Short Story: Old Jax’s Quilt by Kate Kenzie
September was dystonia awareness month and time for the fundraising challenge, Dystonia Around the World. I promised to write a short story if the target of £100 was reached and here it is. For those at the Enchanted Emporium, it is about the Willow’s grandmother, Old Jax from a small village in the Yorkshire Moors. I hope you enjoy.
If you do, why not make a small donation to Dystonia UK – here. £1 can make a huge difference in providing support and research possibilities into this neurological condition.
Old Jax’s Quilt by Kate Kenzie
Hettie didn’t need the fragrance of sweet apple drifting through the open window to tell her something was amiss. Earlier, she’d accidentally snipped an inch from the end off one of her plaits while cutting fabric into squares and now Jenny Ramshaw cursed as she stitched her skirt into the quilt she was making. Aunt Mildred mutterings were also louder than normal. Not that anyone else heard or saw her. Only Hettie had the pleasure of possessing that “special gift”, apart from one other who was now in the village.
Hettie’s needle came free from the thread, fell, and rolled across the wooden floor sloping towards the window. The problem with old ramshackle buildings was nothing stayed where it belonged, with or without spectral help.
“It wasn’t me,” Mildred huffed. Her translucent form joined Hettie as she picked up the needle. “But while we’re here, you may as well look. You know you want to.”
The high street below was quiet. Even the Jack Russell outside the village shop resisted his usual incessant yap. He stood still looking toward the top of the hill, waiting as Hettie was. A circling crow landed on the roof opposite and did the same. A figure appeared on the horizon.
“She won’t come in, you know,” said Jenny recognising the signs of Hettie’s discomfort. “She never does.”
“Aye,” another of the sewing circle agreed. “She’ll pop into Pritchard’s place, pay her bill and be gone.”
“No. Too early for that,” said Clara Turner, the newest and youngest member of the circle. “Pritchard sends the bills out at month’s end. Besides, Old Jax just pops a cheque out for our Larry to collect.”
Roland Pritchard ran the newsagent that vowed to sell everything you ever needed, and Hettie knew he wasn’t the reason for the visit. Not when the thirteen-year-old paper kid, Larry, remained unfazed about cycling up the back lanes to the isolated farm at the edge of the village. Few ventured that way, but there was always one in the younger cohort brave or desperate enough for money to deal with the old crone from Speedwell Cottage.
“Whatever the reason, it’s nowt to do with us, Hettie. If you’re not sewing, you can make us another cuppa. We’re parched.”
With tea now served, Hettie joined the chatting group of women basting the large quilt together. Her ex, Tommy, once complained the sewing circle resembled a coven, but she didn’t take offence. Many members were distant descendants of the witches once scattered across the county by fear centuries before, but any magical abilities in the bloodline were now so diluted they’d become redundant. Unless you counted the occasional blown fuses when they all got together or the faint whispers in the air from seamstresses past. Tommy also said he couldn’t wait to leave this godforsaken place. Now that statement was unfair. Everyone who knew the history of Mexenby knew it was blessed, just not by the conventional god. Was it Hecate? Or was it Brigid? This was often up for debate. Only one person knew the answer and now she was coming their way.
The bell tinkled as the shop door flung open. The incoming customer was never one for subtlety and Hettie heard several thuds of feet descending the stairs behind her. No one wanted to miss this encounter and the electricity in the air mirrored their anticipation.
“Jax,” said Hetty to the stooped woman whose hands were as gnarly as the stick they clasped. Thin and frail, her veneer of vulnerability fooled no one except newcomers or tourists to the village. Everyone knew she was capable of single handily helping sick or lost sheep on the moors and farmed her smallholding alone. Jax never accepted anyone’s help and ignored the villagers as they did her unless a specific need drew them up the lane.
Jax offered a brief nod, but her silvery eyes flashed, warning Hettie not to get too close – not that she wanted to. The pungent lingering whiff of sheep was enough to make her keep her distance.
The click of the stick’s brass ferrule echoed around the small shop, muffled only by the endless bolts of fabric lining the walls. Hettie couldn’t resist a new design, a new hue and pattern she’d not seen before. Every time a salesman visited with a suitcase full of samples, she was in heaven. Despite Aunt Mildred’s warnings that people didn’t want that “overpriced fancy stuff” when a cheaper synthetic fabric would do, Hettie chose with her heart rather than her head. Yes, some customers wanted budget material, thread to fix clothes or ribbon to add a finishing touch, but others like her wanted more. Under Hettie’s care, the little haberdashery flourished. It lured people countywide to buy fabric for that extra special quilt, a unique pattern or just to be inspired. Forget bibliosmia, fabric had its own legion of fans. The refreshing smell of cotton and starch, combined with the dazzling array of colour, hypnotised visitors. Their clean hands trailed over the rolls of crisp linen, baby soft brushed cotton and silky-smooth satin. The quality and texture urged them to spend.
Hettie studied Jax’s hand tapping her stick, the only sign Hettie could see that the old woman was uncomfortable in her surroundings. Calloused and twisted from years of manual labour, mud encrusted every nail and a tide mark of muck circled each cuff. Jax extended her arm towards a delicate yellow fabric. This was too much. Those hands mustn’t touch Hettie’s wares! If smudged with farmyard dirt, they could never be cleaned, and would have to be discarded in the reject bin at a reduced cost.
Aunt Mildred screeched in her ear, “Move.”
Hettie shot across the floor, snatched the roll away from danger and held it tight against her chest.
“Are you looking for anything in particular, Jax?” Hettie smiled despite the thunderous scowl on the old woman’s face. While the huddle of sewers eagerly waited for Jax’s response, Hettie stood her ground. Whatever renowned reputation Jax held, this was Hettie’s shop, and no one caressed her fabric with grubby hands, not even the infamous witch of Mexenby.
Jax leaned back on her staff and scrutinised Hettie. Her skin prickled cold under Jax’s intense stare, but she grasped the fabric tighter and met the gaze head on. To her surprise, Jax blinked, and her shoulders dropped.
“I need fabric. For a girl,” she snapped. “Something pretty. Soft.”
“Something like this? For a dress?” Hettie enquired, knowing the sewing group longed to know more. After decades of hiding on her farm, Jax’s appearance in this shop must mean something. Any juicy titbits to share over coffee were a small ask.
Jax remained guarded. “A blanket. Something like that.” She pointed to a sample quilt hanging on the wall, a complex interlocking design that took Hettie many evenings and shop hours to complete.
Hettie’s eyes washed over Jax’s clothes for clues that she would be up to the task which even advanced quilters cursed. Rising from mud splattered boots, heavily darned woollen tights covered Jax’s whippet thin legs, and her thick drab skirt and coat showcased similar repairs. A hotchpotch of patches covered larger areas of damage. Every stitch had only one purpose – to mend. Hettie fought the urge to recoil. The poor child, her poor fabric. Nothing could battle against the crudely jabbed stitches that would be their fate. Quilting required an abundance of patience, creativity, and care. Jax had none of these.
“I’ll make it. Tell me the colours and I’ll make her one,” Hettie offered. Aunt Mildred nodded in agreement. Her customers’ projects were the best advertisement for Hettie’s shop and Jax’s creation must not be allowed to thrive.
Jax’s upper lip quivered with refusal and her eyes pierced Hettie’s. Again, Hettie forced herself not to look away. A migraine threatened along with increased pressure in her head. The shop fell silent, waiting for an answer. If causing a crushing headache to her opponent was Jax’s response to an offer of help, no wonder people avoided her. Hettie debated whether to retract her proposal when Aunt Mildred coughed and broke the silence. Jax broke the eye contact and her eyes flicked to the ghost.
While rubbing head, Hettie tried to decipher the murmured communication between the two older women. Whatever Mildred was saying, Jax was listening.
Jax clicked her tongue against her remaining teeth and jabbed the stick to the ground, making everyone jump. “Fine. Mildred trusts you. You do it.”
She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a battered leather purse. Her swollen fingers counted out several notes and flung them on the counter. With a hasty spin, defiant of her age, Jax flounced out, leaving everyone aghast.
Later, when the shop was shut, Hettie closed her eyes and took stock of the task ahead. All afternoon, the others offered their opinions and ideas. The mystery of who the girl was fuelled their conversation. Was she a relative? The next generational witch? Jax’s son had been disowned years ago when he left the village. Had there been a reunion? Unlikely, everyone decided, so maybe she was a distant cousin? The gossip turned to what the mysterious girl would prefer. Hettie refused to engage. That part was for her and the fabric to decide.
Hettie scanned the material, caressed those which attracted her and listened to the fabric hum. One by one, she dragged out the bolts she needed. Laying them on the large table in the workroom beside the yellow fabric Jax chose, she allowed her imagination to arrange them into a design devoid of childlike motifs. The colours resembled the sunrise seen over the Moors. The bedspread would be appreciated by a child and later, the woman she would become.
Hettie measured, and snipped into the night, until, with a yawn, exhaustion set in. She slumped over the table and slept.
A loud knock on the shop door woke her. Stumbling down the rickety stairs, she rubbed her eyes and smoothed down the wayward strands of hair escaping from her plaits. It was too early for customers.
Larry grinned when she opened the door and leaned on his bike. He didn’t acknowledge her dishevelled appearance but pulled out a tiny package from his fluorescent newspaper bag. Wrapped in crinkled brown paper and bound with twine, he handed it over with discretion worthy of an illicit drug deal.
“Jax said you needed this. Mildred knows what to do.”
Hettie slipped it into her apron pocket. Larry climbed on his bike and pedalled away. The door was nearly closed when he called over his shoulder.
“She’ll collect it in ten days.”
Ten days. Hettie swallowed hard. Jax expected a quilt to be ready in ten days? There weren’t enough hours in the day for her to do it. She’d have to tell Jax, it was impossible. With no phone at the farm, she’d have to trudge up there and tell her herself. Aunt Mildred appeared at her side and offered a smile. “You can’t do it alone, but this blanket was always one that required a team. It’ll work better that way.”
With a fresh cup of tea in hand, Hettie grabbed her telephone book and made a few calls.
All across the village, sewing machines whirred as each quilter made the blocks as directed by Hettie. The next day, the true work began. In exchange for copious amounts of tea and biscuits, the Mexenby quilters sat at the large frame and they stitched Jax’s quilt. Chat remained at a minimum as they concentrated on the pattern. Mildred was right. A quilt like this was better made with many hands. Quilts were magical like that. They forged friendships within groups, and love flowed into each stitch, which the recipient felt when they wrapped themselves in the end product. A hug from the community; proof they were seen and not alone. Hettie believed whoever this child was, they’d need it more than most. With Jax’s package still lodged in her pocket, she wasn’t the only one to think this.
Time progressed, as did the quilt. Stitches indented the material and brought the patterns alive. Did the quilters realise amongst the swirls and curves, they’d sewn several runic motifs into the fabric as instructed by Jax? No one mentioned them, to her relief. Hettie didn’t know the meanings despite, according to Mildred, the motifs being common in older quilts and garments made by those in the village.
“Just because you think you brought this quilting idea back from your globetrotting to America, generations before you made them here, we just didn’t rave about it,” she’d muttered when Hettie commented about them. Hettie hadn’t dared disagree. She still needed her great aunt’s help.
On the ninth night, the women snipped off their threads and placed their needles into their pincushions for the last time.
“Well, it’s done, apart from the final strip of binding,” Jennie stated. “Are you sure you don’t want us to stay and help? It’ll be quicker.” She failed to hide her judgement that Hettie was a slow stitcher.
“No, it’s fine. I can finish up. Thank you all. I’m sure Jax will appreciate it.”
This was met with low chuckles and Jennie shook her head. “Doubt it, love. But the kid might.”
With that, the women left with a murmur of goodnights until only Hettie remained.
Could she do what Jax required? The precise and bizarre instructions from Mildred bore a heavy responsibility. Maybe she could take the unfinished quilt to Jax to let her do the required ritual. A few mismatched, ugly stitches wouldn’t matter, would they? She was the witch, after all.
“Don’t even think about it” A frigid blast cooled Hettie’s shoulder with Mildred’s arrival. “Jax trusts you. Besides, you wouldn’t be the first Henderson to do it on behalf of the witches on the hill.”
Hettie raised her eyebrow. It was the first time she had heard about anything about a connection between her ancestors and the Mexenby witch legend. There was no time to question Mildred now. The last section needed doing. Hettie flung the blind open, flooding the room with moonlight and she unwrapped Jax’s package revealing an old coin, a tiny pouch of herbs, several dried apple seeds from the Speedwell orchard, and a bobbin of thread. Under Aunt Mildred’s guidance, she lit a candle and whispered the words from Jax’s scrawled note.
“Well, you need to say it louder than that, dear,” Mildred interrupted “and say it as if you mean it. Intention sets the magic.”
Hettie took a deep breath and despite feeling ridiculous, repeated the words. Maybe magic was as real as the ghost haunting her shop. It was worth a go. She blew out the candle and passed the needle through the smoke three times before threading it with Jax’s cotton.
She slipped the coin, and pouch of herbs into the embedded secret pocket she’d made earlier in the quilt and added the seeds into the binding. With Jax’s words lingering in the air, Hettie finished the last stiches as dawn broke on the day of the deadline.
Wrapped in brown paper and neatly tied with ribbon, Hettie popped the quilt under the counter for collection, but Jax didn’t come. A week passed and another before news of Jax’s son’s fatal accident sent shockwaves through the village. Jax retreated into further solitude refusing to talk to anyone including Larry. A month went by and then several. After a year Hettie placed the package in a cupboard. Apart from the occasional visit from a spider or two, it lay forgotten for the next four years.
A sweet aroma of apples hung in the air and Hettie’s new electronic till refused to work. She snapped at Mildred whose mutterings made it hard to think. Jennie stomped down the stairs to complain the kettle refused to boil. They looked at each other, aware of a shift in the air.
“Jax” they said together. Jennie stood on guard while Hettie rushed to the cupboard to retrieve the forgotten order.
The bell tinkled above the door when it opened.
It wasn’t Jax.
A young woman in a vibrant pink jumpsuit stepped in clutching the hand of a young girl. Hettie knew before anything was said. The air hummed as the girl hopped from one foot to another. A sprig of Speedwell apple blossom tucked into her golden hair confirmed the thought.
Flashing a huge grin, the girl said, “Grandma says you have a gift for me.”