for Diane Gilliam
…there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years… And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord… In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.
—The Gospel of Luke 1.5-7, 11-15, 39-41 (English Standard Version)
My friend Diane says: When the season is fitting, a book will come, the words will come. She is a poet speaking on a winter day to a group of writers, me among them. She is discussing Robert Bly’s book Leaping Poetry and James Still’s poem “Leap, Minnows, Leap.” In Still’s poem, minnows are dying in a shrinking pool because the water is held above the dam; they gasp little fish-gasps; by the poem’s end, they must leap or die, though of course the leap is not sane. Bly, in his essays, stresses the energy from line to line, stanza to stanza, the excising of crud, the line taut and brimming with buzz; each line, too, must leap or die. When Diane speaks of poems, she speaks of how we live our lives, or how we might do so. She says quietly, “We leap and shed the lives we have made.” We move from the known to the unknown. At our scuffed tables, we are all writing to save our lives, and maybe also the lives of others, so we must leap from our dying. It is a beautiful lecture, and I sit there feeling fretful and teary, taking notes.
I don’t remember, now, whether that phrase, when the season is fitting, figured into Diane’s actual lecture or in a separate conversation that day about the anxieties of production, writer’s block and so forth, but the phrase appears among my lecture notes and doodles of small desperate fish. The phrase suggests inordinate trust and calm, not resignation so much as acceptance, a kind of active waiting, or active reception, a readiness, a preparedness for this. It calls for a living-into-time without fearing the ravages of time. I see, in my notebook, how I finished the phrase with trial words pulled from my fretful midlife heart: When the season is fitting, a child will come. How lovely to consider:
A warm rain. On the porch of rough lumber, a man and I together, screen door leading out to it with a driftwood handle he’s made us. Talking until we’re too cold. Talking to be held by one another’s voices. Evening falling, bodies slipping inside. From his mountain of duvet, an arm sneaking out to wrap me. And the baby, like day breaking into me—all this instead of yesterday’s pale substitute: my offer to hold the puppy-infant, who sniffs out mothersmell and heldness, for the young mother in the checkout line while she rummaged in her purse for her Kroger card.
What if the season is not fitted exactly to our desires?
I return to the idea: leap without knowing. This requires trust, too, of course, leap of faith. This is very hard to do. The concepts are related: trust that what is coming next is the right thing. Leaping is like being born in this way, being born unto time with no expectations of time except opening eyes and ears and arms.
Right now, it is me alone on the porch, the plucked driftwood waiting on the table to be shaped and put to use, though he has mentioned making a door handle. I fear the word barren. Not that it’s a word we use much anymore, not that as a woman and writer and professor I judge my worth by childbearing. But the word is still a word, and it’s spiny like desert plants. And I’m reminded of the biblical story of Elizabeth, cousin to the Virgin Mary and mother of John the Baptist, how she was long barren but then conceived John in old age, and when Mary came to visit, pregnant with her Christ child, fetal John leaped for joy in the womb. Another kind of leaping, little minnow in a water sack leaping while still having tissue and organ knitted together and cells festooned with DNA. On my porch, I love this story, its inner dynamic of moving from the known to the unknown—I am out here filled with Elizabeth, under the porch roof, studying her in the wind, opening.
Elizabeth—The red of the red cardinal fills the gap in the tree. She loves the single note of red through the backdoor open to the good of January, the bracing breath of daybreak. The sky is clear and the sun-on-snow squints her eyes, though she is old and her face a sheaf of pages on which years of snowlight have written; the squint goes soft. She steps onto the back porch, sticks out her face like a girl looking up the road to make out figures coming. It’s true that sometimes she sees the faces of babies.
The porch is raw lumber, the wind is raw wind, the waterfalling creek is mostly ice, the house-heat is gone as well as the sleep. Elizabeth’s simple face is a prayer ongoing: Here within me is a way made for You, it is wide, it is lined with yellow wood sorrel and phlox, there is a warm wind there.
In the mudroom, she pulls on dress and boots, ties back her hair, washes her face with cold water. The stout woodstove in the kitchen that broadcasts heat through the whole house has gone out. She shakes down yesterday’s cold ashes and cinders into the ash pan beneath the firebox, dumps them into the bucket in the mudroom and steps out again to the porch where the wind is raw. Hair strands dangle. She stands there in her dress unafraid of the real work given her to do, her desire frank and silvered and relinquished.
Elizabeth hauls the bucket across the snow to the edge of the woods. She dumps cinder and ash on unbroken snow, hearing a whoosh not unlike a blue heron lifting off, leaving a blurred arc on the snow, not unlike the blue-blurred sky. An arc of ash like the stroke of brush on canvas. This is the season of the ashes. She sets down the bucket and, in the shed, fetches an armload of wood, feeling the density of the needed locust and cherry. When the season is fitting, she says, I feel the rough of the rougher bark. There is the season of emptying the ashes, the season of tying back hair, of yanking on boot, of the pressed oak leaf, of a walk in high grasses holding palm level to the tips of sedges and rye, season of the roasted sweet potato with oil and salt. Nothing but this task, like a globe filling her hands and then, in time, another.
Now tinder in the firebox, match to the tinder.
Because the other women in the valley have borne children, she is called barren. But she does not know the word or use it. Before the rain, she is full, after the rain, she is fruit. When there is no rain or snow, she prays, Take me to the river, she prays, Flood and fill me at the river, she prays, Wreck my bones onto the riverbanks, you River within me, you River never without me. She says, This the blue of the blue sapphire. She says, This the stone of the stony cistern. And this the snowlight from the unbroken snow and the beautiful arc of ash upon it.
She is old. It’s true she still desires a child which is no longer possible, but she is ready nonetheless, she prepares herself for everything: her living-into-each-task is that readiness, preparedness. I watch her leap, all old skin and sinew, letting that skin shed, slough off, the bones full of light emanating out: I am here, I am willing. The mind flayed before the unexpected, a daily leap from all she has known to all she does not know. I am ready for this, this season fit for rushing in the high grass, with you Wind in the grass, you Wind never without me.
A girlface looking up the road, making out figures coming.
When you are ready: It is a poem you make with your whole body, the body fevered and the body in early spring that goes to his bed like a farm dog to a bed of clover with tiny purple blooms and tiny variegated leaves. The light spilling and pooling, over clover as over our limbs, our small mountain of us. There is a bit of moss, iridescent, glowing, almost as if with late frost. We do not know what time will bring us. And today a polka dot dress, and a night to remove it in one swish, to bare self to him and to me.
There are times I see the faces of babies, knobby and monkeyish, and feel all the heat creased there in new cells smelling of green, maybe of moss, new as a frost is new.
O this wind.
Elizabeth—Her priestly husband Zechariah, too, is old. He has gone off to the temple. There she is coaxing the woodstove back to radiance, still in her January dress and coat and boots, hair tied, also making slaw with apples and honey and poppy seeds, when he returns late morning from burning incense in the temple where he was told in a vision he and she will have a son. He did not believe it, so the angel struck him mute. He enters the kitchen in this quiet rush, not knocking the snow from his boots, makes signs with his hands she cannot decipher. She touches his face which is cold, his mouth a sweet O of gums and tongue and teeth and bright silence. For some reason she opens all the windows. The cold swipes in. Come dark, come morning, she says, I’m here. She gently pulls him to the bed and undresses him—he gestures, points at things—kettle, kindling, rag, thigh—trying to name them, she puts his pointer finger to her lips. She lays him down on his side and fits her body into his chest-belly-leg curve. Out from the duvet, one arm escapes, reaches around, palm pressed to her breastbone. When they make love, it is only this—and how suddenly she who is old feels the rind of melon thicken, the uterine lining flush full, the dark cells swerve across permeability and nest. The little minnow takes his impossible place in her dark.
How I imagine her, my one-day daughter: The sudden chill of a spring evening catches her suddenly, when she’s been long at playing. She is on her blue bike, having sold the butter to the neighbor and meandered home, the moss beds frosted by light and wet, the sun so suddenly nowhere. I can sense her small legs growing cold, the small thrill of it in her.
My desire to know her is frank and silvered, my body and mind the simplest they’ve been since girlhood.
At creekside, I am learning from this man the spring ephemerals: dogtooth violet, bloodroot, bluets, trillium, trout lily. And where the secret morels emerge in the dark wet duff at the base of poplars. There is a trust in the season of spring coming. My body can close around the empty space of her, the way a yellow trout lily blossom closes around the evening cold, its long leaves spotted like fawns.
The small fragile hepatica he shows me on the creek bank, its lobed leaf—its slight stem barely holds up its face, a neck to take care with.
Elizabeth—Each morning after, her face sticking out like that of a girl looking up the road, she faces the green that is coming, thick into the green she goes, from January into summer to September. The road so empty it’s full, she can see the figures, a band of tramps or dancers. The bucket of ashes or bucket of scraps for the possums, she is steady from season to season. She grows round, she prays her prayers, she moves, as always, from known to unknown. She pulls on her husband’s jeans when hers no longer fit. She lets out her dress waist.
Elizabeth soaks the peas and plants them and strings the fishing wire stake to stake to be ready for the vines that will come. When it’s warm enough, past threat of frost, she sows the zinnia seeds, the marigold and radish. In a blank book, she presses petals fallen from the magnolia, a clover, too, and a yellow spring bloom of which she does not know the name and so names it a secret name. Within her tremulous imagination, inside the mind of one with a body swollen in miracle, things are so lush and sudden, so free of habit and habitual thought, so bright and present-unto, so much this in the center of her palm: a lettuce-seed furriness, like iron shavings dragged by the magnetic pen to make a moustache on the face, or bushy eyebrows, or froth of bangs in that clever old game Wooly Willy.
Strands of hair fall about her face, so near the cupped seeds, she does not care to wear her hair up, bound, just now.
The cowboy coffee grinds in my teeth like silt, or chalk. What if it’s true that there is no such thing as barrenness? That the girlface looking up the road, the girl picking up a bucket to go—as girl as woman as old woman—is as full of miracle all her life as when she is harboring a budding boy? Her underarms wet, tongue to pencil or brush. Focus, precision.
I seek it out. The trout lily. I make a little booklet of the spring ephemerals. I scribble the date on the stones from the creekbed he and I traipse in muck boots. I seek her help with living alongside desire and, finally, shedding even that.
Elizabeth—This is a season of shivering new tendons, of bone knitted to bone, of a sleeve of skin and downy hair. The child blooms there, beneath bellyskin papery with age, in its many pieces and parts: a folded leg, small softmeat of penis, increment of ear, one infinitesimal pinky nail like a slip of something that could catch in her teeth. She prays, same as always: Here within me is a way made for you, a small pond with a small fish in it to welcome you, some cattails. When her relative Mary comes to visit, she who also has a miracle child inside her, Elizabeth’s boy leaps in the womb like the minnow he is. Elizabeth strokes her protruding belly, she knows that leap: from what you know to what you cannot quite dream is coming. He will be called John, he will be a baptizer, a prophet, dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey, readying by the creek she has always loved.
To her own belly, Elizabeth says, O collective braided thing of you—I don’t want to know how you work. How horrible-lonely you’ll be in your loose belt and concavity showing ribs, or how you’ll love the loneliness as though bred for it like a cattle dog keeping distance alongside the warmth and pool of herd, the way so wide in you.
Who is she? I forgot to ask that question of Elizabeth first. And does she not ask it of me, hasn’t she already always done so? She does. She asks: Who are you? What do you seek? In what ways do you prepare your heart?
John—He is born with thoughts already fat in his head. When she holds him in her arms, he is a little sack of sleep and fire, and his mute father Zechariah sounds out words again with wonder, like someone speaking for the first time. The boy suckles then, so soon, squirms into flight, running just to run, beating the stick with the stick, he is like her in his heart: I feel the ocean and sky in the tiny eddy of the creek I poke with sticks, I feel the eternal in the day. His mother leaves the door open to the porch all day and all night, letting in the bats and bugs, so he can run in and out. This towel with which she dries her hands at the sink he will not let her dry his head with, his willful curls, strings uncut.
What if what we think is barrenness is simply a season other than we expected? I love that she loves the red of the red cardinal. One is making a nest here in the camellia outside my window.
Sit here in your dress on a bed unmade, as a self unmade and remade, and let stir a willingness to take the leap in moments. There is some other thing ahead, something coming that you don’t pre-know or identify. There is no hint, even, of what it could possibly be. It is not prefigured by the shape of your desire facing outward to the wind, but it is just as lush and sudden, like the spring evening chill that catches a body off guard as this body traipses home across the moss bed.
John—One evening, he sits at the table sullen. The waterfall beside the house in autumn is fuller than the drought summer has let it be. There is a stopper in his mouth, like a dry sock. He is not let to be bolder than the inside space, the inside space is drought—Use inside voice, his father Zechariah says, he for whom words always have a lobed largeness to them now. But what can inside voice carry in its pack? Hardly anything. His mother knows, but his father tries to manage him. His watery eyes to his mother: she knows he is the creek waterfall and the sun and the shine of the lake, with all the other boys looking on.
He can taste the husk of locust and the flake of the flaky honeycomb.
He goes out to the raw lumber porch in the raw wind and caterwauls.
I love the part of the story when the boy caterwauls and breaks her open. But when I weep, I weep for the part before that, before all the miraculous occurrences, for the beautiful part when she rises up an old woman and quietly, on her plain and simple mornings, utters the word prepare, prays: Prepare me for this season which is fitting. And takes up cinder and ash, streaks the snow which is trackless but for a single set of bird prints. Gets a streak of ash on her cheek. In the snowlight, in the meeting of want and trust.
Elizabeth—This season of his caterwaul, his bark, his unafraid front facing everything, his hair never combed. Even now, her age slows her to sit more often and gather her strength and breath. Still, she pulls on muck boots by the creek with her boy—minnow—streak of light.
Maybe it’s a season that will be always, him yowling like creekwater swollen in the gorge, swollen and brown and foamy.
When asked later how it felt, she will feel the wholeness of life indiscriminately and say, He came like a package of crackers for the gulls, or a found feather. He came like a prophet to our doorstep in his sleepsack and then left for the teeming crowds to speak with rage and hope the word prepare. Of course he would be the baptizer in the rivers of the wilderness, he would make way for the one whose latchet of sandal he saw himself unworthy to untie. Of course the baptized people would break surface coming up and wear the faces of babies.
She will say: I felt unaccountable joy. She will say: I was so ready, unto every season that came, all the picking-up-the-bucket-and-go, I touched each moment as with palm down brushing the tips of the sedges and rye. So ready, but nothing could have prepared me for this.
To leap is to prepare your peeled and fleshy heart for this season. And what arrives this season—like a figure coming into visibility and detail on the road—is anybody’s guess.
John—O little monkey self, you’ll make tea from cleaver and spice bush, you’ll chew the birch bark and string your legs into the limbs of the sycamores, hovering your face above the water like a dog about to lap, thinking, What is the nature of water, the water with which you will baptize, how, over the mica and rounded rocks, it can flow with that kind of miracle, to drain from each beautiful person’s eyes and ears and return to rush and to seep in the ground. Who are you, water, that is the question, not what, and then—the one will come with spirit and with fire into which the weeping cherry blossoms do not fall and float, and that is beyond John’s small sphere but he points to it up the road, his face facing it, making out the figure coming.
Today, he seeks out trout lily, hepatica, lit by his hunger-light, and in this way he prepares as he has seen his mother do. Prepare the way of the Lord, straighten the crooked paths, bring the mountains low. Prepare your heart, its fleshy beat and beat, to explode like a star. To hold so much more than is possible for it to hold.
He will tell them: Ready your hearts at daybreak for what is coming, for what is here now, on the stoop and in the pantry, pull on your boots. He touches the fragile hepatica on the creek bank, such a thing to take care with.
I step out on the porch filled with her and him, right now, under roof in a cold spring rain, my arms bare. I’m papery as any, fearful as any, filled to my outermost cells and hairs with desire. In midlife, I long for a child I do not have, so my longing pries hers open, or hers mine.
Why does she help me, her mind lush and sudden and quick? Not because I expect that my womb, too, will fill, but she helps me trust the season is fitting. I can wash my face with cold water, tie back my hair, pick up the bucket and go. I think of my friend Diane gently pushing us to leap or die, slough skin so our bones emanate, the white of the white bone iridescent and keen for feeling. Leap and shed even the most intricate desires you have made, or at least the great heaviness of them.
When it is fitting, we bed down, we fill the house with sleeping. We lift our faces to the road. We taste meat and fish. We have bread. We have more than bread. We have less. And even less. We sing. We write these words. We find good words to say the things we do not know how to say. We do not miss the thing that arrives. We study an old story to figure out how to be born. We figure out there is no such thing as barrenness and there never was. May we believe this. May the snowlight fill our faces. May the rain warm us as it douses us.
May we rise up with the faces of babies.
Jessie van Eerden is the author of the portrait essay collection The Long Weeping and three novels: Glorybound, My Radio Radio, and Call It Horses which won the 2019 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction and is recently released. Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, Oxford American, Image, New England Review, and other magazines and anthologies. She has been awarded the Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction, the Milton Fellowship, and a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellowship. Van Eerden teaches creative writing at Hollins University and serves as nonfiction editor for Orison Books.
She previously contributed to TLR: Refrigerator Mothers