by Anne K. Kaler. PSBVA, Editor PSB Writing Center
Excerpt from “Lydwyna the Spinster”
Lydwyna picked up the slippery blue bead from the pile in the earthenware bowl, held it up to the light, and glowered at it.
“Eldry, I just know this one does not have a hole!”
The older woman chuckled, leaned over the table, and repositioned the young girl’s hand until the weak winter sunlight from the doorway shone through the tiny hole in the bead.
“Oh, I guess I was holding it wrong. Sorry Eldry.”
“Or seeing it wrong, child. You were looking for the small imperfection – the hole – rather than looking for the passage of light through the whole. Forgive the pun, Lydwyna, but the same is true with people. If you look for the imperfection, the true beauty of the whole person can’t shine through to you.”
Eldry gently guided the girl’s needle into the bead’s hole. “Aim for the light. That’s it. Pull the needle and thread through the bead, then try to twist the thread so it goes into almost the same hole you made coming out of the cloth. Skip one or two threads.” Her agile hands secured the tiny bead. “Now see how tightly the bead lies as if it were growing from the cloth.”
“Yours does, Eldry. Mine just sits and wobbles. I’ll never get it right.” The young girl pushed the bowl of blue beads from her.
“Lydwyna, you’ll be the death of my patience yet. Was ever a youngster more anxious to know it all immediately? Beadwork is tedious, concentrated, drudge work of an in-and-out rhythm you’ll catch onto soon. Look how the design is emphasized by just these few beads and chips I’ve sewn into place.”
As the older woman spread the richly embroidered cloak over the worn tabletop, the royal blue-green eyes of the peacock feathers, appliquéd on the contrasting pale blue wool of the cloak, glared balefully.
“See, girl, how the feathers are highlighted by these few bright pieces of bead. We start with the royal blue with a touch of purple; go to the lighter blue, move to the soft green then end with the rich dark green with a hint of purple in them. A circle of color, you might say.”
Lydwyna groaned at Eldry’s casual dismissal of the intricacy of the descending colors in the feathers. “The flowers along the border might be better suited to my skills for now. I think I could manage to get the pearls near the centers,” she ventured.
“They had better be dead center or you’ll do them again. We mustn’t spoil the line of the tiny flowers chasing each other among the green leaves. You’ve already done a good workmanlike job on the leaf appliqué and there is no reason why the flowers should be any harder.”
Eldry smoothed a tiny wrinkle from the collar. “We must have this done within the month, this and the dress too. Polla needs both for her daughter’s wedding, although why she insists on out-dressing her own daughter at the poor girl’s wedding, I’ll never know. But it is her money,” the older spinster concluded, jabbing a firm stitch in the wool.
Absently, Lydwyna stirred the blue beads in the bowl with her needle before posing her question. “Eldry, why do you never let me deal with the clients?”
The older spinster leaned over and removed the bowl from Lydwyna’s reach. “Your duty is to learn, not to fritter your time away gossiping with foolish women like Polla.”
The more kindly, she added, “For your own sake, child. People like Polla take and take. No use you having to deal with them before you have to. Who else would order a peacock cloak for her own daughter’s wedding so that the poor girl has to make her own wedding dress. She deserves a better mother than she got. She’s a good girl – Polla’s daughter is – a mite too obedient . . .”
“Can any girl be too obedient for you, Eldry?” the younger spinster teased.
The old woman sniffed in disdain. “You’ll never suffer from that excess, child, so calm yourself. You are obedient where it counts – in your stitches and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Any mealy-mouthed simpleton can sew but your stitches, your proper stitches, are – different – as well they should be with all the good teaching you’ve been getting. And even if you are a bit . . .”
“Slow,” Lydwyna interjected, “I’m slow.”
“I was going to use the word ‘hesitant’ but ‘slow’ will do. All your stitches must be mastered slowly and precisely to be effective. Remember, the craft is easy, the art difficult.”
“And the hole is still hard to find,” added the girl, stabbing at the tiny bead.
Eldry tilted Lydwyna’s hand a bit and the needle plunged through. “See, you just have to find the light that shines through each time.”
Eldry’s shadow bent over the frail shell of a woman lying on a low pallet beside the fireplace. Lydwyna handed her the cup of steaming broth and watched the mist wreathe both grey heads like an active force of heat in the cold room. Eldry’s sturdy hands guided the cup to the shaking woman’s lips.
“That will warm you, Abbia. Drink it down.”
Thank you, Eldry. I do feel better already just being here.”
“Why didn’t you let us know you were so ill? Neither Lydwyna nor I have seen you in weeks and to find you like this brings shame upon us. We thought we were good neighbors but now . . .” Eldry turned toward the fire to hide her tears.
“Oh, Eldry, don’t weep. I’m going to be all right. A little rest, a little food. It was the cold that hurt the most. And my pets, of course.”
“Your pets?” She shot a look at Lydwyna who shook her head negatively. “I don’t understand. There were no pets we could find in your cottage – just vermin. I’m afraid we didn’t take time to kill them or clean the place. We brought you right here.”
Abbia’s weak smile was reflected in the dim firelight. “Forgive me, Eldry, but you brought many of them with you into this house. You see, they are so faithful that they go wherever I go. They won’t . . . can’t leave me until . . . well, they will go only when I go, which we both know won’t be long. Then I and they will be free. See.”
“We can take care of your pets for you, Abbia,” Lydwyna interrupted. “Our cats can always use another companion.”
“I don’t think you or your pets would want to be companions to mine, Lydwyna.”
The firelight flickered weakly as the sick woman slowly unbuttoned her dress so that it fell limply from her thin body. Lydwyna, peering over Eldry’s shoulder, stifled a gasp as the woman’s lumpy breasts and stomach were exposed. Irregular white bumps alternated with reddened mounds upon mounds of slick humps of knotted flesh.
In the dim light, Lydwyna thought she saw the bumps begin to move, undulating of their own accord, shifting and roiling and stirring like a disturbed blanket of living beings. She forced herself to look again to confirm her suspicion. Clusters of dead white maggots fed on what was left of the old woman’s rotting flesh, greenish pus oozed from the bloody sores as the pallid worms crawled from feast to feast; tiny lice and black fleas scurried from the light of the fireplace to the dark protection of her disarranged dress.
Lydwyna pushed herself from Eldry’s shoulders and drew back into the dimmer part of the room.
“Your pets, Abbia?” Eldry asked quietly.
“My pets. They have been with me so long they are part of my flesh. They were faithful to me, though when I die, they will leave me.” She grasped Eldry’s hand in her bony one. “Promise me that you will let me die outside so they can have a chance to survive. I don’t want them to ever bother you or Lydwyna.”
Eldry’s face softened. “I promise, Abbia, but I’ll not let you die in the cold. You’ve had enough cold in your life. Lydwyna and I will take care of your . . . pets.” She reached down to touch the unblemished face, now turning colder. “But your sister Polla? She didn’t come near you?”
“Polla and I have never been close. She never knew all this. Why should she bother now with the wedding so near? And I never asked her.” Abbia’s shoulders shook with deep gasps as she struggled for breath. “You were always more like a sister to me than Polla ever was.”
Eldry stroked the woman’s hair with her hand. “Hush, Abbia, you’ve done as much for me in your time.”
The sick woman’s eyes searched Eldry’s face. “I don’t remember but I forget so much these days . . . it’s easier to forget, isn’t it.”
“Indeed, it is . . . sometimes.”
“You and your young Lydwyna are so kind to an old woman like me . . . not like Polla. Oh, I shouldn’t criticize her. She’s had a hard life. She did her best. I was always a burden to her.”
“Rather the other way around, Abbia. You raised her after your parents died; you put off your own wedding to see her wed.”
“Ah, Eldry, there’s where we parted. You see I married Corad, her only true love. That’s why she’s had such a sorrowful life. I pity her.”
“Pish, Abbia, her only true love is Polla – always has been. It didn’t take her long to find another husband and a rich one at that.”
The sick woman’s smile changed her whole face into one of wrinkled beauty. “Yes, but I had Corad all those years. All those years until he died. I’ll be with him soon, won’t I, Eldry, and he’ll take care of me.”
“Of course, Abbia. He was a fine man. Now enough talking, get some rest.”
“My pets, you and Lydwyna will take care of them?”
“We will take care of them for you, Abbia, I promise.”
Eldry pulled a warm blanket over the woman and held her hand. She sat like that for a few moments, looking down at the emaciated woman, until the movement under the blanket ceased. Sighing, she pulled the blanket up over the dead woman’s peaceful face.
Lydwyna was just outside the door desperately drinking in the cold air. Eldry silently handed her a shawl.
“She’s gone. We should have known, girl.”
“How could we? She was always so secretive, Eldry. And now . . . now what do we do?”
“What we must. Prepare her for burial and prepare Polla for a wedding.”
Lydwyna whirled to confront her teacher whose face was a fine network of lines in the sharp winter moonlight. “How can we think of taking that woman’s money after what she did to her sister?”
“All the more reason to finish the cloak and dress for Polla to wear to the wedding. She can do nothing more for or to Abbia now. But we can. It may mean a bit more stitching for us but it will be worth it, I assure you, little Lydwyna; it will be well worth it.” The old woman folded her arms against the cold and shivered.
“Are you finished with my cloak and dress for the wedding yet, Eldry? I won’t feel obliged to pay for either if they are not done on time,” Polla continued.
Eldry’s face gave no clue to her thoughts. “I just came into town to get more thread and to order the shroud for Abbia. I knew you would want the very best for her so I took the privilege of ordering plain white wool. It will look very generous of you when they bury her tomorrow.”
“She’s dead, then. She died at your cottage?”
“Yes, last night. It was a peaceful death. She spoke kindly of you and wanted you to have her last treasures – her pets – as she called them. I set Lydwyna to stitching them this morning while I was gone. She’s become a quite good spinster these past few months and I trust her to . . . “
Polla interrupted Eldry’s babbling with an abrupt flick of her hand. “What do you mean Abbia’s treasures? She had nothing of value to leave to me or to anyone. Have you gone as mad as she, Eldry?”
Eldry’s eyes registered only blank concern as she insisted that Abbia’s treasures were safe in her keeping. “The cloak and dress will take a bit longer since Abbia left us the pearls and jewels to include in the design. But Lydwyna is doing so nicely with her sewing these days that the cloak and dress will be ready the wedding morning, I assure you, Polla.”
“And each of the pearls – large flat ones, they are – will be the center of a flower. I had to increase the number of flowers around the collar to fit them all into the design but, if you want, I’ll take them out.”
Polla made a choking sound.
Eldry hesitated briefly. “I was going to put some on Abbia’s shroud. That’s really why I came into town then I thought – an old woman like that doesn’t need pearls and jewels in the grave, does she? After all, who is there to see them in the grave? Worms only, I suppose.”
“You are right, good Eldry, pearls will be no use to my dear sister now. A nice warm shroud for her is fine. And you order it and I will pay for it, of course. I’ve so much work with the wedding and all.” Her fair plump hand trailed along the silken cushion. “You’re invited – you and Lydwyna – to the wedding, of course.”
“Thank you. I doubt that we will be able to make it – work, you know. As it is, we will be working up to the last moment,” Eldry answered gravely. “About the pearls, then, Polla. Shall I put them all in the design?”
“Of course, Eldry, put them all in. After all, you are the spinster and know your designs better than the rest of us.” Polla forced a weak laugh that did not reach her greedy eyes.
“Indeed, I do, Polla. I do know my designs better than anyone.”
Polla was pacing the floor with an angry frown when Lydwyna and Eldry brought the cloak and dress to her house shortly before the wedding.
“It’s about time,” she railed. “I’m almost late for the wedding and the whole town is gathered for it. Here, let me have the dress.”
Eldry snatched it from her declaring it was so fragile she had to have help getting into it. She gently unwrapped the glistening folds from their protective sheeting. The dress seemed to shimmer with movement as the sunlight caught the tiny seed-shaped iridescent beads on the bodice and skirt, each bead reflecting a prism of light, making each one a translucent rainbow. The irregularly shaped pearls, embedded deep into the rich lace, seemed to shift within their lace shells like glistening seafoam drops on oyster shells.
“Hurry then,” Polla growled.
“All in good time, Polla, all in good time,” the spinster murmured. She fit the gown to the woman’s plump body, smoothing the pleats over her hips, adjusting the neckline, fastening the buttons and ribbons that held the bodice together. Polla squirmed under her attentions.
“Really, Eldry, stop fussing. This is tight enough without your drawing it tighter.”
Eldry stepped back to let Polla see herself in the mirror as the shifting silk and lace-embroidered dress swirled about her body, in a cascade of broken moving light and iridescent color.
At a signal from the older spinster, Lydwyna placed the heavy blue cloak on Polla’s shoulders. Its rich appliqué and embroidery jewels almost outshone the dress in color intensity and movement as the peacock emblazoned on the back seemed to strut and preen every feather, each one outlined in tiny black beads, each one centered with a single dark jewel in its “eye.” The head feathers, which trailed into a delicate tracery intertwined with the flowers and vines that formed the border, seemed to wave greetings to the onlooker. On the border, each flower had a huge, singularly irregular, lumpy white pearl at its center with appliquéd petals of various hues of beads and pearls spiraling from it.
Polla swelled with pleasure. “It . . . I am beautiful. This will be a wedding the town won’t forget soon. Thank you, Eldry. Thank you, Lydwyna.”
Eldry cleared her throat with a gruff cough. “Beauty and the pleasure of the town isn’t enough. We need your payment now, Polla.”
The frown returned to the woman’s face. “I’m too busy to pay you now. Next week will be time enough.”
“Now,” Eldry insisted, “or we take the dress and cloak back.”
“Oh, very well.” She went to a chest at the foot of her bed and took out a tooled leather sack of gold coins. She counted them twice before handing them over to the older spinster. “That’s what I owe you. You are sure you put all my sister’s treasures in the design. You haven’t held out any for yourself – not a pearl or jet bead?”
Eldry drew herself up to her full height. “I assure you, Polla, on my oath as a spinster, that every one of your sister’s earthly treasures – her pets, as she called them – are on the cloak and dress, every one of them. I would not keep any for myself.”
“Nor would I,” Lydwyna added vehemently.
“Very well. I’ll have to take you word for it. Now to the wedding. Are you coming?” Polla stopped at the door, the cloak and dress swirling about her.
“Oh,” Lydwyna cried, “wait, Polla, one bead is loose bead on the back of the cloak. Eldry, lend me your needle and I’ll fasten it.”
“Hurry, girl.” Polla stamped her foot in impatience.
Lydwyna knelt at the back hem of the cloak. “There. It is secured at last. Go to your wedding now, Polla. They are all waiting for you.”
Polla gave her a strange look and flounced out the door. Lydwyna sat back on her knees for a moment and then rose stiffly. Lydwyna handed the needle back to Eldry who replaced it in her neck pouch.
“I think I am getting too old for this sort of thing also, Eldry. How have you managed it all these years?”
Eldry just chuckled as both women walked swiftly through the house and out into the clean winter sunshine. They passed the wedding party going to the church, passed the marketplace, and headed out of the village proper toward their cottage. Neither spoke for a long while.
“Do you suppose Polla is enjoying Abbia’s treasures by now,” Lydwyna finally ventured.
Eldry put her arms around the young girl’s waist and squeezed her affectionately without breaking stride.
“Or are they enjoying her?” she asked.
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.