Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Short Story: The Quilt

This is a first draft I wrote when the Iraq war started. It's about the war and about life and stuff. Some patches are not that good and entering it is a little slow but I like the way it spews.

She was dreaming a quilt. In her dream the blocks were dancing, changing, turning. There was color, joy, hatred, rage, sex. There was loneliness and too many people. One block was mysterious, empty perhaps. She needed to sign it.

After work the next day she made a detour to a fabric store and a bookstore. She came home loaded with fabrics and books about quilts and spent the whole weekend on the floor among the fabrics, stroking them, spreading them out, trying to see her dream again. Something was missing.

Most of the next week she thought about the quilt. Evenings she pored over the books, read about patterns called "The Trip Around The World", "The Drunkard's Path", "The Flying Geese". Something was still missing.

After a time she gave up, packed the fabrics away, put the books on high shelves and went back to her life as it used to be: days spent in the office, evenings at the television set, weekends visiting relatives and friends who talked about their lives. She read the papers about the war, about the laws that were changed to make her life safer, snugger, more suffocating. She collected money for good causes, exercized, paid her bills, brushed her teeth, took a course on using the internet.

The war talk got more heated, the friends and relatives more absorbed in their own lives. Her life hardly changed. Then she dreamt about the quilt again. This time the quilt made itself, then disintegrated, the pieces attacking her like vampire bats. The blocks had eyes and mouths and they all whispered something. The reds bled all over her, the yellows singed her eyelashes, the blues were so cold her teeth hurt, the greens like grass run amok. She couldn't hide from them. "Sign me", they all demanded.

She was torn awake by her terror. The dark apartment was quiet, her heart making the only sound. She got up and went into the cold kitchen. Snow was falling outside. She stood watching it while the water for her tea boiled. The tea warmed her and calmed her down.

What to do? Should she see a doctor? Was she going mad? She sat in the kitchen the rest of the night, thinking.

In the morning she called in sick. She took out all her clothes from the closets and spread them over the furniture. Then she climbed up into the attic and dragged down all her storage boxes. The dust on them made her sneeze, the smells inside them brought back memories. She had never discarded anything that was still wearable. She took everything out and covered all the surfaces of her apartment with old fabrics. She turned the radio on and sat on the floor, listening to war talk and legal talk, all in low, measured voices, while the fabrics around her came to life.

They whispered, too. She looked at the yellow dress she had worn to the first party in which a boy had kissed her. She remembered he tasted of chewing gum and forbidden cigarettes, with an undertone of bologna sandwiches. He had dumped her, later, when she had been wearing the polka-dotted pink top. She had saved for it for months. The faded jeans spoke about the day when she had thrown her dinner plate, full of mashed potatoes, in her grandfather's face, because he had called her fat. The jeans were too small for a stick figure made of toothpicks. But she had once fitted in them, once been given compliments about her looks by strangers in shopping malls. The green suit she had worn for all those interviews. All the hopes she had worn with it. The zipper never worked right, the seam was made buckled. The black lace top that had been to her mother's funeral. How she had cried, finding the world empty and desolate for a year afterwards, full of guilt, regrets and longings to have time turn back.

The radio discussed civilian casualties, interviewed people who were expecting to be attacked, debated about the likely effects of chemical warfare on small children. She pulled at a small piece of grey silk showing under a pile of clothes. It was the hem of her wedding dress. Why did they decide on grey for a wedding? Was it a foretaste of what the marriage was to become: two strangers without words groping for each other in a grey mist? He had been a lovable man, a good man. Yet he faded away so that when he finally left she couldn't remember what she had worn the day she came home to a silent house to find him gone for ever.

The same pile of clothes produced an exercise outfit, all neon colors and energy. She had bought it for aerobics, to start a new life after the divorce, then worn it for yoga, tai chi, even boxing. Some of the energy had stuck; she still loved moving and dancing, finding the animal spirit in her.

The radio droned on about the need for more internet surveillance, more secret agents. She glanced furtively at the windows and drew the curtains closed. Then she pulled out the red silk negligee she had bought when her affair with the lone rider had started. She always called him that, the lone rider, because he came and went alone. All she had wanted from him were nights in bed, skin heated from within, teeth teasing her. She had wanted him dancing inside her, dancing slowly to the rhythms of jazz and cinnamon and despair that it would end, that it wouldn't end. Of course it ended, but she still had the red negligee, smelling faintly of cinnamon and sweat and sex.

The radio had switched to music and outside night was falling. She felt as if she had really been ill but was now a convalescent, beginning something new, a recovery from death. But she still didn't see her way clearly.

The dream didn't return that night. It didn't have to, it had now taken over her waking hours. She went back to work but she lived for the time when she could return to her scissors and fabrics. Every night she created art: She cut out hearts of hopeful yellow and embroidered them with polka-dotted knives of betrayal. She sewed interlinked hands of grey silk, and hands that slowly let go of each other. She scattered them with seed beads in the shape of question marks and tears. And as she sewed she listened to the body count on the radio and cried, or turned to a station of old love songs and smiled through her tears.

She hardly ate and washed some days. Waves of life and death soared through her.

She backed her creations with fabric from her everyday clothes, backgrounds of ordinary days. She didn't turn seams, let them fray as they wished, and when she accidentally cut into her thumb she let the blood speckle over the blocks that called for it.

She made law books and police truncheons out of her blue jeans. Below them she attached small falling birds of white lace. This made her angry for days. Then she added angry birds with black eyes flying upwards, tearing into the law books and crapping on the truncheons. Out of the green interview suit she made trees of aspiration with quivering leaves, then trees that dropped their leaves. She gave them a shower of dollar signs in white pearls, getting smaller and smaller as the leaves wrinkled under her fingers.

Someone at work one day asked if she was all right. She smiled back. She was quite all right, thank you. But she needed more material for her dream. She hunted the shops for feathers, bolts and nuts, sequins, dried pasta rings. She added all of this to her art. She added her own hair and fingernail clippings, tampon covers.

The dead of the war started to have names. She listened to the names on the radio. She cut huge red penises out of the red silk and surrounded them with lines which meant throbbing. She smeared the sex blocks with cinnamon and her own saliva, and pricked her finger to get blood on them. She seemed to be growing taller as she worked, but she had to make notes for herself about when to eat, when to wash. Her nights were peaceful.

Most of her clothes now had missing sections. She kept back one outfit so that she could go to work, go to the stores to hunt for materials. Her finger tips grew thick leather gloves, her hair was full of bits of thread. She was alive.

But she came against a wall when time came to add the grief over her mother's death. She was going to cut the black lace top into shreds and sew them all over the quilt. Somehow she couldn't bear to cut it. She became blocked, constipated, consumed by the enormous sorrows of the world. Then she had another dream about the quilt. The black top was whole, a large black area that wouldn't be shredded or absorbed or even crossed. It just was there, in the middle of the quilt, like a vast black mountain.

So that is how she made it the following morning. She sewed all the other blocks around it, sat back and looked around her. The apartment was a mess, bits of fabric, lint and threads everywhere, dust in the air, dirty plates and cups, staleness. She looked into the mirror and saw a near-skeletal woman dressed in rags.

The next day she spent cleaning her apartment. She swept away the lint and threads, vacuumed, washed the dishes and windows, aired the rooms. She took a long, scented bath, made her face up carefully, dressed in her one decent outfit and went out for a meal in a restaurant where they served good wine and played classical music. She wore her best pearls and a diamond ring, and a feeling of peace and accomplishment.

When she got out snow was falling again. Wind blew it into a diagonal whip that threw her pearls around and her hair into her eyes. She had to bend forward to be able to walk to her car. That is when she saw the newspaper dispenser headlines: war accelerating, bombings of innocents, body parts found. She read how the government guarded her by reading e-mails, by asking neighbors to keep watch. By the time she got home the quilt, spread out in the living room, no longer excited her as it had. She felt indigestion from all the good food, dizziness from the good wine. She went to bed vaguely disgruntled.

The dream came back. Now the quilt looked like the one she had made but it wasn't finished. It had enormous gaps through which snow blew, wolves howled, bullets flew. The gaps were going to suck her in, to shred her, to use her as a filler. She tried to wrap her naked body in the quilt but it wasn't enough to cover her. The emptiness sighed "Sign me".

She woke up truly angry. She had had enough, more than enough. She would no longer listen to anybody or anything. She drove to work through red lights, she stuck her tongue out at people tooting their car horns at her. She had an argument with her boss about being late, and when he walked away, she took scissors from her desk, slipped into his empty office and cut a piece out of the back of his coat.

She ran back into her room frightened to death. What had she done? How could she ever explain this and keep her job? Had the spirits of the quilt taken her over? It was too late to put everything back. She packed up her desk, gave her notice and left. But before that she cut pieces out of her office curtains and the cardigan the secretary left on the back of her chair when she went out for lunch.

She called her relatives and visited them that weekend. She came home with stolen bits from their tablecloth and sofa cushions. She stole patches from her friend's scarf, from her now-and-then lover's tie. She added them all to her quilt, embroidered with thought bubbles of words that never met each other, in invented languages that nobody understood.

She disconnected her telephone, refused to answer her door. She looked up addresses for the government, the military, invented reasons to visit them and, when opportunity arose, whipped out her scissors or knife and ripped out sections of upholstery or curtains, even the lining of a military cap left on a hook. The more she stole the more honest she felt. Once she followed a couple who came out of a car festooned with war banners into a busy restaurant and cut out the hems of their jackets without anyone noticing. She returned home with her spoils and looked in the wild eyes in her mirror. She was past questions now.

She knew where the missing pieces of her quilt were. She filled them in with legal fabric, embroidered with lips sewed shut, eyes gouged empty, feathers sticking out of hearts that bled red sequins. She cut patches of war from the military pieces, added her kitchen knives, doll's legs and arms, made herself vomit on them. Then, after some time, she added flags of many countries in beading, the word "freedom" in all colors of wool. She added Christian crosses, Islamic crescents, swastikas. She embroidered cages with women perched in them, cages with open doors, cemeteries seen from the underside. She used nails, screws, bolts and washers to make little skeletons deep under the surface. Then she took all the paper money she could find, ripped it into confetti and stitched it all over the war blocks.

The snow was falling again. It was night, and she was nearly finished.

The next week she went to anti-war demonstrations, clipped bits off T-shirts calling for peace, a hunk of hair hanging down the back of a demonstrator. She patiently followed an old smelly woman living on the street until her overflowing cart of newspapers, empty bottles and old blankets was left unguarded for a moment, then cut off a piece from a blanket, leaving bread and money in its place.

She went to bars, prowling, getting kicked out, getting propositioned, until she managed to cut off a sleeping drunk's sleeve cuff and to beg a prostitute for a piece from her feather boa. She returned home like a hunter from the forests, and spent delirious days attaching her finds around the edges of the quilt. She embroidered them with signs meaning "silence" and "voices in the distance", with dead seedheads and broken nutshells, and appliqued white and black netting over the feathers of the boa. She wove the peace fighter's hair into the edges of her war blocks where its colors melded in. She placed the homeless woman's smelly bit of blanket in the upper right-hand corner, with arrows leading to it from her heart blocks, her aspiration blocks, her legal and war blocks. Then she went out into the nearby woods, collected dead twigs and frozen grass, pebbles frozen into the snow, trudged back to the apartment and added it all, still frozen, still cold into the quilt. She was emptied, hollow, cold. She went to bed exhausted, knowing that her quilt was done.

But she didn't know what to do with it. She needed one final dream. It wouldn't come. Her bank account was now almost empty, her savings nearly gone. The landlord sent her a notice about late rent, then an eviction notice. She started selling off her furniture, roaming the slowly emptying apartment, listlessly applying for jobs. Something was still not right.

Her face in the mirror looked old or perhaps newly born. She prayed to that face for a dream, prayed to all the faces that might hide in the mirrors. She prayed to the quilt itself; its shining beauty, warmth and elegance, its utter ugliness, stench and despair. And the dream finally came.

The quilt was alive, it floated in the air, nearer and nearer, until it, slowly, slowly devoured her. Yet at the same time she also floated, nearer and nearer to the quilt and devoured it. Then they danced, the quilt-that-had-been-a-woman and the-woman-that-had-been-a-quilt. And danced and danced.

In the morning she woke up, hung the quilt on her balcony railing for all the world to see, got in her car and drove away.