8:4: “The Gone-By Quilt”, by Autumn Canter

8:4: “The Gone-By Quilt”, by Autumn Canter

She once said, “I loved you more than anything.” The memory’s right there, clear as day: a square of fabric that once clung to her sweaty breast and sighed with her beating heart beneath. Emily had been twenty-something, burning through and through with summer blood.

With quick flash stitches, hand to foot like paper dolls, she said next, “I like to drink the June day rains out the gutter pipe.” This memory is old, paisley cotton, stitched up with a red, red heart. She was no more than twelve and soaked to the bone, with thunder rippling across a sunny sky like a giant laughing up in the hills.

Next to it, a corner piece of flannel sheet that once adorned a girl’s small bed. The fabric is the color of cotton candy and bubble gum. When she got scared at night, she put it in her mouth and chewed. You can’t see the impression of baby teeth, but they are there: spaced wide, sharp as little blades.

The quilt is folded up careful, one end put back to show the inner layer: black as tar, coal, cinder, soot. It’s pieces of her story all sewed up. A tapestry of her life.

*

Emily had the strange touch in three fingers: thumb, first, and middle on just her right hand. The midwife told her mother it was so within the baby’s first hour out of the sea she grew in, kicking, for seven months. She busted out early, scrawny and wailing, with three twitchy fingers scratching colors into the air.

*

Her papa made her little mitts to keep her magic fingers muffled. But time came when she tore off her mitts and sent her magic fingers to work—sending dollies dancing, stuffed bears pouncing out at passing feet, sheets floating up off the bed to flap like birds around the light fixtures.

One morning two bags of flour chased each other up and down the stairs, hacking out grainy clouds and coating every inch of surface with powder. Mama screamed curses about Emily’s magic fingers and took out a sharpened knife from the top drawer. She’d have them off!

Emily sat in the midst of it all, screamed and clapped her hands. Her which-way hair was white and eyebrows and lashes the same.

The anger poured out her mama like a keg free of its plug. She stood still, struck by sorrow. She hid the big knife in her skirts and cried.

That night, Emily toddled up to her father, held up her three tricky fingers, and said, “Gub. Gub, papa. Gub”.

He made her gloves in every fabric he could get his hands on. Gloves that covered up her magic touch and left her other fingers free.

*

At school no one spoke to her. They’d heard stories that she was witchy. Emily spent most of her time sewing dresses for her dolls and working on her quilt, silent and alone, wishing it was otherwise.

The year she turned eleven, fresh out of the bath with her hair sticking up straight and her eyes black as coals, she turned over things she didn’t quite have the age to understand.

In the mirror, oval in a piece of white painted wood, Emily looked at herself: at her brown right hand and the strange pale fingers that God had put on her for reasons unknown.

She tucked in the thumb and the middle digit, leaving the first poking out, and went cross-eyed looking at it near her nose. It was paler than her hand but otherwise didn’t look too special. It’d been so long since she’d done anything with it.

She still remembered a towering image of her raging, weeping mother holding up a kitchen knife and screaming, “I’ll have them off! I’ll have the devil work off you!”

Maybe…maybe it didn’t even work anymore. Slow as honey down the jar drawing ants, she reached out towards the Emily in the mirror. She touched the girl’s chest where two little nubs poked out the front of her nightgown, showing she was on the way to being a woman.

The glass rippled like a puddle with a rock tossed in. The girl in the mirror flashed a smile and Emily, standing still, recoiled.

The looking-glass girl came close, squishing up her button nose to the inside of the glass, and said, “Emi, you better pull yourself together, ‘cause Mama is coming up the stairs right now and she’s gonna braid our hair.”

When Mama came in, Emily was sitting on the end of the bed, glove covering her right hand. The looking-glass girl was doing just the same, but when Mama wasn’t looking she winked. When she saw that Emily wasn’t going to say a thing about it, she pulled faces: pig’s nose jerked up with a thumb, yanked down bloody red eyelids, and waggling, slobbering tongue.

When Mama had gone with a kiss and a tuck, Emily laughed quiet as could be into her fists. Out of the dark, caught in the glass and frame, the other Emily spoke out: “At least we have each other.”

*

Emily had an old broken piece of mirror that she propped up in the barn. On warm days she sat there to read a book and practise her stitches. She spent this time with the other Emily quilting together old fabrics, reading aloud, chatting with the girl in the mirror that wore her face.

Sometimes Emily’s mama and papa heard her laughing into the twilight as they waited on the porch for supper to cool before calling her in. They didn’t know she left each night with a kiss smacked against glass and an “I love you” for the looking glass girl she’d created.

*

The years passed. The quilt spread over her lap, rainbow pieces netted together. Big enough now to swaddle a baby doll or wrap her shoulders like a shawl. The looking-glass girl grew with her, took her secrets and her loneliness.

Emily wished there was some way she could put pieces of the looking glass girl into the quilt, but bits of glass, even sewn in careful might bite. Emily soothed them both by saying each piece that was hers was also the other Emily’s too. Their smiles were identical—flashing teeth in the dim shadows of the barn.

Emily might have been enough for the looking-glass girl, but the same wasn’t true for Emily. Though she loved her reflection, her only friend, Emily was hot blood and flesh. She wanted more.

*

“You taste as sweet as you look.”

They met out back under the maple line that bordered the creek. White boy with two sparky blue eyes: color of the forbidden. No Negro girl, even north of the Mason-Dixon Line, should be lip-stuck to a White: white as a snake belly, a snow mound, a slap-dash spread of paint. An Irish boy.

“You better head on back.”

“Don’t you worry, Emily. I don’t care what any would say and neither should you.”

After he had gone and she counted off the seconds till she could follow, the other Emily moved up on the water’s face: ripple skinned with tadpoles stitching through her gleaming eyes. “It ain’t fair. You get to kiss on him like that, and me, I just get to see it there burning on your lips and beating in your breast. What life is this, only getting to look on yours?”

Emily tossed a pebble in the water girl’s face, making her ripple and dance and look old as old can be. “You shut up. You only a bit of me and can’t have more than that.”

The looking glass girl cried into the water, tears flowing over pebbles and south.

*

Emily took one of her lover’s old shirts and cut it into pieces, spreading it throughout her quilt, binding the fabrics together. The looking-glass girl sulked with arms crossed and mumbled to herself. Emily ignored her and raised up a square of fabric to sniff. It smelled just like him still.

“You like that stupid white boy more than you like me. You don’t care nothing about me at all.”

Emily tossed down her quilt and snapped, “What do you want from me? You ain’t even real. You ain’t nothing but a bit of magic. If I could get rid of you, I would. I’m tired of not being able to look at my own face and have to hear you nattering on all the time!”

Emily pricked herself with the needle and cursed, sucking her thumb and tasting the cotton over her magic finger. It sizzled.

The looking-glass girl’s face got ugly with anger. “I thought you was my friend! But you ain’t. I hate you. I ought to tell Mama what you done, making me. I ought to snitch to everyone else what you doin’ with that boy down by the creek.”

“No, you won’t! No, you better not!”

Lucky thing Mama and Papa were down the road visiting old, sick Mrs. Jones or else they would have heard two girls shrieking, cursing, crying loud enough to scare the barn swallows out the eaves and into desperate flight.

An old sheet took care of the looking-glass girl. When she was covered up, Emily could pretend the other one didn’t exist at all.

*

It hurt for the looking-glass girl to move away from Emily: to stretch herself thin as air, back and back to a place she’d been—just another mirror-face to that ungrateful, no-good girl. She shivered in the running water, silver-skinned.

She wasn’t just magic. She wasn’t just a piece of Emily made alive to look back when the other girl looked in. She’d show that rotten Emily!

Her paste-pale lover waited by the creek. He twirled a ring in his hand that would look fine on Emily’s brown finger. It filled her up with a sick dread to see it.

He heard his lover calling, teasing from around the water, singing sweet. When he bent down low and put his white face down towards the sound, the looking glass girl snatched him up, filled his mouth, choked up his throat, took him down and down till he was laid out waist to waving yellow hair in the water.

She’d show that Emily girl to share her kisses.

*

Later that day, Emily was walking by the grocery windows when her reflection peeled away from their stepping and said, “You see this Negro girl here? I killed her lover, that O’Hart boy with the yella hair. She was kissing up on him when no one was looking.”

That was how Emily found out. She fell down in a crying heap, dust from toe to hip, and screamed.

There were no secrets now. Their forbidden love was over shown by his murder and her magic. She had nothing left to lose.

She had to try to bring him back.

*

There was one funeral home and one body laid out in it: drowned in the creek out back the school–blue face, blue-eyed.

Emily went right in, through grief-bent mourners sitting vigil, shying away from her narrow body tight with grief.

The father came up spitting curses, “What you doing here? You done enough. More than enough and some. You ought to be jailed. You ought to be burned and hung.”

Emily stripped off her glove and felt the room take a great suck of breath as her pale, twitchy fingers caught the lantern glow and flashed.

She touched her lover’s cold brow, his hair, his nose, lips, the glued shut lids of his eyes, but there was nothing and nothing. No breath. No movement. No honey voice saying, “Emily, I love you.”

A grief scream came out of her as her arms flopped up and down, beating her own chest. From the lantern glass her miniature reflection laughed and from Emily’s twitching fingers sparks shot and sent all the ladies’ hats, trailing mourning veils, to flying.

*

“You need to pray. You need to get down on your knees from morning to night and ask God to take back your devil work.” Mama laid her shaky hand on Emily’s head.

Outside the white boy’s folks held up bricks, threatening to break up the window glass if the devil girl came back saying, “Yes, I killed him! I killed that cracker! I killed that good-for-nothing! I drowned him in the creek! I put that uppity Emily in her place!”

Emily glared at the covered mirror, the curtained windows, hate and more hate beating from her broken heart for her murderous reflection.

She couldn’t go anywhere. The looking-glass girl spat awful things, cusses and whore talk from the windows, the bathroom mirrors, the shine off the fishbowl. She was everywhere Emily was: in the church, the school, the town grocery.

Witch girl, they spat at her and drew the cross over their bosoms, cursed.

“I hate you,” she hissed at the mirror.

“I hate you,” her voice echoed right back and the sheet swayed as if breathing.

*

Deep in the night, her legs full of cramps and her hands locked tight over the cross her mama had put there, Emily crawled to the mirror, pulled up a corner of the sheet and saw the other girl waiting. “I’m going to get you gone,” she growled.

“I’ll believe it when it’s done. ‘Till then I’ll make your life a hell on Earth every which way you go.”

Emily tore the quilt out of her sewing basket and rubbed her cheek on the pieces that once soaked up her lover’s sweat and now took her tears.

Glove peeled off with aid of her teeth, she touched the inside fabric with her magic fingers, turning it black as her heart: gone to rot with rage, grief, and hate so thick she could taste it bitter on her tongue. She knew something had to be done quick or the infection would spread, and even her papa’s handiwork wouldn’t keep her taint out of the world.

Soft as feathers cutting air and rain coming down, she thought she heard her lover’s voice from a distance. It wasn’t him, of course, just her hope dying. She wrapped herself in her quilt, a rainbow cocoon, soaking it with tears.

*

Some hated her. Some were afraid. Fewer still shed a few tears on her behalf when they were sure they were alone. But all came out the day she stood and called them: windows shooting up letting in the chill, blankets pulling back to their feet and slapping, doors rattling on hinges and knocking dents into the walls.

Through a film of clouds the sun peeked out, hid, made itself bold and cast shadows. Emily stood in the spring sun, thin as a waif, hollow-eyed with tears shed each night, each day since he died.

She waited till they’d gathered: barefoot, sleepy-eyed, horrified, the entire town in their nightclothes waiting. She slapped her tricky hand up against the red brick of the town hall: pretty brown fingers, two pale as paste and the thumb the same. “I didn’t ask for it and I’m done with it. You are witness. The only sin that’s mine is not having done with it sooner.”

“Stupid girl,” spat her reflection from the glass window to her left.

The cleaver in her hand came down, once, twice. Three magic fingers on the dusty boards and one girl screaming. The one that wasn’t went after the glass next, spraying blood from her stumps and spittle from her lips. The looking-glass girl shattered into pieces and was silent.

*

As time passed the mirror gathered dust. The wooden frame shed paint as skin. The sheet that cocooned the glass was yellow stained and brittle. It stood at the foot of the bed. It loomed.

The quilt lay in its shadow. You could see Emily’s life in the patchwork pieces, from baby gowns to flour bags, to lover’s rags and bloodstained gauze layered thrice to hold the threads.

It all gathered dust in the abandoned house, the eyesore of the town. The neighborhood kids threw rocks into the windows and shattered them to pieces. They carved their names into the boards that sealed the windows on dares to prove they were brave.

No one went inside.

No one went inside ever, except the old woman, and she never came back out—alive, anyway.

*

The old woman sat on the end of the bed and rubbed the quilt with the remaining fingers of her right hand. It was the pieces of what was, the memories.

There was so much missing, the after. The graduation black and wedding gown white, hospital receiving blankets and scraps of cloth that her children stained and grew out of. That wasn’t in the quilt. She’d severed herself from this part of her life, along with her cursed fingers.

Now, at the end, Emily found that her oldest memories still had teeth—they gnawed. She knew it was time to face her ghosts before she joined them.

Her hand passed over a knot, a lump in the fabric. There. She moved it to the window. An incision in the black cloth, clumsy, bloodstained stitches. She pulled the threads and they gave, unraveling, puffing out dust.

Bones spilled out on the floor, rattling. They jittered, shook, spun like tops possessed. Her nubs tingled and went warm.

Seeing them dancing brought her back to that day when she slapped them up on pitted, red brick warmed from morning sun.

Emily thought of yellow hair roped around her brown fingers, of a face smiling back at her that was not her own, glued-shut corpse eyes and painted cheeks, and broken glass sparkling over her toes dripped in blood.

Tears slid down her cheeks, lost in the wrinkles. She staggered when she bent to scoop up the bones. The bones jumped into her palms like eager children. Weeping, Emily closed her remaining fingers and her broken nubs—locking the bones in place. They lay still, pleased, humming with power.

Afraid it would not be enough, she flung herself at the mirror. She leaned against it with a cry, with a murmured prayer of please, please, please and yanked. The sheet trailed to the floor and over her feet shedding dust.

A young Emily looked out at her, hands cocked on narrow hips, sulky mouth in a pout. “I wondered when you’d find fit to look at me again.”

One old, palsied hand pressed against the glass, over the smooth mound of a young girl’s cheek. The old woman leaned forward and kissed the glass, kissed the silver tears, stroked the smooth black hair.

Oh, the smile. A smile without wrinkles, without dentures, without years of experience gone by. A girl’s smile. A smile that once stretched her own lips and flashed her teeth. There it was, still alive, innocent and hopeful, on the looking-glass girl’s face.

*

The old woman was found on the floor. Her hand, frozen stiff and missing fingers, was pressed to the base of the mirror. The old glass had run in ripples and whirls down towards the floor. It looked like weeping.

Out in the yard, a young black girl stood with the neighbors—dashed red and blue from the lights of the police cars. She clutched a dusty, patchwork quilt to her chest and cried.


Autumn Canter lives in Baltimore with her comic guru husband, baby son, four belligerent felines and hundreds upon hundreds of books. Were there an apocalypse, she is confident she will be entertained as long as there is a source of light by which to read. She writes when her toddler sleeps and plays with blocks and stuffed elephants the rest of the time. Her work has been published in Sybil’s Garage No. 6, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange, Weird and Wonderful Magazine, A Fly in Amber, and The Absent Willow Review. You can learn more about her than you ever wanted to know at her blog, www.felinefixation.com. She is always looking for recommendations of what to read next. Do share. She says:

“I wanted to write a story with an African American character because of the lack thereof in speculative fiction. I also had my personal reasons. My husband and son are of a mixed racial background. Though we have come a long way towards equal rights, prejudice remains. Sadly, we have seen this first hand as a family. At the heart though, this is a story about forgiveness, one of the greatest things a person can accomplish–in my humble opinion, anyway!”



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