Mave told me once I needed to write a book, and I said, “Beginning where?”
“At the beginning, Frankie,” she said.
“The beginning of what?”
We cracked up.
“Start when we slimed out of the sea,” she said. “Or in your hopeless cosmology, when the god-turtle surfaced and somebody said, ‘Let there be a city on top of her great shell.’” Mave’s strong lips somehow like a vise, as if when opened, there would be mercy, reprieve. But more often, there was brusqueness. More often than that, obfuscation.
“Begin before words begin,” she said. “Write the chaos and the anthem.” She told me I only had to create something to come back to. Get a little traction, hang a little meat out there for myself. Then go mop my many floors with Murphy Oil Soap and do something with my heavy drapery of hair, then come back to it. She wanted me to write it for her, maybe because she’d given up on her own work years before.
I once wrote you sheaves, Ruth. I wrote letters to say everything, and sometimes to not say anything but only to shape the day with my hands, to make sure it happened, as surely as the scuff on the porch floor when I pulled the screen door open. For a brief time, I wrote you daily in my sprawling child hand. When I received your letters about the life inside words, about hieroglyphs of peregrine and bread, about flowers, you rendered back to me myself in a more whole form, which I saw the way an animal sees water up ahead, through the trees. I am unable to write a book for Mave. I can only write to you, about her: the chaos and the anthem.
Why did she and Nan and I load into the beat-up blue car and head west that October in 1990? I’ll go back about a year and a half before that, to a night in early spring, 1989, to say what happened. Beginning in the fertile dark of Mave’s dining room—your Mave, your love and one-time student, and my Mave, my aunt and guardian. Here, nameless, fusty cells divided in a Petri dish of dark. Begin before words.
That spring night, I walked from my house to Mave’s through our break in the fence to retrieve her from where she sat on the unmopped dining room floor with no lights on. The overhead was burnt out. I picked over cardboard and books by feel and found a sweater to pull over her foul sleepshirt. She went all deadweight, exaggerated, and let me strongarm her to the concrete slab of front porch glommed with old TVs and encyclopedias and potato skins growing hair. Debris born from porch light, as though uttered by it.
Her mind itched, she would’ve said if I had asked. Drink is a good scratch. This was one of her bad days.
I propped her up in the patio chair. I had not come for her as much as for myself. I got a Pilsner from her fridge and split it into two pint jars. She situated thickly into the chair and took a sip to ease herself from hangover, and she smelled my uncertainty, ripe as her odor.I wrote letters to say everything, and sometimes to not say anything but only to shape the day with my hands, to make sure it happened.
“What’s Miranda think?” she asked, as if we were in the middle of a conversation, which I suppose we always were—a dense forest of it. Mave had called me on the phone because she hadn’t been able to get up off the floor, her body able as ever, breath strong at that time, legs all muscle, but mentally immovable from her pool of large unwashed shirt. Healthy as a horse, she’d say if I asked, but as she raised the Ball jar to her lips I saw that she’d scraped her knuckles somehow.
“Why does it matter what Miranda thinks?” I said. “What do you think?”
Mave rubbed her dirty shirt and sweater against her tired breasts not strapped down by their compression bra. She surveyed the moods available and settled on the one in which she knew Aunt Miranda would have been the better mother to me after their sister, my mother Margot, had died. So: the deflection. Go ask Miranda.
The porch light stretched far enough to show where a clan of crocus had unsutured the ground. Near that, a tight peony bud shivered at the ghost of a bird. I looked over toward my empty house in which I’d lived my entire life, first with my parents, then as an orphan, with Mave as my guardian but we stayed in our separate houses, which everyone found strange. My window lights ever within sight through our break in the barbed wire and the wild rose. I could smell the grass trying to remember itself in thaw, the blades stretching toward the notion of summer. About a mile out on the ridge, the lights of the bronze plant glowed a dome over the town. I wanted Mave to sleep then wake up. Only once had I found her with a handgun nearby, her Browning pistol. Only once had I raised my head terrified that she’d used it.
I scanned the porch—an old butter churn, the three TVs with burned-out picture tubes, the potato peelings in a Shop ’n Save produce box. A gun could disappear in so much junk. “Miranda says I’ll think myself into the grave. And she says I’m thirty-five with no kids, I’m a part-time janitor, and the State Road has benefits.”
“The State does have benefits.”
What Miranda said was that if didn’t marry Clay Good I’d end up like Mave. When I was a child, what Miranda said was, “My sister is very bright, but can’t you see that it has done her in?” Miranda’s eyes teary, her housedress neat and trim, and her mantle as wife and mother of four bowing her back but also relieving her of any doubt, of any discernible restlessness.
“And she thinks his gospel band sounds professional,” I said. “The Good News Boys, like a cassette tape.”
“Christ.” Mave laughed. I felt some danger pass. We sat for a while, setting our pint jars on top of the never-used electric butter churn missing a part, then I rinsed them in the kitchen and filled them with water and she drank hers. The doubt, the restlessness, was all she and I knew. Moths flitted to the light without hazard. I stepped down off the porch to snap off two purple crocuses for her and put them in my jar on the churn.
I had peered out through the kitchen curtains in Clay’s mother’s house, eyes peeled for the sarvisberry, but there was only bud-green, mostly brown and black, and Clay saying that’s where his mother Lottie’s trailer would go. He’d stood a few feet away from me, a head taller than I, smelling of blacktop and work gloves. His gaze gentle. In the corner of the kitchen sat his guitar case with a sticker on it that said I Am the First and the Last with the name of the Baptist youth camp underneath. His hound Ellis slept beside it. Clay’s band had a song about The Great I Am, the First and the Last. Alpha and Omega. I wondered what lay between the First and Last, in the middle, and how cramped was the bookended space, or how vast? Lottie’s trailer would go right there and block my mind’s route to the woods.
“You think I should marry him?” I asked Mave.Mave rubbed her dirty shirt and sweater against her tired breasts not strapped down by their compression bra.
“Who am I to say?” She squared her shoulders. “You even want a kid?”
I didn’t answer. Lottie’s curtains were muslin, homemade. They muffled things. A child was a muffled idea to me then, with no real legs or arms or fever.
“Inconsequential is what I think,” Mave said. “You should write your book.”
“A book about what?”
She never said. She mused, flicked through her file-cabinet mind and internal shelving where miniature versions of all your books sat, passages flagged and memorized, and where her memories of you stayed sealed. Her thoughts telescoped. My mind shrank from hers sometimes, and sometimes kept pace. I told her Lottie would move into a trailer he would put in back, by the woods.
“But it’s her house. She’s lived there a century.”
“I know.” I lit a cigarette and offered, but she said no. “Since when?”
“Since I got the patch.” She slipped off one natty sweater sleeve and showed me the flesh-colored bandage on her upper arm. “It makes me dream in blue. I’m just doing it for Miranda. They said I’m overdue for everything, the tit microwave, the butt scope, some pelvic spelunking. I said I’d check my schedule.” She rubbed below her breasts where the daily indentations probably never left the skin. Her mannish body filling the oversized cotton tee.
Mave’s aloneness was a bleached bone tended and preserved and shining. My own was a bone beginning to whiten. We didn’t speak of it. And about you, Ruth—we never spoke of you. She hoarded privacy. Had she not raised me up to be the same? You raised yourself up, she’d say, defensive. I grew up strange and thin, independent but tucked into her body, somehow curved to it, adopting her seclusion. Once, I asked her to make me look pretty. She braided my hair at night, while it was wet. In the morning it looked like it had gotten caught in a machine. We cracked up.
On a few occasions, when she was almost blackout drunk, she did talk about you, still cryptically, but I could piece together a scene or a moment. I knew some kind of accident had left your leg unusable, a thing you dragged, such that your travel to the Sinai to study ancient texts was already a memory when you met Mave. But you loved to dance in private. I gathered this from one of her tirades that had her waltzing in her dining room, kicking trash left and right, chip bags and cellophane casings, singing scraps of Billie Holiday off-key. There was a tall empty room in your house on Aldrich Street with only a tapestry tacked to one wall with red elephants and trees on it. Apparently, you kept a record player on the floor and danced only when Mave was not there, but once, she found you dancing, awkwardly with your bum leg, making and unmaking an invisible bowl with your arms, as if dancing in ceremony around a fire, and at the door she startled you so badly you pulled into the tapestry and wrapped yourself up. She laughed; you hid like a child. I loved picturing you like that, hearing the record play, encountering a Mave unwrecked.She never said. She mused, flicked through her file-cabinet mind and internal shelving where miniature versions of all your books sat, passages flagged and memorized, and where her memories of you stayed sealed.
On the concrete porch I toed the XYZ encyclopedia at the bottom of the stack, leaned into one of the three cedar posts holding up the porch roof. I twisted my thick black hair into a tail, careful with the cigarette. I’d canned beets that morning, from the Route 9 Market, just to smell them, though it was not their season, my seeds barely in the ground. These were Mexican beets. The smell of beets canning is hot, a bitter-dirt smell you taste—you might not know that smell, as you surely do not know my chemical janitorial odor, my clapboard house, my circumscribed Caudell, West Virginia life so opposite your New England life as I’ve always imagined it, infused with a vast foreign air.
I’ll describe this place for you since you never came here, this place that grew your Mave, like a tuber. Two stoplights, a Shop ’n Save and Dairy Delite and Citgo and a primary school that was once the high school—now kids are bussed to Monroeville for the county’s consolidated high school. A motel and feed store on the end of town near the Route 9 Market where, besides beets, you can get bagged corn nuts and boxes of Skoal in bulk. There’s a bank, a community center, there’s the complex of steel and concrete and loading docks that makes up LaFaber Bronze, where most people still work. The churches are scattered satellites, also the homes, hunkered between small fields of alfalfa or timothy or weeds and outlined in a black mold from the swamp that edges Caudell and destabilizes the soil for building out any farther. Then the woods, the limestone caves—one as tall as a train—the creek Heather Run, its banks lined with small sycamores and laurel. The places I could walk blind.
My hands still glowed faintly beet pink in the porch light, darker at the cuticles. My question about Clay’s proposal was really: How rabid was I for life? And what had love to do with that? And would I become a gray bird of a thing like Lottie in that kitchen with muslin curtains, or would I dance in some private ceremony to a record player and cocoon myself in a tapestry to be unwound and unwound? The front of my body, in denim shirt and work jeans, felt open and closed at once, all my inner folds restless.
“The sex will taste like Dimetapp,” I said.
“God, Frankie. Do it or don’t. It’s inconsequential.” Gruff, her gray head electric, in that shirt and sweater. As if she’d walked out of a psych ward.
Aunt Miranda had said a few hours earlier what no one else would say: that Stew, who ran a body shop at his house and played in Clay’s band and who, she could see, drew me magnetically, already had a wife. And that Dillon—my first love, my only love, from my youth—was not coming back. At that, I’d recoiled my not-young head and looked away from Miranda’s stooped body. I’d left her a pint of beets without another word.
Now, I admitted it to myself, speaking toward the alfalfa grass that bordered Mave’s lot on the other side, a wide field of it. “Dillon’s been gone years.”
Next to the defunct churn, a mud dauber stirred heavily around its pan-flute nest of mud long molded by the female mouths. “Go to sleep, you lazy bastard,” Mave said to it.
Stew and I had always been nothing—simply a flash of heat— and Dillon a blur across ten years, though I could conjure the water’s edge, of course. Always. Lilies and saplings of spruce, the wetlands people fear for their blurred boundary, the shallow waters lapping, and skin everywhere. The tall Train Cave and the small fire we built and our fiercely moving then slowing shadows. And our silence, our deeper chests keeping distance.
“I’m serious,” Mave said, “everything’s blue. Put that in your book.”
“There is no book.”On the concrete porch I toed the XYZ encyclopedia at the bottom of the stack, leaned into one of the three cedar posts holding up the porch roof.
“PBS aired a special on your Holy Mary, on weeping Mary statues across the world. Our Lady of Lima, Our Lady of Sicily and Syracuse, of the Sacred Heart in Platina, Brazil. They said when her statue cried tears of honey or drops of oil she could heal people. But if the pope says hoax, it’s hoax. Catholics are mystifying. Like the pope was even there to see it—he doesn’t exactly live local to Brazil. I started dreaming about a blue Mary bawling her eyes out and me trying to catch her tears from across the world, in a kind of urn. Fucking wild. Her skin and hair and everything—blue like a Smurf.”
I laughed a small laugh.
She said, “I dreamed my shitbox car turned into a blue Mercedes.”
I stood to go.
“You watch those bugs rising up out of the alfalfa. They love salt, they’ll feed on your sweat.”
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“I’m serious about that book.”
“I didn’t even finish high school. I’m a goddamn janitor at the bronze plant.”
“And I’ve got a master’s degree in linguistics and drive a school bus. So what? You’re bright. When you were little, you said, Mave, read my book, and you showed me that kitten diary that locked. Remember that? You’d copied out the entire Book of Revelation from Margot’s Bible, and I thought, My god, you’re misled but, you know, you’ll come into your own. She thought it too.”
And there you were, Ruth—she referred to you, not my mother Margot. Oblique reference.
“Do I marry Clay or not?”
“And you pulled your red wagon across town and people said, What are you hauling in there? And you said, God’s body. As if that were obvious cargo, like a stuffed panda.”
“You don’t believe in God.” I stood near her thickness and gray head. I bent down toward her, my hair outspread and inky. She had been my guardian, my teacher when I’d dropped out of school, my cumbersome fellowship. She had filled me full of the table scraps from her graduate studies after washing up back here, bereft.
“It doesn’t matter if you get married. Men and women come. Their bodies list over to the left then topple. You know that.”
“I still have to say yes or no.”
“Write a damn book. Look for more, Frankie.” She waved her hand in a hocus-pocus motion over the yellowed encyclopedia stack as though to transform it into that more.
A tip of a rabbit ear antenna snagged my shirt as I turned to go.
She said, “I read this line from Rukeyser today, in her Collected. ‘Do I move toward form? Do I use all my fears?’ That’s a good line. You have to use all of it, everything.”
Some other sound flanked us, maybe the clucking of a whitetail, and then the shuffling of grass. It was night in earnest. I looked back at her profile, her face that had always radiated for me a godlessness and nerve, a sadness, a sickly humor, a mystification. And something close to love but not quite. She went skeletal on the side hidden from light, a little caved in, a face for the night bugs to feed on.
I studied the three ruined TVs she had burned up trying to stay alive. I thought, yes, wash up, throw on jeans, can your beets, and write your book. These are my instructions. Become part of the world and move out into it.
These were our ragged selves in that almost-summer, Ruth. Buzzed and on edge, pressed between a First and a Last.
“You going to be okay tonight?” I asked her.
“Sure,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Jessie van Eerden is author of three novels: Glorybound, winner of the Foreword Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize; My Radio Radio; and Call It Horses, winner of the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction. Her portrait essay collection The Long Weeping won the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award, and her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, Oxford American, New England Review, and other venues. Jessie holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and teaches at Hollins University.
Excerpted from Call It Horses by Jessie Van Eerden. Excerpted with the permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2021 by Jessie Van Eerden.