Once upon a time, there lived my mom and my dad who never had any children and were very sad, and basically had no life. But at long last, I was born, and their sorrow turned to joy. They said I was their miracle baby, and that I was born with shoulder-length red hair and gold eyes, and that I was more beautiful than a princess out of a fairy tale, but by the time I was thirteen, I was like, “That’s stupid. None of the other girls in school have gold eyes,” and I started wearing sunglasses and boy haircuts. Then I turned seventeen and put too many miles on the family car, and was always hitting my parents up for money, and they said, “You know, this isn’t really what we asked for.”
And I was like, “Whatever.”
I had a lot of attitude back then.
But it wasn’t like I meant it. I wasn’t one of those kids who hated their parents. Mine were all right. Often, I found myself liking them. I wanted to do nice things for them. Like this one time for Christmas, all I wanted to do was make them a needlepoint, a nice one—practical. But it takes a long time to learn that kind of thing. I spent hours studying away from home—which they disliked but tolerated since it was also hours I was spending away from boys.
I’d only ever brought one boy home to meet my parents. He wasn’t very smart, and he wore too much cologne, and that alone was enough to drain the limited beaker of my family’s patience. His name was Justin, and I thought my parents would like him considering, at that time, he was the captain of the football team, and they’d always wanted me to end up with someone successful. But my mom said, “Uh, I meant a doctor,” and my dad made me solemnly swear I wouldn’t go on another date until I was at least eighteen.
So instead of chasing boys, I spent most of my time with my best friend, Anna Katharina. She was older than I was—in college—and my parents mistrusted her for being so. She already had a small house of her own, left to her by her grandmother, and her premature sense of responsibility put my mom and dad on edge. But I liked spending time with her. She introduced me to the better, older world, and she was the one who taught me how to needlepoint. My parents thought that was code for something devious and addicting. It didn’t help that Anna Katharina was the skinniest person I knew.
Anyway, it was going on Christmas, and my parents were throwing this gala at our house—well, not a “gala” exactly, but they kept using that word—“gala”—when they talked about it to the point that the term rubbed off on me. Like one time, in preparation for the event, they went out to get groceries for our guests, but all they came home with were a few plastic packages of log-pepperoni, and some fat blocks of pepperjack, and a bunch of two-liter bottles of assorted Pepsis, and some pre-wrapped somethings called L’il Smokies, and I laughed and said, “Some gala.”
I thought they would like that.
But, instead, Dad said, “I don’t see you helping, princess,” which was true.
My schedule that winter revolved almost wholly around the eating of chocolate sandwich cookies, and the drinking of soda, and the flipping through of television.
On the day of the gala, when I reached around the package of chocolate sandwich cookies in pursuit of the remote, I spilled my open can of soda all over our beige carpet. In addition to creating a small puddle of brown syrup, this spilled can of soda also lifted our family’s illusion of domestic tidiness and revealed what a mess our house really was with the gala only a few hours away. It was as if we had been looking at our living room through bleach-colored glasses that hid the scuff marks on the walls, bumps from moving furniture around, a space behind the couch where I had etched my initials with the grime from my boots on a day I had been binge watching American Top 40 upside-down. For a fact, a surprising amount of the damage in the house was a by-product of my boot-wearing. The dry cereal crushed beneath and embedded within the fibers of the carpet, the mud I tramped in always, the hole I high-kicked in the drywall, on purpose, to get out of doing VHS tae-bo aerobics with Mom.
Dad still hadn’t forgiven me for that one.
When it happened, he said, “I hope you like that hole because it’s gonna stay there until you fix it.”
And I was like, “Yeah. Okay.”
And then, with company arriving shortly, there it still was, prominent in our living room like we were a family of tree-livers and that was our world-famous knot. I liked it, I think, a lot more than my parents did. I found it to be helpful in ways that our plain old wall just wasn’t. It gave the room character and provided a space to sit and watch spiders. Plus, you could put stuff in it. My mom hated the hole most of all, and I didn’t even realize it until the magic Dr. Pepper spilled and drove my mom to her knees with her hands in a bucket and her hair in a kerchief and the crying and the scrubbing.
“I can get this stain clean by tonight,” she sniffed, “but what are we going to do about that hole?”
I was largely okay with ignoring our family’s crises, but this was coming on Christmas, remember, and Anna Katharina had said that I was getting pretty good at needlepoint—at least good enough to stitch a gift for my family, which gave me the perfect idea about how to cover up the hole.
“I’ll be back,” I said.
“What?” said Dad. He was in the kitchen. I could feel the angry, tight wring of his dishrag.
“I’m going to get something to cover the hole,” I said. “I’ll be home in time for the gala, I swear.”
Dad eyed me sidewise, suspecting I’d head for Anna Katharina’s, which I’d planned on doing, but in lieu of spoiling my Christmas surprise to them, I left a fake number, telling him he could reach me at the hardware store if I wasn’t home in a few hours.
* * *
I should have given myself more time. Anna Katharina lived at the tippest-top of the tallest hill in town, and with Christmas creeping closer, traffic jammed, and roads iced, and drive-times more than doubled. I glimpsed her house from the interstate, up miles of snowy, sloping farmland. I took my time, hummed all the contemporary holiday arrangements I knew by heart, and eased into the last few bends in low gear.
I could smell Anna Katharina’s place from the road. Her air seeped through my vents, hot with friendship and allspice; for she had many potpourris and only cooked Mediterranean food.
I felt mature when I was with her, always home alone, eating orzo and zucchini in place of Oreos and soda. But she always wore pajamas. Recently she’d taken to a fierce snow leopard fleece set that was both trendy and warm with cinched three-quarter sleeves and a low swooping V, with matching blanket and slippers to boot. How often she lounged like this: with thimble and embroidery hoop, bathed in candlelight, slow-cooker behind her. On the night of the gala, though, Anna Katharina met me at the door wearing a satin dress—a navy shade of blue with a gold broach—and asked what I was doing.
“Why?” I said. “Are you going on a date?” I hoped not. Once the steady suitors started, and it wouldn’t be long now, her heirloom house would be full-up. No room for high-schooling, golden-eyed, forbidden-to-date, pseudo-princess girls like me.
“I’m going to the gala,” she said.
I was surprised my parents had invited her.
I told her about the soda, the carpet and the hole—my idea to cover it with some handcrafted piece of Christmas art.
“I could make something classy and simplistic,” I said. “Maybe an all caps sort of something that says, THIS IS NOT A HOLE.”
“But there isn’t enough time,” she said. It was only a few hours before the gala, and even if she’d had a cross-stitch pattern that said something that “stupid” (her word), it might take me days to finish. She spent about fourteen hours total embroidering each of her pieces, and she was a pro, having learned to stitch from her grandmother when she was just a kid.
“Better just run to the hardware store for spackle,” she said, “Unless—”
* * *
When she wasn’t sitting outside, rocking and stitching, Grandma Katharina (God rest her soul) owned and operated the Embroidery Kiosk at the Hickory Hills Shopping Center. She sold heaps of needlework. And she was beautiful. Her skin was polished bronze, deep. She would close her sales by asking her customers would they believe she didn’t have any tan lines? “Except right here,” she’d say, holding up her thimble thumb, white as the day she was born.
Grandma Katharina could stitch a bluebird in an hour, basketweave a tulip on her lunch break, and tent HOME SWEET HOME faster than someone could say congress cloth. Men flocked to her. They requested calligraphed I love you’s with pastel hearts on soft-colored canvases—for their wives—they said.
An old hound approached once saying, “Now, stitch me a flower, and don’t be modest.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Grandma Katharina said.
“You know,” he whispered. “I mean, it’s all right if the stamen’s showing.”
Grandma Katharina laughed. “I think you mean the pistils,” she said. And from then on, she made her living doing dirty needlepoint.
The lines ran from the kiosk to the food court. On Valentine’s Day she indulged a set of well-off brothers from Nova Scotia who had come fourteen hundred miles for an eight-by-ten apple pie, “extra moist.”
They came in droves, and Grandma Katharina stitched for them all until her thumbs bled and her fingers ached, and one winter’s night, cold and dark, her joints swelled so bad she couldn’t turn the key to her house. Snow fell in hearty curtains around her, the frozen sands of an icy hourglass, first filling in her footfalls, erasing the evidence of her existence, consuming her car completely.
Slumped and shivering, she sat on her porch in lonely February, the snow blowing in around her, wondering what she might do next. Her orders were backed up. She could still hear her customers, nasty and licentious and shouting mad.
“In the morning,” she mumbled. “The morning,”
But she would have no crafts for the men.
Her house sat at the tippest-top of the tallest hill in town, blizzard-deep, surrounded by trees, isolated. All day she had pushed pins, but the ones she needed most to fall, the ones inside her lock, stayed frozen, stubborn, untwistable. The cold numbed her feet first, her patent leather shoes worn from long days standing, then her nose, which pointed south, toward the treeline, where a shadow moved across pure white. It was a small dog or coyote, copper and tawny, its eyes reflecting ice all around. It pawed slowly closer, leaving soft snow tracks behind, until it was close enough for the freezing Grandma Katharina to see its long, glamorous eyelashes, and the purple sack clasped in its jaws.
She moaned—a muted sound from a dying mouth.
The wind picked up. Swish, it blew. Grandma Katharina shut her eyes and tucked her chin into her jacket. When the wind died down, the snow stopped cold. The animal was gone, but the pouch was on the porch.
* * *
“My grandma made one hundred custom orders that night,” Anna Katharina said. “Magic.” Her words were gilded whispers.
She opened the purple sack. The thimble was gold. The needle, a rusted type of metal.
“But wait,” she said. “If you use this, you have to be careful. Grandma always said—”
She pointed to the fireplace. Above it was a hanging placard which said:
ALL MAGIC COMES WITH A PRICE.
“What happens?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never used it.”
I slipped the thimble on my index finger. I spooled the thread through the needle and as string met eye, time slowed to a tick. I barely heard Anna Katharina say goodbye. The sound of her voice in the world, the door closing as she left, the movement of my hands as dozens where once were two, starting at the bottom and weaving, moving slowly up the frame, flowers forming borders in the corners, coming together as bouquets, fragrant and lovely as wind in spring. I was no longer in control. The needle moved me, constructed the letters I’d planned in my head, and the whole time I kept thinking, “Don’t prick yourself. Don’t prick yourself.”
And then I did.
I was in a mental space where I existed both within and without the physical nature of temporality. And, besides that, I had a zoomed-in, slow-motion view of the microscopic son-of-a-bitch hole I’d jabbed in my index finger. Blood shrieked through my veins, boiling to eruption beneath the site of the wound, and as the first drop crested, I fell back onto the couch in front of the fireplace. The flames flashed the framed warning from Grandma Katharina—the price of magic was steeper than I’d imagined. If this was it, if I was dying, I hoped at least, my needlework would live on, a final, posthumous display of my hard work and emotion and my love for my parents, but when I looked down, it, like everything else in my life, was half-finished. My lousy phantom hands had only finished two words.
* * *
I slept a long time. Days.
I slept until the gala was over, and my parents stormed in—angry at first. I dozed while they cried and shook my shoulders. I napped while Anna Katharina cooked them dinner and they sobbed into their gyros. I snoozed and dreamed until they ran a desperate ad in the city paper searching out a man who might make his noble way to Anna Katharina’s house atop the highest hill and plant a spell that might just serve to wake the drowsy princess. Me. The sleeping white female.
My eyes were shut—stuck that way, it seemed, maybe forever. Still, it wasn’t hard to tell that Mom was sitting in Anna Katharina’s big, earth-toned bean bag, lounging and shifting her weight stressfully, tense and nervous. Dad whooshed his hand in a hover over my head hollering, “Hullo? Hullo?” and going, “Tsk.”
“She’s doing this on purpose, you know,” he said.
“Now, honey,” said Mom. “It’s not her fault. Let it go.”
“She didn’t want to help with the gala,” he said. “She’s just trying to spite me.”
“You don’t know that,” said Mom.
“Look at this,” he said, as proof. “A HOLE.”
Had I been conscious and not cursed by Anna Katharina’s voodoo spindle with the lucid sleep of a thousand years, I would have corrected him about the hole in the wall and my handcrafted apology, which the stupid magic needle didn’t finish, but instead, I lay there stiff and irritable, muscles contracted, grinning and grotesque.
Anna Katharina was just behind the door. I smelled her. She was carrying her black bamboo-handled tea-set with the tiny cups and the porcelain kettle.
“What’s that smell?” my mom said.
“Ginseng,” Anna Katharina said. I would have said it with her. She slipped through the bedroom door, back in pajamas again. I knew because I couldn’t hear her shuffles. But behind her, the hallway was loud with the restless sounds of rustling and impatience. For behind that bedroom door stood a menagerie of beaus—boys squeaking in sneakers, grown-types in business suits, a horde of men, chatting and laughing, invited by my father, each one lined up to see me.
Dad sighed and asked me once more to wake up on my own.
“Are you sure this will work?” I heard him say.
Anna Katharina must have nodded.
Everyone said nothing.
Finally, Dad said, “Let them in.”
The first man breathed heavy with mucous and stood over me a long time. His hooded sweatshirt had long, frayed drawstrings that tickled my cheek and made me itch deep into my nerves. He swallowed a lot, which meant he was salivating, hard, and that made me uncomfortable, especially with my parents in the room, watching, hoping, in a sweet but unexpected way, that this fat, bald man (I could tell from the way he gobbled up air) might be my Prince Charming.
It wasn’t him.
It wasn’t the college student behind him who kept saying, “Naw, dude, let me try again.” It wasn’t the whole family of non-native speakers who experimented with fertilizing kisses on other places besides my lips. It wasn’t the homeless fellow who had once told me he believed there were ghosts on Jupiter who were responsible for the housing crisis. It wasn’t Franklin from down the street, or Russell, the known thug and practicing Buddhist, or my old boyfriend Justin Heltin, who was the captain of my high school’s football team and who said, “Hey. It’s me. Justin Heltin,” before he kissed me, even though I would have recognized that malaria cloud of Axe body spray anywhere. It wasn’t Mr. Ashby, our next-door neighbor, or Mr. Jayroe from the bank, or Senator Mauro Caldwell who came all the way from Richmond with his wife and a high-paid reporter on a mission from the voters. It wasn’t even the kid who the whole town had said was a miracle boy because he was always finding potato chips shaped like the holy face of Jesus Christ.
When the house fell dark and the teacups were empty, drunk up like the last drops of hope in my parents’ hearts, the only man left was one who had all day waited patiently at the end of the line. He carried a brown leather medical bag and said, “May I?” as he approached my bedside. His energy was divine. I waited, still, still, virginal and anxious, lunging at him with my spirit, knowing that his lips, of all lips, would find their home on mine, and when they did, up I would sit, my arms around his neck and love, true love, and happy ever after.
Instead, he unzipped his bag and jabbed me with a series of painful injections to my forearms and abdomen.
I loved him anyway.
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