Short story from the 2012 issue.
By Vanessa Furse Jackson
Amanda shut her eyes as Em’s scream tore red flags out of the darkness behind her eyelids. She counted to ten and opened her eyes again, smiling as she must. “Are you sure I can’t help?” she asked.
“When I need your help, Mandolin, I’ll ask for it,” Em said.
“Mandolin, Banjo, Mojo, Mama. Leave. Me. Alone.” Em bared her teeth for a moment then bent again to the string she held in her hands.
Amanda got up, removed the breakfast things off the table at which they sat, and took them through to the kitchen. Her mother’s kitchen, in which her mother would never again cook. She sighed for the little rented house she’d forsaken to return here to her old home, so subtly home no longer.
Em hunched over her length of string, carefully winding one end round and around her left thumb. When that thumb was so firmly bound it was bloodless, she brought her hands together and clumsily began winding the other end around her right thumb.
Amanda sat down again and watched. Another long day stretched before them.
Em’s tongue was protruding from her mouth in concentration as she parted her hands to reveal the string stretched like a tightrope between two cold white thumbs. She stared at it, waiting. “Now what do I do?” she asked. “What do I do next?”
When Amanda was a child, her mother had knitted professionally. She’d designed sweaters, cardigans, even dresses in extravagant colours and bold geometric patterns. She sold her creations—“my beautiful children,” she called them—for a great deal of money, which Amanda knew made her father uneasy. “Are you sure,” she remembered him saying, “that you need me around any more?”
Her mother had laughed. She must have laughed. She always laughed when Amanda was a child, the knitting spilling from her big chintz bag or bundled up in her lap, its wild wool colours crowding and bunching like sheep, obedient always to the click of her needles.
“You can’t fight life,” she’d say. She said it even when Amanda’s father left them for his serious secretary. “You can’t fight life. You just have to go on.” And if she had grieved, Amanda had never known it.
Anxious to help, Amanda became passionate to knit and make fabulous money like her mother. “Show me,” she’d demanded. “Show me how to do it.”
So when her mother sat down with the bright sheep in her lap, Amanda sat on a stool beside her, painstakingly poking at each stitch, winding the wool over, bending the needle under, pushing off the tight loop, holding her breath while each stage was completed. But when she cast off her first wool square, she cried with vexation that it wasn’t what she’d imagined, that it only had one colour, that it wasn’t what she’d wanted her mother to give her.
And her mother laughed and was patient, as she always was. Step by step, she taught Amanda to increase and decrease, to weave in different coloured wools, to change her stitches to form patterns, to measure the dolls and bears carefully beforehand.
“Now what do I do?” Amanda could still hear herself saying. “What do I do next?”
“What is it that you’re trying to do, Em?” she asked.
“You know,” Em said. “You know. You make things with it.” She hooked a finger underneath the string and tugged at it. “Patterns. Of course you know.” Her voice was rising again.
Amanda did know, but she had never been as patient as her mother and wasn’t sure she had the energy to try and teach what she knew could never be mastered.
“I hate you,” Em shouted, waving her bound thumbs in the air. “I hate you.”
“Cat’s cradle,” Amanda said, the placating smile coming unbidden to her face.
“What?” Em said, suspiciously.
“Cat’s cradle. Making shapes with string. Only you don’t do it quite like that.” She thought she had never yearned as intensely as she did at this moment for her mother to come back and comfort her.
“Yes, you do. You put it round your thumbs. I know you do,” Em persisted.
Amanda had been aware for some time before it happened that she was going to lose her mother, but this knowledge had made the loss no easier to bear. She had suffered harsh grief over the past months, bearable only because she believed that in time the pain would lessen – would, with custom, dull into acceptance. Instead, it seemed to be growing scythe-sharp. “Let me show you, Em,” she said. “Then you can try it, all right?”
Em looked at her with her stony lion look.
Amanda went over to her mother’s string drawer, snipped another piece of string to the right length, carefully replaced the scissors at the back of the drawer, and came to sit down again. She knotted the two ends of the string together. “First, you must make one big loop,” she explained. “Not use your poor thumbs as if they were knitting needles.”
A faint smile loosened Em’s face, and she began to unwind her tightrope of string. The skin on her thumbs was corrugated and looked painful and comical. “Hurt,” she said, holding them up for Amanda’s inspection.
“Poor thumbs,” Amanda said. She took each one and kissed it better. “There,” she said. “Now watch me.”
Em hid her thumbs beneath her fingers and watched, round-eyed as a child before a magician.
Amanda hooked her thumbs into the circle of string and stretched it out. She wove her fourth fingers over the first line of string and under the next, hooked this back and opened her hands out. Now she was holding a long rectangle. Into the piece of string that ran across each palm, she put the opposite index finger and pulled her hands apart again. She held out the pattern she’d made, so involved in the instinctual remembering of the old moves that for a moment she forgot that Em could not know what came next. Forgot that it takes two pairs of hands to make a cradle.
Memory flooded her in a sudden cold sweat.
As if in the suspended otherworld of a silent film, Amanda could feel her mouth open without sound, her pulse rise like a sickness up her throat. Into this paralysis, Em broke like an electric shock. She leaned across the table and snatched the string from off Amanda’s hands, tugging fiercely at a thumb around which the string had stuck.
“Ouch!” Amanda said. “Em, be careful. Here, let me.” She tried to slip the string off her thumb with her other hand, but Em was tightening it with every tug. “Em,” she repeated. “Don’t.”
Em shot her one look from under ferocious brows and pulled again.
“Let me have it,” she panted. “I want it. Give it to me.”
“Em,” Amanda shouted at her. “Em. Mamma. Mamma, please, stop
“Em, just Em,” insisted her mother, as she had done all through Amanda’s childhood. Not Mamma, as the baby Amanda had called her. Not Emily, as she had been christened. Just Em, as if to hoard her identity against the meshes of marriage and motherhood.
“Em, stop, you’re hurting me. Stop it!”
“Hurt, hurt,” said her mother, pulling.
Amanda rose from her chair and, leaning across the table, finally managed to slacken the string and free herself. She sat down nursing her thumb, the pulse in her throat still beating, tears hot in her eyes.
Em, the string triumphantly clutched, smiled beatifically at her. “I’m hungry,” she announced. “Why won’t you let me eat anything?”
Amanda tried to smile back, to answer patiently, but found she couldn’t. She put her bruised thumb to her mouth, and tears ran warm onto her hand.
“At first, it’s just as if a few stitches of the brain have been dropped,” the consultant had told her. “But they can’t be picked up again. The unraveling goes on and on until there are more gaps than stitches.”
“What’s the matter, Mandolin?”
What do I do next, Mamma? Amanda longed to ask.
Her mother sighed, as if with great patience, and dropped the circle of string over her thumbs. She wove her fingers in and out, in and out, until a crazed tangle shackled her hands. She held up her creation for Amanda to see. “Look,’ she cried, her eyes alight. “Look at me. Look at Em. My beautiful child!”