She begins with the grass that runs along the border near the bottom. She's careful, as the tea-stained linen cloth is beginning to fray from the hundreds of times she's pulled it in and out of the canvas shopping bag where she keeps her sewing. She pulls each stitch carefully, her movements a kind of mirror to the rhythm she's developed over the months of creating the design. One after another, the tiny x's are removed, row by row. Row by row the meadow disappears.
"You need something to keep you busy," the nurse said, her eyes kind and full of sympathy. Belinda didn't want her sympathy, but she bought the kit anyway. It beat staring out the window of the hospital room, watching the same oak tree day after day, its grey-green leaves shivering in the endless wind. It beat staring at her daughter on the bed.
Beneath the stitches the cloth is clean, protected from the oil on her fingers, the worrying that worked to unravel the parts not protected by the embroidery hoop. A Beautiful Day was the name of the design, and Belinda has worked to make it so. Stitch the sunshine and it will come. Sometimes weeks went by when the bag sat still, when Emmy was allowed to come home, don a baseball cap, and play in the sun of her own back yard. Then would come the pain, and the fever, and Belinda would grab the sewing bag on the way out the door to the hospital.
Next come the flowers, the scattered clumps of blue and orange with tiny yellow centers. Belinda snips the knots along the back, pulling out the petals one after another, shearing leaves from stems, then stems to nothingness. It's a ritual, this act of undoing. Funny, she thinks, how the unmaking of a thing takes so much less time than its creation.
From the direction of the bed comes a stirring and a soft moan. Belinda looks over, still somehow expecting the thin, emaciated form to sit up and ask for ice cream, but there are only the long, deep breaths of medicated sleep. She wants with all her heart to shake her child, to wake her up and look into her eyes for each and every ticking second she has left, but becoming a mother has always meant putting someone else's needs before your own. And what Emmy needs now is respite, however brief. Belinda looks down, and pulls out another stitch.
The grief counselor at the hospital checks in from time to time, frowning but saying nothing as she takes in Belinda's work. "Forgive yourself," she is fond of saying. "Forgive yourself for being angry." But the thing inside Belinda doesn't feel like anger; it feels like a vacuum, a great blind nothingness that threatens to swallow them both. How could she carry the power within her to weave together a human being, to knit cells and organs into a living, breathing system, and yet not have the power to stop those same cells from consuming what she'd made? She mumbles something vaguely acceptable to the grief counselor, and removes another stitch.
The great tree standing upon the bright green hill comes next, first the roots, then trunk with the small knot that Emmy always thought was just the right size for a squirrel. Outside the wind scrapes branches against the glass. It's an irritating sound, and in her annoyance, Belinda rips the threads faster until the tree outside is silent. Then go the leaves, one at a time, each separate from the others. This had been the part that had taken the longest: single, independent x's that had to be severed and tied off individually. Weeks and weeks Belinda had spent, drawing the threads through the fabric once, twice, then cutting and tying and starting again. The unmaking is far quicker, a few minutes of shearing off the firmament of knots on the back followed by pinching off the green scraps on the front. In minutes, the tree is gone, and there is no sound outside now but the wind.
The breaths on the bed grow more shallow, and Belinda imagines Emmy as a bird, skimming the tops of trees or the crests of waves in the ocean. Weightless, only connected to the ground as an afterthought.
The last to go is the sky; a scattering of blue stitches meant to give the suggestion of an atmosphere, punctuated by small, puffy white clouds. Three birds made from black thread fly in running stitches. Last of all is the sun, a swirl of oranges and yellows surrounded by wedge-shaped rays. The winking eye and upturned mouth are the final cuts, the last pieces of thread dumped into the sanitary metal trashcan at Belinda's feet.
On the bed Emmy's breaths have become so faint that it's hard to hear them at all now. Belinda drops the empty and frayed linen cloth into the trash can and lies down next to her daughter, holding her small, cold hands in her own.
Outside, the world goes dark.
This story originally appeared in Flash Fiction Online.
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