the front. She flicked her hand toward it as she turned to leave, closing the curtain behind herself. It was for his clothes. And I was to help.
He tossed his boots into it with a thunk and crumpled his T-shirt into a basketball, which he shot from an imaginary free-throw line. He stripped off his underwear.
“Seriously?” I asked. “You can’t leave your drawers on?” The surgeon wasn’t operating anywhere near there.
“Believe me,” he said, “I’ve tried.” And his glance toward the curtain said it all. VA hospital nurses are a harassed and hardened breed.
I unballed the socks he handed me and added them to the sack. He slid his arms through the sleeves of the papery blue surgery gown and flailed around his waist for the ties.
“Here,” I said. “Lemme get those.”
I tied two bows, and he stepped back to give me the full view. “I don’t care what anyone says,” he said and licked a finger that he ran across an eyebrow. “I wear this well.”
Two nurses returned, pointing him to the recliner, and covered him with a thin white blanket from the waist down while they began prepping his IV. They hustled me out and pulled the curtain closed one last time, asking, “Do you know your way to the surgery lounge?” I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder. This was our third surgery for the same ear that had been blasted by an IED in Iraq. Yes. I knew the way.
Now, as I get ready to leave the funeral home, the director hands me a similar paper bag. Nearly identical to the one from the hospital. The medical examiner who autopsied my husband’s body has filled it his clothes. Jacobson, B. is scrawled across the top in black marker.
“Are you waiting for your father?” was a common question I got asked in the surgery waiting room. “No, my husband,” I’d say. And then to clarify that I wasn’t married to someone twice my age, I added, “He served in Iraq—well, still serves.” None of his injuries eliminated him from a deployment rotation schedule, so he was always somewhere in the process of going back to war. Instead of making small talk, I usually sketched new layouts for the garden or our farm’s pasture. One year during a surgery wait I added fruits—apple, pear, and cherry trees, as well as blueberry bushes and strawberry plants. The trick would be keeping the chickens out. During another surgery wait, I devised a new rotational grazing system for our lot of horses, goats, sheep, and llamas. But I’d also figured a way to temporarily block the entrance of the driveway to allow them to graze the yard.
Once I actually encountered another Iraq War vet. He was several years younger than my husband and had a large, irregularly shaped dent in his skull where part of his brain should have been. The verbal abuse that this soldier hurled at his nurses traveled easily through the thin walls to where I sat waiting for my husband in the MRI waiting room. “Bitch,” he spat. “Cunt.” He didn’t want to get on the exam table. “Michael,” one nurse’s voice cut through the wall, “You lie down—and then tell me if you want Johnny Cash or Elvis—I’ll give you headphones.” A no-choice choice. A fake choice. Designed to redirect someone’s attention away from what he really wants, which is always the one thing he can’t have. In Michael’s case, I imagined it was to have his mind and body back the way they were before the war. In my case now, my husband is dead and never coming home again. So, my no-choice choices: Burial or cremation? Family cemetery or Fort Snelling? Coach or van?
Traumatic brain injury is tricky because every injury is different, and so is every brain. VA doctors had concluded that the blast that took out my husband’s eardrums also sent a concussive force through his head. Combined with the sustained stress of living in a combat zone for two tours of duty, each an entire year in duration, this had caused him to come back from his last one with short-term memory problems, severe neck and shoulder pain, headaches, and a sincere desire to kill people who irritated him: mostly strangers, but sometimes his boss. At the National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF) in St. Paul, he worked as an electronics mechanic on Blackhawk helicopters, but his boss, a first sergeant, had never deployed to a war.
To cope, he didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol. Instead he built a castle out of wood, set it up on the floor in the middle of the living room, and he and our three-year-old son staged epic battles between Transformers, X-Men, vintage GI Joe action figures, and all the Marvel superheroes. They played for hours at a time. Day after day. Until one evening, as I washed the dinner dishes and listened in, it finally hit me: this wasn’t normal. What appeared to be a loving, engaged father was a loving, engaged father but also a man who wanted to avoid paying bills, helping with farm chores, making decisions, and having an adult relationship with his wife. He would wake up at night and not know where he was. He looked for IEDs in the road during his commute to work. And while we used to banter with ease and tease each other over money or day-to-day living decisions, now there was no playing around. He simply stalked off.
He’d run out of space inside himself. He could no longer hold his two lives together: the one we’d built together, with a large vegetable garden and a lively barnyard, and the one he’d made out of sand and Kevlar. Animals got sick, needed shearing, or we ran out of hay. Their babies came breech or young ones got stuck in a snarl of fence wires. His career was a dizzying array of schematics for helicopter systems. Circuit diagrams. Training modules. His performance could determine the outcome of a life-and-death situation for the crews that flew them.
“We’re going to start over,” I declared. “I’ll sell the animals and we’ll get back to where we started. We’ll wipe the slate clean.” It was a grand gesture. I knew that I was the only one who saw that places of waiting were also places that were mostly empty. And bland. A skylit room with plastic plants. A television on mute. I could give him all that I had learned of patience and liminality. I could create his space. In return, I hoped, the debris of war stuck inside him would break loose and float to the surface. Maybe even float away. “But tell me,” I said after I explained it all to him, “are you going to go through the VA for therapy or will you look for a civilian psychologist?”
And I was right. One day my husband called me, breathless, from a place where he had pulled off the highway. He’d been at the VA for a therapy appointment. “I always thought it was weird that the checkpoint was empty,” he said without preamble. “Only a couple of Iraqis stood by a shack on the next hill over.”
I heard him light a cigarette, and he inhaled its smoke through his words.
“The mortars started coming—”
“And I saw them hit a couple hundred feet away—so I nailed the gas to get through the serpentine—but they weren’t coming from the hill where I saw the two men—”
I tried to picture it. A serpentine checkpoint is a snake-like path built out of concrete road barriers, a path that folds back in on itself, meant to slow vehicles down to a crawl. A convoy stuck in the middle of one would be like fish in a barrel.
“I couldn’t figure it out—and the dumbfuck LT—I saw the trucks behind us still trying to get through the serpentine—so I yelled at him to radio back and tell everyone to just go around it and get the hell outta there—but that’s when the dirt and sand hit the windshield,” he stopped and took a deep breath. “It was an IED.”
Several seconds of silence breathed between us. This was what he had been searching for. A memory of the actual blast that had taken his eardrums. What we’d learned from his psychologist and occupational therapist at the VA was that our brains have a way of protecting us that can sometimes only be described as “parental.” Sometimes, when they don’t want us to see scary things that could immobilize us, they redact them. Which erases a stream of potential reactions—potential choices—that could imperil us further. This gives us a no-choice choice.
“I passed it on the opposite shoulder,” he said in a much slower and calmer tone. “Until now, I only remembered the mortars because they were farther away.” He exhaled a long stream of smoke, and I heard a shiver convulse his body. “My brain didn’t want me to see how close I was to dead. It had to lie to me so I wouldn’t get scared. So I’d get out of that serpentine alive.”
I leave the funeral home and drive home. First I set the medical examiner’s sack on the kitchen table. Oils have seeped through the outer paper layers and bloomed, a meadow of dark spots. Then I slide it off the table and set it on the seat of a chair. I unroll the top, open it, and reach inside.
First his underclothes. Then his pants. Next his tan T-shirt and long-sleeved camouflaged shirt. He called this uniform his ACU’s, but I don’t know what those letters mean, only that they describe the army’s new pixelated camouflage pattern. Last, I pull out the fleece jacket he’d worn to cut the early morning chill and his combat boots. None of the clothing items have been folded, and bits of shattered glass shake free of the fabric and patter all over the floor. It’s then that I remember it all.
That morning I was sitting at my table in the corner of the kitchen when I heard the staircase boards squeak against their nailed joints. His leaden steps echoed off the walls in the back of the house. It was five o’clock in the morning, and he let his full weight drop through each foot. The steady scrape of his wedding ring against the wooden handrail unzipped the night’s veil, and he rounded the corner through the living room and came into the kitchen. “Mornin’,” I said with my back to him, but I hadn’t turned around.
I smooth out his pant legs that lie before me on the table. There is no blood on them. Not one drop. And I hear things again. As though I’m hearing them for the first time.
The ceramic mug of coffee that I’d brought to him in bed that morning clatters sharply against the cast iron sink; he rummages in the dish drainer and slaps the lid of a travel mug down on the counter next to the coffee maker. And, as though he’s standing right next to me, he jerks the glass carafe from its hot plate, pours, and rattles it back into place.
But that morning I didn’t pay him any attention. Not until the refrigerator door sucked open—a giant jaw that flooded the dim kitchen with light—and snapped back with bottles clanking against each other. A magnet slid off, and the school calendar fluttered to the floor. I sat up straight and watched his reflection in the darkened window in front of me. His movements, everything, suddenly felt hard and extra loud. Abrasive. Chair legs scraped against the oak floor, his combat boots thunked to the floor, and he grunted as he sat.
A cold draft seeped behind me. It was from the broken mudroom door. I rose from my chair to slide his heavy farm boots in front of it. During his last deployment, it had stopped latching properly, and the official doorstop became whichever pair of boots he wasn’t wearing.
“Are you okay?” I remember asking him.
“Fine,” he said, crouched over, tucking one camouflaged pant leg into the high upper of his combat boot. He zipped the laces through the top holes as he pulled and tucked with callous, mindless efficiency.
I stood by the door and waited.
“You know,” I said, “if you’re not ready to go back to work today, then you’re not ready.” It had only been a week since his ear surgery. The boys at the AASF could certainly make do without him one more day. “Fuck ’em,” I said with a shrug.
He switched feet and tucked and zipped and pulled. As he reached down, the fabric of his uniform buckled in starchy folds under his armpits and along his ribs. “No,” he said and sat up, slouching against the back of the chair. “I’m ready.” Bright white cotton balls protruded from his ear, still catching some drainage, and I wondered if he was lying to himself.
“Just stay home one more day,” I said.
He stood, zipped his fleece coat to cut the early morning chill, and slung his lunch over his shoulder. He picked up his coffee mug and paused and looked into my eyes.
I stole a glance at the clock. He was way ahead of normal. He never ran this much ahead of schedule. But his eyes never broke from their path and I turned back to meet them again.
“What,” I whispered. It was a statement and a question.
He fiddled with the knob to the broken door.
I had to leave the house that morning too. But before I left, I heard the mud room door open again. I turned in expectation, thinking he had changed his mind and come home, but no one was there, and the broken door remained closed. I headed upstairs to rouse my son.
As we left for town, I braked hard on the hill that drops into the valley below our farm, just in time for a group of wild turkeys to cross the road in front of us. I waited and switched on the radio.
A fatal accident occurred this morning around 6:20 and shut down the Hastings bridge in both directions. Authorities hope to have it reopened in the next couple of hours. In financial news the rate of foreclosures continues to increase—
Without thinking, I did the math. There were two different routes my husband could have taken to work that morning. One was under construction, and the other was that bridge. Every military wife knows how to do this type of math. My hands started to shake. I honked the horn at the slow birds bringing up the rear, and my son startled in his seat behind me. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m sorry.”
On impulse I chose a shortcut to town that was a minimum-maintenance road. I hadn’t used it in two years and bit my lip and hoped the spring thaw hadn’t made it difficult to navigate. After a one-lane bridge, tight, steep curves with an uphill on one side and a deep-cut ravine on the other, showed signs of washout. Ragged root systems protruded from the tumbled rockside, and worrisome chunks of earth had broken from the ledge and fallen into the ravine below. A green canopy of untrimmed branches arched low overhead and blocked out the clear morning sky. I took it forty feet at a time, craning my neck around every curve, while keeping an eye on that ledge. The truck’s engine dug in against the grade, and we climbed.
Suddenly a low-slung branch heaved toward the windshield and sprang back.
I slammed the brake, and giant black wings raised up in front of me.
A vulture—a big bastard—labored against its own heft and lifted, pushing itself through the thick canopy overhead.
I did the math again.
I walked my son into his preschool class and left my husband voicemails with forced vocal inflections that made me sound casual. I ran errands and chatted with people in store aisles. Chunky peanut butter or creamy? Call the local hospital or the one in the town where the accident had occurred? I took a brisk walk around a city park. I imagined the scene of confession later that night, when I would tell him how all day I’d thought he was dead.
When my phone finally rang, it was my husband’s mother. She never called me.
“Where are you right now?” she asked without saying hello.
“Just pulling into home after preschool,” I said. And waited through an awkward silence. “What’s going on?” I finally asked.
“We’ll be right over,” she said.
Ice and adrenaline flooded my bloodstream. The hand that held the phone began to tremble uncontrollably.
“What’s going on?” I said again, this time louder. “What is it?” I said louder still.
“We’ll be right over,” she repeated. And hung up.
I snapped at my son’s slowness in getting out of the truck, three times in a row, until I heard myself yelling at him. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “I’m sorry,” I said to him. “I’m so sorry.”
I settled him in front of the television with his lunch and went straight to my laptop on the table in the corner of the kitchen. News websites had already posted pictures of the bridge accident. They showed the front end of a Toyota pickup resting precariously on top of a highway guardrail and a dented maroon BMW behind it, sideways across two lanes. My husband’s dark green Saturn wasn’t there.
I chain-smoked outside on the front porch, waiting for my husband’s mother. I thought about calling someone. I called my husband. It rang until it went to voicemail, and I hung up without leaving a message.
I hated waiting, I realized. I had always hated waiting.
I leaned into the frame of the open front door and stared at our silent, empty pasture. All of its gates stood open. Big black water tanks sat overturned beneath the shaded overhang of the barn.
“Show me everything,” I said to him every time he left. Because he was always leaving for places where I could not follow, and because I was afraid that I would lose him to all those things I would never see. All of those things he experienced without me. “But I bring you with me,” he said in return. He didn’t understand what it meant to be the one left behind.
At that moment, I felt him pace the porch boards in front of me. He walked its length and abruptly turned and put his hands on his hips. “This is not ideal,” he said.
A declaration. Almost funny. The half smile; the half panic that skimmed the upper edge of his deep voice when a plan was about to go south. And maybe he saw me recognize him. Because my eyes widened and welled and darted to the side. I held my breath. He hadn’t gone anywhere, I thought. He’d been trying to tell me, since I heard the front door open that morning, that he died and came right back home.
“No,” I finally answered him. Out loud. And my heart threatened to give way. To simply stop beating. “It’s not.”
The sound of ripping Velcro tears a hole in the silence of our kitchen where I have been standing and staring at his clothes laid out on the table before me. There are creases of dried blood and bits of soft tissue that cling to puncture tears in the fabric. But only to the left sleeves. Where something nearly ripped his arm off. I am pulling the patches off every breast pocket and shoulder—his name, his rank, all the insignia of his career and our country; they belong to me now. When I finish, I go straight to my laptop and punch up the same accident pictures that I saw the day he died. I want to see what I saw the first time I looked at it—the Toyota’s front tires on top of the guardrail, the red BMW sideways across the lanes—but I know that I won’t see that, because I know what happened.
The front tires of the Toyota pickup are on top of my husband’s green Saturn. They sit inside the jagged mouth of its shattered windshield and look as though they came to rest on my husband’s lap. The Saturn is crumpled like a pop can against the guardrail. Its trunk is popped open. And the toys that he had hidden in there for our son lie scattered across the highway. A white sheet drapes its smashed rear window, meant to cover my husband’s dead body. Which, along with the part of me that he said he carried with him, has not yet been extracted.
This essay began as an assignment to use a first-person voice from the position of witness. It was an assignment designed to challenge what it means to tell another person’s story by forcing a writer to contend with her own subjectivity, experience, and ego. Still, it’s always a huge surprise to me how some essays come together. “Serpentine” I wrote in pieces: scenes, images, bits of reflection that I loosely strung together like so many buttons of different sizes and colors. With the pages spread across a long work table, I stood and stared for a long time. What connected the parts? What bigger thing beyond the simple narrative were they trying to say? I saw the hairpin curves of the dragon’s tail tattooed on my husband’s arm, I saw my husband’s Humvee snaking through the concrete barriers of a checkpoint in Iraq, I saw a brown paper bag appear, disappear, and come back into view. This serpentine form repeated itself through imagery. And for the first time ever, I saw how a structure of switchbacks could move a reader through a serpentine of memories, and how those memories could travel alongside a lived experience, but in the opposite direction. Which is how I ultimately defined my role as witness to my husband’s life.
Ember Johnson lives and writes in Center City, Minnesota. She was a winner of the 2013-14 Loft Mentor Series in nonfiction and most recently was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant for 2020. Her work has appeared in Georgetown Review, Fourth Genre, and The Missouri Review. She completed her BA in creative writing at Metropolitan State University in 2016 and is in her final semester of an MFA degree at the University of Minnesota.
“What I Should Consider before Weeping in Frustration at Airline Customer Service after a Six-Hour Delay on My Honeymoon” by Caroline Crew
BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. Just in time for the holidays, Caroline Crew reflects on her “unfeminine” and possibly British habit of NOT crying in the face of adversity.
What I Should Consider before Weeping in Frustration at Airline Customer Service after a Six-Hour Delay on My Honeymoon
by Caroline Crew
- I don’t cry. No, really, I don’t. At least not identifiably—not outside, not in the world where someone might see or, worse, remember.
- Of course, there are tears of a kind. Basal tears are the fundamental lubricant of the eye; reflex tears react to irritants—I remember getting my nose pierced at sixteen in a tent in a muddy music-festival field and being so indignant that my eyes sprang tears without my feeling pain. I’ve recognized that same look on the faces of amateur boxers getting punched in the ring, not the safety of the gym, for the first time. A bodily betrayal.
- The third and final tear type, the most mysterious, are those we sob.
- The infamous British “stiff upper lip” is a peculiarity of late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century Britain. We were a weepy nation before and would be again— but the emergence of empire in the Victorian era hardened the delicate sensibilities of Britain. The young Queen at her coronation wept. With tears of joy or fear, sorrow or bewilderment? But big empires don’t cry. As the new century dawned, Britain dried her eyes and stoically marched on.
- The mystery of emotional tears is a miracle to some: the act of weeping is often associated with Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. Catharsis proposes an alchemy of sorts, with Oedipus Rex or your own choice of tearjerker as the catalyst: Let art transform you. Spectating tragic art purges negative feelings— or, more plainly, “better out than in.” Such a cliché holds a quieter threat: What will happen if you don’t let it out? You’ll curdle and rot.
- The term “stiff upper lip” is actually an Americanism. The expression was treated with the suspicion of scare quotes throughout the nineteenth century.
- My favourite mystic, Margery Kempe, never became a saint. I like to think that even for the Catholic Church, her endless tears—a gift from God— were too much. One travelling preacher went so far as to ban the tearful Margery from his services because he could not stand the disruption. What to do with a woman who won’t shut up?
- Historian of emotion Thomas Dixon situates Britain’s suspicion of crying in a cat’s cradle of paradoxes: the actor’s paradox and the witch’s paradox. For the actor—and we are all performers when we begin to weep— the contradiction lies in conveying authenticity as a professional faker. For the witch, it’s a classic question of femininity: to weep is weak or manipulative, to remain dry-eyed is hard-hearted, unfeminine, bitchy.
- “Modern girls don’t cry, even if they feel like it”—actress and World War I performer Dorothy Brunton.
- I was deluged by Margery Kempe’s tears in order to avoid the cathartic extremity of tragedy. As an undergraduate, I wanted to avoid the popular Shakespeare and Tragedy class, choosing instead the poker-faced sounding Literature and Law in Early Modern England. Beyond my discomfort at the prospect of three whole months of Elizabethan tearjerkers, an entire semester of Shakespeare at my medieval, top-tier university threatened to reveal my shameful lack of learning. A first-generation student, I would require another degree or two to shake the feeling of not belonging, of intruding in someone else’s sacred space— and so I would be as silent and small as I could in seminars. I forsook catharsis, focusing instead on the melding of English common law and social norms and literature’s role in scripting both.
- A much-cited 2011 study in Science found that women’s tears contain chemical signals that decrease testosterone and sexual arousal in men. One of the study’s authors, Noam Sobel, lamented “I won’t pretend to be surprised that it generated all the wrong headlines.”
- One of my oldest friends, Kit, can remember almost anything. They are the keeper of our archive. Kit remembers what I’ve worn for every Halloween since college. They recall the nasty specifics of fights with boyfriends I’ve long since forgotten. They remember that one-shouldered bronze dress I donated to Goodwill five years ago, which, according to them, was a mistake. But they do not remember ever having seen me cry. In over a decade of friendship, the most Kit can recall is me sniffling on the phone and denying it.
- Winston Churchill, that epitome of dry-eyed, bulldog Britishness, wept publicly during his tenure as Prime Minister—in the Blitzed streets of London, in the House of Commons.
- I used to think this was my fascination with Margery Kempe: a woman so loud in her life that she wrote the first autobiography in English so she could echo down centuries. But now I wonder if my fascination comes down to the bafflement of opposites attracting. I’m stubbornly terrified of tears—at least tears that might be witnessed by another soul, but not Margery. Margery’s tears stopped for no one, no matter how uncomfortable her audience.
- News of weeping statues is a fairly frequent reported miracle. While condensation is often the culprit, there are weeping-Madonna craft tutorials for all ages available online.
- A smattering of smirking headlines stretching from 2013 to the present report the establishment of “crying clubs.” Human-interest articles from Japan, England, and India describe communal gatherings from ironic goth club nights to faceless conference-room meetings all chasing the cathartic release of crying—but without the misery of loneliness. These gatherings, such as the Minnade Nako Kai in Kyoto and the Lachrymal Gland Club in Sendai, seem particularly popular in Japan, ranked in the International Study on Adult Crying as among the most reserved nations in terms of public weeping.
- The Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney once described his relationship to Catholicism as less a religious practice and more tradition: “the specifically Irish Catholic blueprint that was laid down when I was growing up has been laid there forever. I think of the distrust of the world, if you like, the distrust of happiness, the deep pleasure there is in a mournful litany, the sense that there’s some kind of feminine intercession that you turn to for comfort.” I believe, too, that despite having lived in the US for almost a decade, somewhere under the layers of my twisted transatlantic accent, adoption of Southernisms such as “y’all” but refusal to drop the “u” from colour is a Church of England blueprint etched in my soul— work hard, be polite, don’t cry, and certainly don’t let that lip wobble if someone can see you. The private vault of Protestant practice.
- Why are Roy Lichtenstein’s women crying? His crying girls are the most iconic faces of Pop Art. I still see their faces most days, repurposed in Atlanta street artist Chris Veal’s murals across the city. The gesture remains static—cartoonishly beautiful women weep. In Lichtenstein’s originals blondes cry waiting for an absent man, sob out apologies, or bawl rather than ask for help, as in his famous Drowning Girl. In the Atlanta re-imaginings, the telltale speech bubbles express similarly vapid stimuli for the women’s tears: traffic, a dead iPhone battery, Instagram likes. The appeal of Pop Art is its immediacy of subject— we recognize the can of soup, the cartoon—and get to smugly nod in agreement with the ham-fisted critique of mass production, of low culture. That feeling of superiority buoys us for a brief moment. Lichtenstein’s weeping women puff us up—we would never be so insipid as to cry over unworthy subjects.
- My year of public crying: Oxford, 2011 to 2012. Angry at my own misery, I didn’t care who saw me. I cried after classes. I cried on the Bridge of Sighs, I cried on Turl Street while walking past undergraduates throwing water balloons for a medieval rivalry, I cried on the bus to Oxford and away from it. I cried in tourist pictures. I cried in libraries full of priceless artifacts. I cried in the famous pubs and I cried in the student dives. I cried until I unceremoniously left—no graduation day, just a diploma in the mail. And then I stopped. In that medieval city, I was, briefly, Margery Kempe’s daughter—weeping my ceaseless stream—a personal miracle of public emoting.
- Tears lurk in the liminal spaces. The dark cinema is a British favourite in-between—the shadows obscuring both our tears and the line between fact and fiction, whether we are crying for the sentimental story onscreen, or for ourselves.
- On why so many weeping women in his work, Roy Lichtenstein shrugs: “Crying women are just the cliché. That’s what you used to see in comics books—women who were like that, women were always in trouble.”
- Maudlin, meaning excessively sentimental or mawkish or foolishly emotional comes from Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene weeping, that most Catholic of icons.
- Empire and anti-weeping sentiment are a classic English pair. The dry-eyed English reserve is built on a misguided and murderous belief in the “better-than.” Better than those primitive, emotional “savages.” Better than those Catholics crying in church. Better than those crying for their dead, the dead her majesty’s men have made.
- Weeping can be a weapon. The tears of white women, especially, are wont to be weaponized and brandished in defence of white supremacy. The tears of white women have summoned the cops, have made false accusations, have murdered people of colour and all the while maintained the sympathetic subject position.
- The question of who gets to cry, rather than who wants to cry, weights our tears with the gravity the world affords us.
- Letty Eisenhauer, Roy Lichtenstein’s ex-lover with whom he lived when he first developed his mature style, after separating from his first wife, Isabel: “The crying girls are what he wanted women to be. He wanted to make you cry, and he did—he made me cry.”
- In his 2008 study on gender and affective behaviors, psychologist Jacob M. Vigil expressed surprise at the result that only 2 percent of American men reportedly believed they were likely to cry out of anger, as opposed to 51 percent of women. Vigil postulated this difference was linked to the social permissibility of men’s, but not women’s, aggression.
- For all the reasons Margery Kempe and her spiritual advisors ever assigned her holy tears—experiencing the suffering of Christ on the cross, seeing a wedding that reminded her of Mary and Joseph, seeing children and so imagining Christ as a child, recalling all of these spiritual insights for a scribe—anger was not one of them. She was mocked, accused of demonic possession, and endured the birth of fourteen children (not counting stillbirths) without modern pain medicine. Perhaps Margery wailed because it was her only outlet for rage.
- After the Trump administration’s brutal policy of family separation that saw infants incarcerated in an old Walmart building, protesters gathered outside the home of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson. Instead of protest chants, those gathered played audio recordings of the weeping migrant children.
- My father repeatedly told me, “Don’t marry a man you haven’t seen cry.”
- Less than a year after I first met my husband in Atlanta, my visa expired and I moved back to England, so we broke up. It was not a surprising end; we weren’t to know we had a decent shot at a sequel. What was surprising was the intensity of our bodies in our final week together, so much that paths came together and blurred, and my tears prompted his erections. The joke that the reason I don’t cry is because it arouses him has never died.
- “Emotional incontinence” was and is the charge levelled at public outpourings of tears in Britain. This indictment leaks into the opinion pages whether the tears come after the death of Princess Diana or following an underdog victory in the Premier League.
- Scottish crime-fiction writer Ian Rankin positions his famous Detective John Rebus, mourning the death of his mentor, as paragon of national paradox: “Typical Scot, he couldn’t cry about it. Crying was for football defeats, animal bravery stories, ‘Flower of Scotland’ after closing time.”
- In 2016, a farmer in rural China took to the media to complain that the medical system refused to believe his wife’s condition: she had been crying stones for seven years.
- Many of the more contemporary weeping miracles have been quickly demystified. Case in point: in 1996 a twelve-year-old Lebanese girl wept crystal tears. The sparkling tears were, in fact, quartz—as many as seven stones a day, for several months. With their sharpness, these tears brought blood, too—and with the media attention, scepticism. It was quickly revealed the crystalline tears were a scam, not a sacrament—a scheme of this poor girl’s mother.
- It is only after I turn thirty that I tell anyone my most embarrassing secret: My mother has never said, “I love you.” I have seen her cry, though, just once, when her dog was stuck underneath a hay bale.
- Crying, like laughter, is one of the curious behaviours that separates us from animals— but does it elevate us?
- The same year I start letting slip my secret, I finally get fitted for contact lenses—as if I can avoid charges of vanity now that my twenties are behind me. Secreting until my eyes are red with the practice of scooping the circle of plastic in and out, I ask my optometrist if he thinks it is beneficial to cry. “You aren’t crying,” he says, “your body is just protecting you from yourself.”
Caroline Crew is the author of Pink Museum (Big Lucks), as well as several chapbooks. Her poetry and essays appear in the Kenyon Review, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Coast, among others. Currently she is pursuing a PhD at Georgia State University, after earning an MA at the University of Oxford and an MFA at UMass–Amherst. She’s online here: caroline-crew.com.