"A Very Special Project"
The short story below is one I wrote for Chest of Bone The Knit Collection. Yes, it's about knitting. And yes, a child is the protagonist. But Clea is the main character in my Afterworld Chronicles series. And it illuminates much more than her efforts to learn to knit. Hope you enjoy it!
A Very Special Project
Clea Reese awoke with the suddenness of ice on flesh. She jerked up, hands scrabbling across the sheets. The room was freezing. The comforter lay on the floor in a heap and she was coated in sweat. Her hands shook as she raked them through her hair once, twice.
Her dream couldn’t have been real. But it had been so vivid her tongue still tasted the chocolate ice cream she’d eaten in her treehouse. She shook her head. Made no sense.
Orphaned at three-years-old, she couldn’t picture her mam or her da. She had no photos of them, no mementos, nothing. Yet she’d seen them, crystal, last night while sleeping.
She dragged the comforter off the floor and wrapped it around her shivering body. She had to understand. She closed her eyes and allowed the dream to reform.
Da was knitting. Maybe he was making something for her birthday! In two days, she’d be a big girl of four.
She kept still as the pretty carving Da kept on his desk, but with her eyes she followed Da’s needles as they moved smooth and steady. They hummed a rhythm inside her. Finally, she couldn’t stand it, so on tiptoe she walked toward the big red chair where Da sat, her eyes glued to his knitting. So many different strands twisted together to form the pattern’s colors. Like a sunset—peach and orange and lemon. Beautiful.
More than anything, she wanted to learn to knit just like her da. But there was a problem…
She drew close. “Is today the day, Da?” she whispered in his ear. She made her voice bright and pretty so he would say yes.
His glasses slid down his nose, like always. His smile confused her, for it was both warm and sad. “I’m afraid not, little Clea.”
Her fist’s clenched. She wouldn’t have a tantrum. Da hated those. But her blood bubbled, because she wanted this so much. She threw out her chubby arms, wiggled her stubby fingers. “Why, Da? Why not today?”
“Soon, baby girl. Soon. But not today.”
The next day, she pulled on her overall jeans and buttoned up her favorite flower shirt with ruffles. She went to show Mam and Da what she’d picked out, but when she got to their door, they we’re arguing, always arguing.
“She is too young to knit!” her mam said.
“She is exceptional,” Da said. “She deserves to try.”
“Not today!” Mam was being loud.
“These are perilous times, my love. The earlier she learns, the safer she will be.”
“No.” Mam tapped her foot. “To placate the little beast, I got her a kitten.”
“A calico kitten. I found it in the wood.”
Da’s face got all red. “You went to the wood alone? Why? It’s dangerous, deadly.”
“Her mam did that slow laugh that Clea didn’t like. “Not to me.”
When her da’s footsteps neared the door, she scampered away. His face was hard and mean looking when he stormed out, his fingers curled into fists. He sat on the couch, face so tight, and he punched a pillow. Then he leaned his elbows on his knees and covered his face with his hands.
Clea sat on the floor of her room on the pretty rug with pink roses. It was soft, and the kitty would like that. She was trying to pick a name. Kitty was tiny, with black eyes and white and black and orange fur. She almost fit in Clea’s palm.
Names were hard. Da said they were important. “Should I call you Meow?”
The kitty spat at her.
That wasn’t good. She smiled. “Fluffy?”
The kitty hissed.
Oh, no. Maybe… “Pansy.”
The kitty pounced on Clea’s chest, stretched her neck, and let out a fierce growl that was very un-kitty like.
“How am I supposed to name you if you don’t like any of the names I pick?”
The kitty leapt off her and pranced over to the shelf that held all Clea’s favorite books. She batted her paw against one book, a big fat red one. Clea ran over, terrified. If kitty scratched the book, Clea’d be in big trouble. Mam would yell and storm about and tell her that she was going to declaw that mean kitty. It wasn’t Clea’s fault that the kitty didn’t like her mam.
But the book was fine. Clea sighed with relief. The book was her second favorite, and even though she’d only just begun to read, she knew this book’s title by heart. Stitch guide. So many pretty pictures of different kinds curls and twists, just like Da knit. All the stitches were in different colors, too, and she loved the way they wove into patterns, like arrows and stars and bumpy streams that Da called cables.
She raced over to the kitty. “You want me to call you Stitch?”
The kitty snarled and spit at her.
“You want me to call you Book?”
Kitty’s eyes glowed a bright gold.
She sat hard on her bum. That was scary, but kitty’s eyes were green again. Had she really seen that? Da always said she had a big imagination. Except she had seen it.
So why couldn’t she think up a name that kitty liked? She had to have a name!
She’d go ask Da.
She searched, and she ended up in the study. He did a lot of studying. She found him bent over a big fat book, his pretty blonde hair tied back. She thought he should wear a pink ribbon to tie his hair. He said boys didn’t usually wear pink. The lamplight glinted on his gold earring.
“Da? When can I have a gold earring in my ear?”
He swiveled in his chair to face her, his smile bright. Her heart got all happy. “Someday, but not for a long time, pumpkin.”
She forgot why she went looking for Da, so she asked instead, “Is Mam home?”
“Where is she?”
He frowned. “She’s gone to the wood.”
“I like the wood, Da, but sometimes it’s dark and scary and mean.”
“Come here, pumpkin.” He held out his arms and lifted Clea into his lap. She settled, so warm and cozy.
Kitty meowed, and she remembered why she was here! “I need to find a name for my kitty!”
“We can work on that.” He rose from his chair and, carrying her, he walked to the study door, closed it, and turned the lock.
Once they were settled again in his chair, he leaned close and said, “We can work on kitty’s name or I can teach you to knit.”
Clea clapped. “Knit! Knit! Knit!”
Many weeks later, she was in her room, working on her knitting. She was proud. So proud. Da said she was a good knitter. Very, very good. He said today he had a surprise for her. She knew it had to be about her knitting, which was a secret from Mam, so she practiced very hard. Whenever she practiced kitty was there. She was a nosy kitty.
Kitty would bat at the yarn when Clea was trying so hard to make a stitch. She ignored her. Sometimes, kitty hid in her yarn bag. And sometimes, when she missed a stitch, kitty would bite her.
Kitty still didn’t have a name. Fussy, that’s what Da said. But kitty didn’t like the name Fussy, either. Mam didn’t understand why it was so hard to name her kitty. Neither Da, nor she ever told Mam about the hissing and spitting and biting. Mam wouldn’t understand, and she’d get mad. She wouldn’t understand about her knitting, either. That would make her mad, too. But she was dying to show Mam.
So today she practiced because something exciting was going to happen. She had learned the knit stitch and the purl stitch. “The garter, which was easy, and the stockinette, which she couldn’t pronounce. The seed stitch, which was pretty, but it was also annoying, and the purl ridge, which was fun. Bamboo and basket weave, too, and Da had made her memorize all of them. She had. Last week, she practiced the arrow stitch and feather and fan. They all were mostly fun, except for that seed stitch. Da said she was exceptional and especially adept at her craft. She didn’t know exactly what that meant. Whatever he showed her today, she would make him glad he was teaching her.
Da’s footfalls sounded on the stairs, and she got all tingly with excitement. Kitty meowed, and stood, arching her back. When Da walked in he closed the door behind him and sat across from her on the floor.
“See?” She held the scarf she was knitting with the tiles stitch. A blue scarf the color of a lake and Da’s eyes.
“Beautiful, pumpkin. You’re awfully good.” He smoothed over her hair. “I think you’re ready to try.”
“Try what, Da?”
He grinned, shook his head. “You’ll see.” He rubbed his earring.
That told her he was excited, too. “A new stitch?”
“No. Put your knitting in its bag.”
That didn’t make any sense, but she did as asked, giving the soft wool one final rub before putting it away.
“Now raise your hands,” he said. “Palms out. Good. Now we are going to play a pretend game.”
She loved pretend games!
“Imagine your knitting in front of you and you’re going to knit the garter stitch.”
Easy peasy. She did as he asked, even if it felt silly.
“Remember that movie we loved, Star Wars? Remember what a bold Jedi Luke was?”
She giggled. “I do.”
“You don’t have a light saber, but you do have your knitting. So I want you to be bold, like a Jedi, and knit that stitch again!”
Da’s voice changed, like it had more layers, and it boomed, deep and strong. It filled her with bubbles, in her, around her, and she knew exactly what to do.
Her hands flew through the air moving in the pattern she’d practiced so much. And from her palms came streams of light, like fireflies in the summer night. They glowed as they flew from her hands into the air. There, before her, a glowing garter-stitched web formed.
She squealed, and she laughed as she kept the fireflies going and going.
Da laughed, too. A happy sound.
The door crashed open. “What have you done!”
Oh, no! Mam’s eyes were black, and she has a frowny face on, the one with all the teeth!
And Clea couldn’t control the fireflies, not even a little, and they swarmed around her head.
Heat and pain sizzled through her, and she screamed.
Clea sat on Da’s lap in the bathroom, while Mam washed what was left of her hair. All her long pretty curls were gone. Only sticking-up-tufts were left. Mam used soft, gentle strokes, but it still hurt. She would not cry.
She’d disappointed Da. And Mam was mad. She’d disappointed her, too. Mam’s face was all tight, her lips a thin line as she rinsed Clea’s head and dried it and the tufts with a towel.
Clea looked creepy, like a monster.
She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t.
Except she did, just a little.
“Don’t,” Mam said, and she put the towel aside, leaned down, and kissed the tears away. “This was my fault, and I’m sorry.”
Da’s smile began at the corner of his lips.
“I shouldn’t have interrupted what you were doing, Clea,” Mam said. “Not the way I did. I’m so sorry, little one. I was afraid to lose your babyhood. And once the Magics come…” Mam sighed. “Yet you’re obviously ready to learn them. As Da said, you are exceptional.”
Da leaned over and kissed Mam, first on her lips, then right on the tip of her pointy ear. He wore a big smile.
“My hair,” Clea said. “It’s scary.” She raised her hand to the few patches left.
“Yes, it is,” Mam said in that serious voice of hers. “Now that it’s been touched by magic, it will have a mind of its own, I suspect.”
“What does that mean?” Clea asked.
“We’ll just have to see!” Da said, and he kissed the top of her head.
Clea looked at Mam and bit her lip. “Can I... can I keep knitting? And practicing my fireflies?”
Mam looked at Da, then at Clea.
The door creaked, and kitty pranced into the room and sat at Da’s feet.
Mam narrowed her eyes at the kitty, who hissed back at her. Mam lifted a hand to Clea’s cheek. “Yes. Your da will teach you to knit and to firefly, as you call it.”
Clea clapped. She couldn’t stop smiling. And then it came to her. Her kitty’s name. She peered down at the her pretty kitty. “What about Firefly?”
Calico kitty Firefly leapt into her lap, gave her a blink with those glowing eyes of amber, and purred.
©Vicki Stiefel. Chest of Bone: The Knit Collection.