BIO: Michele Stepto has taught literature and writing at Yale University for many years, and recently at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. Her work has appeared online at Verse-Virtual, What Rough Beast (at Indolentbooks.com), Ekphrastic Review, NatureWriting, Mirror Dance, Lacuna Journal, and One Sentence Poems. Along with her son Gabriel, I translated from the original Spanish Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.-->
Many years ago, in a small cabin on the edge of a large plantation, there lived a servant named Hattie and her daughter, Kalida. Hattie was lame and had been from an early age, so lame that she could not work in the fields with the other servants. But her skills with a needle were such that her masters were happy to employ her in less onerous tasks as their family’s seamstress and as general seamstress to the plantation.
In one corner of Hattie’s cabin stood a ghostly huddle of cotton mannequins corresponding to the lineaments of her master and mistress, of their grown children, who lived in nearby households, and of the children’s maiden aunt, who moved about among them, spending a month here, a month there, and terrorizing the servants at whatever place she happened to be visiting; and next to these, an old trunk teeming with precious stuffs woven in Europe and beyond, with laces worked by childish fingers in places half the world away, with pearls carefully pierced and ready to be threaded on a bodice or a sleeve, and all manner of other curiosities, laboriously obtained or manufactured, with which it was the fashion then to decorate oneself.
This treasure, worth as much as an able-bodied servant, Hattie looked upon dispassionately. She cared only for her daughter Kalida, the last of her children. The rest had been sold away or given as marriage gifts to her master and mistress’s children, but Kalida she had been allowed to keep, and this was treasure enough for Hattie. The trunk that stood by her hearth seemed lifeless by comparison, and yet upon command she would transform some portion of its contents into a rich garment to astonish the neighborhood. She had made ball gowns for her mistress, bridal dresses and veils for her mistress’s daughters, baptismal robes for their numerous offspring, and for the gentlemen of the family brocaded waistcoats as startling as a peacock. Wherever her garments went, the response was the same; whoever saw her handiwork wanted to know how they might obtain this jewel of a servant for their own use.
Over the years, her master had received countless offers to buy Hattie, but he had always refused to part with her. “There is magic in her needle,” he would say. “No price can be put on that.” But now that Hattie was getting old, he began to think otherwise. She would not bear any more children, that was a certainty. Her only worth now was as a seamstress, and yet what if her eyesight failed, as so often happened in this line of work? She would then be entirely worthless, blind and lame, a burden on his purse. Better to let her go while her skills still commanded a good price, he reasoned. He expected that his wife, as the chief beneficiary of Hattie’s talents, would oppose his plan, but to his surprise she agreed. They would sell Hattie and keep the daughter, she said, and be none the worse for it, since Kalida had her mother’s skills with a needle and youth besides. And so the master rode into the next county to speak with an acquaintance, the father of a large family of eligible daughters who had often pestered him about buying the seamstress, and he returned that evening, well-pleased with the deal he had struck, and sent one of the house servants to Hattie’s cabin to let her know that on the next day she would be changing households.
That night, their last together, Hattie unstrapped from her around wrist the band in which she kept her needles and handed it to Kalida, saying “These are yours now.” It contained several small sharps and a large, iron needle for the coarse cloth Hattie used to make clothing for the servants. “This one’s spirit is strong,” Hattie said, pointing to the iron needle, and that was all she said. Kalida was left to wonder what it meant.
A few days after Hattie left, a letter arrived from the maiden aunt, who happened to be staying with one of her nephews in the neighborhood of Hattie’s new master. Hattie was dead, the letter said. She hadn’t finished up a single article of clothing in her new place. She hadn’t even brought her tools, did they know that? She had gone into the cabin they pointed out to her and lain down first thing and crossed her hands across her chest, and from that moment her strength began to fail. She stared at the ceiling as if she could see to the other side of it, and kept her hands folded, and they went up and down for a while to show that she was still breathing, but in three days the hands were still, and so was the rest of Hattie, still and narrow as some old twig out in the woods. The new master was storming mad, the aunt wanted them to know, and likely to come riding their way to get back the money he had paid. That, or Kalida. Because he still needed a seamstress to dress those trifling daughters of his.
The next day the new master arrived, angry and shouting. The old master took him into the library and closed the door, and after a few minutes they reached an agreement, which was this: the old master would hire Kalida out to the new master for a year and a day, so she could dress the man’s daughters for being out in the world and courted by gentleman. And if at the end of that time all the girls were married or engaged, they would settle up, and if one or two of them weren’t, they’d figure that out too. So Kalida packed up her things and followed the new master down the lane where her mother had disappeared just last week. She was happy to leave the cabin with its crew of mannequins behind, happy to be going where her mother had gone. Someone had said her mother was dead but she didn’t believe it. She was going to go see for herself. Before she left, however, she tucked under her skirt a length of yellow silk from the old trunk. At the new place, Kalida worked long days with a new set of mannequins, slenderer than the old ones and shorter too. She made gray dresses and white dresses and pale, mouse-brown dresses that suited the coloring of the new master’s daughters. She never knew when the mistress would be outside the cabin door, demanding to get in and see how things were coming along and to take any finished garments away. At night, when she could count on being left to herself, Kalida worked the yellow silk. She took it out from beneath her narrow bed and draped it over a mannequin that was just her mother’s size, and pleated it this way and that, looking for the right shape. Whenever she found it, she took out the iron needle and fastened the silk in place. She never cut the fabric. That wasn’t necessary. She gathered it in and fastened it with the iron needle and after awhile she could see that a beautiful, sun-color dress was emerging. Late every night she took it off the mannequin and hid it under her bed, where it kept its new shape until she took it out again, as if she had lain down in it to sleep.
When the dress was done, Kalida sewed it all firmly in place with the iron needle which, despite its size, had a sharp point, and went through the silk as if it had been water, making small, straight stitches. While she worked, she had to leave the dress on the mannequin, and so she waited to do this until she knew the mistress would be away for a few days. Then, at night, she set her lamp in front of a piece of broken mirror that doubled its brilliance, and brought the dress near, and put in the stitches. As she came down to what she knew were the last ones, she could hear someone else breathing in the cabin, and as the last one went in and was tied off, she looked up and saw her mother standing there, naked, behind the mannequin. Kalida lifted the dress off the silent form and held it out to her mother, who stepped into and pulled it up over her shoulders and began to wind around her head the long train of silk Kalida had left hanging at the back. Hattie wound it around and around, and when she came to the end of the silk she fastened it into a rosette over her left ear.
“That’s better,” Hattie said. “Don’t want to leave no trail behind.”
She left then. She stepped out into the black night and walked away, down the row of cabins in the direction of the fields. For a long time Kalida watched her, a yellow light bobbing in the far-off dark, until Hattie must have reached the horizon and walked down over that curve of earth, and the light disappeared.
Not too long after that, Kalida herself left, wearing a wedding dress she had just finished sewing for the oldest daughter of the new master and mistress, and leaving behind on the mannequin her old servant’s clothes. The wedding costume was a showy thing in shot silk, with braided trim and lace and beads everywhere. The new master described it and Kalida carefully in the wanted poster he had printed, and people all over went looking for a black girl dressed up like a queen.
You would think she would have been easy to spot, but she wasn’t, she never was, and for a long time afterwards people talked about that Kalida, and wondered how in the devil she had gotten so clean away.
In the Phlegrean Fields near Naples there is a cave in which carbonic acid gas collects along the floor from time to time. When the gas is present, which is most of the time, the wanderer enters at his or her peril. The ancients thought of the cave as an entrance to the realm of the dead, and who can argue with them? Whoever lies down to sleep there, out of the wind and weather, will probably not rise again in this world.
For centuries, the cave has attracted the curious. Guides to the area used to bring with them a dog whom they would hold upside down by the legs, dangling it over the cave floor in order to test the air. If the dog lost consciousness, it meant the cave was full of gas. The dog was then dragged out and doused in the water of a nearby lake, whereupon it usually came to. Not always, however. Many dogs died in this way over the centuries, through bad timing or malice. Or wanton curiosity: Mark Twain, traveling in the Naples area, went looking for a dog he could bring along with him to the cave. “I longed to see this grotto,” he remembered. “I resolved to take a dog and hold him myself; suffocate him a little, and time him; suffocate him some more and then finish him.” Modern-day Italians are quite sentimental about their dogs and wouldn’t dream of abusing even a stray in this way. They keep them as pets and don’t expect them to be particularly useful. But this wasn’t always the case. One can imagine that in times past a dog who would not hunt or failed to guard its master’s house might find itself being dangled by its legs over the floor of the Grotto del Cane, breathing its last in demonstration of the cave’s fatal properties.
In the days when the Arabs were raiding the Neapolitan coast, their fearsome dogs were sometimes captured and kept until they might be taken to the cave for mass extinction. The death row in which these curs were held was usually a Neapolitan farmyard belonging to a farmer willing to undertake the task in exchange for a few soldi. When he had collected four or five such dogs, he would tie them to the sides of his cart, carry them to the cave, and dangle each one a good long time over the cave floor, until he was certain it wouldn’t revive, and afterwards he would dump the lot of carcasses down one of the numerous vents in the Phleghrean Fields, whence the dogs found their way to Elysium.
I wish I could report that even one of these dogs managed to free itself, but there is no record of such an escape. A story is told of one animal who earned a kind of reprieve, however, a small, handsome bitch whose name has been lost, if it was ever known. Shortly after she was billeted with her farmer-jailer, she whelped a litter of seven puppies, and the farmer, one Rosello, seeing the puppies crawling like worms over her teats, took pity on her and placed a basin of water where she could reach it. Perhaps out of gratitude or because her new condition had aroused in her some tender instinct, the animal now did Rosello a good turn. Later that same day the farmer’s infant son stumbled merrily into the farmyard looking for amusement and, spotting a ram who had been sequestered for gelding, lurched toward the frightened animal. The boy moved quickly, if unsteadily, and the bitch just as quickly put herself in his path, though this meant coming out to the end of her chain and leaving her blind brood behind. She did not bark or growl. She simply moved into the boy’s line of sight, whereupon the child sat down abruptly and clapped his hands in delight. From where he was sharpening a knife, Rosello saw it all, and saw the child the next moment pull himself upright by the bitch’s ears.
Since she had saved his son, as he reckoned, Rosello decided he would save one of her pups and raise it as his own. He delayed taking her to the cave until he judged the puppies might be weaned, and then he picked the likeliest of the brood and placed the rest in a large sack. Inside the sack the puppies squirmed and tussled, but their dam stood by patiently, as if she trusted Rosello to know what he was doing. When he put the sack into the cart, she leapt in after it, and when he threw the sack into the cave she followed it in and lay down next to it, with her head on her paws, and did not move again.
The saved pup Rosello dubbed Saracen, a talismanic name meant to induce valor in its bearer. Whether Saracen was indeed valorous is not known. Certainly, he guarded Rosello’s farmyard well enough to survive to an old age. Nothing larger than a chicken was ever lost on his watch, which Rosello considered small payment for the creature’s loyalty, for he was fiercely protective of the boy his dam had saved, as if he knew what service she had rendered the child. Except for those times when Saracen’s love life called him away, the boy and the dog were always together. They romped in Rosello’s farmyard when the boy was small, and later pastured sheep together in the neighboring fields. The years passed quickly, as years always do, and by the time the boy was ten Saracen was feeling his age. His hips ached and his fleas had become intolerable. The least movement caused him pain. One day he wandered off, looking for a place where he might lie down for a nice, long nap, and the boy followed him. When they came to the cave, Saracen went in first and lay down, and when he didn’t get up the boy must have gone in after him. That is what Rosello concluded when he found them a day later, the boy’s hand resting lightly along the back of Saracen’s neck, as if he had been trying to rouse his companion before he himself fell asleep.
This would not happen now, when the properties of the cave are well understood and warnings to the traveler copiously displayed along the path that leads up to it. The way in is even blocked. Something resembling a wooden sawhorse has been jammed fast into the opening, and will not budge. A flag bearing a jaunty skull and crossbones, culled from a child’s pirate kit perhaps, has been stapled to it, though the message it sends is far from clear. A determined dog might still find its way in.