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Authors: Barbara Michaels

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BOOK: Stitches in Time
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“I didn't mean—”

“I know.” Cheryl moderated her voice. Jerry was looking uneasily from her to his father. She smiled at him. “Daddy and I are joking, Jerry.”

Jerry went straight to the point. “Daddy will find the bad guy,” he said confidently. “That's what Daddy does.”

Tony's face relaxed. “Right, son. Daddy will find the bad guy and ask him very politely where he got the things.”

“And then Mommy will buy them,” Cheryl added. “Jerry, what a good idea. You are a very smart young man.”

“Then can I have another cookie?”

Cheryl burst out laughing and hugged both of them.

Slowly and carefully, eyes averted, Rachel folded the quilt.

The black plastic bag Rachel was carrying when she left
the shop that afternoon wasn't
trash bag. Tony had taken possession of that one after Rachel had folded the quilts neatly into a carton. From the careful way he handled it she assumed he meant to have it examined for fingerprints, though it didn't seem likely an identifiable print could have survived Cheryl's two-handed grip.

Rachel's bag held less intriguing items—a motley collection of linens from box-lots bought at auctions and yard sales that had failed to meet Cheryl's high standards. Kara had superb taste, but she was an auction freak and couldn't resist a bargain. Usually there would be one or two items in the collection that justified the price she had paid; she and Cheryl sold the rest to other dealers. Vintage fabrics, even fragments, were in demand by quilt makers, doll collectors and craftspeople.

Joe, the eldest of Cheryl's three children, arrived home from school in time to help Rachel carry the bag to her car. He wasn't Tony's son—Cheryl's first husband had died when Joe was four—but Tony treated him like his own, and Joe adored his stepfather, though of course he would
never have been unmanly enough to say so. He was twelve, a skinny towhead with an enormous appetite and a serious view of the world. As he polished off two sandwiches and a glass of milk, he lectured Rachel and his mother about recycling and the wickedness of using plastic trash bags.

Cheryl had obviously heard it before. Her response was automatic. “I only use the biodegradable kind, honey, you know that. Rachel, don't bother dropping those scraps off tonight. Georgetown is so far out of your way, and it's later than I thought; the traffic will be terrible. Kara doesn't need the things right away.”

“I don't mind.”

“It will be dark by the time you get home,” Cheryl persisted. “If you get home. Did you buy a new tire like I told you to? There wasn't a speck of tread on—”

“For gosh sakes, Mom!” Joe rolled his eyes. “She'll be even later if you don't shut…if you don't stop talking.”

“Just promise you'll go straight home,” Cheryl said anxiously. “Maybe you should spend the night. It looks like snow.”


“I'll take it to Kara tomorrow morning,” Rachel said, seeing that Joe was about to violate the rules about being rude to his mother and/or using profanity in the presence of “ladies.” Tony was strict about such things, and Joe tried to conform. He did pretty well; if Rachel hadn't happened to overhear him talking to a buddy on the telephone, she'd have feared he was being repressed.

“Drive carefully,” Cheryl called after them.

“She always says that,” Joe muttered. “Even to Dad. Like, he doesn't know how to drive?”

Rachel laughed and gave him a man-to-man slap on the back. “Thanks, Joe. Take care…I mean, so long.”

It was later than Rachel had realized, and traffic was
already heavy. Washington's rush hour starts at four
.; the suburban areas between Leesburg and the Capital Beltway had grown too fast for the roads that serviced them, and the Beltway itself was rapidly becoming notorious. Nervous drivers would go miles out of their way to avoid it, and there were legends about hapless tourists who had circled the city for days before they were able to exit. Traffic was no worse than usual that evening; it was about the same, bumper-to-bumper, and moving in fits and starts.

Rachel was used to it, but for some reason it got on her nerves that evening. She knew the reason, though. That incident had unnerved her, not only because encounters with slimy people are unpleasant, but because the scenario had all the elements of a banal romance novel: the leering villain, the wounded hero coming to the rescue.

The flare of brightening lights caught her eye, and she slammed on her brakes. An accident ahead? No; just the usual mess at the 270 interchange. Her neck muscles ached with tension. Spots of moisture appeared on the windshield. Great, she thought sourly. Washington drivers go completely to pieces when it rains. At least she wouldn't have to drive all the way through the city into Georgetown and all the way back to College Park. At that time of day it would have added an additional two hours to the trip. Cheryl was so considerate, always thinking of other people, offering help without having to be asked. Not that her mothering instincts couldn't drive a person crazy sometimes…

“Bitch,” Rachel said, softly and savagely. She was referring to herself, not to Cheryl, and she sometimes wished she could cultivate the self-deception that allows many people to delude themselves about their real motives. No such comfort was available to her; she was clearly, painfully aware of how indefensible her feelings were. She
couldn't conquer them, they were as basic and ungovernable as hunger, but at least she had had the decency to conceal them.

Cheryl didn't know—thank God she didn't know—why the idea of staying overnight was so distasteful. Rachel had spent the night a few times before Tony came home, babysitting (though that word was never used in Joe's hearing) so Cheryl could stay late at the hospital. She hadn't done it since, despite Cheryl's frequent offers. Imagining them together was bad enough without actually seeing it.

When had it happened? The time she had tripped over a teddy bear callously abandoned on the steps, and toppled into his arms? He had only held her for a moment before setting her on her feet and remarking, with a rueful grin, “If I've told Jerry once I've told him a hundred times not to leave his toys lying around. Lucky for Cheryl I arrived at the stragetic moment; you could have sued her for a hefty sum.”

Or the time her car wouldn't start and he had insisted on driving her to the mall to buy a new battery after he had diagnosed the old one as beyond repair. He had helped her install it too. Cheryl must have told him she didn't have much money.

Or just the first time she had set eyes on him, arriving home in mid-morning after a long and obviously unpleasant night on the job. Despite the fatigue that lined his face, he was certainly the handsomest man she had ever seen—fifties' film-star handsome, the classic stereotype of the Latin lover of the old movies. But it hadn't been his looks, it had been his manner, the way he smiled at Cheryl, the tenderness with which he held his little boy…

And then there was Phil. Their relationship had gone sour so fast that its abrupt, ugly ending had left her groping for someone, something, to take…not Phil's place
but the place she had hoped he would occupy. She had been trying to fill that place for several years, but in the other cases she had had sense enough to realize it wasn't going to work before she became intimately involved.

She had thought Phil would be different, but in the end it had been she who told him it was over. That was when things got ugly. His reaction had dealt the final blow to her infatuation. He wasn't hurt, he was furious—that she had dismissed him before he could walk out on her.

Tony was all the things she had wanted Phil to be, all the things she had deluded herself into believing that he was. Only one little problem there. Tony wasn't available.

When she got home the house was dark, not a light showing. She had shared the house with three other graduate students. Now that Phil had moved out there were only two, and both of them had gone home for the holidays. Rachel wasn't worried about being alone, but she could have kicked herself for failing to leave a few lights burning. It got dark so early these winter days and the house was on a side street, several blocks from the commercial strip of Route 1.

She opened the door and turned on the lights, including the one on the porch, and trudged wearily back to the car to get the bag of linens. This wasn't a particularly bad neighborhood, but no neighborhoods in and around big cities were free of crime and she didn't want to risk losing something that wasn't hers. The bag weighed a ton. Or maybe she was just tired.

Too tired, at any rate, to tackle the pile of reference books and notes on her desk. She hadn't made much progress on the dissertation these past weeks; she'd been too busy and too preoccupied to concentrate. Too tired to cook, too. Not that she needed to; Cheryl forced enough food on her during working hours to make a healthy dinner unnecessary. Nibbling on crackers and cheese, she
decided to have a look at the discarded linens. That was research, of a sort.

There wasn't much of interest in the bag, though. The quilts were late in date, probably from the 1920s; Rachel had learned to recognize the cheap but cheerful cotton prints of that era. They would not rate as vintage classics even if they hadn't been torn and stained. She scraped at one spot with her fingernail. This time the only thing that flaked was the fabric itself; the disfiguring substance appeared to be rust, and it couldn't be removed without destroying the cloth. Perhaps one of the crafty types, as Kara called them, could recycle the unstained portions into a pillow or a stuffed toy.

Seeing the rich shine of black satin in the pile, she pulled it out. Her eye for vintage fabric had improved; this was heavy silk, the genuine article, not a modern synthetic, and it appeared to be a blouse—a waist, she corrected herself—with the leg-o'-mutton sleeves and high netted collar of the past century. When she held it up she understood why Cheryl had discarded it. The lace, fine as cobwebs, that cascaded down the front had turned brown and brittle and the underarm portions had rotted out—no way of repairing that damage, the armholes were usually too tight anyway—and all down the back…The stain appeared to be the same color as the black fabric, but it was stiff and hard. Higher up, just below the shoulder, gaped a gash that might have been made by a sharp knife.

Involuntarily Rachel dropped the waist, and then laughed at herself. The stain wasn't blood; the wearer must have leaned against a freshly painted wall or fence. There were other slits in the fabric, produced not by a knife but by the strong dyes used in that period. What had Kara called it? Shattering, that was the word.

There was something evocative and intriguing about old clothes, however; one couldn't help wondering about the
women who had worn them. The black silk waist was of good quality; the owner must have been furious when she saw the stain. And what had distracted her, filled her thoughts to such an extent that she failed to notice the fresh paint? Black was for mourning. A grieving widow, an orphaned daughter?

She returned the scraps to the bag and dragged it into the corner out of her way. Television, even the multiple channels of cable, offered nothing that interested her, so she went to bed with one of her reference books.

“Denied outlets for their creative talents in literature and the fine arts, women poured their hidden frustration and suppressed need for expression into the spheres delegated to them by the dominant male society. Needlework has been, in most cultures, a traditional female occupation. Spinning and weaving, sewing and embroidery…”

Rachel tossed the book aside. Same old thing, she thought grumpily and unfairly. The thesis the author had expressed had become popular in recent years, especially among feminist scholars. What she hoped to prove was less obvious and more far-out: the theory that women had woven their own secret forms of magic into their creations—spells to guard against enemies, to attract and hold a lover, to protect the souls of the dead from demons. The magical use of weaving and spinning was well attested in ancient religions; in her introduction Rachel planned to discuss the well-known cases.

The Norns of Norse legend and the Moirai of the Greeks spun the threads of human lives. The Greek maiden Arachne had been turned into a spider for daring to challenge a goddess's skill in spinning—and in the magic that spinning wove? The Greek gods and goddesses were as spiteful and petty-minded as their human worshipers, but surely, Rachel argued, there had been more at stake in that contest than housewifely skill. The secret
knowledge involved in such skills might have been passed down through the ages from mother to daughter, hidden from men because it was a source of power and therefore a threat to their domination. Even the patterns of quilting went back to ancient themes. Star and sun as symbols of light, flower and foliage representing the rebirth of spring life after the death of winter, the Drunkard's Path and similar patterns recalling the labyrinth, the maze in which an enemy could be trapped, unable to escape.

Like the Beltway, Rachel thought with a faint smile. Modern man is still trapped in a maze of roads that go nowhere.

There was no question about the fact that magic had been viewed by many cultures as a practical, pragmatic method of coping with the problems of life. In order to sprout and grow, crops had to be planted during the proper phase of the moon and with the proper spells; medicine would not be as effective without the incantations and prayers that accompanied it. In fact, there were few cultures, ancient and modern, that had not employed magic, and people who thought rational Western civilization had risen above such superstition were kidding themselves. It wasn't difficult to find examples of magical practices, but Rachel had not had much luck in identifying a secret, specific women's magic. That wasn't surprising. If the practices were secret, they wouldn't have been described to anthropologists, even female anthropologists, who would be viewed as foreigners, skeptics, outside the sisterhood of that particular culture.

She tossed the book aside and reached for another, on Ozark magic and superstition. Some of the superstitions connected with needlecraft were based on the principles of magic defined by the great nineteenth-century scholar Sir James Fraser. Knotting, braiding, and weaving were varieties of imitative magic; they could render a man impo
tent, or bind the affections of a faithless lover, or keep a woman writhing in the pangs of childbirth, unable to deliver. The magic of contagion or connection was based on the belief that an action performed on an object that had been in intimate contact with an individual, especially body parts like hair and fingernail clippings, would affect the individual himself. Never make a dress with a needle that has been used to sew a shroud; the contagion of death will affect the wearer of the dress.

BOOK: Stitches in Time
3.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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