The Poncho is excerpted from Joyland/ECW’s latest short story collection, Contrivances by David Balzer. It also features work from artists Marcel Dzama, Margaux Williamson, Sholem Krishtalka, Vanessa Rieger and many more. You can purchase the book here.
When Deb first arrived at the cabin, when she was still wearing clothes, she tried in vain to remove the mirror over her bed, giggling to herself all the while. With a screwdriver and wrench she began to unfix the edges of the glass from the beams to which they were fastened, her skinny arms and hands reaching up out of an oversized man’s shirt, her feet balanced shakily on the mattress. She stopped giggling when she realized that more force might have cracked the glass, or the wood behind it—or, at least, have marred the wood enough to leave a quartet of large, ugly holes above her pillow.
So the mirror remained and, ultimately, pleased her: each of her body’s positions looked marvelously new under each new day’s different light; her waxing tan made her eyes seem bluer, her hair blonder; soft tuffets sprouted under her arms; fine fur coated her calves and thighs; long muscles surfaced when she stretched her arms and stomach. The mirror also indicated the progress, and worth, of her crocheting, an activity that was not to pass the time, but to mark it. (Yes, she was a weaver in a cabin somewhere in the bush, but she was not twisting her fingers in weak, feminine labor. There was no husband or lover out there, chopping down trees, nothing on the stove waiting for a big, mustachioed mouth to dig into it.) She was making a poncho, which she hoped would get big enough by September to shield her from the incipient frost.
Deb first met Susan behind her cabin, on one of the initial days of Deb’s arrival. Deb was amid the vegetation in her yard—not tending to it, but surveying it, fondling leaves and picking flowers. There was abiding fruit from someone else’s attempts at cultivation. Susan introduced herself by whistling, a sort of rejoinder to Deb’s nakedness. Deb was dumbfounded that someone could have found her; the whistle was unsettlingly lewd. Deb made no attempt to hide herself—there was no time, no graceful way to slip into an adequate nearby cover. She merely shot up. (She had been bent over, greedily sticking wildflowers behind her ears.)
“You’re as pretty and pure as those mountains,” said Susan, turning her head to the formations across the lake. Her voice was deep and full and did not suit her appearance.
“I’m not pure,” said Deb with kind wryness. “I haven’t washed for days.” Deb’s respect instantly stretched to this woman, despite the trite poetry of her foray. Deb enjoyed radiant outlaws. Yes, she was indeed “pretty,” as she had been identified here and elsewhere, but this was an accident, a genetic fluke that could not have been anticipated given the gnarled course of her family tree.
“I envy your lack of shame,” said Susan, moving closer. “We that are old have much to hide, for the sake of eyes like yours.”
“Don’t worry about me,” said Deb, laughing. She wanted badly to communicate with this woman; at twenty-eight, Deb had seen much, was an old soul.
Susan pulled off her wide hat, then one of the blankets she had wrapped around her, as if to tip the scales of experience in her favor. The gesture was startling, and what it revealed was grotesque: a four-inch scar running from her left collar bone to the downward curve of her breast. “Might as well get comfortable, meet you halfway,” she said, and cackled. “My name is Susan.”
Deb advanced, stated her name, and, as a result, revealed her pubic hair, which had so far been obscured behind a cluster of leaves.
“I would go without more often, like you, if it weren’t for this,” said Susan, pointing at her deformity.
Susan sat down in the tall grass and twisted her neck towards the sun. Deb did the same. Susan went on, speaking sententiously, not prying too much except to insist that Deb looked familiar to her.
“When the clouds part like this in the mountains, it’s precious. Everything changes. We all come here to escape change, yet the sky brings it ten times daily.” Susan grinned, baring her chapped lips and crooked, yellow teeth.
“Do you think we’ll see rain again today?” said Deb.
“Don’t know,” said Susan. “Men,” she continued, “drive women like us to places like this—and thank God they do.”
Deb halted. Susan seemed to want to get beyond everything.
“Huh?” Susan grinned again.
“I suppose they do,” said Deb. “But by men you must mean all humankind, because I’ve met a lot of bitchy women in my time.”
“Oh, don’t start, deary,” said Susan. “I can tell. I can see it in your eyes. You have a man’s face; you understand men better than most women. I’ve got one, too: thick brow, square chin.” Susan lifted up her head, throwing her mangy hair backwards. “I know. You’ve been hurt and now it’s war. You know who you are more than most women. You know and yet you don’t like it, eh? Men want you to be all sex for them, don’t they? Don’t they?”
Deb looked out at the vista before her, which, she was discovering, had the curious effect of erasing long-term memories. Her romantic experiences were not characterized by simpering or pining. More often than not, it was she who did the injuring.
“Oh, it’s alright,” said Susan, getting up, and running towards her discarded blanket and hat. “I’m not going to drill you. But you and I have things to talk about. We both have brains, you know, and that can hurt. I’ll be back.”
Deb pulled up a clump of grass and watched Susan recede, her blanket hiked over her neck, stole-like, not hiding her body the way it had before.
When she ran away from the city, Deb did not turn around, but was hoping others would look, not entirely sure what difference it would make. All her life she had trusted her influence was conspicuous, but when one runs away into the mountains, one disappears. Influence becomes immediate, more desperately selfish: build a fire and stay by its warmth; keep an eye on provisions; make repairs; manage waste.
Deb had stumbled upon the cabin. She had traded it for three paintings in the city, a fortuitous transaction that had little to do with any shrewdness on her part. Rufus, who had been introduced to her through one of her roommates, had become her benefactor. This aging imperialist did not unnerve her; he gave what he wanted—drugs, sex—to her friends, and he took from her what she had no difficulty providing: beauty and intellect. Rufus adored their conversations, which gravitated towards German philosophy, his mien changing when he entered her room. (During his visits he would tour every room in the house, issuing greetings and collecting favors.) With him, she was her own saloniste, providing edifying chatter about, and also giving tours of, the rotating exhibitions of her paintings on the walls around her bed—landscapes mostly, which she analyzed and extolled, denouncing abstraction with an intriguing, amusing vehemence.
Thus exempt from Rufus’s exploitations, Deb grasped at his offer. His tiny log cabin, which he had not used for years, would, he said, provide her with a quieter place to paint. She did not want to paint, however; she had tired of it lately. She insisted she be under no obligation to produce any work during her stay: such an arrangement would show a dangerous lack of self-reliance, becoming a chain leading back to the city she had abandoned on very personal, very moral grounds.
Deb wanted to give herself over completely to nature. She understood its darker elements and knew that within them lay an honesty to which she had not yet had sufficient access. And perhaps these were only darker elements because she did not yet know them well. She did not mind being knocked about, either—felt, in fact, that she was beginning to witness and value brutishness everywhere: in the ferment of the waves coming in off the lake; in the delicate twirl of wind that caused a leaf to come crashing to the ground; in the hidden recesses of the mountains; in the shadows that pushed inside her cabin at night, putting her breathing deep in her ears, seeming almost to choke her. Such lessons were dazzling, for they demonstrated the persistence of a mean, hard-won beauty, born in danger, in spilled blood. Splendor was a cosmic trophy shelf on which she would fight to earn her place.
Today, Deb was a lioness. Early in the morning, she ran along the shore for miles, jumping from rock to rock, feeling the multitude of tissues in her hips, buttocks, and thighs shaking and seizing up with novel effort. She became oblivious to cosmetic exigencies: her hair was tangled in a mass, whiplike, behind her neck; her skin was raw under her hands and feet, and burning with the effort to form callouses. She was now fond of dirt and sand; she dipped between rocks, delighting in the stench of the standing water by the shore. She found a tree, finally, and pressed her naked midsection against its bark, moving her legs up until she reached a high branch and began trading calls with the birds. Impressed with herself, she smiled with no one around to witness it. Those who told her to smile, who branded her a gloomy existentialist, had no idea what it would take.
Susan was right: the clouds moved briskly; they always did. It was raining intermittently, producing sun showers. After her barefoot run Deb plunged into the lake. Smiling again, she let the water enter her mouth and embraced the coldness. Floating on her back, with the rain dropping hard on her, she noticed gorgeous dots on the mountains: not only had the clouds shaded sections of the forest mass, but there were also colored interludes, daubs of rust amid the green. The same color lent itself to the sky at night, before which there was a late-daytime prelude of heavy mist or haze. (There was an interesting effect with mountains, as being in them was not the same as being on them, and Deb, being in them, by a lake, was thrilled with her ability to see everything, pleasantly surprised even at the changeability effected by the sun on a landscape of summer monotony: greens and browns everywhere, especially browns—on the ground, on the trees, on the animals’ backs.) But the mist now mixed with the setting sun—the sun, of course, smothered by the mountains and thus setting earlier than almost anywhere else on the continent—which formed that pinkish-rust color, streaking the sky for hours, and making Deb reel, for she felt as if she finally understood Monet.
She sat, eventually, on her back step, exhausted and newly washed. She had her poncho out, a small circle no bigger than a pancake, and thought of what it would look like, of how she would make it special, while the sky played in the periphery. She thought further and more fancifully of all the birds and insects curling around her, watching her create, of a goddess turning on a constellation of nightlights just for her, and of the trees waiting to see how this creation would become her, their favorite dryad.
Over the next weeks, Susan proved a thwarter. Through the course of their several meetings she managed to dispel the sensuous film that hung on the landscape: it was not to be praised; it was concurrent with raging forest fires south of the border. It was the reason for the odd colors at dusk; these were not, in their present incarnation, born in nature.
And so it was that Deb was forced to backtrack, to marginalize her thoughts about the sun, and even the moon, which had taken on the same color as the sky lately and had reminded her of Revelations (that bloody orb her mother always invoked when she was a girl), but also of a giant peach. The deviant trees on the hillside were additional proof of blight; they were dying, being drained of their color, turned into tarnished carcasses, by beetles. Here, evidently, was Deb’s biblical accessory: an Old, rather than New, Testament portent.
Deb’s deference towards Susan as she was presented with these facts was, she decided, not yet a kind of passivity: Deb couldn’t tell if Susan was intentionally trying to spoil her solitude, and so in humoring Susan, Deb justified her own spiritual, intellectual, and psychological sanguinity; hadn’t she, after all, come out here to do just that? If she could keep Susan at a distance while interacting with her, keep herself ever-vigilant, ever-awakened, and hopeful, perhaps she could ignore or reverse Susan’s naysaying, explaining away her dastardly truth by inspecting all she stood for with long, clean instruments.
Deb found herself inviting Susan into her cabin for tea. This was a token of supreme trust on her part. Certainly, she did not think that once she got to the bush she would have had to worry about playing hostess. But it was raining outside that day, and Susan’s head appeared—forlorn, childlike, and, strangely, hatless—outside the pane of one of the windows Deb had just shut, and so she had no choice, and switched on her grace. She had nothing but English Breakfast tea and hoped Susan would accept it; she did, without thanks.
The intrusion caused Deb nervousness. She was naked; she had made a personal vow to remain so; blankets were okay, in the night, but nothing else was permissible until the poncho was finished. If asked, Deb would have been able to write out all the rules of her nakedness in full: cardinally, others did not factor in, were not permitted. Deb wondered if Susan might object to her preparations on the grounds of hygiene. Then there was the mirror above her bed, garishly visible from all corners and seeming to sweep the tiny space upwards in the cabin’s own, private firmament. She could not avoid talking about this, she thought, with prudish reserve.
But Susan wasn’t looking at her or the mirror. She had pulled up the only chair in Deb’s cabin, moving it beside the bed, and was staring intently at her nails, picking at one of her fingers and nonchalantly dropping the debris on the floor.
Susan explained herself when Deb approached with the tea. “Damp hands make for the best manicures.” Deb nodded, gave Susan her mug, and then took a seat on the bed next to her, accidentally landing on her crocheting and momentarily wincing, for the needle had scraped her lower back.
“Thorns,” said Susan.
“What?” said Deb, pulling her work out from under Susan.
“Your crocheting is like a thorn patch,” said Susan.
Deb chuckled and placed the needle and wool strategically on her lap: the circle and its tendrils were just big enough to hide her genitalia decorously, though Deb did not want Susan to know that she cared about such things, and so Deb began to play casually with her needle, as if the wool’s resting place was entirely coincidental.
“It will be a poncho, someday, I hope,” said Deb, looking down. “I can’t get it right, though. It’s still a struggle. I learned about a year ago and I’ve made some scarves; that’s it. I’ve got great ambitions for this one, so it makes me hesitate, you know, and worry. I keep undoing what I’ve done. Do you . . . ?”
“Yes,” said Susan. “Well, I did. When I was younger. My mother taught me. My mother was a craftswoman. She made all of her children’s clothes, just as her mother had made all of hers and her brothers’ and sisters’ clothes before her. A family of ten, my mother’s—can you believe it? And then hers—mine—a family of five, four boys and me, the only girl. She never stopped. She was always by a light, bent over, trying to do something useful. She went near-blind at about fifty-five. And me the only girl—well, she got my help with everything. Nothing I did was quite right in her eyes, but she couldn’t get on without me.”
“Yes, yes,” said Deb, sensing a commonality. “I know all about that. My mother never actually taught me how to knit or crochet, because she was sensitive about it—that’s my theory anyway. It was the only creative thing she ever did, and she was damn good at it. And I was so creative from the get-go that I think she tried to prevent me from moving in on her territory. But, I mean, come on—she had nothing to worry about.” Deb lifted up her crocheting to provide an example of her mediocrity, then dropped it in realization of what she had revealed, clumsily undoing the defiance of her nudity.
“This hole, here, it’s not big enough for your head,” said Susan, abruptly, seizing the circle from Deb and roughly dragging some loose wool onto Deb’s stomach. “It looks like it’s going to be for a dog.” Susan laughed, holding the crocheting up to her face to prove that only a human’s nose and upper lip could possibly fit through.
“I needed some kind of foundation,” explained Deb. “I needed something to hold onto, something to encourage me. I thought if I didn’t get it right as a poncho I’d make it a placemat or potholder or something. I’ll widen the hole when I finish.”
Susan was not listening. She had put the crocheting on her wet head as a kind of tam. “I knitted a sweater once for a beautiful young man,” she said gaily, tossing the crocheting back at Deb, who hurriedly restored it over her vagina. “A long time ago it seems now. He was so thin; I worried it would hang from him—there’s nothing worse than a loose-fitting sweater on a thin man. I remember taking his measurements—oh, the fun we had that day. His name was Stewart and he and his family worked and lived downstairs at a store I lived above. I made him so many things then; this was back when people were grateful to have things, when you were considered blessed for being able to make them. It was cold that year, when I met him, and he loved me very much, and I made him matching mittens and a scarf, and he loved me even more for those. He never stopped depending . . .”
Susan’s eyes almost crossed. “I even made matching pairs of underwear for us both, pink and blue. I suppose he still has his pair, wherever he is . . .” Susan trailed off, looking up searchingly at the ceiling and returning to her tea. “I can’t imagine you would ever want to enjoy what you’ve got up there. At your age, I wouldn’t have even known what that was for . . .”
“Oh,” said Deb. The encounter was, of course, being projected above: Deb’s paltry covering, Susan’s sloping shoulders, wet hair, and bald spot in particular, which she may have been trying to hide with that makeshift tam. “It’s not mine,” said Deb, rapidly but firmly. “I tried to take it down when I moved in—actually, do you know Rufus? He lived here before. It was his doing, I gather.” Deb forced a cordial laugh. She wanted to distance herself and her nudity from inklings of perversity.
“I don’t know who lived here before,” said Susan. “Well, I don’t quite know. I never had any interaction with that man. Are you thinking that, you awful thing? Sitting there with your breasts hanging out . . . ? No, no. I’ve never seen the inside of this place until now. But I’ve been out here, in this area, for years. Seen many people come and go. Never wanted to talk to him. My expectations of men are high—impossibly high. You should know that about me. Took me long enough to realize that myself. Nothing holds a candle to men like Stewart. Once you’ve had them, you can’t go back. God bless him—he never lifted a finger against me. But there were things afoot here I didn’t want to know about. Rufus, you say? We never talked; did I mention that? He wasn’t here often; when he was, I tried to stay away. Then, after a while, there was just no sign. I come here sometimes to take care of the garden.” Susan stopped. “So are you close to that man . . . ?”
“No, no, no,” said Deb. “He’s just . . . Rufus and I are not close—you should know that about me.” Was she being accused, then, or surreptitiously lectured? Susan had been perfectly willing to bare her body when they first met, which Deb understood as a display of solidarity. Now she was sitting in her house, prying apart her scruples, her taste, her handiwork. There was no telling how much Susan could be despising her right now. Perhaps Susan, too, viewed the conversation as a kind of penance.
“Whatever happened to Stewart?” Deb asked, a tad spitefully.
“Don’t know,” said Susan, breathing in deeply and exhaling loudly. This was obviously a sensitive subject. Deb kept up.
“Did he leave you, then?”
“No. He was gone, to fight. Then he went missing. I waited for him in the city for ten years. The first month he left I thought I was pregnant. I wasn’t. You come to wish you could make yourself pregnant with the child of a man who has gone—if you’re good enough, maybe it’ll just spring up in there as a reward.”
Deb recalled Susan’s words about men driving women to places like this.
“His parents let me stay on with them for so long. They reduced my rent, and even gave me Stewart’s job when he left. They wondered just like I did, and we became a team. He stopped writing letters; he was never very good at it anyway. Then there were those stories my friends began to tell me about the men who stayed with the women they met out there. French women. I couldn’t listen to that trash anymore. He wasn’t capable of that. And he’s not dead, either, if that’s what you’re thinking. They’d have found him and told us. I cleaned the apartment every day, waiting. And then my sister died and she left me her house up here, so I went out west . . . It was all I could do . . .”
Susan put down her tea and gathered her things from around her chair. Deb barely registered her mumbled farewell as she left.
The cold night air was moving in; the rain clouds were not clearing. Deb had been lucky: two weeks into her naked pact and she had yet to experience a prolonged chill. Now her body felt too rigid. Up until this point she had permitted a sheet; if she had been cold, the swath of this scant bedding sufficed to quell it. The body gets used to being cradled by cloth, Deb learned, and the moments with the sheet seemed to answer this need—one as primal, perhaps, as the nakedness itself. Such capitulations were only momentary, she hoped, but there were other things, too: the exposed body dirtied and scratched so easily, for instance. The cuts and bruises from Deb’s nature romps might have seemed more salutary, more like badges of honor, if they could actually be protected by something. As it was, there was one branch mark on the side of her right-hand thigh that got irritated every time she lay down to sleep. Also, when she boiled water or made a sauce, she sensed tiny, scalding drips on her midsection; cooking could be messy, dangerous. Then there was menstruation: when it presented itself today, it didn’t seem momentous; it was simply a matter of getting used to the onslaught with nothing to grab onto or depend upon—one tended to think about it more, however, because it was out there. Perhaps Susan had seen the little string dangling from between her legs.
Deb began to try to push her body so that she might forget. The endurance test of a body in prolonged nakedness might have something in common with the endurance test of creation: painting had the same imperatives, of not giving up when one felt like it, in service of an end result. Deb was learning, too late in her estimation and with pronounced fascination, that physical exertion, as exhibited by her growing fancy with running, also required a taste for pain. Suffering would yield resilience, no doubt.
The dampness in the air held Deb strangely, a caress not attentive yet still conspicuous, sure and rhythmic yet not kind. The night was fitful, full of half-conscious thoughts of Susan’s visit, of the possibility of Susan having been here with Rufus—this was Deb’s wild conjecture—in which case there might have been a torrent of groping and writhing on this very bed, under this very mirror. Was Susan’s tetchy decency a masquerade for lascivious knowledge, as leaked out in their first encounter? Did that wizened face betray something that refused to wait for a Stewart-type to return? Deb hallucinated further, about Susan’s life above the store, and her clandestine visits with strangers who must have had to traverse the perils of a staircase whose every noise filtered through the ceiling of Stewart’s parents’ bedroom below. The men, Deb gathered, couldn’t avoid being clumsy after Susan had finished with them, and would laugh and snort at their ineptness when they forgot to lift their feet as they exited, drunk. Susan may never have been ostensibly framed and punished for these transgressions, but her guilt swept her away; yes, she got word that Stewart was coming back and fled west; Stewart already came back, maybe, a timid ex-POW, and couldn’t get on with the one he thought he knew.
Deb’s conjectures led to deeper sleep, and more abstract phantasms. She began to dream that she was in front of a crowd in a desert, on top of an enormous, stories-high Gothic window—on its uppermost tip—and from this vantage point able to survey not just the crowd, but the whole world, all its cities and mountains and rivers, into which the crowd, now innumerably great, spilled like crude oil, slicking everything. She was told by a voice that all this was hers. She replied, “I’m not Christ.” The voice replied, “Don’t you like what you see?” She replied, “I already told you, I’m not Christ, but, actually, now that you ask, I don’t like what I see. It’s awful. It’s been botched.” Suddenly, in punishment, black vines began to weave around and inside her, suspending her from the window’s transom. The vines had blooms that picked up sounds, tinny shrieks that came from deep within her throat. She was being lowered to the desert floor. The closer she got the more she could see: the sand was scattered with torture devices. She was being lowered directly onto a Judas chair, the tarnished, pyramidal point of which was waiting for her soft, alabaster ass. She tried to reason with the crowd but no one could answer her from that distance: everything sounded like jeering or frenzied, sadistic cheering. As she reached the Judas chair she tried to depose it by kicking it, but only managed to catch one of its struts with her toe and fling it into the air (the crowd roared in delight at this) so that, momentarily, she could watch it come hurtling directly onto her chest. She lay, finally, punctured and bleeding on the hot sand, vines falling like snakes from above, thudding, rattling, groaning as they landed on her body and onto the ground beside her.
She opened her eyes to a nexus of yarn. She was fondling it as if it were the vines, mumbling to herself, trying to find the sheet she had kicked off. She could see it all in the mirror above her, the horror of her vision transfigured: the vines and the blood-streaked sand were the yarn, the wound on her body, repositioned slightly, a soft woolen ring.
Half awake, Deb noticed a sourness in her stomach and began to shudder. She pushed her way through the yarn, which was caught between her fingers, and reached for a covering below, pulling up something, much heavier than a sheet, which had the texture of peat moss, her wrists bending and her elbow cracking under the effort. A final tug—done with the inhuman strength of the somnambulist—brought it over her body, sending her into warm oblivion.
Deb woke with the sunrise, as she always did, though today the impetus of light mixed with the impetus of scent—a rank one, invading her nostrils and arousing her taste buds through its exhalation. The memory of last night came suddenly, its epic struggles and confusions, its sordid gropings: she was disheveled, as her mirror indicated; her light hair stuck out unflatteringly. The morning was not bright: the coldness persisted. She was partially huddled under a foreign object: this was what had changed the day. It was close to her lips now, as her chin was chilled, though her mind and nose rejected its placement. It was a blanket, a dropping of Susan’s, part of the inscrutable clutch of wrappings she wore. It had to have been damp before, from the rain, but was oddly dry now, and bristled with this dryness, noticeable even when Deb had snatched it up in her stupor last night.
Deb feared, helplessly, lazily perhaps, that if she took her mouth out from under the blanket it would only demonstrate how much she needed the thing. And then she began to contemplate filth. Filth such as this could not harm you, could it? Dirt reached a certain point at which it became undirty, didn’t it? She took solace in a memory of seeing Susan washing her blankets in the lake. She pondered where on Susan’s body the blanket could have come from: it was so heavy; it mustn’t have come from the interior, close to her skin. The smell was sweet, then acrid: it was the kind of thing you could get used to, Deb thought, like the aromas from her roommates’ exotic cooking experiments.
Deb sulked; she missed wearing clothes. She did not long for the scarves and the earrings and the silk underwear, but for the essentials: sweaters, pants. Why did she have to be so principled? Why, indeed, had she stripped herself the moment she was by herself in the cabin, and run far into the forest, up a steep slope in her bare feet, to bury what she came with? She could not get back to that place and recover those items, and her damaged dignity. The cold touched her eyebrows and forehead; it would be wet and muddy; her memory would falter. She began to imagine her exit from the cabin in late October differently: instead of sending for Frank, an occasional lover who lived a short drive away, and emerging from her home, gorgeous, in a bright red poncho, her nipples peeking through a little, her skin radiantly bronzed (drawing out her eyes, a piercing lapis lazuli)—instead of this, she may have to crawl into town naked, or with the failed, scraggy poncho not hiding her nicely, and face Frank that way.
Susan could easily return, and might do so today. Without her completed poncho, however, Deb would need the blanket. She spent the rest of the day terrified, doing nothing but listening from under her new covering to the sounds that came from outside her door. When something foreboding registered in her she would throw the blanket off and prepare for the inevitable. She had to behave as if she never needed the thing, and planned, nervously and with confused commitment to the lie, not to admit to Susan her discovery of it.
Susan’s blanket soon became a stipulation. Deb’s paralysis grew into determination: the poncho was coming along nicely. Deb was combating time, and imminence, with the blanket on her lap and the crocheting on top of the blanket. If Susan was to return, Deb had to hurry and do something that would compensate for her forthcoming loss. Then, when the sun finally reappeared, and Susan still had not returned (Was she ashamed of her emotional outpouring? Had she decided that Deb was a malignant girlfriend?), the blanket became a talisman. It was woven coarsely, probably by a machine; nonetheless, the fact of its warmth gave Deb strength, and the fact of its ugliness proved to Deb that she was capable of surpassing it with her own endeavor, which grew steadily in diameter with each passing day. Deb even cared for the blanket as if it were hers, spot cleaning its stains and trying not to add her own.
Deb’s body might have been getting soft because of this work, and she was surely losing her tan, but it was already the fourth week of August, and she had lost much ground. She would have liked to examine the good of what she had accomplished by morning sunlight, but more often than not she stayed up late and worked by candlelight (though there was a generator in the cabin which she might have used if she wanted to; she didn’t). Her schedule was beginning to mimic that which she took to in the city (up all night creating, to sleep at sunrise, up well after noon). Of what she could see of the poncho, under the glow of her candles and the critical-yet-bleary eye of her Puritan fatigue, she approved.
The glorious day of the poncho’s completion was sunny and warm. The stores of yarn she had brought with her had depleted perfectly; she had used up everything without waste or want. Perhaps the light through her window was brighter then than it ever had been, yet it exposed no flaws in the garment’s construction. It was one of the most perfect things she had ever made. The exhilaration when the final stitch was set into place felt too long in coming: that brilliant moment when work is finally over, but the body and mind press forward anyway, wallowing in the superfluity of once-constructive movement. One tiny thing remained: to fix the small opening at the top by which Susan was so bothered. Deb went at it gently, with the ends of her fingers, quietly untying her first knottings to make a provisional opening through which she quickly thrust her head and long blonde hair.
Deb stepped out of her door. The red of the garment gleamed under the still-strong September sunlight. She walked past her property, first into the bush, where her poncho caught on everything it touched (the ground, the trees), but never snagged; it gathered traces of twig and leaf as if it were embracing and purifying the ground. She glided past the pines like an earth priestess on tour of her domain. The minor chill in the breeze seemed to necessitate this covering. She had woven her way back into the elements. Her poncho’s debut was a raging success.
That night Deb packed up Susan’s blanket and stuffed it under her bed. Her poncho made it, and everything else, obsolete. She slept with it on, never wanting to take it off, and felt it acutely on her skin, on every hair, pore, crevasse: its beauty had beguiled her, erasing the terrible labors of its birth. The following morning was like a reawakening to the first few days of her stay. Susan had vaporized along with the moisture, and Deb was naked again in her new clothing. Like its owner, Susan’s blanket was indelicate, scarred; Deb’s poncho was better, an outpouring of a hopeful, blessed mind, falling on her like clean water over smooth rocks.
Deb drifted out again, into the woods, losing track of herself and of time. To run at this point would not become her, and so she meandered with poetic strength, eventually reaching the shoreline. She decided to remove her poncho and to dive in; she thirsted after the sun and was, of course, not going to lose her work to the shrinking and soiling caprices of water. She took the garment slowly up over her body, pushing it backwards, lifting its front end over her head and studying the lake through its red mesh. Someone in a boat on the lake, with an eye attuned to the picturesque, would have seen her on the beach in the foreground, part of the line of trees behind her, her own foliage a crimson, wooly proliferation, her roots pale, hairy legs joining hairy feet half immersed in caramel sand, with the mountains complementary, deflated A-shapes in the background. As if in a trance, Deb let the poncho fall behind her and walked into the water. She paid no heed to how cold it was, swimming out farther than she had ever swum before. When she returned, the poncho was gone.
Deb had walked too far on the beach, both ways, to tell if there had been any suspicious markings on the sand that were not hers. The ground here was somewhat coarse, and did not take the imprint of wetness, nor of footprints, as distinctly as the lighter, finer places. And she had not seen anything earlier. Did a group of geese light upon it and lift it up together?
Deb spent some time after her confused circling of the beach wandering in the woods, a task utterly humiliating and uncomfortable for her, for she was not drying successfully in the early afternoon sun, and the wetness of her feet rested awkwardly and painfully on roots that stuck out of unfamiliar paths. She was close to getting lost before she fully relented. She was crying, cursing to herself. In her present, emptyhanded defeat, Deb could not have been more sheerly visible.
The unreality of the theft persisted as Deb returned home, ate something, and sat down on her bed. Surely the world wasn’t against her to this extent; surely Susan hadn’t taken the poncho to thwart her. Perhaps Susan, raffish wanderer that she was, just came across it and, surrendering to her interest in any and all scraps, snatched it up, not thinking of where it had come from, or to whom it belonged. But how could Susan have forgotten? She might not have recognized the poncho in its current form—Deb herself would have been surprised as to how well it turned out—but she was capable of seeing the connection. Perhaps the theft was proof of mania, or psychopathy, or senility: with pity, Deb tried to disassociate Susan from any intentional misdeed. Deb went out for another look and came back. Then she went out and came back again. There was no trace for as far as her legs could carry her. She was getting cold; it was getting dark; and she reached under her bed for Susan’s blanket to supplement her sheet. To think of how hard she had tried to transcend this! Deb began to cry once more, sobbing more intensely as her body warmed. Nothing was more humbling than the blanket’s embrace. What an ignominious homecoming: she had cast off what was always cast off, but had not changed it, or herself, at all.
The next morning Deb returned to the scene of the crime. She had Susan’s blanket wrapped around her, and was sipping tea, leaning over the mug to see the reflection of her nose, then looking up at the opaque undulations on the lake. Impulsively, she dropped her blanket and her mug and went into the lake. She began her swim by acutely sensing bits in it, as if it were a stew: wood chips floating amid islands of yellowing foam; weeds tickling her feet, occasionally surfacing near her mouth. The difficult routine of swimming returned; her muscles were sore from yesterday’s search but she continued, unswerving, until she reached a remote sandbank.
Deb did a pirouette, taking in the stillness. She closed her eyes and submerged herself, coming up for air slowly, and repeating the gesture. This represented the endless pattern of days in the wilderness and the thoughts it brought: the body’s fluctuations; menstruation and aging; growing fingernails and hair; the effort required to condition oneself into health; occasional loss of memory; strange feelings of an advanced yet still-unwise youth; the feeble quality of everything she had tried to pour into the world, including her paintings, her cooking, her poncho. It was all such amateurism—if that’s what one called sensing an awkward subjugation to life’s greater powers. Still she persisted, half under an unbreathable murky green, half above, gawking intermittently at a presumed paradise whose impressiveness no one could ever fully relate to or explain, and continued to register no changes.
Then, on the shore, a tiny figure, a red blot: had she dreamt this last night? Deb instinctively raced past the edge of the sandbank and swam nimbly, kicking through the pain, trying to keep a straight line between her and the blot. Halfway there, she stopped to check her progress; the blot remained. Every time she lifted her head, the blot remained, urging her to kick harder. When she finally stepped out of the water, she found no one. Deb paused to commemorate the return of her poncho and then ran into the grass, and back and forth along the beach, yelling Susan’s name. She screamed until she was hoarse: “I know you’re out there!” “I know what you’ve done!” “Come back!”
Deb returned to the poncho. It was a restitution beyond reproach or celebration; no justice was possible other than what was lying, or not lying, here. Deb was freezing, but took a moment before putting on the garment to remember Susan’s blanket, which was now gone, along with her mug. If she ever saw the blanket again, it would be entwined around Susan, mingling with her other wrappings. It would stay only in her memory, as a sensation that had once surrounded her young flesh—and as an incident, which may or may not be over now.
Under the poncho, Deb sensed something new: it was as if a piece of paper had been stapled to its neck. When she emerged, she found herself bracketed by a large, white, lace collar. She could not tell whether the lace had been handmade; her sewer’s eye was not that expert. She could tell, however, that the lace was an intricate kind of tatting. If Susan had made the collar, she was prodigious, or perhaps had been saving these pieces, which had been bought long ago for a special occasion. Deb looked around again to see if Susan was lurking; it was too kind, really, and she hoped that Susan was standing by as silent witness to her gift. She wasn’t. Deb remained on the beach as a sign of gratitude: they had done this together, and in an unlikely about-face, Deb had furnished the base, and Susan the ornament.
Deb returned to her cabin, eager to make a judgment on her appearance. She threw open her curtains, lay down on her bed, and looked at herself in her mirror. It was a disaster. Susan’s embellished collar, the ends of which rolled almost to the beginnings of Deb’s breasts, seemed, at once, like a bib, and like absurd flourishes on a religious smock, drawing out the sharpness in Deb’s nose and chin, and desexing her. Deb laughed at first, but this did not last. And the more she scrutinized, the more the band on the collar, made of stiff, rough material, chafed, as she moved her chin back and forth in frantic deference to her vanity.
She sat up and stripped herself. Then she pulled at the tightly stitched fabric. Excising the collar while still preserving the poncho would not be easy. She reached for her crocheting hook, which had been sitting unused on her desk, and pounced on the poncho. It was like taking a crowbar to a vault. The stitches were too small, the hook too clumsy. Hungry for immediate results, she added her teeth and nails to the effort, and was eventually, if sloppily, triumphant, leaving the neck hole considerably bigger than it had been.
Deb put the poncho back on and sat on her bed, ravaged collar in hand. She slipped her fingers through the holes in its lace flaps and snapped them one by one. She would call Frank tomorrow.
Illustrations by Vanessa Rieger