It wasn’t that she was sad, though she was. It was life’s awful brilliance – the eternity of every single thing, small and big. A flood brought misery with it, but the click of her heels when she walked was sublime. Families were executed in turbulent times, but the scent of home brought deliverance. She could, in a moment, be swept into melancholy, madness, or glee. At any moment, reality might be undone, and the true vision of her hysteria could overpower the night.
Julia cried when she was born, and she cried every day after. When a fly came into the room she cried, and she cried when the fly left. When there was no milk she cried; when there was more milk than she could drink she cried again. She cried at night and in the day, at dawn and at twilight. The doctors couldn’t say why.
Despite her parents’ concerns, Julia learned, grew and played like any little girl. Her mother thought the affliction might become worse with age, and that adulthood – with its setbacks – would bring a more terrible sickness. She stayed up nights and invented a time in which Julia’s heart was broken in some immature love affair, and Julia, unable to absorb the consequences, had to be hospitalized to prevent suicide.
She expressed her fears to Julia’s dad. Equally afraid, he only responded, “We will protect her.”
When she was five her mom and dad brought Julia a fish. Golden lived in a bowl with white pebbles on the bottom, and a green stone castle. Julia watched Golden float. Her eyes followed the easy roll of Golden’s fins. When Julia swam she kicked and struggled, but Golden was quiet in the water. Julia talked to her, and imagined Golden had the same problem with tears that she had. Only Golden’s tears were lost in the water, and became invisible.
“Don’t be sad,” Julia whispered.
When Golden stopped swimming they made a cake. Julia drew Golden’s portrait in the frosting. Julia cried, and her mom cried too, as she licked sugar from her thumb.
On her next birthday, Julia’s mom and dad took her to see a hot-air balloon. When the balloon lifted from the ground and into the sky above them, Julia hopped with excitement.
“There it goes,” her dad said.
Julia’s mom pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped Julia’s cheeks. Julia bit her lip and her weight shifted quickly from one foot to the other. The balloon drifted into the clouds and then a thousand more joined it. The pilots inside leaned out to her, each becoming ever smaller in the offing.
“Julia, come join us!” they shouted.
“I will!” Julia cried.
The pilots fired their burners and the balloons rose until they disappeared.
“You will what?” asked Julia’s dad.
Julia waved to the shrinking balloon.
They took a cross country train on family vacation. Julia’s mom pointed out the window to the mountains, cows, and crows. Julia touched the glass. There were more tears. They bought candy from a cart that passed through. Julia unwrapped a caramel and let it melt on her tongue until it dissolved completely.
Tragedy came in a rocky place where the trees were thick and green. The train left its tracks at a curve and slid down a long hill. It had been a quiet moment, just before nap time. Julia’s dad sat with his fingers intertwined and his eyes half-closed. Her mom read a magazine. Julia sat between them and kicked her legs up and down. Then the car tilted. Tree limbs shattered the windows. Leaves, dirt and stones violated the air. As the train twisted and turned over itself Julia’s tears floated in space around them. They splashed against a thin man’s suitcase and at the base of a grasping woman’s empty hand.
When the train stopped moving Julia lay between her parents and thought she was dead. Heaven seemed a strange place to her. Suitcases shifted and fell. Dust swirled in the sun.
For months afterward Julia lived in a hospital. During the day the nurses made her practice walking in the hall. She walked between parallel bars until her arms ached, or was strapped into a wheeled device that made her feel more machine than girl.
She was in bed one night when a meteor shower took place outside her window. The meteors were great fireballs that lit up the church steeple in the trees a mile away. Julia was so frightened she pulled the blanket over her head. She moaned and choked as quietly as she could. Her gown became damp with sweat, her legs trembled, and the muffled obliteration of everything she knew reached her from the unobserved distance.
When she woke in the morning the sky was clear. Instead of a field of ashes and fire the city stood the way it always had. Julia was terrified that she’d lost her mind; that she’d been misplaced in some endless delusion.
A nurse arrived holding a tray. She observed Julia’s bloodshot eyes and quivering lips.
“What’s wrong?” the nurse said.
“Are my parents alive?” asked Julia.
The nurse gawked. Julia peered back. Her hair fell in stale black strands over her ears.
“You know they’re not,” said the nurse.
She placed the tray across Julia’s bed. It was runny eggs, juice, and toast.
Julia became convinced that she hadn’t invented the meteors, and was frustrated when the nurses wouldn’t believe her.
“It was real,” she screeched. She threw her pillow on the floor. “Real!”
A nurse put on the T.V. and pointed at the news.
“There’s nothing there!” she shouted. “Get your head out of the clouds!”
The nurse was a big woman with flabby arms. She lifted Julia like she was paper and put her on her feet.
“Now walk,” the nurse grunted.
Instead of walking, Julia went limp.
“Walk!” the nurse screamed. “Walk! Walk! Walk!”
Tears came. Julia couldn’t speak or move. She let her weight fall and the nurse dropped Julia on the tile. Then the nurse growled and stalked out of the room, her fat ankles struggling against her white sneakers. Her socks were pink with lace ruffles.
Julia lay very still for a long time.
When she could walk again Julia was taken to an orphanage in a large, wood house painted blue, with an iron filigree fence. Julia thought it looked haunted. She saw sorry spirits around every corner, and behind all the doors.
Julia was left in the front hall and the headmistress took her hand. The headmistress was a tall woman who walked with an angry limp. She had black eyes and spoke as if she’d been insulted at birth. As Julia was led upstairs a row of girls peered down on her from the second floor banister. They looked like dolls, or as if dolls had been made with them in mind.
Sometimes the girls went on field trips. At the aquarium Julia admired the starfish most. The other girls preferred the seahorses. A person in a scuba suit hung in the middle of a great tank and gave out pieces of pink flesh to the barracudas and sharks. The diver wore a mask but Julia could see his eyes were wide and excited. She watched; the other girls squealed, their faces to the glass, and the headmistress tapped her foot behind them.
At the petting zoo, on another day – at the first touch of a lamb’s tongue – Julia knelt on the ground – in the straw and dust – and she bawled, with her fingers curled into fists. The other girls stood far away and they whispered. The headmistress put her hand on Julia’s shoulder and shook her. It was no use.
“Is something wrong?” said an employee.
“Nothing at all,” the headmistress sighed. “Except this little girl who confuses crying with breathing. You’d think everything was a funeral.”
The employee, an old woman with thick glasses and breath like a candy cane, leaned over Julia.
“The lamb is just fine, dear,” she said. “The lamb is just fine.”
The clouds were pink and a warm, warm orange, in the shape of many things, and the sky beyond was cream.
When she was thirteen Julia took notice of an ancient woman who often passed by the orphanage. Her face resembled a ravaged skull, and her body was slight as a breeze. She wore long, drab gowns, even on the hottest days. Most notable was her head, which was bald and spotted with lonely islands of downy white hairs. The old woman’s gait was so proud, and her scalp so stunning, that Julia wept at the thought of her.
One morning Julia stood in the bathroom mirror and cut chunks of her hair away, until her own head was as bald as the old woman’s. She buried the hair she removed under a tree in the front yard of the orphanage.
“You’re never going to be adopted,” one of the girls said from the porch.
Julia wiped her tears and hissed. The girl ran inside. Julia showed her head to the woman as soon as she could. The woman opened her toothless gums and, for several minutes, laughed her approval.
The other girls in the orphanage wore brightly-colored dresses and had long, blonde hair. They had fine manners and sat up straight at the dinner table. In the evenings they tried on each other’s clothes and practiced kissing on their hands. They were adopted quickly, then new girls took their place, and the new girls were even prettier.
Julia did not want to be pretty. Her clothes were faded and mismatched. She gnawed her nails so they were uneven and raw, and refused to clean her ears. She licked her lips until they were chapped, then chewed them until they bled. Her eyebrows grew in a single line and she didn’t pluck them. At the dinner table she slouched.
Couples came to the orphanage and fawned over the girls, but when they came to Julia, crying, they didn’t know what to do. One would lean over her and ask what was wrong, and Julia would respond that nothing was wrong. The other would cross their arms and say, “You’ll never be adopted that way.”
Julia drew a collection of friendly houses. Inside each she sensed the remains of better days. The place felt like one she’d known, but she couldn’t complete it in her memory.
“What is that?” one of the girls sneered.
“Nothing,” she snapped.
Julia crumpled the page.
Julia didn’t think the life she drew was real, but then, sometimes the life she led didn’t seem real either. The colors were too vivid, and the people too strange. Events passed that seemed impossible, and sometimes she was the only one who saw them, and sometimes not.
She drew her mom and dad, and put the picture under her pillow next to a stamp with a yellow frog on it, and a plastic man with a top hat who seemed to have no purpose at all, and to belong nowhere.
The girls shared a room with two long rows of beds. The other girls decorated their beds with pink sheets and left fresh flowers on their bedside tables. Julia had no sheets at all, unless it was cold. Then she used one blanket, and it was brown.
During the night she was at the girls’ mercy. Julia kept her eyes closed tight, even when they surrounded the bed and tormented her. They pulled on her clothes, poked her stomach, jumped on her mattress, and smeared toothpaste on her face. They prodded and bit, spit in her ears, and when it was cold, they took her blanket.
She didn’t open her eyes, except once. A girl named Wendy leaned close and whispered, “You’re the saddest thing I ever saw.” Julia opened her eyes then. The girls were distorted and monstrous. It was so terrible that Julia closed her eyes again. The girls pealed. The game went on.
She took a walk one morning past the overflowed creek to the supermarket. She stood by the oranges and watched the boy at the cash register. He had dark skin and big eyes. His voice was soft as tissue. Her tears fell harder when she was near him, and she was embarrassed. She could see his back sway one way and then the other as he rang up old women’s cabbages and fish.
Julia sighed and took an orange, then she got in the boy’s line.
The boy twitched when he saw her. Julia eyed the candy. She put the orange in his hand.
“One orange,” he said.
Julia nodded and a tear came loose from her lashes.
“I think I’m going to the circus when it opens,” the boy said.
His nose was peeling. He and his friends swam in the creek on occasion, when no one else was around.
Julia rolled her head, then shrugged and nodded.
“We could go together,” said the boy. The orange was still cradled in his palm. He handed it to her. “Take it.”
Julia held the orange in both hands.
The night of the circus, the girls wore their most colorful summer dresses and tied ribbon around their waists. The headmistress did the girls’ hair and put on their makeup. The bedroom was fogged with hairspray and powder.
No one attended to Julia, because she had no hair and she refused to wear makeup. She wore the only dress she owned – it was gray and black. Everyone else hated it, and the more they hated it, the more she wanted to wear it.
“Where did you get that thing?” the headmistress asked.
Julia couldn’t remember, so she made something up.
“My mom made it,” she said.
“That’s not true,” the headmistress said. “Your mother died long before you were big enough to wear it. Where did it really come from?”
Julia ignored her. She convinced herself that the dress had been sewn by her mother, and it became her most prized possession.
When the clock struck seven she sat in the front room and waited. The other girls’ dates came all at once. They were clean boys with blue eyes and stupid grins. The girls skipped down the stairs and were led out of the house on the arms of their immaculate escorts.
Julia waited patiently. It became late. The headmistress clucked her tongue and went to bed.
“It’s because of your hair!” she called from upstairs.
It was much later when the girls came home. Their faces glistened with sweat and first kisses. Wendy threw herself in the sofa across from Julia. She blew hair out of her face.
“We saw your boy tonight,” she smiled. “The one from the supermarket.”
Julia started. Wendy puckered her lips and extended her arms, then played her fingers on the cushions of the couch.
“He is a beautiful kisser, you know,” she smiled. “He invited me to go swimming with him.”
Julia’s mouth fell open in a great frown, her lips curled and her teeth bared. Wendy crossed her legs.
“I think I just might,” she whispered.
The girls tittered from the hall.
“Quiet down there!” came the headmistress’ voice, accompanied by the bang of her fist on the wall.
Julia leapt from her chair, but before she could put her hands on Wendy, the other girls were on top of her. They giggled and held her down. Julia sobbed and choked on their perfume and the cherry scent of their lip gloss, until she was too exhausted to move. The girls rushed upstairs, each one of them still sniffling with delight, until the door closed overhead.
Julia lay on the rug. The circus was long over. She went to the front porch and looked for the boy. A dog walked into the street, stopped to sniff a manhole cover, and continued on.
The rain came. Instead of going inside Julia walked to the bus stop. The bus arrived shortly after. The only other person on board was asleep in the back row.
“Something wrong?” the driver said.
Julia shook her head. She dropped her quarters in the slot then found a seat.
The driver shifted and the bus moved. The shudder of the bus was a comfort. The driver and the sleeping man in the back seat felt like friends to her. Julia closed her eyes. When she opened them a different man was asleep in the back row. Julia rubbed her eyes as the bus came to a stop on the edge of a vast lot. A tower at the lot’s center illuminated two great swaying hulks. Their backs glistened with water and massive chains were attached to their legs. Their trunks were listless and their mouths hung open. The elephants stood one behind the other. They lifted and dropped their ears. Julia could see tents and trailers. The shapes of people moved between them.
She left the bus and passed her way forward through the rain. She looked in the windows of the trailers. One held a band of singing gypsies. A burly man with a beard sat on top of a dresser with an accordion. A curvy woman with red lipstick was at a table with her legs crossed. There were two children at her feet. The woman sang.
Julia moved on. Another trailer held the fat lady. The next contained the bearded woman and the tattooed man. Finally Julia came to the trailer of a dark-haired woman at a tremendous desk. Julia knocked on the door. The rain seemed to fall harder. The woman appeared in a red and black tuxedo. She introduced herself as Donna, the owner of the circus, and invited Julia in. Julia stood in the warm trailer on a plush red rug. Water dripped into its fibers. Julia held her arms out and evaluated the ruins of the dress her mother had made.
“You’re sure a mess, aren’t you?” said the woman.
Julia’s features came undone and she fell on her knees and sobbed. Her hands covered her face and shook. Snot poured from her nostrils and into her mouth. After her surprise passed, the woman led Julia to a hammock by a window and helped her lay down. Outside the gypsy music played, the moon was clear between the rain clouds, and a moth clung to the window screen.
Days went by and Julia didn’t stop crying. Jugglers and clowns came and went. A pony was brought in on a leash. Dwarves did somersaults outside the window. Nothing worked. The tears didn’t end.
At a loss, Donna put Julia on the midway. A tiger had died a few weeks earlier. Donna gave Julia a red-sequined ballerina costume and put her on a stool in the tiger’s cage.
Visitors looked at her, moaned with sympathy, then moved on. Women who seemed very kind – some of whom reminded Julia of her mother – bent over their children’s heads in long dresses that hugged their rear ends, pointed, shook their heads, and led the children away. One evening Julia thought she saw the boy from the supermarket, near the back, peering over the shoulder of a man in overalls. She caught the boy’s eyes and he stared back, eyebrows raised. Then her vision blurred and she dropped her head. When she looked again he was gone.
A red and white sign was painted and placed above her. It said, “THE AMAZING CRYING GIRL!”
Julia no longer left her cage. She took her meals there, and did her private business in a corner, behind a black curtain. She sat on the stool all day and wept, and at night she slept sitting up. She wobbled but kept her balance, and salty tears slipped from her closed eyelids to the sawdust at her feet.
A member of the cleaning crew swept around her cage every morning. He was a dangerously lean man of seventy, who, due to cancer, whispered when he talked. One morning he put his face between the bars of Julia’s cage. Julia lifted her eyes to his.
“Why do you cry?” he asked, so softly Julia almost misunderstood him.
“Isn’t there every reason to cry?” she said.
The man didn’t respond. He looked on a moment longer into Julia’s cage. It was just long enough for Julia to catch the swimming moistness of the man’s eyes. She almost reached out to him. She wanted to ask if he missed the world they used to live in, where things were what they were supposed to be; if his escape was the same as hers; if he was who he said he was. She almost asked him if he knew where she was from, and if she could go back. Instead she stared, and after a moment the man shuffled away, his overalls faded and greasy with dirt, and Julia soon forgot him.
The circus traveled in a train painted with the faces of its most popular clowns. Trapeze artists in elegant dives flew across the churning body of the locomotive as it traveled over bridges and hills. Julia was transported in the same car with the dogs and ponies. Her life seemed now an unalterable night.
Her car shook. The train had been moving for days, and Julia was lost in thought and dream, with no recollection of time or place. The hot afternoons on the midway were one continuous stink of hotdogs and cotton candy; a blur of leering red faces and pitying looks. She floated in her body. The car bumped and screeched. The circus, she’d learned, was beautiful and ugly. Its delights were reserved for children. Its terrible mechanisms were in hiding below. Julia didn’t look for beauty where she was. It had been too long since anything touched her.
The train entered a soft curve, then all seemed still before a roar and a force lifted Julia and her cage free. She was tossed into a familiar space. She felt her tears splash across an ankle and back into her eyes as she was upended into the darkness. There was a horrible sound of metal twisting, bones breaking, screams, cries, then, a deep silence.
Julia lay on her side, afraid to move. She heard nothing. After a long time she stood, and found her cage had been battered open. She limped to a small spot of light in the dark, and pulled the door of the car free.
The country had been decimated. A layer of ash muted the miles all around. Trees hung low with soot, and the train was charred to black.
“Was it a bomb?” she said to no one.
There was no life. The air moved with floating powder, and soon Julia’s red-sequined tutu was as gray as the sky.
She stepped from the train and searched from car to ravaged car for survivors. There were only burned and mummified corpses that looked as if they’d been left embalmed some centuries before. Cars had been torn open, and human and animal bodies lay in the ash like distorted statues in a blanket of snow.
Just inside the muttering wind there was a sound of shuffling. It came from the car where her cage had been. Julia ran to the opened door and peered in. There a pink pony named Perfect was getting to her feet, and a mongrel dog named George was shaking his body at her side.
Julia put her arms out and helped the pony and the dog to the ground. Perfect searched the ash for food and George walked in a circle before resting on his haunches. A minor dust cloud rose around him.
Tears streamed down Julia’s face. She grinned and tears fell on her tongue.
“I guess we better find food,” she laughed. “This is the way. Come with me.”
Perfect and George followed her from the train and onto a path past a line of trees and a decaying row of friendly houses. Julia knew them. She’d learned to ride a bicycle in front of one; at the next she’d skinned her knee. Farther on was someplace better; someplace thrilling. A purple dragonfly buzzed across the path and disappeared into the keening ruins of the earth. George yipped. Julia skipped ahead.