2016 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing Honorable Mention
by Caitlin O'Neil
The knots started with Mira, who came one Saturday morning to marvel at the quaint cash cow Serena had ginned up post-grad school: a store selling artisan cleaning supplies to hyper-educated housewives who believed housework was art.
“This here? The blue?” Mira stroked the fabric like a dog. Her over-the-top appreciation of Serena’s materials was nothing new; it was compensation she offered as a currency of friendship, since the beauty of their materials and their degree of success was so divergent.
“That’s moleskin. From Spain.”
For the backwash year between grad school and gallery openings, Serena had won no-strings grants for her giant hand-sewn capes while Mira stalked group shows and sold plasma for gouache. Then have became have-not, and those years became a fiction. Mira was her only proof they were real.
“It’s too good for dish towels,” Mira purred.
Of course it was. That was the extravagance.
“What did you have in mind?” Serena had dreamed up a new project, a sort of glamorous parachute, when she’d had to bail out.
“Napkins,” said Mira. “They’d make such lovely napkins.”
And so Serena made the napkins for her, knotting a strand of red velvet at the corner of the last napkin, a small flourish she knew Mira would appreciate. As she tied the knot, she cast a spell. Or that’s how she thought of it. It seemed more intentional than a wish, less hopeful than a prayer. Who could it hurt? No one. Beauty, she thought, as she pulled her hands apart and watched the knot come together.
Months later Mira pounced back to the register with a fist full of cloth diapers.
“A girl,” she whispered.
“Not exactly,” said Mira, a little crazed.
“I didn’t even know you wanted children.” They were midwives to art!
“I’m calling her Serena.”
That clue, and a bit of sleep-deprived over-sharing on Mira’s part, brought more women to her store asking for a set of napkins, smile-wink. Who did they she think she was? It was mere happy coincidence that Mira got what she wanted. What did the researchers say? Correlation, not causation. She hadn’t conjured a child.
About that girl. Serena couldn’t get a straight story. Mira hadn’t given birth. It wasn’t the stork or a basket in the rushes either. The room Mira had been using as a studio was simply, suddenly, occupied.
“But how?” Serena pressed.
“Who cares?” replied Mira, her pinkie finger curled inside her infant daughter’s rosebud mouth.
And that was pretty much the attitude of all the other women smile-winking their way through her store. Serena played dumb and eventually they stopped. Then, and only then, did she try again.
She made herself two napkins of chambray backed with malachite satin and tied one knot with an onyx leather lace. Then she set her table – not hard, it had room for only two chairs -- brewed a pot of coffee and began to wait. The quiet was too much, so she unlocked her phone and played some music. Piaf fit the mood, though even as the coffee dripped Serena had begun to regret her decision.
She liked being alone more than anyone else she knew. Where others saw loneliness, she saw time and space free from anxiety. There were very few people who expected things of her, and most of them paid her handsomely for the privilege. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt disappointment. Well, the capes, of course.
She had one in the permanent collection at Mass MOCA, but the world cared about utility more than beauty and eventually, no matter how good you were, people measured success in dollars. Still, from midwife to housewives, she had become happy. The women who flocked to her store raved about her classes and bought her products by the galvanized bucketful. They knew they weren’t supposed to. But they loved to clean.
So why risk it? Maybe she wasn’t as happy as she thought. Or maybe her aloneness had turned, if not into loneliness, then boredom. Her art had failed, her store succeeded, but what came next? Ease was disconcerting. She needed to feel uncomfortable again. So she sipped her coffee black, felt the wrought iron cut into her thigh and watched the door.
She awoke at dawn to the sound of soft breathing.
A teenage girl lay on the couch, her freckled face smashed into the crewelwork pillow. She had Serena’s nose – home to a small diamond stud – and pale complexion. But her hair was red, a burnished copper. Her mouth smirked even as she slept.
Serena sat stunned, her cheek aching with the table’s scrolled imprint, and waited for the girl to wake up.
Upon waking, she demanded green tea and a poppy seed bagel, which Serena was able to produce from her kitchen because they were her daughter’s favorites.
“What time do we open?”
“I’m not swimming today. You promised!”
“I forgot.” Serena poured herself coffee. “I slept funny.”
Aurora went to Bronx Science, where she was a standout student and anchor of the 4x relay. She had her heart set on Cal; she hated the city. Serena couldn’t get a straight answer about what had transpired before Aurora appeared that morning, and there was no sign that she was new to anyone but Serena. Her friends and teachers all acted as if they knew Serena, as if they’d had years of conversations and shared memories. As if she had simply forgotten.
Serena wondered about this possibility too. It seemed like a very large slice of life to overlook, but she had always been single-minded, absent-minded even. Richard hated the way she would pretend to listen, reply even, and never break focus on her work. Was it possible to have a whole kid that you were too distracted to notice? Because of course, she was his. His mouth, his hair, his caustic wit. Turned out that he lived uptown in Fordham Heights. Aurora alternated weekends, but spent weeknights with him since it was closer to school. Was that how Serena had missed her? But at some point they must have lived together, right? And well, there was giving birth, which as far as she understood was not something that slipped your mind. So she hadn't forgotten. Which meant something else was at work.
Aurora hopped in the shower and Serena rifled through her backpack, finding nothing more offensive than a racer-back tank and a stick of Body Glide. Serena hurried to change into her Saturday uniform, overalls and a Homecraft t-shirt.
Aurora emerged from the shower with her wet hair tied under the red bandana kerchief she favored post-swimming. She wore the overalls too.
“Can I mix today? I love how the baking soda feels between my fingers.”
Serena smiled. That was her favorite part too. And in the wake of this coincidence, she felt a love ripple through her that surpassed any good feeling she’d ever had. This was the drug of parenthood, the joy of seeing yourself in someone else, usually twinned with the hardship of sacrifice. But Serena had skipped that part. She blushed. She wanted this after all.
“Ready?” Serena unbolted the door, eager to get outside and see what might happen next.
For a moment, there was no reply, so she turned and shuddered at what she saw.
Aurora was wearing her cape. The one from Mass MOCA.
“What?” Aurora asked.
“Where did you get that?”
“You made it for me in eighth grade when I couldn’t find a jacket that fit.”
Serena couldn’t stop staring. The material alone cost $5,000. It had taken her a year to sew.
“Don’t tell me you’re losing it now too.”
“Too? Who else is losing it?”
Aurora bit her lip. “I thought dad told you.”
“Never mind. We’re late.”
Serena had started something she couldn’t stop.
That night Aurora was due back at her father’s for a birthday dinner–his, not hers–so Serena rode with her up to the Bronx. It was strange that he’d wound up here; he was the most famous when they’d graduated, already generating six figure commissions and one-man shows. He was a welder, not your typical looking artist. He looked like the man on the paper towel label. Brawny. Serena had teased him about it once and could still remember his pleased smile. He was all about subversion. He wanted to tip over the world.
So what was he doing in a two-tone, vinyl-sided walk-up near Fordham? Teaching, mostly, he said softly, eyes to the floor. Mentoring too, of course. There’s a lot of untapped talent up here with a story to tell. And I rent out space over in Yonkers for the really big stuff. His hands rummaged inside the soft pockets of his corduroy pants as his voice trailed off.
“So you’re still working on the big stuff? You haven’t given that up?”
“I never could. But people want art they can hang on their walls.”
It didn’t occur to Serena until later that this conversation never should have happened. They had a sixteen-year-old daughter together. She had seen him last week. Talked to him yesterday. But he looked just as bewildered as she did.
“Time to order!”
“What’ll it be?” Serena asked, but Aurora only smiled as if she was making the lamest joke known to man.
“Seriously?!? We’ve had the same thing since I was six!”
“Kidding!” Serena pasted a smile on her face and waited for her daughter to slam the door to her room, which she did before Serena finished speaking.
She and Richard stood holding their elbows like shipwreck survivors waiting for the deck to begin tilting again. Richard sat at the counter and pulled a sheaf of takeout menus from behind the spice rack.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” Serena leaned against the counter beside him.
“Do you remember any of this?”
She shook her head.
“I woke up this morning and there were bathing suits hanging from my towel rack and 100-calorie yogurt in the fridge.”
“It’s my fault,” Serena said.
Richard shook his head as he dialed, then held up a finger. “General Tso’s chicken, spicy cashew chicken, black bean broccoli. Brown rice. Yes. Thank you.”
“The doctor says it’s all the solvents I used. Because I don’t even remember what happened with us. And I wanted to say I’m sorry. You’re wonderful, better than I deserved. And Aurora is, well. Remarkable.”
His beard was pink now, snow white at the temples. She was studying him with such fascination, this man she had not seen for twenty years, that she didn’t notice that he was moving closer. He was going to kiss her as if no time or trouble had passed.
The doorbell rang and Aurora hopped out of her room.
“You don’t have to take the one big happy family thing quite that far guys. I’m not six anymore.”
But even when she slid back the locks and opened the door, they hadn’t stopped. Richard finally pulled away because he was the one with the money.
Serena ate the salty, greasy food with the taste of Richard still on her lips and Aurora smiling across the table. She hardly knew this family of hers, but she could feel love blooming inside her where, supposedly, Aurora once lodged. Further north, doubt nagged.
“Is Goliath still at the Getty?” she asked.
“Who?” Richard smiled, goofy. It was nice here.
“Goliath.” It was the first sculpture he’d ever sold.
He nudged Aurora. “Is he a friend of yours?”
“Never heard of him,” she giggled.
After they’d sung and blown out the candles, Richard walked her to the door.
“Do you remember why we split up?” he asked.
“I got the fellowship upstate and you were busy here.”
“We didn’t even try?”
Serena shook her head. At the time, the time she remembered anyway, his apathy had broken her heart.
“Want to try again?”
Before she answered, he kissed her. Serena blushed, nodded and backed out of the house, nearly falling down the stairs. She felt so dizzy.
Later, at home by herself, she laid the napkin on the kitchen table. The black knot shone in the corner, winking at her, telegraphing its cosmic joke. She knew what she had to do, but her skin was buzzing, her blood a song. The air smelled like roses and chlorine. She had been hasty last night. Tonight she would wait.
She waited. And waited. She gave Aurora a job at the store after school on Wednesdays, when there was a half-day and she didn’t have swimming. Together they invented a DIY detergent that took the chlorine smell out of lycra. Richard invited her to teach a session on soft materials in his studio art class. He cooked her braised pork shoulder and truffle omelets. He mixed whiskey sours and hot toddys. He sang Smoky Robinson as she and Aurora washed the dishes. And later he invited her to live with them. She moved everything uptown, hired a store manager, and joined the family. She got her license and became a swim mother, following the buses to out-of-town meets in a second-hand Venza.
“You said it was too boring.” Aurora tested her with narrow eyes. “You said you couldn’t even see what was going on.”
“I can change my mind.”
“Can I get a tattoo?”
“Not on every subject.”
Aurora forced her eyes wide as daisies. “Baby steps!”
Like the other parents, Serena knitted to pass the time. Unlike the others, her work was exquisite. She twisted cables, laced ribs, reinforced buttonholes. She became the guru of the bleachers, consulting on thorny patterns, unspooling mistakes. Sometimes she would look down at a row she’d knitted and see every tiny knot shouldering the next and feel the hairs on her arms rise.
“Your work is always so beautiful,” Richard said. “I don’t know why you stopped.”
“Why did I?”
He thought she was being funny. “You shouldn’t have let them win.”
“But why?” She smirked but his face grew dark.
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about that.”
“It’s been years.”
“Yes. But it’s not often an art installation is cited as the motivation for mass murder.”
Serena waited as if a memory would somehow appear in her brain. What had happened? “You’re right. I don't want to talk about it.”
“The world may not see it this way, but I still think it was beautiful.”
He kissed her, running his thumb across her chin as he did, and the world righted itself.
The next morning, when Aurora and Richard were both at school, she googled herself. 1,785,987 returns. All about a cape, not so different from the one Aurora wore now, that had hung in a gallery window that a certain commodities trader passed every day on his way to work. After the shooting, ten dead, six wounded, he said the cape made him do it. No one believed it anymore than they believed Marilyn Manson caused Columbine, but no one would touch her after that. Even Richard, mentioned in all the articles, had suffered; the teaching job was his salvation. One person, so moved by her art, had undone it. She was finished, same as before.
The store was the only place her old and new lives had in common, so it made sense that’s where the fabric began to fray. One Saturday, before the bamboo placemat seminar, Mira appeared at the counter.
“How do I fix it?” she sobbed.
Mira pulled the shredded napkin from her bag.
“I got a puppy,” she explained. “He ate the corner and…”
“I can make a new one.”
“It’s not the napkin. It’s my daughter. She’s gone.”
Serena felt the blood leave her face.
“I can’t fix that. I don’t…” But Serena didn’t know what she could or couldn’t fix. This wasn’t another botched sweater.
Aurora shuffled out from the stockroom hugging the large aluminum pots they used for mixing. “Where do you want these, Mom?”
“In the corner on the milk crates.”
“Mom?” Mira repeated, eyes wide.
Serena relented. “Let me try.”
She took the ravaged napkin into the stock room where she kept her stash of fabric scraps, trimmed it up, excised a small strip of red velvet and then paused before she knotted it to repeat her wish – beauty – and hoped the girl would return. Not just for Mira’s sake.
“Here you are.” Serena had boxed and wrapped the napkin like a special order, so Aurora wouldn’t question it. “Let me know if it works. If it’s not what you had in mind…”
“I’ll be back.” Mira assured her, then fled the store.
She was, on Monday, her hair piled in a surprised stack on her head.
“I waited all night.”
It was a half-hour before opening. Serena took Mira in her arms and ushered her into her office. She hadn’t wanted to know the details, but she saw now that she must.
“When did she go?”
“She never came home from preschool.”
“No one called?”
“It’s as if she never existed.” Mira spread the napkin across her lap and
stroked the knot. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do it again.”
Serena reached over and inched the napkin out of her friend’s lap. In the stockroom, she undid the old knot and then wished again-- come back, Serena -- as she tied a second knot, her fingers trembling. The knots were all she knew.
Serena couldn’t sleep that night, or for the next two nights, until she realized that, like her daughter, Mira was not coming back. She slid out of the bed she shared with Richard, fetched a shoebox from the closet, and crept off to the kitchen.
She—or some version of her—had collected Aurora’s baby things. This wasn’t the first time she’d snuck away to pour through the tiny socks, crayoned drawings, and jagged baby teeth. But it was the first time she’d reached under all of that to check for the napkins. Like the rest of her old life, they were gone.
It would be another decade before she saw the napkins again. Richard retired from teaching and began welding in earnest. Aurora graduated from Michigan and got a job in bio fuel lab funded by Chevy. Serena sold the store and began to sell her sweaters on Etsy. She sat on the back porch with Henry B. Swap wagging at her feet and listened to Edith Piaf as she had that night long ago. This time she regretted nothing.
After a year, they decided to move out to Montauk. They found a house that came with a fireproof boat shed where Richard could work. Aurora came home to clean out her room and they happily turned up the Motown and sorted their lives into boxes.
Serena was wrapping plates in newspaper, when Aurora bounced into the kitchen wearing the napkin as a scarf over her hair.
“Fancy headwrap,” Serena blurted, trying to mask her shock.
“I found two in an old box of my stuff a few years ago. They’re too gorgeous to sit in there.” She’d taken them back to Detroit.
Serena had been preparing a box of kitchen goods for Aurora to bring back to Detroit. Now she stopped and announced that she would make roast chicken for dinner.
“Right now? In this kitchen? It’s a mess.”
“This is our last night in the house together. We can’t just have take-out.”
“Why not? That’s all we did when we lived here.”
But Serena would not be swayed. She changed and went shopping, stuffed a bird with lemons and thyme, roasted potatoes and sautéed green beans while Aurora emptied the cabinets around her.
When Richard returned from cleaning out his studio, Serena set the table, giving him the twin to the napkin Aurora wore on her head.
“Am I expected to use mine? Because my hair is a mess.”
“I just like these and I forgot about them.”
“Why are there only two?”
“There was a time before you.”
“A dark time.” Aurora faked gravity.
“Barbaric days,” Richard added.
“A different world.” Serena choked back her fear and picked up the knife to carve the bird.
They’d been in Montauk three months when it happened. She reached across the sheet to tousle Richard’s hair. But the sheet was smooth, and when she inhaled, his scent–sweaty, spicy, slightly metallic–was gone. So it was done.
When she opened her eyes, all of her old things crowded around her, none of the detritus she and Richard had collected together. She felt lighter, emptier. She couldn’t tell if it was good or bad.
She showered, changed in shorts and a tee. She lifted the window and let the dank smell of low tide flood the kitchen. The fall light was high and thin; the world was tilting toward winter. She watched the coffee drip and tried to cry. She wanted to cry. But she couldn’t. This moment felt redundant. A cheap shot. An unnecessary blow.
At noon, her doorbell rang.
“Ready?” Mira asked.
Serena stared at her blankly. “For what?”
Mira shouldered the door open, toting a bucket of cleaners and rags. She charged into the kitchen and Serena heard the tap running. A lavender scented steam wafted into the living room.
“We’ll do the floors first.”
She thrust a rag at Serena, who took it and stood waiting for the bucket to reappear. Mira lugged it to the center of the room, then knelt down and began to scrub.
“Here we go,” she said.
Serena knelt down beside her.
“You were never one of the cleaners.”
Mira wiped her hand across her forehead and fell back on her heels, panting.
“Those women are smart. They understand that you need something you can smell and touch and see. You need to ache. You need proof.”
“But where did you get all this? I sold the store years ago.”
For the first time, Mira looked surprised. “You sold it to me.”
Serena clutched the rag to her chest. She would learn the world over again, as she had before. She would tuck Richard and Aurora into some unrealized pocket of her heart. She would forget the capes, the dishcloths, the beautiful scraps. This was the lesson, over and over. What did you do when no one cared anymore? When everyone stopped watching? When no one was left? You began again.
Mira leaned forward, dragging the rag across the pine boards as if she were soaping an enormous dog.
“It’s for the best,” she said. “You’ll see.”
“How can you say that?”
“I’m the only one who understands.”
Serena plunged her rag into the sudsy water and watched it disappear. When she pulled it out, she saw the rag for what it was: one of the moleskin napkins. The blue had faded, the fabric had frayed, but it was still softer than skin. Serena sat stroking it for a moment, then bent down and started to wash.
short fiction has been published in the Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Calliope, Ninth Letter, and Beloit Fiction Journal, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She won the Ninth Letter Prize in Fiction, the Women Who Write International Short Prose Contest, and received a Massachusetts Cultural Council individual artist grant. A graduate of the MFA program at Columbia University, she is currently a full time lecturer in English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
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