What Would Madame Defarge Do?

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Melynda Sylvestre


Visiting Homespun, a Yarn Store
Photo Credit: Adam Kuban

In the chill air of an early spring night, a dozen members of the Guerrilla Grannies surrounded the backdoor of Missy’s Yarn Shop, large gauge metal knitting needles held at the ready. If any of the hands shook, it was only the tremors of age—not fear. Few of these women would ever admit to even a passing acquaintance with fear. They formed a loose semi-circle in front of the door; the four women appointed as guards for this break-in stationed towards the back, facing the alley, as the rest of the group contemplated the heavy metal lock in front of them.

At twenty-one, Aggie was the youngest member of the Grannies by at least four decades. She had only been included because she lived with her Great-Aunt Hester; Great-Aunt Hester hosted the meetings and allowed the members to assemble their larger creations in her studio. Of course, Aggie loved to knit and crochet just as much as the more experienced women did, which was the most important thing. She had felt honored to be accepted, and worked hard to earn the ladies’ respect. But there were times that they exhausted and overwhelmed her with their energy, inventiveness, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

When they had made their plans to break into the shop earlier that evening, she hadn’t questioned how they would get into the locked building. She’d rather assumed that one of the resourceful women had access to a key—everyone in the city’s fiber arts world seemed to know these grand dames of yarn. Aggie was growing used to the way they could pull strings she didn’t know existed. She was surprised when sweet, petite Mabel Robinson, the quintessential little grey-haired granny, pulled a shiny but obviously well-used set of lock picks out of her ever-present oversized knitting bag and approached the door with a grin of sheer mischief.

With a speed that bespoke long, and possibly recent, practice, Mabel fiddled with the lock and gave a rather unladylike snort when the mechanism yielded to her with ease. “Stupid git,” she said in her refined English accent. “When he changed the locks after Missy died and he took over, he put in the cheapest ones on the market. Somebody should have burgled him ages ago.” The gleam of scorn in Mabel’s eyes suggested to Aggie that she rather wished she’d thought of it before now.

“Hush, Mabel.” A tall, Junoesque woman whispered in the voice of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Miss Martha Ashford had been a teacher for almost fifty years, and there were few who would not still find themselves fearing for their recesses when she bent her stern look upon them. As the de facto leader of the Guerrilla Grannies she provided the perfect frontman; no one who met her would ever have suspected her of improper grammar, never mind illegal activities.

Walking carefully to avoid creaking floorboards, and to favor replaced hips, they slipped into the cavernous storage room at the back of the city’s largest yarn and fiber arts supply store. They all had experience with clandestine projects in the dark of night, but the mood tonight was not the usual one of cautious exhilaration. Tonight, they were looking to clear themselves of murder.

Early that morning a makeshift gallows had been found erected in the city’s central park. Dangling from its truncated arm was the portly body of Thomas Martin, current owner of Missy’s Yarn Shop. While this was unfortunate for the knitters of the area, it wasn’t what had caused such consternation amongst the members of the Guerilla Grannies. It was the image, flashing from the screens of every television in town, of the scaffold that the murdered man had been hung from—it appeared to be wearing mad, multi-colored woolen long undies. Yarnbombing had suddenly taken on a new, macabre, dimension.

The people of the city had developed a fondness for the weird yarnbombing that had started last fall: legwarmers appeared on statues, striped knitwear warmed the trunk and branches of venerable trees in the parks, lampposts sported jaunty mufflers and bike racks boasted bobble-covered covers. Through a dreary, wet winter the citizens of Gotham enjoyed the whimsy and color that the granny graffiti had provided. Bets were made about where the next installation would appear. City officials had to say, officially, that this was illegal and that perpetrators would be prosecuted if caught. But no one ever tried too hard to find the nutty knitters. The locals, who were loving the sheer silliness of it all, would never have stood for it, and the Chamber of Commerce had recently pointed out that the yarnbombing sites were becoming tourist attractions, ever since pictures of the sites had gone viral in early February.

Cynthia Brown’s son William was a detective on the city police department, and up until today he had resolutely refused to know anything of his mother’s more dubious activities. This afternoon, when they had gathered in Great-Aunt Hester’s studio to discuss the implications of the murder and the rib-knit gibbet, Detective Brown called his aged mother on her cell phone. She drifted away to listen to him, and spoke sharply before snapping her phone shut again. She came back and reported to the other women: “He says that he can’t pretend he doesn’t know that we’re the yarnbombers anymore, and that we must come down to the station to make statements so he doesn’t have to come and arrest us as suspects. ”

Voices rose in consternation. Cries of anger mingled with indignant protests of innocence and a couple extremely rude and anatomically impossible suggestions of what Cynthia’s William could do with his detective’s badge—the loudest and crudest one coming from the poor man’s own mother. Aggie had always felt rather sorry for the much put-upon Detective Brown. Martha called them back to order, and the meeting moved on to plan what they would have to do to clear their names, unknown though those names may be to the rest of the city.

And so, Aggie found herself in a deserted yarn shop at midnight with a bunch of geriatric housebreakers. Not certain what they were looking for, they had decided ahead of time that they would break up into two groups; the first would search the storage area for anything suspicious that could give them a clue as to why someone would want to kill Sissy Borkowski’s rather slimy nephew. The other cadre would head upstairs to the office and try to look for any records that could help. Aggie had always wondered which of the ladies had brought this organizational expertise to the group, but was too afraid of the answer to actually ask.

It didn’t take long for the warehouse search to reveal at least part of the story—the first box of imported yarn that Aggie plunged her hands into cushioned a dozen very deadly-looking guns. She shakily held one in the air and waved it to get her compatriots’ attention. Before anyone could comment, the sound of the key in the re-locked back door had them all ducking for cover with the practiced ease of experienced yarnbombers. Young Elizabeth (at only sixty-two, she was so-called to distinguish her from 83-year-old Elizabeth) was closest to the stairs, so she flitted up to warn the other half of the invasion party.

Aggie cowered behind the box of weapons and prayed that no one would be too badly hurt. She had a feeling that things were about to get very strange. When the yelling began she closed her eyes and covered her ears…

 

And the breaking news this morning is that the killers of yarn store owner Thomas Martin have been captured. Police received an anonymous tip in the early hours of the morning that the miscreants would be found in the storeroom of Missy’s Yarn Shop on Main Street. Police found the back door unlocked and three men wanted for international weapons trafficking bound and gagged, surrounded by almost a million dollars worth of stolen armaments, apparently smuggled into the country by the late Thomas Martin. Preliminary investigations suggest that Mr. Martin may have been trying to cheat his partners and was killed in retaliation. More details should be known later today when authorities go through the records found in a hidden safe in Martin’s office.

The city will rejoice to hear that while the newly captured criminals refuse to say anything about their arms dealing, they have repeatedly stated that they used store-bought legwarmers to approximate the look of our unknown yarnbomber in hopes of framing the yarnbomber for the murder. The police department has released an official statement that the yarnbomber is no longer a suspect in this case, and that they believe the yarnbomber may have been of assistance in solving this case so quickly… Wait. Just in, a WXTF exclusive… we have received a photo of the captured criminals as they were found this morning… coming up onto the screen, now…

All around the city, people laughed over their morning coffee as their television and computer screens filled with an image of three burly men bound hand and foot by duct tape, gagged by more of the same, and cocooned in artistically chosen layers of colorful yarn. Each man had a custom-made cozy on his head—not unlike the strange creations so common in the seventies which had covered toilet paper rolls and Kleenex boxes in bathrooms throughout the country. Thick skeins of wool had been twisted together into a rope and crocheted into a chain that wrapped the three together. And embroidered across their chests, in glittering fuzzy metallic yarn, were the words “ART IS POWER.”

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At the age of 8, Melynda learned to type on an antique cast iron typewriter, and began to write poems and stories for her family and friends. They told her that they liked what she wrote, and she chose to believe it. Tales of teen-aged angst followed, then a long hiatus while she put off writing for more important things—like staring into space and playing with the cat. Thanks to the magic of the digital age, she is back at it and having a great time. Email: melynda[at]tibetanprayerwheels.com

Forever Saffron

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Melynda Sylvestre


Saffy knew Grandpa would never have forgotten her birthday—no matter how many other parts of his life he may have forgotten before he died. Even at the end, he had still recognized her every time she visited. Even when he was unsure of his own name, he would greet her with hers—the one he chose for her when she was born.

“I’m just mad about Saffron…” he would croon at the sight of her. When he no longer had the breath left for singing, he would hum her song. If he sometimes called her Carolyn during her visits, she knew it didn’t mean he was unaware of who she was. He had always told Saffy that she was the spitting image of his wife, the only other girl he had ever loved. He’d been calling her Carolyn by accident for years, and it had always made her feel good.

Since Saffy and Grandpa had been so close, her whole family was surprised at how well she was taking his death. She heard them muttering about shock, watching her carefully as she spent her Sweet 16th at his funeral. They didn’t understand; she was sad, but Grandpa would never be gone, not for her. She was more upset by the adults insisting that Grandpa wouldn’t be playing the Birthday Game with her this year. He had started dropping hints about this year’s Game before they found out about the tumor, and Saffy knew that Grandpa lived his life the way he played chess—carefully planning for every move his opponent might make, ready to change strategy at a moment, always winning the games he considered important. Grandpa was the smartest person she knew and, with two professors for parents, she had met a lot of people who considered themselves quite intelligent. Grandpa wouldn’t have let death outmaneuver him.

But no one would listen to her. They had returned to Grandpa’s lovely old house from the cemetery and promptly started arguing. It appeared that Grandpa hadn’t left a will, and his children were so involved in dealing with his estate that no one was paying any attention to her. Her two aunts were claiming that everything would need to be sold, and the money divided up evenly between them and Dad. Saffy knew that Grandpa had wanted her to have the house when she grew up, and that he would’ve left it to Dad for her; he had told everyone—including his daughters—this many times over the years. Grandpa had always referred to them as scheming harpies, often to their faces, and insisted that he wasn’t leaving them anything.

Once, when Saffy asked him why he was so harsh, he had told her that he didn’t feel like they were his children at all. The girls had begged to be sent to a fancy boarding school when they were thirteen; overwhelmed with grief for his wife, who had just died, and not sure what to do with teenage twins, he had agreed. After that, he had hardly spent any time with them. They embraced the Me spirit of the eighties, were embarrassed by their father’s “hippie” ideals, and spent as much time with their preppy friends as they could. He admitted to Saffy that it was his own fault; he should’ve kept them home, raised them properly, been there for them. But he didn’t, and they turned into the kind of people he had been rebelling against in the sixties.

Aunt Evelyn lived closest to Grandpa, and had spent a lot of time at his house once he was sick. That is, once he got sick enough that he couldn’t protest. He never could stand having her around for any length of time, and had always worked hard at driving her crazy so she would leave quickly. Saffy knew that a number of Grandpa’s nicer things had disappeared while her aunt was around. Aunt Judy, with her prissy way of saying the nastiest thing possible and her awful lawyer-husband—the one Grandpa called a pompous bore who couldn’t find his own ass with both hands and a map—was telling everyone which laws said the estate had to go in equal shares between the three of them. The harpies were enjoying it all, very much.

Saffy tried to convince Dad that Grandpa must have hidden a will, or that one of the dastardly aunts could’ve stolen it, and he should do something. But he just looked sad and resigned, and told her there was nothing he could do. It made Saffy so frustrated and impatient with him, another thing she had in common with her grandfather. Grandpa had loved her father, but found him to be too meek and wishy-washy. Saffy felt much the same, but her love for her dad made her try not to walk right over him the way Grandpa had.

Saffy knew that Grandpa hadn’t been perfect; he was judgmental, impatient and occasionally self-absorbed. But she had loved him anyway, and he had found her to be the true child of his heart. He taught her to play chess; took her on camping trips where they would hike or paddle for days to get to some special spot; gardened and built with her, caring for the old house that he’d lived in ever since he had married her grandmother. The two of them loved that house, and he always told her that it would be hers forever.

But, to Saffy, the best thing they did together was the annual birthday treasure hunt. He would plan it months in advance, and it became more complex and challenging every year. Like chess, he would arrange the pieces to build a mystery that she had to use all her abilities to solve. He taught her to observe carefully, and to search for clues until she deduced where her gift was hidden. It was fun, but it was real; if Saffy couldn’t solve the riddle, she didn’t get her gift—she found her 10th birthday present three months late, when she finally understood a chess defense reference Grandpa had made.

Today was her 16th birthday. Grandpa had made a big deal about it, told her he had started planning it years ago. She knew what the prize was this year; as long as she could remember, Grandpa had told her that when she was sixteen he would give her Grandma’s jewelry. Saffy suspected that it was almost as much a way of upsetting his daughters as it was a sign of his love for her. When Aunt Judy announced earlier today that she couldn’t find the jewelry, Dad—with a rare show of backbone—accused his sisters of stealing it when Grandpa was in the hospital. They retaliated by saying that Saffy had likely taken it. Things quickly degenerated from wake to rumble.

But while Saffy could believe her aunts would have wanted to destroy the will, and that they would’ve stolen the jewelry if they’d had the chance, she still felt that Grandpa had out-foxed them. Somehow. And it made her angry at herself that she hadn’t figured out how. Because this was the ultimate birthday hunt, and she was letting Grandpa down. He would’ve expected her to work it out. He would’ve planned everything.

She tried to explain this to her father one more time.

“Honey, I know Grandpa would never have ignored your birthday if he had a choice. But the tumor removed all of his choices; he was in the hospital for the last two months. He didn’t have time to hide your present.”

She knew she was missing something, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She kept asking her father questions until he started to lose his customary easy temper.

“For crying out loud, Saffy, give it a rest! I have too much to take care of as it is, without you acting like a little child over a birthday treat. Your grandfather left things a mess, dying without a will. He didn’t give us any warning, even though his doctors told him what was happening back in early autumn. It wasn’t until he started blacking out around Christmas that we knew what was going on. And he was incoherent and into the hospital two months later. I know it wasn’t like him to leave things undone, but he must have been affected much earlier than we realized, and just wasn’t able to take care of things. He couldn’t have done anything for your birthday this year; you know he always arranged it so you couldn’t figure it out beforehand. And he just couldn’t hold on until April 11th. I’m sure he wanted to, honey.”

Grandpa knew he was dying? Back in the fall? No one had told her that part before. She wasn’t sure how, but it changed everything. He was still normal back then; they had worked together harvesting and putting the garden to bed. He had been sharp and funny and teasing her about her birthday even then. If he had known he had an inoperable brain tumor then, he would’ve known that he wasn’t going to be around in the spring for the Game. He would’ve planned his moves right away.

Leaving the squabbling relatives in the house, Saffy pulled on her sweater and strolled out to the familiar driveway, where the arching redbud trees were just starting to flower. Behind the house the early spring garden, in all its barren loveliness, brought the first tears to her eyes, with its reminder of growing seasons spent working beside her grandfather. Early daffodils sprouted in clumps along the edge of the woods and throughout the sleeping garden beds. She imagined she could hear Grandpa’s wonderful off-key voice singing her song as she wandered around the house perimeter.

“I’m just mad about Saffron; hmmmhmmm; and Saffron is mad about me…”

Saffy relaxed and just tried to observe. Looked for anything that was different. Anything that could’ve been changed in the fall. There. Under the big apple tree. A patch of purple crocuses. She was certain there hadn’t been any there last spring; she and Grandpa had preferred Snowdrops and Siberian Squill for spots like this.

They had bloomed early this year and were already starting to drop their petals, leaving the saffron-gold stamens standing alone on the stem; another few days and it would be almost impossible to tell where they had been, the newly green grass would grow higher and hide the delicate leaves.

Ignoring her black skirt, she climbed up the old tree to her favorite branch. When she looked down, the crocuses below appeared to be forming a lopsided heart. Tears began to course down her cheeks, and she laughed through them. Grandpa might have been a genius in some ways, but he drew about as well as he sang.

She hated to disturb the patch, but she knew that if she dug carefully most of the bulbs would survive to bloom again for her every year. Grandpa was no fool; she’d be willing to bet her every memory of him that there was a very sturdy waterproof box down there. And that there would be a will inside of it; as well as the sparkling treasure he had saved from the first girl he had loved. The jewelry was special, and to live in this house would be a joy for her, but she knew that this was his final and greatest gift to her—his absolute faith that her love and trust for him would lead her to play their game, even after he was gone.
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“I have intended to be a writer since I was 8 years old, but my powers of procrastination are well nigh invincible and it has taken 30 years to write this story. My favorite way to avoid writing is reading, and that will probably never change. But with the help of remedial discipline, nagging teenagers and contest deadlines I hope to someday achieve my lifelong goal of being able to answer the question ‘What do you do?’ with ‘I’m a writer.'” E-mail: info[at]vermontait.com