Homesteading by Gretchen VanWormer
In August, Sarah said she’d begin by preserving water. A test run. She’d placed an order online: Ball Pint Jar, Regular Mouth, Set of 12; The Canning Essentials Boxed Set; I Eat Local Because I Can Apron. Three days later, the box arrived at our apartment. I was terrified. We poured sauce from a store-bought jar. Knew our Chinese delivery guy by name. And when your partner of six years, who has largely stopped fucking you, orders a new identity online, and that identity revolves around home canning, relations can’t be on the upswing.
Now, on our Formica countertops: funnel, tongs, something called a “jar lifter.”
“Do you want me to call you when the lids start to ping?” Sarah said.
I lifted the top from some kind of pot, smelled the nothing inside. “When they ping?”
“The vacuum pulls the lids down, and they ping. That’s how you know the jars are sealed.”
She tore the plastic packaging off the I Can apron, placed the loop over her head, tied the strings behind her back.
“I’m going to pretend the water is a recipe, you know? Pour the water in a few jars, close the lids, then dunk them in the water bath for ten minutes. It takes a little bit for the seal to work. But then the jars go ping, ping, ping.”
Her cheeks flushed and she looked so happy. The first honest smile I’d seen from her in months. We were trying to get pregnant. Doctors, donors.
“Yes,” I said. “Definitely call me.” I collapsed the box, took it out to the recycling. Waved hello to the little girl next door as though she were a promise, though Sarah wasn’t sure about the child, thought she was a bit strange.
An hour later, we clasped hands and listened as the water sealed itself tight inside the glass. We exhaled, relieved to have passed the test.
First tap water, then Roma tomatoes, then clingstone peaches from the farmer’s market with the actual farmers. Our shitty little pantry with the broken hinge slowly filled with preserves.
In September, I gave a jar of raspberry jam to a coworker, and he said, “Wow, Maureen. This looks freakin’ domestic. You two must be doing good, huh?”
I laughed. “Guess so!”
But still no baby, and I wondered what might be next. An old sewing machine on the kitchen table, yards of gray wool, a dress pattern draped across the curved back of a chair. Blocks of paraffin wax and a double boiler on the stove. Oils and lye in the bathtub.
Who or what were we trying to seduce?
Nights, I lay in bed and listened to the ping, ping, ping, waited for Sarah to come to bed smelling like apricots, hands sticky.
In October, the little girl who lived next door knocked at 8 p.m., asked if she could have a jar for show-and-tell.
“Okay,” Sarah said. “Would you like to come in and pick one? We have plum, blueberry—”
“I want an empty one,” she said. “I’m going to fill it up with a secret.”
I grabbed a pair of jars and lids from the kitchen, put them in a paper bag, handed the bag to the girl. “Bring us some of whatever you’re getting.”
Sarah looked at me like, Do you know what you’re doing? Do you know what mess you could be inviting into this home?
But the child was already off, down the steps, out the door.
I lifted the shade in the living room, watched as the little girl unscrewed the lid from one jar, then the other, pulled them slowly through the air as though they were moving through honey.
“Sarah,” I said. “Come see this.”
She came and stood beside me, leaned her cheek on my shoulder. Her skin felt feverish. We watched as the little girl placed the two-piece lids on each jar, screwed the tops, dropped the jars into the paper bag.
When the little girl came bounding up the steps, we went to our own door as though we were trick-or-treating. We knocked and waited.
The child opened the door, reached into the bag, shrugged.
“Yours got too full, I guess.”
The bottom of one jar had broken clean off; the lid was still screwed tight. Sarah took the jar in silence. I said goodnight to the little girl, watched her disappear behind her own door.
Sarah walked to the lifted shade, tipped the jar back and forth. Let moonlight run off the edges of the broken glass like milk.
Gretchen VanWormer grew up in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of a chapbook of essays, How I See The Humans (CutBank Books), and her essays and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Journal, miCRo: The Cincinnati Review, The Laurel Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Stillwater, Oklahoma.