A Brief History of Tears

Fiction / Dawn Tefft

:: A Brief History of Tears ::

In 1964, I began cry­ing.

I can give you the set­ting of the day it hap­pened, but I can’t tell you why. It was the day of my quinceañera. I remem­ber I was wear­ing a pale pink dress made of satin, slow­ly unfold­ing my nap­kin, feel­ing aware that I was sit­ting at a fold­ing table in front of all the guests. And then, as I wrote lat­er in my jour­nal, “Long, deep heaves. Every breath burn­ing the nose and the throat. Rever­ber­a­tions in the abdomen.” I tried to hide it with my half-unfold­ed nap­kin.

Local­ized Cry­ing
(from an inter­view with Peter Sca­tori)

I didn’t know what was going on at first; I would just start cry­ing as soon as I sat down at the com­put­er. If I even looked at the mon­i­tor, it would go zig-zag on me. My boss and all my co-work­ers made me see a ther­a­pist until the company’s insur­ance wouldn’t cov­er it any­more. I start­ed hav­ing to do all my work on paper, fig­ur­ing out sums by hand. Luck­i­ly, I’m good with num­bers, so I could do the small­ish num­bers in my head. Even­tu­al­ly, the white­ness of paper would blind me when I looked at it, and I’d have to turn away. So I start­ed writ­ing on brown paper nap­kins, the kind with the fibers you can actu­al­ly see. I used those until they made my eyes red and weepy. My eyes felt like sores in my face. Final­ly, I went to the doc­tor, and he test­ed me for all kinds of aller­gies. I wasn’t aller­gic to any­thing, not even goats. I got real­ly scared at that point because I thought if I couldn’t use paper, I’d have to rely on my head for every­thing. So I decid­ed to go to a psy­chi­a­trist. It was then I was diag­nosed with Local­ized Cry­ing, the kind brought on by stress. It real­ly helped me a lot to know I wasn’t crazy, that there were actu­al­ly oth­er peo­ple out there expe­ri­enc­ing the same trig­gers and symp­toms as me. Since then, I’ve lost my job, but at least I know it’s not like it’s because I’m a bad per­son.

Even­tu­al­ly the nap­kin dis­in­te­grat­ed, leav­ing only my hands. Maybe paper desires to absorb some­thing. Maybe it needs to make a map of a sto­ry, the kind with­out words. Like when I was sev­en and my par­ents gave away our Col­lie. Because they didn’t even seem upset, I cried over a piece a paper and cir­cled where each tear land­ed.

The Jesuits were fond of tears. Every three years, they chose one per­son who was espe­cial­ly bur­dened and under­took to cry for him for one full year. In 1663, in the vil­lage of Mon­parte, an anony­mous monk left a note for Pelier Pele, say­ing that he would be cry­ing for Pele dur­ing the com­ing year in order to help alle­vi­ate the recent widower’s suf­fer­ing. Pele was a farmer, and after his wife’s death by con­sump­tion, word got around that he was hav­ing trou­ble tak­ing care of his sev­en chil­dren. Court doc­u­ments show that Pele remar­ried by the end of 1663. Accord­ing to vil­lage leg­end, the new mar­riage was facil­i­tat­ed by the slow dis­ap­pear­ance of a very large mole on the end of Pele’s nose. Vil­lagers believed it to have been the result of the monk’s aston­ish­ing pow­ers of con­cen­trat­ed sym­pa­thy. Mon­parte still holds its annu­al Fes­ti­val of Tears, dur­ing which peo­ple are blind­fold­ed by offi­cials, paired up, and sent into dark rooms made of peat. The pairs sit cross-legged on the ground, inhal­ing deeply. With each inhala­tion, the pair take in each other’s scent along with the moist, earthy scent of the walls sur­round­ing them, and by night­fall they begin cry­ing. The tears fall into bowls placed in the lap. Lat­er, the tears are bot­tled and aged. When one of the pair feels life is going espe­cial­ly well, he brews a tea from the tears which allows him to feel the sor­rows of the oth­er.

My moth­er came over to my chair and put both her hands on my face, just hold­ing it and talk­ing to me in this real­ly low voice. I don’t remem­ber any­thing she said, except for even­tu­al­ly she called my best friend over to sit with me because she thought Susana might get what was hap­pen­ing. That maybe it was a teenage thing.

I couldn’t stop. Susana didn’t know what to do with me.

Accord­ing to Cry­ing: The Nat­ur­al & Cul­tur­al His­to­ry of Tears, “tears usu­al­ly sig­nal a desire, a wish, or a plea.” Clin­i­cal­ly depressed peo­ple have “lost the impe­tus to cry, because with­out desire, there are no tears”; infants who are neglect­ed long enough nev­er cry again: “It is the infant who believes it will be picked up that wails, ener­gized by its fear that it will be left alone.” Though many read­ers might find Samuel Beckett’s writ­ing bereft of hope, in psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic terms, his writ­ing is point­ing at the loss of the abil­i­ty for tears. It is, like a depres­sive work­ing with a ther­a­pist, seek­ing to explore the sources and effects of the tear­less con­di­tion. And all explo­rations are under­tak­en with hope. If, as Beck­ett once stat­ed, “Every word is like an unnec­es­sary stain on silence and noth­ing­ness,” per­haps, then, Beckett’s words are his tears. Though in “Endgame” some of his char­ac­ters live in trash cans, it is not as if to say, “Yes, let us all, now and for­ev­er, live in trash cans.”

I remem­ber sit­ting there try­ing to fig­ure out what was hap­pen­ing to me. Run­ning through the day’s events, hop­ing to find what­ev­er it was that was both­er­ing me. I remem­bered going to the bath­room and tak­ing a bath after my moth­er woke me up. Care­ful­ly doing my make­up and hair for two whole hours. Spray­ing myself with some rose water, putting on the gold cross neck­lace and lit­tle gold post ear­rings, pulling on panty­hose. Catch­ing my panty­hose on a fin­ger­nail, hav­ing to take them off, putting on anoth­er pair. Slow­ly. My moth­er zip­ping up my shiny, full-skirt­ed dress. Look­ing at myself in the mir­ror from dif­fer­ent angles, and then stand­ing and star­ing, try­ing to decide what I looked like: good, bad, okay, sexy, inno­cent, inno­cent­ly sexy, young, old. Eat­ing oat­meal for break­fast. Rid­ing with my par­ents in the sedan to church. Lis­ten­ing to them talk about Father Her­nan­dez, the price of fruit, whether or not Tía There­sa would move out of the neigh­bor­hood. Arriv­ing at the church and walk­ing in. Lis­ten­ing to the Father. Sit­ting at the met­al fold­ing table for every­one to see. Cry­ing.

Nox­ious          
a short sto­ry by Felipe Fitz­car­ral­do

In the town of Caran­cas, high in Peru’s Andes, May­or Nestor Quispe is per­plexed by a mete­or. The mete­or fell in the night. The next morn­ing a farmer came into town, report­ing a huge, stink­ing rock in one of his out­ly­ing fields. He asked the may­or to put togeth­er a par­ty of men to remove the rock, which he claimed poi­soned all of his ani­mals. When the may­or arrived, he saw so many dead sheep on the ground, it looked like the clouds had come down to rest. He knew the sheep were dead because he kicked a few.

The farmer was right. The fields stank. They smelled like rot­ten eggs, tons of them. The may­or decid­ed it would be best to dyna­mite the thing. He made plans with the farmer to come back with the explo­sives the next morn­ing. That was before the out­break.

Slow­ly, over the course of the day, all the towns­peo­ple had fall­en ill with cry­ing. When the may­or returned home, his wife, Maria, was sit­ting on the porch, knit­ting and cry­ing. When he asked her why she was cry­ing, she just shook her head. She didn’t even look up, just kept work­ing the nee­dles, loop­ing and loop­ing. He nev­er under­stood how those loops held.

He shrugged and walked into the kitchen to get some water. He opened the cup­board and reached for a glass. When his hand returned emp­ty, he won­dered what had hap­pened. He tried to look for the glass, but every­thing was blur­ry. Then the first tear fell, thick like mucus. When the next one fell a cou­ple min­utes lat­er, he rubbed one hand into an eye, but it didn’t help; his eyes were already cloud­ing up again. He kept rub­bing and try­ing to clear a path for his vision, but it was like look­ing through a wind­shield in a heavy rain. He could only see clear­ly for a few sec­onds, and only every cou­ple of min­utes at that.

When Maria walked inside, she asked why he was just stand­ing in front of the cup­board.

I can’t see. I keep cry­ing these thick tears.”

Well, sit down, then,” Maria said, pulling a chair over to him.

I’d rather sit by the phone.”

So Maria walked him into the next room and set­tled him in the chair next to the phone table. When she walked out, he was rub­bing fists in his eyes and star­ing at the dial.

The may­or called the town’s doc­tor, Jorge.

I can’t stop cry­ing, Jorge. What’s wrong with me?”

Jorge told him peo­ple had been com­ing into his home all day, com­plain­ing of eye afflic­tions. One old woman who came in with her whole fam­i­ly thought they all had dev­ils in their eyes. Jorge recount­ed the old woman’s mem­o­ry of a sim­i­lar inci­dent when she was a child. She said that a man with mon­ey had come to the town and offered to pay for a bride. None of the fam­i­lies would give their daugh­ters to him, no mat­ter how much he offered. Before the man left, he stopped in the street in front of one par­tic­u­lar­ly pret­ty girl and stared at her until she start­ed cry­ing. The girl cried for a week straight. At the end of the week she died, her skin like a corn husk, drained of all her girl­ish flu­ids.

Jorge told the may­or about oth­er peo­ple, too. Peo­ple who came in say­ing they were being vis­it­ed by saints, labor­ers who thought they’d got­ten par­ti­cles of wood, dirt, or rock caught in their eyes, and lots and lots of chil­dren. The chil­dren cried hard­er than the adults. Jorge thought it was because they were so worked up about their inces­sant cry­ing, they were cry­ing in addi­tion to cry­ing.

When the may­or hung up the receiv­er, he couldn’t think. He sat and cried with­out hav­ing any thoughts at all. After a while, his thoughts returned, bear­ing his moth­er. He remem­bered when he was twelve, his moth­er giv­ing him a pack­age wrapped in brown paper. He remem­bered unty­ing the string, care­ful­ly, let­ting the rough strands of it scrape against his fin­gers. Run­ning his hands over the scratchy sur­face of the paper. Final­ly, unfold­ing the paper like lit­tle girls prac­tic­ing at unwrap­ping babies.

Some peo­ple have told me it’s because I’m a woman, or that I’m just weak. But that’s not it. It makes me strong in ways most peo­ple aren’t. For exam­ple, I can stay all day at a funer­al, whether I know the per­son or not. As a pro­fes­sion­al mourn­er, I earn a lot of mon­ey to share people’s sad­ness while fol­low­ing funer­al eti­quette. The thing is, I don’t have to fake it. I just have to remem­ber not to men­tion I didn’t know the deceased. I study the deceased’s life, share some of it in con­ver­sa­tions, hand around my own per­son­al sup­ply of heavy-duty tis­sue. Peo­ple like to talk to me; they feel com­fort­able col­lab­o­rat­ing.


 
          Allow me to cry.
          I am not          the neglected infant.
          Fear me if I am silly 
          or silent,
          if I refuse to take         lessons,
          though I am a novice.
          It is also bad 
          when I make         no argument.
          The Generalissimo will have won
          and flies will soon swarm
          the village.
 

The Dic­tio­nary of Tears tells us that both men and women cry. His­tor­i­cal­ly, men have cried at hero­ic deeds or because they lost some­one close to them. In the for­mer case, men cried to express their emo­tion­al reac­tion to a stir­ring event. In the lat­ter case, men cried not to express, but because there was no oth­er reac­tion avail­able.

Dur­ing the reign of the Vikings, tears were thought to be becom­ing to war­riors. If a war­rior went into bat­tle with­out wet­ting his beard, he wasn’t ful­ly aware of the con­se­quence of bat­tle. War­riors trav­eled with a bard, who wailed bat­tle epics while the war­riors slept. It was thought that if he wailed in just the right key, and if he paid each moment in bat­tle its due hon­or, the songs would infil­trate the plans war­riors make while sleep­ing. When bury­ing the dead, the bard would cry for the entire com­mu­ni­ty, chan­nel­ing the force of the emo­tions of all in atten­dance. The Kju­la Rune­stone states that when a ship was sent to sea emp­ty, with­out a body for a miss­ing war­rior, cries were so loud that ene­my camps thought the dead were try­ing to enter the bod­ies of ani­mals.            

The Mon­gols were, per­haps, the most fear­some criers. When they charged into bat­tle atop their steeds, it was with tears scour­ing their cheeks. Russ­ian leg­end has it that one Mon­gol war­rior cried ter­ri­bly while gut­ting a young girl and then rubbed her vis­cera on his wet face. To the Rus­sians attempt­ing to keep the Mon­gols at bay, it looked like the war­rior was actu­al­ly cry­ing pieces of the girl. Even­tu­al­ly, Mon­gols turned to cry­ing silent­ly, the sight of which was said to be hard to dis­cern, but hard­er to for­get.

Of all the ways of going through the world, cry­ing isn’t the most unten­able. Can you imag­ine going through life act­ing hap­py no mat­ter what’s hap­pen­ing around you? Like even when the win­dow work­er at the Burg­er King hands you sog­gy fries with that look that says her bills are pil­ing up but she real­ly doesn’t want to have to move back in with her abu­sive ex-boyfriend. And then you real­ize she for­got to include pack­ets of ketchup. Now that would be weird.

The Dic­tio­nary of Tears says that tears were per­fect­ed by Madame Curie in 1773, the year she infused them with laven­der. Hav­ing dis­tilled laven­der buds, rob­bing them of their essences, she added this frag­ile water to the stur­dier salt water she milked from the ducts of vol­un­teers. Madame’s Salts became so pop­u­lar that she even­tu­al­ly pro­duced a series of ready-to-wear tears, some of the more pop­u­lar of which were Rose, Chamomile, and Jas­mine. Today, a vin­tage Rose is reput­ed to cost in the mil­lions, not only for its age, but for the chance to par­take of a quaint French villager’s tristesse, cir­ca late 1700s.

The ready-to-wear line was often used to add a seduc­tive sad­ness to one’s hair or cloth­ing, but the orig­i­nal laven­der tears remained by far the favorite of Curie’s inven­tions. Imbibed and left to fall from the eyes as they may, court goers were espe­cial­ly fond of them and con­sid­ered them an essen­tial acces­so­ry for attend­ing plays, con­certs, dances, and oth­er artis­tic and social events. The poten­tial­ly unex­pect­ed oncom­ing of tears was one of the attrac­tions, but usu­al­ly the tears made their appear­ance at par­tic­u­lar­ly dra­mat­ic emo­tion­al moments. Known for its calm­ing prop­er­ties, laven­der was pre­scribed to soothe the nerves of many an over­wrought funer­al goer.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was said to incite so many tears from the audi­ence that the con­cert hall would become humid. More than one audi­ence mem­ber was report­ed to have become deliri­ous, imag­in­ing them­selves in the high­lands of France, chas­ing a younger sib­ling through the fields. In 1779, Maria Tina Binoche, a patron of the arts and an asth­mat­ic, choked on the laven­der-heavy air in a Paris con­cert hall and died in the mid­dle of Mozart’s “Requiem.” Fol­low­ing a string of sim­i­lar deaths, Madame’s Salts were out­lawed in 1822. Near­ly two hun­dred years lat­er, Jonas Salk would read about Madame Curie and attempt to inoc­u­late exces­sive­ly emo­tion­al patients with tears, only to find that the vac­cine didn’t work. Dev­as­tat­ed by the fail­ure of his idea, he became deeply depressed and died of alco­hol poi­son­ing.

I start­ed cry­ing once, and I just haven’t stopped since.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Pop psy­chol­o­gy often con­veys that any one issue has a sin­gle or at least pri­ma­ry cause, but we’re all the prod­ucts of his­to­ry, unique bio­chem­istry, mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances, and all the stim­uli we’ve ever encoun­tered over the course of our lives. The frame for the sto­ry is a short first-per­son nar­ra­tive intend­ed to explain some­thing inex­plic­a­ble: the sud­den onset of cry­ing that nev­er stops. The sto­ry con­tains no dia­logue, and the first-per­son nar­ra­tive is inter­spersed with fic­tion­al ency­clo­pe­dia-like entries about his­tor­i­cal events, cul­tures, or phe­nom­e­na relat­ed to cry­ing. The entries tend to fur­ther com­pli­cate the nar­ra­tive rather than pro­vide clar­i­ty. But I like to think that fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing some­thing tru­ly com­plex is a form of clar­i­ty.

I enjoy less tra­di­tion­al forms of sto­ry­telling, and I thought it would be inter­est­ing to explore some­thing as uni­ver­sal as cry­ing from both a per­son­al and a (com­plete­ly fic­tion­al) his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to cry­ing because some cul­tures label it as weak­ness even though it serves many nec­es­sary func­tions, like­ly makes us stronger in the sense that it helps us keep going in the face of hard­ship, and is a per­ma­nent fea­ture of our lives.

 

Poems of Dawn Tefft are pub­lished in Fence, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, Wit­ness, and Sen­tence, among oth­er jour­nals. Her chap­books include Fist (Danc­ing Girl Press, 2016), The Walk­ing Dead: A Lyric (Fin­ish­ing Line Press, 2016), and Field Trip to My Moth­er and Oth­er Exot­ic Loca­tions (Mud­lark, 2005). Her first fic­tion piece was pub­lished recent­ly in Pio­neer­town. Her non­fic­tion has been pub­lished in cream city review, Pop­Mat­ters, Truthout, Jacobin, and Wood­land Pat­tern’s blog. She holds a Ph.D. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Mil­wau­kee and works as a high­er-ed labor orga­niz­er and rep­re­sen­ta­tive.