This quilt would never be finished. The thought occurred to Clara without particular surprise, as naturally as to reflect upon the temperature or the subtle, dull ache in her fingers as she continued her aimless work. The tired, old woman felt in every fragile bone that she would die in this chair long before the last square in her hideous creation would be sewn. Despite the fact that her quilt was ugly and irregular, and despite as well that she knew this, Clara Wilson continued her careful, practiced work, determined to use every scrap of fabric that had haunted the bottom of her sewing bag, some bits for nearly thirty-five years. She was utterly comfortable here, shrouding the old house's imprecise memories about her as an old, familiar shawl against the cold. This was the very house she and Jason had chosen as their "dream home;" the very house where she had lived a long-but too short-marriage with him; the very house where she had raised three children; the very house where she knew she would spend the rest of her days. This knowledge she bore no longer as a burden; rather she now found it a comfort.
Loving Jason had been natural. They had grown up together, and had shared the silly games children do. As older children they had hated each other, and any memories of playing Hide-and-Seek and Hill Dill together were ignored or strategically forgotten by both. As adolescents they had dated, haltingly at first, later with more enthusiasm. As adults they had married and begun a life together. They grew together, lived together and loved together; later they had suffered together. All counted, Clara certainly regretted not one minute of the thirty three years, four months and two days that they had been together in marriage. Sitting and stitching, profoundly silent and still in her once expensive Chippendale wing chair, she thought as she often did that given the choice, she would gladly have signed up for thirty three years, four months and two days more. But that damned heart of his, Clara reflected bitterly, after all these years still angry at his body for mutinously abandoning him. And still she sewed the quilt she did not want.
It had not been easy for them, not ever, she thought while finishing another square quilted panel. That first hard winter had taken its toll, and Jeremy had died with pneumonia. When young Laura had succumbed to polio, the blow had been almost unbearable. Many families had lost the young and old during that vicious, killing blizzard that had claimed Jeremy, but Laura had gone so unexpectedly. They had been cautiously unemotional after that, both of them, she thought.
Jason Junior had been but an infant at the time, and they had poured all of their love into him. He grew up not only for himself, but for the siblings he had never really known. But before he had seen the first of his teen years through, he left their world as abruptly and unexpectedly as he had arrived; a bizarre accident had claimed their only child. When heart failure claimed the only one Clara had left to love, she was left utterly alone, and she couched herself in the familiar confines of what had once been their dream home, disdaining to leave for even a day except to make her weekly purchases. More than that other thirty three years, four months and two days she desired to have had with Jason had slyly slipped by her since his death, and with each passing year and each passing of another of the few friends she still remembered, Clara kept more and more to herself and her private, shrouded world of this house, of her memories. Of late she rarely even left this chair on which Jason had spent more than they could afford; he had foolhardily done this one birthday of hers because, seeing it in an antique store window, she had remarked upon its beauty and elegance. Of course, that shop had closed years ago when the proprietor had been charged with falsifying the provenance of some old item or another. She wanted to giggle at the thought of that odious man-now dead-and of her poor, sweet, gullible Jason. Instead, she covered the laugh with a cough-the neighbors thought she was crazy and senile as it was, and it wouldn't do at all to offer them proof of her infirmity. She knew of their ideas, that they wanted to take her house away from her, and that they watched her constantly. They were watching her even now, despite the hour, and she dared not turn her head toward the rustling she heard at the window. Mustn't have them know she knew what they were up to.
She often heard Laura wailing at night, a desperate, miserable keening, just as she had when polio had taken her that year. Clara had long since abandoned tiptoeing back to her bedroom to comfort her. She invariably hid when Mother came. Laura always was the playful one. Oh, how she had tormented Jeremy with her pranks. The crying resumed and, as it often did, grew a measure louder when she refused to abandon her chair.
"Shh, Laura, dear; go back to sleep," she heard herself saying, and marveled at the withered, low crackle her voice had become. She recalled her own grandmother and the deep gravel of her voice late in life, and wondered how she might be doing now. All at once she realized she had spoken and wondered whom she would be addressing in her old, empty house. Her daughter. Laura was her daughter, and she was sick with polio. There was nothing a mother could do about that, she thought with a sour grimace and a sigh, and returned to her quilting. The doctor had come yesterday and he'd reassured them that polio was rarely dangerous anymore. The anguished wails grew more fervent, and the old woman knew Laura must be hallucinating with the fever. And still she sewed the quilt she did not want.
The orange fabric finally ended itself, and Clara fished about concernedly for a moment, then abruptly recalled that this had been the last of the orange left from a pumpkin costume she had knitted for Jeremy many years ago. She selected a dusty piece of a now faded greenish hue and resumed her work. The old clock began to chime, and Clara granted it a glance. It would chime eleven more peals as she dropped her head again to the irregular quilt. The crying asserted itself once again, and the clamor was increasingly difficult to ignore.
"Laura!" she called out in exasperation. "Shh! You're dead! Dead, hear me?! Now be still child, please." Clara sat as still as she was able then, and waited. Silence, complete and unbroken. She could hear the oblivious crickets outside chirping in the night, and the sound of the icebox noisily doing its work in the kitchen. From the bedrooms, nothing. And why should there be a sound in the old house? Surely the neighbors had gone to bed by now. She began to stitch again in the quiet, and wondered what her outburst had been about. She had no idea why she might have to yell, and concluded that she must be tired, and should likely retire soon. It certainly would not be the thing for her neighbors to hear-her screaming at the empty walls like some lunatic. It was after midnight, yet she knew they were watching, keeping their prying noses just beyond her sight. She never saw them, but she knew they were there. She redoubled her effort to avoid looking at the spies she couldn't see. And still she sewed the quilt she did not want.
Two hours had passed since she had decided to quit the parlor and sleep for the first night in weeks in her own bed instead of the old Chippendale wing chair that the fat fellow at the carpenter's had horribly overstuffed when she'd had it reupholstered so long ago. It was blue now, although she seemed to recall asking the fat man for white. Silly, she thought: it was blue, so that must have been the color all along. Her memory played tricks on her so often these days. Still she stitched away, now with a scrap of lavender cloth she had saved in case the shirt she had made for Jason Junior had ever needed mending. Of course it never had, she reflected with a surge of bitterness she was surprised to feel so strongly after all these years. People died, and there was nothing to be done about that. Rather, she should be annoyed about the kitchen cupboards, she decided. Never in his short life had Jason Junior figured out how to put dishes away in the same place twice. The memory brought a small curve to her lips as she threaded the needle again. She would get so aggravated when looking for her dishes, but every time she did, his bright, ingenuous eyes had evaporated her ire. So many years had passed, and somehow, he still could not put things away properly. She was certain each night to wash her supper dishes and put them away each in the correct place and yet, each morning, she would have to hunt for the very same items and move them again. A time had passed when she had feared she was doing these odd things herself-putting things in strange places with fatigue and forgetting she had done it. Lately however, she felt certain that she was not responsible for all this mischief, that in fact, Jason Junior was still misplacing her dishes out of a long habit or, perhaps, because it used to make her smile. Naturally, she had kept these odd occurrences to herself, as she did the strange echoes in the hall and the cold drafts of wind inside the house even in midsummer. No sense in giving those odious spies the fuel they sought to incarcerate her and take her beloved home. She belonged here, with her family and her possessions.
Jason walked in. She stared unbelievingly at the apparition of her fondest desires. Watching him walk, her mouth fell open. She consciously closed it back again.
"It-it's been so long," she managed to say, her dusty voice cracking, tears coming to her eyes.
"I'm home, Petunia," he said blankly, automatically, as if not even seeing her in her favorite old chair before him. Petunia. He hadn't called her that in years. He had been gone for years. She wondered if it had all been a bad dream, if her Jason had been here all along. She glanced down at the gnarled things her hands had become, and decided that indeed, the years had passed as she remembered. When she again looked up he was headed to his den. He would not get in, at least, not through the doorway. She had locked off that room and its painful memories decades ago. She idly wondered what ruin had beset his things in there over all these years. Damn his heart, she thought. And still she sewed the quilt she did not want.
As Clara Wilson drowsed uneasily in her chair, her sewing box close at hand for when she would awaken, she dreamed of Jason, of Jeremy, Laura and Jason Junior. Her family that had left her alone here. She dreamed of their downcast faces, crying and asking why she had left them. Confused and distraught, she trembled in her birthday chair, dreaming, sleeping, but resting not at all. She found herself walking through her home as an eerie light filled the old walls. Jason Junior was in the kitchen moving the dishes around. They were all wrong, of course, but as always, she hadn't the heart to tell him. Suddenly, she found herself in Laura's bedroom, where the girl was reading on the dusty bed. Such a good girl, reading when she was so ill. As her daughter moved, the smell of mildewed mattresses wafted up at Clara, and she turned her head to see she was back in the parlor. She found Jeremy lying on the floor there and watching the old television. His bloody coughing marked her clean floorboards, but she paid this little mind. She had obviously gone insane, she decided, and therefore the wood would be fine when Jeremy decided to leave again. She abruptly decided to see the den she had kept locked for so many years, and when her arthritis failed to slow her pace she relaxed, certain now that she must be dreaming. The door she always kept locked was slightly ajar, but comforted by her deduction that she was safely asleep in her chair, she paid this oddity no mind and walked into the old room. Jason was in there, seated on the spare bed. His hunched shoulders and sad face as he stared down at something in his lap blocked from her view gave him the appearance she sometimes fancied he might have gained as an older man. She spoke his name softly, but he pretended not to hear and continued to concentrate on something she could not see. She distractedly thought that he pretended ignorance almost as well as she when those terrible neighbors were watching. What a pair of old fogeys they might have been if she hadn't been left all alone. As he resolvedly turned his head as if to get up, she noticed that his face had become exactly the older Jason she had imagined so often. Wizened and balding, he still cut a striking figure to her eyes, which moistened at the realization she had never gotten those thirty three years, four months and two days in which to watch him grow older, in which to grow old together. He rose to reveal a hideous quilt that sat tauntingly across most of the bed. As he erected himself, she wondered whether the missing corner had been torn by one of the children.
She had not been in this den in thirty-five years, but it seemed slightly awry from the room she remembered and had so long avoided. The office before her now was decorated with pictures she had never seen. Framed photographs, of all things, lined the walls of the old den. Sheer vanity, she thought with a glimmer of her old strong-willed self. She did not believe in cluttering up a place with silly pictures, and certainly did not allow pictures to be taken of her. She would not contribute to cluttering someone else's walls either, she thought, and the beginnings of a smirk touched her lips. As Jason went to the wall and replaced what had been in his lap-one of the framed pictures-she looked over his shoulder at the other frames. They were curious, holding pictures of two men she had never met who were obviously kin to Jason and of a woman who looked rather like Clara herself when she had been younger. She had to step back with a little start to get out of the way when Jason suddenly turned and fled the room.
Torn between following this strange apparition of an older Jason and seeing what had so captured his attention, Clara froze for a moment as caught in amber, then turned and shuffled to the wall to inspect the picture. Her brow furrowed in confusion as she saw the pleasant gold frame held a yellowed newspaper clipping. Damn my eyes, she thought, straining to see the faded picture and read the tiny words. Her curiosity deepened as she spied the hated picture of herself taken when she was a young girl-one of the very few pictures ever taken of Clara-and she cocked her head thinking, trying desperately to remember when she had ever been in the news, or even why. She remembered the picture well enough, the photograph she had always kept hidden at the bottom of her sewing kit as a reminder against the folly of portraiture. Although she had barely been six, the day this abomination had been made was forever burned in her mind. He father had come running into the tenement crying out for Mother to fetch Clara and dress her quick; a traveling photographer was passing! Before she knew what had happened, Clara found herself in her best dress, set on a pony and obeying a command to watch a bird on a stick issuing from a strange man with a black cloth over his head. There was a flash, some words exchanged between the man and Father and, a few days later, that terrible picture.
To a small girl, it soon seemed her parents starved themselves for that wretched picture. Food became scarce, Father struggled to find work, Mother fought to put food on the table, and one after another bits of their happy home were sold to do so, all but that picture, that ridiculous picture of little Clara perched atop a tiny beast of burden charged with pulling the man's cart and posing with children. As an adult, she learned that the hard times had hit everyone that year, but she had never been able to separate the print from the lean years it harbingered. She had scrupulously eschewed all forms of cameras ever since. Yet there she was, her shiny cherubic face and that poor, indentured pony, not just on display, but apparently first publicized in the news!
As she searched for some shred of memory to indicate how the paper could have gotten hold of the shameful image, her eyes caught a bit of the article: "Clara Anne Fitzgerald Wilson, 51, died today from heart failure after a long battle with pneumonia following a freak accident last year. Surviving are..."
Aged fifty-one? That was thirty-five years ago, she thought. Again she regarded the photographs of her children taken in their adulthood. "Surviving are..." The words burned in her mind as the strength evaporated from her legs, and she quietly sat down upon the quilt that was never finished.