Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
One day in nursery school, when I was five I think, I cried. My teacher, in her floral apron with gigantic pockets, handed me a paper cup. She handed me a paper cup, and told me to collect my tears as they slid down my face and drink them. “And when you drink your tears,” she said, “think about your ancestors who were slaves in Egypt.” It must’ve been close to Passover. She didn’t intend to be cruel. Her face was covered with freckles the same rust color as the flowers on her apron. The other kids wanted to taste the tears, too. The teacher told me to pass the cup around. And I did. And from the little paper cup the children drank.
I wish I could remember what I was crying over.
In 2014, a story appeared about a Yemeni woman who cries stones. She produces as many as a hundred stones a day, and she cries most of the stones in the afternoon and evening. She is one of twenty children, and she does not cry stones while she is sleeping. None of her sisters or brothers cry stones. Her name is Sadia, which means “happy” in Arabic. The tears look like tiny pebbles, and they collect under her lower eyelids. It is not impossible that the girl’s tears are the same pebbles Hansel and Gretel use to make a path home. Local doctors cannot offer a scientific explanation, but some villagers agree she is under a magic spell.
One year earlier, a fifteen-year-old girl from Bajel city, six months after her wedding, began to cry stones, too. In addition to the stones, “she experienced a swollen belly.” And in 2016, in China, a farmer removed silvery white stones from his wife’s eyes with a wire hook. The farmer and his wife believed the stones to be her tears, but doctors who couldn’t explain the phenomenon called it a hoax.
I believe these women really were crying stones, but I also can understand their desire—the farmer’s wife, the girl with twenty brothers and sisters, the child-mother-bride—to play a trick. How else do you call attention to your sadness? There are days I wish I could cry one whole boulder. A city of rubble. Glittering hail.
I don’t cry as much as I used to. Maybe the headlines have broken the neuronal connection between my lacrimal glands and my limbic system. Like a petrified tree branch that stiffened and cracked. Or a blown fuse. I look at my phone and see this headline: “Court Says Detained Migrant Children Must Get Soap.” Like water rising, my head fills up with it: “Court Says Detained Migrant Children Must Get Soap Court Says Detained Migrant Children Must Get Soap Court Says Detained Migrant Children Must Get Soap Court Says Detained Migrant Children Must Get Soap Court Says Detained Migrant Children Must Get Soap …” I can’t cry. Instead, something hard and bitter has formed in my throat. I should stand outside a detention center and cough up something useful. No child would feel clean washed in some strange woman’s tears.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth compiled five hundred fairy tales that were boxed up for over one hundred years. Dusty and asleep, these tales were unpacked in 2012 and translated by Erika Eichenseer. One of my favorites is “Pearl Tears,” the one about the girl with a dead mother, a wicked stepmother and stepbrothers, visions of God, and an indifference to the stirrings of love. The stepmother spent the father’s fortune, and the family lives in miserable circumstances. One day Maria’s stepmother and stepbrothers beat her so badly she bleeds. “She retreated to the kitchen and leaning over a washbasin, she began weeping. Her blood trickled into the basin, and each teardrop that fell into the basin made a ringing sound … She noticed something shiny in the basin and discovered some of the most beautiful pearls she had ever seen.” Newly rich, the family can now return to festive times. Maria is so thrilled she begins to laugh, and as she laughs one rose after another drops from her mouth.
Before long, though, the pearls are spent. So the stepmother and stepbrothers begin to torture her again. And so she weeps more pearls. Eventually she runs away, and lives out her days taking care of the poor and the sick.
Tears, like pearls, are currency. I ask my eighteen-year-old stepdaughter what she plans on doing (job? school?), and she bursts into tears and runs into her room where she stays for days and days and days. So I’ve stopped asking. “Let her be,” says my husband. Snow White cries, and the huntsman lowers his knife. Cinderella plants a hazel sprig on her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears. A beautiful tree grows, and in this tree lives a little white bird that grants her what she wishes. And the Little Mermaid would have cried, “only a mermaid hasn’t any tears, and so she suffers all the more.”
When I give the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, halfway through, something happens. I don’t cry. Instead a sound like soot comes out, like a forest on fire. Burnt trees and smoke. Shriveled animals. I turn my head away, and clear my parched throat twice.
My father and stepmother bring over an old cupboard filled with my grandmother’s china and mount it on my dining room wall. It’s brown with birds on it, and the teacups are blue. Sometimes I put my head inside the cupboard and breathe in because she hasn’t even been dead for a year and it still smells like her and here I am. I look like a Louise Bourgeois house, swaying.
“Mama,” says my six year old, “is just crying with her head in the cupboard because Grandma Gert is dead.” But I’m not really crying. I just want to be alone with my grandmother. I feel around for my eyes. A little wet, but not wet enough. I wish my tears were feral tears. Like wolf tears with fur and teeth. Tears like a cold lake that has only ever reflected sky and trees. A lake, so faraway, it has never reflected a face. Not even once.
The fairy tale is a dead body that goes on living, which makes it impossible to cry over its grave. And if the fairy tale did have a grave, it wouldn’t be a hole in the ground. It would probably be more like this cupboard I have my head inside.
Wild pearls, formed without human intervention, are rare. Hundreds of oysters and mussels must be opened and killed to find a single wild pearl. This is why the girl cries pearls and not pennies or diamonds. To cry a pearl means something living was cracked open and lost.
I wonder if like the Tin Man, all my tears have rusted up my joints. I go to the doctor and tell her my bones hurt. “Where?” she asks. “My carriage,” I answer, sort of pointing around my waist, but then down and then up. “Is that what you call this? A carriage?” She is a very kind doctor, and the corners of her eyes turn downward like mine, like she knows the whole world is always on the verge of bursting into tears. After blood work and X-rays, we conclude I am sad. “You’re sad,” she says. “No,” I say, “I’m a Jew. This is how we look. But also,” I agree, “I guess I’m also sad.” She prescribes a small dose of Lexapro, which makes it now even harder to cry. It is a round white pill, and from far away it could be mistaken for a pearl.
“Or maybe now that I’m fifty,” I say to a friend of mine, “I’ve run out of crying.” She says, “You’re not fifty. You’re nowhere near fifty.” But I am near fifty. Nearer than I’ve ever been.
I wonder if tears have ghosts. I recently read somewhere that trees cry. If we can count on anything remembering everything isn’t it the earth? A tear is a hurricane. It’s all the water on its way back home.
When my sons cry, I hold them and say, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, when really I should say, cry, cry, cry, or I should just hold them and say nothing. I save all their teeth, but I don’t save their tears. It’s been zero days since someone in my house didn’t cry.
When I was a kid, I remember asking my father why the newscasters didn’t cry while they reported the hurricanes, and the wars, and the fires, and the dead children, and the starvation, and the injustice, and the murder, and the rape. And even now I am still always half-expecting the reporters to burst, and the screen to fill up with salt water and waves. Driftwood and fish bones. Crying as old as the oceans. Once, a newscaster did cry while breaking the news on “tender age shelters,” where babies would be held after being taken from their parents under Trump’s immigration laws. “Put up a graphic of this?” she asks. But there is no graphic. They can’t cut away. The only graphic available is the newscaster crying.
The preferred weight measurement used for pearls is the momme. The preferred weight measurement used for loose tears is the “mother” or the “mommy.” I made that up, of course. My sons cry everyday. Some of those tears are mine, and some of my tears are theirs, and some are my mother’s, and some of my mother’s tears are her mother’s tears, and her mother before her, and her mother before her.
Crying in fairy tales is like one gigantic tear, hardened into a swing for all human sadness to rise and fall. Back and forth. Back and forth. A glistening swing pulled back by all the mothers who let go, and send their children into the air. A whooshing sob made out of the place where abandonment and liberation overlap, and punctuated by a mother fading backward into the distance.
For 200 euros you can order a Tear Collection Kit from Maurice Mikkers (an artist and medical laboratory analyst) and have your tear imaged into a work of art. The project is called Imaginarium of Tears, and the tears collected under a microscope look like ancient moons covered in starfish and grass. They look like the letters of a future alphabet. They look like thumbprints and battlefields and secret planets. I wish I could send in the first tears my sons shed. And the last tears my grandmother shed. Because I want to keep everything. I want to hold everything in. And then I want to let it all go.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.