Lydwyna the Spinster and the Scar

Lydwyna the Spinster and the Scar

A Short Story by Anne K. Kaler, Ph.D.

An excerpt from the Tales of Stitches of Lydwyna the Spinster

“Trouble,” said Eldry. “Get out the windflower tea, Lydwyna.”

Gratefully, her niece folded the coarse shirt she had been sewing and stretched her arms over her ashen hair. “I’d even welcome trouble today. This hemming is so boring.”

“Hemming is no more boring than darning the mayor’s socks. It’s no wonder that no woman will marry him,” Eldry mumbled, smoothing still another sock over her porcelain darning egg.

With practiced motion, Lydwyna swept the offending shirt from the table, whisked a tea cloth in its place, and reached for the jar of windflower tea from the mantle. The tea, she thought, was the staple solace of the seamstresses’ house –windflower tea and good solid advice.

As a child, Lydwyna had grown used to the villagers and travelers alike seeking Eldry’s special services — both kinds. Ostensibly most customers came for alterations on an old garment or a design for a new one. All left with Eldry’s special advice slipped into their mind, like the scraps of leftover cloth tucked into their pockets. Some pockets were too shallow, and the advice fell out unused. Some pockets were too deep and the advice was lost forever in their depths. Most never even knew that the advice had been given — they only knew that their problems were suddenly solved.

Whenever her aunt sensed trouble, trouble was already on the path to their cottage. Sure enough, before the water in the copper pot boiled over the low fire, a frantic knocking at the door interrupted the quiet of the cottage.

Wet autumn leaves blew in with the flying skirts of a sturdy well-boned young woman. The shawl clutched about her graceful neck had not kept sprinkles of rain from dotting her round face. She wiped them away with the back of her hand, graced with what could only be a shiny new wedding ring.

Or were they tears? Lydwyna wondered, as she swung the door closed behind their guest. Junia had always been a pretty girl but marriage had made her into a lovely young woman. So why had Eldry sensed trouble?

Over her cup of windflower tea, Junia’s glazed eyes became more luminous with tears as her story tumbled out. “And now Mother looks at me with such…loathing and disappointment that I can’t bear it another moment. And Frisl, poor innocent, doesn’t know what has happened between us. Eldry, Lydwyna, you both know that Mother had always doted on him. Now she barely speaks to him. He doesn’t know what he did or said to her to cause her to act that way.”

Eldry glanced up over her darning. “Just what did he do to her?’

“Nothing, Eldry, I swear.” Junia paused. It was just that I…that we…that Frisl and I anticipated our wedding night before we were married.” Junia stammered, her dark eyes searching Eldry’s face for reassurance. “There, is that so horrible…to sleep with your almost husband…before he is your husband?”

Eldry bent her head to unsnarl her tangled thread, waiting for Junia to continue. “What do you want me to do, Junia? I can’t change anything now. It’s done, you’re married, and that’s that.” The old spinster looked up before snapped the offending thread free. “He didn’t force you, did he?”

Lydwyna watched Junia’s face flush bright red. “No! Not at all, Eldry. Lydwyna, you remember how gently he has always treated me even when we were children. Frisl is not one to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to. He is loving and kind…”

“Does Frisl reproach you with this now?” Eldry inquired.

Junia looked puzzled. “No, not at all. I mean I wanted it as much as he did but Mother…”

“She knows then, Junia?” Eldry rethreaded her needle with a vengeance which Lydwyna wanted to avoid.

This time, the young bride’s color fled from her cheeks. “Oh, Eldry I never thought it could be this way between the three of us. Mother and I were always so close and then, when Frisl started to court me seriously, it all seemed so perfect. They liked each other, really liked each other.” She paused to readjust her shawl.

“In fact, he was the first man Mother had ever approved of for me. But it took so long to get ready for the wedding that we … couldn’t wait.” Drawing her shawl more tightly across her shoulders, Junia sipped her tea to settle her sobs.

It would take more than windflower tea to settle this — more even perhaps than Eldry’s stitches, Lydwyna thought, as she refilled the three cups.

Before she could finish, her aunt said. “And another cup for Meralda, please.”

“I don’t know how you do that,” Lydwyna muttered under her breath as the cottage door swung open for Junia’s mother.

“Good day, Meralda,” her aunt said gesturing with her darning egg. “Come in and join us. We have a cup of tea and a sobbing daughter for you.”

Meralda, a shorter version of her daughter, was rigged out in somber black befitting a widow. Her cane swung itself ahead of her like a magician’s staff warding off evil, Lydwyna thought.

“I’ll not be bothering you with my problem, my friend. I’ll take this faithless daughter of mine home to her equally worthless husband. We’ll need no tea from you today.”

“You’d deprive Lydwyna the joy of visiting with Junia. Surely you can spare a few minutes before you start back to the village. It’s a long walk and on a bad leg like yours.”

Lydwyna slid the cup of tea over to Meralda who sighed before she reluctantly slumped down onto the fireside bench. “A cup might indeed be welcome on a rainy miserable day like this. But only one cup, mind you.”

“Lydwyna’s been wanting to show Junia the new design on the loom.” Eldry continued. “The two of us can manage the tea ourselves, girls, while you see what my protégé has done so far.” She nodded toward the far loom room.

The two younger women scurried gratefully into the nearby loom room. Lydwyna’s voice sounded unnatural as she chattered on about the quite ordinary design while Junia pretended interest until she leaned against the wall crying. With only a hint of guilt, Lydwyna pressed one ear to the crack in the door to hear the snatches of conversation.

“Why are you dressed in that black outfit, Meralda. It was never your best color.”

“What other color for the death of the family honor. My daughter disgraced me. Our family name is ruined.”

“Meralda, you faker. You have no family to complain about an imaginary honor. The plague took all of them the same as it took mine, Goddess rest them all.”

Lydwyna could almost hear the rustle of skirts as Meralda shifted heavily on the bench. A teacup rattled into its saucer. A spoon tapped the edge of the honey jar. She could almost see the firelight rusting the black depths of Meralda’s skirts. Eldry’s grey head would be bent over her darning — little ever kept Eldry from her needlework.

“Am I such a bad mother, then, my friend?”

“Do you really want an honest answer to that?” Eldry returned.

Meralda’s voice lowered as she supped the tea. “I was hoping for a stronger answer than that from an old friend.”

“Only a friend would tell you the absolute truth, even though it is not one you want to hear but one you need to hear. Isn’t that why you came, really?”

As Lydwyna listened at the door, Eldry’s steady voice settled into a reassuring hum of words too faint to hear. Minutes passed as the consoling sounds from the kitchen rose and fell. Listening at the door had some drawbacks, Lydwyna discovered. Finally she heard Eldry’s voice pitch to a higher tone she meant Lydwyna to hear.

“Finish up your tea, old friend. After all, what child ever fully values the wisdom of her mother?” the older spinster reaffirmed as the younger women re-entered.” Lydwyna, more tea, please. Another kettle of water for still another pot of tea.” Eldry paused. “Now we start our work, my friends.”

The talk between Junia and her mother was one which Lydwyna never forgot. Meralda and Junia berated teach other with a streak of complaints, past sorrows, past offenses, each claiming that the other was in error while each claimed to be in the right.

Eldry never stopped them or questioned them until they both were so wearied by exhaustion that even their teacups had been long empty. The cottage grew quiet as the light from the fire had died down and the single oil lamp cast its yellow halo onto the scarred worktable beneath. Outside, the rain had diminished to a drizzle.

Eldry finished her darning, clipped the threads, and plucked her darning needle from the stocking before speaking. “So you both understand that this is the only way to solve this?”

Junia nodded, clasping her shawl tighter about her neck. Meralda grunted as she unbuttoned the high collar of her black blouse to reveal a long jagged red line descending from her throat to her breast.

“Lydwyna, more water. Not for tea this time. Pour some of it into Meralda’s saucer. Then come and help me.” Eldry gestured to a spot at her side. “You’ve not seen this before, girl, so pay attention.” Eldry plunged the needle into the hot water where it quivered slightly. “You must concentrate on putting warmth into the needle or the whole venture will fail,” she warned.

Lydwyna nodded. Even though she did not know exactly what Eldry had planned, she had seen enough of her aunt’s stitch work to know that mental exhaustion would take its toll on her frail body. At her aunt’s instructions, she picked up the hot needle with a fold of clean linen.

“Hold my darning needle over Meralda’s breast, like this.” Eldry adjusted the young girl’s hand until the needle was touching but not piercing the old woman’s bare skin. “Steady now, Meralda. This will take a while so concentrate and listen to my voice.”

Eldry’s song was like no other that Lydwyna had ever heard — like the rain dripping off the roof or the gentle boil of water over the fire. The four women stayed motionless, half-seduced by Eldry’s slow insistent crooning. Slowly Meralda’s red scar trembled under her pale skin of her left breast, flattened out, and circled itself into a white lump under the needle’s point.

“Now,” Eldry cried out, “Now pierce the skin with the needle and wait.” Meralda gasped in pain as the sharp tip of the needle tore a flap of skin back to expose a tiny hole.

Lydwyna watched transfixed as a creamy glob oozed through the triangular tear. She couldn’t call it a head exactly as the ooze pulled itself out of the hole and onto the surface of Meralda’s left breast. Segmented like an ill-shaped loaf of bread, the glob struggled partway out of the opening as if seeking something. it started to twist itself toward the tip of the needle, as if it sensed the warmth.

Feeling a jolt as the scar touched the needle, Lydwyna watched in horror as the glob appeared to pull itself from Meralda’s flesh to curl around the warmth of the needle. Instinctively, she shuddered in disgust.

“Yes, yes,” Eldry whispered. “Let it come fully onto the needle, Lydwyna, and make sure you don’t touch it with your fingers.” In the background, Eldry continued her slow chant. “Come to me, come to me.”

The glob elongated itself to curl around the needle, absorbing the heat of the needle to the extent that Lydwyna was startled. “Eldry, the needle is cooling off quickly and the . . . thing is growing more agitated.”

Her aunt turned to Junia who opened her blouse to expose her smooth neck and left shoulder. “Better you should not have to do this at all,” Junia flashed. On the needle, the scar-guest stirred restlessly as if seeking another warm home in human flesh.

Eldry spoke sharply. “Enough. You’re finished with that now. We’ve got to go on. The scar-guest is not going to last long outside here. If we don’t get it into flesh soon, it will start to corrupt and that will kill your mother from the inside out.”

Against the white of Junia’s skin, the newly formed scar wriggled down its reddening path toward her heart, leaving an angry swollen trail behind. Junia looked close to fainting but bit her lips and nodded.

“It will fade in time, child,” Eldry consoled as she staunched the slow seepage of blood from Meralda’s breast with a shred of linen. She used her curved upholstery needle to stitch the wound’s edges closed. “That too will heal in time and the color will fade also, my friend. So will your daughter’s scar as you forgive each other.”

Without uttering a word, Junia stifled back the threat of tears, buttoned her blouse over her newly scarred neck, and followed her mother out of the cottage into the pale twilight of evening.

#  #  #

When the two spinsters were alone at last, Lydwyna reheated the soup from lunchtime and sliced the bread. Without complaint she gave Eldry a wry look before asking, “The sins of the flesh are more easily forgiven, aren’t they, Eldry?”

Her aunt slowed her eating abruptly before she answered. “The Good Mother forgives such sins because she loves all children, even children who come into this world before society’s approval. Yes, indeed, Lydwyna, she forgives easily.” She dipped her last morsel of bread into her soup, patted her mouth, and sat up. “The Good Mother forgives such sins but I don’t. Keep that in mind.”

Lydwyna turned to her in consternation. “Eldry, how can you imagine such a thing of me?”

Her aunt merely smiled.

“I only ask,” the younger spinster insisted, “because Junia told me that, while it seemed an unforgiveable act for her mother to endure, it seemed so right at the time. She never thought love would damage the family’s honor for such an innocent mistake?”

Eldry was beginning to show her exhaustion from the procedure but her voice remained strong. “Do the conditions make the reality of the act any less wrong? When any action causes loss to another, it is wrong in some way. Meralda has always prided herself on her family’s honor. Junia broke that trust and Meralda couldn’t accept that easily. Junia should have known that. And yet she ignored that.”

“Yet you’ve always said that Junia comes from good stock, a good family.” Lydwyna concluded pensively.

“Yes, Junia will be strong enough to bear the scar that her mother had formed.”

Lydwyna persisted. “You’ve always said that a loving heart always finds it easier to bear someone else’s scar, especially if that someone you love caused it.”

Eldry did not answer immediately. Her hands reached for the porcelain darning egg in her work basket and slipped a stocking over it, exposing the waiting gap in the yarn. The oil lamp flickered for a moment as a gust of rain rattled the thatched roof. Suddenly Eldry raised her hands from her darning to slip her wrinkled fingers under the diffused glow of the oil lamp.

The unusual movement caught Lydwyna’s attention. She turned her aunt’s worn hands over to see what she had never noticed before – small scars and nicks and blemishes intertwined in the older woman’s wrinkled skin. She drew back in horror. “They’re my sins?” she accused. “Those scars. You always said they were from pinpricks from your years of sewing.”

Eldry smiled. “A few sins perhaps mixed in with a few of my own. But they are small and perhaps in time they will fade altogether.” The older spinster sat up abruptly, energized. “Now let’s get back to work, child.”

Anne K. Kaler, Ph.D. As a founder  and senior editor of the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center Press, Anne welcomes queries, problems, short edits, and longer developmental edits sent to her email
During her professional teaching career, Anne wrote, delivered, and published many academic articles, published three academic books, published occasional magazine articles, wrote four unpublished novels, too many poems, and is now paying for her sins by trying to extract a clean copy of her writings for those who come after her.