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Needles

Mam sets aside the petticoat she’s hemming, makes a note in the piecework book, and unpicks the sleepy stitches in Maeve’s sampler.

“Try again.” She passes the scrap of hessian back to her daughter, sighs. “Needlework teaches the virtues of patience, silence, and control.”

Virtues. Maeve stabs new thread through the eye of her needle. The chill air of the Devonport night curls under the parlour door and, eyes heavy, she folds up her legs, skirts tucked, and inches closer by Mam’s side on the settee.

Mam resumes work. The baby whimpers in his cradle by the hearth.

Sins. Flames lick at the coals. Maeve sees their flickering shapes on the inside of her eyelids. Opens them at his heavy footfall in the hall.

“Da,” she murmurs. Mam’s fingers undulate across the petticoat hem.

He leans against the jamb of the open doorway.

Maeve catches Mam’s profile in the corner of her eye. Mam mutters soundlessly.

Da clears his throat. “Don’t trouble yourself.” And passes them by.

Mam’s lips compress. She says nowt to Maeve and Maeve is never to ask.

An ember bursts in the hearth, showering sparks like a firework. Maeve thinks of that morning, coming upon Mam in the cold kitchen, the stove not yet lit. Ann and Pauline still asleep upstairs in the bed the sisters shared. Maeve’s feet made little sound on the stone flags, else Mam would have buttoned her blouse, put away the damp cloth, fussed, lighting the stove and fixing the porridge. But she had not. And Maeve had seen.

The bruise-like ink smudges on her mother’s shoulder in that grey morning light.

She nestles her cheek against the harsh wool of Mam’s yoke capelet, feels its prickle slough her skin. On the fringe of her lashes Maeve can see Mam’s hand in motion.

“Fetch him some ale.” Mam nudges Maeve off her shoulder. Maeve does as she is bid.

In the back yard she kicks aside the bloated mouse carcass and lifts the lids of the crates until she finds a stoppered bottle. The cold claws at her. She bundles her shawl around her hand against the chill of the bottle and darts back to the warmth of the kitchen, wedging the door against the wind and vermin.

Da slurps at his soup, pulls the end crust off the loaf of bread to mop his dish. He sits at the end of the narrow table, knees splayed to the sides and the bulk of his backside sags over the stool. Maeve braces the bottle between her knees, tugging at the cork.

He waves his hand over to her. “Give it here, girl. There’s no muscle on those arms of yours.”

She thinks about his hand closing over these skin-and-bone arms. Places the bottle on the table and steps away.

Blackness.

The light from the electric bulb collapses to a wiry flame against her eyelids, a maelstrom of thoughts gathering. She shakes the coursing energy from her fingertips before Da finds fit to punish her for her lack of self-control. A sinner.

But he stays in his place across the kitchen, curses. “Goddamn it.”

She feels her way to the darkened hall. More cursing. Clattering of the soup dish on the stone flags. She tucks herself into the alcove beneath the stairs. Her brother Michael teases about her cubby hole, but he’s away on the boats. The hall clock ticks somewhere above her head. She turns her ear towards her mother in the parlour but hears nothing above the judder of the front door in its frame as the wind blows against it. Sounds of Da, thudding and grunting.

Then the glow.

Her father holds the candle close to his chest, cupping the flame with a fleshy hand. The floor and walls of the hall bask in the dancing halo around him. Maeve clenches to stop herself from pissing, barely moving as he passes her into the parlour.

“A fuse’s blown,” he says. “Shall I bring you a lamp?”

“No, dear, the fire’s enough.” Her mother yawns loudly.

Maeve waits, watches him pass. The back door scrapes the stone flags.

Her shoulders sag. She reaches into her pocket, rubs along the inside hem until she finds it: one of Mam’s needles. She presses her fingertip against its point. Pushes harder until an exquisite pain jags her finger. Again, another jag of pain, until she has pricked a seam across her fingertip, warm with blood.

The hall clock strikes noon. Maeve flinches, flattens her shoulder blades against the wall beneath the clock. She’d rather be in the kitchen with Mam, or out playing Ring-a-Rosie with her sisters, even pushing the baby in the cart up and down the lane. But she’s to wait on their visitor by the ajar parlour door.

The priest sits inside with Da, where the bulb’s aglow. Mam will be cutting back on bacon for their tea, tallying the minutes the Father’s lit up by their current. Da’s no mind of the time, making small talk that costs us.

“The parish roof’ll be fixed this March, Cameron. ’Tis many along this row doing penance,” Father Ryan says. That high nasal voice. Maeve presses her back against the cold plaster, scratches at the fresh scab on her finger. Pain, control. Silence.

“I give what I can, Father.” Da’s grovelling at the priest’s robes.

“I’ve no doubt of your faith, Cameron.” The clock ticks twice in the pause. “Ah, now. Your Maeve, she’s growing up. Have you thoughts for her?”

Maeve stiffens, at the turn in talk. Tingling rushes from the top of her head, down her neck and into the wall where her body meets it. The bulb flickers in the parlour. Her eyes dart towards the men.

Da glances upward. “Growing more like her mother,” he grumbles, scratches the back of his thick neck. “Giving me a gut ache.”

Maeve breathes through her mouth. Each morning when she empties the chamber pot, she finds the privy specked and streaked with Da’s foul shit. It’s not her or Mam giving him the gut ache. This winter’s been biting, and the kitchen’s been plagued with mice for months, coating the pantry shelves with their droppings and sticky piss. Da’s been needling Ma, accusing her of filthy slut ways bringing them in. Maeve risks a glance at the kitchen door. Mam’s setting more bait.

She peels from the wall, looks in on Father Ryan and Da, keeping her eyes to the rag rug on the floor, her fingers rubbing—slippery—the seam in her pocket.

“Tea, Father?”

The priest places his hand on his chest—his hand with those thin, pale fingers with their nails neatly cut but that prick the skin like needles. She strains against the pull of it, but her eyes snap to meet his.

Father Ryan tilts his head to Da. “Much obliged, Cameron. Though, these days are mighty cold. Perhaps you might have something to warm me so.”

The cold forks Maeve’s spine, her arms. She shoves her fist deeper into her pocket where her fingertips burn with chilblains.

“Maeve,” her father says, jerking his meaty hand in her direction without looking at her. “Bring whisky for the Father.”

Hunching her shoulders, she turns.

“The good whisky,” he roars at her retreating back.

Maeve stumbles, nodding, presses her palms against the cool of the wall and looks up to the framed sampler on the wall:

I am poor in the things of life but exalted in virtue.

She takes strength from Clare of Assisi—who’d written her own Rule of Life keeping her sisters in poverty and silence—and scrapes open the door across the kitchen floor.

“Shush,” Mam hisses. But the baby’s asleep on her shoulder, a thumb shoved in his mouth. Mam sways, reaching for the bottle on the high shelf. “Get it down for me, Maeve love,” she says softly.

Laughter and voices from the men in the parlour come through the crumbling walls but Mam acts as though she can’t hear them. “The poison, love,” she reminds Maeve, shifting the elbow beneath Samuel’s slumped body to point at the shelf.

On her tiptoes Maeve grasps at the brown glass bottle. It’s cold and she needs both hands to bring it to the table. There’s a smell of garlic and whisky when she pulls out the stopper, though it comes easier that the corks from Da’s ale.

Mam shifts Samuel to the other shoulder and leans for the battered kettle. “Wipe your hands before you make the Father his tea.”

“He wants the good whisky.”

“Ale for your Da then. Go on,” she shoos her to the door with a flap of the dishcloth. Maeve glances back as Mam wipes out a glass for the Father and sets it beside a hunk of mouldering cheese. The whisky bottle is the same colour as the bottle of rat poison. Her chest twists—what if Mam confuses the two?

But Mam’s no senseless girl of eleven. Maeve grasps a bottle from the crate, catches the whoops and cries of her younger sisters playing in the alley. Though they also attend St Stephen’s, they are too young to know what Maeve knows, or to do what she does. The rough collar of her blouse scratches her neck in the thin patch of sun.

“It’s not warm?” Mam says, when Maeve returns with Daddy’s ale.

She presses the bottle against her fevered cheek, and shakes her head. Mam hands her the good glass—a visit from Father Ryan is an occasion—and motions for her to pour the whisky.

While Maeve does so, Mam unpins a needle from her apron pocket and dips it into the neck of the rat poison, plunges it into the cheese. Again, and again.

Taking the bread.

Maeve’s throat tightens.

Drinking the wine.

The whisky sloshes in the glass. Baby Samuel grizzles on Mam’s shoulder, soon soothed by Mam’s palm circling his back.

Clutching the whisky in her left hand and Da’s ale in her right, Maeve breathes deeply. “I don’t want to clean the vestry at St Stephen’s anymore.” Drops her gaze to the floor.

Committing a sacrilege.

Samuel yelps, drawing Maeve’s glance to where Mam clutches his back, eyes stony. “Shush your mouth.”

A sudden commotion in the parlour turns the baby’s fussing to shrill cries.

“By jingo, Lizzie, it’s blown again!” thunders Daddy.

Maeve glances at her mother in shock. Then at her hands.

On the floor, shards of glass lie in puddles of whisky and ale. Her palms are nicked all over and bleeding.

Cursing, Mam sets Samuel down. “Look what you’ve done, stupid girl,” she says, on her knees.

The small mortifications of Maeve’s flesh give no comfort of absolution. Mam is always quick to blame her for what gets broken.

After she tucks Pauline and Ann in that night, Mam kneels at Maeve’s side of the bed. “Come with me,” she whispers.

Her sisters grumble at the stream of cold air as she lifts the covers.

Frightened, Maeve keeps her silence following the glow from Mam’s lamp to the parlour. The fuse is still broken, since Father Ryan left, which means Da’s likely stewing in the kitchen by the range, drinking.

Maeve darts Mam a hesitant look. But Mam picks up her sewing basket, and points at the stool by the hearth for Maeve to sit. An odd time for sewing instruction. But her mother doesn’t keep a watchful eye on the door, doesn’t flinch at the whistling down the chimney, doesn’t come up with a story as to why Maeve’s not in bed. Da will surely find some punishment for Maeve—a clip over the ear. That, Maeve expects and can take.

Mam passes her a square of calico. “Start anew. Mind St Clare. Try to see things in a different light. You can’t just break things.” This is Maeve’s punishment for asking to be let off from her work for Father Ryan. Mam doesn’t know Maeve is hurting enough.

As she handles the rough calico, the fibres catch the fine cuts on Maeve’s fingers. The pain soothes.

“The glasses slipped, Mam. It was the fright when Da yelled, that’s all.”

Her mother leans over to poke at the embers in the fire. Grey ash scatters the hearth as the charcoal catch. She replaces the poker slowly, stretches her back. “And the fuse?”

Maeve wrinkles her brow, lifts her eyes heavenward to the element hanging from the chain. Mam’s face is dark with the fire behind her.

The breath twitches in Maeve’s chest; she holds it, eases it out: a raft for her fear. Mam knows her secret.

It hasn’t happened just today. Maeve doesn’t understand how she does it, but it has to be her fault. Like Mam says, she can’t control her anger. When Mam sits down again, she gulps. “It wasn’t me.” Casts eyes to her sampler, makes tiny cross-stitches for the border.

She will not look up to ceiling.

The fire crackles while Mam bears her silence. Maeve trains her focus on the point of her needle.

“Never mind,” her mother says quietly. “It can be fixed.”

Maeve nods. “Da knows how.” A knot in her thread snags the sampler, buckling the fabric. Mam takes it from her, and bites at the threads between her teeth to pull out the ruined stitches.

“Again,” Mam says, pinching the calico, and pins the needle near a smear of blood from a cut on Maeve’s finger. “Sewing is not only a way to bring in money.” She points at her own work. A torn pair of lady’s drawers. Mam works at embroidering pretty designs over the darning. “The needle and thread teach us how we can mend any situation.”

After Maeve’s third or fourth fumbling attempt at threading her needle, Mam sets the lamp close so she can see better.

“Remember, the virtue of a situation becomes clearer in the light.”

But it isn’t just the dimness that makes Maeve clumsy, it is the sting as she presses her thumb and finger together. There are fractured words inside her about what she has seen in the light. Mam’s bruises. Father Ryan’s slim, white hands clutching each side of her face in the vestry.

She forces the needlepoint into her forefinger, slicing open a cut to let out the pain. Blood blooms in the thirsty calico.

“I can’t do anymore. Not until Da fixes the fuse again.” She scrunches up the sampler so Mam can’t see the ruin of it.

Mam squints at the columns in her piecework book, sighs. “You father’s likely gone out. Nowt more needs doing tonight.” As she reaches to smooth Maeve’s sampler, a surge passes between their fingers. Mam flicks her hand away, pushes the hair from her face.

Maybe there is still work that can be done.

There is no virtue in keeping in the dark neither. Who else is there for Maeve to confess her sin?

“You didn’t ask why I don’t want to clean the vestry no more.”

Mam’s hands still in her lap.

“But I have to tell you.”

Maeve lies awake in the bed, her hands in fists by her sides. Above the soft farts and squeaky snores of her sisters, she trains her hearing on the sounds that come through the wall from her parents’ bedroom.

There have been few words. Maeve has been awake since the door slammed downstairs, late. Mam hushed and whispered, and soothed Da until he quietened.

She sits bolt upright in bed, ignores Pauline’s sleepy protest.

The Father”—that’s what Mam’s just said. She’s telling Da about Father Ryan.

The betrayal makes Maeve want to vomit blood. She shoves her knuckles into her mouth and strains to listen.

“You fucking stupid wench,” Da hisses. “He’s to be given a good welcome in my house, d’you hear?”

Mam’s response is hoarse and unclear. Moments later, Da’s heavy footsteps thump the floorboards. To the girls’ bedroom.

The door bangs against the chest of drawers. Maeve goosepimples as her sisters shrink away, taking her body warmth with them.

“Da—”

Under the flat of his hand, her ear rings with fire. A burning that isn’t quelled even when she clamps her icy hand upon it.

“For the shame you bring on this family.”

“Cameron, come away back to bed.” Maeve blinks, sees Mam standing in the doorway, seeks out her eyes. But her mother won’t look at her. “Come, dear. It can wait until morning.”

Da relents to Mam’s placating, drops the splayed hand he’s been holding above Maeve like an axe. She hesitates, finds purchase on the blanket between her fingers. If she has to, she’ll draw it over her, doesn’t care if her sisters are cold.

But she clings to her sisters like pups at a bitch’s teats when Da folds over. He reels away, groaning. The lamplight flickers like hellfire on the bedroom wall as Mam catches his wrist. He shoves at her. “Leave off.”

He grabs his stomach. “My guts.”

He crashes down the narrow stairs, misses a step, lands heavily. Dogs bark in the alley as Da releases his shit in the privy.

Made bold knowing Da’s poorly and presently occupied, Mave slips her feet to the floor, to where Mam remains still in the doorway.

“What’s going to happen to me?”

Her mother touches her shoulder and turns her towards the bed. “What have I always said. Be obedient, patient.”

Maeve lies on her side on the cold mattress, tries to tuck her feet up into her nightdress for feeble warmth. Little comfort. Every part of her freezing apart from her smarting ear. Mam’s words are useless. Warming words for him and cold ones for her. As though she’s the one to have made Da ill, for not keeping her silence about Father Ryan.

What happens in the vestry is her sin.

The thought warms her chest. If that is so, then she doesn’t need to control herself. No matter how many bruises she gets, Mam will never protect Maeve from Da, nor Father Ryan.

Mam is right—situations can be mended in the light. Thin grey rays they are that slant in through the glass pane in the kitchen. Maeve clutches the glass bottle to her chest, bending to lower it soundlessly to the wooden table. Every movement aches, splitting her bones.

A dead mouse lies bloated before the cold stove.

She copies the way Mam did it the day before, pinching the needle and dipping it into the rat poison. A drop clings to the tip as she draws it out.

Carefully, quietly—controlled—her feet barely scuffing the floor, she slips into the parlour and darts for Mam’s sewing basket, where she replaces the needle in the paper packet. There are two others. To make sure Mam will take the baited one, Maeve unwinds the white cotton from the card and threads it through the eye, snipping off a length between her fingertips. Her fingers, though numb, are deft this morning.

Before Mam arises to light the fire in the kitchen, Maeve slinks back up to bed, where her sisters slumber in their virtuous, child-like selves.

She drops into sleep immediately.

“Christ! Get the doctor, the priest!”

Her father’s yelling wakes her with a fright. He clamours past their door, hammering at it with his fist. Baby Samuel is squalling. “The doctor, damnit.” Thunders down the stairs.

Trembling, Ann clutches at Maeve.

“Don’t worry. I’ll go, see.”

Ann curls into Pauline’s side. She does not have to mend this. This, that Maeve has broken. She fears what she might find when she goes downstairs. If Da’s going for Father Ryan, then Mam must be . . .

Maeve had only meant a small punishment.

This is a cardinal sin, not merely a venial one.

Maeve hitches her nightgown and dashes to Mam’s room. She pushes open the door to peer in. The acrid smell of shit and vomit singes her nostrils, and she gags. The bed is unmade of its bedclothes, dragged half across the floor and Samuel kicks his fat legs in the cradle in the corner.

Mam’s not in the bed.

No. Mam would be in the parlour by the hearth. By her sewing basket.

At the top of the stairs, she is struck suddenly and must cling to the banister to stop herself from falling. Da’s lying at the bottom—writhing, like Maeve’s seen in the biblical pictures of Sodom and Gomorrah. Spittle froths at his mouth, and the front of his nightshirt is streaked with bile.

And there’s Mam. A bleeding gash above one eye, half-closed and swollen with bruising. Her other gazes down on Da at her feet.

She beckons Maeve. “Your father’s poorly. Fetch some water,” she says. Her good eye is steady and unflinching. She crouches to whisper to Da, while Maeve edges past, avoiding the kicks as he spasms.

The stove is lit, the sun is above the yard wall, making the kitchen warmer, brighter than it was just a couple of hours earlier when Maeve crept down. She will not linger to ease the ache from her body. She does not deserve it. Instead, she reaches for the water jug, hisses in dismay at finding it empty, and, without hesitation, unlatches the back door.

The water stings, slapping her skin as she pumps it into the jug.

What is it that makes her set down the jug—to see to her own needs and wipe dry her forearms—by the crates in the yard? What is it that makes her notice the bottles of ale? What is it that draws her sharp recognition? Recalls her memory of the times Mam told her to fetch Daddy his ale. The instruction for control. For silence. To see things in the light?

Unseen in the evening dark, small holes puncture the bottle corks. Holes the size of needle points.

Lessons in the virtues of simple obedience, of patience, calm control.

But Maeve had not heeded.

The jug drops from her hands as she runs inside, through the kitchen to where Da lies twisted on the floor. His limbs twitch less; his tongue bulges between split lips.

A surge of current snaps her eyes to where Mam sits by the hearth. Calmly, with needle and thread.

About the Author

Kali Napier lives in Brisbane, Australia—on the unceded land of the Yuggera People. Her debut historical novel The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge was published in 2018 by Hachette Australia and Little, Brown Book Group. “Needles” was written with the financial assistance of the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland’s Individuals Fund for a short story writing mentorship with the incomparable Dr Angela Slatter. Kali can be found on social media Twitter:@KaliNapier and Instagram:@Kali.Napier.