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In the Blood

Jenny grows up watching her mother
create magic out of fabric,
a quilt to commemorate every wedding and birth
in their extended family and beyond.
Her mother sews her quilt tops by machine,
a rainbow riot of perfect geometry,
but she quilts them by hand,
her enormous wooden quilting frame
a fixture in their living room.
Jenny watches TV while her mother quilts,
but during commercials she watches Mom,
the rhythmic in-and-out of her needle
creating impossibly tiny, even stitches.

Her mother has only one failing:
an inability not to stab herself
at least once during each quilt.
She finds thimbles cumbersome,
says she needs to feel what she’s doing
in order to do it right. She always vows
to be more careful, but quilts are large,
and it’s impossible to maintain vigilance
for the thousands of stitches it takes
to bind those layers together—
or so she always claims, sheepishly,
as she sucks the latest bloodied finger.

Jenny wants to be a quilter, too,
until she makes her first quilt, doll-sized,
which turns out crooked and raggedy and wrong.
Mom says she just needs practice,
but practice takes time,
and Jenny has better ways to spend hers.
Even her mother’s quilts
have ceased to captivate her,
except for when they’re finished
and Jenny can play her new favorite game:
find the bloodstain.

Sometimes it’s a ghostly splotch,
faded by Mom’s efforts with cold water
and peroxide but still visible;
other times just a tiny dot,
or occasionally a string of them,
a Morse code of dried brown.
Once Mom makes a whole quilt
in blacks and reds, a deliberate
attempt to thwart the game,
but Jenny spends two days searching
and discovers the smallest of dark spots
on one of the red squares.
She crows about it for weeks after,
and Mom admits defeat.

Years later, Jenny’s mother
gifts her with a quilt for her wedding,
an array of vibrant rings on a white background,
and Jenny reflexively searches for the blood
even as she’s saying thank you,
running her fingers over this
masterpiece of color. She doesn’t mention
what she’s doing, could surely be mistaken
for admiring the quilt’s intricacies,
but of course Mom knows,
stops her with, “Don’t go looking
for a stain. I had it professionally quilted,
some woman with a fancy machine.
You deserve perfection.”

Jenny assures her that it’s beautiful,
while secretly thinking
that she’s been deemed unworthy,
given a lesser gift, one without
a few drops of her mother
stitched into it for posterity.

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