|Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Mother Earth Breeds Nothing Feebler than a Man
Photo Credit: Steve Cyr
"Mom, look, the trees are wearing sweaters!"
Kids and adults milled around, churning up the mud beneath the grass, loudly admiring the effect of a park full of trees dressed for winter. A banner facing Third Avenue proclaimed Violence? Crime? Lack of Community? Knitting is the cure! Cute. There'd been a rash of disappearances and kidnappings in the past month, most likely gang-related, but they'd left people uneasy. I personally wasn't convinced that public knitting would help, but it had transformed the park from a haven for drug deals and the intoxicated homeless to a surprising work of art, for the moment at least. That had to be worth something.
"How'd they get the arms so perfect? They look real!"
It was the third park that the knitters had hit, but it was by far the biggest and most popular, and their night's work had attracted a lot of attention. A dozen different tree trunks were covered in thick layers of yarn, from the ground right up to where the lowest branches began, higher than my head. The really amazing part, though, was that almost every tree had shapes molded into the knitting. There were outlines of faces, noses protruding and eye sockets sunken into the thick layers of green or purple or gold. A few even had appendages reaching out from the trunk, as if the trees were kicking an invisible soccer ball back and forth, or holding their arms out to embrace the world.
"How do you manage to get all this done in one night?" I heard a father ask, holding his squirmy six-year-old by the hand.
He was talking to a trim, dark-haired woman standing beneath the banner. "Oh, it just takes a little old-fashioned elbow grease," she replied. A gray paisley shopping bag dangled from her left hand. There was multi-colored yarn and a pair of blue plastic knitting needles sticking out of the top.
"Well, it's nothing short of miraculous. Are those branches underneath, making the arms and legs and whatnot?"
"Could be." She smiled.
The man's little girl had stopped tugging at his arm and was now staring big-eyed at the woman's knitting bag as if it contained magical implements. "It must have taken you forever," she said.
The woman laughed, and I saw that the rusty-brown yarn stitched around the tree to her right matched her eyes perfectly. Burnt ocher. Beautiful.
"Your work is amazing," I said, jumping into the conversation. "I can't imagine how you make them so lifelike with just a little yarn."
She turned to me, still smiling, and I felt a warm tingling start in my feet and work its way slowly up my body. "Oh, it's not just me!" she protested. "There are many knitters working on the project."
"But you're one of the artists?"
She blushed a little and nodded, lifting a hand to tuck one deep chocolate curl back behind her ear.
"So how do you create the arms and legs, and the noses? Cotton stuffing? Wire?"
"Oh, we have various tricks up our sleeves, but we like to keep them secret." She winked at the little girl, who burst into a noisy fit of giggles. "Mostly it's just many, many layers of knitting enhancing the natural shape."
"That's truly amazing. Hey, what's your name?"
"Penelope. Penny to friends."
"I'm Andrew. Andy to friends."
"Penny, do you give lessons?" I asked, leaning towards her just a little. "I've always wanted to learn."
She frowned. "No, you haven't."
"Yes, I really have." Too much too soon, apparently. She really was shy. "I don't mean to come on too strong, I'm just so impressed with the creativity here, and with its purpose." I gestured up at the banner. "I'd love to be part of it." Of course she was right. Knitting had never occurred to me until that moment. But it looked like an interesting hobby, and it would be a solid excuse to see Penny again.
But the frown remained, and her voice didn't sound as self-effacing as before. "It doesn't work out well when men take up knitting."
"Really? Why?" I looked around for male reinforcements, but the dad had already allowed his daughter to drag him out of earshot. "Because traditionally it's only women who knit? Hey, I'm a sensitive guy, but I don't feel like my masculinity is threatened if I don't fit in with the macho-man stereotype." The vocabulary from that Women's Studies class I took back in college always did come in handy. I hid a self-congratulatory grin and waited for Penny to be impressed by my new-age-man persona.
"Maybe you should. Feel threatened, I mean. Men shouldn't interfere with women's business."
"Whoa. Women's business? Isn't that kind of sexist?"
"Did you really look at what our banner says?" She pointed up, over our heads, to where the sign flapped in the breeze. "It says knitting is the cure. And everyone knows it's men who are the problem."
That threw me a little. "What? How do you figure?"
"It's men who cause violence, men who commit crimes. Everybody knows it, even if you shall we say non-traditional types don't like to admit it." Was that scorn in her voice?
"Well, I'm sure statistically there are more…"
"Women are the victims." Her ocher eyes were hard, convinced.
"But wait a minute. Not all men are like that. Not me!"
"Oh no?" Her eyes flicked to the side, where a group of girls were coming towards her, gushing about how amazing the trees were.
She had some strange opinions. But that was intriguing, refreshing even, compared to the careful, politically correct conversation fare I was used to. "Wait!" I said. "At least give me your phone number. We could get together for a drink, someplace quieter. You've got to give me a chance to defend my right to knit!" I laughed. She didn't.
"Why don't you give me yours, Andy. Maybe we can work this out. I'll call you tonight." She smiled again, but it wasn't the shy, friendly smile she'd given me before.
It was a smile, though. And an invitation. "Tonight? Sure, great!" I pulled out my wallet, extended a business card. Her fingers barely brushed mine as she took it, but I felt the electric shock of her touch all the way up my arms.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. She must have called, because I remember her pulling into the driveway. She wouldn't come in for a drink. I remember riding to the park in her Lincoln so she could show me something about the project, one of the trees that she said needed a little extra something. Leaning back in the leather seats once the car was parked, taking a sip from her flask. Leaning towards her again, even though it occurred to me as I moved in that she didn't seem like the kind of person to carry a hip flask. The sudden dizziness. Bile in my throat. Blacking out.
Coming to. I was upright, pressed against a rough, hard surface. A voice, not Penny's, was whispering "purl, purl."
My throat was dry. There was something in my mouth, a damp, stringy wad, too big to swallow. I strained my eyes trying to see. Nothing. A layer of narrow, frizzy cord was pulled tightly over my face. Yarn, of course. As I breathed, its loose fibers scratched my lips, pulled free and were inhaled, stuck in the back of my throat. I couldn't turn my head, or lift a hand to pull the yarn away.
"Penny?" I croaked, but I could barely hear myself.
The voices heard me though. "Said you wanted to knit, didn't you?" said a whisper.
"You, a man, learn to knit?" hissed another. "More likely trying to get in someone's pants, weren't you?"
"Whether she was interested or not," murmured a third, contemptuously.
"Trying to pull the wool over her eyes, wasn't he?" whispered the first. Dry laughter, in hiccup counterpoint to the faint clicking of needles. Then silence.
Dizzy from lack of water, lack of air, and the press of the knitting, I slipped in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I thought I heard the clicking needles again, closing in on my body. Sometimes I thought I was smothering under a giant pile of animals, their fur and skin melding with mine, becoming one with whatever was left of my feeble body.
At some point I realized that light was filtering through the layers of yarn. I heard voices in the park, laughing in surprise, admiring the latest work: the nose, the eye sockets, a tree holding its arms out to embrace the world. My arms.
The people were so close. I tried to pull my jaws apart, move any part of my body, groan or wheeze or make some sort of sound, but nothing came out. I was bound too tightly.
"Wonder how they get those silhouettes in? Cotton? Hon, you should try some of this stuff on our trees back home."
I felt a slight pressure on my arm as someone tested the strength of the work. "Hardly budges! That's got to be wire inside."
"Well, for goodness' sakes, don't break it!"
The voices slowly moved away.
Arwen lives in Seattle, WA, where she works in musical theater and medicine and glories in the rain. She has published stories in Smokelong Quarterly and Toasted Cheese, and is a three-time NaNoWriMo winner. She is currently working on a children's novel. Email: hokadinkum[at]gmail.com