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5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd.

Ann Arbor, MI 48103


CALL IT HORSES. Copyright © 2021, text by Jessie van Eerden. All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher: Dzanc Books, 5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48103.

Library of Congress Catalogue-in-Publication Data Available Upon Request

ISBN: 978-1-950539-25-3

First US edition: March 2021

Interior design by Michelle Dotter

Cover by Matthew Revert

Printed in the United States of America

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in memory of my great-aunt Unabelle Boggs

ON A NOTEPAD FROM THE DOLLAR STORE I WRITE YOU. A red star explodes around the only one dollar on the cover. There is a break in the cold weather, as if the earth were taking a gasp, all the frozen grass gone to mud. It’s a fissure to step into, or a point of stillness. A letter to you may become a channel, or chute, and could dislodge the thing lodged in me. At various times I have written you scraps on receipts and Denny’s napkins and her untendered prescriptions. Dear Ruth.And in my childhood there were those three years of letters from you and to you, the language always on fire. My thoughts shift like water when I picture these pages in your hands. The mud will freeze again, after this respite from winter. In this liminal mud—I can almost see its steam—something does begin.

I write you about the dead. I write you to stay alive and, after all this time, I write you, still, to become myself.

Do you think regions and landscapes can body forth what’s inside a person? I think that. Here in the steaming quick thaw. Back then, before we left, Mave and I could smell our minds rotting in the awful lush of West Virginia mountain summer, the damp sponge of dirt. We were wringing wet, like cats up from the creek; our breathing was gagged with sphagnum moss and fetid swamp weed. And the humid fog of funerals had left a yellowing film on our skin. We had to go, you understand. We had to make it as far as we could.

If there are indeed regions inside a person, she and I longed for the inner desert region, to meet its physical correlative in the bear grass and prickly pear and quartz and juniper. The smoke of red rock. We longed for an unchoked landscape. I did not know then what the third party longed for—Nan, sitting backseat like a viper. The atlas barreled us forward to cut through our mountains slogged shut with old skunk cabbage and October leaf rot, toward the horse fields beautifully fenced in Kentucky and the Tennessee trees from which ticks would fall into our hair. We would detour to Memphis since Mave, at age seventy, had never seen Memphis, nor had I. Across the blue ribbon of the Mississippi, the atlas held out Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas in their blocky territories, then the New Mexico line dotted down across Interstate 40 and there was Tucumcari, which I love to say aloud, probably a Comanche word for ambush, vocalized and transcribed and retranscribed. The bright line of I-40 would pull us into places dried out, nearer the sun. It would not be your Sinai Desert, Ruth, or your ancient manuscripts studied on sabbaticals, but it’s what we could manage.

I promised Mave we would make it to the desert, but I’ll tell you now we made it only to the dry windy Texas plains. We didn’t speak when we left. Only the fading hydrangeas spoke their goodbye, without any urgency. On the bypass, our tongues loosened.

“How long?” Mave asked.

“Maybe three days,” I said.

“Portable oxygen has a shelf life.” She deflected her ache onto the highway signs. When she would speak to you, did she also always deflect away?

The car was a blue Oldsmobile, not in good shape, but its metal seemed lighter for its lightness in color. The car belonged to Nan, but she was demoted to the backseat as a condition of our bringing her along. We floated upon the asphalt, and when the earth flattened the least bit, we tried to give ourselves to the road. Two of us were wives—Nan and me. I thirty-six and she somewhere in her mid-twenties.

On a rough-lumber table with a vinyl tablecloth, I write this to you. Dear Ruth, can you feel the unfolding of our disaster? I should write each word as carefully and detailed as a hieroglyph. I should choose sensibly, what bird to mean soul, what horse to mean I’m falling fast through time. Each word precious. You taught me that, in the letters you wrote me from your desk in Northampton, which I always pictured as dark wood, wide, strewn with books and, at the corner, a vase of tulips. What promise did you see in me? Anyway, I do think it’s something else—after the words—that might be precious. Once language slips through the sieve, maybe something remains. Maybe a heart beating.

I WANTED THE DESERT SCRUB TO SHOW ME, FINALLY, whether I was incapable of love, whether I lived too hermetically—“She is too private,” said Mother to Mave when I was a child. The desert dust I would sit down in would body forth my arid solitude. That was the idea.

“I’ll thatch you a roof for your hermit hut,” Mave once said to me, neither kindly nor unkindly.

“On the road,” she crooned in the blue car. “I love automatic windows. I want to be windblown. How about you, Nan?”

Nan sat wounded and further woundable in my rearview, perhaps less viper and more nude bird except for her huge mass of hair flying up and out and over. Black eye radiant at its yellowing edge. She reached up in great transgression to tune the radio, so we all discovered together it was busted.

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