Tue 1 Jan 2013
This story is dedicated to Chuck Palahniuk, who helped me unlace the sutures in the skin to find the dark heart of it.
This is not about stitching a straight line through cloth like a seamstress. Not about the tight suture of a surgeon closing a wound. This is an art. This is about interweaving patterns of the fold and musk. An intricate lacework of innocence. Each tailor creates his own signature stitch unlike any other.
“Hand me the needle, girl,” said Papa. He took the curved steel from me, wetting the silvered thread through his lips to make it lie flat in the eye. “Now, hold her leg apart for me.”
He already had her other thigh parted with one callused hand and gripped the needle delicately with the other. The steel glinted under the oil lamps. My elbow wrapped around the girl’s knee and held the leg against me firmly. She was sixteen, a bit older and stouter than I, but I knew how to brace against her so she wouldn’t kick out in fear and rip the stitches. My other hand took her damp fingers. She looked at me, eyes wide and glistening. Her mouth squeezed shut, trying to be brave. Her family’s womenfolk surrounded her, the gelded aunts and sisters. Her mother wiped a damp rag across her forehead. The women stood in the back, singing the chants of celebration and maidenhood.
“It’s alright,” I said to her, pressing her hand against the upturned hem of her calico dress. The folks of Leedsville had pitched in, bought her such a pretty dress — cornflower blue with a bit of lace. “My papa’s the best tailor there is,” I said. “He’ll make you safe.”
The girl looked at me hard when I said it, and Papa’s eyes paused on me, needle poised just over her vulva.
“You’re no danger, Anna,” the mother said to her daughter, “You’re going to be a woman. You’re a woman and you’re not going to hurt anyone ever.”
The girl choked back a sob. “Please Mama, I don’t want to kill. Sew me up… Do it.” Tears ran as her mother squeezed her hand, hushed at her.
“Do it!” she screamed at Papa.
Papa slipped the sharp steel through her vaginal lips and began to sew shut her womb. Her body jerked as the silver thread tugged through. I had that leg locked against me good, but something in her sobs shook me until I looked away from her face. Papa ran his thumb down her labia as he worked, wiping the blood away. He was a very good tailor.
When you sew shut a virgin-mother’s womb you use a polished, steel, taper-cut needle with a fishbone curve. The eye is threaded with silvered silk that holds a bend yet moves like butter.
A blacksmith’s son once told me what his father’s trade was like. I tried to imagine my hands forging the crude, silver rings. Piercing the blunt edge through the foreskin of a boy’s penis and sealing it tight. Tucking it around the scrotum and driving the metal through the hanging tendon until it was bound like a snake eating its own tail.
I reckon blacksmithing has its own grace and artistry, like tailoring, but both trades serve the same purpose. They keep the virgin-bound safe and all other folks from dying of their curse. The original sin of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Life. The curse the chapel priests say would strike if a virgin-mother and virgin-father had sex the way that animals do. A wrathful curse that kills everyone and swallows towns whole, leaving nothing but vast, haunted woods in their wake.
Woods like these.
Papa walked the edge of the path ahead, reaching his hand to brush a mossy trunk. My feet stayed in the center of the road, well away from the dark tangle of branches. Papa never was scared of the trees the way most folk were. As a tailor it was as much his job as a wood-cutter’s to keep the dark heart of the forest at bay. I trailed behind, slower than I’d usually walk in such a cursed place. I was in no hurry to get where we were going.
I saw the tumbledown walls of houses ahead in the trees. A splintered gray signpost tilted under the roots grown around it. Lexington. The root-tangled trunk that bound the sign was shaped like a woman, as if the tree had burst up and swallowed her. There was no face in the head-like burl, but the perfect grey lips of a hollow stretched in a surprised “O”, collecting the shimmer of dark rainwater.
“Papa?” I asked, stepping up next to him.
“What is it girl?” He shifted his gray felt hat to keep the dapple of sun out of his eye.
“I… don’t want to go to Portsmouth to see Tom.”
Papa’s face hardened and he started walking ahead, “I’m not arguing Elana. Jed Wayland’s son is a good man, from a good family of blacksmiths.”
“He’s only fourteen and I hardly know him,” I said, catching up.
“He’s a man of sixteen, and bound as a virgin father. His brothers have already left to take up their trades, and Tom’s ready to marry. Most firstborn girls your age are already sewn and married.”
“I don’t like him. He’s… he’s burnt across his face and can’t see out of one eye.”
“The boy knocked over a forge, Elana. It’s not his fault, any more than its your fault that you are what you are.” He stopped by a black oak with the vague shape of a woman gripping a misshapen burl as if it were a child. “You think this is easy, trying to find you a match when we have to pretend you’re gelded? Most towns we travel through would drive us out if they knew you were my firstborn. They’d look at you and see walking death. I can’t help that there’s no town or kin left to guard you. Sacramento is dead and gone, taken just like this place,” he said waving his hand at the trees.
“I don’t want to be…”
I swallowed. “I’m scared Papa.” The fear burned the inside of my belly. I glanced quickly at the dark silhouettes in the trees.
Papa’s face softened. “Look, this…” he looked around at the dark woods, “none of this is ever going to happen to you. It’s not a curse to be firstborn, Elana. It’s a blessing. You should have been raised in a town with all the honors and protection that a family gives to its virgin-mothers. We may have lost that home to the woods, but you still have the chance to marry out of this life of tailoring and hard roads. The road killed your mama, Elena, and I will not let it kill you.”
“Mama,” I whispered to myself. I reached up and touched her pendant on my neck, fingers tracing the way papa had etched her face into the wood with his needles. I could remember the stories he told of the way she would charm horses and pick their hooves and sing. Sometimes I could almost remember the sound of her voice, though her face was lost to me beyond this bit of wood. I felt the ache in my belly return, and the fear that chased it.
“You said Mama liked the freedom of the road,” I said.
“She thought she would,” said Papa, “but it was harder than she’d been raised to expect. She passed on that first hard winter, God bless her.” Papa looked away. I could hear the quake in his voice. “I never should have dragged you across the West Union territories like this,” he said at the trees, and then looked back at me. “But we do what we must to survive, and you must marry, Elana.”
“I just — Tom, he’s not the one, Papa.” The words caught in my throat. “Just give me one more season helping you with the needles and the girls. There’s time to find the right man — I haven’t had the change yet,” I tried to hide the quake in my own voice.
“No,” he said, and his voice carried the weight of a mountain. “It was easier to hide your secret when you were young, but you are growing up fast. You’re almost sixteen and your fertility is coming. I know it came late in your mama, but I won’t wait anymore — it’s dangerous.”
We passed a tangle of trunks like people clinging together. I put my hand on my belly and cringed. Papa pressed my head against him.
“If you come into your fertility on the road,” said Papa, “we’d be lucky to get you gelded before you were driven off to die. Not even Tom’s kin would have you if you were far enough along. The best you could hope for would be my own gelded fate. I don’t want you to become a tailor, Elana. Girls and their mothers screaming at you. Cold looks whenever you pass through town. Blacksmiths have it bad I’d wager, but no one likes knowing that you drew steel needles through their daughters. The world needs tailors and no one wants to live with us. It’s a hard life.”
Don’t leave me behind. My lips formed it, but I gave it no breath. I wanted to tell him a tailor’s life was all I’d known. That I liked the feeling of a needle in my hand far better than the feeling inside my belly. I wanted to tell him I would be gelded and stay. But I knew what things to push with him and which to leave be.
We passed the center of town. The shells of houses caved from the weight of limbs. The chapel’s roof was broken outward from the branches of a massive black maple twisted up with the curtain roots of a strangler fig. A tangle of faces had sprouted from the bark.
My eyes looked to a little tree below it in the town square, a smooth white birch. The milk-white body stretched slender and perfect with the eyeless face of a young girl. Her arms lifted into branches as if in prayer. Her smile was ecstasy. I shivered and looked away.
We walked past a well overflowing with roots to where the road south should have been. One of the great old trees had fallen, crushing a few others. It blocked the road with a tumble of dying branches taller than our heads, leaving a great blue hole for the sun.
“Can we go around it, Papa?” I said, searching for a break in the thicket.
“Stay to the road, Elana,” said Papa, putting down his carpet bag and testing a trunk with his foot. “These trees won’t hurt us, but there are things out in that underbrush that might. Now, you hand up that bag when I’m ready.” I held the bags in my hands, but I stopped short of touching the pale bark, wrinkled like dead skin.
He stepped up on two branches and glanced back. “You don’t need to be afraid of them, Elana,” said Papa. “The curse has gone from them. They’re just trees that drop seeds like any other now.” He leaned against the wide trunk at the top, trying to see a foothold over.
“I think,” he said as he put his foot out. His other foot thrust downward suddenly with the crack of a branch breaking. He gave a sharp cry as he dragged his bleeding leg up. He gripped his ankle.
“Papa!” I shouted. I dropped the bags and clambered up the branches. “Are you alright?”
Breath escaped his teeth. He nodded and looked at the deadfall above him like it was some dog that had turned on him. He glanced back at the long way we’d come through the woods.
“Let’s go back to Leedsville, Papa. We can’t stay here.”
“There is a town…” he said, “not far east of the river from here. Applington. We can make it by nightfall if we hurry.”
“I ain’t heard of it Papa. The Eastland’s not our route.”
“You wouldn’t have. I don’t much like it, but there’s a road back down to Portsmouth from there.”
My heart weighed when he said it, but it was a few more days between us and Portsmouth to bide my time. His arm went round my shoulder and we hobbled past the tree-filled chapel until a weathered trail opened up, barely more than a path in the forest’s green light.
A tailor’s stitch needs a flex against the skin that never loses pattern. The stitch must allow for the flow of urine out, and when it’s time for children, allow the straw head of the surgeon’s seeding rod in. It doesn’t take much of a man’s seed to do it. Just the smallest green drop.
Green, like the sap that comes from a virgin-mother when she becomes fertile. The green of grass and heartwood. The color of life. The stitch anticipates this change, allows for its constant flow. It guides the sap through to the pads of cloth that a virgin-mother wears always, except for those times she’s pregnant with child.
When I go down to the streams to wash the blood from the linen bandages we use when we sew the girls, I wash the small green spots from my own.
Papa limped drag-step by the time we passed the clear-cut fields of weathered tree stumps and entered the apple orchard on the edge of town. Smoke painted the twilight, and I saw the flickering of some bonfire on the southern edge of the village. Voices cried out in the distance and I could hear a concertina and a fiddle over the laughter. Two boys leapt around the corner of the slump-roof barn, chasing each other. The smaller one slowed to look at us. He had a fat frog impaled on a stick, and its long hind legs twitched as he ran.
My head pressed against Papa’s shoulder and I moved forward, but he shushed me with a finger over my mouth and pointed his head off to the right.
“Up through that way,” he said, nodding between the barn and the shadow of the tall, dark chapel. He stopped me with a fierce grip when we stepped off the road and pressed his mouth to my ear.
“Listen and listen well. We’re leaving as soon as I get my foot bound up. Don’t you leave my side and don’t talk to anyone. The ways are different in the east, Elana. They don’t suffer firstborn strangers. If they found out you weren’t gelded, they wouldn’t drive you from town — they’d kill you.”
I stood, stunned, until he nudged me forward. We shuffled around the barn until we came to a tall white house on the edge of the orchard. A weathered surgeon’s pole curled its red and white ribbon up one of the front porch pillars. My feet balanced up the steps until my hand could slip away from his back and rap hesitantly on the front door.
It opened quite suddenly to a lit candle-stick and a man’s stout, balding head.
“What is it? I’m closed,” he said. He glanced back and forth at the both of us. “Who are you?”
He brought the candle closer to Papa. “Joshua?” he asked. Papa looked away.
He held the candle on me for a moment and stared as Papa sagged against me.
“Who is it?” called a woman’s voice from the hall. A head craned past the balding man’s shoulder, tangled black hair in a bonnet. Her eyes blinked when she saw me.
The man held the candle away from our faces. “No one. Go back to your room, Wendy,” said the man. “Now,” he snapped when she didn’t move. Her footsteps hurried down the hall with a creak of wood. The man stepped back and said in a low voice, “You’d better come in.”
We stepped through the threshold to a set of rolling doors, and into a dark surgery with tall windows. The cracked stone washbasin beneath them was chipped smooth on one corner. The man held the candle to the basin’s oil lamps and turned up the wicks until the room glowed. A black iron swivel chair craned in the center, surrounded by cabinets and wooden benches.
I dropped the carpet bags and swung Papa into the chair. It swiveled toward the man, who had draped a surgeon’s apron around his neck and rolled up his shirtsleeves.
“What happened?” he asked Papa.
“He hurt his foot crossing the woods,” I said. The surgeon considered me carefully as he picked up a bandage from a crooked stack and dipped it in the basin. He cranked up the chair’s leg-rest, and peeled back the torn trouser.
“Now, what were you doing in Lexington Wood?” he asked, looking at Papa’s leg, but somehow I felt the words come at me.
Papa coughed, cleared his throat. “Traveling my way to Portsmouth. The roadway south is blocked. Deadfall.”
“Lot of dead ends in the woods,” said the surgeon as he moved the ankle around slowly. “The trees are treacherous. We’ve been clearing eastward, burning the wood at the quarter-festivals. Someday it will all be gone.” He smiled. “Wouldn’t that be something to see Lexington with children running in the streets again?” He seemed to cast his gaze out the window, but I felt his eyes in the reflection as he squeezed blood from the cloth. “Pity it’s a crossroads to the west. Some say Lexington fell because it was tainted by those loose West Union ways,” said the surgeon as he squeezed the wound. Papa winced and looked away.
“Is he alright?” my voice creaked out, my feet stepping forward.
“Your daddy will be fine, girl,” the surgeon said. “It’s a bad sprain, but I doubt the bone’s broken. I’ll bind it up with a poultice. He’ll be able to walk on it fully in a day or two.” He turned and dug his hands into a jar of yellowed herbs on the cabinet shelf.
“I can pay,” I said. I dug through the bags until I pulled out a few fat bundles of red bills.
“Unionist dollars,” the man said, raising an eyebrow. “We don’t take those here, girl. They’re hardly worth blowing your nose on, even in the west. If you don’t have coin then you’re going to have to trade something.”
“I got some good venison jerky,” said Papa, “or smokehouse almonds. I have a spyglass with a good fire-making lens.”
“I think you’ve got something more valuable to trade here, Joshua,” said the man as he glanced at me. “This town would appreciate the services of a good tailor. We’ve got two fine girls of age this quarter festival. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to cut out their wombs if a tailor didn’t pass through by quarter next.”
Papa nodded slowly as the man wet the poultice and smeared it on his skin. “There is that,” Papa said.
“Step into the other room child,” said the surgeon without meeting my eye, “Your daddy and I have things to discuss.”
I felt my face go warm and I drew in a slow breath. Papa looked reluctant. “Go on, girl,” he said.
I walked into the hall and drew shut the sliding doors. Some dim spill of light came from another door down the hall and I could see the red floral pattern of the hall rug.
Papa’s voice echoed through the wood with the quick, hushed tones of the surgeon. I turned my head, ear drifting closer to the crack trying to make out the words. I was focused so hard on the sound that I almost cracked my head against the door when I saw the woman staring at me from down the hall.
The sliding doors next to me rattled open. I stumbled back, the surgeon’s face close to mine. He stepped after me and slid the door firmly shut behind him. The candle in his hand was the only light in the dark hallway. The woman was gone.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“I am Mister Greely.” He looked at me as if he was expecting me to curtsy. I nodded.
“Your daddy has agreed to stay on a few days and lace up our virgins. He is still a practicing tailor, is he not?”
“Yes sir, best in the West Union. I’m his apprentice daughter.”
“You uh,” he licked his lips, “you have had your womb branches cut and tied by a surgeon?”
“Of course,” I said, face reddening. “A summer back, in Georgetown.”
He gazed at me a moment. “Shame about Georgetown,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“The news only reached us a fortnight ago,” Mr. Greely, said reluctantly, “Georgetown was taken by the woods. Killed every man, woman and child. There’s nothing now but a forest sprung up over it as wide as a county.”
“West Union or not,” said Mr. Greely, “damn to hell the whores that ended that place.” He shook his head.
“How do you know my papa?” I asked slowly.
“How do I know your papa,” he repeated, his eyes trailing up my chest before continuing up to my lips and eyes. “You look just like your mama. She was a fine woman.”
“Did you know… Did they pass through here?”
Mr. Greely sniffed his nose. “Your mama, Daphne, was from right here in Applington. Your daddy was from Lexington. Least he used to be.”
My mouth felt too dry to form words, but I said “I’m sorry sir, my momma and papa were from a big town called Sacramento, far in the west.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” he said.
“It was taken by the woods a long time back.”
“Is that so? Where is your mama, girl?”
I looked away, “She died on the road when I was young.”
“Elana!” called papa’s voice.
Mr. Greely paused, his mouth wide like he’d been about to ask something. He reached back and slid the door open partway. “Your daddy’s going to rest in the chair tonight,” he said. “There’s a room for you across the hall here, next to mine.”
I could feel Papa’s eyes on me even though I didn’t look. “I’d rather rest in the room with my papa if it’s all the same to you, sir. To take care of him.”
Mr. Greely’s eyes ran down my belly to my feet.
“Suit yourself,” he said.
Every tailor creates a signature stitch unlike any other. Papa’s stitch is like arched branches, holding back the wind. My stitch is a series of lacy, interlocking hearts. I used to practice it in secret on the edges of raw steak, my fingers slick with blood and fat.
When I knew I would follow my Papa’s trade, I pulled out the simple cat’s cradle of little-girl stitch from my own body, and took to practicing my tailor’s stitch on myself. I’ve completed and pulled it out countless times, working in furtive moments. It feels good to bind the fear in my belly away with a thousand little stitches. I never let myself think that doing this was lying to Papa, or that Papa would ever lie to me.
The sharp points of stars glimmered in the tall windows. I stared restlessly at them until my vision began to go white and I saw points of black on the insides of my eyelids when I blinked. Papa snored in the chair, hat over his face. I pushed off the carpet bags and wrapped my hands around my feet. Mama’s pendent dropped from where I’d held it gently in my lips, and it dangled against my neck. I tasted the musk of its wood.
Your mama, Daphne, was from here in Applington.
The sharp creak of wood from somewhere in the hall startled me. I looked to Papa. He snorted but his breath stayed slow and even.
I stood up and crept to the sliding door. It was open just a fingers-breadth and the wheels squeaked as I pushed it open farther. Shadows filled the hall, but the red trellis of rug wound its flowers toward a light at the end. A doorway held the glow of a lamp on a kitchen basin. The other doors in the hall were firmly shut, save the one I’d seen the woman looking from. It was open, dark. I glanced back at Papa and stepped into the hall. My toes felt the rough weave of the rug through the holes in my stockings.
I tried not to breathe as I stepped by Greely’s door. I let my breath out when I was past, but the floor creaked under me as if the sound had escaped with my exhale. A chair scraped in the kitchen and the shadow on the wall stood up.
“Who’s there?” came the harsh whisper of a woman’s voice.
The woman stood by a table, knife in hand. The crimson rind of an apple curled off her plate. Her shoulders hunched like I’d caught her at something shameful. Her other arm came up to touch her face, and I realized the slender stump of it had no hand.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, almost stepping back.
“You shouldn’t be back here,” she said. Then she looked closer, lowering the knife. “You look just like her,” she said.
“Look like who?”
“Daphne. She’s your mama isn’t she?” she said. “I’m Wendy –Wendy Greely. Is your mama with you, down the hall?”
I tucked the pendant back into my shirt. “No, she’s… passed.”
The woman flinched and looked to the side. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just hoped when I saw you. I mean, your daddy showing up suddenly after all this time. Most folks around here thought she and Joshua were dead after they run off fifteen years back.”
“Why did they run?” I said, stepping into the kitchen.
“Didn’t your daddy tell you?
“I’m starting to think Papa never told me anything at all.” I gripped the back of one of the chairs.
Wendy looked at me. “I think maybe you should go. If Harlan comes home from the bonfire and sees me talking to you, he ain’t going to be happy.
“Tell me about my mama,” I whispered as I sat down at the table. “Please.”
After a moment she nodded. “Would you like some?” she said, pointing the knife at the apple. She pressed her stump into the dimple at the stem and sliced off the rest of the red skin.
“What happened to your hand?” I asked.
She hid the stump in the folds of her skirt. “Penance. I touched a boy’s thing. Y’ain’t supposed to do that.”
She brought the knife up again, sliced the apple in half. She put down the knife and picked up the white meat, bit into it.
“Daphne was a bit older than me,” she said. “We wasn’t the closest friends, you know, not like her and Harlan and Sarah Turnbuckle, but we all spent a lot of time together. Daphne was arranged to marry Joe Underhill, the preacher’s firstborn son from Lexington. She put up such a fight with her daddy. Had no idea why. He was a boy of good standing. It made the other suitors come right out of the woodwork, it did. No one expected your daddy.”
“He asked for her hand in marriage?” I said, picking up the wedge of apple.
“Hardly. Your daddy was secondborn, and a tailor’s apprentice at that.”
The apple slipped from my hand leaving a wet stain on the table’s edge as it skittered onto the floor. I reached for it but I ended up staring at my own shaking fingers. Wendy gazed at the lamp, eyes far away.
“Joshua was supposed to help his daddy stitch Daphne up for her wedding day,” said Wendy. “Instead he up and runs off with her. What a scandal. He was my age — just about to get gelded like me. She was in love with him, though. I brought her my daddy’s brass seeding rod from his surgery kit when she asked. Told her she was a fool to do it…” she trailed off. Blinked, looked at me.
“You’re her firstborn daughter, ain’t you?”
“No, no,” I said, “I’m just a tailor’s apprentice now. I’m gelded.”
“It’s ok,” Wendy said with a grin, “I know how to keep secrets. I remember when you were just a dot. Your mama bore you right in that surgery chair in the other room. She and your papa snuck back into town for that. Nobody knows about that but Harlan and me. I think you were the first baby Harlan ever done deliver. He didn’t let me or your daddy watch but I heard you cry through that door crack.”
“He helped my folks?”
“Course he did. They ran off from their kin into a world of trouble. Who else were they going to turn to?”
“What happened to my mama’s kin?”
“Well… Some of them lived in Lexington, and the rest, they were all there the night that… Well that the woods ate everything. That’s how Harlan tells it.”
I sat back in the chair, eyes on the glow of the oil lamp.
“Harlan, Mr. Greely, he’s your husband?”
“No,” her laugh a nervous bray. “Harlan’s my brother, he’s firstborn but he ain’t married no one yet, so he took up daddy’s trade when he died. I’m secondborn, gelded but I ain’t an apprentice like you. I just keep the house. Help out in the surgery room where I can. But you… you’re Daphne’s firstborn, ain’t you?”
“Must be frightening, being a virgin-mother with no town or kin to protect you.”
I felt a chill pass through me, and she must have seen it. She reached out her good hand and laid it over mine. “Only woman I ever met that wasn’t scared of nothing was your mama, so don’t you worry either.”
I heard a door slam open and she stood suddenly.
“Wendy?” Mr. Greely’s voice echoed down the hall. I heard the front door close.
Wendy’s jaw worked, but nothing came out. She picked up the knife and waved me back toward the wall next to the doorsill.
“I’m getting a bite to eat, Harlan,” she called. His heavy footsteps came down the rug. She pressed me up against the wall by the doorsill with her stump, and stepped into the doorway.
“What are you doing out of bed?” His voice slurred just outside the sill. I could smell the corn whisky from his breath.
“Hush, Harlan, you got guests, remember?”
There was silence, a long sniff.
“You stay away from them, you hear? Just a tailor passing through. He’ll do his work and be gone come festival end.”
I heard footsteps move away, the creak of the hall floor.
“Not a word about them to anyone, you hear?”
The click of a door swinging shut.
“You,” said Wendy, looking down the hall.”Back to your daddy. Don’t come out. Not till you’re done with your work and heading far away from this place.”
I looked down at her hand with the knife. Her fingers were gripped white on the handle.
She took up the lamp and left the knife in the basin. I traced her footsteps down the hall past Mr. Greely’s room. She gazed at me as she turned down the wick to nothing. I turned in the dark doorway and couldn’t tell if I had seen the glint of Papa’s eyes, watching from the chair.
The heart of every stitch is the heartstring — the thread that, when cut, causes the pattern to effortlessly slip aside for birthing. The whole stitch must slip wide when the baby’s head is ready to crown or it can strangle the child. A tangle in the pattern can tear out the stitches, letting the mother bleed to death. The pattern must be able to draw back together like a boot-lace the moment midwives lay the leafy green placenta into a hot iron skillet.
I’ve helped Papa rethread the heartstrings of virgin-mothers. It’s simple work, whether the stitch is another tailor’s or your own. Sometimes I dream I’m threading a woman’s heartstring and when I look up from my bloody fingers, her face is the one on my mama’s pendant. These dreams always comfort me.
The nightmare is when the face is my own.
My fingers threaded the needle, licking on a bit of spit to make it lay flat on the eye. I placed it with the others on the fold of cloth, and laid out the spools of silvered thread, the linens, and kettle of steaming water. Papa was quiet the way he’d been since he returned. Nothing more than orders and grunts.
I had awoken late morning to find him gone. I could hear the bass of his voice from a closed door down the hall, mixing with Greely’s drawling baritone. The sun had crawled past noon before papa returned with a bowl of fried chicken.
Papa didn’t meet my eyes as we ate in silence. He’d spent his time staring at the empty surgeon’s chair. There was a knock and Mr. Greely ushered in the first of the girls before I’d finished my last drumstick.
This girl had to be younger than me by a year. She lay in the iron chair, her fingers playing nervously with her bonnet string. The hem of her red velvet dress fanned up below her chin, and she had to stop herself from folding it down as she watched Papa wash his hands again and again in the stone basin. The room felt naked without the familiar group of womenfolk gathered round to chant and hold her hands. I didn’t know if Mr. Greely had arranged to keep the womenfolk away from Papa, or if this was just the way they did things in the east.
“Mr. Greely has left us some ether to use on the girls, to keep them calm,” said Papa as if the girl wasn’t laying right there, eyes nervous. Next to the bottles of alcohol and penicillin, a wadded rag lay tucked against the ether. On the table before it, Mr. Greely had laid out a white cloth with a line of gleaming scalpels.
“Remember child, a little ether goes a long way,” said Papa. He folded his sleeves back to the elbow.
“What are the knives for Papa?”
“Don’t you worry about them,” said Papa. “Easterners, they often cut… the girls before they sew them. I won’t do such things. You just tend to that ether. No more than a few drops now.”
“Yes, Papa.” I uncorked the bottle and turned toward the sink. I poured a big palm sized splash of ether onto the cloth and spread it around with my thumb.
The girl flinched as I pressed the cloth over her mouth and nose. She glanced between me and Papa sorting his needles. Within a breath, her eyes went unfocused and rolled slowly back into their lids. The room was very quiet.
“Papa?” I asked as I handed him the first needle.
“Yes, girl?” he said flexing the girl’s flesh carefully with his fingers to pucker the folds of skin just right. He didn’t even need to hold her leg.
“Did you and Mama birth me in Sacramento, or… after you escaped from it?” I said.
His eyes glanced sharply between the girl and me. “Elana Anne, this is no subject to be speaking on,” he said, his tone final.
“She can’t hear us talking Papa.” My hand lifted the cloth from the girl’s mouth, showing the smooth, slack face.
“That don’t matter. These aren’t questions to be asking a father.”
“I ain’t got no mama to ask these things to, Papa. You’re having me marry Tom Wayland in less than a fortnight. You’ve showed me how to sew a virgin-mother, but there are things about birth and the curse that Mama would have taught me by now.”
He sighed, suddenly small and weary. “We bore you on the road, but your mama and I conceived you the way that all parents do. With a jar of water and a brass seeding rod.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Not if it’s done right.”
“What if it’s done wrong?”
Papa kept working, his fingers nimble.
The girl moaned. I checked her eye with my thumb and draped the cloth back over her mouth.
“I reckon I should have told you the birds and the bees by now,” said Papa, drawing the threads taught. “I’m sorry I’ve kept so much from you.”
“Imagine,” said Papa, “that you are a woman whose fertility has come. Your womb is like a little tree Elana. A little girl tree with two branches, heavy with fruit. Every seed a man puts inside will try to find one of those fruit. Every seed. Inseminate a woman with a drop of a man’s green seed diluted in a pint of water and you may bear a child, or two or three. Give a woman much more, and she becomes something unlike herself. The little tree inside starts to grow and take shape. There’s something in us Elana, something that can’t be put to sleep once it’s woken.”
“What does it have to do with the curse, Papa?”
“I don’t know that it rightly is a curse, Elana. The chapel hymns will tell you so. Your mama used to say that the Tree of Life was supposed to grant life eternal. That there was something holy about the trees if we could just find it. I loved your mama, but I can’t say I believed her way either. The trees don’t burst out of the ground at God’s call to punish people nor to grant them eternal life.”
“They don’t?” I whispered.
“No,” said Papa. His eyes grew distant. His fingers laced without looking, making the pattern distort.
“The people are the trees, Elana. The trees burst from inside of them. It spreads like wildfire the moment they’re caught by the branches and roots of those others that have been touched. Their skin splits and the roots rush everywhere. The sound of it is terrible.”
My back touched the lip of the stone basin as I shrank back from his words.
“How would you know what it sounds like unless you watched it happen, Papa?” I said, staring into his eyes. “You didn’t come from Sacramento. You and Mama saw it happen right here, didn’t you? In Lexington.”
Papa stared at me, stunned. He stood still, trapped with a taught thread in each hand. “Where did you even… Shut your mouth, girl.”
“You will mind me.” he said.
“You can’t make me. You can’t even make me marry Tom. You and mama ran away from that fate yourself.”
“You have no right no right to be talking to me this way!”
“You gave me this right,” I screamed, “when you lied to me about everything!”
His slap stung my face. My head turned round slowly, lips shuddering. The needles swung back and forth on their threads below Rebecca’s bleeding labia. All of the tension in the thread had gone out.
I stumbled back toward the doors and ran.
“Elana,” Papa cried as I shoved through the sliding doors and out the front door. It slammed open so hard it bounced closed again.
I ran past the barn and through the apple trees, ran toward the main road and the sounds of music, the distant smell of wood smoke.
I slowed and stopped amidst the dark boughs, my back against the far side of a gnarled trunk. The tears came. The ache of it wracked me from head to belly. I crouched and gripped the little pendant at my neck till the cord bit my skin.
“What are you doing out here in the trees, girl?” a voice said by my ear. My breath leapt from my mouth. Mr. Greely came round the far side of the tree supported by his hand.
“Leave me alone,” I said.
“Aren’t you supposed to be helping your daddy with the debutantes?”
“No,” I croaked and stepped back from the tree.
“Where you going?” He said, stepping forward. A half smile played on his lips.
“I have to get back to my Papa.”
He gave a guttural sigh and leaned against the trunk, nodding as if this were some great revelation.
“You picked a fight with him didn’t you?” he beamed. “Don’t deny it. I can see it on your face.”
“No,” I said.
He laughed, “I thought you would. Now what did you fight about?”
I edged toward the road and the distant sound of laughter.
“Oh,” he said, not moving. “You asked about your mama, didn’t you?”
My feet stopped.
“Did he tell you where your mama is?” he said, voice growing earnest. “Tell me, girl. Tell me what happened to her.” His eyes searched my face.
“I don’t know,” I said in a fierce whisper.
His eyes burned into mine for second, but then he laughed, settled his whole weight back against the tree. I caught that faint sharpness of whisky over the mold of fallen apples.
“Did he tell you that he was supposed to stitch up your mama and that he stole away with her instead?”
“No,” I whispered. His smile grew wider.
“Did he tell you they came sneaking back one night when her belly was like a cow, begging me with nowhere else to turn? She was half starved and I was sure those babies in her had to be dead. You and your little brothers and sisters–all still-born except for you. Your daddy ruined her, made her an outcast. And I was the one that pulled those dead babies from her and told her I’d take care of her and bury her secrets. I told her if she begged to the town elders, I’d say that your daddy took her against her will. I told her I’d love her and make her an honest woman. And she said yes.” He pounded his fist on the trunk.
“No, she’d never…” I whispered.
“Oh she did,” he said, pushing himself off the tree slowly. “And you know what she told me when I pulled you out of the womb, live and wriggling?”
I could only shake my head.
“She told me to give you over and she damned me to hell for tempting her. So I reached down and ripped out that whore’s stitches. Told her she’d never survive the bleeding if she didn’t stay. I would have killed you then if your daddy hadn’t burst in. He didn’t know why she was screaming and clutching at you, but for all the blood and those dead babies on the floor. He promised to drag you both off and never return. But I knew she’d crawl back to me if she wanted to live a good life. So I let her go. And the next day, Lexington was gone. Just gone. And she’s gone.” A tear rolled down his quivering lip.
His hand grasped my elbow and yanked me forward. My knees skinned against tree roots, and I shrieked. He pressed himself against me. “You may be no virgin-mother like her, but you’re a lying whore just the same.”
I screamed into the sweaty cloth of his shirt as my skin dragged down the bark. His weight stabbed the wooden pendant into my skin and I choked under his hand and his corn-liquor breath.
His fingers tore at his belt and my skirts until I felt the crude, metal rings in his skin press against me. He fumbled at them, trying to twist the metal as I kicked him. Rings are forged to hold, but somehow he worked them loose quickly until his hardness slapped against my thigh. The barbed jag of the open metal hoop tore my skin as he slid against my stitches and failed to thrust inside. He was blurting my mother’s name over and over, and there was a gush of warmth from his seed. I felt it splash across my aching thighs.
“Crap,” he said, in a small voice.
I choked against his fat palm, feeling the terror in my belly as his seed dripped down the outside of my stitch, burning my skin like a rash. I froze, afraid to move even as the anger grew past fear and my teeth bit at his hand till he yanked it away.
“You bastard!” yelled a voice that I first thought was mine. Wendy was slapping at Greely, hitting him on the head. “Get off of her!” she yelled. “You can’t make her touch you the way you made me. Don’t you know what she is? She’s a virgin!”
I yelled and fought to push him off, no longer hearing Wendy’s shouting, just kicking and wrestling. His face changed from angry to empty to terrified. His hands came back, wrapped around my throat, choked off my scream.
Something rose through my terror and fury, something like a distant voice. It called my name with the urgency of a mother. I felt the deep well of power in my belly as I thrashed and choked and the sky went black. Mama’s voice was with me as I was dying, whispering my name, and the sound of what I could become.
I reached for that inner fire as his fingers crushed the last breath from my throat. My fingers scratched down his side until they slipped between us and gripped my aching stitches. I found the heartstring and ripped it. My fingers twitched in the dying light, then thrust the failed wetness of his seed inside of me.
The pain left instantly. The shadows became such a beautiful color I had never known. Blackgreen. My body filled with strength and wildfire, pushing him up.
He clutched at me and began to yell. Tried to get off and couldn’t. He just kept slipping and shuddering as the black veins burst from my belly and burrowed into his flesh.
As he threw himself back, his penis ripped free of his crotch. The little thing dangled in the roots that grew between my thighs, draped like a weed caught in driftwood. Wendy started screaming. Mr. Greely fell over and made no sound.
I wanted to hold this hatred, but it’s hard when the world is so beautiful. The sound inside my head was the verdant chorus of a thousand leaves. I basked in the shafts of sunset light, each caressing me like a kiss. The woman’s screams clashed against the song, so I put a hand out to stop her. The vines of my fingers burst through her mouth. Her body writhed as my flesh rooted into hers, joining her into our growing song. She fell on top of him, already wracked with his own becoming.
Mama’s voice was in me, I could hear her song clearly from the wooden pendant against my skin and know that Papa had carved it from her own wood. In a language without words the voice welcomed me home.
Another voice, just as familiar as Mama’s, called out through the orchard. It rose against the music of the distant bonfire.
“Elana! Elana where are you?” Papa called and the sound of his voice felt like the color of summer rain. He limped around the trunk of the apple tree.
My many tendrils wrapped around Papa.
“Papa,” I cried, as he yelled and struggled. “What happened to Momma?”
“No,” he cried, “No… Not like this.”
“Tell me what happened to her.” The budding limb of my arm reached out and touched him, brushed his hair softly.
He broke into a sob and the words came out in a rush. “She was bleeding to death. We tried to go back to our kin in Lexington, but they beat her and locked us up. They were going to kill us. Kill you.”
The tendrils cradled him as he whispered the words. “She wanted us to cause the wood together, to live forever where we could always be with you. I pulled… myself out of her when she stopped breathing. I thought she was dead. I broke right out of that room and ran with you. When I heard the sound of the trees tearing through the town behind us, I knew she must have still….”
“It’s ok, Papa, Mama’s here with us, and it’s so beautiful,” I whispered, feeling the quickening inside. The song surged beyond all control, a joyful goodbye to all anger and lies. To all cruelty and shame. To all stitches and rings.
I stretched in all directions, tunneling through wall and stone, wood and flames, men, women and screaming children.
“No. Please,” he whispered as I brought him home.
Copyright 2013 Christopher Reynaga
Christopher Reynaga is a first place winner for the 2012 Writers of the Future, recipient of the Bazzanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. He has stories appearing in such venues as Cemetery Dance, The Book of Cthulhu 2, Boys of Summer and Expanded Horizons. You can follow him into the dark heart of the woods at @ChrstphrReynaga and www.ChristopherReynaga.com