Today Chris Witty, the UK’s chief medical officer tells us to prepare for the “worst weeks of the Covid Pandemic” which along with the US replay of Germany circa 1923, raging fires in Australia and California, and Brexit (breaking of the 7 seals), 2021 will be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
If nothing else, Lockdown’s been a time to read and write, so I hope this short story inspired by the work of a good friend offers some alternative to the Book of Revelations we seem to be living through (13:0).
A Tale of Entanglement and Succession
“A sufficient measure of civilization is the influence of good women.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Kate looked up from her sewing and peered through the window beside her; it had begun to rain. The bench seat followed the curve of the bay window that connected the great house’s master bedroom to the gardens. Through heavy leaded panes she could just make out three ducks grazing on the grass outside. She remembered how she’d never really agreed with the old adage about letting unkind words slide off like water from a duck’s back.
Distracted only for a moment, she went back to the careful work of pulling a silk thread through a faded sky. The thread had been dyed to match the tapestry’s original stitching, which, over three and a half centuries had faded to a pallid shade of blue. She thought it a shame that the back of the tapestry was hidden from view. Forever in shadow, the colours on that side were so very vivid. Knowing how to restore artefacts without destroying their provenance required patience, science, and most of all sound judgement; judgement which, more often than not, came from the woman sitting opposite her.
Sheila gripped the tapestry in hands which had held countless relics before this scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As she tensioned the fabric, she gazed down at the storm cloud Kate was embroidering. It formed the backdrop to Boreas, the swarthy North wind, carrying off the mortal and very pale Orithyia following her rejection of his advances. She thought of all the hands that had sewn the stitches in this glorious depiction of abduction and rape, and the many more that had subsequently tried to unpick the racism and misogyny behind it.
As the head conservator at Burleigh House Sheila was intimate with its history. How it had been commissioned by William Cecil during the reign of Elizabeth I, a century before the tapestry had been made. For his service to The Crown, he had been rewarded with gold diverted en route to Spain by the Sea Wolves: Drake and Frobisher. The treasure plundered by Cortes and his conquistadors by some perverse alchemy had been turned into the fabric of the building.
Though William had been short and hunchbacked, he had been instrumental in ensuring the peaceful transition of power from Elizabeth I to the son of the half sister she’d unwillingly executed. That Elizabeth referred to William as “my pygmy” and he described her as “more than a man, but less than a woman”, suggested a relationship that, whilst productive and enduring, was not overly fond. Sheila felt inclined to side with Good Queen Bess.
Two monarchs and one Lord Protector later, William’s descendant John Cecil had commissioned the scene to hang on the wall of the master bedroom, and Boreas and Orithyia had duly arrived at Burghley from the workshop in Paris where they had been bound together. As Sheila followed Kate’s stitches she wondered how Cecil’s wife Anne had felt as she looked up from her marital bed; whether the scene had evoked in her the intended response.
The tug of fabric between her fingers pulled Sheila back to the present. Kate’s pale neck and jaw had replaced the dark curls which had been at the centre of her view for the past two days.
“What is it?” she asked.
Kate withdrew her arm from under the tapestry and pointed up,
“I’m not sure, but something just flew out of a fold,” she said, stretching toward the dark panelled ceiling above.
Though glasses had restored Sheila’s sight forty years earlier, the detail above her head was now forever lost to memory. She knew that these days there was little chance of seeing anything against a dark background, but followed Kate’s direction nonetheless.
“It’s gone.” Kate replaced her arm under the cloth and scooped the fabric toward her face as she lent forward.
Sheila once again found herself looking at the top of Kate’s head,
“What?” she said impatiently.
“Not sure, but it looks like a lay of eggs.” Kate replied without looking up.
Sheila pushed the heavy tapestry from her lap. The change from assistant to commander-in-chief was instantaneous.
“Don’t let them out of your sight, I’ll go and fetch Beth” she said, reaching for the painted handle of her walking stick.
The thought of misplacing the rows of tiny white pearls made Kate wince. She saw herself as neither incompetent nor clumsy, so the inference, along with Sheila’s tone, irritated her intensely. Even if you hadn’t had children, it surely went without saying that a single, working mother of four brought good planning and a steady pair of hands to every job.
“Oh, I think I’ve got them”, she said to Sheila, in a familiar, self deprecating tone.
Whilst Sheila commanded the work, more often than not she seemed unaware of the nuances of how her team communicated, or perhaps that was just the impression she cultivated. Kate wondered if Sheila really didn’t notice the little acts of sedition or whether their weight was sufficient to have them slide off her back.
Left alone Kate peered closely at the cluster of tiny pearls trying to see if any had hatched. She often felt the odds were unfairly stacked against the conservator. There were so many ways something could be lost, many of which you didn’t saw coming.
Gathering up the fabric, she felt for the needle’s point before carefully posting it through a stitch next to the clustered eggs. She thought how everyone would now be focused upon preventing the appetite of one caterpillar devouring the threads spun by another almost half a millennia earlier and thousands of miles away.
As she sat waiting for Sheila’s return, she surveyed the metres of heavy cloth before her and imagined the folds as waves upon a faded sea. Cortes had crossed the Atlantic in tiny ships driven by the wind and a desire for fortune. What he found were the cities of the Aztecs, great canals, temples and gold prized from the jungle.
Kate pondered the fate of civilizations, how what nurtured them also contained the seeds of their destruction. The trees of the rainforest that had nourished and supported the Indians for countless generations, had within a few centuries cracked and toppled that which they’d built. It was as if as one civilisation declined another flourished, just as a fallen tree nurtured new saplings within its rotting carcass; the endless cycle of growth and decay. Trees, seeds, cities, she thought of the eggs and imagined them as tiny ships carrying new beginnings across an ocean of heaving threads. She felt giddy and instinctively reached out for the cold stone windowsill by her side.
The sound of Sheila’s and Beth’s footsteps pulled Kate back to the room. Beth wore a lab coat and carried a magnifying glass both of which had the effect of changing the hallowed hall from time machine to crime scene. Science entered the room, and the moths were as prepared for its arrival as the Aztecs had been for pale men with horses and fire sticks.
Sheila paused in the doorway to flick the light switch that erupted the countless crystals of the room’s chandeliers into sparkling warmth, but little useful light. Up until then Kate hadn’t noticed how dark it had become.
Beth headed straight for Kate and sat down next to her. When Sheila joined them only the soft wheeze of her breath broke the silence as Beth positioned the magnifier over Kate’s lap.
“Be careful… not to lose them.”, Sheila’s tone and words only added anxiety.
Beth and Kate’s eyes were already intent upon the needle that stood up from the cloth, marking the insect’s claim. Beth pressed the button on the handle of the glass and projected a stark, surgical light upon the tiny landscape.
“Good God Kate your eyes are sharp, I can barely see them now,” Beth said leaning over.
“Our old friend Tineola Bisselliella.”, she added, straightening up from the huddle of unhatched little conquistadors. “Or to you and me, the common clothes moth.”
“Here, let me look.” Beth passed the glass to Kate and sat up feeling for the sticky tape and specimen dish in her pocket.
The tapestry moth could eat for 50 days before its metamorphosis, when everything that had defined it was broken down and transformed into another incarnation. In that time its little jaws would tear through enough wool and silk to keep them busy for a week.
“But I’ve not seen any moth damage.” The voice beside them paused for two shallow breaths before continuing, “They surely… mustn’t have hatched already.”
“I don’t think they have yet.” Kate said, passing the cloud, its brood and the light over to Beth before sitting up.
“But whether they have or not, we’ll have to treat the whole thing won’t we?”
There’s only… one way to be sure.”, said Sheila “It’ll have to be taken away… and frozen… frozen for months.
“But wouldn’t that be too expensive?’ asked Kate.
After pausing to catch her breath again Sheila replied, “Of course…of course…but it’s…the only…way…to be sure.”
Beth who’d been bent upon removing the eggs to their new, plastic home looked up.
“Oh I think that might be overkill.”, she said in a tone that wasn’t wasted on Kate.
“We could plant wasp eggs and lay out pheromone traps here and in the other rooms to monitor for others. That wouldn’t cost so much or delay the work.”
Trichogramma, a tiny parasitic wasp, attacked moth eggs by laying its own inside them so when its offspring hatched they found both shelter and nourishment. Pheromone traps took a more subtle approach; by mimicking the scent of a female to lure male suitors to a sticky end.
Kate turned to Sheila who looked back with a vague expression and unfamiliar pallor: the colour in her cheeks had faded and her lips were thin and grey.
“Sheila, are you all right?”
Sheila opened her mouth to reply, but instead heaved in a short breath, quickly followed by another.
“I… dis…agree…as…,oh as you…. like.” Kate waited on each word to arrive with its own breath. As she did she recalibrated almost everything that had come to define her relationship with the older woman. Without taking her eyes from Sheila she said:
“Beth would you phone for some help please, some medical help.”
Beth moved quickly to stand up without disturbing her colleagues whilst Kate took Sheila’s hand and shoulder, gently easing her back against the bench seat.
“Don’t worry about trying to speak Sheila, try to catch your breath.” Sheila attempted to lift her other arm but was overruled by the primordial urge to suck in air.
“Sheila, you’re going to be alright. Beth has gone for help and I’ll stay with you until it arrives. You’re finding it hard to breathe, so sit back and take deep breaths, as deep as you can – that’s it, slowly.” Kate felt the muscles in Sheila’s shoulder relax and hoped help wouldn’t be long.
Beth returned quickly. “They said a first response team will be here in ten minutes.”
Kate, turned to the woman beside her and without thinking, but with every good intention, repeated the information. She looked down self-consciously and noticed Sheila’s walking stick leaning beside her. The handle that was painted with a mallards’ head had always fascinated her, but now, out of the colours worn thin by the hand she held, the black dot of an eye looked back at her most keenly.