The Patchwork Quilt
By Sandra Arnold
When Marianne found she was pregnant at the age of forty-five, she took her grandmother’s quilting bag out of its box in the attic.
She brought out her own bag of scraps that she’d saved from her favourite childhood dresses, teenage ball gowns, material she’d sewn into clothes and cushions from bazaars in India, the Middle East, and markets in Africa and Europe. Each piece contained a story. She spread all the pieces on the floor and cut them into small squares, then, with her grandmother’s needles, she began to sew a patchwork quilt. Every evening, through spring, summer and autumn, she sat sewing in her grandmother’s leather chair and told her unborn child the stories.
She was standing at Grandpa’s knee with her two brothers, begging him to take his eye out. Grandpa bent his head and, with a deft twist of his wrist, out popped the eye. It lay in his open palm and goggled at the three children, while they gasped and persuaded him to talk of fighting in the trenches and the Germans shooting him in the eye and going to hospital and the doctors saving one eye and putting a glass one in the empty socket and the nurse writing his letters to grandma for him and putting sloppy bits in that he would never have thought of.
With her brothers, Marianne sat on the rag rug and sucked on the sweets Grandpa shared with them from the stash given to him each day by the school children he shepherded across the road with his red STOP sign. “Don’t tell grandma, or she’ll say I’m ruining your teeth.” Then he loosened his dentures and clattered them in his jaw, and Marianne and her brothers fell around laughing, and toffee juice spilled on her blue gingham dress.
With tiny stitches, Marianne sewed the blue gingham square next to a darker blue that had been the pocket of the apron grandma wore when she sewed, her needle flashing in and out of the squares while she told Marianne their stories. Green velvet from the dress some travelling actors had given her when she was seventeen and which she’d worn to meet grandpa in secret because he was a Catholic. Lilac silk from her wedding that all his relatives had boycotted because she wasn’t Catholic. White satin from the christening robe of her babies, including the three who had died. Marianne added purple corduroy from the dungarees she’d worn to collect eggs and, afterwards, sit in the sun with the hens pecking the earth, and no sound but the breeze and the hens’ breathing, and Grandma saying that ancient Egyptians, Eskimos, Aztecs and Indians believed wind, breath and spirit were the same thing. Listening to a creature breathing, she said, was how you connected with its soul. Marianne asked her how she knew, and she said Marianne would find out for herself.
As autumn slid into winter, Marianne sewed the final patch from the red dress she’d worn to Grandma’s funeral because she’d promised Grandma she wouldn’t wear black. With all the stories stitched in place, the quilt was ready.
When she brought Chloe home from the hospital, she laid her in the cot and wrapped her in the quilt. “These stories are in your blood and bones,” she said. “They’ll sustain you until you’re ready to add your own.”
For Chloe’s first outing, Marianne wrapped her in the quilt and tucked her in the pram. Outside the bank, she wondered if she should take the pram inside, but the bank was small, and there was no room to manoeuvre wheels. So she pulled on the brake, checked that Chloe was still asleep, darted in the doorway, cashed her cheque and hurried out.
In the pale light of early winter, shoppers scuttled past, huddled against the cold, their breath forming clouds on the frozen air. Cyclists swathed in scarves dodged around cars. Music drifted from a nearby cafe with aromas of steaming coffee. Marianne reached out her hand to check the baby. Her hand touched empty space. She pulled the pram cover back, the merino blankets, and patted her hand down the mattress, as if Chloe might somehow be hidden there. Then, she opened her mouth to call for help, but the words had no breath.
The following hours were consumed by police, phone calls, visitors bringing food and flowers. Her brothers, her friends and her neighbours joined in the search. Marianne lay on the couch trying to breathe.
No one had seen a person walking away from the bank with a baby. The police searched hospital records for women who’d recently given birth, whose babies had died. It was very common in such circumstances, they said, that women went insane with grief. They would put an appeal on television. They would ask people to come forward if they knew of a relative or neighbour who had suddenly appeared with a newborn.
Early next morning, a man walking his dog in the park heard a mewling. He thought it was an abandoned kitten, until he looked behind a bush and saw a shopping bag with a baby inside wrapped in a quilt.
The baby was dehydrated, the doctors said. She’d been lying in the park all night. Luckily the quilt had kept her alive, but only just.
Because of the tubes attached to Chloe, Marianne couldn’t hold her, so she tucked the quilt around her body and told her the new story of two young girls who stole a baby and panicked and left her alone in a park. When she finished the story, she listened to Chloe breathing. She matched the rhythm with her own breath and her own heartbeat.
Sandra Arnold is a New Zealand novelist, short story and non-fiction writer with a PhD in Creative Writing. Her work has been widely published, broadcast and anthologised, and she has won and been shortlisted for several literary awards. She was the recipient of the 2014 Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writers Residency, the winner of the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition, and was shortlisted for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship and an Honourable Contender for the 2016 Bristol Prize. A finalist in the July Flash500 competition and the September Zeroflash competition, she has also had her flash fiction published in Jellyfish Review, Flash Frontier, Flashflood, Fewer than 500, Headland, Olentangy Review, Zeroflash and forthcoming from The Linnet’s Wings, Story Shack and Fictive Dream.