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"Long-Tail Cast On"
Mariah Van Ripper had never done things in life on anyone else's time line, and dying had been no exception. On Mariah's last earthly day in Tarrytown, her niece Aubrey had been sitting in the yarn room, the stitches of a lacy mohair shawl waltzing between her fingers. She hadn't realized she'd been dozing, her mind wandering dreamy byways even while her fingers danced through stitch after stitch, until the moment that Mariah appeared in the doorway.
"Oh good. Aubrey! There was something I wanted to tell you."
Aubrey looked up from her knitting. Framed by the doorjamb, Mariah listed slightly to the side like a wide flag waving in a gentle wind. She wore a long shapeless dress made of cotton so crisp and white that it nearly glowed.
"What are you doing back?" Aubrey asked. "I thought you had an appointment with Councilman Halpern. Did you forget something?"
"Yes . . . I believe I did."
"Well, whatever it was, I would have brought it over to you if you'd called me," Aubrey said, chastising a little. "What do you need?"
Mariah didn't answer. Her eyes were wide and confused as a sleepy child's. She murmured between half-closed lips.
"Mariah?" Aubrey stopped knitting at the end of a row, dropped her hands. The shawl lay sunlit and rumpled as yellow fall leaves in her lap. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Something I was going to tell you . . ."
"Well, let's hear it."
"Something . . ."
"Hey. You feeling okay?"
Aubrey watched her aunt's pupils telescope into tiny black points. She seemed focused on something Aubrey couldn't see, a speck of dust perhaps, dancing in the air, or some secret thought of her own, anchored so deep in her gray matter that her unseeing eyes drifted like boats from their moorings. Mariah was of middling height and impressive girth, with hair like long runny drippings of pigeon-gray paint. Although she had not been a beauty even in her youth, she had kind eyes, a generous smile, and deep, appealing wrinkles. The sun coming from behind her silvered her hair and the white hem of her dress.
"Ah, well," Mariah said. "I guess you'll have to figure it out." She sighed, not unhappily. And then she stepped out of the yarn room and out of sight.
Aubrey set aside her knitting and crossed the wide wooden floorboards. She felt light-headed, caught up in the swill of her own worry. Mariah's health had been in decline for the last few years, and it occurred to Aubrey that her aunt might be having a stroke. The doctors had warned them. Aubrey peered around the doorjamb; Mariah had vanished without the sound of a single footfall to mark the direction she'd gone.
Not even possible, Aubrey thought.
But she called up the stairs anyway. "Mariah?"
She called down the hall. "Hey, Mari?"
She jumped when the phone rang. The hair at the nape of her neck stood on end.
She picked up the receiver very slowly. "Yes?"
"Aubrey Van Ripper?" a stranger asked.
It was then that Aubrey knew--knew before she'd been told--that her aunt had not returned to the Stitchery for some forgotten item. In fact, she was not in the Stitchery at all. And Aubrey thought of how vulgar it was that news of death, such an intimate and private thing, should be borne on the lips of a stranger.
For the first time in her life, Aubrey was alone, fully and finally and unexpectedly alone, alone in that moment and forevermore alone, her knitting needles stilled on a table in the yarn room, her ear hot from the press of the phone, and a stranger's words floating to her from somewhere, not here, explaining a thing that had happened all the way across town.
In his private office not far from the Tarrytown village hall, safely ensconced behind neocolonial pillars and Flemish brickwork, Councilman Steve Halpern poured himself a drink from the small flask he kept for emergency use in his bottom desk drawer. The ambulance had left only moments ago, bearing Mariah Van Ripper's body away from his office for the last time. He leaned back in his cigar-brown chair. It whined under his weight.
"You know, a person never wants to see a thing like this happen," he said.
Jackie Halpern, who managed his electoral campaigns, his accounting, his sock drawer, and his blood-pressure medication, smiled. "Of course not."
"But if it had to happen--"
"Don't say it," she told him. "I know."
Slowly, like a thin vapor snaking its way inch by inch through Tarrytown's friendly suburban streets, rumors of Mariah Van Ripper's death spread among people who knew her and people who did not, until finally the fog of bad news wafted thick as raw wool down toward the river, down into the ramshackle neighborhood that Mariah had called home. The dogs of Tappan Square, mangy rottweilers and pit bulls that barked through closed windows, grew uniformly silent and did not so much as squeak at passersby. The oxidized old rooster atop the Stitchery's tower spun counterclockwise in three full circles before coming to point unwaveringly east, and if any of Tappan Square's residents had seen it, they would have known it was not a good sign.
Tappan Square was not Tarrytown's best-kept secret. It did not factor into the region's well-known, accepted lore. When visitors pointed their GPS systems toward Tarrytown and its sister, Sleepy Hollow, they always bypassed Tappan Square. Instead, they flocked to Sunnyside, the ivy-choked cottage where Washington Irving lived and died and dreamed of the Galloping Horseman and Ichabod Crane. They cowered happily at the foot of that tyrannical gothic castle, Lyndhurst, lording over the Hudson River with its crenellated scowl, and they pointed out landmarks from vampire horror movies in its dim, hieratic halls. They trudged among the lichen-flecked soul effigies at the Old Dutch Church, picking their way with cameras and sturdy shoes among tombstones that said BEEKMAN, CARNEGIE, ROCKEFELLER, and SLOAT. They searched for what everyone searches for on the shores of the Hudson River: enchantment. Some of that good old-fashioned magic. And yet, rarely did outsiders make their way to the neighborhood of Tappan Square, where salsa beats blared hard from the windows of rusting jalopies, where illegal cable wires were strung window-to-window, and where magic, or some semblance of the thing, still found footing on the foundation of the building that the Van Ripper family had always called home.
The Stitchery, as it came to be called by neighbors and eventually by the family within it, had always been filled with Van Rippers. To its neighbors, the Stitchery was a curiosity like a whale's eyeball in a formaldehyde mason jar, a taxidermied baby horse with wax eyes coated in dust, a thing that should have been allowed to vanish after the life had passed out of it but instead was artificially preserved. With its architectural hodgepodge cobbled together over the centuries--its temperate Federalist core, its ardent mansard garret, its fish-scaled tower with witch's hat roof--the house did not offer the most welcoming appearance. The latest batches of Van Rippers, most recently led by Mariah, did not believe in renovation. They did not repaint over the awful cabbage-rose wallpaper in the parlor, or fix the scrolling black gate in front of the house that had been knocked crooked during the Great Blizzard of 1888, or replace the sign on the front door that read YARNS even though it was nearly illegible with age. In fact, they vehemently protested such alterations and "unnecessary" upgrades as affronts to history. Mariah Van Ripper was said to have wept, actually wept, when one of the Stitchery's great old toilets needed its innards gutted, and exact replacements for the old digestive system could not be found.
And so the Stitchery was allowed to fall out of fashion, then out of respectability, until it became a mote in an eyesore of a neighborhood, because Mariah had professed too much respect for her ancestors to fix a cockamamie shutter or tighten a baluster. This was the accretion of history that built up like dandruff or snow, and Mariah had always allowed it as one allows the sun to rise in the morning and set at night. Of course, her philosophy fit in nicely with her hatred of housework and her unwillingness to spend what little money the Van Rippers made on such a frivolous thing as a new doorbell. But whatever the root motivation, the result was that the Stitchery--regarded by some as the heart of Tappan Square, and regarded by others as the tumor--was ugly, dilapidated, and falling down.
As news of Mariah's death reached its tentacles into her neighborhood, a handful of Tarrytown transplants who had come from all corners of the world began to gather before the Stitchery's façade. The religious among the crowd crossed themselves and said their prayers, prayers that were not entirely altruistic, for Mariah's soul to be scooped up and deposited quickly in its final landing place, so long as it wasn't roaming the earth with the more well-mannered ghosts of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown. Women who were friendly toward the Van Rippers set colorful candles in tall glasses on the sidewalk and fixed carnations to the Stitchery's crooked gate. They did not need to speak a common language to share a common worry: What would happen to the Stitchery? And worse: With Mariah gone, what would happen to them all?
The Van Rippers were charlatans to some, saviors to others. Crooks or angels. Saints or thieves. But even if the gossip about the Stitchery was just and only that--if the strangeness of the Stitchery began and ended with the things that were said about it--uncertainty had never stopped many generations of Tarrytown women from dragging themselves in desperation to the Van Rippers' doorway, begging for help. Make me a sweater, make me mittens, make my baby healthy, make my husband love me again.
The magic of the Van Ripper family, they said, was in the knitting.
If it was magic at all.
"Make a Knot"
There were only a handful of places in the area of Tarrytown where Aubrey Van Ripper appeared with any regularity: the grocery store, the library, the pet store, the sushi house, and sometimes--when the evening was clear and cool--the park. And so when she made her appearance at the hospital on the day that Mariah died, locals looked on with curiosity, half fearful and half intrigued. She wore clunky white orthopedic shoes like an old lady--though she was only twenty-eight--a horrific polyester blouse dotted with tiny forget-me-nots, and thick black glasses with plastic frames. Her hair was a pretty blond that swept to her shoulders, but it was frizzy and kinked with knots.
As for Aubrey, she wasn't nearly as interested in the hospital as it was in her. To her mind, the hospital should have been lively, frenetic, caught in the teeth-gnashing clench between death and life. Instead, it was dull. Bored administrative types chewed gum and watched the game show channel on the TV in the waiting room, which played a rerun of Wheel of Fortune. The lobby would have looked just like this--sterile and sleepy--whether or not her aunt had just died.
"Sign, please." A woman behind the counter thrust a translucent purple clipboard toward her. "If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask--anyone else but me."
Aubrey complied. There were so many words on every piece of paper, tiny words made of tiny letters, one running into the other. If she could unwind all the words out into a long, single thread, they would reach around the building and back again. She could knit them into a sweater. Or a heavy black shawl.
Out of the corner of her eye, Aubrey noticed a couple of the nurses standing together in a distant corner of the room, whispering softly with their heads bent low. They wore slouchy bright scrubs bedecked with cartoon flowers. One of them was Katrina Van der Donck, who liked to claim she was descended from the great seventeenth-century documentarian of Sleepy Hollow, Adriaen Van der Donck, who first recorded Slapershaven as name of the Hudson tributary that ran through the glen. The other woman was a stranger. They were trying not to glance Aubrey's way but were unable to avoid the temptation.
Aubrey bore their scrutiny as long as she could. Their whispers scratched at her eardrums like a dog at a door. Finally, she could not stand it. She glanced up, and both women winced. Aubrey spoke as loud as she dared. "You do realize I know what you're saying, right?"
"Oh my God. She's a mind reader, too?" the stranger said, loudly enough for Aubrey to hear. "You didn't say she was a mind reader."
"She's not a mind reader," Aubrey said.
"Oh no?" Katrina smirked. "What am I thinking now?" She crossed her arms and glared.
Aubrey lowered her eyes back to her paperwork. Her face was burning red; she could feel it. Her armpits were prickly with sweat. She did not know precisely why Katrina Van der Donck had come to hate her, but she guessed it had to do with the magic and that perhaps Katrina had paid for an ineffective spell. Aubrey hated confrontation more than she hated squishy white bread in long plastic bags, more than she hated laugh tracks in sitcoms, more than she hated Steve Halpern. Mariah would have known what to say.
The Stitchery--and the women in it--had always been touched by a vague darkness, a miasma of speculation. Aubrey's ancestors trailed all the way back to the first settlers who lived in ditches in New Netherland earth, and the more distant the modern world became from those starved and lice-ridden adventurers, the more mysterious and alluring they began to appear, so that the effect of time on the progenitors of the Stitchery was like the effect of atmosphere on the stars.
Unfortunately for Aubrey, the gossips of Tarrytown didn't think the village librarian's assistant, who shopped for beets in the grocery store and who carried a picture of her pet hedgehog in her wallet, was especially captivating. The lore of the Stitchery was mysterious. Mariah had been its peculiar but venerable old maven. Aubrey--poor Aubrey--she was just weird.
Her appearance didn't help her reputation. As the next in line to be the guardian of the Stitchery--the next in line after Mariah--she bore the Stitchery's Mark. In Mariah, the Mark had manifested itself discreetly: Even with no perfume on, even when it was a hundred degrees in August, Mariah's skin smelled strongly of flower petals. The scent glands that made other people stink like horses had literally made Mariah smell like a rose--granted, a cheap rose that sometimes put one in mind of an Old West hooker, but a rose nonetheless. The people of Tarrytown had assumed that Mariah was just another old lady who drowned her sorrows in drugstore perfume. And although there were always exceptions, people liked her as well as any Van Ripper could be liked.