Anya looked outside the window as summer made way for fall, when the trees shyly shed their leaves in preparation for proud winter. She watched the branches sway in their green loveliness, knowing that all too soon they would be stripped bare to reveal their nakedness, exposing their innate desire to stretch and reach for the sun.
The afternoon light warmed Anya as she rocked in her chair, knitting. She was waiting for the one thing that would make her life complete and bring her full circle – the birth of her first great-grandchild, who she knew would be a girl, and who would be called Anya. The touch of the wool was soft and giving, almost as soft as the down on a baby’s back, and she longed to hold that child with a sudden fierceness that surprised her.
Closing her eyes, Anya descended into memory. She had died while she was being born. This was one of the first things she learned about herself, and it was at the core of her understanding who she was, for death had bequeathed her with a kiss, a curse – a gift that would follow her throughout her life. She thought about birth, about the entry into this world, and thought it cruel that the womb only held a child for nine months. To be that loved, wholly and completely safe … the thought brought a smile to her face. Then she thought about the children who were not wanted, who were not safe even in their mother’s wombs, and she could not make sense of it. It made her heart hurt, and her eyes winced with pain.
Anya opened her eyes again and thought she might have fallen asleep. The grandfather clock in the living room chimed several times. She thought about giving away the clock; it was useless to her now. She resented the ticking of seconds and the long, hollow chimes announcing each hour. She preferred to live by season, by the shifting light of each day. She woke when the birds began their morning song and the sky broke through its veil of darkness. She knew it was night when the light turned dark and the sun shattered into stars.
A knock on the door alerted the arrival of a visitor. The knock was a soft scratching, the sound reminiscent of the way her beloved stray used to return home in the evenings, so cautious, quietly insistent, eager to be let in. Anya smiled, knowing that it was Hope, the little girl who lived next door.
“Come in, child,” she called out, and listened for Hope’s hesitant footsteps as she walked through the kitchen , down the hallway, and into the sitting room. Anya sat up a little straighter in the chair and put her knitting into the basket beside her.
“Hello,” the girl said, peeking her head into the room first, as if she still wasn’t sure it was okay for her to enter.
“Don’t be shy,” Anya said. “Come, come,” she waved her closer, “should we continue where we left off? Or do you want to start from the beginning?”
Anya reached back into the basket and pulled out two decks of cards. She swung out the side table so that they would have a surface to play upon, then began shuffling. Hope pulled one of the chairs forward and sat down across from her. Two decks, 13 cards each, 7 hands. They played a game that Anya had made up long ago, and she changed the rules each time. The last time they played, they had only gotten through five hands, and Hope was losing badly. Anya had watched the girl compose herself as tears stung her eyes and she tried and failed and tried again; she was learning.
“Let’s start from the beginning.”
Hope’s feet swung in anticipation, her toes still not quite able to reach the floor. She looked around at the paintings and drawings Anya had made, always fascinated that the old woman had created such vibrant, strange art. Her eye traveled across the objects Anya had acquired from her travels all over the world. Hope often asked her questions about them, and sometimes Anya would respond with stories from her life. Hope listened, spellbound, as the hazy summer sun set in another time, lost in Anya’s memories, dreams of comrades and friends, artists and lovers, years of war, challenges, changes, new beginnings.
Hope took a deep breath and felt more calm than she had all day, all week even. The sound of splashing from a neighbor’s pool, laughter, and young shrieking voices carried across the wind into the room.
“Don’t you want to play with the other children?”
“No,” the girl answered.
She didn’t want to tell Anya that Chrissy wouldn’t allow the other kids to talk to her this week. She didn’t want to tell her that “this week” was going on the third week in a row. Ever since Chrissy caught her playing with Adam when it was his week, she’d been furious with her. Hope wasn’t trying to play with him. Adam came over to her when she was sitting outside, reading by the tree. He was so lonely, he was crying, and she never liked that game anyway; she thought it was mean. But no one else besides her would dare go against Chrissy. For the past three weeks, even Adam averted his eyes and pretended Hope didn’t exist.
“I like playing with you.”
“And I like playing with you too,” Anya smiled. She loved this little girl who appeared one day at her side door, eyes as big as moonflowers blooming in a dark, neglected garden.
“But it’s important to have friends your own age.”
The girl didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to have friends her own age. She wanted to have friends like the characters in the books she loved to read, but she never met kids like that in real life. Chrissy wanted to make everyone in the neighborhood hate her, and she didn’t know why. They used to be friends. Chrissy said she wanted to be her best friend in the world. Then, she told all the kids her secrets, right in front of her, and laughed as if she was telling them all a joke. She told them that her parents always fought, that she wished she could live in a book, that she was waiting for her magic to appear. She told them that she still played with baby toys, even though she was twelve years old, even though those were the toys Chrissy had always wanted to play with when she came over, and they had made up complex stories with those little people and tiny houses.
“Amelia and David used to be my friends, but they moved away.”
She thought about her old friends, Amelia and David. They used to play a lot together. Her basement was their own private world, and Hope’s mother never bothered them. The first rainy day that they all played together, David said “I like to kiss girls” and Amelia said “I like to kiss girls too.” Hope had smiled at both of them and said, “that’s okay, I like to kiss girls and boys.”
After Amelia moved, it was just Hope and David. David liked to play superhero, and he used to tie her up with her jump rope, like in one of those saturday morning cartoons; he was the hero and the villain, and she was the heroine, captured, bound, waiting to be rescued. He liked to play cops and robbers and when he caught her, he’d put her in jail, then punish her with chinese tickle-torture until she laughed so hard she could barely breathe. He liked to play family, and he always wanted to be the dad. He insisting on taking care of the babies while Hope went to work, and cuddling all together when she came home.
When Chrissy’s family moved into Amelia’s house, Hope invited her over to play. David said “I like to play doctor” and Chrissy said “I like to play doctor too.” But when David started taking off his pants for a check up, Chrissy didn’t want to play anymore. She said that they were dirty and that she was going home. Chrissy’s mother told all the other mothers what happened. None of the neighborhood girls were allowed to play with David anymore, including Hope. Then, he moved away too.
“I wish I could go somewhere new,” Hope said.
“You will, someday,” Anya said, laying down her cards in a perfect spread.
Hope hadn’t even put down her hand yet. She gave her cards reluctantly to Anya to count. She would have to re-do the hand, while Anya moved on to the next one. Hope bit her lip. Anya would get double the points for this hand, while she got zero. She would never catch up.
“You can still win,” Anya said as if reading her thoughts, then began shuffling the cards again for the next hand.
“What’s that?” Hope asked, her eye catching the rainbow of colours in the knitting basket on the floor.
Anya smiled proudly. “My first great-grandchild will be born soon. I’m knitting a baby blanket for her … It’s my gift.”
“It’s beautiful,” Hope said wistfully.
“Do you know how to knit, child?”
“No …” the girl said. “Would you teach me?”
“Of course,” Anya said. “Next time.”
Alone, a wave of deep sadness and bittersweet nostalgia passed over her as she thought about her life, her endless dance with death. Anya knew that if she was damned to eternal return, she would have no regrets. She had lived a full life. She had lived as an artist, a wife, a mother, an independent woman. She was proud of the work she had done. The love of her life was an army man; she had lost him in the last war. She had lived more years without him than she had with him, but she still loved him as much as the day she had married him. He had blessed her with three beautiful children who brought her so much joy. Her life had been filled with love; she had amazing family, incredible friends, passionate lovers. Now, all of her friends and lovers were gone. Now, her children were all grown, with families of their own. Now, her eyes and hands didn’t work the way they used to, and she hadn’t been able to paint or draw in years. Now, she was alone.
There was a knock at the door.
Since becoming friends with Hope over the summer, she had grown used to having a daily visitor. But Hope only came in the afternoon, after lunch. She listened again. It was not Hope’s knock. This knock was impatient, forceful, angry. Anya got up from her chair and slowly made her way into the kitchen, to see who it was.
A girl about Hope’s age stood outside the screen door. She looked like a corn-fed child model, blonde and blue eyed and rosy cheeked, with a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The girl smiled.
“Can I help you?” Anya asked.
“Can I come in?” the girl asked, pulling at the door. The door did not open. The door was unlocked.
“Why are you here?” Anya asked bluntly.
“I know that Hope has been coming here. I’ve seen her. You let Hope come in. Why won’t you let me in?” the girl pulled at the door again.
“I’m sorry child … there is nothing for you here.”
“You are teaching Hope, aren’t you?” the girl said angrily, nearly spitting out the words.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Anya reprimanded herself for leaving the side door open. All that stood between her and the girl was a flimsy screen. She felt the frailty of her old woman’s body betray her only for a moment. Then, her eyes burned. She put one hand on her hip, and the other on the knob of the heavy door that stood ajar, ready to close it.
“I think you do.” The girl held her eyes, and Anya felt a chill run through her bones. “And I’m telling you to stop. Because if you don’t stop, I will make you stop.”
“Are you threatening me child?”
“No,” the girl said, still smiling. “It’s not a threat. It’s a promise.”
“Go home, child. Don’t come back here.”
A woman’s voice pierced the silence between them, calling out into the quickly darkening sky: “Chrissy! Chrissssy! Come home!”
The girl rolled her eyes then called back in a sweet sing-song voice, “coming!” She glared at Anya one last time and left.
Hope’s mother kept the blinds closed so that no sunlight would enter the house. They didn’t have air conditioning so the absence of sun made the inside of the house about 10 degrees cooler than it was outside. Still, it was hot.
Hope sat with her brother in the dark at the dining room table, but they did not talk to each other. Her brother watched television with a focus he only seemed to have when the tv was on, which is probably why her mother always kept it on. Hope finished her sandwich and drank the last of her milk before she asked her mother for permission to go to Anya’s house. Hope’s mother was sitting in the shadowy kitchen alone, smoking again. It seemed that the bitter-sharp scent of tobacco, smoke and ash, remnants of fire, had become part of her mother’s moody silences since her parents stopped fighting. Now, they only fought when her dad came home, and that seemed to happen less and less often these days. The silence seemed just as loud.
“Hope … Miss Anya is a lovely old woman, and I know you think of her as a friend but –”
“She is my friend!”
Hope’s mother inhaled her cigarette.
“Do you want to take your brother with you?”
“No,” Hope said quickly, but seeing her mother’s eyebrows rise, she added, “Miss Anya is going to teach me how to knit. He’d be in the way.”
“I know how to knit … I could teach you.”
“I’ve never seen you knit.”
“Well, I used to knit. I’m sure I remember how … My grandmother taught me … Grandma even knit the blanket you loved so much. Don’t you remember?”
“Grandma made my blanket?” Hope asked.
“No … my grandmother made it. Your great-grandmother. She died a long time ago, right after you were born … I know I’ve told you about her a million times. Don’t you remember? You were named after her …”
“Oh yeah,” Hope said. “So can I go?”
“All right,” her mother exhaled noisily. “Just be home for dinner.”
“Will dad be home for dinner?” Hope asked.
Her mother didn’t answer at first, and in the pause, Hope regretted asking. It had just come out, she wasn’t thinking. Her mother crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and immediately lit another one, retreating further into a cloud of smoke and the shadows of the kitchen.
“I don’t know,” her mother said.
Hope peeked outside the window. The sun was blindingly bright. She wanted to make sure that no one was outside. Anya was her secret friend, and she wanted to keep it that way. After making sure that the coast was clear, she would go outside quickly, then run across the lawn and through the hedge of rose-of-sharon, which led directly to Anya’s side door. It only took a minute, since the houses had been developed side by side and were very close together, but that minute had Hope’s heart racing.
When she arrived, panting from the mad dash and sweating under the hot sun, she knocked tentatively, then waited until she heard Miss Anya call, “Come in, child.”
It was as if hearing those words had a magical calming effect on her, and all of her problems just disappeared. She always entered the house reverently, cherishing the quiet peacefulness of Anya’s space. It was so unlike her own house, with her parents fighting and her brother whining and the television always on. She sometimes wondered how she was even able to read with all the noise, but books remained another sacred space, and when she opened one, she seemed to fall into another world.
Anya was in the sitting room, knitting furiously. She was trying to decide whether or not she should mention the other girl’s visit, but when she saw Hope’s face, so eager and trusting, she decided not to worry her. She beckoned Hope forward hastily.
“Come now, we haven’t got all day,” she said.
Hope sat in the chair across from her. On the side table were two knitting needles and several balls of yarn in different colours.
“How is the blanket coming along?”
“Good … good …” Anya said, “I haven’t got much time left. The baby’s coming very soon, sooner than they think … go ahead child, choose the colour you like, and I will show you what to do.”
Hope picked up the balls of yarn. They were soft and light and each one had a slightly different texture. One was glossy and black as a raven’s wing, another was pink-purple and reminded her of the big blooms on the hydrangea bush in her backyard. She chose the blended green and blue wool, because when she held it in her hands, she imagined she was holding a small globe, a miniature planet earth.
“I see,” Anya smiled, “you want to recreate the world.”
Hope laughed. “Are you going to teach me how to make a blanket?”
“Hmm … you have time for that yet. I think you should make something simple, but useful, to start. A scarf would be nice … you could wear it all winter, and if you make it long enough, you’ll never outgrow it.”
“Okay,” Hope agreed.
Anya finished another row and when her hands were free, she took the yarn from Hope and began whirling the thread around one of the needles.
“Beginning is the hardest,” Anya said.
Hope watched her measure each stitch on the needle, making sure the width would be good for a scarf. Then she showed her how to use the other needle to push through and behind each loop, twirling the yarn across the top, pulling the needle through the front, and then easing each stitch from one needle to the other.
“And when you get to the end,” Anya instructed, “you begin again.”
“Got it,” Hope said.
Anya placed the knitting needles and yarn into Hope’s outstretched hands, then resumed her work on the baby blanket. For awhile they worked in silence, the only sound being the gentle scrape of needle against needle, the whirring of Anya’s handiwork, and Hope’s slow but steady progress.
“I think it’s really nice that you are making a blanket for the baby,” Hope said. “It’s a wonderful gift.”
“Oh, I’m glad to do it,” Anya replied.
“My mom told me that my grandmother – no, my great-grandmother – knitted a blanket for me when I was born. I don’t remember her though. She died after I was born. Her name was Hope, too …”
Anya stopped knitting, a split-second pause.
“That blanket was my favorite thing when I was little. I remember that I used to sleep with it, like it was a stuffed animal. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep without it.”
“Do you still have it?”
“Of course!” Hope said. “But I never sleep with it anymore. I mean, almost never. I mean, sometimes … but only when I have bad dreams or if I really, really can’t sleep.”
“And it helps you … sleep?”
“Yes. But I’m not supposed to sleep with it anymore. They took it away from me because they said I was too old for a baby blanket … I cried so much they gave it back. But I’m not supposed to sleep with it anymore. It’s in my closet. Sometimes just knowing it is there is enough.”
“Yes,” Anya said absently.
“I know this will sound silly, but when I was little I used to pretend that it was a magic blanket. I thought it would protect me from bad things.”
“No, that doesn’t sound silly at all.” Anya cleared her throat. “I’d love to see it sometime, if you don’t mind.”
Hope hesitated. She never took the blanket out of the house. No one had ever asked to see it, not even the kids she had told about it before she learned to keep certain things to herself.
Anya continued, “I always like to see the work of others. Not too many people knit anymore. It’s an art form, really …”
“I will bring it next time,” Hope said. She never took her blanket out of the house, but she would make an exception for Anya. She thought that Anya was the best friend she had ever had, and she felt her heart swell.
Dusk turned to darkness. Anya watched her reflection shape and form in the window. She was an old woman. Just that afternoon, she had been a young girl, almost thirteen, the same age as Hope. Each year was imbedded in her; she was not just the age the current year accounted for, she was each age up to and including that year. She was twelve. She was forty-two. She was ninety. The calendar in the kitchen delineated time into small squares and numbers. It was like the clock, another false construct.
The baby would not know to arrive on a specific day. She would come into this world when she was ready. Later, she would learn the day and month and year. In school, the child would learn to tell time, and as an adult, she would live by time. Later, much later, Anya thought, the child will turn her back on time, when the cycle reverses itself, when she lives closer to the womb-state, when she is dancing.
The tentative knock at the door alerted Anya to the girl’s arrival.
She prayed that Hope had remembered to bring the blanket. All night, she had dreamed about it, vivid strange dreams that dissipated as soon as she woke, nightmares that kept waking her in a cold sweat of panic and confusion. When the sun rose again, the one thought in Anya’s mind was Hope’s blanket. All day, she had anxiously waited for her.
“Come in, child,” she called, but when she heard the footsteps in the hallway, she knew at once that was not Hope’s footfall.
Too late. She had invited her in.
The girl strode into the room. Blonde, blue eyed, rosy cheeked. The girl who had made Hope’s life so hard. The girl who could not open the door without her permission. The girl who made her blood run cold.
“I told you to stop teaching Hope.”
Anya did not pause; she continued knitting furiously, the blanket exploding with a rainbow of kaleidoscopic colour.
“I told you not to come back here.”
Anya wasn’t answering the door. Hope knocked again, slightly louder, thinking that maybe she had fallen asleep or something. But that had never happened, and the heavy door was open, as if waiting for her to arrive. In Hope’s arms were the knitting needles, the yarn, and her baby blanket. She looked around furtively. At least a minute went by and Anya still didn’t answer the door. Hope began to worry. What if Anya fell? She was very old … She thought about going back home, maybe her mother would know what to do. But as soon as she turned to leave, another voice inside her told her to go inside. The voice told her that Anya needed her help.
Hope opened the door quietly. She walked straight to the sitting room, and when she entered the room, she was so shocked, she stopped dumb-struck. Chrissy was in the room, leaning over Anya.
Anya was struggling. Her voice was muffled. Her arms and legs were flailing uselessly, her old woman’s body overcome by the young girl’s strength. Chrissy had something over Anya’s face.
Hope dropped the things in her arms and ran into the room, shouting “NO.”
Chrissy turned, surprised, still holding the throw pillow in her hands. Anya gasped for breath, a horrifying, wheezing sound. Hope flew across the room and into Chrissy, pushing her away from Anya and knocking her to the floor.
“Miss Anya … are you okay?” Anya shook her head, pointing desperately at Hope, behind Hope.
Hope felt her hair being pulled, pulled so hard that her body jerked backwards. She spun around to face Chrissy, and Chrissy began to hit her. Hope remembered the time that Chrissy had given her a black eye. All she had done was win the game they were playing. She had played fair. But Chrissy didn’t like to lose. She had thrown the game board across the room and started punching her. After, Chrissy told her to lie and say she got hit with a ball while they were playing catch. She said that if she told the truth she would hurt her even worse. She said she had a knife, and that no one would believe her anyway.
This time, Hope was not afraid.
She lashed out blindly, punching, slapping, clawing, kicking. Tears streamed down her face, as if every blow she inflicted on Chrissy was hurting her, too. From far away, she heard Chrissy sobbing, crying “stop, stop.” But Hope did not stop. She thought for a moment that she would never stop, that she could beat Chrissy for the rest of her life, that she could cross the line from defense and protection into cruelty. From far away, she heard Anya calling her name. She stopped. She grabbed Chrissy by the arm and pulled her out of the room, down the hallway and into the kitchen, where she held her at the door.
“You’re lucky I didn’t take that pillow and do to you what you were about to do to Miss Anya. You’re lucky I’m not calling the police right now.” Hope dug her fingernails into Chrissy’s arm. “But if you ever come near Miss Anya or me again, you’re dead.”
She pushed Chrissy towards the screen, swinging the door open, shoving her through the threshold while releasing her grip on her arm, causing the girl to stumble and fall on the broken sidewalk.
Hope closed the door and locked it with the chain, then walked slowly back to Anya. She felt sick. She was shaking. She was crying. Places on her body were sore and her head was pounding.
Anya was sitting in the rocking chair, holding Hope’s baby blanket, cradling it in her arms. When Hope entered the room, she looked up. Tears were glistening in her eyes.
“Chrissy will never hurt you again,” she said, “But there will be others. Others will try. No matter how much they hurt you, they will never break you. You are strong, stronger than you may ever know. Come here, child.”
Hope pulled a chair close to her, and sat down. Anya spread the blanket out between them, so it covered both of their knees.
“Touch it,” she said, and Hope did. A feeling of calm washed over her. She sighed deeply, releasing all the tension inside her.
“You are gifted, Hope.”
The girl looked at Anya in confusion. Anya continued, “that is why Chrissy hated you. That is why others will try to break you.”
“I don’t understand … Do you mean … I have magic?”
“Not exactly,” Anya laughed. “But nevertheless, there is magic in the gift. Your great-grandmother’s gift is woven into this blanket, she gave it to you. Have you ever noticed that you feel things very strongly? That you are extraordinarily sensitive, not just in your heart, but in all your senses – what you touch, what you hear, what you see?”
“I don’t know … people do say I’m too sensitive, sometimes.”
“Did your mother ever tell you about the circumstances of your birth?”
“Why?” Hope asked. She shifted uncomfortably in the chair.
“What did she say?”
“She said that … the umbilical cord was wrapped around me neck a lot of times. She said that my heart stopped beating. The nurse thought I died. But I didn’t die – ”
“You died, Hope.”
“No, I didn’t. It was a mistake. The nurse made a mistake.”
“You died. You died while you were being born, and then you came back to be born again. You lived. Your spirit, your soul, was so strong that death could not take you. People who have experienced life and death so quickly have a special kind of knowledge, a vision, a gift. As you grow older, the form your gift will take will become clearer, and you will have a responsibility to trust that gift, no matter where it takes you. It will not be easy. Sometimes it will feel like you are living in an entirely different world than the others. People will sense your difference, your strangeness. Some will hate you for it. Some will love you for it. Your life will be more difficult because of it. But your life will also be richer, fuller, filled with incredible beauty. The gift may pain you, but it will never fail to protect you. These things work both ways.”
Hope told her mother that she wasn’t hungry, that she’d rather stay in her room instead of coming down to dinner.
“We’re eating together, as a family, and I don’t care if you are hungry or not, you are going to sit with us.”
When Hope entered the dining room, she saw the table set for three. Her little brother was already sitting down, filling his plate.
“I thought you said we were eating as a family,” she said.
Her mother’s face fell; the assertive composure that she had held only a moment before crumbled, and Hope felt a stab of pain.
“We are,” she said quietly, her voice quivering.
Then she looked at Hope and saw the bruises and scratches on her face. She reached out to her, asking “Hope … what happened?”and the girl burst into tears.
Her mother put her arms around her and held her close, the way she used to hold her when she was little, that completely. And together they cried, for all they had lost, for all they were going to find, and they stayed in the embrace for a long time until Hope’s little brother said in a surly voice, “get a room,” and they laughed and laughed, pulling him into their wild, joyful hug.
Everything was changing.
Only a week later, Chrissy was gone. When the moving van came, it seemed almost too good to be true. The neighborhood kids stayed indoors, peeking from their windows, watching to see if it was really true. No one gathered outside to say goodbye, the way they had for Amelia and David. After the moving van pulled away from the curb, the kids emerged from their houses one by one. No one talked about Chrissy. They played games they used to play when they were little – freeze tag, kick the can, ghost in the graveyard. They laughed loudly and ran in the street, wild and free. Then school started, and Hope became very busy very quickly with new classes, new teachers, new friends. By the end of September, Anya told Hope that she was going to stay with her daughter for awhile; the baby was coming early, just as she had expected. Hope didn’t want her to go. She hugged her tightly before she left, hoping that Anya knew how much she loved her, how grateful she was to have known her. Hope knew that she would never see her again, at least not in this lifetime.
Everything had changed.
Hope looked outside the window as summer made way for fall, when the trees shyly shed their leaves in preparation for proud winter. She watched the branches sway in their green loveliness, knowing that all too soon they would be stripped bare to reveal their nakedness, exposing their innate desire to stretch and reach for the sun.