The Blanket

By Karla Fetrow

The furniture had been piled back to make room for the old-fashioned, wooden hand loom and the piles of colored thread, wrapped around spindles and sorted into buckets.  She was alone, her head bent over her work, tendrils of hair flying like feathers from the bun wrapped at the back.  She hadn’t heard him.  Emilio clicked the door shut firmly and let his shadow flicker below the hallway light so as not to startle her.  She looked up slowly.  “Ah, it’s you.  I was wondering if you would visit today.”

“I do every weekend, mama.”

“I know that.  You’ve been a good son.  Will you be spending the night?”

“I brought you dinner,” he replied, knowing this routine question would be asked again, later.  “I don’t suppose you’d like to eat out?”

“I’m tired.  Those fancy restaurants don’t please me anymore.  Always the same menu.  Always the same flavor in the foods.  A little too rich don’t you think?  There are beans and rice on the stove.”

Beans and rice were about the only things she’d eat if he didn’t buy her some weekly groceries.  He put them away, while her loom clacked rhythmically to a mindless radio murmuring old fashioned love songs.  There was no sprig of holly, no colored lights, no silvery bells decorating the room.  “Mama,” he said, taking a chair and seating himself close to her.  “It’s almost Christmas.  You haven’t done anything.”

“I’m old, Emilio.  What shall I do?  Light candles and invite the ghosts in?”

“You have me.  Why don’t you spend Christmas with me and Shannon?  She has a tree all lit up and lots of presents.  Presents!  What would you like for Christmas this year?”

“Nothing.  I want nothing.”

His laughter was laced with just a little annoyance.  “You’ve got to want something.  How about a new coat?  One of those fancy lamps that changes colors?”

She shook her head.  “My coat is fine.  I’ve grown accustomed to it and it to me.  I have too many things already.  They only take up space and mock me.  What did I want with them all?  How will I finish using them?  A better Christmas would be if you take some of these things I have no use for and find good homes for them.”

He couldn’t argue with her.  She sat stubbornly at her loom, her fingers expertly gathering the threads and weaving them between the long sweep of the rake and frame.  The threads settled into place, presenting a pattern; sharp blue mountains biting into a glacial sky.  “There’s a little, white line going through the mountains.  I think you forgot to pick up your threads there.”  She ignored him, allowing another block of blue to settle over the top of the barely perceptible flaw.

“It’s better this way,” she remarked.  “There’s only one perfect design.”

“Your work is always perfect,” he answered hastily.  “You could make a lot of money off your blankets.  Weaving has become a lost art.”

“It has become lost now, has it?  It wasn’t valuable when it was found?”

“Of course it was valuable.  It’s just that now, people don’t do it so much anymore.  They treasure it more.”

“How do they treasure it?  You’re a collector, Emilio.  You hang blankets on your walls.  You fill your house with baskets that contain nothing but feathers and dried flowers.  You have wooden masks and ivory hooks, beaded bags and hand tooled leather.  What do you do with them?  You look at them.  You collect them and think about their value.  Do you think about the person behind them, whose heart and soul went into the work?”

“Of course I do.  That’s why I collect them.  To preserve them.”

“They were meant to be used!” A ridge of clouds and the first bright orange flame of a sunrise slid down a little forcefully into place.  “This is my last blanket.  I’m old now.  Most of my family is gone.  My friends are gone.  Your father is gone.  I raised you up, but now you have a life of your own.  You’ve become successful, and I’m glad for this.  One day, you and Shannon will marry.  Maybe you’ll have children.  But me… it’s just an endless cycle, now.  I get up, I cook, I eat.  I clean the house.  I weave.  Each day is motionless and the same.  My time has gone.  I have one thing left to finish, this blanket.  It’s my last gift to you.”

“Mama, don’t talk like that.  It’s just the darkness of winter.  It depresses you.  You should go out more.  Come to town and visit.”   She wasn’t listening.  Her hands continued, brutally, laboriously, setting the threads into place.  She used to tell him stories as she wove her blankets; wonderful stories about talking ravens and sly wolves, about whalers and hunters, about gods who did ferocious deeds long before humans inhabited the earth.  She was murmuring to him now.  “Do you remember the story about how the raven stole the sun?”

“Yes, and how a young girl tricked him into giving it back.  How did the story go again?”

“She convinced him to let her swallow the sun to hide it.  Then, she returned it to earth by giving birth to it.  The raven, who had once been colorful as a rainbow, was turned pitch black to remind him of his wicked deed.  Here is the raven for you, in this corner.  Here, in these clouds, the seductive breath of the young girl.”  He gazed at the swirling cloud patterns, and could almost discern a soft face gently blowing out air through her lips.

His hand closed gently over hers.  “It’s beautiful.  Rest now.  Eat some supper.  I brought fried chicken!”

Emilio wasn’t able to convince his mother to go back into town with him.  He needed the buildings and homes crowded close together this time of year; lit in festive colors.  He needed the noise and traffic, the sense of being alive and busy.  The rural winters had only three colors; black, blue and white.  Blue, skeletal trees stood out in a black night, with a white, smooth, landscape.  Pallid mornings matched the motionless covering of snow.  He needed the bright pops of orange, yellow, red and green gaily dancing in front of doorways, hanging from lamp post to lamp post.  When she was younger, his mother used to say they needed a celebration in mid-winter.  It only made sense to have something they could look forward to; the gradual return of the sun after its long sleep.  His mother no longer wished to celebrate the re-awakening.

Since she wouldn’t come to town, Shannon and Emilio packed an overnight bag, a turkey dinner and some small gifts to visit her.  Emilio was startled at how much she had deteriorated since their last visit.  She was thinner; paler; so pale, she nearly seemed transparent.  She looked at him distantly, almost in confusion, than smiled when she recognized him.  “It’s nearly finished,” she announced.

He only glanced at the blanket, nearly finished as she had said, but with long, woolen threads still caught in the teeth of the loom.  “Mama, when was the last time you visited a doctor?  I’m worried about you.”

“I’m not.”

“I can take you see Dr. Craig in the morning.  Money isn’t a problem.”

“I’ve lived with my body long enough to know what’s going on.  I don’t need someone to tell me.”

She celebrated Christmas with them.  She exclaimed over the robe he gave her and wore it over her clothes to sit down for dinner.  While she ate, she talked about the blanket.  “I don’t want you to hang it on a wall.  I want you to use it.  I want you to feel it next to you.”

“I will,” he promised.  “I’ll put it on the bed.”

He wasn’t surprised when he received a call a couple weeks later that his mother had passed away in her sleep.  He said afterward, she had chosen her time.  She had waited until the first rays of true sunlight had crept through her window after a month of drearily half twilight, then lay down to sleep in it.  He looked at the room so recently filled with her; now so empty.  He had watched as they zipped the plastic covering over her body, as the small group of friends and relatives tripped in and out, offering consolations.  How do you console numbness, detachment?  How do you bring it back to reality?

The reality was, his mother was gone.  He’d never see her again.  He sat down on the edge of the bed, still ruffled with her imprint, then saw the gift.  The blanket was folded carefully and set just so that the face of its sun met the climbing beams of the new sunlight gazing feebly into the room.  It flickered there, some long, warm moments, then sighed away again, promising to come back the next day, stronger and brighter.  He picked up the blanket and wrapped it around him.  It was like his mother’s long arms had come to hug his shoulders again.  He could smell her slightly sweet soap and rose water scent.  He could almost hear her soft voice murmuring stories into her ears.  Hot, salty tears rolled down his face, and his chest heaved.  This was the gift she had given him; the promise of the returning sun.  “Mama!”  He cried aloud.  “Mama!”