Lydwyna the Spinster and the Shawl
A Short Story by Anne K. Kaler
Gundela threw down her needlework in disgust. “I can’t do this. My stitches aren’t holding at all, Lydwyna.”
The young spinster looked up from her own handiwork, ignoring the girl’s complaint. “I had the same trouble until Eldry showed me how to handle the thread more tightly. Here, sit beside me on the bench. The light is always better outside. Don’t you need to check on your sisters yet?”
“They’re all fine. They are always fine but . . . I’m not. I just worry so much about them, with Mam being blind and now deaf, it’s hard to keep all six of them clean, fed, and in order. I can do only so much with them since last month. . . Gundela hesitated, “Can I tell you a secret, Lydwyna?”
Lydwyna glanced up from her needlework. “A secret? I guess so.”
Gundela looked about nervously. “Last month, my Pap left because he was tired of all of us girls. He wants a son, so he said. So he left.”
This time the young spinster stopped sewing and leaned over to concentrate on the girl before her. A pretty child, fair of face, and kind by nature, her student Gundela shouldn’t have to carry all those family problems on her thin shoulders. It wasn’t right.
Gundela twisted her hands as she blurted out. “And I’ve been offered a job in the village as an under-servant. It doesn’t pay much but it is more than Mam can make to keep the household going until . . . until I can earn more.”
“But you already do more than your share.”
“Oh, you should see her, Lydwyna, calling to the girls by name and trying to tell who is who by touching each face – as if she remembers each of them in her heart. Some of them are mean and try to trip her up, taking each other’s places, knowing she can’t hear them or see them. The only way she can tell who is who is by lining them up tallest to smallest. And with the two sets of twins being the same height . . .What a pitiful sight that is, with them giggling and shoving. I try to control them but I’m only the older sister and . . .”
“They don’t listen to you, right?”
“Not usually. That’s why it is important to get Mam away from them for a while. The only way to get her any peace is to bring her to visit Eldry and you, of course.” Her face flushed. “She doesn’t know how much money we need and, if I go away in service, then she will lose control over all of them.”
“I can see your problem, Gundela. I know that your Mam knits and makes rough garments but you would be better by staying at home and finishing her projects. That’s why you need to learn these finishing techniques so let’s start again.”
“I don’t like to complain, but she can’t even tell one girl from another now that she can’t see or hear. I feel sorry for her because they are still babies but, with another child or perhaps two on the way, I don’t know how she will cope – especially if I have to go into service to pay the bills.”
“I’ll talk to Eldry about it for you,” Lydwyna assured her.
* * *
That evening after supper, Lydwyna broached the problem of Milda’s disabilities and her daughter Gundela’s worries. “And the only solution that Gundela can see is to go into service in town but she fears just how would her mother control the younger ones?”
Eldry glanced up, putting her cup on the table for a refill. She spoke. “Some of our special stitches, you think then, for Milda?”
Lydwyna’s eyes opened so wide at her aunt’s suggestion that she almost spilled the tea. “Our special stitches . . . you mean . . . you’d teach me your special stitches?”
Eldry automatically wiped up the tea stains with her napkin. “Well, if you aren’t ready to learn them, I can always wait . . .” Eldry drew her speech out temptingly.
Lydwyna slid an ironic smile toward her aunt. “No, Eldry, I am ready if you think I am ready.”
Eldry played with her tea cup before she answered. “You are ready. You are ready because you show concern for the welfare of others. Milda has another babe or two on the way, a parting gift from her husband, she told me today. I, too, wondered just how the family would get enough to eat – over the winter especially – so I decided to knit her a heavy woolen sweater for the winter time, a very special sweater with some odd decorations.”
“Some of your special stitches?”
“No, Lydwyna, our special stitches,” Eldry laughed.
“And I can show Gunelda how to finish off her mother’s knitting. That will help them financially.” Lydwyna looked at her aunt and teacher for a long moment. “Eldry, what would you do if you were both blind and deaf?”
“Why, I’d simply depend on you, my dear niece.”
“Hah! Then we’d both starve,” Lydwyna snorted.
* * *
As the earth had spun itself into an early winter, the two spinsters were plying their trade inside near the warmth of the fireplace when they heard a knock on the door. Lydwyna unbolted the heavy door cautiously.
“Sorry, ma’am, but my wife here . . . she’s be having me a child and we are far from home. Can you help us, please?” A tattered man supporting a very pregnant woman staggered into the cottage and slid his burden on the chair nearest the fireplace.
Both spinsters snapped into action with Eldry whisking the woman into the privacy of the loom room while Lydwyna scurried around for food and drink. As the night wore on, her husband drank cup after cup of tea while Lydwyna divided her time between the two adjacent rooms aiding Eldry with her midwife duties. Stifled groans and screams issued from the loom room followed by Eldry’s soothing voice.
It was dawn before the groaning suddenly stopped and the shrill cry of a baby began.
“It’s a boy, small but mighty and determined to live,” Eldry said, closing the door behind her. She slipped the child into the man’s arms.
“A boy, a son, Ma’am? I never thought she had a child in her, else I’d not brought her this far on my wanderings. Thank the good mother for you and your girl there.”
“Lydwyna, tend to the child for us.” The young spinster gathered the child up in his blanket and sat near the fireplace.
And me wife?” the man asked finally.
Eldry shook her head. “Come in, man. Come see her now . . . perhaps for the last time.”
The man sat up quickly to follow Eldry into the now too quiet loom room.
* * *
The three of them buried the dead woman the next day. The new father was blinded by tears but carefully laid his wife in the hastily dug grave on the hill, pausing momentarily to add more stones to her grave marker. And snow was already covering the new grave as the two women turned back to the warmth of the cottage. Once settled, Eldry fed the baby with a bit of sugared cloth as Lydwyna gathered the food for a meal. Eventually, the father came in, stamping the new snow from his boots.
The meal was quickly eaten – a stew of vegetables simmered overnight, plain but nourishing. The warmth of the cottage fire almost lulled them all asleep until the man struggled to speak, his voice hoarse with emotion. “I’m a tinker, you see, and I tried to tell my wife to stay with her people but she insisted on coming with me. I thought we’d be back to home in time but now . . .”
Eldry nodded. She watched the way Lydwyna was rocking the child as if she were the boy’s true mother.
The tinker’s voice broke Eldry’s pleasant day dream. “Ladies, I can’t take the child with me. I can’t provide for him on the road, even if I knew what to do . . . which I don’t, of course.”
Eldry nodded. “We understand, young man. You must do what you must do. If you leave him with us to go on your tinker’s route, we will take care of him and find a good family to raise him. You see how content he is in Lydwyna’s lap so he will never know any sense of abandonment. Rest assured, we’ve done it before for others.”
The tinker’s face relaxed as he absorbed Eldry’s offer. He stammered his gratitude to both women. Finally, he stood up from the table. “I will leave when the snow stops then. I have only a bit of money to leave with you,” the tinker said, dropping a few coins on the table. “This is for the child.” Pulling his wedding ring off, he laid it beside the money. “And this is for helping my wife into the next world.”
Eldry nodded again.
After the tinker had left, the baby stopped crying as Lydwyna rocked him in her arms. Long after Eldry had retired upstairs, Lydwyna held the child until she was so sleepy herself that she, too, went up into the loft with the baby. The tinker had gone when the spinsters awoke.
* * *
Early the next morning, the snow was still falling softly when a noise at the door roused the spinsters from their sleep. When Lydwyna opened the cottage door, Gundela was supporting her mother, who was bent over in obvious pain.
Milda seized Lydwyna’s hand as if to verify who it was. “Ah, it is you, Lydwyna,” she said. “I can go no further. The baby is coming before I expected and I need Eldry, please.”
Lydwyna swiftly settled the woman beside the fireplace. Gundela left to tend the unchaperoned girls at home, claiming that she couldn’t bring them all. “Goodbye, Mam. The Good Mother be with you.” Milda waved weakly between her groans.
Lydwyna dashed up the stairs only to find Eldry already dressed and leaving her loft bedroom. “It’s Milda, Auntie. She needs you. She’s in pain with labor.”
“Yes, I heard her. Keep the little boy quiet until I get Milda into the loom room then come and help me. You’ve never seen twins born before, have you? Well, here’s your chance.”
Lydwyna did as she was told. The baby was in a deep sleep as she tiptoed down to the loom room just in time to see Eldry ease Milda’s baby’s head out of her mother’s womb. As Eldry slid the child’s shoulders free, the baby cried slightly and Milda raised her head to greet her newest daughter.
At Eldry’s instructions, Lydwyna caught the child up in a warm blanket and took it into the kitchen to clean her up, the same action she had done last night for the tinker’s boy. From the fireside seat, she could hear the two women speaking softly. The room was quiet when she returned the wrapped child to her mother. Milda held her for a moment before her face twitched in agony.
Eldry smiled. “Ah, Milda, you thought that you were finished, eh? Remember you’ve already birthed two sets of twins and you are about to set a record in the town for your fourth set. But this time, listen to my voice more carefully and it will seem easier this time around.”
“Are you forgetting, Eldry, that I can no longer hear even your voice clearly? Even that nice sweater you knitted for me doesn’t help much.”
“Ah, yes, of course, Milda. I should have remembered that sweater, the one which Lydwyna and I decorated for you specially. Lydwyna, would you get Milda’s sweater for her. It is a bit chilly even in here.”
Gratefully, Milda pulled the edges of the sweater around her shoulders. “At home I wear it all the time and it does seem to help somehow. And it is very, very warm in this cold weather.”
“Yes, well, Milda, we can’t have you being cold at this time, can we? Lydwyna, put the baby in the cradle near her mother, please.” Silently she pointed to the ceiling of room above, the room where the tinker’s day-old son lay sleeping.
Lydwyna cocked her head and frowned. Slowly she smiled, and nodded, acknowledging her aunt’s command and slipped out the door and up the stairs to Eldry’s bedroom. The baby boy wriggled in her arms as she descended the stairs so that, by the time Lydwyna had reached the loom room, he was wide awake, hungry, and unhappy about it.
She quickly stripped the boy and dipped him in warm water as if he had floated in Milda’s womb for the full nine months.
Eldry timed her voice to match the boy’s cries, reached her hands out, as if she were catching a second child, and appeared to pull the warm naked boy from under Milda’s covers. He howled at her touch and Milda started up in amazement.
“Look, Lydwyna, it’s a boy this time. Milda, you have a son at long last. Congratulations.”
The woman looked stunned. “A boy, one of my twins is a boy child?”
“You don’t remember? Lydwyna saw me take him from between your legs just a moment ago, didn’t you? He was still wet from the birth fluid when I caught him just as I caught your daughter a few minutes earlier.”
“Perhaps your sweater might help you remember giving birth to him,” Lydwyna interrupted. “Here let me tuck it more tightly around you both.”
“Thank you, Lydwyna, that feels very comforting. Now let me have my son to become acquainted with his mother’s body, even if his silly mother can’t remember his birth.” The baby went willingly into her arms and nuzzled around for his food source. A deep quiet fell over the room as the three women listened to the soothing sounds of nursing.
* * *
Several hectic days later, Milda left the spinsters’ cottage, attended by all her girls and her one son. Gunelda lagged behind to thank Eldry and Lydwyna for aiding her mother. She commented on how well her mother had been able to manage her brood ever since she received the special sweater from Eldry.
As they watched the family wander down the pathway, Lydwyna inquired as to just what might have caused Milda’s sudden ability to recognize people as soon as they touched her. “You know, Auntie, Milda knew who I was when she met me at the door the day she came for the births. I know that she knew I lived there but still she somehow knew it was me who answered the door. Eldry, just what did we knit into that sweater?”
Her aunt smiled widely. “It is enough that I know what we knit into her sweater. It works. Eventually you will know also but not just yet, my pet, not just yet.”
“I’ve seen the power that the sweater gives her. As soon as the child touches the sweater, Milda knows which child it is and what it needs. Is that it, Eldry?”
“It is really a little bit of this and a little bit of that woven into the yarn and aged for a few years. I have an entire shelf of such yarn, aging away, in the loom room, the shelf you are not allowed to touch.”
“I haven’t yet, although I admit I am as curious as a cat now, “Lydwyna said. “I also know that I am not ready to attempt those yarns for stitches just yet because I could cause harm, couldn’t I?”
“Indeed you could. You’ll be taught them when the need arises, young one.”
“Answer me this though, Auntie. Is it a stitch or the yarn that works those wonders for Milda?”
“Ah, that’s the trick. You need both yarns and stitch. The strength of the stitch holds the power in the yarn in place until it is not needed any more. The power of the yarn seeps into Milda’s skin so that she will truly know which child is near her when she needs to know. As the yarn wears out, its power will disappear.”
“Some call it so but don’t worry your head about it. All these stitches will be yours and yours alone. The Good Mother provides for our needs and for those who need our talents.”
Anne K. Kaler, Ph.D. As a life-long reader, Anne (always with an “e”) is now attempting to read every book in the universe, while helping to publishing more. Surprised to learn that she was actually a teacher, she persisted in that field for nearly fifty years until she started volunteering at PSB.