by Leah Rae Lake
Ageless Authors First Place Winner
She had time. They were coming. The morning news was filled with frantic reports that the unthinkable had occurred. For a moment, she sensed a slight vibration under her feet. Thunder, perhaps, or them. She absently fingered the heavy packet of black silk brocade in her lap. Thirty-five dollars a yard, but worth it.
She’d sensed their movement a week ago, but you could never be certain about timing. Lifting off the wooden top of her great-grandmother’s treadle sewing machine, she sighed, gazing out the open door into the warm morning sunshine. Her flower garden was unusually beautiful this year, almost perfect. No, it wouldn’t be long now. She’d already sorted what she would need but first, the skirt.
Standing far off at the raw edge of a high mountain road she could just make out the smoke from the valley where her house once stood. Black snaking smoke from several closer buildings and growing blemishes of fire in the town below. It was gone. All but the memories. As she watched the smoking destruction stretching below, she felt her memories slipping away.
Giving up jeans would be hard, but she could see no way around it. And no panties. She needed to be able to lift her skirt to pee in the weeds and still have privacy with people around. And there would be people, for a while. At least a skirt wouldn’t stink in the crotch with a month’s wear, like pants. That’s what she figured, a month or two on the road.
After filling the bullet bobbin, she squinted close to the needle and threaded it with black silk. She inhaled the distinctive smell of machine oil, so like an old friend. If she’d had children, she would have invested in one of those computerized machines with a self-threader. But this was good enough for taking in and letting out waists and hems. She wasn’t hard enough on clothes to need repairs. Shaken out, the dark material rippled and shone in her hands, flowing over her lap like oil.
She had no paper pattern, only a picture in her mind. A longish skirt, short enough to climb, full enough to sit cross-legged on the ground. She decided on a drawstring waist, knowing she would lose weight. Elastic wouldn’t stand up in the wilds. A short lining with hidden pockets. And deep side-pockets, like those in men’s trousers. She knew about men’s pants. She smiled, knowing her friends were amused by her multiple divorces, while she mostly remembered the honeymoons. Yes, luxurious pockets so deep things wouldn’t fall out on the ground as she slept.
Her fingers flew. Within the hour she was turning slowly before the bedroom mirror, hands deep in the pockets of the black skirt. So graceful. What a shame it would soon be frayed and dirty. No matter. Laid out on the bed were faded silk long johns from some forgotten ski trip. Even summer nights could be cold in the hills. Layered silk was windproof and weighed almost nothing. If only she were young, and stronger, but it couldn’t be helped. As her fingers stroked the silken undergarments, her mind flashed forward.
Her toes were like ice. She pulled on another pair of socks, rubbing her feet briskly. The faint smoke from dying campfires across the creek made her wonder if she should have joined the others. But a croupy cough, a child’s whining cry and angry voices quickly dissipated her brief nostalgia for company. Low flying clouds whipped passed stars with such speed she grew dizzy from an acute sense of planetary movement. Or maybe it was the stomach cramps and diarrhea that wracked her earlier. No more eating grass. With a sigh, she laid back against the soft purse. Shivering extra hard to warm herself, she tried again to sleep.
The black long johns slid through her fingers into a silky heap on the bed, rousing her from the brief vision. From under the bed, she pulled out a small, cardboard carton of supplies. To the six pairs of men’s sox (nylon to dry quickly, and black, so she wouldn’t see the dirt), she added a wool pair. A dark wash cloth for a towel. Toothbrush, no paste. She’d make do.
She fingered tightly sealed packets of dried sweet peas and bite-sized jerky and ham. Small bites so she wouldn’t be noticed eating. The box reeked of the pungent sweetness of dried carrots. She would eat them first. Looking around the comfortable bedroom, her chest tightened. Walking out onto the deck, she watered a vividly pink geranium on the window sill. It would die without her. With a sigh, she returned to her sewing and quickly finished a cover for the thin foam bedroll. It would have to do.
Spreading the remaining black brocade out on the pale carpet, she planned where and how to cut out the big purse she would carry, a sort of heavily gathered duffel with hidden pockets. Commercial back packs didn’t meet her needs, not by a long shot. To line it against drenching spring rains and mud, she chose a slick fabric, impervious to cold or water. Yesterday, not finding the fabric itself, she first bought herself a jacket, then three more, men’s size XXXL, and cut out the backs for lining. The expense didn’t seem to matter as she would not likely be here when the bill arrived.
Looking for scissors, she walked into the kitchen, flexing her new state-of-the-art hiking boots. She put a cup of water in the microwave to boil, grateful she still had electricity. That wouldn’t last long. She really would miss her Earl Gray. Inhaling the fragrant tea-bag, her eyes stung from the poignancy of the moment. Rummaging in a drawer, she found the pointed Joyce Chen boning shears. Sharper than sewing scissors, the large red plastic handles made them a perfect tool. She snapped them absently a time or two, planning a special pocket to hold them. Tea was ready. A few tea-bags wouldn’t weigh much. Not as much as these scissors which she would plunge into the neck of that awful man as he tried to rape her.
She hadn’t anticipated his weight, or his seemingly endless convulsions. He collapsed so suddenly that his torso pinned her down. Her throat throbbed where his thumbs bruised her neck. She gasped for air, but couldn’t move him. Blood splattered so noisily in great pulses on nearby leaves that she prayed no one would wake. Her brain tingled from lack of oxygen, and she imagined being found dead in the morning with this fat man draped across her. His vile, pungent odor of stale sweat gave her strength. She rocked him enough to squirm out, pulling her skirt with both hands. Rolling him off her mat, she wiped the sticky wetness as best she could. Time to go. She hoped black would hide dried blood stains.
Still gripping the scissors, she carefully set her tea on the corner of the sewing machine and began to cut. Two strong shoulder straps, in case one broke, padded for comfort. The machine clacked and whirred as she peddled and stitched, trying not to think of what she would lose. When they were long, black tubes, she rolled several twenties from the box and stuffed them in, hoping existing currency might survive the terror, followed by her few rings and small pins which mattered. Then, carefully, she fed in her lovely natural pearl necklace, an expensive anniversary present from one of her husbands. She stroked each cool pearl with her fingertips as she pushed it into the strap.
The girl’s hands were smooth and white as she touched her throat, almost as white as the pearls. And plump. She’d forgotten hands could look like that. She looked at her own thin, chapped hands and dirt-stained nails. When had they changed? She couldn’t remember. She watched the girl’s husband fasten the pearls around her neck, knowing how it felt. The girl smiled. The young couple had rented this isolated hunting lodge through a magazine ad, and were completely out of touch. How sweet and sheltered they were. Exchanging the pearls for a shower, bed, and a few hot meals, was a bargain.
As the last pearl was tucked safely up the strap end, she looked slowly around her room. Her vision blurred as she tried to pin together soft pieces of black silk. Reminding herself that she cried where no loss had yet occurred, and that these were only ‘things’, didn’t help. Her memories were embodied in the house itself. If she lost the house, she might lose a part of who she was. She suddenly had a new thought.
She slammed the presser-foot down, pushing the silk tight against sharp metal teeth. Her right foot pumped, and as the frame shook slightly, the needle began to stitch. Picking up the rhythm, she noticed her favorite rocking chair from the corner of her eye. She loved that chair. Wanting to take it with her, she mentally transferred her image of the chair into each stitch. Glancing again, the chair solidly sat where it always sat. The machine stopped as she slumped and frowned. Then putting both feet square on the treadle, with both hands guiding the fabric, she tried again. Holding the idea of a chair while clearly visualizing the chair itself, she smelled the cream leather, felt the funny wrinkles, and caressed the slight roughness of age on the arms where her fingers played. To her joy, the chair shimmered slightly and faded away. Yes!
She ran swift, mental fingers over blue bathroom tile, and admired the fragile translucence of her white china. She mentally gathered her thick photo albums, smelled the white fluffy towels, and enjoyed the cozy fireplace that warmed her winter nights. Remembering the texture and color of each wall, the special flaws in the Persian rugs, she embraced tall windows set to catch the light just so. She thought of the new roof, and her car in the freshly painted, white garage. Faster and faster, guiding the fabric, she wove the things she loved into the clickety-clack of each stitch as rooms misted and faded behind her. She smiled at her favorite books, rock music and jazz, and cut-glass vases. The black machine vibrated and rocked, as the speeding turn-wheel fanned her face.
Finally, it was done. In silence, she knotted and clipped the final threads. With trembling fingers, she slid the scissors into their new pocket. The purse looked almost professional, more practical than she’d hoped. Straps at the bottom tightly held the black bedroll. Velcro pockets were everywhere. She didn’t trust zippers in the mud. And there would be mud. And cold fingers. And broken nails.
The teacup rattled in its saucer. She twisted toward the muffled booms. There were sounds like firecrackers in the distance. They were close. Soon she would have to leave. She pulled the box around and began transferring packets to the new bag. She knew exactly where each item belonged.
A pity she dared not share her small provisions. It went against her nature, but then again, her generous nature had never before run up against her instinct for survival. A heavy, flexible water pouch with covered straw, slipped into the inner lining, provided emergency water which she could drink unnoticed. There would soon be thousands heading for the hills, tens of thousands.
She stopped with the last packet in her hands, a packet of tiny envelopes of seed for the deepest heart of the purse. Beans, onions, herbs galore, squash, chilies, corn, cucumbers, m. And flower seed. Especially flowers.
A drop of rain running down a loose strand of hair stung her eye. As she moved to wipe it, she saw that her hands were muddy. Rinsing them in the warm rain, she was satisfied with the number of weeds she’d pulled today. Surrounding the healthy, growing vegetables, a few flowers were already blooming. Seeing her bare footprints in the dark, loamy soil, she curled her toes in the mud. It felt cool and smooth. A red ladybug crawled up her forearm, and she whispered, ‘Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children will burn,’ and it flew off. She saw no people, but it didn’t matter. The air smelled of growing things and new beginnings.
Her thumb still stroked the plastic packet of seeds, seeds of her future. Her own future felt somehow like the future of humankind. Briskly, she sealed the inner pocket. Several twigs rattled down through the leaves of a nearby cottonwood. She glanced across the valley to the distant freeway, choked with cars. Most would soon walk, refugees in their own country. She wondered idly why she hadn’t left days ago, but it wasn’t important now.
Dropping the empty box, she was amazed to notice that her sewing machine now rested alone on a large square of fresh dirt in the midst of an otherwise empty lawn. She stood to go, then paused. Sighing, she raised her black skirt, pulled down and stepped out of her white panties. They seemed unnaturally bright in the sunlight. She expected to feel vulnerable but the sudden awareness of her body lifted her spirits. The unexpected sensation of cool air between her thighs felt somehow adventurous, liberating. Almost reverently, she folded the panties and left them under the saucer. The ground rocked violently, and the empty cup rolled over noisily. On impulse, she popped the delicate cup into the purse. Hoisting the bag, she looped long black straps over her head and across her chest. Striding purposefully across the manicured lawn, patting the bag, her fingers found comfort sliding sensuously up and down the smooth black silk.
Newly rooted with far fewer belongings, growing and hoping to flourish, she realized it doesn’t matter where you live or by what you are surrounded. These are all just things. Emotions may feel the ‘pain of change’ but the heart is never touched by loss of stuff. Each of us is a creative force, and no matter our surroundings, re-creating the beauty that resides within us brings us quickly home again.
Pausing at the edge of the yard, she again slipped out her scissors. No shadow crossed her mind this time. Clipping a handful of her freshest yellow roses, carefully trimming the thorns, she started up the hill. Burying her face in their fragrance, she didn’t look back. The past was gone. Her future bounced gently against her hip.