I think you are ready for this story. You are very smart and quite grown-up. But I have to warn you, it may be troubling at times. It might not have a happy ending. Are you listening? The Little One blinks her round eyes. She is wide-awake.
Is it a true story? She asks.
It is true in many ways. Some of it may be made up. But it is a story of parents and children and wise foxes, and I think it is important for you to hear.
Okay, she says. Go.
Before I begin, I want you to remember that no matter how bad things get, we are still here in this room. We are warm and cozy and we are together. Nothing bad can happen to us. Look: I will put my watch here, on the mantle. The fire will keep crackling and the watch will keep ticking, and that is how you will know we are still moving forward in time. Can you smell that? My perfume just refreshed itself. It’s the rush of my pulse that does it. I have been looking forward to telling you this story for a long time.
I can smell it, says the Little One, sniffing the air. It smells like oranges and honeysuckle.
We fall silent for a moment. We listen to the soft tick, tick, of the watch and the bright crackle of the fire.
Good, I say. Ready? The Little One snuggles in and props her chin on her hand.
First, Lenore bakes herself a baby. She mixes together flour, butter, sugar and eggs, and he comes out of the oven soft and doughy and smelling like heaven. She rolls out a fleshy pink fondant and drapes it over his curved scalp. Wraps it around his plump little arms and legs. She paints his eyelashes and fingernails on with a tiny brush.
He is still fresh and warm when she places him in his bassinet. In the morning, she awakens to the sound of chewing. She screams and swats away a swarm of rats, their whiskers dotted with crumbs.
Lenore tries again, this time with clay. A dense, gray putty that she molds with her fingers. It is a frustrating process; lots of pounding and cursing. But in the end, the clay baby looks even better than the cake baby. His features are stronger, and he is inedible. But he is also heavy and quite stiff. Lenore sews little onesies that snap all the way up his cold, hard little back.
One day, while she is up to her elbows in a sink full of soapy dishes, he rolls off the counter onto the floor. Lenore gathers up the pieces and hugs them to her breast. His shattered little body, the broken arms and legs. The cracked skull.
Lenore is inconsolable. Even if she were consolable, there is no one there to do the consoling. She sits on her bed cradling a little yellow onesie. She presses her face into the nubby terry cloth, and it absorbs her tears. She considers ending her life. She has been drained of hope, you see.
Finally, when the tears dry out, she looks down at the fabric in her hands. I have lost two children, she says to no one. It will not happen a third time.
But, says the Little One, the babies aren’t real. They were just cake and clay. Why is she so sad about fake babies?
What is real to you is not always the same as what is real to someone else, I say. We all have different reals. Did she love the babies? Did she dress them and sing to them and did they give her real happiness for a bit?
The Little One takes her time thinking about this. Yes, she decides.
Very well, I say. Real things give. Lenore’s babies gave her something, and fake things can’t do that.
Lenore takes to her sewing machine. She stitches and cuts and rips and tears and sews and sews. She stuffs and stuffs. Finally, she sits upon her knee a perfect, quilted, patchwork baby boy. He is round and soft and unbreakable and inedible, and she names him Evan.
Why Evan? Asks the Little One.
Because she thinks it’s a nice-sounding name. Everyone is named something that pleases the ear of the parent. The Little One looks concerned. She taps her lower lip thoughtfully.
But she didn’t name the other babies, she says.
How do you know?
What were their names?
It doesn’t matter, I say. Also, I don’t know. Evan is the quilt baby’s name. Now listen.
Evan is the sweetest baby Lenore could have wished for. He is cuddly and squishy and smells of fabric softener. He is easy to dress, and since he’s made of patches from every bit of cloth in Lenore’s sewing room, he matches everything. He is all colors, all seasons, all florals and dots and plaids. And yet, it works. Lenore has created a patchwork masterpiece. She has made happiness from a bundle of batting.
I just think that she should have been more careful with those other babies, the Little One interrupts. You have to be verrry careful with babies. She raises her eyebrows like instructions.
You’re right about that, I say. But it is not polite to say such things to a grieving mother.
Evan is washable, of course. Lenore is a practical woman. She uses no silks or wool. He’s a boy, so sturdy, quilting cottons make the most sense. When a patch becomes stained or threadbare, she replaces it, the way any mother might soothe a cut with a bandage. Good as new! she says brightly. She is as happy as she has ever been.
Lenore adds new patches here and there, and Evan begins to grow. She selects the swatches carefully. She holds them up to him, comparing them in different lights. Colors change when you put them next to each other, she tells him. And they change depending on who’s looking at them and the sort of day they’ve had. Sometimes she gets out her seam ripper and tears out his patches, replacing them according to her mood or the smell of the weather.
He sits on her sewing table and listens to her talk while she works, her teeth snapping threads. Have I said this already? Lenore is very happy.
Where is the daddy? The Little One says. I have been waiting for this question.
There is no daddy, I say.
This changes the air in the room. The watch ticks a tiny bit faster. The fire pops.
She tilts her head. Why?
There was a man she loved once. He was a professor. A very smart man. But he was too smart.
How can you be too smart?
If you are too smart, you see only essay questions and long division. An overly smart person can know so many facts that they forget about feathers.
What do you do when you see a feather on the ground?
I pick it up.
Right. What does your father say to do?
He says not to touch it. It’s dirty.
There. He is too smart. He has forgotten about feathers.
She gives me her teasing face. Are you saying I’m not smart?
You are just the right amount of smart.
She ponders this. Pokes at a thread of loose yarn on her blanket.
I can tell she is wondering where the line is drawn.
I like school, she says.
School is wonderful, I say. But if you like school more than you like people, you can get dangerously close to the edge of happiness. On one hand, you collect a lot of interesting and valuable knowledge, which makes for great dinner conversation. On the other hand, no one will want to have dinner with you.
She looks at me with her intelligent brown eyes. So, the man Lenore loved, he ruined dinner?
He ruined every meal. He knew everything and could never be wrong about anything. That really wears people out.
So she left him?
She left him or he left her, it doesn’t matter which.
And then Evan saved her.
Well, I say, he did for a little while. Parents should never expect to be saved by their children. But sometimes, unfortunately, they do.
Evan goes from quilt baby to quilt child. Lenore switches out his powdery baby fabrics for corduroy patches and boyish prints.
Evan goes to school. He likes playing with the other children, but they are skin children who leak red blood when they fall instead of bits of cotton stuffing. His teacher is kind to him and keeps a sewing kit in her desk. He learns to read and play the recorder. He learns about stop-drop-and-roll and about the continents. He decides he would like to go to India someday, where they have the most beautiful, brightly colored fabrics in the world.
Evan comes home from school one day and he and Lenore share a plate of cookies. Evan tells her about a new little girl in class. She eats mayonnaise sandwiches and wears sneakers with her dresses so she can run faster. Evan tells Lenore that the little girl kissed him on the yellow polka dot patch above his ear. She whispered to him that yellow was her favorite color.
Lenore has a distant look in her eyes as she listens. She seems to chew the same bite for a very long time. Evan stops talking.
Mother? he says.
Lenore puts down her cookie and takes away the plate. Evan’s blue button eyes watch as her face darkens, like a cloud passing in front of the sun.
You’re not going back to that school, she says.
But why? Evan asks.
Because I say so, says Lenore. Which is a thing parents say when they don’t exactly know the why.
So, Evan doesn’t go back to school. He stays home with Lenore and she teaches him herself. How to thread a needle and count stitches. How to wind a bobbin and how to match socks from the dryer. The ingredients in a good pesto. Sourdough starters and hospital corners. She teaches him all the important things she knows.
That school stuff, she says, you don’t need it. It’s useless.
My friend Mandy is homeschooled, the Little One says. She hates it, because her brothers are gross.
Listen, I say.
At first, Evan is happy enough staying home with Lenore. But soon, he begins to miss the other children. The loud, dusty play yard and the kind teacher. He thinks about the little girl who loves yellow. He thinks about her sneakers and her dresses. He listens to Lenore prattle on as she winds her yarn into tight balls. She has run out of things to teach him, and she starts repeating things. Evan knows all her stories by heart.
As time passes, Lenore begins to change. She is not the sweet, loving mother she once was. She scolds Evan harshly when he drops a plate, the sound of it hitting the kitchen floor makes her eyes go wild and stormy. She clamps his arm tightly with her fingers. As he sweeps up the pieces, she watches him with mail slot eyes.
Some days, Lenore doesn’t come out of her room. Evan has to make his own dinner, and he scorches his fabric hands because he forgets to use oven mitts. When she does come out, she droops like an empty pillowcase. She starts to forget things. She misplaces her scissors and her pincushion. She forgets to eat, or she forgets how to eat. Food rots on the plates and dries on her face. She stops getting dressed, just stays in the same sour old nightgown all the time. She forgets to tuck Evan in at night. She slams the silverware in the drawer, over and over. She looks closely at the wallpaper as though she’s reading tiny words. She gets out her magnifying glass and follows invisible trails through the house. Evan is worried and confused. Lenore has stopped sewing. Her whirring machine has gone silent.
Why is it happening? The Little One asks.
Why does anything happen? Why do birds sing? Why do some people lose their minds? It is too late to ask. Once something is, it is. Now listen. […]
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Kerrin Piché Serna received the 3rd place prize in the 2014 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest from Carve Magazine. It was judged by her favorite writer, Aimee Bender. Kerrin’s fiction has also appeared in Rosebud Magazine, The Portland Review, and The Los Angeles Times, among others. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of California, San Diego, and has worked as a Disney performer, professional videographer, and, currently, a writer and Etsy artist. She lives in Fullerton, California with her husband and Ophelia the spoiled Shih Tzu.