Physiognomy of a Quilt

Benjamin Solomon

The quilt does not become alive immediately. First the coarse-cotton fabric must be woven, the intricate patches cut and sewn, the white cotton batting pressed between the patchwork top and the solid whole-cloth backing. Then the bundling in burlap, the jostling truck ride from the sewing unit to the quilting center, and the long wait in a pile of starchy doppelgangers. And still it takes blood to bring a manufactured thing to life. This time, it happens when a quilter pricks her fingertip and gasps aloud, causing the women at her table to glance at one another, because if the foreman finds even a freckle-sized stain of blood he’ll dock twenty rupees each from their weekly wages. She keeps stitching, plunging her finger deep into the guts of the quilt and staunching the wound in the batting, hoping nothing will seep through to the top or bottom layer and ruin her last hour of work. As she completes one line of stitches and prepares to start another she feels a faint trembling inside the quilt, something spring to shape from the blotch of her blood and coursing through the quilt from end to end. Later she is guilty as she lifts the quilt onto the pile of finished pieces and moves on to the next, knowing rough hands will soon sew its borders, fling it through a gauntlet of sewing machines, washing machines, magnetic needle checkers, and jerk it over a wire line strung across the flat roof of the warehouse to dry and pucker in the pre-monsoon sun.

Without knowing how, the woman recognizes the quilt the next morning in a sea of identical others hanging on the lines. It’s not hers to touch, but she touches it secretly as she walks by. The woman wants to whisper and coo at the quilt, just as she would have to the baby girl she gave birth to a year ago had it not been born lifeless, how she’d murmur to her husband at night were he not so oblivious and strange after three years of marriage, and how she would whisper herself to sleep if not for the sound of her father-in-law’s hacking in the room next door, his lungs ruined after thirty years attending power looms. She would steal the quilt if it were possible. She imagines stuffing it under her sari and pretending to be pregnant again, all the while knowing it would never work. She would buy it if it wasn’t worth slightly more than four months’ salary, though in fact she doesn’t care for the design—its brown patchwork stars and muted colors strike her as dull and a little crude, like something made from scraps of left-over trouser material. If she brought it home her mother-in-law would laugh at her, or cluck her tongue and mutter about the fecklessness of daughter-in-laws and the burden of housing a woman who has failed to bring a son into the world. And yet still she wants to hold it, fold it into a bundle and press it against her skin, to wrap herself around it and feel it grow warm and pulse with sleeping life inside the shelter of her body. She gazes at the quilt through the day, and grazes it when she passes with armloads of wet quilts. You are mine, she whispers as she passes, over and over again.

That afternoon when the quilting women stand on break in the dusty courtyard sipping from plastic cups of tea, she goes alone up to the roof and unclips the quilt from its wire line. She folds it five times into its smallest possible reduction and sits with crossed legs on the roof’s concrete floor with her body a curved hump over the bundle, gently bouncing. After a while she begins to softly hum with her face buried deep in the dry cotton and her hands linked around it. As a young girl she once held an ashen-color baby chick and listened to it cheep and wrestle inside the hollow of her palms. She’d felt then a dizzy mix of love and power, wanting so deeply to squeeze her hands around the chick’s delicate body and knowing for certain she’d kill it if she did. Ever since last year’s still-birth she has woken in the night shivering, the memory of her womb wrapped around that fragile skein of bones, certain it was somehow her fault the baby was born dead.

When the foreman discovers her, alone amid a sea of undulating quilt-shadows on the floor, at first he doesn’t know what to make of this rocking and faceless bundle of fabric and black braided hair, so clearly a crying woman and at the same time such an curious bulky mass. When he touches her shoulder she quivers but does not look up, and it is only after he mistakes her for another woman and calls her by an incorrect name that she lifts her face from out of her huddle and impassively watches him as he begins to fire his questions and threats at her, ripping the quilt from her arms and banishing her down the stairs and back to work. He is too bewildered by the strangeness of what he has seen to do more than replace the quilt on its line and shake his head at the vulgarity of these rude village women who would use an export-quality textile item as a rag to absorb their tears.

Hours later the quilt is gone.

About the Work

Benjamin Solomon

Benjamin Solomon’s work has appeared in One Story, Diagram, and The Southeast Review. He is a founding editor of The Open Face Sandwich, a biennial anthology of uncommon prose.

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