The Yarnball Woman – Michael Milne

The Yarnball Woman – Michael Milne

By the third time Patricia lost a finger, everyone knew better than to raise a fuss.

Her family hadn’t always been this calm. When the first finger, a knuckle’s-worth of her left pinky, had fallen plumply into her dinner salad, there had been an enormous commotion. Her young daughters screamed and bolted into the back yard, and hours later had to be coaxed back inside. Jack fumbled with the phone in the kitchen, trying to maintain an even voice while holding back tears. The family border collie, Bernard, stationed himself next to Patricia, barking at the table and the fallen digit. All the while, Patricia sat staring at her dinner and her finger, unable to move, as though crying or sealing herself in the bathroom would invite some new calamity, allow new seams to loosen and more body parts to shake free.

This finger disassembled like the others, severing just below the nailbed. June, the elder daughter, hadn’t noticed anything, but Leila was looking and let out a calm, plaintive sigh, like the sound of a pillow being fluffed. Whatever form her exclamation had wanted to take, Leila snuffed it and formed it into something tamer. The girls don’t want to embarrass me, Patricia thought. She dreaded that they were already burying their own feelings on her behalf.

She had just painted her nails in aquamarine, and the tiny nub lay lifeless on the hardwood like a dead scarab. There was no blood and no wound, just a smooth, curved tip. Like it hadn’t come from Patricia at all.

Do you want this, Mom?” June asked, gesturing towards the table. She had a tight smile plastered on her face, though Patricia could see her eyes growing wet.

Yes,” Patricia said. She found herself relieved she hadn’t lost a forefinger—which would have made it harder to operate a camera—and then surprised that relief was the first emotion past the finish line. “I’ll need to keep it fresh.” Would she feel something else later, when the family doctor sternly shook her head, and carted the piece of her away in a miniature medical waste receptacle?

Patricia’s daughters were still young enough to take cues from their parents—they could get used to anything. They knew to get bags and ice, to stay calm. They knew not to call for an ambulance. None of their actions would save the finger, of course, but the action plan seemed to comfort them. And Jack, too.

Should I order Leila and me a pizza?” June inquired. Leila had scurried to the backyard, notifying her father, and then moved upstairs without another word. Both June and her mother pretended not to hear the door slam, or the sobbing.

This nonchalance they all tag-teamed was a form of pre-grief, though she would never call it that to her family. When the first chunk of a finger had lopped itself off, when she had withdrawn a foot from her boot two toes lighter than before, the family had been devastated. They had tried fad diets together, sat in the offices of countless baffled specialists. Jack was starting to dabble in more woo-woo cures, and they could barely find shelves for all the new crystals they owned.

But along with it all, Patricia detected a growing, polite acceptance, like a bed of mushrooms sprouting in the expanding dark. In the absence of a recognizable disease, the comforting burden of a sharply defined prognosis, Patricia’s tendency to lose pieces of herself was growing to seem like a quirk of her personality than a calamity.

I’ll make an appointment, Patty. An hour’s wait at the most.” Jack had entered from the backyard, scanning the room and offering a decisive nod. He squeezed Patricia’s shoulder once, and then went to get the phone. Without any exposed nerves or vessels to actually use for replantation, Dr. Liu tended to pessimistically refer Patricia straight to specialists and prosthetic makers. But calling the doctor was part of the ritual, part of the routine. Jack took pride in his duty and care, especially when the alternative was so much screaming and crying.

Patricia permitted herself to join in optimism. She didn’t think that the crystals or all of the amputation triage would do any good, but she was still confident that the doctors would one day stop her body parts from falling off.

After a few years of dedicated collecting, Patricia decided to give up on the headscarves. She had amassed quite the array, fine silks and cottons in a mass of patterns. Sabine, who ran the hijab shop at the strip mall down the road, had taught her a dozen ways to tie and drape. Sabine called her “Mrs. Patricia” and was comfortingly discreet, teaching her how to pad and mimic a full head of hair below the fabric.

But Patricia had heard too many questions behind her, so many strangers misfiring and artlessly explaining cancer to their children. She recalled her own grandmother—her daughter Leila’s namesake—withering away to breast cancer, her floral headscarves a blaring siren of her disease. Patricia decided she couldn’t be brave anymore.

You look beautiful, my sweet. New hairdo?” Jack, bless him, did not even seem to blink at the wig. She had aimed for incognito: a boring and frumpy brunette style, almost exactly the same colour and shape she had worn before clumps of her own hair started coming loose. She had brought old pictures of herself to the wig shop.

Just got back from the stylist,” Patricia said. She was relieved that they could joke, that if Jack had questions, he was restraining them.

Modern fashion!” Jack said. “Maybe I should get something new?” He ruffled his own hair, then came to kiss his wife on the cheek.

Jack left it there, and Patricia was thankful. He went about preparing dinner—they’d all gone raw vegan—and Patricia ignored the quiet sigh she heard from the kitchen. As Patricia sat and read, her hand sought out the ends of her new hair to play with, a forgotten habit she took joy in reclaiming.

Later that night, she would set up her camera to take a picture to send to June. Older now, both girls were much better at dealing with Patricia’s condition. But June lived away from home, and never had to find misplaced toes forgotten in the bathroom.

I liked the wraps better,” Leila said, returning from school, her weighty backpack heaved onto the couch beside where Patricia read.

I liked having hair better,” Patricia said. Leila recoiled, and Patricia was left to wonder how acidly she had said it. She had lost the ability to gauge her tone, and that had been messy with two teenage daughters. “Sorry. Sorry, honey. I’m just sick of explaining that it’s not chemo.” Though for a while cancer had been a nicer excuse than a bewildered shrug. “Besides, now you can grow your hair out!”

Months before, when the first curl of Patricia’s chestnut hair had snarled in the collar of her pea coat, Leila had caught it. Without saying anything, she had withdrawn a pin from her purse, drawn her mother’s hair back, and covered the missing patch. As more hair fell, as Leila began sculpting with less and less clay, she had done her own hair to match her mother’s. And when that became too much, Leila walked her mother into Sabine’s and shaved her own head the next day.

Leila drew her hand up to her head, ran her fingers through her closely cropped hair. She wore a pair of Patricia’s earrings, which glinted and swayed in the negative space framing her head.

I think I’ll keep it like this. It feels lighter.”

We won’t match anymore,” Patricia joked. She hoped she made her voice sound light and airy.

I’ll keep matching you, mommy.” Oh God, she was crying. Had Patricia sobbed without meaning to? “Even if you don’t always match yourself.”

When June requested the engagement shoot, Patricia couldn’t resist. She would make the best of things.

While Patricia didn’t take many commissions or shoots anymore, she still liked the idea of adding to her personal collection of photographs. With both girls out of the house now, Patricia had no one to drive her during the day. She would clamber awkwardly onto the subway and slowly make her way across town on her two canes, pausing occasionally to slowly pull the viewfinder before her eyes. She still kept a dozen business cards in her purse—Patricia Anne Atkinson, Professional Photographer—but felt too embarrassed to give them to anyone. Every venture out was increasingly awkward and difficult, tinged with the growing sense that it might be her last opportunity to use her camera.

Leila took most of the actual engagement shots, under her mother’s direct command. Her daughter had a knack for photography, and Patricia had been trying to cultivate it. Together they had decided on simplicity, a pleasantly decrepit gazebo in the nearby park, and a luckily sunny afternoon. The fiancé called her Mrs. Atkinson all day, overtly formal, and glanced away whenever she struggled with her canes. Patricia was too excited by the photo shoot to find this annoying.

Increase contrast by five per cent,” Patricia told her computer. “Turn off that blue auto-filter!” She’d need the girls to review the pictures anyway. She could no longer see the colour red, and she tended to oversaturate her photos to compensate.

Her adaptive laptop had a variety of assistive apps, including the photo editor in which she now worked. They had gone for an all-purpose device, as her disabilities changed by the day and had no predictable course. Or explanation. For now, she could still manipulate the mouse with her remaining half-fingers, though some of the voice commands intuited her tone enough to get the gist of what she wanted. Occasionally the computer would take too many liberties, would assume her wants and add hideous hues or start playing classical music in the background of her work.

Crop and frame. A touch left. Now rotate maybe three degrees clockwise.” A shot taken from up near the rafters, where Leila had scurried, both Patricia and June’s fiancé giving her a boost. She had giggled hard enough to miff the angle, but the smiles made the shot too good to delete. “There. Perfect.”

That’s a lovely picture,” Jack said from behind her shoulder. He often checked in on her when she was working, as Patricia was wont to shout the computer down when it couldn’t interpret her commands. “Really, Patty. I think June is thrilled you’re doing these.”

Well, it’s mostly Leila, Patricia thought but didn’t say. He brought her a glass of water and held it at straw distance while Patricia slurped, not making eye contact, as though to afford her a sliver of dignity. The water probably contained one one-millionth of boiled down moonwart or vervain, knowing Jack. Unconvinced by mystical healing, she had decided to find his efforts loving and tender.

Right now, though, she felt only resentment that Jack had to hold the glass for her, or Leila the camera. They were middlemen, though she was still the photographer, the water-drinker. But when would her involvement become tangential enough to go uncounted, her joys conjugated exclusively in past tense?

Jack watched for a time, but left as Patricia fell silent in her work. She came across a few photos she had taken herself—with Leila supporting her arm, bracing her. After the loss of the first round of knuckles, Patricia’s fingers had continued to shrink until she could barely hold the camera. Now, she could tell all of her shots were blurred, and she deleted them.

The last in the set had been taken by the fiancé, what-was-his-name… Ted! Patricia smiled at a portrait with both girls flanking their mother. They held her up, but their support looked casual, serene. June had just told a joke, and all three women were caught mid-laugh, their matching blue eyes gazing at one another.

Computer, remove…” but Patricia stopped. There was an autoblur at the creases of her prosthetics, the synthetic and natural skin blending in. Adjusted lighting and the breeze made her wig look suddenly realistic. Patricia paused, hovered over the controls. With a few clicks she shaved off years, removed the straps of her prostheses, all evidence of her medical shunts. She looked, in many ways, like the woman she had been a few years before.

Patricia hated herself for a moment for being so vain, but she decided to keep the picture as a sort of reminder, as a goal. Jack had started a Vision Board, and he would be touched if she pretended at interest.

A deep part of her felt, in a way she didn’t care to address or name, that this was the way she wanted to be remembered. That after she was gone, this was the vision to be stamped into memories. She sent the picture to her daughters, saving a copy for herself.

She woke up one day as normal, stretching her arms and the hand-with-some-fingers high above her head. In her bedroom with Jack, she went without her prostheses, but she always tried to dress and en-limb herself before she confronted the world. With so many pieces scattered around her nightstand, the carpet, or rolled under the bed, reassembling herself took a few minutes. Jack had not stirred, and so she tried to muffle her grunts, frustrated with each finicky clasp and strap. All the while she imagined deliberately planting a plastic hand in the grocery store, or abandoning an ear in a restaurant bathroom, just to give some cooing, pitying stranger a scare.

Her wheelchair, parked just along her side of the bed, was cold against her skin as she hauled herself into it. After nearly a year of practice and dozens of pounds of lost weight, she performed the manoeuvre in silence. The controls to her chair were difficult to operate with so few fingers, but she found herself too proud to switch to a puff-and-sip model. At last she was composed, a simulacrum vision of herself, ready to set sail in her chair for the day.

It was still dark in the kitchen, the sun just rising out the windows. In the quiet she put on the coffee, feeling satisfied that she was part of the familial routine, and settled herself at the table to read.

It wasn’t until breakfast that she noticed what was gone.

Morning, Jack.” She had the newspaper spread before her, paperweights on the corners.

Morning.” Her husband smiled at her for a minute, his mouth working back and forth like he was chewing gum. “Good morning.” And then again the chewing.

In truth, neither of them could properly grasp the problem until she rolled to the front door for the mail. Bills, wedding invitations, touch-activated holographic coupons. All of them addressed to Jack Atkinson &

They all trailed off that way, the gulf beside the ampersand expanding like a white sea with no horizon. The woman felt an emotion stir inside, and after struggling to name it, she decided it was loss.

Jack finally cottoned on and began sobbing. He called Father Schwarz, the latest guru he’d turned to for advice and answers. In the backyard, the woman could hear Jack trying to curtail his tears as he described the problem.

Hey Ma, what’s up?” Leila was back at home for the summer before her final year at university. She glanced to the backyard and spotted Jack. “What happened?”

It’s nothing, dear. I need some help writing a few emails to the lawyer. Do you think you could help?” Her computer, though skilled at voice-to-text, had difficulty transcribing her speech. She had lost her /s/ and /l/, and Leila was much better at interpreting her words.

She kept things vague, as Leila didn’t need to know the gritty details of estate law or power of attorney. She made sure to ask after Mr. Attakar’s children and wife, and insisted Leila include something about the weather or the news.

Perfect, dear. I’ll sign it and send it.”

Leila, accustomed to being her mother’s scribe, squinted at her. She tapped a few keys and screwed up her face with curiosity.

Oh.” Leila’s mother wasn’t so good with masking her feelings anymore, and Leila approached for a hug. They tried all of the variations of her name; even the initials were gone. Leila’s fingers would work, but get tangled; or the keystrokes would produce nothing on the screen. At best, she could type “Mr. and Mrs. Jack Atkinson” but both women prickled at the anachronism.

I’ve got an idea,” Leila said. She signed the email from herself with her full name, Leila Anne Atkinson, on behalf of her mother. “You picked out my name, right? Family names or something.”

It was a wedding, or some other big fancy event. The woman couldn’t tell, but Jack laid out an elegant dress for her, one that mimicked volume and covered her legs. She watched him get dressed, and remembered feeling attraction to him—not the comforting love she still held, but lust and want. As he dressed, she tried to simply enjoy the way his limbs still moved in concert, the dextrous way he pulled a belt around his waist.

When did you get that tattoo?” she asked.

A few months ago. At half Christmas.” She had lost her birthday years ago, and they celebrated her now in mid-June. He leaned over so she could see the ink across his shoulder.

A man of your age with a tattoo,” she cawed. Jack smiled, as though they had done this before. “It looks like somebody’s hand print.”

When Jack was dressed, Leila Anne came up into the room to help her mother. The process was arduous, with a dozen criss-crossing harnesses across her torso. The dress Jack had picked was long and dull: any colour too flashy would make her look even stranger, as a few weeks previous she herself had gone black and white.

You look smashing, Ma. Even better than at my wedding!” Leila Anne smiled, and the woman tried to remember when her daughter had gotten married or to whom. Leila Anne positioned her parents in the foyer and took a few pictures, promising her mother they would look classy in grayscale.

The event was fine. Though bereft of much to think about, she was able to tune out most of the religious content and enjoy the stained glass on the windows. Churches bored her, and she was sick of being dragged to so many of them, of people praying over her. When they went to the reception, however, things became too complicated for her to navigate.

The guests at their table, ones the woman felt certain she either knew or was required to know, whispered incessantly. They watched her as she ate, which was a messy and difficult process, and she had lost the ability to taste much these days anyway. They watched as she talked, which was also messy, though Jack and the girls rarely let her feel it. They watched as she watched, seemingly certain that she wasn’t aware of them.

The men and women of table 12 cast piteous glances at her, and talked to Jack about her in the third person. Had they ever figured out what had happened? Was it, they said only half-jokingly, some sort of curse? When they made painstaking efforts to include her in the conversation, they talked as though she were a child. If she had the fingers to tensely grip the sides of her chair, she knew she would be squeezing with all of her might.

Are you having a good time? This is a really delicious meal, isn’t it?”

It tastes like shit,” she said. She said it a few more times when the others couldn’t make out her speech, and at last Jack interpreted for her. No amount of façade would impress people. No one would even pretend she was the same as she once was.

When the woman was home at last home, and Jack had settled for a quiet whiskey after positioning her in their bedroom, she sat before the mirror for a long time. She considered her hands: how little of them was left, how much was plastic, and whether she would ever recall their original shape. How much she wore for herself, and how much she put on so she wouldn’t disturb others.

She thought of all the blessed herbs and fluids positioned around the room, on her chair, under her pillow. She gazed at her eyes in the mirror—once, someone had said one of the girls had her eyes, but now they were a cloudy grey. She consulted a nearby photograph of herself and the girls to confirm that her eyes might once have been blue.

With a steadying breath, the woman loosened the first strap. Her fingers had lost their finesse and so the harnesses with extra buckles and bands were the most difficult. When the last clasp loosened, the thighs decoupled in a sweaty gasp, and the woman felt lighter.

She let lengths of fabric and padded leather fall to the ground around her, draped across so much shaped and grey-pink simulated skin. And she decided it would be the last time she wore any of it.

The man carried the woman around in his arms as he went about their morning routine. In the pale light seeping through the windows, she was just able to make out what he was doing. Her vision was still sharp, though she found it difficult to make sense of what she saw.

The man made them both breakfast, and she noted the pains he took to make it taste good. By necessity it had to be all liquid, but she never had need to complain about the flavour.

The quiet of the house was occasionally broken by the shuffling and sniffling of the animal. She wasn’t sure the name of this one, and cute as she found it, she felt sure it wasn’t the one she was used to. Unable to really fend off dogs, the woman was often placed quite high in different rooms.

Trisha’s here,” the man said to the woman. She liked Trisha, though she found it hard to place exactly how they were related. She looked like someone that the woman knew; those eyes.

Hi Grandma,” the girl said. Yes! That was it. “You ready to go the park?” The woman couldn’t reply, but she could smile, and that was enough.

Her wheelchair was soft and insulated, with steadying straps on each side. The girl, Trisha was her name, could capably lift the woman into it without assistance. They wheeled through the front door, down the ramp, and into the crisp afternoon.

The woman liked these trips to the park, though she sometimes found them difficult to deal with. She would remember sometimes, short recollections of herself and the man, frayed snippets she couldn’t grasp the ends of. Walking, using her long legs, pushing a wheeled vehicle herself, some smiling pink lump held within. Was the lump now this girl, Trisha? It seemed too long ago, and Trisha herself too young. She remembered wearing dresses, colours picked to match her eyes or the season, and she remembered pulling them on herself. She remembered sitting in the park with the man and some animal, tossing a drool-soaked tennis ball into the brush, the animal very small and the woman’s stomach very large.

They came to a bench, and the girl parked the chair before coming to sit alongside the woman. They could not hold hands, and so the girl placed her arm along the hand-rest and leaned close.

Wrapped in a long, heavy scarf, the girl looked familiar. The woman searched through the people she knew, trying to place her. Was she her child? A niece? A girl from the neighbourhood? It was the eyes, the woman decided. Those blue eyes shone from a face she couldn’t recall, like they were on loan.

Do you like this scarf, Grandma?” the girl said. She must have caught the woman staring. “Mom told me it was one of yours. She said you would probably be okay if I wore it.”

Yes, yes, she said to herself. Whatever she didn’t use anymore, she was happy for someone else to wear. She had closets of clothes, she had seen them this morning, all too big, too bright. It would be nice for someone else to wear them.

The girl eventually withdrew a slim camera from her bag, affixed a heavy cylinder to its front and began taking aim around them. She stood and crouched and moved around, always within arms’ reach of the chair. Whenever she seemed satisfied with her shot, she would coo, observe it in the viewfinder, then lean back from her position to show the woman.

How beautiful, the woman wanted to say to the girl. The colours and the what-was-it-called, the ratio, were just right. She wondered who had taught this girl to shoot, to frame. She watched the girl photograph the autumn scene before them, and tried once more to remember the girl’s name.


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