Before I created you, I studied any discipline that would help me build my masterpiece. I was an archaeologist, an anthropologist, a chef, an architect, a psychologist, and a writer. In college, I went on expeditions looking for ancient ribs poking from the earth like compound fractures. I scoured worn editions of texts with thick covers and cracked spines for intricate recipes. I cooked and computed and asked my subjects invasive questions about their upbringing. I scanned the edges of a bit of reed from an ancient flute or the curled scrap of animal skin that was once pulled tight over the frame of a small drum, and learned of long-dead women who danced and sang and drank and made love to its rhythm. But before all that, I learned to sew. And even though the knowledge of needle and thread was one thing you were never much interested in, you should know that our people—the women you come from—were great seamstresses.
I spent my childhood underneath a cutting table or at the foot of sewing machines in the sweatshops of downtown LA. I sat on the floor collecting remnants of tulle, silk, and lace, feather-light linen, and eel-slick nylon that had drifted from my mother’s deft hands. I gathered the leftovers together and saved them in my pockets. The whisper and crinkle of pattern paper and the clean sound of scissors biting into fabric were my lullabies. The hushed rustle of my pocket when I found an especially beautiful piece among the fragments of lamé or velvet and the drone and heat of so many machines working together were a comfort. From my position on the floor I would watch women’s legs, strong and vericosed in nude stockings, and was mesmerized by their feet tapping up and down on their pedals. They could hem a dress with a perfect blind stitch, create backstitches, whipstitches, princess seams, and darts.
As I got older, I thought my mother and her friends fretful, fearful. Perhaps cowardly. Not much different, I’m sure, from how you think of me when I ask you what you want to do with your life. Dragging their daughters with them, my mother and the other women she worked with came together on their precious days off in a circle of comfortable chairs to quilt. Oh! Our outrage at being forced to sit on someone’s porch or in their dark, sticky den and watch our mothers waste their days away, their work blanketed across their laps, their baskets resting at their feet, overflowing with strong thread, thimbles, scissors, and seam rippers. We practiced black eyeliner calligraphy and sounding bored, and we pretended that we hadn’t already learned how to take old, outgrown clothes and recycle them into patterns of contrast.
They would begin by stitching an echo around a simple latticework design made from remnants of a dark chocolate housecoat contrasted with a sunny yellow spring dress or fragments of a navy pantsuit, balanced against bits of a light floral blouse. Then, all of them working together, they crafted another echo around the last, measured out with a finger or thumb. When I became too bored to fake disinterest, my mother taught me how to start. Thread a needle, tie a knot in the end of my string, pull it into the middle of the quilt. “If you don’t,” my mother warned, “the whole thing will eventually come apart. It will hold together for a while, but when it finally comes undone it’s fast and messy.” Their wrists flicked up and down, thimbles and needles flashing in and out of their palms, stitching over and through the same patterns, reinforcing them. “We hide our histories here,” my auntie told me one Saturday. “Slip a stitch here. Slip a stitch there. Hide a story in an imperfection. To keep them safe, make sure they survive.”
I fostered the idea of you for years until I finally began to draw up a blueprint. I pulled my old drafting table from the garage and cleaned it off. After I dug up my compass set, scale, and triangle, I went to work on the clean scroll of paper before me to define the elegant curve of your perfect heart and the contours of your strange mind. Draft upon draft. I couldn’t get it right. I already loved you too much to let anything go. But my years of studying taught me—the herringbone pattern of a brick dome, the savory-sweet bitter salt of a twenty-four hour sauce, the delay and desire of a well-crafted sentence—these things are not just artful manipulation and control. Allow the patterns to emerge, to develop. Don’t hold too fast to your original idea. Be patient, I told myself, and began to draft again.
When I knew I had taken my draft as far as I could, I began to gather raw materials. I started with music. I reached out to the Sisters of Mary Immaculate Queen whom I met back in college, when I was doing a research paper on sociocultural evolution and faith-based music. They were reticent at first, knowing that I was an atheist. But when I explained to the Mother Superior that this was my destiny, she said, “Nearest thing to heaven is a child,” and told me I would be welcomed. I traveled back to their convent in Spokane, and they put me up in a spare dormitory with a wrought iron twin bed, a small oak nightstand, and a print of the Virgin Mother staring at me from the far wall. They asked me not to interact with the children enrolled in their school and to maintain an appropriate level of modesty during my stay. I sat in the first pew, staring at the four-tiered riser of royal blue nuns as their voices rose and echoed off the gilded pulpit and the Stations of the Cross. I took a glass vial from my purse and filled it up with the pure and complete faith they had in themselves.
I captured courage and humility in much the same way—filled a small, unassuming vessel to the brim. These things I didn’t even have to steal. So many women gifted me their best. A chef gave me her height and her wonderful, adventurous hunger. A scientist who used to be my lab partner in school shared her radiant curiosity with me. My friend, a poet with golden eyes, tucked a bit of her own playfulness into my hands and told me to squander it all when the time came. But I have to tell you that even with all these gifts, I needed to become a thief in order to create you.
I began training. I set up an obstacle course in my backyard to get fit. After a minor setback when I broke my wrist falling off the rope climb, I could feel myself gaining strength—body and mind. I bought a Swiss Army knife and a lock-picking kit from an online spy store. The lock-picking kit came in a soft, black leather pouch and looked to me like a set of dental instruments. I tackled each doorknob in my house like I was cleaning the plaque from inside its keyhole crevices. Soon they were all broken or had fallen off completely. I couldn’t even shut the bathroom door. But by then, no locked door could keep me out. I never did figure out safe cracking, but the grappling hook and the glass cutter came in handy after all.
The Cleopatra exhibit was traveling from museum to museum across the country, so I didn’t have to travel to retrieve all that blistering power or worry about having to transport it back home with me. I waited for it to come my way instead. A bit worried about metal detectors or searches, I was still prepared with my knapsack full of gear. When nobody stopped me or asked to check my bag, I roamed through the exhibits, making sure to avoid the one I was actually there for—too afraid my nervous excitement would give me away. Fifteen minutes before the museum closed, I slipped into the women’s bathroom and climbed on top of the toilet in the last stall, then up into the air duct. It was so dark I couldn’t see anything, and the cold sheet metal held me in place until my organs ached.
My alarm went off, alerting me that everyone except the security guards had gone home. I shimmied my way back to the exhibit and took out my grappling hook and attached it to the opening in the ceiling. The nylon rope I dropped from the ceiling coiled onto the marble like a snake. Moments later, I rappelled down the frescos high up on the walls and into the main exhibit room. With the glass cutter, I removed a perfect circle from the case displaying Cleopatra’s jewels. It held intricately roped necklaces, filigree earrings, and a simple golden arm cuff that I extracted and rested on top of the display case. I brought out my fingerprint powder and duster. With a few light flicks I coated the piece with a sooty layer until the echoing whorls of a queen’s fingerprint appeared.
Watching that pattern emerge brought me back to those weekends around the sewing circle making echo quilts with the women who raised me. I realized I had started to cry when my tears fell into the powder, turning it into ink. After I stole the fingerprint and put it in my pocket, I returned the cuff to the black velvet pillow inside the case and shimmied back up my rope before the security guards found me. It took forever to sneak out. I waited in the air duct, my cheek resting on the icy metal, carefully stroking the print. It gave me strength and patience to think of what I had secured for you. When I got home, I put the print into a mortar and crushed it into smithereens. It crackled and sparked every time I brought the pestle down, releasing all its power. I scooped it up with a teaspoon and put it in a Tupperware container in the fridge to keep it from exploding.
I took my time collecting everything else. Humor was the toughest. I really had to search, ignoring all those people who told me it would be impossible to find, much less steal. The stand-up comedian I finally stole from caught me red-handed, laughing so hard that I thought I was going to pee. In the end, she let me keep the humor. “After all, getting a laugh out of someone always feels a bit like stealing,” she said.
It took me two years to weave the treasures I had amassed into a heavy fabric. It was dangerous work. The small vial of faith from the Sisters of Mary Immaculate Queen was so noisy, it gave me a headache if I handled it for too long, and I could work with only small doses of the power I kept stashed in the fridge. Too unstable. It had to be handled with gloves and diluted before it was manageable. When I finished I held the fabric to my cheek to see if I could feel how everything fit together. I wrapped my arms around it and inhaled its clean scent. I took the edges of the fabric and threw my arms up over my head, lifting the creamy expanse into the air and sighing as it drifted back down to earth. It was another year before I could bring myself to go any further. I was wary of making a mistake. Some nights I would wrap the bolt of fabric around my shoulders and climb into bed and dream of you.
Finally, I worked up the courage to cut into the cloth. I cut it on the bias—deceptively complicated. I knew that if I failed to take special care, if I didn’t exert all my patience, if I rushed, you could lose all your potential for a graceful flow. The seams would pull together, collapsing in on themselves rather than lying smooth and perfect. I didn’t bother recreating those lines onto sheer paper or superimposing a pattern onto the fabric. I knew you too well by then, even before I was finished. I cut out the important pieces and let the scraps fall to the floor. I tacked the pieces together and let it hang for a day or two, adjust to my exacting measurements. When I took it to my machine I went slowly, allowing the fabric to take its natural shape, instead of pulling it through. I stitched in short, controlled bursts, letting the fabric relax before continuing. When I was almost finished I poured all my best into the one seam still open at your side—a thousand different elements, each one perfectly weighted and measured until you were filled up. That last seam I sewed up by hand, and as I finished, an unraveling inside me quickened. I made perfect stitches, like my mother, my aunties, and their mother taught me. But I slipped a stitch or two on purpose. The imperfection is barely visible now, a pale seam right below your rib cage.
Some things I could not have foreseen. There are things that might have slipped in by accident. And then there are the things I had no hand in at all. Perhaps when I stole the fingerprint, I stole a bit of the curator’s print as well. And then there’s the me that I gave to you. I tried to distill only my best, but maybe I wasn’t as careful as I thought. That could explain your moodiness, your temper, your bouts of sadness. But what of your love of bad romance novels and your distaste for spicy food? That is something I would never have suspected. When I think too long on it, it is as if there is an unraveling inside me that quickens. Now that you tell me you want to create a daughter of your own, what can I tell you? I cannot give you blueprints. You have to make them on your own. You can take from me what you want and leave the rest. I can rappel down a wall like a soldier, I can write a story, I can excavate shards of pottery from a site, I can cook a nine-course meal. And I can sew.
I can’t teach you the way I was taught, tucking scraps of knowledge into your pockets, your hand, your mind—bit by bit. My teachers are no longer here to help me, but I will give you all I know. I will show you how to thread a needle, stitch a straight line. Take what you want and fill your girl up with it all. And then, don’t be surprised when one day you realize she is no longer yours—that she has remade herself into something greater than you ever could have imagined.
Loretta McCormick is a UWM English PhD student from Los Angeles, California, and editor in chief of cream city review. Her work has appeared in The Northridge Review, The Quotable, and decomP magazinE, and is forthcoming in agápē journal and elsewhere.