In a room with too much light, the clock is a hard thing: sharp plastic and black letters, it marks against the emptiness, ticks, ticks, ticks against machine humming and white, starched sheets.
In empty rooms of stark computers and the sting of antiseptic, men gather, men talk: tall men, unsmiling men, white coats and bright glasses and pale, hushed voices.
In a room with too much light, the old woman sits, folded hands spotted with age and use, and smiles at the figure in front of her.
“Well,” the old woman says, voice wistful, “I would like to go to the Tailor’s, just once.”
Wedged between the antiques shops and the frosty jeweler’s windows and in front of a row of secondhand bookstores, the shop stands. An unassuming building in an unassuming part of town, though the worn brick and silver-painted railing give an impression of genteel poverty instead of mere shabbiness.
The woman frowns. Glances down at her phone then back up again, eyes studying the faded gilt lettering that proclaims Taliesin’s Threads and Embellishments. Then, as if seeming to reach some inner accord, she reaches for the carved doorknob, pushing inside into clean light and the scent of sandalwood and lavender.
“Hello hello!” a sing-song voice calls, and suddenly he is there, an apparition of neatly tailored satin and a friendly, foxlike face. “Welcome, welcome, to Taliesin’s Threads and Embellishments, world-class purveyor of quest narrative cloaks and bildungsroman riding boots, liminal linens for hundred-day celebrations, golden anniversaries, and all rites of passage in between and beyond! How can we help you today?”
The woman blinks, inadvertently taking a step back. Inside, Taliesin’s is a bright, airy space, light from high windows spilling onto pale wood and rows of elegant sewing machines. Against the back wall, a clock stands, tall and bright and carved with stars. Around the face, Roman numerals seem to float in the air: two times twelve for the turning of a day, twelve months and twelve starry houses for the turning of a year. Twelve numbers lining a circle, twelve points limning a life.
Wordcloth is an old art—an archaic one for most, a vestige of a time when the space between waking and dreams was thinner and the dark still full of monsters. A child of twenty-first century progress, she does not fully understand the craft’s appeal, finds its language of symbolic structures and threshold-crossing as meaningful as New Age psychobabble.
But this is for her mother, and so it does not matter what she thinks.
“I’d like to place an order.”
“But of course! Right this way, if you please.”
A table; a thick, plush-backed chair; a thick sheet of vellum and a long quill pen he produces with a flourish.
“And who would this be for, may I ask?”
“My mother. Margaret Ann Lyons, L-Y-O-N-S and no E in Ann.”
“Duly noted—no E. Date of birth?”
“March 12, forty-two.”
“Ah, so that would make her—Pisces, I believe?”
“Favorite color, season, weather?”
“Purple, fall, and…um, probably sunny.”
“Austen, Rossetti, King.”
“Stephen. And, um, Jodi Picoult.”
He nods, noting it down.
“Well,” he says, smiling as he scribbles, “thank you for that—I think we have everything. And the occasion?”
Above them, the clock ticks placidly on.
The penthouse is crowded when he walks inside, fashionably angular models and kohl-eyed artists crowding every line of vision. Still, it does not take long for the tailor to spot her—dressed in luxury and gold like everyone else, perhaps, but standing out nonetheless, tall and bronze-skinned and sturdy as old oak.
As if sensing his gaze, the woman turns, green eyes snapping towards his.
A silence; a pause; a lull in the conversations as two pairs of eyes lock onto each other.
He raises an eyebrow, anticipatory. Well?
Without a word of acknowledgement, the woman turns back to her conversation, smiling as if nothing happened. He stands there for a moment, watching her, before plucking a drink from a table and settling in to wait.
It is only later, when all the others have left and they are the only ones there, the tall man in green skin and the lone figure staring out the window, that she finally acknowledges him.
“Tadgh,” she says, nodding as he approaches. “What do you want?”
“That’s it, then?” he asks, hand flying to his heart, eyes widening in mock-offense. “All these years, all this time, and that’s all the greeting an old friend gets?”
“Oh Tadgh, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. What do you want?”
“What do I want? Why, Roxie, you wound me. As if I would come with any motive other than the pleasure of your company—”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” she scoffs, swirling her wineglass. “You’ve always been too good and noble for such gauche behavior, so out with it already, please. You’re looking for wordthread, aren’t you?”
“Caught out again, I’m afraid,” Tadgh says, smile not quite rueful. “And when one needs words hammered out and strung together, who else to turn to but Roxanne du Maurier, famed on both coasts for her skill with assonance and internal rhyme?”
“Thank you,” Roxanne says, inclining her head towards him. “And if you had come a few months earlier with this request, then she would have been happy to hammer something out for you. As it is, however, these days, Roxanne du Maurier would much prefer you go elsewhere for your thread. I’m retired, Tadgh. Been retired for almost a year now, and there’s nothing you can say that can tempt me out.”
She tips her wine back, draining the last dregs.
“And if I tried?” he asks, words slow and deliberate. “If I told you, for instance, that this one’s a thirteen?”
Roxanne stiffens, wineglass momentarily slipping between her fingers before she catches herself.
“Then,” she says, voice very even, “I would say you’re a liar, one with apparently no sense of taste and a shockingly bad sense of humor.”
“Roxanne,” he says, all playfulness dropping from his tone, “you know I wouldn’t. Not about this. It’s a thirteen. It’s lymphoma, she’s sixty-four, her favorite authors are Austen and Rossetti and Stephen King, and the hospice is giving her two months, maybe three. Please, Roxanne. Please.”
Roxanne bites her lip, face for a moment almost uncertain, then takes a deep breath and shakes her head.
“No,” she says, taking a long drink before continuing. “No, Tadgh, I’m very sorry, but I can’t. Maybe you can still do it, dust the windows of your shop and each day pour yourself into the work, blood and love and soul, but I can’t. I’m retired, Tadgh. I can’t help you.”
Her hands, scarred and long, shake slightly around her wineglass, but when Roxanne meets his gaze, her eyes are clear and unwavering.
“All right,” Tadgh says, slowly nodding. “I’ll see you another time, perhaps?”
There are things to do, of course, before the sewing: measurements of soul and psyche to finish, material to gather and suppliers to contact. Some of this work he passes off onto the assistants—a motley assortment of teenaged goths in ripped petticoats and rail-thin hipster chain-smokers with typing speeds past 100 WPM—but the more finicky details, the important things he does himself. The choosing of the material: for while there is a ready supply of fine cloths, catalog glossy and ready-to-order, he prefers the docks, where he can walk through the old markets, rubbing cloth to find the softest silks, the finest cashmeres untouched by machine teeth. No catalogs there, only blue sky above and blue water below and the cries of the craftsmen, white-haired and bent, as they hawk sea glass and bolts of seafoam threads.
And then, of course, there are the words.
Dusty alleyway tomes and flimsy airport novels, tattered Harlequins and annotated Penguins, bright sextodecimos crisp with anticipation and quartos haughty with decades of fingerprints—
“And are these all for me?”
Crates and crates of them, piled high and high with the glossiest bestsellers and the most dog-eared paperbacks, Dan Brown and Da Vinci and first-edition Dickens—
Stacks and stacks of them: flowing over countertops, crammed in corners, stretching from floor to ceiling. More books than she has seen in months, more books than she could finish in years and years.
From her place on the high bed, the old woman stares at them, the USPS men and hospital staff painstakingly moving the mountains of books inside. Behind machines, on the windowsill, in the crevices between bandages and unopened needles—
And then she leans back, and smiles.
“Well,” she says, “it’s good to know they take their work seriously.”
The books sit for two days. Bound with scraps of denim and locked in separate darkrooms, their only company a circle of iron filings and a tape player endlessly looping the New Oxford Dictionary, the words grow wild, grow feral—hissing from underneath velvet covers, straining against the edges of tattered pages.
He takes them then, when they are at the edge of their wildness, and brings them to the workshop, dim lights casting strange colors on the vibrating books. And then, sitting down, he opens them: peels the sentences and phrases gingerly off the pages, then dropping the wriggling words into a steep-sided china bowl. When one book is finished, he scoops a handful out of the bowl, smoothing the words onto the surface of the collected fabrics; hands moving quickly, he weaves them together with chiffon and spider silk, black words wriggling against the outlines of cloth until they subside, fade into white imprints and a faint whispering.
Two days. Four circles of twelve hours with untempered iron and an endless circle of new words, and then four more while he lets them to sit, while he plans.
For there is still the pattern, and oh, that is a thing he has never left to the part-timers or assistants, the creation of new clothes. They have predesigned outfits, of course: premade patterns for pinstripe suits and made-to-measure debutante dresses, sonnets pre-stitched into corsets and three-act structures built into A-line skirts. But you cannot use a readymade for a thirteen; for a thirteen, only a custom-made garment will suffice. And while his other clients are easy, want nothing but flash and pearls and jewels by the dozen, thirteens demand something more discerning, more apt: not a sprinkling of poetry as with the sweetly callow teenaged threes or a well-placed bon mot like their pompous parent sixes, but careful words, true words.
At Taliesin’s, all clients are important, but thirteens, perhaps, are the most important of all. With the other twelves, there is always the possibility of redoes, of time to stitch up mistakes while the client waits. Not so for a thirteen, that number outside of time, outside of life.
After all, thirteens cannot be brought in again; thirteens can never, ever, be worn again.
And then finally, finally, it is all done—cloth and word and patterns, everything in place, ready to be cut and custom-fit for a woman still only a name and a list of facts.
And finally, there is only the sewing.
In the room with too much light, an old woman sits, waiting as the clock ticks on, on, on.
“Roxanne, my dearest—”
“Tadgh,” she sighs, running a hand through her hair. “How many times do I have to tell you I won’t take your job?”
“I brought you Yeats. One of the unpublished ones.”
She blinks at that, eyes darting for a moment at the package in his hand before she catches herself and resumes scowling.
“Bribery, Tadgh? Really? Did you think I could be bought like that, for a handful of pretty words?”
“No,” he says, giving her his brightest smile, “but I do know you’ll take it, won’t you?”
She glares. Then, sighing, ushers him inside.
“Come in,” she says, closing the door, “but I swear to God, Tadgh, this means nothing, do you hear? I’m not promising anything, do you understand?”
“Of course, my dear,” he says, nodding as he steps lightly inside. “Of course.”
“So,” Roxanne says, steam rising from the cast-bronze teacups she sets down, “flattery, payment, and now bribery. Your methods are certainly getting cruder.”
“Methods? Why, Roxie, you wound me. All our long years of friendship, and for you to accuse me now—”
“Spare me,” she says, raising a hand. “We’ve been friends long enough that I know what you want, Tadgh. It would save us a lot of time if we didn’t pretend otherwise.”
She picks up the teacup, delicately bringing it to her lips. When she sets the cup back down again, it is empty, the metal still faintly steaming.
“Well then,” Tadgh says, hands loosely steepled over his stomach as he leans back. “If that’s so, my dear, I suppose you should know that I’m asking, again.”
“And you should know that I’m saying no. You know that. You know why.”
“I do. But I also know that though you hammer at copper and gold these days, the plot hammers and denouement chisels are still sitting in your forge, almost as if you are not quite ready to put them away. I know that just a few years ago your skills were a legend on both East and West coasts, your name an orison on the lips of apprentice smiths from Seattle to Savannah. I know, Roxanne,” he says, gently placing a hand over hers, “that you used to loved it.”
“I did,” Roxanne concedes, one finger idly tracing the rim of her teacup. “Past tense. Oh, it’s tempting, and if I were younger and more idealistic, I might even accept it, but no. Man must eat, and copper and gold pay, Tadgh. Metals can be fickle, yes, steel warping or turning brittle if quenched too soon, but they’re still not the pound of flesh words are. You, more than anyone, would know that. All that time and care, hours of love and self-imposed agony—and for what? A chapbook five people will read, some painting admired only in five-minute bursts at dinner parties, a gown worn once before being tossed to mold in a closet? If you need word thread, well then, buy it from Loquacious Letters. Cheaper for you, and easier.”
“Substandard. And Roxanne, you know that Taliesin prides itself on quality. Our customers expect nothing less—”
“Your customers?” she laughs, and the sound is harsh and sad. “Oh please. Taliesin’s survives because you’re quaint, because you’re odd, because you’re a curiosity. We’re relics, Tadgh, homemade poultices and handwoven lace valuable only in the context of farmers’ markets and tourists’ baubles. We don’t do anything for people they couldn’t get out of Hollywood or Harlequin or fucking American Apparel.”
In the fading dusk, her eyes catch the last of the sunbeams, gleam green, gleam gold.
“We bring them peace.”
“Peace,” she scoffs. “Always the idealist.”
“Not idealism,” he says, shaking his head. “Only optimism.”
“Is there any difference?”
“There is.” He leans forward, resting his chin on his hands. “You, my dear, should know that better than anyone else. Remember the soldier, Roxie? Remember Fitzgerald or Dickens or any of the rest of them? Remember last summer, the girl whose mother drove five hundred miles to ask for a commission?”
“Do you think I forget any of them? Madeline Walker, eighteen. Green eyes, pink hair, blood type AB. Favorite writers Rimbaud, Ginsberg; favorite colors purple, silver. She was going to go to college to study film, before the diagnosis. She was eighteen. She should have been a three, life just starting and stretching out before her, and I made her a thirteen.”
“And that was good,” he says, placing a hand over hers, “that was the right thing to do, because she was in pain and you helped stop that, and that was good. Her mother thanked us afterwards, do you remember? It hurt doing it, yes, and her mother cried, but it helped, it made the crossing that bit easier. You helped.”
“I didn’t help. The words did. And those could have come from Loquacious Letters, Finishing Finesse, any of the catalogs I know you have in your office. Amazon even, if you want to buy in bulk. You could, you know. Qualitatively, the differences between artisan and mass-produced are trivial, really. Barely statistically significant. No one would care.”
“And could you live with yourself,” he asks, eyes fixed on hers, “knowing that Madeline Walker died with catalogue-copied words against her skin?”
She breaks eye contact first, pulling her hand away and straightening in one fluid movement. Shoulders stiff, she stares steadily at her lap, knuckles whitening as her hands fist on her knees.
Sitting across from her, he says nothing, only continues to gaze at her with calm, steady eyes.
“All right,” Roxanne says, her voice low when she finally speaks. “Damn you Tadgh, but all right, you bastard, I’ll do it.”
In response, he takes one of her hands between his, fingers rubbing hers until they relax, tension draining from joints as surely from the rest of her.
“Thank you, Roxie,” he says, leaning down and kissing her hand. “Truly.”
At the edges of the city, in a small cabin on the precipice where water meets land, a figure stands in a dusty doorway. The windows are shuttered, and in the pale light filtering through the door, faint shapes emerge: the dark mass of the forge against the back wall, the hammers and chisels hanging in neat rows, the pairs of gloves folded by the anvils lurking in the corners. On the wall, diagrams and photos held up by scotch tape, faded smiles and thank-you notes drawn in crayon. Behind them, a clock, its hand stilled and pointing at twelve.
Tick, tick, tick.
In the doorway, the figure looks at all of this, and she thinks, and she remembers. Old days, days long bygone, when the world was still new and every word so bright, luminous sparks you could hold like fireflies between your hands. Warm, but melting like snowflakes when they touched skin, the words seeping into muscle and bone and that deep quiet core that meant you.
At the edges of the city, in a cabin where water meets land, Roxanne puts on her gloves, and she works.
Silks and sheerest satins, Elohist and Shakespeare and Byron, the words pressed like flowers, like scented oils sinking into wefts of snow white and Tyrian purple—
Scissors snip, snip through cloth, cut yards of Hemingway and paperback at precise angles. The sun, streaming in through high rafters of the room, catches the steel, makes it shine briefly, sharp in a landscape of soft light.
Scissors still moving through cloth, he brushes the bangs off of his forehead, reaches up, and rings a bell above his head.
One of the assistants—young, spiky purple hair and mild worry on her face—rushes in, gingerly places a smoking wooden box next to him; he nods at her, spares her a quick smile before he runs scissors through the last strip of madras silk, lifts the box out with a knife-bright snip of blade and cloth.
Words hiss as they spill from scraps and split threads, whisper-whimper their way to silence as they fade into the oak floor.
But there is no time to mourn them, to pick up the few syllables left and breathe life into them. Inside the glowing box, Roxanne’s creations are already impatient, shaking against their wooden confines with quivering expectation.
Hand uncovered, he lifts the still-red lid, grabs a handful of thread, and immediately closes the lid back down; the words screech in his hand, leaving red serifs and bright ligatures where they burn across skin, but he ignores them. Skin burning, he waits until they calm to a mere quiver—and then, the letters still hot, he strings them through the silvery needle, stitches through with perfect prosody and prose.
New light, and with it, a new day.
New light, and Tadgh is smiling—smelling of old coffee and older cologne, but smiling, bright as the newly risen sun.
His eyes are fever-bright, fingers still smudged with word-dust and pen ink, but Tadgh hums as he writes, tapping his fingers against the table as he scans the pages before him.
On the desk, the old phone rings, high birdsong rising in the bright room—he reaches for it, smiling as he lifts the black receiver up to his ear.
“Taliesin’s Threads and Embellishments, hello hello! How can I help you today?”
The silence stretches, holds for long, long moments.
He leans forward. Eyes narrow, feet still.
“Is that so?”
“And you’re absolutely certain, it has to be tonight—”
“Oh, well, yes then—of course. We’ll be by right away.”
He walks inside the cold white room, and almost immediately, he knows.
He looks between them—the thin young man, the pale, straight-backed woman— and though they say nothing, the words all are but written across their faces. Children’s grief is always like that, so brightly clear and devastating no matter how old they grow.
He nods, and then turns to the doctor.
“May I go in?”
Inside, she is waiting.
“Hello,” the old woman says.
“Hello,” he says, carefully closing the door after him.
She is dressed in hospital white and, in the brightness of the artificial light, she seems almost to not be there, to melt into the lurid blankness of walls and sheets. Her hands, laid over her lap, tremble faintly—whether from nerves or disease, it is impossible to tell.
“So,” she says, “you are the young man who’s been sending me all those books.”
“Not as young as I appear, I’m afraid,” he says, smiling as he steps inside, “but yes, I am. Did you enjoy them?”
“I did very much, thank you. Some more than others, I’m afraid, though you would know that, wouldn’t you? I did fill out all those worksheets, after all.”
“You did,” he says, nodding. “And they were a great help, especially in the last steps. Adding the last details, choosing the correct accoutrements. Thank you for that.”
“Were they? I’m glad, then. Made me feel like I was in school again, honestly. All that paper, all those questions—I don’t think I’ve read that much since college. No time for it, you know how it is.” She smiles. “Thank you.”
In the silence, the clock tick, tick, ticks between them. Hand at ten, at eleven, at twelve. The dregs of the hour, the ending of a day.
“Well?” she asks, voice quiet. “And is it ready?”
“It is,” he says. And there is a question in his voice, his eyes, the very stillness of his stance—a wariness, and an asking for permission.
“Oh,” she says, sighing. “Well, that’s good then.”
And it is an answer, as much a permission as an invitation.
He holds out a hand to her; she takes it, and in his palm, her hand is an airy thing, thin and insubstantial, onion skin that could fold and wrinkle off with an unwary touch.
Gently, he helps her stand, legs thin under the white hospital gown.
“Now,” he says, smiling, “close your eyes.”
“Now that’s rather unfair,” she says, smiling back at him. “After all these weeks of anticipation, and now you’re asking me to close my eyes?”
“You can open them later. But it would hardly be a surprise if you saw it first, now would it?”
He waits a moment after, to make sure that her eyes are truly and surely closed, then turns off the lights, so that only the sun through the curtains illuminates the small room.
Slowly, he takes it out—a long, delicate length of fabric, so thin it is nearly translucent. In the faint sunlight, it is now green, now orange, now the blue-grey of skies over sea, the colors as flitting as a lover’s kiss.
Gently, he drapes it over her shoulders; it shimmers as it falls over her, sheets and sheets of words fluttering before calming, resting sheer and soft as a second skin.
“Oh,” she whispers, eyelids trembling as it flutters on top of her, “oh.”
He smiles, taking her elbow to steady her.
“Would you care to open your eyes now?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head, “I think I’d like to wait a little more. Oh,” she whispers, stroking the cloth that winds over her shoulders, “oh yes, this is lovely, lovely—Shakespeare? No—but I never watched the scatter’d fire, of stars or sun’s far-trailing train—”
“But all my heart is one desire.”
And when she opens her eyes, he is smiling at her, one hand still lightly holding hers and eyes softly gold in the dim light.
“May I,” he asks quietly, “have the pleasure of this dance?”
And she laughs at it—a clear, bright bell of delight that clears all the age from her face, turns her white hair bright, luminescent in one, brief sound.
He smiles, and takes her hands.
It is an inelegant dance, the best she can manage on hospice-weakened legs, but he guides her, steps slowly and gives grace to their improvised waltz. And all the while the words dance between them, a palimpsest of flashing sunbeam and whispering words.
“You know,” she says, smiling, “it’s been a long time since I did something like this.”
“Is that so?” he says, gently lowering her into a dip. “Such a shame, then. To measure out our lives with coffee spoons, when all our lives are just a quick succession of busy nothings.”
“I’ve heard that line before,” she says, as he turns her around, slowly winds her into a waltz. “Austen, and another one—that man, The Waste Land, was it? The one with the Greek.”
“It’s funny, really,” she says after a moment, “how much I remember. They talk about how it happens, life passing before your eyes, but I never believed that. And yet, now,” she says, rubbing the thin cloth between her fingers, “it all comes back, do you know? Not all at once—but in pieces. Images, phrases—”
“Poetry as a packsack of invisible keepsakes?”
“Cheater,” she says, laughing, “you stole that, didn’t you? But yes. Like that. An echo asking a shadow to dance. The dusky, dreamy smell of dying moons and shadows. All those things.”
“The delicious damp grass that grows near old walls—”
“A cool red rose and a pink cut pink—”
“Cocoa and clear soup and the taking of a toast and tea.”
“A little piece of white cloth and oil.”
“Little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”
And the words slow between them, stardust syllables that hang like dust motes, suspended in the silence of the air.
“And then,” he says, voice quiet, “in a book of faith and small neat worlds and of people who live by the philosophies of popular songs—”
“Far away into the silent land—”
“There was a star, riding through clouds.'”
“And dreaming through the twilight—”
“Remember me when I am gone away.”
Very gently, very slowly, he takes a step back. His eyes are dark, grim.
“But rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And there is a question in his eyes, a wariness as he holds her gaze.
“Very sweet it is,” she says quietly, “to have died at apple’s dropping, when the wind is crying—”
“For sweet things dying,” he finishes. And they stand there a moment, silent in the dusty light.
“Thank you,” she says, smiling as she lets goes of his hands. “That was lovely. Now, what next?”
“Close your eyes.”
She nods, obeys. She knows this part, knows what to do and what will happen next. They all do.
And the words whisper around her, gather closer, smooth and sinuously as air itself—a mother’s kiss, a lover’s embrace.
He watches as they shimmer, the carefully woven words dance and pull the thin cloth up, rise over her and envelop her, cocoon her in soft whispering as they take away the last of the pain.
When it is over, the last of the breath left her lungs, he gently carries her to the bed, lays her down on sheets as white as a bridal veil.
On the wall, the clock ticks, a low, soft noise against the sound of still-humming machinery. 12:01, :02, :03. Crossing now into a place past midnight, a thirteenth hour.
He stands over her, observing.
There is a smile on her face, and in death, all the age is made beautiful, wrinkles softened and thin mouth made serene, made wise.
“To sleep, to sleep—perchance to dream,” he whispers, brushing a stray hair away from her face. Pausing for a moment at her neck, where the collar has been rumpled by the fall—straightening it, then standing up, walking out. Glancing once more at the body before turning on the lights and shutting the door behind him.
In the silence, the words shimmer, float like dust motes through the air.
|Cynthia Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth, On Spec, Phantom Drift, and other venues. After the Dragons, her debut novel, was released in August 2021 with Stelliform Press. She is tragically online and can be found at cz_writes on Twitter.|