Halloween was this past Wednesday. So, for #WordingWednesdays in my online writing group on MeWe,
we used this picture prompt. It is a tapestry titled The Unicorn in Captivity, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Here is my short story, written with Halloween in mind.
Old Lady of the Loom
“But, Papa, I want a real one!”
“Esmeralda, we’ve been over this before.” I said, for at least the hundredth time in her five years of life.
“It’s not a myth,” my young daughter said adamantly. “I’ve seen one in my dreams. It told me it was real.” She sat down on a pink fuzzy stool nestled in the corner under five rows of corner shelves. Each row displayed her collection — a myriad of unicorns from stuffed and furry to statuesque to encased in a water globe.
“We bought you that life-size mechanical unicorn last Christmas,” I reasoned, “and you never play with it.”
“Because it stinks. The hair smells funny and the legs move too slow.” Esmeralda frowned, crossing her arms and tucking her chin.
“Mon petit.” I went to her and knelt down. Taking her small hands in mine, I spoke softly. “I cannot give you what I cannot acquire.”
“You could sell the tapestry!” Her face lit up, clearly not understanding it wasn’t all about money, although it kinda was.
I looked back at the centuries-old inherited tapestry. The Unicorn in Captivity, as it was titled, covered the whole wall behind her canopied bed. It once had hung in my own bedroom. I remember, as a child, it had made me feel safe hanging above my bed. The long horn in the center of it’s forehead was a weapon that would protect me well through the night, and it seemed as if the corralled unicorn looked happy, contented in it’s confinement. The fence garnered it from harm and Grand-mère confirmed that. She said it represented the seclusion of the mythical beast and it remained safely elusive from the world because of this very tapestry. I liked that interpretation. My ancestors had long since given our tapestries to museums, but this one … nobody seemed to want it. So, I kept it and gave it a home.
I never understood why it was unwanted, until I got older. I’d overheard odd whisperings from the villagers that the beauty of this particular one was marred by evil. Grand-mère had said it was just jealous rumors, made up and passed down through the centuries. “It’s not bewitched, child, nor made by the hands of a weaver who practiced the dark arts. Okay, yes … one is beguiled just by looking at it’s beauty, but in no way it there malice hidden — woven — into those threads. How could there be? It’s sheer innocence.”
Satisfied with that, I never gave it another thought.
Until now, actually.
I sighed and looked back at Esme. So sweet, so frail, with brown eyes too big for her tiny face. I watched tears well up in them and sighed again, “Esme, s’il vous plâit … I will look for a real white horse for your birthday. Yes?”
“No!” She screamed, stomping the floor. She ran into her bathroom and I heard the door lock. Soon the sobbing begin, followed by hiccups, then the uncontrollable coughing.
She was making herself sick again. Cursing for not taking that lock off the bathroom door, I left her bedroom to get the tools I kept nearby in my bedroom closet. I returned and began taking the door off the hinges.
In the days that followed, my concern for Esmeralda’s health grew. She had always been frail with respiratory problems, but since the last episode, she had taken to refusing to eat as well. She was becoming extremely ill. She had to be hospitalized.
And I became a desperate father. Her comment about the tapestry got me thinking. Perhaps it was time to get rid of it. The sell would bring a fortune to the right collector. But first, I needed to obtain more history on it to broaden the interest. What if it could be proven it was made by a local witch or warlock? There’s a market for the macabre. It brings top dollar. Perhaps it would bring enough to buy the horse, maintain it’s upkeep, and the rest could go toward unforeseen medical expenses Esme might have in the future.
I made the obligatory call to Julie, Esme’s mom and my ex-wife, to beg for her availability to babysit Esme for the time I would be away. She wasn’t happy about it, but then, Julie wasn’t ever happy about anything involving being a mother and accommodating me at the same time. She said she had an open house and two other properties under contract, blah blah blah. So, I fibbed,–knowing she’d never agree to missing work for researching shenanigans of a potential urban legend—I told her I was going to look at property for sale. The realtor in her acquiesced when the mother in her would not, and in the end, she grudgingly agreed to call her mother to help out with Esme for the next two weeks.
The coming days were hectic as I spent precious time preparing to return to the old country of my birth, to the French village of Pérouges. My stomach churned at that thought of resurrecting those old whispered rumors I’d found horrific as a child. I forced it out of my mind and took down the tapestry, rolled it, wrapped it in plastic, and made arrangements to have it shipped to the quaint inn I reserved for my stay.
I was the only one driving on the narrow winding road in the open countryside. The river stayed to my left and if I stopped the car I knew I would hear it. I could see the medieval stone wall surrounding the village in the distance. The air in the valley was crisp and pure and I rolled down my window all the way, allowing the mixture of familiar scents to open the floodgates of childhood memories. The freshly cut fields of grass and grains, the musk of farm animals and manure, the earthiness of mossy stones around the river, and the twang of rusting metal of nearby farm equipment brought forth thoughts of another time; a time of swords made of sticks, bicycle steeds, and bedsheet forts.
The small village looked like it had been frozen in time, with thatched roofed cottages, cobbled streets and flowered ivies crawling up crumbling stone structures. It was if I should be drawing a carriage to a halt, instead of finding a parking space for my rental in front of the Wild Boar Inn and Pub. I’d be lying it I said I wasn’t happy to be here.
My native language rolled off my tongue with familiarity and the bartender was helpful. He recognized my surname, would keep watch for my package to arrive, and was more than happy to keep my mug full. I was glad for the liquid courage needed to ask him about the old wives’s tale and if he knew of any weavers in the area who still practiced the art of tapestry. He looked cautiously at me and said he knew nothing of any strange talk about tapestries, but as for a weaver, I might try the barn and cottage by the river north of town. He thought there used to be an old woman who wove baskets and such for sale. Said he didn’t know if she was still there, as that was a year or so ago and he had no cause to do business with her. But he knew the building still stood. I thanked him and turned in for the night, hopeful with this new information.
I drove right by the property the first time as both structures were half hidden, cloistered by overgrowth of wild foliage, and the barn was in dire need of painting.
No one answered when I knocked at the cottage door, so I tried the side door of the barn. A sign out front read “Open For Business. Please Enter.” I pushed open the door and went inside.
Other than the expected large central room, gone was the inside of a barn in the traditional sense. The smell was a mixture of dust and oily chemicals with a hint of herbs. On the twenty foot walls hung oil paintings and tapestries of all kinds. Egyptian scenes, medieval battles, landscapes, portraits, Viking ships, bustling turn-of-the-century industrial cities, and one in particular captured my attention and I wandered to it in the middle of the room.
It was an unfinished tapestry still on the giant vertical loom the size of my car. A long mirror was placed horizontally directly in front of it and behind it was the oil painting identical to the form on the loom. The weaver would be able to see the painting in the mirror as she worked. Color for color the tapestry matched the vivid painting depicting a heavenly battle of demons and angels, twirling together in the air, a pictorial Paradise Lost brought to life. I tore my eyes from it and felt a cold breeze, a draft enter the vast room.
“Hello,” I shouted. I forgot myself, then switched to, “Bonjour.”
Soon, I heard a slow shuffle. It echoed from a room somewhere in the back of the building, and from the gait I could tell it would take that person awhile to reach me. I looked around for a chair to wait and opted to sit among a pair of muddied galoshes underneath a worn work coat on a bench by the entrance.
Eventually, an ancient form appeared. It was beyond old; hunched over with odd bumps and humps only the very old possess. It looked at me. There were wrinkles inside of wrinkles, framed by white tufts sticking out from a brown felt hat. He/she looked scarecrow-esque, and it walked with such an effort, as if forcing legs to move one in front of the other would be a full days work. I got up and walked past the huge loom. I repeated a greeting loudly with an outstretched hand. ‘It’ turned out to be a ‘her’, an old woman in a pair of outdated wool work pants and thin flannel shirt.
“I know who you are,” she said, before I could introduce myself. She spoke through gums, lisp-like, that held—maybe five teeth, if that many. “Have you brought the tapestry?”
“Uh … “ I frowned, was taken aback but managed, “Have we met?”
For an answer, she waved a bony wrist in the air. Her knuckles were swollen and fingers bent to one side in an arthritic fan. She shuffled to the stool in front of the demons and angels. She sat down and picked up a wooden bobbin the length of my hand. She unwound the wool thread and deftly wove it in between the rows of taught vertical strings. Her fingers were deceivingly nimble, moving in and out between each string, then tap-tap-tapped the pointed end of the bobbin, tamping the thread down tightly into the weave. She was making a new row of color. I could see it was slow and tedious work, to be sure, but she worked with the agility of a much younger person.
“Takes me about two years to finish one this size.” She offered.
Regaining my voice, I said as much, mumbling something about the rows being the minuscule thickness of the thread must make it tough to finish a piece quickly.
“It’s called the weft.” She corrected.
“It’s thread when you dye it and wind it on the bobbin,” she wiped spittle from the corner of her mouth, “but when it’s used in the tapestry, it becomes the weft.” There must have been hundreds of bobbins hanging loosely down from the half-finished point of the tapestry, all in colors of the painting behind her.
“What did you say your name was?” I asked.
“I feel at a disadvantage. You say you know who I am, and that I own a tapestry, yet I’ve never met you.” A pregnant moment of silence hung in the air between us as I watched her continue to work. I wondered if she heard me.
Finally, she sighed and stood up. “My name’s not important. Most people just call me Old Lady of the Loom, and I’m fine with that. I make and collect one-of-kind tapestries and paintings, as you can see.” She presented the room with a wave of her bent arm. “Now, Mr. Jacque Marchand, of the the eighteenth century Marchands, you’ve come home. And what is it you want from me?”
I didn’t have a chance to answer before she said, “Come.” I followed her slowly to a side room by the front door.
It had only enough space for a ragged sofa, a floor lamp behind it, an old armchair and one end table between them. She excused herself, was gone for quite awhile, returning with a tray of tea and scones.
“Now.” She said, breathlessly setting the tray on the table. “Talk to me.”
I cleared my throat and began speaking as she poured our tea. I told of the rumors I’d heard as a child regarding my family’s tapestry. I told her of my daughter’s obsession with unicorns, of her health problems, and about needing to buy a white horse as soon as I could raise the funds.
I ended with “So, I’m here to ask if you know any more history behind the tapestry. If there is any truth to the the evil tales, as the market for collectors will double if I can prove anything macabre is attached to it, as disturbing as that sounds. I have to get top dollar for it before auction. For Esmerelda.”
Her eyes were shaded by the hat and she had not moved in the chair for several minutes. I thought perhaps she had dozed off but just then she rubbed her mouth and set the empty cup down. When she looked up at me, I saw an interested spark in her eyes. She looked as if weighing what to say next. Finally, she spoke.
“I can’t help you with getting a white horse for your daughter.” She said, and my hopes crashed. “But.” She added, “What if I told you, in exchange for the tapestry, I could give you the real thing. A unicorn?”
My jaw dropped. Surely, I had heard her wrong, or she was rambling still in a daydream from moments ago. I cleared my throat. “Well, — um — now that’s just silly, isn’t it?” I squelched a laugh, seeing she was serious. And she went on about it.
“I can tell you time mangles the truth. Adds falsehoods, takes away facts. It’s not an tale, Mr. Marchand. I know this because I was the one who cast the spell forcing unicorns into becoming the mythical beast we know it to be.” I could not have been more surprised had she said she was Tinkerbell. I could only gape at her. She cackled and added, “I don’t look too bad for several hundred years old, do I?”
I mechanically shook my head and this time did laugh, a huge guffaw that didn’t dwindle until I saw her face, her stone hard and unrelenting stare. For politeness and the sake of argument, I quieted and tried to wrap my head around her words. Swallowing hard, I regained my composure and asked, “You — you can’t be serious. I’m sure you meant your ancestor perhaps made my tapestry?”
She shook her head and squished her lips together. It made her chin touch the end of her nose.
I didn’t know what to do with this information. Should I just hope that her senility will vanquish my visit from her mind and carry on with creating my own version of urban legend for the buyers? Could I risk it? What if it backfired? If I tried to pass off this– absurd tidbit — as history just for the sake of a few thousand extra bucks and was found out, I could end up a laughing stock, probably proclaimed certifiable, and the tapestry ruled a fake. It would be a no sale.
“I’m dead serious.” She said, and rubbed her hands together. Why, she was mad. She truly believed this preposterousness.
“And, this is what we will do.” She planned. “Your tapestry will become mine again. I will make a new one for you; one depicting a single unicorn running free toward a little girl. The unicorn will find her. If you do exactly as I tell you.”
That settled it. She was insane. I knew without a doubt I would get only minimum for the piece now. I couldn’t possibly attach anything that had to do with her and risk her showing up to decree this– this madness! Not now. Not ever. I rose to leave.
“Let me ask you,” she said. “Do you see your daughter living a long healthy life?”
I remained silent, but looked her angrily in the eyes. Mine started watering and my voice was unsteady, heavy with emotion. “That’s a cruel thing to say, old woman. You know from what I told you, I do not.”
“Do you think, in her short life, you would do whatever it takes to give her happiness?”
Tears broke free from my eyes and I could only nod this time, gritting my teeth. I’m done with this. I turned for the door ready to be free from this place.
“Then listen to me, Mr. Marchand.” Her voice turned deadly.
With my hand on the doorknob, I looked back at her. Her eyes were feverishly bright, her face flushed as she sat on the edge of the chair.
“You see the hangings on these walls? I have helped many throughout the centuries attain their desires. Some wanted shallow riches, revenge. Others a life resurrected, and still others eternal life of their own.” She watched my face closely for a reaction. I gave her none.
She went on. “To release the unicorn and break the spell, requires a huge payment from you. What length would you go to give your daughter a long happy life?”
“You’re mad.” I opened the door.
“It takes a life for a life.” She said, stopping my exit. I wanted to leave but found I was morbidly interested in how far she would go with this. And just maybe some part of me wanted to believe her, that she, that I, had the power to help Esme. So, I listened.
“I’ll require wool from an albino alpaca to make the vertical thread lines for the loom.” She continued, and shuffled to me.
“And as for the other—the life has to be someone related to the child. I will need all the body fluids to dye the weft: the blood, the bile, the excrement, and flesh to boil down.
“But if you want your daughter healthy,” she held up a crooked finger. “I will need the lungs, heart and liver as well.” Her face had a sheen of sweat and drool threatened to drop from a corner of her toothless smile.
I looked at her in dumbfounded horror. “Do you even hear yourself — what you’re saying? What you’re asking of me? You’re not only insane, you’re — evil incarnate!”
“Am I?” she cackled loud and long as I ran out the door. She shouted from the threshold, “You’ll be back. And I’ll be here.”
I was still shaking after three shots of whiskey at the inn. I couldn’t stop thinking about the old hag’s words.
But what if it were true? All of it? Could the rumors be true? That my tapestry was made of blood–I wanted to puke. I had to find out the truth.
There was a way … but I would have to wait for the tapestry to arrive.
I took the tapestry to an old friend, Martin Bernard, who, last I heard, headed the archaeology department at Panthéon-Sorbonne, a distinguished University in Paris. I asked him if there was a way to analyze the dye in the thread of the tapestry without compromising its integrity. I told him I was looking to sell it and wanted to know how close he could get to the date of origin and the medium used for the dyes during that time period. I added that I simply wanted a final sale with no surprises from the buyer afterwards. He was familiar with the piece from our childhood sleepovers and said he would be happy to see what he could do.
A week later, he called. “Where in the world has this tapestry been?” He asked, laughing, then added jokingly. “If I didn’t know you’d better, I’d think I might need to call the police.” I held my breath, not able to respond. He went on. “I found traces of human blood, human bile, urine and feces. Oh, and skin cells along with plant cells used for the dyes are consistent with the time period of the seventeenth century. I guess your family has put it through the mill over the years, huh, Jacque?
“Yes, I … guess so,” I laughed, weakly.
“I don’t think it would deter buyers, though,” he said, “Just the opposite, I should think.”
“Yes, well … Thank you, Martin. I’ll drive up tomorrow. What do I owe you?”
“Eh, bring me a bottle of wine from the vineyards there and we’ll call it even. Happy to help you out, my friend.”
I was calmer than I thought after the initial news had time to sink in.
And I was calm when I called Julie to fly overseas, at my expense of course. She was flattered, as I expected, that I needed her professional expertise on “the property” I was a looking to buy here in France. I told her living in the country weather might be good for Esme. And, yes, but of course, after the sale I would fly her and her mom over any time they wanted.
I smiled when I hung up the phone. The albino alpaca had arrived and Julie would be here in less than forty-eight hours, I calculated.
And, not long after that, six hours at the most, I surmised the old crone would start dyeing the new wool weft for the tapestry.
By the time I fly home, Esme should be feeling much better.
And by the time I deal with her mother, the sell of the house, pack, the moving arrangements, find some land with a cottage, and lastly get Esme and I settled in, the tapestry should be half finished.
And by the time Esme starts second grade, the tapestry should be completely finished. The Old Lady and I decided on a title for the new tapestry. It will be called, The Unicorn’s Release.
And sometime during her summer break, Esme will have her unicorn.
Written by Ronda K. Reed
©️ October 2018