The Hand That Sews
In our house there is a small room hidden behind a bookshelf: it was an add-on, a novelty we inherited from the previous owners. He was a librarian and she was a seamstress. She craved a space of her own, and so he built the hidden passage so she would have a place to sew. At least, that is what our real estate agent told us: the house was already empty when we put our bid in. I was pregnant with my son at the time. My husband had hurt his back playing tennis—I remember I unloaded more boxes than he did, and it was June, the house, warm.
We loved that old Tudor like we loved each other, like we loved its backstory: buy the home where a woman serged for the neighborhood. Homemade Halloween costumes! Hemlines! Clientele moving through the false panel to pick up their fitted jeans! And her dearest, a bookish husband who represented knowledge above all else!
There was a fake book in a real bookshelf, that when tugged, unlatched the hidden doorway behind the shelf. We removed it, replacing it with a simple latch. Perhaps we erased some of the charm by making the shelf-door conspicuous, but it’s not like I’m opposed to wonder. I can imagine what the original owners felt: pull the spine and the door unlatches; a whole shelf of weighted words feeling airy, swinging out on invisible hinges into a different world. I understood this appeal, the enchantment of a husband and wife in love, what it means to give a gift to your only. The happy couple. Their quaint occupations. It’s a good, marketable tale. It’s the same reason realtors bake cookies, or apple pies, leave them out during an open house. Ours did—but it was the hidden sewing room that sealed the deal.
I came to look past the intrigue, using that space for boxes: Christmas decorations, downgraded possessions we upgraded from, unwanted baubles for the yard-sale-to-never-come. This was my calculation: for that desirable room to never hold any desire. I did not make the room off-limits; that would have only provoked interest for defiant children, and a hidden room by its nature holds mystery. I gave it the energy that it just was, and why bother wasting time among so much dust and junk? There was some hiding-and-seeking when my son and his friends were small, but that was many years ago. My son spends more time at mall arcades and bowling alleys. My husband has his home office. That room—its fascination—is still mine.
In that room there are boxes, and behind those walls of cardboard there is one closet against the back wall. This closet is filled with moth-gnawed cloth, leather jackets in plastic dry-cleaner bags. Green yarn. Knitting needles. Bowling bags. The dimensions of this closet only hold past dealings.
In that closet, if you walk in, turn around, and look up, there is a space above the interior closet door. It is flush, unnoticeable in the lightless vault of hodge-podge. My husband does not even know. For me, it requires a step-stool. If you push hard enough on the space where the panel is, it pops out like the chocolate behind an advent calendar.
In that space behind the false panel there is a safe. The combination has nothing to do with weddings, is not a birthday, a deathday, a graduation, anything to do with cats or dogs, a forgotten phone number, old address, corporate identification, license plate, social security digit, or bible verse. The safe has a number and that number is the day when I first opened the safe and put an object in and closed it again.
Ours is an equitable space. I work from home. My husband and I alternate our cooking and cleaning responsibilities, pulling our son into the day-to-day labor when we can. I admit, I have a soft spot for my only child, allowing him to slack on dishes and laundry. We still do family dinners. Our ritualistic dinners are mostly quiet. Although my son, like his friends, has his own room that he is always hiding inside: the secret portal of his phone that he descends into between forkfuls of green beans. He’s not allowed to have it on the table, so he types beneath it with thumbs clacking away. The smirks at the screen, his automatic mouth answering uh-huh to whatever request or question comes from we who call ourselves adults. Ricky, I’ll say. How was school?, I’ll ask. Uh-huh, ok, yeah, ok, haha. Okay.
I remember my son, three years old, talking to a lamp in the corner of our hidden storage chamber. He was already tall enough to learn the trick, pull the latch, come inside. Our elderly dog had chewed the lamp’s cord, and it was beyond frayed. Unsalvageable. When I said, Ricky, who are you talking to? That’s only a lamp, Sweetie. He responded, He looked lonely. It was an old lamp with a pale ceramic body and black Japanese brushstrokes glazing the surface. If you looked closely, those abstract marks looked like the face of a sad, hoary man. Pareidolia. My sweet son.
Compared to his cousins and peers his age, Ricky had a prolonged sense of magic. He would touch the front door of the oven, thinking that alone could turn it on. He would point at the television from the couch, assuming it could be lit up by the hand alone. Everything was magic before he learned it was science. For a while my husband was worried—then it was so sudden—the rationalization, the obsession with facts. Ricky was consumed by dinosaurs, geodes, why the water comes from the sky, why our skin feels warm in the presence of the sun. Before we knew it, he was fourteen and starting the fast-track at a magnet school for science and technology. Eventually, he even re-wired the cord for the broken lamp so it was no longer broken. It certainly looked less lonely with its light back on.
It is good for my son to do the things that he does. He is still a sweet boy: differently curious, sharp. He wants to be an engineer. My husband, too, is sharp. He wants to retire—says we can renew our wedding vows, then. Go to an island. He says when Ricky goes off to college, it will be like before, as if our son’s graduation is a time machine that could de-age us, uncallous the years. As if we could redistribute the love we took away from each other to pour into our child. And what about myself, my own keen wants, in this house with this boy, this man? I love them more than anything. They’ve both been sharpened into humans who make my heart swell, who take my eyes to that place, not quite teary-eyed, but glossed with a pride I resist—yet nevertheless—succumb to. What do I want? It’s hard to say. At any moment, I could have anything I desire.
When my son was four, he asked me to read the same fairy tale again and again. It was about a devil who approached a man, telling him if he didn’t bathe or clip his nails for seven years, he would be given all the world’s wealth. The devil gave the man a green coat and disappeared. The man became so revolting in his uncleanliness that the daughters of the village would scream at his sight. They chased him away. He lived alone in a cave for the remainder. When the seven years were up, the devil bathed and groomed the man. He became the most handsome! The green coat had limitless pockets that always produced a golden coin whenever his hand entered. Instead of one, he married two daughters from the village he was chased away from. The dapper stranger! Unfortunately, when the two daughters realized his previous identity as that begrimed, blade-nailed man, they killed themselves in self-disgust. The devil came a’knocking and told the man he got two souls for the price of one. The man still had that green coat, though. This act is defined as a bargain because both parties gain something, although is it ever quite equal? And what about the two daughters? Where was their agency inside this bargain?
It bothered me that my son adored that story so much, but mostly because it led to a protest where Ricky marched around the house shouting No bath! No bath! He believed there was a prize for this.
A long time ago (…) I promised myself I would never get married, never have children, never own a dog (…) I never wanted to be selfless, but some chemicals and organs inside me betrayed (…)
To have a teenage son is to never hear “I love you.”
My coat is not green and it is not a coat, and I promised I would never wear it, although it cannot be worn. My boy is too into his methodologies to understand why I did what I did. I made a deal so I could do whatever I wanted—only once—and within limits. I did it before he was born. I did it when children were never a variable. I did it because I saw a future in which I needed control. I did it because you can’t rely on anyone else but yourself, especially not men.
The weight of being able to alter the universe’s workings a single time burns worry lines in places where none should be. I look older than I should. I concern myself with creams, phials, vanities. There’s been times I’ve considered opening the hidden safe, retrieving that fixer-of-worlds. It’s almost enough: lost airplanes on the news. Police in other cities brutalizing youth. My face hot, screaming at the TV screen. All the injustices! I saw a neighbor’s Labrador get hit by a car in the street out front. Not just hit, I heard the sound of its skull being crushed by two tons of tire and metal. That same day, late at night, after a work outing, I saw a car pull the wrong way up the interstate onramp. It reminds me of old math problems from my youth. Two cars traveling at the same speed, smashing into each other into cartoon flatness. There were no survivors.
I could undo it all. I could repair the grief of all of those who were affected, but I won’t. In all of these scenarios everyone else is a stranger. There is no closeness. It would be a waste to betray the human necessity of self-interest.
Even in the hypothetical situation that someone found intrigue in the secret passageway behind the bookcase, didn’t become bored with the old plastic pine trees, didn’t turn away from dust-coated sumi-e paintings which line the floor against the wall, or find disinterest in unfashionable Northern attire in the closet…
…if they managed to find the hidden panel above…
…if they took the time to drill a hole in, to click, or to dust for fingerprints, or to enter every digit one by one until…
It is a small safe, but the scroll inside it is smaller. Only a few inches of a thick, yellowed paper, or perhaps it’s the hide of some long-dead creature. Extinct. There’s no words visible on the page. It almost looks silly, like a prop from a dollhouse. If you were to take a quill to the page, the liquid would not stick. The scroll has already been marked by an invisible blood-ink that nothing can write over. Nothing can replace the words bound there.
When I get the text message I move in procedure. I am sitting at the kitchen table, and then I am not. There is the brain continuously pre-planning, always considering how to move in crisis, and then there is the body being automated, willed by its own reactions and need to survive. I think of the other children; then I don’t. I think of calling my husband, but I don’t. There is only the flat, flat earth being leveled into mothers and sons, into Ricky and I.
I drag the step-stool against the floor with one hand while the other moves as divining rod—to the false book—and then the hurried feet, into the dim room, kicking past boxes, stumbling, opening the closet, unlatching, climbing, pushing, popping, turning, the wrist gyring dial to its limit, the learned bone movement as if turned thousands of times before, and the dull scroll in the dark space in the unwanted nook of the house, pulled down, reacting to my fingers.
No words need to be spoken. I think of my want for my son’s life. I think of hurricanes, tornados, great tsunamis. Automatic associations of disaster. A volcano moving slowly down into a village. Cinematic. I think of bullets. I think of bullets again. Their shapes and smooth surfaces and how cold metal can feel to the fingertips. Fire. Hot fire. Warm. Blood. Inscriptions. A caldera full of blood. I would ask the earth to swallow entire cities whole if only my son was spared. It’s something I feel deep in my chest, moving back toward my shoulder blades. A soreness, a pain, an incurable want. By this will alone the scroll begins to catch a slow flame and smoke, unknown alphabets appearing on its surface.
My desire is absolute. I have certainty, and it is willed. I collapse on the floor and the carpet is in earthquake, the cardboard is shifting away from the center of the room in a rumble. The carpet bends its molecules outside of reason. Wool and synthetic fiber become liquid, become gelatin, and what I hear are screams in a soft space: a portal opening to the one person I need. There is something diminutive to the punctuation of gunfire, that ruination in a light, airy pop. I am crying, and I am shouting Ricky! Ricky! Ricky! Ricky! Ricky! Ricky! Ricky! and my hands have gone into a cold space beneath the old shag, my ear half-submerged in that marmalade of strange matter. My body is locked into the humid room and my fingers stretch elsewhere, feeling the air-conditioned cafeteria past that spatial pectin. I say his name a final time and launch my arms in a grab. His waist, still small, still babied, my baby, soft stomach, all folded into the napkin ring of my arms. I pull.
Technology and engineering. Science and math. A word problem goes:
A) Is it better to be the mother without the son
B) the son without the mother?
Another problem goes:
A) Is Ricky a man?
B) Is Ricky my son?
They’re not very complicated word problems, but I calculate them again and again all the same.
My hands run up and down Ricky’s body, lifting his black pant leg, sleeve, the bottom of his black shirt, checking for anything wet and red. My son, unharmed in body, but the wide mouth opens in a pant—he’s not unscathed. Whatever Ricky just witnessed, his mind is still in that place, far from the dark center of this room we crouch in. His wide mouth gasps, his upper teeth bared like he’s about to cry, and then he cries. Even though he is a foot taller than me, he has collapsed in my lap, teary, mumbling, confused—wanting to be comforted by some order known to him. There is no order. He was across town, and now he is home. I have seen this pose before in religious paintings: the son who has been spread into an exhausted length. I tell Ricky his mother was given a wish, and she chose to use it on him. It is not quite true, but he nods. I don’t know if he believes me, but he has no option but to believe me. The house is groaning, is re-writing its history. Ricky stares toward the scattered cardboard boxes of the dim room. He continues to nod even after I’ve stopped talking. He age is quelled, gone from seventeen and more like lamp-conversant than any college-bound engineer.
I think how silly it was for the husband to be proud that he built his wife a room—how foolish it was for the seamstress to want a hidden passageway, for anyone to think the marvels of the world are given out for free. I think of all the fairy tales dedicated to tailors and cannot recall any about seamstresses. I think of the fairy tale mothers, forgotten, or else, dead, or else, evil. These roles delegated to women. Why did the two daughters kill themselves in that story? They should have abandoned the handsome stranger, ran off with each other instead. These definitions. My son not a man, but a door. That librarian story again—the realtor’s voice in my head—the smell of chocolate chip cookies. The smell of the selling point. The good-hearted men like my husband, whom we tolerate. I think of the mothers of the dead children. All the preciousness of mothers, falsified and constructed. I had Ricky because I had Ricky, and I came to love him more than anything. There was never a plan, never a desire for a child.
I brush his hair automatically, uncertain how both of us arrived to this intersection of our lives, this space in the room. I was wild. I used to value myself before all others. Ask a young gum-popping me about transaction; ask me what my answer would have been. I would have chosen myself first every time. The foolishness of flattening mothers, presuming sameness. I think of all the alchemy of being a mother—when did that word become branded not only on my skin, but beneath it? The terms again. The word mother in semantic satiation, how what does that even mean? Other, smother, those six letters, M-O-T-H-E-R, the burnt hide of the scroll—its enchanted mark that gave me what I wanted—power—this space between murk and wonder.
You never went to school today.
You stayed home with a fever.
No one else saw you, no one else spoke to you, but me, your mother.
I went out to get you green Gatorade. You used to argue and tell me it was yellow, not green. You perceived the world so differently.
I left to get you Gatorade. I left on a mother’s errand. I took care of my boy. He was a sweet boy, and he was sick.
Our words enter the air as MMS. Simple, spoken messages. I have become that mother too. The one who leaves leftovers in the fridge. The one who loves her child. The one who would do anything for him. My stomach sours. The walls continue to vibrate. The world is becoming something else: smoke rising from a foul-smelling paper until there is no more paper at all. There is a knock from somewhere.
I talk to Ricky, but he doesn’t respond. I feel his forehead, and it is warmer than warm. I take him by his hand, and lead him out of that space. I recall a toddler-him, walking behind me as shadow; the way I held his hands like this, guided his feet which hadn’t quite learned to walk yet. He was a late bloomer. He always fell. We pass the kitchen, my phone blinking in fiendish light: seventeen missed calls, emergency, emergency. There is a knock at the side door inside our kitchen. We turn up the back stairs and Ricky lingers behind me, his hands in front, mine in back, me dragging him forward, animating his bones. His steps are slow and heavy, sick in their choreography.
I never understood this role, but maybe I knew it all along. A son surges to become nothing like his parents. A father becomes a chemist and works at a healthy distance. A mother lives her life before being a mother, then becomes defined by others via this pea-sized core stuck in her meat. It is absurd how much my body will give, how out-of-my-control this lingering inside me is for this sweaty face and this blood and this springy hair the texture of my own. A knock behind me, continuing, a knock, louder and more threatening—yet—waiting. The knocking of unfinished business is always patient in its hurry.
Beyond the loud rapping downstairs, the house is still. I tuck Ricky in beneath his green duvet. He curls as a fetus, turning away from me, but for a moment, I half-climb in with him, pull him back. I want him to be this age. I want him to be this age where he will understand what I have done, why I have done it. We touch. His body is radiating: face mostly asleep, exhausted, muddled by a house that operates under new rules. An oven that turns on by touch, a television that lights up by will alone.
Mom, he says.
Shh, I say.
I’m sorry, he says.
You didn’t do anything, I say.
Really, he says.
Sleep, I say.
Okay, he says.
I wonder what would have happened if I made it so I never was, or that I died giving birth to him, saved him some expense of a mother who goes out to run errands and never returns. Maybe I could have created a world where Ricky was never born, but how can I imagine a life different from the one I’ve lived? Should I have waited? That scroll. My indecisiveness, my desires, my heart—they all ruin me. None of this matters. The time for questions—for world movements—is over. I turn Ricky toward me once more and give a peck on the lips, thick as my own. The wallpaper, the elderly lamp. The two trophies on the top of the bookshelf. Little victories. Pushpins pinning band posters to the back of his bedroom door—all these ordinary objects I touch as I make my way out of his room.
Even from upstairs the knock does not diminish. The hand that knocks is the hand that shapes; it is also the hand that soaks blank wool in yellow dye again and again until it becomes an uncanny green. It is the hand that attaches gilded buttons, and it, too, is the hand that provides.
Sorry, Ricky says, a reply to a statement no one made. I close the door behind me, turn, begin my descent to entertain that guest, who fastens coats with a gift-giving hand, who sews for one mother after another mother after another and another and another. I focus on my body, its own radiating warmth, the smooth texture of the bannister, and my arms visited by that room where my hands slipped into a cold cafeteria across town. Although only my arms entered that place, I imagine all the blood as I move down the steps. All of my blood. And the other mothers’ children hiding under tables and in bathroom stalls with their feet lifted up on the toilet seat. In the cafeteria kitchen’s meat locker. Beneath the wooden bleachers of the gymnasium. Like that old sewing room: the purpose is to be unseen, to not be found.
My phone rings again. Husbands. Other mothers. The police. Wishes to rewrite their own worlds in ink. Beyond the stained glass of our kitchen-side door, there is a form, darkened beyond green panes. I can see the shadow of a hand knocking and knocking. Its rap in rhythm to the voices that once filled this house. Ok. Sorry. Haha. Uh-huh. When I touch the doorknob, I close my eyes, as if to heighten the ears, to parse all the sounds that separate this world from the next. The ringing. The cold, plastic thud of ice falling inside our freezer. A songbird, somewhere, sings too. Wood creaking beneath me as I shift my weight contrapposto. All of this music.
On the other side of the stained glass, a woman’s hum moves into the ambient sound, not unlike a lullaby. It’s a song I remember, a song that left an impress on that old scroll. I go to speak, but what could I say? The humming stops. Maybe some request I couldn’t even put into the front of my mind was heard. A haggle; a negotiation; an amendment to a pact. Maybe she will forgive me this humanity, give me back to my son. If anyone would understand, it would be her. I open the door.
In the distance: the barely audible sound of an ambulance wails like some old, electric ghost.
JD Scott is the author of the story collection Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day(&NOW Books, 2020) and the poetry collection Mask for Mask (New Rivers Press, 2021). Scott’s writing has appeared in Best Experimental Writing, Best New Poets, Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. They can be found at jdscott.com.
“The Hand That Sews” was originally published in Mississippi Review, March 2019.