Fantasy Literary Fiction Strange

The Hands Remember

By Beverly Suarez-Beard
Nov 23, 2018 · 9,911 words · 37 minutes

Parthenon Temple at Athen, Greece

Photo by Patrick via Unsplash.

From the author: The child seems to come from the distant past. Electrical appliances are new to her; she speaks a lost language. Her hands move compulsively in strange patterns. Who is she and what is the tragedy that haunts her?

She was like Nancy at the same age. When you got close enough, you saw the differences: the face heart-shaped instead of oval, the figure more petite, although just as early-developed. At a distance you saw only the similarities, the big brown eyes, the straight, pale hair, shoulder-length, the strong little chin, the casual, graceful stance.

Jules was looking left down the highway, getting ready to pull out into traffic, so it was Kate who spotted her first. She thought her heart would stop at the sight of Nancy, alive again and fourteen. Nancy standing casual as you please at the highway's edge, wearing cut-offs and a red plaid shirt and sneakers, too lightly dressed for the last week of January no matter how you cut it, even a south Georgia January.

"Don't turn yet, Jules," Kate said. "Look to your right."

Jules looked. He swore softly under his breath. "She's gone, Kate," he said. "Let her go."

The child had bruises on her arms. There was a fearful look on her face. Kate rolled down her window. "Do you need a ride, honey?"

The girl walked up to Kate's window. She was shivering and on the verge of tears. There was a nasty bruise at the edge of her scalp, and the pupils of her eyes were different sizes.

"She's hurt." Kate opened her car door. "Where are your parents, honey?"

The child answered, but not in English. Kate shook her head, not understanding. The child's lower lip quivered. Tears spilled out of her eyes and down her cheeks. Kate climbed out of the car--it was difficult with the arthritis in her knees--and took the child's hands in her own. "It's all right, honey," she said gently. "We'll take care of you. You'll be all right."

There were cars waiting behind them now. Someone honked. "We have to get going," Jules said.

"She's concussed, Jules," Kate said. "Look at her, will you? Just look at her."

Jules looked. "I think," he said, "we'd better take her to the hospital."

Jules' face had closed off, the way it did when he wanted to hide his feelings. Kate wondered if he was thinking of Nancy. If he was thinking what she was thinking: What if when Nancy had needed help strangers hadn't turned her away? Would she still be alive?

They took her to the big new hospital up in Emery and paid for the X-rays cash. It was money they didn't have, not with the building business slow these days and not much market for fine carpentry-work. Not since Kate's arthritis had eliminated the small, steady income her weaving had brought in from craft shows and exhibitions.

Kate worked up a fancy lie, all about how the child was their great-niece, grown up traveling around Europe. How she'd run off with a biker who'd abused her and dumped her on their doorstep. She said the child's name was Lana. Everyone had always said Nancy looked like Lana Turner.

The people at the hospital said they couldn't treat a minor child without the permission of the child's parent or guardian. Kate said they were the child's guardians now, only they didn't have the papers to prove it yet--they'd sue if the child died or suffered brain damage due to the hospital's refusing to treat her.

The hospital saw it Kate's way. A doctor looked at the child. He said she had mild concussion, but no skull-fracture. He recommended a night in the hospital, for observation, he said, and they agreed to pay for that too, although it would just about bust their ready savings.

Afterwards, they took her home.

Jules had his doubts. "The bruises might not be her family's fault," he said. "She might have been kidnapped."

"And pigs have wings," Kate said. "I'm not going to give her up, Jules O'Brien. Not until we find out what happened to her."

"What about papers?" Jules said. "They're bound to send a social worker by."

Kate had thought at first that the child might be from Louisiana like their neighbors the Laniers or Jules' kin on his mother's side, but Jules said she wasn't talking any French he'd ever heard. It wasn't Spanish either, he said.

When they pulled out their tattered atlas, the child looked through the pages without understanding. She didn't seem to know the pictures were maps. But she didn't seem slow. It was a puzzlement.

She was a strange child. The radio and the television bedazzled and enchanted her. She backed away the first time Kate used the vacuum cleaner. And she spent at least an hour looking under and into the car, as if their old '83 Chevy were a wonder and a mystery that had to be plumbed.

They gave her Nancy's room. There wasn't any place else to put her, not in their tiny, overstuffed, two-bedroom house.

With the child in Nancy's room, it was almost as if Nancy had come home.

They had been told to keep an eye on the child, to make sure she didn't oversleep or lose her appetite or complain of head pains. But the child seemed healthy. Just strange. There was a way she had of moving her hands without even seeming aware of it. It was as if her hands had a life of their own, as if they needed to be doing something, as if they were doing something, if you could only figure it out. She'd sit quietly, entranced by Wheel of Fortune or Oprah, and all the while her hands would be moving.

The child had a pridefulness about her, as well as a sadness. She wasn't much for housework. A little queen, Jules called her. He said that spoiled as she was, it wasn't likely she came from an abusive home.

"But we don't know that for certain, do we?" Kate said.

Jules was silent.

Kate worked on her lie, polishing it up until it shone. They wouldn't be able to keep the child a secret, not in a town as small as Iona, Georgia, population five hundred and fifty-seven. Fifty-eight, if you counted the child.

"We might as well brass it up and brazen it out," Jules said. "Act like she's really your niece. So long as she's here."

Kate waited until the bruises faded, then took her to church. Alone. Jules never went since Nancy died. The child fidgeted throughout the sermon. Her hands never stopped moving.

Afterwards, on the way out, Kate introduced her to the Gibsons and the Trimpers. They were puzzled by her lack of English, but Kate had already gussied up the lie, made up a mother for the child--a niece she didn't have--and a German father who died young. She was prepared to trot out the part about the post cards coming from one country after another until the mother moved to California and married again, a man that didn't want the child and treated her badly, but Mrs. Trimper interrupted. "You can see the family resemblance," she said. "Can't you, Hank? She looks so much like Nancy."

"Yes," Kate said. "We think so."

That was when Emma Mae Hubbard sashayed up, dressed to kill in white organdy and a matching hat, with a corsage of pink camellias and her hair puffed up and dyed as blond as the child's. She looked at Kate with those big, weak, made-up eyes of hers, from behind those glasses that made her look like an owl. "I didn't know you had a niece," Emma Mae said accusingly. "You never mentioned her."

"There never was any reason to," Kate said. Emma Mae had become a regular meddler since her husband died, and even though Kate tried to overlook it, she found it hard. Kate took the child's hand, began to lead her towards the door. "We have to be going," she said. "Lana's feeling poorly."

Emma Mae followed them outside. "She does look like Nancy," she said. "You said her father's German?"

Emma Mae used to teach French and Latin at the Emery high school. She knew other languages, too. Kate began to perspire.

"Was German," Kate said. "I'm sorry, Emma Mae, but we have to be going."

Emma Mae fired off a few foreign words at the child. She received a blank stare in return.

"She doesn't speak German," Emma Mae said.

"I didn't say she did," Kate said. "Her father died when she was a baby."

Emma Mae tried out several other languages. None of them worked. But she finally got the child to speak a little.

"I can't place the language," Emma Mae said. "It sounds a little like Greek, but it's not that either." Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses. Her nose wrinkled. She was like a bloodhound, hot on the scent. A bleached blond bloodhound. "Please, Kate," she said. "Tell me. I can't stand it a moment longer. What language is she speaking?"

"I don't know," Kate said. "I wish I did."

"You don't know?" Emma Mae was dumbfounded. So then Kate had to trot out the rest of the story.

"I have to go out of town in a few days," Emma Mae said, clamping a bony hand around Kate's wrist. "I'll be gone for quite a while. May I stop by before then and tape her speech? I have a friend, a professor at Duke, who may be able to interpret it for us."

Kate watched her go to her car. She was pretty wound up, you could see it in her walk.

Emma Mae stopped by the house the very next day. The child was reluctant to speak at first, but Emma Mae worked on her and charmed her until she managed to get enough on tape. Emma Mae wasn't the patient type--there were dozens of former French and Latin students in the Emery area who would attest to that--but she was patient with the child. The mystery was like an itch she couldn't scratch; she had to solve it.

She managed to teach the child a few words of English before she left. "Your Lana's a quick learner," she said. "She'd do very well in a course on English as a second language. I don't know why her mother didn't teach her."

"I've been fixing to teach her," Kate said.

Emma Mae gave Kate a doubtful look, as if to say: Who are you to teach anyone English? You can't speak it worth a pig's spit. But all she said was: "Yes. I think that would be a good thing to do."

The child learned fast. After only a few days you could see she was beginning to understand snatches of conversation. She could say 'yes' and 'no' and 'please' and simple two-word sentences that made it plain what her needs and desires were. She spoke with an accent, but it was slight.

After two weeks, she could hold simple conversations. She spoke in complete sentences. It wasn't so much as if the child was learning. It was more as if she was remembering.

"It's time, Kate," Jules said one February night, while they undressed for bed. "She can tell us now, and we have to ask."

The child didn't know the name of her country in English, but she described it. She spoke of a land where there were no cars and no electricity, of a town where the buildings were made of painted mud and the sun shone and the wind blew. She spoke of a father who made his living making purple dyes. She spoke of kings and gods.

She couldn't remember how she had gotten her injuries. She couldn't remember how she had wound up at the edge of the highway--or even how she had wound up in the United States.

They talked about it at night, Jules and Kate, lying together in the bed where Nancy had been conceived. "I didn't think there were any places left," Jules said, "where they haven't heard of electricity. Not in a city. And she says her father has money."

"I don't think she's lying."


Kate thought of her Aunt Jessie, how she'd thought people were stealing from her and plotting against her. How she'd called the police almost everyday. 'Delusional,' they'd called her. They gave people lobotomies in those days. "Jules," she said. "You don't think--"

"No, Kate. I'm not saying she's crazy. I'm saying she has amnesia."

"And she's making up stories to fill in the gaps?"


"I'll call the doctor," Kate said.

Jules raised himself up on one elbow, touched Kate's cheek with his other hand. "The tests she'll need. They'll be expensive, Kate. We might not be able to pay. And we can't get them done without papers."   

Kate pulled her head away. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," she said.

She couldn't stop thinking about the child. If Jules was right, how lonely and empty she must be. How sad and afraid. To have no memories of who she was. To have no memories of her family.

She thought of Nancy. What would it be like to have her own memories erased, so that in her own mind, Nancy might as well have never been? To forget Nancy's six-year-old, gap-toothed smile, or the day she loosed four lizards on the house? To look through her trunk and not know who had written in the small white diary or typed the childish fairy tales, illustrated with awkward, eager drawings?

To not remember the day that Nancy died.

One morning Lana didn't come down for breakfast. Kate knocked on her door, but received no answer. A chill gripped her. She opened the door.

The child was looking at herself in the little mirror above the dresser. Nancy's mirror, made for her by Jules, for her eleventh birthday, the wood carved into leaves and roses. Her face, Nancy's face, looked back.

She was still dressed for sleeping, in the blue cotton nightgown they'd bought her, the nightgown with the ribbons. It made her look even blonder, younger.

She ran her hands over her hair, over her nose and cheeks, like a blind person acquainting herself with the face of a stranger.

Was her amnesia as total as that? The doctor had said on the phone, when Kate called for an appointment, that if she could remember what she'd had for breakfast and what she'd seen on television the day before, the amnesia was probably 'not organic in origin.' When Kate asked him to explain, he said that meant the problem was probably more mental than physical.

The doctor said that such a memory loss was caused by trauma. What terrible things could have happened to her to make her forget her own face?

The child turned to Kate. There were tears on her cheeks. "I have been..." She paused, searched for words, found none. Her hands moved, as if trying to speak for her. She made a noise of frustration, half growl, half moan.

"Tell me," Kate said quietly.

"This face," the child said. "It's... not... mine."

"Whose is it?" Kate said. "Whose is it then?"

"My own face," the child said. "Older. My hair. Darker."

Then the child held up her hands. She held them still long enough for Kate to see what she should have seen before: thin, white scars across her wrists. "Not me," she said. "I didn't... do this."

Her hands moved again. It was impossible for her to keep them still.

"Your hands," Kate said. "What is it you do with them?"

The child looked down at her hands, as if she had never noticed their strange dance before. "I don't know," she said. "I don't know."

There was another strangeness about the child. Spiders seemed to like her. Within a week or two of her moving into Nancy's room, spider webs turned up in every corner and crevice. There were spiders on the bathroom walls after she took her shower. There were spiders on her blankets when she got up in the morning.

The child wouldn't let Kate kill the spiders. "They weave," she said.

"They weave webs," Kate said. "All over my house."

The child gave her a sidelong look from behind long, dark lashes. It was not a look Nancy had ever used. "They eat bugs," she said.

"Yes," Kate said. "That's why I usually don't kill them. But there's so many of them. I won't have it."

"I think they come," the child said solemnly, "because of me. I dream... their dreams."

What could Kate say to that?

The child held up her hands in a silent appeal. "Don't kill them," she said. "Please."

After that there were fewer spiders, and fewer webs. The spiders scuttled away when they saw Kate coming, almost as if they could sense her intentions. Or as if the child had warned them.

The letter arrived on the twenty-first of February. It was postmarked Flagstaff, Arizona. It had no return address. It gave Kate a funny feeling when she held it in her hands.

There were legal papers inside, signed and witnessed. On the papers was the name of the niece Kate had invented--transferring custody of her child, Lana Sharon Fischer, to her maternal relations, Jules and Kate O'Brien. There were blank spaces for Jules and Kate to sign, in the presence of witnesses and a lawyer or a notary public. There was a money order enclosed; it would more than cover Lana's medical expenses. There was a copy of a birth certificate, baby footprint and all.

Was this a cruel practical joke--or a miracle?

Kate looked at the papers for a long time. Then she called the number on the papers, the number of the courthouse in Flagstaff.

Afterwards, she interrupted Jules in his workshop, something she rarely did. He turned the papers over and over in his hands, streaking them with sawdust. "I don't understand," he said. "How can this be?"

"It's a miracle," Kate said. "A God-given miracle."

"No." Jules said. "You know it isn't, Kate. It's a forgery. I just don't understand why, or how..."

"I called Flagstaff," she said. "It isn't a forgery. It's legal. A judge signed it."

"Without seeing us?"

"I guess so. And Jules... I didn't do it."

Jules put the papers down. He went back to his workbench. He picked up his hacksaw. "Flagstaff," he said. "We don't even know anybody in Flagstaff."

"We can take her to the doctor now. We can send her to school. We can stop worrying about social services. It buys us time."

"Yes," Jules said. "It does that."

Kate called the hospital and the social worker who had come calling twice. She sent them copies of the papers. She brought Lana in to the doctor, for a fruitless and expensive EEG test. She took her on a fruitless and embarrassing visit to the Tates and their thirteen-year-old daughter. Lana appeared to have no interest in children her own age. She hardly said a word the whole time.

If the papers meant that God had chosen them to make the child happy, He was working in mysterious ways.

It wasn't that the child was ungrateful. It wasn't that she didn't smile sometimes, or show warmth. It was just that it didn't last. In the end, she went back to pining for a home in a country she couldn't put a name to, for her four brothers and her father, the dyer in purple who suffered from pains in his heart.

Her mother was dead, she said. Had died when she was an infant.

Jules was right. It wouldn't be right to keep her if she didn't want to be kept. And she would never be happy unless she got past the trauma and the amnesia. She would never be at peace.

Was there a way to help her remember?

It came to her on the first warm morning of spring, when she was in the kitchen baking biscuits and Lana was outside with Jules, trying out the old swing in the oak tree.

Lana was laughing. Had Kate ever heard her laugh? She looked out the kitchen window. Lana was swinging in the branches of the oak, the morning sunlight dappling her arms, the moss hanging like curtains around her.

A spider moved in the window, weaving a web. Kate moved to brush the web away, and that was when the answer struck her.  The answer to the movement of Lana's hands. Spiders... wove. The motion of the child's hands... was weaving.

After breakfast she took Lana upstairs up to the attic. She led her between the trunks, around the filing cabinets and the rolled-up carpets, and the cradle Jules had made when Nancy was born. In the back of the attic near the window, huge and looming beneath its dust-cloth, her draw loom, her mother's before her, and her mother's before her. It had stayed with Kate even after the arthritis hit; Nancy hadn't been much for weaving.

How right somehow, how fitting, that a weaver-child should come to a house that had been the home of generations of weaver-women.

Kate drew off the cloth and sent the dust motes dancing and sparkling. "Look," she said, excitement rising like a bubble inside her. "How do you like it?"

Lana walked up to the loom, looked at it, worried at a dent in the wood with her fingers. "This machine," she said. "You... weave with it?"

"Of course," Kate said, disappointed. How could the child be a weaver if she didn't know a draw loom when she saw it? The settlers had used them. The Chinese had invented them long before that.

There was warp left on the loom, old and fragile-looking. Lana put a hand on the threads. They broke at her touch, hanging like dandelion fluff, like spiders' webs. A knowing look came into her eyes.

She jerked her hand away as if she'd burned it. "No," she said. "No." There was fear in her voice.

That was when Kate knew she was right, that the child was a weaver. That the weaving was tied in with the pain of her forgotten life.

Kate tucked Lana into bed that evening. She opened the window a crack and set the fan beside it, in case Lana should feel hot.

Lana was wearing summery white pajamas. The bruises on her face were long faded; she looked young and fresh and untouched, so much like Nancy that the sight brought tears to Kate's eyes.

Sometimes, Kate thought, it would be easier not to remember.

Lana pushed the dark green bedspread with its pattern of magnolias to the foot of the bed, smoothing it with her hands. Kate had made it for Nancy's sixteenth birthday. "It's hot tonight. I wish there was a wind."

Kate turned on the fan. "Don't wish too hard," she said. "We get twisters."

"Did you make this?" Lana said, tracing a magnolia with her fingers. "It's very nice."

"Thank you," Kate said. "I think it's the joy showing through. I loved working on it."

"I dream of weaving," Lana said.

"Then try my loom. Make something. You're a weaver. I feel it in my bones."

"I don't know." Her hands resumed their dance. She looked at them, bemused, as if they were stranger's hands, the wrists cross-hatched with the thin white scars she laid no claim to. "I don't know your loom. I... don't know these hands."

"The hands remember," Kate said. "When the mind forgets."

Lana went back to the attic the next day. She found the loom daunting at first. Too complicated, she said. She said that in her dreams she used a simple loom, a vertical loom. All the heddles and treadles confused her.

Kate bought her thread and showed her how to set up, how to use the warping reel. Lana caught on quickly. Why had they ever wondered if the child was slow?

Lana wouldn't let Jules bring the loom down from the attic. "What if I'm no good?" she said. "What if I don't like it? You'd have to bring it back up."

Once she did get started, she was quick. Even Kate's mother had never been that quick. She sang to herself while she wove, nonsense songs in strange keys that might have been grating if sung in a voice that was less sweet. The house seemed warmer to Kate somehow, what with the clatter of the working loom and the sound of Lana's voice.

Lana kept the loom covered when she wasn't working. She didn't want anyone to see what she was weaving until she was finished.

Jules offered to bring the loom down from the attic. "It sounds as if you've got the hang of it," he said.

"No," she said. "I like it in the attic. It's quiet. And it smells of old things."

"It smells of dust," Kate said, but she didn't argue. If the child wanted to keep her weaving a secret, it was her business.

Lana's amnesia remained. Only the weaving came forth from inside her, like a spring gushing forth, and with it a kind of happiness. She even sang when she wasn't weaving.

Was it possible that whatever trauma had stolen her memories was better off buried? That this was what God had intended after all?

Kate found herself singing as she cleaned and cooked. She found herself singing hosannas.

Then Lana began to change.

It started with small things at first: a pretty day in April when no amount of coaxing would make her leave her loom, even to go fishing with Jules. A renewed reluctance to help with chores she had finally agreed to take on. A forgetfulness about hygiene, letting her hair go unbrushed, her face unwashed.

Her manner changed, became more prideful. She showed a temper. She worked late into the night. There were circles under her eyes, dark as bruises.

"You can't weave twenty-four hours a day," Kate told her. "You have to sleep."

Lana shrugged. "I'm all right."

"Anybody can see you aren't. You're a growing girl. You need your sleep."

Lana turned suddenly, the way she was apt to these days. "You can't tell me what to do," she said nastily. "I'm not your child. I'm not Nancy."

Kate brought her hands to her breast. It was as if she had been punched there. Punched in the heart.

"You don't want me to finish," Lana went on, her face stony, her eyes cruel. "You're jealous, like all the rest of them. Even before your hands were crippled, what you wove was pitiful. Ordinary. Beggar-cloth. Kings pay in bracelets of gold for my weaving."

"Well, Miss," Kate said, when she'd gotten past the hurt enough to speak. "Your talk is mighty big. But no one's even seen your weaving to be jealous of it."   

Lana said she was sorry later. She put her arms around Kate's waist and cried.

Kate stroked her hair. Lana followed her hurtful outbursts now with tears and unaccustomed physical affection. It left Kate reeling and numb. When she thought how often before she had ached for just those displays of affection...

"I don't know why I say those terrible things," Lana said. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

Her hair was soft, a child's hair. It smelled sweet, of pine and herbs. Kate had made her shampoo the night before. If only a mind could be shampooed, washed clean of all the hurt and the pain and the remembering.

"I'm starting to see," Lana said, wiping at her tears. "It's like looking from the corner of your eye. I can't quite... make it out."

Kate shivered suddenly. Her mother would have said a goose had just walked on her grave. When Lana finally saw... what would she see?

The loom went silent just after eleven, early for Lana. Kate woke Jules at midnight. The moon rode high, shining through their window. She wouldn't need to turn on a light. When Jules opened his eyes, she could see two little moons reflected back from them. She put a hand over his mouth.

"We have to go upstairs and look," she whispered.

Jules nodded.

They tiptoed down the hallway, as nervous as prowlers in someone else's house. The trap door to the attic was open as it always was these days, the collapsible stairs down. Upstairs, the attic was silver-bright with moonlight.

They climbed the stairs carefully, using a flashlight. Kate's knees popped and creaked while she climbed, so loudly she felt sure they would wake Lana. Ahead of her Jules looked shrunken and old in his loose pajamas. A stray beam of moonlight reflected from his bald spot. A cold hand stroked her heart with fearsome, gentle insistence, not to be ignored. Where had the years gone?

The attic was eerie by moonlight, the trunks like closed caskets, the file cabinets like watchers, the dustcover on the loom like a shroud. Jules pulled back the cover. There was a giant spider web on the frame, its threads of fine-spun silver. Kate looked down.

There were pictures on the cloth. Even by moonlight she could see how real they were, how impossibly, wonderfully real.

"Do you see?" she whispered. "My God, Jules. Do you see?"

Jules switched on the corner lamp.

In the center of the cloth, a white bull leapt through waves and spray so real Kate could feel their wetness. A dark girl clung to his neck amidst garlands of flowers, the petals scattering on the wind.

The picture was a miracle. No one could weave like that.

Further down the weaving, already finished, a white swan hovered with huge wings spread, the feathers real enough to reach out and pull one. Beneath the swan was a naked girl, pink and gold as a sunset, her face in shadow.

Kate looked at the picture and felt a heat in her belly, the kind of heat she had felt when Jules and she were courting. When Jules had been the handsomest, wildest thing in three counties. Not the settling kind, her mother had said.

Jules put an arm around her waist. He smiled, and from his fifty-six-year-old eyes looked the young man who had courted her. The young man who had swung her up behind him on his Harley and taken her riding through the night.

He kissed her. His night whiskers scratched her lips, but she didn't pull away. Her legs felt weak. "Jules," she whispered. "What--"

He switched off the light.

They talked later. They talked about Lana, about Lana's weaving. Kate had seen a talk show where people with mental conditions--people who seemed slow, autistic, she thought it was called--could do amazing things. There had been one man who could play anything on the piano after he had heard it once--anything, even a concerto.

"But this is even more wonderful," Jules said quietly. "This is as if God... was talking through Lana's hands."

When the first gray of dawn lit up the eastern sky, they crept back to their room. But they didn't sleep.

Lana had an appointment for more tests that day, up at the Emery hospital. Kate postponed it. Neither she nor Jules was in any shape to drive to Emery--and she had to think. Miracles could be fragile things. Kate had heard of a psychic who claimed a CT scan took away her power. What if it happened to Lana?

Jules went into town to consult with a client. While he was gone, Emma Mae Hubbard showed up at the front door as if she'd never been away, hair fresh-dyed, a lavender-flowered dress on in honor of spring.

She handed Kate a plastic container of chocolate chip cookies. "I thought Lana might like these," she said. She stood on the doorstep, peering into the house, a bleached-blond owl searching out mice.

Kate thanked her for the cookies. Lana wasn't crazy about sweets--another way she wasn't much of a child, unless you considered the way young girls starved themselves nowadays--but it was a kind thought. "Do come in Emma Mae. How was your trip?"

Emma Mae followed Kate into the kitchen. From the attic came the sound of the loom. "What's that?" she said.

"My loom," Kate said. Just thinking of what was on that loom was enough to make her want to drop to her knees and pray. "I've been teaching Lana to use it. She likes weaving."

"That's nice," Emma Mae said. "Do you want to hear what my friend said about the tape?"

"Go ahead, Emma Mae."

"My friend passed the tape along to friends of his--all top linguists, I think you should know--and none of them could place it. But one of them was at a party with an archaeologist, and he was intrigued." Emma Mae's eyes shone; she always enjoyed talking over people's heads.

"He tried some phonetic transcriptions and used a computer and came up with a close relationship to Hittite."

"Hittite?" Kate said. It sounded familiar.

"A dead language. Spoken in the general area of what is now Turkey. You do understand, Kate? This could be the discovery of the decade. If we could locate the village Lana lived in, we might find not only a language preserved, but ancient folkways. A treasure-trove of knowledge."

"Lana can't help you," Kate said. "She doesn't know where it is."

"Hmmm.... How can that be?"

"Did you always know where your parents were taking you when you were a child, Emma Mae? Did you always look at maps?"

"But she lived there!"

"If you want to ask her, be my guest. I'll call her down."

Emma Mae brought out a stash of National Geographics from her seemingly bottomless handbag. There were pictures inside of seaside towns, mountain towns, thin, sun-browned people, goat-herders, olive-growers. Lana looked at them, put them aside one by one.

Then she came to a picture of a hillside and some ruins by the sea. She held the picture this way and that, turned it around, traced the outlines of the hills with her forefinger. "This place," she said. "The lay of the land is the same. My town lies in that crook between the hills and the harbor, so. Only the hills above it are not so dry, but green with trees."

"You're speaking English very well, Lana," Emma Mae said. "Remarkably well, if I may say so, for someone who only just started learning it three months ago."

Lana bowed her head graciously, a little queen accepting her due.

"I hear you're weaving, Lana," Emma Mae said. "That's very nice. I'm glad to hear Kate's old loom is getting some use again. What are you making?"

"A... hanging. Pictures."

"You mean a tapestry? I would have thought that would be a difficult project to start with. Why not a shawl or a blanket?"

"Difficult?" Lana said, squaring her shoulders. "Not for me. Kings pay to--"

"It's a beautiful day," Kate said. "Why don't you go outside and get a little sun, Lana? You could use it."

For a moment she thought Lana might actually strike her. The moment passed. Lana's shoulders drooped. "All right," she said.

Kate started a pot of coffee. Emma Mae excused herself to use the bathroom.

Kate set the table, then pulled out a plate and put the cookies on it. She hunted through the refrigerator for some cream. She sat down with one of the National Geographics and read an article on whales.

Emma Mae was taking a hog's year to go to the bathroom. Was the bathroom door stuck again? Why wasn't she pounding on it, demanding to be let out?

The bathroom door was closed. The light was on and the fan running. Kate knocked, received no answer. She knocked again, then tried the knob. The door opened. The bathroom was empty.

Kate looked at the attic stairs, hanging down from the trap door in the hall. The answer hit her like a slap across the face. That nosy Emma Mae.

Kate climbed the stairs. Sure enough, there was Emma Mae, leaning over the loom, dust cloth pulled back. Her face was shadowed.

Kate kept her distance. She didn't need to be made into a sex-starved crazy woman with only Emma Mae for company.

But if she had expected to find Emma Mae with reddened face and heaving bosom, her hands moving over parts of her anatomy that could only be considered less than polite, she was surprised. Emma Mae looked up. Her face was calm.

"She is what she was," she said. The attic light flattered her, made her seem younger, less lined. Her voice was different, serene and also somehow big.

"What can you mean, Emma Mae?" Kate asked.

Emma Mae's watery blue eyes seemed to shine behind her glasses. By a trick of the light, they looked pale gray, almost silver. "That she remembers herself now," she said, "is by accident, not design. Sometimes the fates outguess even the gods." She ran her hands delicately, gracefully, over the loom. "It's for the gods to use the accidents of fate. I chose you, Kate. I chose you to teach her the purpose of her gift. I know you'll teach her well."

Emma Mae walked out from behind the loom. Her eyes were shining. Moon-silver. Her back was straight, not hunched as it had been for the last ten years. Behind her, her shadow stretched across the attic, a shadow that belonged to someone much taller, someone almost too tall to be human.

"If she desires help, she must ask for it," she said. "Tell her to ask."

Then she truly was Emma Mae again, shrunken and human and just a little shaken. "Good heavens," she said, looking around the attic, as if she couldn't imagine how or why she'd come to be there.  She took a deep breath. "I came up to look at Lana's weaving. You wouldn't mind, Kate, if I just took a peek?"  

"I'm sorry," Kate said. Did Emma Mae really remember nothing? "Lana doesn't like people looking at her work."

There was a long silence. Then Emma Mae said: "What an odd child. Well. I suppose we'd better go downstairs."

Back in the kitchen, Kate offered her coffee. Emma Mae drank it with frequent lapses into quiet, most un-Emma-Mae-like. It wasn't until Kate tried to show her to the door that she began to chatter more normally.

Finally, she left.

Kate sat over a second cup of coffee, while outside Lana swung back and forth in her swing, the oak leaves making green shadows on her arms. What had happened to Emma Mae? Kate didn't think it had been a seizure. It was more as if... as if Emma Mae had been possessed.

After a while Lana came inside. "That terrible woman," she said. "Who is she to talk to me the way she does? As if I were a child. An ordinary child."

"I guess she doesn't know any better," Kate said dryly.

"My work is famous from the island of the bull dancers to the lands of silk in the east!"

"So I've heard," Kate said.

"Blankets! Shawls! Kings pay to hang my work in their halls. Low women like her never even see it!"

"That's enough, Lana. There's no king in these parts to buy your work. If you're lucky, you'll sell to a museum someday. There'll be lots of low people looking at your weaving, and you'll be thankful for it."

"I know you looked," Lana said, later, when she had calmed down.

"What do you mean, child?"

"You looked. At the weaving. You and Jules. I don't mind that you looked. I'm glad."

"How could you know we looked? Did we wake you?"

"The spiders told me. I didn't say anything, because I didn't mind you looking."

"Your gift, Lana. It's precious. It could bring you gold, but it's worth far more than that. You could do good things with it. Good things for the world."

"Do you think so, Kate?"


Lana grew no less moody, no less tormented. If anything, she grew worse. She stopped eating and grew thin. Kate woke before dawn and heard her at the loom.

Then Lana stopped weaving.

She gave no explanation. She hardly spoke at all. She swung in the swing for hours at a time, or stayed in her room. She was clearly not sleeping. The shadows under her eyes were like death itself.

For the first time since they had known her, her hands were still.

"What is it, Lana?" Kate asked. "Tell me, please."

But she wouldn't tell.

Kate made an appointment for Lana to see a psychiatrist. It was going to cost them. As her legal guardians, they could buy insurance for Lana, but pre-existing conditions weren't covered.

"You're killing yourself, Lana," Kate said. "Talk to me."

But it was Jules who got her to talk in the end. Later he told Kate that he had held Lana on his lap like his own little girl, and she had cried against his chest. It was as if she had given up on her own father, as if she knew she would never see him again.

"She says she's remembering," he told Kate, while Lana swung outside beneath the oak. "It's very strange, what she thinks she remembers."

"What is it, Jules? What does she say she remembers?"

"She says her city--that city she misses so much--turned on her. They blamed a plague on her because she wouldn't sacrifice a year's worth of weaving to their goddess. She says they were jealous." He looked uncomfortable, cleared his throat. "The last thing she remembers is a dark place. Stone and dirt all around her. As if she'd been buried alive. I told her she must have dreamed it. Or she must have been rescued. She... she doesn't think so."

What was Jules saying? That Lana thought she had died? No wonder she was afraid to finish weaving, if finishing might make her remember her own death.

It had to be delusion.

"I'm taking her to the psychiatrist," Kate said. "I don't care what it costs. She needs help. I saw on a talk show that there are medicines these days that can do wonderful things--"

"I don't know," Jules said. "I don't know if what she has can be cured by psychiatrists or pills."

Kate took Lana to see the psychiatrist, a Dr. Caldwell. Lana spent the entire first visit stubbornly refusing to talk. Dr. Caldwell said that was normal, that it took a while to work up a good 'doctor-patient relationship.'

Kate hoped it wouldn't take too long.

"She has dreams," Jules said. "She told me about that, too. Spider dreams. Cobweb-weaving dreams. Blood-sucking dreams."

"Dear God," Kate said. Why had she ever suggested that Lana weave? "It's my fault," she said. "She's going crazy, and it's my fault."

Jules took Kate's hands in his, stroked them, knotted knuckles and all, as if they were beautiful. "I don't know that she is crazy, Kate. I thought it before, but now I'm not so sure. I keep thinking of the weaving."

"The weaving," Kate said. "I wish I'd never persuaded her to it. I wish I'd thrown the loom out when I got arthritis. I wish--"

"Never mind wishing," Jules said. "It happened. She can't go on like this, Kate. She needs us to help her. What are we going to do?"

Kate had a private interview with Dr. Caldwell. Lana was depressed, he said. Maybe even suicidal. But he didn't dare give her antidepressant pills, not with schizophrenia still a possibility. "I'd like to put her in the hospital until we've ruled out psychosis," he said.

Psychosis. Aunt Jessie had gone to the hospital for psychosis. She'd gone in fighting and angry but full of life--and come out limp as an old dishrag. A zombie, the neighborhood kids had called her.

Kate couldn't do that to Lana.

But she didn't say that to Dr. Caldwell. "We'll think about it," she said.

The spiders had returned. They could be found everywhere about the house, but they only built webs in Lana's room. Could a diagnosis of psychosis explain that?

And the weaving. Kate went upstairs to the abandoned loom, covered now as it had been for so many years by its dust cloth. She lifted the cloth, looked at the unfinished tapestry.

Lana had been working on a picture that made Kate feel more sad than sexy. In it a beautiful nude girl was turning into a tree. Her legs and hips were encased in bark. Her arms reached out, pleading, the fingers sprouting leaves. Green leaves grew from her scalp, mingling with her hair. You could almost feel the change. The newness of the leaves, the hardness of the bark, the softness of the flesh.

Beside the tree wept a young man as beautiful as a god. His tears shone like crystal. His hair was golden. He had loved her.

Kate sat down in the chair by the loom and let the tears come. She cried for Lana, and for Nancy, and for Jules and herself. She cried for the world, in all its sadness and desperate hope.

When it was over, she felt empty. Cleansed. What magic did Lana have that she could bring that about through the weaving of a picture? Clearly a magic that she couldn't use to help herself.

She went downstairs and softly opened Lana's door. Lana had no trouble sleeping now. It was the only thing she seemed to like to do, the last few days.

Lana was lying on the bed now, across the top of the magnolia bedspread. She opened her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I'm so sorry."

Kate sat beside her on the bed. "Why?" she said. "Why are you sorry?"

But Lana wouldn't--or couldn't--say.

The next morning, when Kate went in to wake Lana for her appointment with Dr. Caldwell, she found that Lana had never gone to bed. She was still lying across the bedspread, wearing her day-clothes, her head near one edge, her hair hanging over the side like a blond flag, one arm dangling limply down.

Like a piece of furniture. Or a corpse.

But she was breathing. Even from across the room, Kate could see it: the slow, quiet movement. Closer, she could see the spiders, spinning their tiny webs, across her fingers, in her hair, between the buttons of her blouse.

A small gray spider ran along the edge of Lana's ear, but she didn't even blink.

Kate brushed the spider away, horrified. Lana stirred. "Don't," she said. Her voice was slow, dreamy. "Don't, Kate."

"Don't?" Kate said. "Don't?"

"Don't drive them away. I want them to stay. I want them... to weave... all around me... to cover me... so soft. So thick and dark. Thick and dark... To cover me... forever."

Covered forever. The way Nancy was covered. With six feet of dirt and red clay, in North Baptist Cemetery.

"No," Kate said. "No. You don't want to die. You have so much... so much life ahead. I won't--I won't let you die."

She brushed at Lana, at the webs, sticky and repellant, at the tiny, scuttling spider bodies, at Lana's hands as they feebly tried to push her away. She brushed as if possessed, brushed until all that remained were the crushed spider bodies and the tattered spider silk, brushed when even those were gone and she was short of breath and her back ached and her hands were growing numb.

As if by brushing the spiders away, she could brush away the darkness, the pain.

When she stopped at last, the only sound in the room was her own ragged breathing.

"Dear God," she said.

Dear God, give me a sign. Tell me what it is I'm supposed to do. Tell me it isn't the hospital. Please, God, tell me that.

The hospital. Cold lights, cold walls, cold smiles. Cold needles. They'd make up a fancy name for Lana's sadness in the hospital. They wouldn't believe what she told them. They wouldn't believe there was enchantment in her hands.

But what else, what else to do, when Lana just lay like a doll where Kate had propped her, up against the pillows, her hair lank and oily, her eyes as bleak and spiritless as if she'd already had a lobotomy?.

Kate's mouth tasted of tears. She couldn't remember crying. Words ran around and around in her head, nonsense words: If she desires help, she must ask for it. She'd heard someone say those words. Who? What did they mean? That she should pray? Kate had already prayed for Lana, prayed enough for ten people, asking for help night after night until she was hoarse.

But maybe it was Lana who had to do the asking.

She took Lana's hands in hers. They were limp, limp and cold. "Pray, Lana," she said. "With all your heart and soul and body. Pray for strength. Pray for answers."

There was only the tiniest flicker of expression in Lana's eyes. There was only the tiniest whisper of a voice when she finally spoke, so faint Kate had to strain to hear the words: "The gods always ask too much in return."

Kate was silent. It seemed very important now that she say the right thing. "I know," she said, after a while. "It seems that way sometimes. For a long time I thought we were God's toys, to be smiled on or stomped on, depending on His mood. Before you came to us, I saw things that way pretty often."

"But... not now?"

"No. Not now. Not since you came."

"Because of... the weaving?"

"The weaving. And other things."

Lana was silent. Then she said: "Maybe if I made an offering... The gods asked for my weaving once. Maybe if I gave it now..."

"I don't believe God ever wanted you to sacrifice your weaving," Kate said. "God doesn't need offerings." She stopped. Was that true? "Offer the fruits, the goodness of your life, if He wills that you live it. Offer your love and obedience."

"Yes," Lana said. "Yes. I can offer those things."

She turned her face up to the ceiling and spoke a few halting words in Hittite. After a while, the words came more freely. She began to cry.

In her mind, Kate repeated a little prayer of her own. Please hear her, Lord. Don't mind that she uses a different name for You. She's praying to You all the same.

Kate managed to get Lana cleaned up and downstairs for breakfast. She made breakfast special: pancakes and eggs and sausage. The three of them had just sat down to eat it when Emma Mae showed up at the front door, unmade-up and as careless-dressed as Kate had ever seen her. Without hairspray, stray curls fell on to her forehead. Without a corset, she looked softer, less armored. "I felt I had to come," Emma Mae said.

"Emma Mae," Kate said. "It's seven in the morning. We're not up for company."

But Emma Mae was not to be denied. "Just for a minute," she said. "I'm needed here. Please, Kate."

Un-Emma-Mae-like, she didn't even sniff at the smells of frying sausage and hot syrup. She ignored the plate of piled-up pancakes. She went right up to Lana and held out a hand. "I think you called on me," she said.

"No," Lana said, keeping her hands in her lap.

"You called on me," Emma Mae said.

Her voice was different the second time she said it. Bigger somehow. Kate looked at her eyes. They had changed to gray. Silver-gray. Clear and lit-up from inside.

Jules saw it, too. Kate could tell by the way he stiffened, by the way he tilted his head, as if about to ask a question. Lana saw it. She left her chair, sank to her knees on the linoleum of the kitchen floor. "Mother," she said.

Mother? How could Emma Mae be Lana's mother?

Kate waited for Emma Mae to tell Lana to stop this nonsense, to get up off the floor. She didn't. She put one hand on Lana's shoulder. "You asked for peace," she said. "But peace has its price."

Lana answered, but not in English. She chose her words carefully, slowly: Hittite words. Alien. Strange.

But Kate understood them. Somehow, she understood. Beside her Jules was trembling. He heard. He knew.

“I will pay your price," Lana said. "I am a burden to myself and to these good people who have taken me in. I live in madness and misery. I live, knowing and not knowing who I am--and much of what I see I dislike. I have been proud, and arrogant. I have not been kind."

No, Kate thought. She isn't a burden. We love her. We want her to stay with us. We only wish she could be happy.

The woman who was and was not Emma Mae lifted her eyes and looked straight at Kate, straight through Kate, into her thoughts, into the heart of her. Her lips curved, the shadow of a smile.

Why, Kate thought. Emma Mae's beautiful.

"I live," Lana said. "Yet every day I remember my death. Has it already happened, Mother? How, then, can I still be alive?"

"You live again, child. In a body that belongs to another. You are she and yet not she. You are the memories of a life long gone."

Lana's head drooped still lower. Tears shimmered on her cheeks. "Then," she said, "even my life is not my own."

"No," the woman said gently. "It is yours to choose. You may stay as you are, a traveler from the distant past, a woman who remembers being other than woman. Or you may choose to forget--and live afresh, a child of this time."

"The price of peace," Lana said. "The weaver becomes nothing, not even a memory."

"All things end," the woman said. "Even gods."

Lana was silent. Then, after a long time, she raised her eyes. "I have no right to steal her life," she said. "However ordinary it may be." She looked at Kate and Jules, then returned her gaze to the woman who was not Emma Mae. "Mother," she said. "Take this life. Give me peace."

No, Kate thought. No.

The woman smiled. The room lit up with her smile. "You're learning," she said. She placed a hand on Lana's head.

Light blazed forth from the hand. Silver light, a halo of light, surrounding Lana's head, Lana's body. Spreading threads of light, unbearably bright, a pattern of light, with darkness at the interstices. A web of light and darkness. A web to anchor the world.

Kate closed her eyes against the terrible brightness. She could still see it, through her eyelids. She heard Jules moan.

Kate put her hands over her eyes. The light was still too bright. It burned like a star.

The pattern flickered, altered.

Then it was gone.

The room was dark.

Lana was still on her knees on the floor. Emma Mae was still sitting in the chair. Nothing had changed; everything had changed.

"Goodness," Emma Mae said. "What was I thinking, coming here in the middle of your breakfast? I'm so sorry. Everything's cold."

It was just one wonder among many that her name was Sharon, the middle name on her papers. Kate had given up on puzzling about wonders. It seemed that life was full of them these days.

Sharon was twelve, but looked older. She remembered her mother, and a rundown bungalow in Tampa filled with bugs. Her mother had sold herself for drugs until she wasn't pretty enough anymore. Then she sold Sharon.

That was when Sharon ran away.

She didn't remember what had given her the bruises or the bump on the head. She didn't remember standing by the highway or speaking in Hittite or weaving. She remembered Kate and Jules as part of Kate's story, as her uncle and aunt. She had every intention of remaining with them. Kate didn't try to dissuade her.

Sharon liked to read. She liked to draw, and drew remarkably well. She wasn't hard, the way you might have expected, coming from such a background. But there was a certain reserve about her, a certain insistence on maintaining her space, that reminded Kate of Lana.

There was a book Sharon liked, a library book she renewed more than once. Greek Mythology, it was called. Kate picked it up one day, curious, and read it where it fell open. Her breath caught in her throat; she felt the tears start up in her eyes. The story was familiar...

How much of Lana was left behind in Sharon? How much of Lana looked on the world through Sharon's eyes?

Emma Mae was a frequent visitor to the house. Sharon got along with her, the way Lana never had. She was grateful for the interest taken in her, for the books and art supplies Emma Mae brought, for the trips to the city and museums. She didn't even seem to mind Emma Mae's nose-in-the-air way of talking, or her endless supply of advice.

When Emma Mae went to visit her sister in Flagstaff, she brought Sharon back a silver bracelet.

"Flagstaff," Kate said. "I didn't know you had a sister in Flagstaff."

"I never had a reason to tell you," Emma Mae said.

Jules set aside a corner of his workshop for Sharon. He built her an easel, and set up a chair beside it, and a small table. He built shelves into the wall to hold her supplies. Emma Mae bought her pastels and a set of acrylic paints.

Sharon started work on a painting. She wouldn't let Kate see it. It was a surprise, she said.

In the attic, the loom sat dust-cloth-covered and silent. Kate removed the weaving and folded it away. She cried for an hour afterwards.

Jules found her crying. "Don't cry for Lana, Kate," he said. Then he held her.

"Her name wasn't Lana," Kate said, through her tears. "It was Arachne."

One morning Sharon asked Kate to come with her to the studio. "I've finished the painting," she said.

It was a beautiful painting. Not as perfect as the weaving had been; Sharon's skills weren't as highly developed as Lana's. But there was a feeling about it.

A feeling.

It was a painting of a woman sitting in a meadow, nursing a baby. Her face was framed by a crown of red poppies.

Her face. It was Kate's face. Not lined and faded, as it was now, but young, no more than twenty-five. There was love in her eyes as she looked down at her baby. Love so strong you could feel it in your gut.

"Oh," Kate said. "It's beautiful. Beautiful."

"You think so?" Sharon said shyly. She wasn't proud like Lana.

"Yes. Oh, yes."

Then Kate noticed something.

There was a spider web in the upper corner of Sharon's easel. A small web, very fine. It would have been invisible if not for the sunlight glinting on it.

She didn't even consider sweeping it away.

This story originally appeared in Century Magazine.