content warning: mentions domestic violence
I started drawing for my husband before he became my husband.
RESPECTED ARCHAEOLOGIST SEEKS STUDENT SKILLED WITH A PENCIL TO DOCUMENT RECENT FINDS. PLEASE SEEK DR RAMSEY TRAQUAIR AT 17 MILLHOLLOW STREET.
So it began. Ramsey, out there on the beach, trowel in hand, hunting for fossils – myself perched on a bench or a soft patch of grass waiting for him. Listening closely to his talk of Darwin’s theories and the great discoveries he was sure to make. Dreaming of becoming a true artist one day, not merely an illustrator.
Before either of us knew it – or perhaps before I knew it – short conversations on the surf became meetings in his office at the university, became dinner at my parents’ house (Oh to have a gentleman in our home! A scientist no less!), became a ring on my finger and a ticket from the Irish coast to the streets of Edinburgh with his new professorship.
Just as the earth birthed his fossils, my body brought forth the children. Five babes have sat upon my lap now; two have full laps of their own. There was little time to draw and sew.
Then the letter arrives.
My sister writes from London where she lives with her own brood. She has received a copy of Walter Pater’s new book and believes there is one story in particular I must hear. She has written it out for me.
By candlelight, I begin to read the tale of Denys L’Auxerrois.
The rain soaked her clothes straight through. Chased from home by parents who wondered at the origin of the child that grew within her, the girl could hardly see for the rain. The rain. She stumbled on until she felt the knobbled fig tree, and lay against it.
The heavens themselves shook.
This is no metaphor. Caged by Hera for his trespasses against her, Zeus, mighty God of the Gods could only watch as the village girl he had fallen for withered against the old tree.
He raged inside his cage as she looked to the sky for her lover. What good is it to love a God when you shall die like a lamb lost in the mire? The tears stopped now, she clutched her stomach, feeling the ripple of the child that writhed in defiance of his fate.
As the breath left her body Zeus’s scream was heard throughout the world. With a heft of rage he broke the bars with his hands alone. Too late.
Too late to save his lover, he sent to earth a lightning bolt that split her belly in two.
When the sun came in the morning, the farmers found no body – just a babe in the shade of a fig tree, pink and laughing.
It was a retelling of a story we had heard in childhood. I dropped the pages to the floor, reminded all at once of the girl I had been, who dreamt of Gods and Goddesses and whispered secret desires to her sister in the night. Reading those words, I knew I had found my long-forgotten muse. This was the story I would make flesh with my pencil, needle and thread.
I told our housekeeper Catherine first. Her ear is often kinder to my thoughts and wishes than I have found Ramsey’s to be. I did not wish my dream trampled just as it began to sprout. I read to her the story from the letter and she agreed – it was a fine subject for an embroidery.
First, to the designs. No; first to the sketchbook in which to do the designs. Wrong again, first to the coins to buy the sketchbook to create the designs.
When I became Ramsey’s wife I found I was no longer to be paid for my illustrations of his work and that each month it was Ramsey who would decide how his money was spent. With my re-discovered passion, this old argument surfaced once more. But he would not be persuaded to patronise his wife playing dress-up as an artist.
A solution was offered by Catherine. Unbeknownst to Ramsey, might she store the change she brings back from the market in an old biscuit tin in the kitchen?
So it was agreed, Catherine would save the change and I would purchase what I needed in secret – passing it off as materials I already owned. This was easy to do. Ramsey had never paid much attention.
I set to work on my very own Denys L’Auxerrois.
One afternoon, as Ramsey walked from his study to our bedroom, he peered into my drawing room for perhaps the first time – and entered.
The designs for the embroidery lay on the table, the fabric neatly draped across my armchair – filled with pins and needles to plot my beginning.
Before I could stop him, it was set in motion. While my back was turned he reached out, picked up the fabric and found himself pricked by a needle.
Cradling his wound, he moved as if to strike me for harming him. After all our time together I found I do not even flinch. My embroidery lay on the floor.
When I was left alone once more, I quickly rescued my work and inspected it. The design I had settled upon was a life-size drawing of Denys L’Auxerrois himself – and now Ramsey’s blood had marked the figure’s face.
Right there in the middle of the stain, lay a single piece of thread so fine even Rumplestiltskin could not have woven it.
They refused to name the babe for a week at least. The girl’s parents would not claim him. It was the widow on the edge of the village that took him in. With one grin from this cherub, she could not refuse.
As the child grew it seemed as if the earth grew with him, a touch of his soft palm and the flowers would sprout. Should he choose to sit upon a patch of barren earth only a few days need pass for it to flourish. This did not go unnoticed. Soon, the widow found her summer child was needed.
Let the boy run through the fields, they’d say! Bring to us the harvest! Adorned in flowers and running through the streets the boy did not fear his growth into a man. We never do, in the spring and summer of our youth.
I continued working on the embroidery, but with each stitch I was drawn back to the mystery of that solitary shimmering thread, resolving to find its origin and stitch my Denys’ eyes with it.
I began by searching through the skeins I had ordered out on the table but found only the expected colours. Next, I searched the bag of offcast threads – emptying it onto the floor, inspecting each piece slowly.
At one point or another Catherine came to me and we sat, the two of us, untangling the threads. Ramsey watched us from the doorway – wondering perhaps as to why his wife would waste her time with a housekeeper and why a housekeeper would waste her time with his wife.
We searched and searched but could not find a match for the thread I found in the bloodstain.
Catherine insisted that it must have arrived from somewhere. While Ramsey’s fossils may seem incomprehensible, they are simply animals buried in the earth – waiting for us.
Could the thread have been waiting for me?
I watched Ramsey’s chest rise in the night and the idea knotted itself into my mind.
Sometimes, I reasoned, you must prove to yourself that a wild thought is not true.
As Ramsey slept I took my embroidery scissors and nicked a small hole in the back of his neck. He jerked as I did it, but within seconds was back to sleep. The sting only of a bee perhaps.
At first, I could not believe what I had done. I had never returned Ramsey’s violence upon him, now here I was – cutting into him.
When I settled my shaking hands myself, I surveyed the wound.
At first, I thought a hair must be caught in the quickly congealing blood. I plucked the end with my forefinger and thumb, but when I pulled – there was no end.
Out from the hole in his neck, I pulled a length of thread that seemed to glint even in the darkness.
I snipped it with my scissors. He did not wake.
Denys grew slower than the other children, slower than all other children born to the mortal world before him. His heart wrapped in lightning.
Over time the widow died, so her grown niece took in the boy – no older now than ten in appearance.
The seasons changed and the niece died too. The boy became a young man of sixteen or so and was passed to the niece’s daughter. The village became a town. The niece’s daughter died.
The boy became a man and the fields in which he used to run were lost in all but memory.
I was unable to eat for a week following my defiling of Ramsey’s body that night. I dared not even show Catherine what I had harvested from within him. I kept my small length of thread spooled inside a thimble carefully placed on my dressing table – unable to reckon with my act and equally unable to forfeit my prize.
Catherine, believing my malaise to be about the missing thread, reassured me that in a few weeks we would have saved enough in the tin to purchase even gold thread should I want it.
Before too long Ramsey left for a research trip, promising to bring discoveries on his return that would shape our age. It is the noblest of professions – as I am so often told.
I found the bed far warmer occupied only by my own thoughts.
I spent the time he was away sewing. Pausing only to eat when Catherine begged it of me.
I told her how I had first learnt to sew from my grandmother. Showed her how to secure the fabric with wooden hoops and tighten until you could beat the cloth like a drum. Spoke of the seamless blend of embroidery stitch; the sculptural qualities of raised work; and my favourite stitch: couching – where one thread is laid upon the surface of the fabric and another holds it down.
I taught Catherine to couch thread as we sat, arm grazing arm. She pursed her lips with concentration as she followed my instruction. That serious look upon her face.
Each year Denys would walk into the square to mark the coming of spring. But the townspeople did not need the crops to grow and as the years passed even the meaning of the ceremony was lost.
Denys, older than the hills now, son of Zeus and a girl whose name has slipped from time, dresses in flowers with a horned crown. He apes the ceremonies of the past as a crude show for the townspeople who chase him through the streets like generations long deceased.
Denys is no myth nor man, but puppet on a string enacting times gone by – a mockery of his former self.
Ramsey returned on a Sunday morning, slipped through the house briefly to greet us, delivered fossils for illustration and left once more for the society to present his findings.
When he arrived home properly, it was getting dark outside. If he noticed the fresh bags under my eyes or how my greying hair now seemed even thinner, he did not mention it. He did note however the chill throughout the house.
On command, Catherine fetched the coal for the fireplace only to find the shed bare. Ramsey made a show of how the cold affected him and complained of his empty pockets. I thought of the coins we had saved for the embroidery and slipped into the kitchen.
The little tin – which usually clinked with promise – made no sound.
With a turn I found Ramsey standing behind me with Catherine by his side, eyes downcast.
There was no great mystery. That morning Ramsey had arrived home and discovered our secret simply by opening the wrong container in search of something sweet.
The money is gone. Denys will go unfinished.
He is calm as he tells us this, but his grip does not move from Catherine’s arm. When he is finished he marches us both out to the hallway and reaches for the cane that leans by the door.
Was it not Ramsey’s money she had stolen? Should he not punish a servant for theft?
I can close my eyes but I cannot block her cries from my ears.
I bite at my own arm to stop myself from howling.
As Denys runs through the street now, his outstretched hands touch trees and grass but the magic of yesterday is lost too.
Worse, worse still, his fingers, once soft and loved, have grown calloused. He runs and runs towards the edge of the town to the spot where he took his first breath and reaches for the ancient fig tree that remembers his birth.
One touch is all it takes to catch his finger on the bark.
Ramsey and I spoke only to arrange the illustration of his specimens. When Catherine came in from the market she was to greet him alone, dropping the coins into his outstretched hand.
All work ceased on the embroidery; Denys golden hair was left half finished, sewn flowers lay waiting to bloom and a blank space on the fabric stared back at me where his eyes might go.
Ramsey made one final gift of reconciliation: the latest leather-bound journal in which he had been published.
Sat beside me, He flicked through the academic articles until his own appeared and pointed to the attribution.
ARTICLE FROM PROFESSOR RAMSEY TRAQUAIR. ILLUSTRATIONS WITH ASSISTANCE FROM MRS. RAMSEY TRAQUAIR.
“I had them include you as an addition.”
His name looked back at me from the page.
Cut upon a tree which once blossomed at his touch, Denys blood flows forth. Below the earth the Fates wake from their eternal slumber for this child of a God.
They three watch as the townspeople are driven mad by the smell of Denys’ ancient blood. Into the air and into their lungs it spreads as they are all at once returned to their savage origin.
With outstretched hands they tear his body limb from limb.
No pieces left to scatter in the wind.
Much to Ramsey’s surprise, the gift did not work – our life together destroyed with Catherine’s tender skin. I made plain my unwillingness to live as before. He wrote to our children that I grew unreasonable with age like an old dog who can no longer be trusted.
One morning I found Catherine dusting my dressing table, her hair piled atop her head with wisps falling to frame her gentle face. When I greeted her, she jumped with surprise and knocked over the thimble – revealing the thread I had hidden within.
‘You found it!’
‘Will you buy more? I have been thinking I could put one or two of the coins under the doormat before I come into the house?’
‘There’s no need Catherine, thank you for thinking of me.’
There really was no need.
I watch Ramsey as he sleeps. I think of the young girl in his office, his hand on her knee – of those lonely years away from her family seemingly pregnant more than she was not, of the work he took from her without payment or thanks, of each time she tensed in his presence, unsure of what might come.
I think of my embroidery – and plunge my scissors into his neck.
As he wakes I straddle his back with my knees. Sitting atop him now.
There, once more in the wound, is the end of the thread.
I pull it out through the hole, out from the inside of his body, pulling and winding and wrapping it around my hand as I go. He thrashes now, attempting to push me off, crying out.
Catherine arrives at the doorway.
She does not shout or run but holds him down with me.
I feel the thread catch inside of him, tied somewhere within the cavern of his chest.
I pull with both hands – until I unravel him.
The children weep when the news arrives. His heart had given out, or so the Doctor says.
Could it be that Ramsey’s end was set from the moment of our meeting? Just as Denys’ death was written in his birth?
Both man and boy cut down by fate.
One lives at least, immortalised in the embroidery with eyes that glint even in the din.
I am told it is hard to look away from my Denys L’Auxerrois. He greets each visitor now in the hallway of our home – hung on the wall by my Catherine’s strong hands.
Molly Skinner is a writer, audio producer and art lover based in London. Her work has been published by TSS publishing and performed live by Liars League. In her day job she helps museums around the world tell their stories. She is currently working on a podcast series for the Greater London Authority about diversity in the public realm.
photo of an embroidery by Phoebe Anna Traquair (via National Galleries Scotland)
Creative Commons CC by NC