It was a lazy, peaceful evening. Nothing in particular had been going on until somebody hammered at my door. I approached it rather unsettled but I opened it right away. A young girl appeared in front of me. It was difficult to tell her age with a high degree of accuracy. Although her face was childlike, something about her unmistakably gave away the fact that she hadn’t been a kid for a long time; somehow it couldn’t have been clearer.
At first, we were just staring at each other. The look in her eyes expressed how obvious the reason for our meeting was. I, on the other hand, had no clue, and I’m quite certain this was what my own eyes conveyed. But she didn’t notice, did she? She kept staring at me as though she was waiting for me to do what I was apparently supposed to do.
Don’t get me wrong, she didn’t come across as arrogant or impatient. It was quite the opposite: her eyes were filled with compassion and understanding, which made for an extremely warm look.
“Can I help you with anything?” I asked eventually.
She shook her head and simply came inside. “I came here to help you,” she declared. Her voice was juvenile but pleasant. It sounded both instructive and humble.
Somehow I had no desire to ask where she’d come from or what she’d come here to do. “Want some tea?” I asked, as though we’d known each other for decades and were close friends.
“I can’t stay long,” she replied, basically refusing but I put on some water anyway, and made two cups of black tea. The girl waited for me in the living-room. When I handed her the cup, she grasped it as if she wanted to warm herself up, even though it wasn’t a particularly cold day. She sipped the tea and closed her eyes. She seemed to like it—or maybe she simply remembered something really pleasant—because a slight smile appeared on her childlike face.
“What brings you here?” I tried again.
She opened her eyes and looked at me, puzzled.
“I came for your tears,” she explained.
“I know,” I interrupted, “but what does it mean?”
“Hmmm,” she murmured. “That’s weird…”
“Usually,” she clarified, although she wasn’t addressing me at all, “when I come, people recognize me right away.”
“Are you famous?”
“Forget it… Who are you?”
“I’m a tear collector.”
“And you collect tears?”, I asked, maybe just to give myself some time to understand what was going on.
“Well, yeah,” she confirmed the obvious. “I appear when somebody needs to get rid of their tears.”
“But I’m not crying,” I pointed out.
“Not when they cry, but when they want to get rid of their tears. It’s clearly different.”
“Different? How so?”
“You won’t understand. Not until it happens to you, then you will. Only then,” she made a point of repeating herself.
“I don’t know what to say.” I shrugged helplessly. “I don’t have tears for you.”
“Weird…“ she said it again, lost in her thoughts.
“What do you do with those tears when somebody gives them to you?” I asked just to break the awkward silence.
“I put them in the jar,” she replied. Only then did I notice a little jar hanging from her waist. It was half-full with tears—if you believed her story.
“Have you been doing it for long?”
“How do you know when someone wants to give you their tears?”
“I just know. I can feel it. It’s a matter of sensitivity, that’s all. So you don’t have tears for me, huh?” she asked. I shook my head. “I should go then. I still have some other people to see tonight.”
The tear collector put the cup on the table, and made her way to the exit. She was already on the doorstep when I stopped her:
“Let me go with you.”
The girl turned around and gave me a piercing look.
“Actually, this isn’t a bad idea. Maybe we can solve the mystery of your tears.”
This is how I became the tear collector’s helper for the night. We went downtown and found some bar there. A bouncer stood in front. When he saw the girl, he nodded with courtesy and let her through the door. I followed awkwardly.
“I can see you know people around here—“ I noticed.
“It’s not the first time I’ve collected tears in this place.”
A party-like atmosphere filled the place. When we went in, the girl located her target right away. But she approached the bar and ordered a drink first.
“Time for a drink, huh?” I asked.
She just looked at me disapprovingly. Not even having had a sip, she approached one of the tables. A man was sitting there in company of some very amused people. Pretending to walk by, she spilled the drink on the man’s thighs, faking her clumsiness. She apologized and said she’d bring something to clean it up with. You should have seen her… This so far inconspicuous girl with a childlike face was a great actress. She stepped into her role perfectly. I just didn’t know what the purpose of the show was.
The man excused himself from the table while his friends stared at the tear collector. He got up and made his way to the restrooms. The girl walked beside him, continuing the farce. When they were passing me, she gave me a discreet look. I don’t know how but I understood perfectly what it meant: keep your distance, this is a delicate matter. So I placed myself at a safe distance but close enough to hear everything. When the man was about to enter the restroom, the tear collector grabbed his arm. He looked down and then closed his eyes. It was unbelievable; he knew what was going to happen. He didn’t look happy about it but apparently there was no other way. He turned to the girl; they exchanged compassionate looks; nobody said anything. I can’t be sure, as I was standing too far away, but his eyes seemed to glimmer. It was a good guess because in just a second a single teardrop slipped from the corner of his eye.
It was a breathtaking picture. He was a strapping, athletic man who looked like some kind of gladiator—nevertheless a single teardrop was slowly rolling down his cheek, and his eyes were filled with suffering. He kept looking at the girl, who reached for the jar, opened it and put it next to his cheek. The teardrop fell inside.
“Is it okay now?” she asked.
He nodded but didn’t speak. After a moment, he turned around and walked back to his table.
“Is that it?” I asked the tear collector when she approached me.
We went outside. The girl led the way, I followed quietly. But eventually, I felt I had to break the silence.
“Is everything alright?” I asked.
“Not everything. I feel their suffering,” she explained. “Carrying tears is tough. Before you set out to do it, you have to come to terms with that.” She sounded as if she knew in advance that I would, too, take that path. There was no assumption or doubt in her voice—only certainty, as usual.
Then we walked in silence for a while. Eventually, we took a night bus uptown; we got off fifteen minutes later. We entered a neighborhood of nice, stylish houses, and stopped in front of one of them. We saw a light in a second floor window. A moment later, a woman emerged but disappeared quickly. She was downstairs shortly, coming out to the street to meet us.
“I thought you might not be coming…” she said to the tear collector. The woman looked about thirty, clean, tastefully dressed, clearly well-off. And yet we recognized concern on her face. I remember thinking her eyes resembled a bottomless well.
“We had a long way to go,” the tear collector explained.
The woman looked at me. I felt the emptiness of her eyes in my esophagus, and eventually in my stomach, too. Even though she smiled at me warmly, I got terribly upset. Something was stuck in my throat; I couldn’t say what it was.
“Mommy!” we heard a voice coming from the front door. A little child, maybe six years old boy, stood on the doorstep. “Mommy, look.” He held something in his hand, something that required demonstration, but he had to wait a little longer.
“Just a moment—“ replied the woman. She handed some kind of small bottle to the tear collector who then opened her jar and poured the bottle’s contents in. This time, it was a bit more than just one teardrop.
“Thank you,” the woman said with pain in her voice. “Thank you,” she repeated looking at me. Then she turned around and disappeared inside the house with her son.
My voice box seemed to stopped working completely, and I found it extremely unpleasant. Eventually, I managed to fight it, and asked:
“Where to now?”
The tear collector looked at her watch. “We still have time, there’s one more place we should visit.”
We rode a bus for a while again. But this time I wouldn’t keep silent.
“Where are we going?”
The girl clearly looked upset, as if she was about to burst in tears. She didn’t respond at first but finally she somehow got over it, and seconds later she didn’t look so sad anymore.
“Do you collect your own tears, too?” I asked without thinking. I wished I could take it back, but I couldn’t. It was too late for that.
“We’re visiting a little girl,” she replied to the previous question. “She’s nine, and she must give me her tears…” She was hurting while saying that.
“Children give you their tears, too?” I wondered.
“Some do,” she confirmed, “but they shouldn’t.”
“In fact, nobody should. But I collect them anyway. I collect them because someone has to, so they don’t stay inside, in people.”
“Because sooner or later the bubble will grow and eventually burst?”
“Something like that. Tears need to have an outlet,” she added.
I thought about what she’d said for the rest of the road. Eventually, we reached our destination, and stood next to a brand new, fenced apartment building.
“We can’t call,” she stated when we stopped in front of the gate.
“So how are you planning to go inside?”
“We’ll jump over the fence.”
She was serious. We found the least exposed place where we could sneak in without being noticed, and we climbed the fence and jumped to the other side.
“Just watch the jar,” I warned her, but she was on the other side before could finish the sentence. I followed.
We sneaked to one of the first floor windows carefully. The girl knocked on the glass softly.
“Why are we sneaking like that anyway? Can’t we just knock on the door?”
“Because this is a secret.”
I wasn’t able to ask for details. Something moved on the other side, the window opened, and we saw a nine year old girl. She was smiling, but she couldn’t hide her tears. When she saw the tear collector, they started rolling down her cheeks one by one. They didn’t drop on the floor. They were collected right into the tear collector’s jar. I can’t say whether it was the saddest picture I’ve ever seen, but I surely thought so back then. The girl produced a bitter grin, and sniffed. The tear collector took a tissue out of her pocket and gave it to the little girl.
“Here you go, blow your nose,” she instructed her, and patted her on the head. “Sweet dreams, honey.”
The window closed, and the little girl disappeared in the darkness of her room. We waited right there for a moment. We waited for something, though I couldn’t understand for what. Then, I felt something salty in the corner of my mouth. I looked at the tear collector who, thankfully, didn’t say anything. She just extended her arm in my direction, with the jar in her hand. She wanted to take my tears that sluggishly slid down my cheeks.
“Leave them,” I requested and pushed the jar away. “Let them go.”
And the more she let them go, the more they poured out from my eyes, escaped from inside of me. Before I knew it, I was crying my eyes out. Only after I’d calmed down did I feel something had changed in me. I couldn’t tell what it was. Even though the tear collector supported me with her silent understanding, I felt embarrassed. What had happened to me? Was this story truly taking place?
The girl walked me home. I wanted to refuse at first, but her presence surely kept me sane throughout that night. When it was time to say goodbye, she put her hand on my shoulder and looked straight in my eyes.
“I hope we don’t have to meet again. But if we do, I’ll show up,” she assured me.
I just nodded. I seemed to be unable to speak. The tear collector offered me her warm smile, turned around and went her own way. I was staring at her as she was walking away.
“What do you do with the tears from the jar?” I yelled after her. I couldn’t resist. I had to know.
The tear collector yelled back without ever turning around: “Ink. I make ink.”