PART ONE: BABY STORIES
Mama Arachne’s tapestries were always beautiful, but I’m guessing you already knew that.
Even the white folks had to admit to it to themselves after a while — even if they still hemmed and hawed at the amateurishness of its unique design, grumbled on about how clunky the yarn looked and how cheap the fabric feels to the touch.
Even after the old days were over and the most of the young folk made their way up to the cities up North, Mama Arachne carried her grandmother’s secrets with her feeling the magic in the sewing, patching and stitching and knitting that had gotten her foremothers out of the underground and home to freedom.
Or at least that what her Grandma Webb had always said.
There was always a reminder of the family spirits somewhere on their sewing, and Mama Arachne’s family had a heart with a dagger going through it, a common sign in honor of their family mother spirit — though it was made up all decorative and silly to throw off any non-believers, not in the know.
There was a cross stitched somewhere near the heart, just in case.
Now, Grandma Webb had never had the chance to learn much words and letters, and even the poor whites who sat on as if they were still masters on their granddaddy’s lands couldn’t muster much else than the dialect of the mammies that raised their ancestors in their more opulent, cotton king family histories. But Mama Arachne had went to one of the schoolhouse shacks that the government had plopped down for the black kids into after the slaves were freed, and as she slowly and surely read the words out loud, Mama Arachne and Grandma Webb had gathered what they could from the poster itself, even if the long-winded white folks sounded a bit more uppity than they needed to. There were trains going North. And Mama Arachne would get on one.
“I don’t trust white folks up North or down South. But these crops are my curse, baby girl. As soon as I get this debt off my back, I’ll meet you up there.”
Soon after, Grandma Webb had asked around to see what other kids were getting on one of those city trains. A few weeks later, Mama Arachne was in a rickety railcar with a suitcase in too-tight braids, her best church dress, and clean patent shoes, squished between a girl named Cindy, who always dozed off during church study, and Martha, a girl who Mama Arachne had knew had a rich white daddy stashed away somewhere, and guessed she was going up North to meet him. The three of them, lost and exhausted and dressed in their Sunday best, huddled together to doze off in loud him and the rhythm of the train itself, them and their dress ruffles the only soft and pretty things on the hard moving seats.
Mama Arachne would do that dress up, slipping her children and grandchildren into it long after Grandma Webb had passed. “If you sniff on it,” Mama Arachne would say, “it still smells a little like lye, lavender water, cigarettes and liquor.”
Mama Arachne didn’t talk too much about her first years up North. She was barely thirteen when she got here and the would was plenty enough trouble for black girls at that age without trying to stir up any trouble. There was a boarding house with a tight-lipped, ashy-skinned church lady called Miss Suzy, who encouraged them to drop the twange in their voices and “speak proper if you ever wanna make money like the white folks”. As soon as Mama Arachne was big enough to work, Miss Suzy sent her off to work in white folks home, big houses with sprawling lawns that would have looked like one of the people from one of those moving pictures had it not been just across the street from where she was living at the time. Most of the time she was put to work cleaning those big houses, straightening up their messy bedrooms or minding their messy babies. All that cleaning up after them ended after the wandering eyes of the white ladies husbands – and of married boyfriends- that resulted in a burn down her back with a scar that would flare up on colder days.
After all was said and done, Mama Arachne laid a pack of cigarettes down on at her family altar, took a shot of moonshine for herself and hoped for the best.
From then on, Mama could mostly do sitting work, leading her to factories where she would put little white dolls back together to basement work where embarrassed white girls would hand her their girdles and dresses, as if each rip, tear and stain would reveal their lack of scruples.
Eventually Mama Arachne got up enough money and courage to get out from under Mama Suzy’s little in-house congregation, Mama Arachne got her own place in an apartment at the edge of town, cooped up with another girl that washed white lady’s laundry with material so tissue-thin that their drawers seemed to flare up over their hanging place over the radiators. By then, Mama Arachne was eighteen, too full-grown for Miss Suzy to keep in a nursery or send to youth Bible study, there was no reason for Miss Suzy to keep her around, except maybe to patch up her skirt holes. Anyways, Miss Suzy was caught in bed with a church deacon around that time as well, so perhaps freeing Mama Arachne was some sort of repentance for her. She was too proud ever to give out a confession.
In her own little apartment, Mama Arachne fell in love with the girlfriend who did the laundry – in love when they kissed on the back porch with only soft moonlight and dime-store soda pops to keep them company, out of love when that same girlfriend packed up one morning and moved back in her long-forgotten husband down South, begging her to come back and promising her a big house with a proper garden once she got home, one she could never grow in North where it could turn warm as fast as it did cold. The laundry girl only left behind half a bottle of sweet liquor and her own part of the rent wrapped in a letter stamped with lipstick kisses and leaky tears that blurred at the edges of the scrawl. Mama Arachne cashed that in and moved into somewhere even smaller, taking the perfume with her on the way out.
Another heartbreak came in the form of, of course, a husband – that first husband smelled of whiskey and white men’s cologne and a deep, misremembered twange that reminded Mama Arachne of home almost, making her miss Grandma Webb even more. Mama Arachne would stay with that man for a good ten years, having three babies by him and loving on him as much as she could, as much as he would beat on her. She left that first husband, leaving her with no rent money this time around and three babies to hold onto her skirts.
After that, Mama Arachne had to think fast. After that, Mama Arachne started sewing again.
And Mama Arachne’s tapestries were beautiful, but I’m guessing you already knew that they’d get her into trouble.
And her hot, faithful family spirit looked on, watchful and frowning as she lit a match and brought a cigarette to her own dark, thick lips. The heat was broiling over, and Mama Arachne could feel it’s tingle going down her back.
Miss Faustine Marquis was one of those fine, foreign ladies that sunk into her own whiteness as easy as the buttercream on the hotcakes her own brown ladies served her every Sunday before church. If she wasn’t a steadfastly modern and Christian woman, she might have admitted to the pagan malediction she carried somewhere deep in her blood, but Miss Faustine had stomped it out with prayers and crosses, and there wasn’t much the enchantments of her ancestors could do but supply her with a sort of low level glamour that made the spoiled milk of her soul seem like rich champagne in the right conditions.
When left you left her family history totally up to her, Miss Faustine would have said she reigned all the way down from far-off French nobility, her family only ending up in the US after a terrible coup, but from the way her thick patois floated in her throat it was more likely she was minded by Louisiana fisherman than any kind of discount Marie Antoinette.
Still, Miss Faustine Marquis had money, and one of favorite hobbies was sewing and designing clothes. When her own daughters were young, she’d dress them up like the dolls of a Cinderella fairytale, watching all her friends ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the little porcelain marvels dancing around in their mother’s dressing.
Of course, Missy Tina hardly ever needed to sew herself, merely waving a hand and showing off the drawings among the ready and will help she had at her beck and call, but while she hardly ever did the bloody needlework that came with her designs, she’s the one that orchestrated the magic, and that’s all that really mattered.
Miss Faustine Marquis first heard of Mama Arachne from her much-devoted help that milled around her house – or else, the lovely Missy Tina saw Mama Arachne’s scarf tied on the head of a teenage worker-girl tending to her china one sunny morning.
The girl was dark and scrawny thing, hardly much to look at on her best and brightest days. However, on the morning that Missy Tina found her, even as she was adorned in a simple honey-yellow dress and scarf, the girl looked like the lost fairy princess; bright and beautiful in a kind of Africana glamour that Miss Faustina’s icy, Anglo-Saxon complexion could never reach. And the thought that this simple little black girl’s dressing could outdo even her own loveliest, silk-wrapped creations made her feel childish and gaudy.
The girl was still dusting and at her goblets when Missy Tina stood over that morning, ready to tug the offending off her thick, coily head and accuse the girl of something, of anything…
The girl in the yellow dress nearly flinched as she felt her lady’s well-manicured nails across the patchy, yellow fabric with a disgusted awe. Or at least, that’s what to poor girl told us when she came around Mama’s house later.
“Hey there, baby lamb,” Missy Tina said, smiling against the girl’s shivers. “Can you do me a favor and tell me who made up that pretty little scarf for you?”
Some of the mother spirits are notoriously HOT. Grandma Webb always said you’d have a gatekeeper to act as your intermediary, a soft-hearted guide to make the road between the world of the living and the unliving, but you must keep a hot spirit satiated, less you end up with burnt hands.
A mother spirit had burnt her hands into Mama Arachne’s back when she was born, and the knock that one of her employers gave her seemed to rattle Mama Arachne’s
On the day that Miss Faustine’s letter was slipped under her door, her daughter Delphine had been rubbing a cream onto her mother’s back to help satiate the burn scorching up and down her spine.
Normally her two boys, a set of brown-skinned twins named Fabien and Gabriel, had been perfectly apt little secretaries for their mother, sorting out the dull mail of bills and family letters to get to their subscriptions of little cereal box toys and the funny papers. The sticky hands gave Mama Arachne something smile about, plus it made the bad news easier to bear when the white folks prefer to stick in with her late night cigarettes or morning coffee. However, the boys were out doing some shopping for their mother that night, which left the two ladies alone to do some bedside bonding.
Mama Arachne never liked her babies going out so late, but with the ache in her back and the promise of candy calling them meant the twins Fabe and Gabe were down to follow the Devil to the end of Hell if it meant they could meant they could chew on sugar cane once they got there.
All was quiet in Mama Arachne’s house, the only sounds being until Delphine cried “Mama, look! The mail came!” , and Mama Arachne had pulled her dress shirt down to examine the pile of enveloped that seeped it’s way under the front door of their scruffy little apartment.
Miss Faustine’s letter glowed up from the door frame like blood from an open wound. Mama frowned, before dragging a sharp finger across the top of the envelope and pulled the letter out.
Delphine peeked around her mother’s shoulder, frowning as she perched her head mother’s shoulder. “Is this for a party, Mama?”
Mama Arachne frowned. “I…don’t think so, baby. I think it’s for a job….”
Delphine lit up, a big grin spreading on her face, her crooked baby teeth cropping through like dandelions on a warm, summer day. “You got a dress order, Mama!”
Mama Arachne rolled her eyes. “Maybe, baby.” Delphine frowned and Mama Arachne caught herself. “It might just be another bill from Mrs. Wilson downstairs. You know grabby she’s been getting about the rent nowadays.”
Mama Arachne smiled, giving her daughter a kiss on the cheek, chiding her. “Lemme read through this first.”
Delphine nodded, before bouncing off the wash her mother’s salve off her hands.
Mama Arachne was still reading the letter at the windowsill when her sons stumbled in with
the groceries. Gabe and Fabe’s stick, candy-filled cheeks got rough kisses from their mama too, though they were old enough now to be equal parts grateful and embarrassed.
As soon as all her kids were down, she took out a cigarette and sat on a fire escape to examine the letter again.
“A gentle, friendly competition”, it said. “Just to show off that girls from down South can make just as pretty dresses as these Northern ladies. A friendly, feminine wager. Lady to lady. Just, be sure to come through the back gate, sweetie. I don’t want them to think I’m entertaining too many colored folks.”
At these words, as Mama Arachne, she nearly burnt that letter up under her stick and flung that perfumed, frilly thing out into the street below. But still, something was stopping her.
Something about the offer the letter spoke about stuck in her mind, and she knew that it wouldn’t let her go. The opportunity had been one of a lifetime, something big and unexpected to give Mama Arachne pause.
She knew that she worked hard, but this meant that she wasn’t at home with her kids as much she liked. The sewing jobs had given her a chance to rest her back, and cleaning jobs gave her enough care to cover the rent and keep her kids fed, but it didn’t leave much room for grandeur.
Mama Arachne was long past that little wide-eyed girl that had come up North on a train in a church dress that she used to be, but she still did have dreams. As much promise as the North had held, and as many opportunities that it afforded her, she was alone much of the time, mostly due to the other black mamas of the neighborhood also having men to mind, babies to feed, white folks to work for.
Mama Arachne’s dreams might have just been flowerpots on the windowsill compared to most other folks she knew, but she still had them, and she still watered them, hoping that they’d sprout, their pretty leaves popping up grinning.
Mama Arachne wanted something to bring the community together, something to connect her own people with one another. Her best customers were always the brown girls, giggling and wide eyes as she spun gold out of their old dresses’ hay. If she took this offer, even if she didn’t end up winning against this white ladies goons, she could at least use the second-place prize money to get the word out about her. She could maybe even open a shop, get her kids to some decent learning, make more dresses for some pretty black girls and put more smiles on their faces…
Mama Arachne took one last big drag of her cigarette before folding the letter up and slipping it into her bra for safekeeping.
As she slipped into bed beside her daughter that night, Mama found herself dreaming of tapestries and dresses.
And also of blood, though this wound was fresh, no sweet-smelling salve to cover soak out the pain.
Not yet, anyhow.
Miss Faustine was planted at her window when she saw Mama Arachne’s letter arrive with the mailman a few days later.
Snuggled under her silk blanket, the milk-skinned woman smiled as she thought of this old dirt-brown bird embarrassing herself while she created her own dresses into the art that could even make the ancient Francophone bourgeoisie jealous.
The hot spirit burnt along her back as Mama Arachne made her way up to the back of Miss Faustine’s big, bougie house nearly a month later. Her little sewing kit and bundle of cloth sat like shield and sword as entered what she assumed Mama Faustine’s little kitchen, her flat work shoes sounding like a waterfall as she plopped along the floor, Mama Arachne scanning over her bundle to see if the caught any other brown faces around, cleaning or cooking or maybe even coming around to see who this was coming through the kitchen.
“Oh! You’re here!” said a skinny sugar-brown girl of sixteen, reaching out her arms to grab the cloth bundle from Mama Arachne’s tired arms. She was long and lean and reminded Mama Arachne a little of her own daughter, right down to the ooh-ing and aww-ing over the cloth bundle to the honey-yellow dress she wore with a matching yellow scarf.
“I know you!” Mama Arachne cried, her own eyes brightening with recognition, and the girl smiled, slightly embarrassed.
“Yeah, my you used to work with my Mama, ma’am.” the girl in yellow dress said. “She told me you made her this dress.”
“You’re Cindy’s daughter?” Mama Arachne whispered, extremely surprised. The girl nodded.
“Yeah, erm, she got kicked out my grandaddy’s house cuz he wouldn’t claim her, and she was so ashamed that she didn’t say who she really was when she saw you last”
“Oh baby,” Mama Arachne said. “I’m so sorry-” But the girl waved her off.
“I never met my grandaddy, but any man who don’t claim his own baby can’t be a good one. Besides, Mama’s all shacked up with some mulatto guy now. She’s fine being pretty and taking his money if need be.”
Mama Arachne smiled and nodded. “Well, why are you working here, then?”
The young girl shrugged. “I need money, too. The mulatto guy is one of Missy Tina’s friends, so my Mama thought it would look good if I did some work in this white lady’s house.” They’d made it into an empty sitting room by this point, and the young girl had laid Mama Arachne’s cloth bundle on a gaudy couch nearby.
Mama Arachne nodded. “Well, we all gotta eat baby. Say, I forgot to ask your name!”
The young girl smiled, “Cynthia, like my mom. Everyone calls me baby, though.”
Mama Arachne smiled. “Well, thanks for the help there, Miss Baby.”
The girl blushed, grabbing Mama Arachne’s hands in gratitude. “Well, it’s wonderful to finally meet you ma’am.”
Then, hitching up her dress, Baby said “I’d best get Missy Tina, she would want to know you’ve made it.”
“No need, Baby Lamb,” came Missy Tina’s voice from behind them. “I saw y’all rushing in from the kitchen. Those work shoes of yours do make quite a ruckus.”
Baby blushed, putting her head down ashamed. “Sorry, Missy Tina.”
Mama Arachne caught the sickness in Missy Tina’s smile, and her face set in a blank frown as Missy Tina took a seat in the plush pink chair beside her.
“All settled in here, Baby?”
“Yes, Missy Tina”
“Well, go fetch the tea now”
“Yes, Missy Tina”
Mama Arachne shot Baby a sympathetic smile as the yellow thing skittered past. Then, she was in the room with Missy Missy Tina, and she noticed the white lady looking her up and down in a sort of ill-concealed disappointment.
“Well, it’s mighty fine to meet you, Missy Tina” Mama Arachne said to break her stares and the silence. Missy Tina looked Mama Arachne straight in the eye, as if she was smacked away from her favorite picture show.
“Well, likewise, Miss…Nene? I’m sure.”
Mama Arachne smiled. “Well, let’s not waste time, Missy Tina. Would you like me to get started on your measurements?”
Missy Tina almost doubled over with laughter. “No, no, no, you silly goose. I’m not wearing your clothes – you need to look good wearing your own! Also, I’ll need a tapestry from you.”
Mama Arachne blinked. “I don’t make dresses for myself…isn’t this a competition?”
“A friendly competition, yes. But it’s meant to show off our best selves, and well…well, I just wanted to give you the space to practice.”
Mama Arachne blinked again. “Well…okay. I’ll need a few weeks to finish up my dress and everything,”
Missy Tina grinned. “Excellent. I’ll get started as well. How do you feel about a summer debut, Miss Nene?”
Mama Arachne’s warm and loving grin cut through the ice of Missy Tina’s eyes like sunlight to a hibernating bear, ushering in a spring when the beast would rather roll over, dozing.
“That would do just fine, Missy Tina! Let’s both do our best, okay?” Mama Arachne said, bowing her head as stately as any queen might be. And Mama Arachne smiled as the tapestry of her children and the night sky floated through her mind. Missy Tina frowned, wanting to hurry Baby up in retrieving her sewing needles.
END OF PART ONE
PART TWO: THE SEWING CONTEST
Mama Arachne was skilled at sewing, but I’m guessing you already knew this was true. Madame Faustine (or Missy Tina as she deigned herself to be called), watched the dark-skinned black woman’s fingers handle the fabric, needle and thread with disgusted awe, even as she looked down at the other woman’s callused hands and rag-tag pile of fabrics with snooty self-vindication.
They’d been at it for weeks, Missy Tina playing around with price guides and shilling her shiniest pennies to get the best fabrics, and Mama Arachne, popping in at the same time every other day, always bringing in an old patch or pulling out a new piece of fabric to add on to her dress with precision and ease.
How did this — this colored woman — make it all look so goddamn easy? This dirty, low-down Negress, with her knotted hair and set thick lips and eyes wide and brown like a baby’s – how the hell did she always come in, looking so happy and comfortable with her own work, no matter how raggedy it looked?
Baby had took a shine to her, coming up as Mama Arachne’s little helper even as Missy Tina took up more and more of her time, keeping her cleaning and sweeping the fabrics off the floor, making her hem at skirts to keep from looking over the Mama Arachne’s work with such admiration.
Missy Tina absolutely HATED how much Mama Arachne came to her house, too. Missy Tina was a great overseer to her own fancy dresses, the type to peek in and approve the fabrics and designs, leaving others to do the busy work of actually making the dresses up. But she soon found her fingers pricked with the pin marks of the sewing needle, grumbling at the pain she felt as Mama Arachne’s hands seemed to glide over the mismatched fabric with relative ease. As soon as Mama Arachne collected her cookie tin full of sewing supplies,
Missy Tina threw her own sewing plies down in a hissy huff.
She had expected Mama Arachne to get more tired than this , frustrated than this, sad than this, ASHAMED THAN THIS. This whole competition was going to be farcical on the other woman’s part, and for her to even suppose that she had the chance to win was….
Baby had run up some ointment and got water for her, tending to her fingers with a blank look on her face.
“Baby, tell me this. Is Miss Nene’s dresses prettier than mine?”
Baby, who had been rubbing plasters over her employer’s alabaster fingers, looked up in confusion, lost at what to do.
“Well, Missy Tina. You know…you know, Missy Tina? No one can make prettier dresses than you can. They almost feel like…like a storybook.”
Missy Tina smiled, releasing her hand from the young girls as she preened her own stringy hair in the mirror, lovingly propping the dull, flat strands into a rollers.
“Am I the queen in that storybook?” Missy Tina asked, almost laughing.
Baby nodded politely. “Yes, Missy Tina. You’re very own story.”
Missy Tina nodded, shooing the young girl away, assured that whatever pile of rags Mama Arachne was stringing together was no match for the piece she could cook up.
But then Mama Arachne came back, still sewing away with a smile on her face. And Missy Tina frowned and looked to the side, holding in the anger that this black woman could ever suppose that she could turn her pile of rags into a Cinderella gown.
Mama Arachne was REVITALIZED. Mama Arachne was usual one for survival and keeping her head down, but something about this competition and being in this big ole house making her newest tapestry lit a furnace in her belly. As soon as she got home from Missy Tina’s house that first day, Mama Arachne had ran home, digging through nooks and crannies to get started.
Mama Arachne had decided to stick to something simple: a giant quilt tapestry to deal with the odd mish-mash between the fabrics she gathered. Whenever she could get a minute, she opened up shop in the little passageway that Missy Tina had set out for her, and got to work building the tapestry up, up, up, her needle and thread going faster and smoother than any of Missy Tina’s sewing machines ever could, as easy as they were on her hands on the harder days.
Missy Tina poked her head in time to time, often going in to unlock her art cupboards, pulling out her piles of fabric to examine and to have her little entourage to ohh and ahh at, but her most constant companion was Baby, the teen scullery maid tending to Mama Arachne with any cakes or tea or biscuits that could be completely snuck to her without much trouble.
Mama Arachne appreciated the company, and Baby was a pretty sight too, adding rulers to straighten out shaky patches and offering suggestion to trim off threads and arrange the kaleidoscope of colors, the janky pieces of fabric slipping next to each other like the planks of a rose-cut windowpane.
This would never be piece that folks might ever put on their wall or pop into a big fancy museum, but there something homey and familiar about it that made Mama Arachne smile every time she clipped at the pieces she patched together. Even if this bundle of fabric wouldn’t make the star attraction in boutique windows, it might be a fun house blanket to cover herself in every morning, a thing for her children and perhaps her future grandchildren to tease with love and gawk at in admiration, each of them finding a story to tell in the little squares Mama Arachne patched together with gold.
There was an old patron spirit that held the stars in her hands in this messy, beautiful tapestry and Mama Arachne was simply the sculptor, aiming to bring her patron goddess out.
The tapestry showing might as well have been inside a circus tent, what with the whole get-up Missy Tina decided to throw together.
Missy Tina had decided to host the showing in her mansion ballroom, but as fancy as her little dining hall was on it’s off days, it was a mighty sight now. Billowing curtains were hung at the corners of the room, and the chairs were set all in a line on either side, as if their sewing work was meant to be presented as the main course at ravenous dinner table. There were dinner tables in the room, too, giant, gaudy things boasting the richest nibbles and drinks that would set any uppity rich folks heat go all a-flutter. On her way in, with her bundle firmly folded in an old pocketbook, Mama Arachne made a point to smile and nod at the weight staff, looking smart and slick in their work uniforms. The maids and manservants all nodded back, all grateful for the courtesy of all being in on the in-joke of being the help.
Baby helped her set her table up, adorning it with a vase of red and gold flowers to match the colors in her dress and headscarf. It was a warm, summer day, so the dress was a loose, flowy thing that covered up Mama Arachne up enough to look presentable for any wandering eyes but slack enough she could bend over and sit down if she ever needed to.
Looking back, Mama Arachne was glad for that loose dress. It was one of her most useful creation, what with providing her something simple and pretty to her figure — as well as enough leg room for her to run in.
But not today.
Today, at least for the moment, Mama Arachne was safe, standing firm in her spot, front and center and ready to show off her work.
Missy Tina arrived in a big ole evening gown of a dress, a young girl getting ready for her own promenade, a lady ready to stun in her debut. The dress she wore was such a wedding cake, made up in layers and layers of so much sweet-colored fabric and lace that Mama Arachne felt mighty underdressed by comparison.
Still, Mama Arachne smiled at the few compliments the other black women through her, some even going so far to adjust her scarf and straighten up her skirt to add to her own personal beauty. And Missy Tina frowned, moving her own skirts, causing the sound claws on pavement as she dragged herself to her own little stand, ready to show off her own creation and shake Mama Arachne out of the spot she had rooted for herself.
“Ready to start soon, Miss Nene? The guests should be arriving soon — Oh dear! I’m sorry for not mentioning it sooner, but it just got so busy…”
But then Mama Arachne smiled. And then Missy Tina.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to cause any trouble for you, Missy Tina. I’m ready when you are.”
Missy Tina looked Mama Arachne, staring at her to see any sign of deception or anger or trickery in her dark eyes, but Mama Arachne gave her big ole grin that nearly made her slap the woman on sight.
“Fine then, Miss Nene. Fine. Just — don’t hold onto Baby too much, I might need her to pass out the refreshments soon and I can’t have her yapping to you all day, can I?”
Missy Tina turned around, expecting to see a deep blush or a stammering drawl come upon the other woman, some sort of remorse of bellyaching to make up for whatever pain she might have caused.
But all she saw was Baby, handing Mama Arachne a fan and a some manservant’s cup to sip on some water, again — again — with the two of them already forgetting her.
Missy Tina turned away, snapping her fingers for her serving girls to set up her mannequin and pull down the dress she had prepared.
It had all been so quiet at first, so simple.
A threadbare calm before the ripped sheets of the coming storm.
The ballroom where Missy Tina and Mama Arachne had been slated to show off their newest creations was quickly filled with the contest guests and judges (all of them arriving under Missy Tina’s own personal invitation, of course).
Mama Arachne was surprised to see a few familiar faces in the growing crowd surrounding her, catching sight of a few old clients from her early days in the Northern City amongst the ruddy white elite Missy Tina ran with.
Now, Missy Tina was a powerful lily-white lady of the lily-white elite, and had been an American-born princess almost from birth; filthy rich by her dead husband’s money and bolstered up by her own family’s money, even Missy Tina had to admit deep down in herself that she was often too high up on her own personal throne of plushness to come down and mingle with her own peers much, whether they be new money or noveau riche. On the other hand, Mama Arachne had no qualms about such things; these folks in the audience around her were the people whose houses Mama Arachne cleaned, who’s children she’d looked after, who’s business she’d minded, who’s clothes she’d tended and to or sewn up.
Mama Arachne had watched these people tear each other apart and it was often her job to pick up their pieces and patch them back together, Cinderella gowns and all.
By the looks on their faces, seeing Mama Arachne stood in front of the as stately as any folklorish queen, ready to show off her own personal magic in her own personal art — well, they shivered under gaze, chilly as demons in church.
Course, Mama Arachne was poor. What the hell could she know about nothing?
Missy Tina tutted, determined to have everyone’s attention back on her. And that’s when the messiness really began.
Of course the audience loved Missy Tina’s work. Missy Tina, being the lady of the house, had decided that she would be the one to present her work first, so it would have been downright rude to not acknowledge all the hard work at all when she so graciously made it up for their ready consumption.
The audience took Missy Tina’s beautiful, overstuffed gown in, gawking and clapping and praising it up and down like it was a morning glory seeing sunlight after a thousand nights of rain. Watching Missy Tina soak it all in, Mama Arachne felt a bit silly with her old pocketbook and raggedy old guilt, feeling that it would hardly be enough to feed the attention of the masses.
But she pressed on, flattening out her free-flowing dress and making sure her scarf was still properly tied on her coily scalp, beaming with pride in her own bravery as Missy Tina turned to her with a coy smile.
“Your turn, Miss Nene,” Missy Tina said, sashaying out of the ballroom and into her seat in the audience, soft and primped up and ready made for her.
“The floor is yours.”
Mama Arachne nodded, opening up her pocketbook to pull out her quilt, spreading it out onto the table like a golden fleece ready to send its enchantment to people in the space all around her. It seemed to even glow in the light, and whether it be the sunlight all around or the flowers spilled out or even the table’s shape showing it off, the quilt was a lovely thing, and Mama Arachne’s already-wide smile seemed to glow with an otherworldly sweetness.
And that’s all it took. One look at her quilt and one look at her joy.
One mass of people, milk-white and dirt brown to stare her down and gawk and gobble up her work like the worst sirens of the red, bloody sea, dragging her down, down down into the depths and into nothing.
Just eyes. Just anger. Just staring.
That’s all it took. That was the end of her.
A cold shiver ran down Mama Arachne’s spine as she looked up to see every black and white eye trained on her, ready to pounce, teething gnashing and the fine, patchy feast in front of them.
END OF PART TWO
PART THREE: MOTHER LOVE
There would be no babies to rub salves down her hard, hot back tonight.
Three days since Missy Tina’s house, since a pile of patchy cloth sent the rich white lady showing off and bawling and forming a mob of gentle brown ladies and white sirs around her to cushion her fall and dry her tears.
Mama Arachne had really meant no harm — the piece she had patched together didn’t even any white people in it! But the little brown baby and mama that Mama Arachne had stitched together and seemed to ripped through the poison honey and begrudging grins Madame Faustine had sent her way these past few days.
The result was as congenial as it was spiteful: Mama Arachne packed up her things, and left the white lady’s house in a hurry. No one said anything, inwardly thinking that the trash had decided to take herself out and rushing her out the door so she won’t stink up the place in the process.
What Mama Arachne hadn’t expected was that this would leak out into the neighborhood, though she did feel like a fool for not realizing it earlier. Madame Faustine had money and moneyed friends, and those moneyed friends probably didn’t take lightly to their friend’s ego being bruised by some colored woman not good enough ever to scrub their drawers.
As a result, Mama Arachne was damaged goods for the clients around her, marked by the competition that she so foolishly was drawn into and out of work for the time being.
In her fear, Mama Arachne sent them to Baby’s house a little ways off until she got their house back into a settled state.
And they really might have had everything settled and quiet again –until she got the letter with eviction notice on the door, signed with Missy Tina’s lipstick kiss in the corner.
Mama Arachne felt like a dog beaten into a corner where the only thing she could really do was whine and beg, beg, beg as she tried not to get beat no more.
She just didn’t want to be beat no more.
Mama Arachne spent a good day crying to herself and sucking on a cigarette til her ashtray filled up like dirt in a graveyard, dry and ashy and burying something.
Mama Arachne got up in her robe and bonnet, wiped off her face now dry with her own tears and got up, collecting herself as she faced Grandma Webb’s photograph staring warmly at her from it’s perch on her family altar.
“Oh, Nana…” Mama Arachne murmured, straightening up the altar cloth, candles and beer with gentle precision. “I’ve made a whole mess of everything. I know you always told me to be careful in white lady’s houses, now look at me, being too afraid even to have my babies in my house anymore.”
Mama Arachne bit back another sob as she looked through her fingers at Grandma Webb’s picture in shame and despair. Her grandmother just smiled back at her, eyes black and hopeful through the picture frame.
“I mean, all this fuss over a black lady’s picture? I mean, Dantor isn’t much of a looker…and she is a tough ole bean, but she’s nothing to be afraid of…” Mama Arachne had been pacing around her bedroom floor at this point, before spotting the tapestry that had started all this fuss, rolled up and hidden away underneath her old headboard.
Unwrapping it, the patchy visage of Ezrulie Dantor stared up at her, her scarred face frowning and serious, her baby child in her arms as soft as any Madonna-figure on a Christian church wall.
“…I….didn’t mean no harm, Lord forgive me. But harm was done, and now I gotta get us out. Just…I can’t do it with white people’s ways no more. What does that mean, Nana?”
Looking between Ezrulie Dantor in her hands and Grandma Webb on her headboard, Mama Arachne felt once again like that lost little Southern girl on the train tracks rolling up North to something better all alone.
Mama Arachne was just all alone again.
But…was that really so bad?
Mama Arachne looked at her tapestry again, and hugged Dantor close to her. The heat on her back sizzled down her spine before going cool, going quiet.
Smiling up at her Grandma Webb on her headboard, Mama Arachne wrapped her damned tapestry around her shoulders, an idea coming to her mind.
“…I guess we weren’t really made for white folks, huh, Nana?”
Tapping Grandma Webb’s picture with a fingernail, Mama Arachne ushered a small prayer before taking another swig of her cigarette, getting to work.
“Well, time to get the babies. We got work to do”
END OF PART THREE
PART FOUR: BABY STORIES (PT. 2)
Ruby Blue had grown up with a Mama Dantor hanging over her bed. It was apparently a family heirloom, with her play Auntie Baby always claiming that she’d seen it stitched by her great grandmama herself, passing her the patches of clothes and fabric as stitched it all together.
Ruby could never understand what the significance of the piece really was — in her Grandmother Delphine’s shop, black girls were always honored and made into pretty little princesses of their own domains. So, while a portraiture of their family goddess was just artistic overkill to Ruby at this point, she understood it mattered to their family, so she kept it hanging up in her bedroom, a flag of family pride even though she didn’t get the point of all the waving all of it yet.
Of course, I’d love to someday tell my sweet Ruby Blue her great grandmama’s story as I’d told all of you; that I’d gotten the tapestry from my own mama as she’d gotten from hers, and that someday my Ruby-girl would get Mama Arachne’s tapestry from me too (if I get the story out quick enough for Ruby Blue to stop fidgeting enough to listen).
But for now, she’ll just have to take my word that her great Grandma Mama Arachne’s tapestries were beautiful — and the proof is literally up there, a stitched legend brightening up bedroom walls; a quilted family tree, beautiful and strange and strong.
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