With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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The quilter’s name was Annie Stella Monk.
She called the pattern Hole in the Barn Door.
“Somebody else might call it Churn Dash,” Stella said,
“and it don’t matter if they do. The same thing goes
by different names.”
Her eyes were bright as polished marbles, lodged
deep in the fleshy pillow of her face.
A union miner’s wife, fierce, anxious, fatalistic:
“He gave his lungs to Bethlehem. I’m giving mine
She quilted fifteen stitches to the inch,
and kept her eye on TV all the while,
her cigarette gone to a fragile snake of ash,
the rhythmic needle of her voice pulling a story
through the haze.
“There was a woman living up at Leewood,
a half-blind, crazy woman, poor old creature;
they say she was a beauty once. Her name was Ollie —
her given name Olivia, of course. She killed
her only child.
“She got herself in trouble, and her people
turned her out; she wouldn’t name the father,
mind you, wouldn’t hear a word of told-you-so.
And so she went to housekeeping alone, up there,
and bore a son.
“He was a hateful good-for-nothing, that one,
mean as the devil, even as a boy;
dead and in hell at fifteen, when she was thirty.
She shot in self-defense, as anyone would call it,
“She couldn’t get her mind to make things fit.
It did her in, to be the dealer of
both life and death for him. Either she was a mother
or a murderer, and since she had no child,
she had no choice.
“The people took to calling her a witch,
and she did nothing to discourage them.
‘I’ll send you up to Ollie,’ Mamaw threatened us
when we had misbehaved. We children knew that meant
she wished us dead.
“Ollie herself died in the state asylum,
less than a month from when they took her there.
But in our hollow, mothers still yet tell their children,
‘I’ll send you up to Ollie, now, if you don’t quit that.’
And that’s the truth.”
The quilt that Stella made me has a flaw
that isn’t a mistake — a patch of red
conspicuously taking up the space that should,
according to the pattern and the way I see,
belong to blue.
“The older quilters do this,” Stella said,
“that’s just the way it’s always been. They say
it’s bad luck not to put one square in wrong. They say
it angers God. They say that only God can make
a perfect thing.
“I don’t know if I hold with that. I figure
God can make a perfect thing, all right;
but whether God’s inclined to do it, I don’t know.”
She lit another cigarette, and coughed, and laughed,
and went on quilting.