The Widow’s Quilt

When the Widow Quinn’s husband died, Mom was the only woman in town who didn’t join in the gossip, who didn’t whisper around that the Widow had surely killed her man, poisoned him or maybe smothered him in his sleep or even henpecked him to death. And when Widow Quinn herself passed away, on a Halloween Day, Mom was the only person named in the Widow’s will. Even the Widow’s grown son, Patrick, and her born-again sister in Idaho had been left out, as if they never existed, never meant a thing at all to the Widow Quinn.

She left Mom a quilt. Patrick brought it over the day after his mother was buried. He stood on our doorstep in shorts, snow boots, a red sweatshirt with a black armband, and a black wool scarf, with the quilt bundled in a black plastic garbage bag. His face was joyless and lined like a wall vent, his mouth straight as the horizon that brimmed our western Illinois town. Halloween had passed with the strangest spell of weather we’d ever seen in these parts. An inch of snowfall in the morning, hail at noon, a green overcast with high winds that set off the tornado sirens in the afternoon and postponed the trick-or-treating until dusk, then a roasting, midsummer-like hour sandwiched between twilight and moonrise — the very same hour, in fact, that took the Widow’s notorious soul away from this world.

Poor Patrick looked like he didn’t know what hit him, between the weather and the rushed waking of his mother’s body, and the rude surprise waiting for him in her will. Dressed for everything and anything, he stood outside our door and handed off the garbage bag to my mother. “She wanted you to have this,” he said, then walked back to his mother’s home, pumping his arms all the way.

Mom was stunned when she opened the bag and took out the quilt. “The quality,” she whispered, running her hands over the patterns and colors. “The stitching,” she said, peering close at the quilt. “It’s expert.” She looked in the direction of the Widow’s house, her face a roulette of awe and confusion.

When Dad came into the room, Mom began insisting we hang the quilt on a wall. “You don’t just fold something like this up,” she said.

Dad took the quilt. “Why don’t you spread it over one of the beds?” he asked, holding it up, his arms spread wide. “Isn’t that what quilts are for?”

Mom shook her head and rolled her eyes. Silly men, I could practically hear her saying in her mind. We had that kind of connection, she and I — her youngest child and her only girl. She took the quilt from Dad. “This? This is not a bedspread. You don’t lay around under something like this. This is a work of art!” Mom had been an artist of some sort once, before she married and had children. So she knew a class effort when she saw one. “It belongs on a wall, like a Georgia O’Keeffe!”

The problem was we didn’t have much wall space. Ours is a small home, smaller than the Quinns’ even, which was built long ago during the nearly forgotten short-lived local rage for “miniature houses.” The neighborhood joke was that our home was the pip to the Quinns’ squeak. And it’s true, the Thorsen home is a noisily modest little place, tight-quartered, creaky and crammed with all sorts of folksy art and unusual castoffs Mom has collected over the years. Garage sales, flea markets, roadside ejections — she sniffs over them all, always on the lookout for a piece she can refurbish or rescue to give it the love and respect it deserves. This is another reason why, we suspected, when Widow Quinn was falling ill and taking stock of her life and leavings, she thought of my mom. She knew Mom would take the quilt and take care of it too.

But our walls were only fit for smaller masterpieces — toothpick-framed school photos, palm-sized dreamcatchers, little latch-hook landscapes and needlepoint platitudes measuring no more than one foot tall or wide. Above our living room loveseat were one of Mom’s best pieces — a watercolor of a long-lost photo Dad had taken during his service in the war (the exact location of the photo though, he wouldn’t say). It could have been replaced by a baby’s blanket, but not a full quilt. The only possible space was above our mantel, where a large mirror hung. It had come with the house, which had been ours for over 70 years, and we’d never tried taking it down, never tried moving it, or for that matter ourselves, from one space to another. We are not the restless kind. But the quilt changed everything.

Mom said, “That mirror needs to come down.” Which made Dad go quiet. Or quieter than usual. He’s a quiet man by nature, and change especially brings out the introspection in him. Now, he retreated outside to our shed with a stool and a bucket of whittling tools, and there he worked at a piece of wood until he whittled into bits and shapes whatever thoughts and doubts he had about swapping his family’s mirror for a widow’s quilt. After a good hour, he came back in and asked Mom, my brother, and me to gather round. Mom was right about the mirror, he said. A change would do us good, and the time was now.

We had to thank the gracious mortality of the Widow Quinn for finally bringing us around. “Send a thank you card or coffee cake over to Patrick, will you, Anna?” Dad said to Mom, who was busy running her hands again over the quilt’s splay of colors and shapes. She nodded and smiled. She’d do it of course. It was only polite, even though Patrick was unlikely to welcome it or care. He kept to himself, as the Quinns always had. When the Widow’s husband died, no one sent condolences. No one sent coffee cake. Except for Mom and Dad.

Dad recruited Trygve, my brother, to help him take down the mirror. It was screwed into the wall, not just propped up on the mantel, so it took more effort than expected. They stood at opposite sides of the mantel — Dad on a short stepladder, Tryg on a tower of casserole cookbooks stacked on an old brown chest — and each took a side of the mirror and handed it down to me and Mom. As we carried it into a bedroom, Mom whispered “Careful, careful, Ingrid!” all the way. We slowly placed the mirror on the bed and threw a few thick old towels over it so it’d be safe, even with Ghost, our tabby, deciding just then to lay on one end.

Back in the living room, Tryg was down from the cookbooks but Dad was still on his ladder, holding his glasses up on his forehead and looking close at the wall. The space where the mirror had been was blazing white, whiter than all the other walls in the room, glowing brighter than the light-up snowman we put out every Christmas that Mom had rescued from a mall dumpster a few years back. When Mom saw the wall, she ran back into her room to get her sunglasses, while Tryg and I just stood there squinting with our hands shielding our eyes.

“Johann, don’t stare!” Mom said to Dad, trying to wave him down from the ladder. “You’ll blind yourself!”

Dad straightened up on the ladder and motioned for Mom to come closer. “The wall…feel it, Anna.” He took Mom’s hand and held it up close to the wall. “Ooh toasty!” she said, bringing up her other hand and rubbing them together before turning both her palms to the wall.

Dad rubbed his chin. “Strange…the walls are usually cold by now.” He was right. It was November now, and we lived on flat land, the ghostland of prairies and plains, where there was nothing in sight to stop winter when it came rushing cross-country. The Quinn house, just a speck of a thing on the other side of our mantel wall, did little for blocking the winds from the east, same as our house was useless in guarding the Quinns against the winds from the west.

“So strange,” Mom said, lifting her sunglasses. “First the weather, now the wall.” Tryg and I dropped our hands from our eyes. All of us were nearly accustomed by now to the blinding whiteness of the wall.

“Well, let’s get the quilt up,” Mom said. “No use wasting time while we have the ladder out.”

Tryg climbed back up on his cookbooks and Mom unfolded the quilt. She and I each took a corner and attached a screwhook, then handed our corners up to Dad and Tryg. When the quilt was secured, Mom stepped back.

“How’s it looking, Anna?” said Dad.

Mom clapped her hands. “Perfect!”

Dad finally got down from the ladder, and we all gathered near the loveseat to admire the quilt.

“Yes,” Dad said quietly. He stood just a step beyond the rest of us, studying the quilt and rubbing his chin. Tryg tried to copy him, scratching at the fuzz on his own 15-year-old face. “She really did a fine job with it,” he said.

I had no words myself, only wonder. It was a strange and beautiful thing, the Widow’s quilt. It was mostly ocean blue, with white and pale green patterns like little white lambs and little green clock hands, and odd threads of a sandy gold and a red the color of dried blood. There was something moving about the patterns — really, truly, physically moving, as if the stitches were rivulets of colored water or there were pockets of wind or schools of fish rustling and running just beneath the fabric.

“Didn’t I tell you?” Mom said. “A work of art!”

She had Tryg help her put the mirror out by the shed. Dad stayed inspecting the quilt, and I left to feed Ghost. But when I passed through again, carrying Ghost to the kitchen, Dad was still looking at the quilt, standing closer, his right hand moving in a slow arc just a couple inches from it, as if blessing or comforting its colors and patterns and practicing a benediction — or maybe begging for one from the strange beauty of the Widow’s brilliant work.

That night was a cold and gusty one, though our house felt unusually warm. By midnight my room was roasting so that I sweated through my nightgown, and I passed the night dreaming passionate and vivid dreams, with all sorts of unspeakable scenarios far beyond the knowledge and notions of a 12-year-old girl. They were so alien to my understanding, yet so familiar when they were unreeling behind my eyelids. I did not keep a dream diary, like Mom did, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because I could not have explained them, the way they made me feel, if I’d tried.

By morning, I felt as restless and unsettled as if it had been me raging all over town, traveling back and forth cross-county, rather than the wind. I lay in bed an extra half hour, ignoring the smells from the kitchen and the calls from my family to come out of bed. Not until I finally got up and went into the bathroom did I understand what had happened to me in the night. How I had changed, so suddenly, just like the decoration above our mantel — a mirror for generations, then a widow’s quilt, just like that.

In the bathroom I looked close at my face in the mirror. Maybe what had happened was showing up there in some way — in my eyes, on my lips, in the shade or texture of my hair. After careful study, I decided I looked the same. But when I joined my family in the kitchen, Mom did a double-take. And I knew she knew, how I had changed, forever, overnight.

Tryg was at the table with Mom and Dad, everyone with the look of fox-haunted chickens on their faces, pale and a bit pop-eyed, something unruffled about them, and I supposed they had suffered the same restlessness as me through the night, if for different reasons. But Tryg wouldn’t even look at me. It was so unlike him not to greet me in the morning with some sort of joke or teasing. Instead, he bent serious-like over his toast, unsmiling, a darker shadow than usual on his upper lip and jaw, which looked sharper, tensed, more angular than usual. A man’s jawline. Like a man in an old western or an aftershave commercial.

Dad was watching Tryg close. He asked him to pass the boysenberry jam. Tryg looked up, looked at Dad, at the jam jar, and went back to scraping his knife across his toast. “It’s close enough already, isn’t it?” he said, his words punctuated by every scrape of his knife.

I saw how Dad’s eyes darkened, turning the color of a crushed black wing. But he kept silent. He folded his hands beneath his chin, kept his eyes on Tryg, while Mom kept her eyes on me. I could feel my face burning now, as if I had been caught at something terrible. I wanted to disappear or hide away, though I couldn’t quite say why. I took my own toast, buttering it as softly as I could and chewing it as quietly as possible.

We finished breakfast at different moments, Tryg leaving the table first, then Dad, then me, then Mom. One by one we joined each other again in the living room where the quilt was hanging bold and bright above the mantel. It was sunny this morning, a streak of light shining across the living room, bringing out the colors in the loveseat, the dreamcatchers, Mom’s artwork, the quilt’s lamb and clock patterns. Mom began walking slowly towards the quilt as if she was in an old church. Tryg sat center in the loveseat staring gloomily at it, his arms folded tightly, his jawline so tense and sharp it seemed to be cutting the air. Dad stood by me as I stood square in the shaft of sunlight.

I had done this often when I was smaller, woke early just to stand in the morning sunlight and watch the dust particles dance all around me, highlighting the hairs on my thin arms, my skinny legs. I suddenly wanted that memory alive again. So I stood and started waving my arms and hands slowly, shyly, like a delicate bird, in the light. I saw Tryg smirk, roll his eyes, Mom and Dad toss glances between themselves, their faces puzzled, almost horrified. I knew something was off about what I was doing. Something not just foolish but futile. For one I was bigger, almost grown, the shaft of sunlight no longer swallowing me, but I usurping it. For two, my pajama bottoms had become soiled, a red bloom bleeding through them, the same color as half the threads coursing across the Widow’s quilt. For even though I’d known what had changed about me in the bathroom before breakfast, I’d done nothing about it to protect myself.

Mom came up to me, holding her arms out as if to cover me with a blanket. She hugged me. “Ingrid, honey, come with me and let me brush your hair.”

Mom hadn’t brushed my hair for me for years now, except for special occasions like a cousin’s wedding in Iowa (I wore a French braid). Tryg and Dad knew what was going on, why Mom was really taking me aside. And as she led me back to the bathroom, my face went hot and tears welled in my eyes. I was gross, an embarrassment, making a mess of myself like a baby. How could I ever face my brother and father again?

But Mom took care of everything. I couldn’t look her in the eye at first as she explained things to me in the bathroom. But she was patient, and when all was sorted with my new situation, she wiped my face with a wet washcloth and brushed my hair for me after all.

When we came out of the bathroom, I saw Tryg had on Dad’s old army jacket and Dad was following Tryg to the back of the house. He nodded to Mom as he went out the back door.

“Mom, what’s wrong with Tryg? Where are they going?”

She turned to me. “Come into the kitchen with me, Ingrid.”

In the kitchen, I could see Dad and Tryg from the window. They were out there with Patrick Quinn. Dad was talking, standing on the Quinns’ split and sagging wood stoop and pointing down to the planks in the steps. Tryg hung back with his arms still crossed and Patrick stood in his doorway, in the same outfit as yesterday, the screen door open just enough to let his head and shoulders out and keep the wind from coming in. Mom put the kettle on to boil, and Patrick suddenly came out of his mother’s house and went with Dad and Tryg in our red pickup.

“Where are they going with Patrick Quinn?” I said.

Mom pulled out one of the kitchen chairs. “Ingrid, sit down with me.”

She took out a couple mugs she had made back in her artistic days, blue and glazed and in the shape of a seashell. At least that’s what she told me they were supposed to be. I didn’t have the experience yet to know a seashell from an eggshell, not outside of pictures I had seen. After another minute, she placed the mugs on the table, filled with hot cocoa, the one for me loaded with a dozen marshmallows. We usually didn’t have hot cocoa in our family before noon, but Mom said, “It’s a special day,” which made me blush again. She put two fingers under my chin then, tilted my face up, and made my eyes meet hers. “No shame,” she said, shaking her head. “No apologies for growing.”

She sat down and was quiet with me while we drank our chocolate. Then she said, “Ingrid, tell me what you dreamed last night.”

I held my mug halfway to my mouth. “How do you know I dreamed anything at all?” I said. She suppressed a smile as I watched her face. I tried to remember a few moments or images from last night. But it was such a jumble — so confusing, and so embarrassing, to me.

“Well,” I said. I stopped for a few seconds. Mom waited. “There was a woman…in a bright red skirt. And a man with things stuck to his trousers.”

“What things?”

I didn’t know the word for them. I pointed at our mugs. “Things kind of like this, like a shell. But with spikes on them.” I thought a little more, then went on. Mom sipped her cocoa and listened. When I was done she set her mug down and nodded. “Me too,” she said. I raised my eyebrows. “I had the same dream as you.”

“You did?” I said. “The same stuff?”

“Not the same stuff,” Mom said. “The same dream. Same subject. You dreamed about the Widow Quinn last night, Ingrid. We all did.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, but something inside me knew it was true. It only made sense. “Even Tryg?” I said.

Mom nodded. “Even Tryg.”

Suddenly I felt a chill surround me. I began gulping my cocoa to try to make it go away. Mom drew her mug closer and cupped her hands around it, so I knew it wasn’t just me. The chill passed after another moment and Mom pushed her cocoa away. She asked me another question.

“Ingrid, what do you know about the Widow? What have you heard about her?”

I blushed again and tried shrugging off her question. “It’s OK,” Mom said. “You can tell me. You told me about your dream…”

I told Mom what everyone heard, what everyone — including, I figured, Mom — knew. She listened just as she had when I described my dream, nodding every now and again in a way that I wasn’t sure to take as agreement or encouragement or just familiarity with all the town rumors. It wasn’t that she and the Widow had been friends. The Widow Quinn had none. But she and Mom had been cordial, like neighbors try to be, and I know Mom had talked with her a couple times, gone over and spent an hour or two over a cup of tea or cocoa in her kitchen. When she came back from the Quinns’ house on these occasions, Tryg and I had jumped all over her asking her what it looked like inside and was it really creepy and what did they talk about and was Patrick there and Mom didn’t actually eat or drink anything they offered, did she? Mom had just ignored us, shook her head and turned the topic to dinner. I remember I swore I saw her wipe her eyes as she prepared dinner, stirring the sauce for the casserole brisker than usual. Maybe she and the Widow had been closer than I thought. And besides, it was supposed to be bad luck or bad manners or something to speak ill of the dead. I felt cold again, clammy and ugly. I imagined the Widow working some black magic around me from whatever realm she had gone off to on Halloween. I started to worry about the night ahead of me. Maybe I could sleep with Mom and Dad tonight just to be safe — though that seemed impossible now. I was supposed to be beyond those things now. Since last night, everything had changed.

When Mom spoke then, I almost started, so lost and remote from her I was feeling, so suddenly swept up in confusion and uncertainty, in something I wasn’t ready for and didn’t think I would ever be. “You know,” she began, then paused. “You know she wasn’t from around here.” The Widow Quinn? I knew that. She’d had some kind of accent. Mom said she was from an island country, had grown up near the ocean. “She missed it, the ocean, the colors and the smell. She said there were mountains too. So different from here, the flatness and cornfields and everything,” Mom said, waving her hand as if dismissing all of Illinois and all the heartland. “I remember I asked her once if she wanted to go back to where she was born and she never really answered the question. Instead she just kept talking about the ocean, like the ocean was her home, her true country.”

Mom said before the Widow came here, she’d gotten in trouble by some man and her family had sent her away to live in a place run by nuns, a place for girls and women like her. Girls in trouble. She was fairly young, Mom said, “though thankfully not as young as you.” Mom stopped for a long moment and looked at my face, almost like she was seeing it for the first or last time. Then she went on. The Widow had told Mom she had a baby in that place with the nuns, who told her to leave, go back home, go somewhere else, just go away after the baby was born. She never saw the baby. Not once. Her family sent her to America to the Midwest, where she had an older sister, the one now in Idaho. But her family didn’t know, and the Widow hadn’t known, her sister had a baby herself. Mom stopped again, but without looking at me. When she spoke again, her voice was soft as a lullaby. “It was Patrick, Ingrid. Patrick was her sister’s baby, not the Widow’s.”

We were both quiet now, for a long moment. Finally I said, “I don’t get it.” Mom was looking down at the patterns on our plastic tablecloth. She shook her head. “Neither do I to tell the truth,” she said.

“What happened to her sister?”

After the Widow came over, Mom said, her sister took off west and took up with some church out there, left Patrick with the Widow for good. The Widow knew where she lived, but they never saw or spoke to each other again.

“What about her husband? Mr. Quinn? Was he…”

Mom shook her head again. “He wasn’t the father. The Widow worked for him, in Rockford. He ran a bar and boarding home with a friend before his parents died and then he came back here not long after they married. He brought her and Patrick here with him. He’d been gone about 7 or 8 years in Rockford, and Patrick wasn’t even two at the time. Everyone assumed Patrick was theirs. Why wouldn’t we? I supposed that’s how all the rumors started. By people assuming and nobody just asking.”

“But why would Mr. Quinn marry her and raise someone else’s baby?”

Mom shrugged. “Convenience. Or kindness. I don’t know. She never said.” Mom looked in the direction of the kitchen window. “Your father knew Mr. Quinn pretty well back but he always said it was like Mr. Quinn put up a wall between him and everyone else soon after he came back from Rockford. Your father wondered about it. He went through that himself when he got back from the war but he worked through it. I remember. We both had to work through it. It wasn’t easy. He couldn’t understand what the deal was with Mr. Quinn but he wanted to — he just didn’t know how to broach it with him. Men don’t talk like they should, you know. Like women do, like women should.” Her voice trailed off. She looked at the cup she’d made with her own hands, stroking it lightly.

“After talking to her I think I understood why they kept to themselves so much, but I never told your father. I didn’t want to betray the Widow’s trust. And it would’ve just upset your dad, knowing someone had been put through all that.” She took a sip of her cocoa. “For all I know Patrick doesn’t know either. The Widow told me she couldn’t bring herself to dump Patrick off at an orphanage. Not after what happened to her own baby. She also said she understood what her sister had done, but she’d never forgive her.” Mom looked towards the window facing the Quinns’ house again. Her voice had gone small, like she was talking to herself rather than me. “That struck me so hard, how she put that. The difference between the two, understanding and forgiveness — I’d never thought of it before, yet it’s so obvious.”

I laughed. I just didn’t know what else to do. Mom turned to face me. “Sounds like a soap opera,” I said.

Mom cocked her head. “Well it was her life, Ingrid.” I looked away from her and she looked away too, down at her mug. She stroked the blueness with her thumb, just kept stroking it, as if she hoped whatever the color contained, whatever it gave, would rub off on her. “We need to stick together in this world, Ingrid,” she finally said.

“Who?”

“People. Women.” She smiled at me. Still, I wondered if she was disappointed. I was 12. I couldn’t help but still think that everything in this world was about me, my fault, my responsibility. Like the way Tryg was this morning, the look on his face when I was dancing in the sunbeam with my own blood staining my pajamas. I asked about him. “Don’t mind, Tryg, honey. Just a mood.”

“But why?” I said.

Mom leaned closer to me across the table. She looked me in the eye. “It’s got nothing to do with you, Ingrid. With you growing up. It’s him and his own growing.”

“But where’d he and Dad go with Patrick?” I hated the pleading in my voice and questions. But life was presenting so much strangeness and complication in the past two days. All I wanted was some answers.

Mom got up from the table. “Patrick needs a friend right now. He needed one a long time ago.”

Just then we heard the pickup outside. Dad was back. I stood up to run outside but was stopped by the feeling between my legs. A gushing, thick, wet rushing coming out of me. I detoured to the bathroom, certain I had ruined another outfit. It was like another trick though, like the weird weather on Halloween or the movement creeping through the threads of the Widow Quinn’s quilt. There was no soiling on my jeans or underwear, and the pad I’d put there wasn’t soaked like I expected.

Still when I left the bathroom, I walked slowly and stiffly to the front door. “You’ll get used to it,” I heard Mom say. But when I turned to look at her, she was in the kitchen minding her own business, opening a bag of treats for Ghost. My eyes went to the quilt on the wall. Rippling away. Yes, it was definitely moving, there was no mistaking it, though I hadn’t yet opened the door.

I went outside and saw Dad, Tryg, and Patrick hauling lumber off the bed of the truck. It turned out Dad told Patrick he’d like to help him fix the broken steps on the Quinns’ front porch, as a thank you for the gift the Widow had given Mom. I wanted to help, but stood back from the men and Tryg. Poor Patrick looked lost with the lumber. His father, Mr. Quinn, had not been much of a handyman like Dad. Patrick handled the wood clumsily, trying not to drop it but coming close anyway.

Tryg stopped on the way to the shed with a plank in his arms and looked at me. He laughed. “Well don’t just stand there, Ingrid, get your coat and give us a hand!” He put the plank on the ground and took off Dad’s army coat and tossed it to me. “Here. We’ll switch places. I’m going in to help Mom with dinner. Patrick’s joining us.” He bounded up the stairs and into our house.

I put on Dad’s coat, picked up Tryg’s plank, and followed Dad and Patrick to the shed. I spent the rest of the day outside with them, stacking and preparing the lumber and listening as Dad described the project he had in mind for the Quinns’ porch. Once, I ran into the house to check myself again in the bathroom and found Tryg preparing a casserole as well as Mom’s mashed potato dish with cream cheese in it that I loved so much.

“Is that for me, Tryg?” I said.

Tryg smiled, his face softened compared to the way he was this morning. But he didn’t nod or say yes. “Just giving Mom a break,” he said. “She said she felt like doing some watercolors. Just in the mood.”

That night wasn’t an easy dinner. With Patrick there we all felt shy. Though Mom and Dad did their best to get a conversation going, talking about woodworking and watercoloring and all things artsy. Patrick ate two helpings of everything and Tryg and Dad wrapped up all the leftovers in Tupperware for Patrick to bring home.

After dinner, Mom led Patrick to the front door, wanting him to see how the quilt looked above our mantel. She stood stiffly beside him as they looked at the Widow’s work, her head slyly turning his way every few seconds to check out his reaction. But Patrick only nodded at the thing and nothing more. Then Mom said, “As much as I love it, Patrick, it doesn’t seem right for me to have it. I really think this should be yours. It is yours. It belongs in your house.”

Patrick laughed, the first we’d heard him do that. “Aw, the house is filled with ’em. She made piles of ’em. She made a few every year to give to the orphanages around the state. Sometimes she even mailed one overseas, to the old country.” He laughed again. “I got one just like this on my bed. Good for the cold weather we got coming round the corner.” He pumped his arms like an old man running and chuckled, then shook our hands and thanked us for dinner. “I’ll be over tomorrow morning to help with the porch, Mr. Thorsen.” And with that, he walked out our front door.

Of course, Mom was the first to look to the quilt. Standing dead-center in front of it, Dad and I on either side of her and Tryg behind us. We studied it in silence, knowing we shared the same thoughts, the same questions about it, like a common, universal dream.

That night, I struggled again to sleep, bewildered by all the events of the past few days. My mind raced with thoughts like the wind outside, howling through town, over the cornfields, across the darkened, diminished prairie. Patrick was right — the cold was really coming now, and though our house was warm again, I couldn’t stop shivering. Nor could I stop worrying about the blood coming out of me and ruining my bedding, but I resisted the urge to get up and check myself in the bathroom. Mom had seen me going in there more than once after dinner. “You don’t have to keep doing that, honey. It’s not as much blood as you think.” But Mom was wrong — maybe it wasn’t as much blood as I thought, but more blood than I ever would have known just two days before. I imagined my bed by now a pool of red.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the Widow Quinn as well. But not because I was afraid of her anymore. It was her life, so lonely and strange. And her sister, and between the both of them, the two children left behind. Which got me thinking about Patrick too, his face at our dinner table, in our living room, the blackness of his hair, the blue of his eyes, all the things about him I’d never noticed before. Thinking about him made me feel even warmer, in a way that was different from the warmth of the house, and made me shiver, in a way that was stronger, more unsettling than the shivering that comes from the cold. I lay in bed thinking and shivering, bleeding and listening, until I couldn’t take it anymore. I got up from bed and left my room.

I went to our back door and looked out the window. The moon was full, bright and bolted to the night sky, steadfast against the relentless push and pull of the wind. I opened the door and stepped out. It was so cold out, so bracing, my hair ached at the roots. I remembered Dad’s army coat and went to the front of the house to the closet. Crossing in front of the quilt, I noticed the moonlight shining in, nearly as bright as the sunbeam of the morning. It cut across the Widow’s quilt on the wall, making even the delicate blood and gold threads visible in the night. It was so cold out, Dad’s coat wouldn’t be enough.

Quietly, I took a chair from our kitchen and carried it to the mantel. I stacked some of the casserole cookbooks on the chair, and slowly, carefully, stepped up to reach an edge of the quilt. I unhooked one side of the quilt, let it drape, got down off the chair and moved it over, then climbed back up to unhook the other side. I did this shivering all the while, even with the wall emanating warmth like a campfire. I went again to the back door, taking the quilt with me and waiting until the last moment to drape it over me, until I stepped outside again.

The quilt weighed lighter than Dad’s coat, but it was definitely warmer, like a bath of amniotic love. I held it tight and closed my eyes, trying to wrap my thoughts, my new situation and understanding, tight as the quilt around my body. Was Patrick awake now too? Was he looking out and seeing me, with his mother’s quilt around me, or was there only the moon to notice me now? Was I, am I, alone, like the Widow had been? I thought of knocking on her door, of waking Patrick up to bring him out here in the night with me. I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone, never mind what the rest of the town put his family through. And I guess I wanted myself to know it too.

The wind pulled at my hair, pulled tears from my eyes. But with the quilt around me, the core of me burned as hot as if I had swallowed the sun. I was burning and I was bleeding. It made no sense to me yet, how I could be bleeding but still standing here strong and alive. I kept hearing that voice, whoever it belonged to — Mom, the quilt, the Widow’s ghost, maybe just my own imagination: “You’ll get used to it,” it said. But I told the voice no. I’d never get used to it, this life, this world, this woman’s body or new understanding. Not if I could help it. I’d stay out in the cold all night, with the Widow’s quilt burning all its beauty and secrets into me, before I’d ever again let myself take rumor for truth or any ghostwoman’s gift for granted.