Andi C. Buchanan’s short fiction is published or forthcoming in venues including Fireside, Apex, Kaleidotrope, and Glittership. They won the 2019 Sir Julius Vogel Award for short fiction, and their editing work was included in the most recent Otherwise/Tiptree Award Honor List.
After the storm, Talia pricks her finger pulling a sewing machine from the edge of the sea. The blood wells up and trickles down her hand, and hasn’t stopped by the time she’s dragged the sewing machine home. She sits by the fire with her arm raised above her head, marvelling at the impact of such a tiny injury, while her sister wraps it tightly with an off-cut from her quilting basket.
Talia’s mother doesn’t know how she could have been so stupid. Could she not have held its handle or wrapped her cold arms around its storm-battered neck? Talia only shrugs; it’s just like her to reach for the exposed, the hostile, the dangerous.
Her baby brother has a sewing machine too, almost as big as he is, and he hauled it up though the driftwood without a single injury. Everyone in the village has a sewing machine, and they will wash up for years, rusty and wave-worn, long after the mast of the wrecked ship has toppled.
Talia thinks the sewing machine might be magic and that it longs for the sea, longs for the sunken souls who were lost with it, whose graves were marked by that sail-less mast, and then not at all. She thinks it will sew only sea, that it will stitch waves of gossamer blue and soft cotton foam, heavy velvet depths. She sews her linen dress by hand so she won’t be proven wrong.
Talia is connected or dangling by a thread, but that metaphor could only mean anything to someone who doesn’t sew. Someone who thinks thread is sufficiently descriptive, that such things are universal, standardised, that regulatory thread inspectors come round with gauges and an array of magnifying glasses and tip their sepia hats and promise assessments in triplicate. But even those who deal in clumsy metaphors must know that the sturdy nylon of the ghost-nets that wash up on the beach bears little resemblance to the wool Talia’s mother used to darn her socks with.
Talia’s mother has been dead two hundred years or more, and Talia doesn’t think of her often, much less the wool she used.
Talia salvages relationships, pulling them up by their frayed threads, but she’s lost feeling for them, seems half-asleep when she does so, as if she were sleeping for a year, a score, a century. Eventually the threads wear through and her lover falls into darkness and she sleeps.
While she sleeps she prepares fish for market and she sews. Later, years later, she moves into the town and takes work in a department store. More years later, she moves back to the beach, trades fruit for fish, taking in or letting out clothes in exchange for wood. When the road is sealed, and women can do such things, she works for the public service and takes university classes in the evenings.
But she does it all through a haze, a half-sleep that keeps her alive but disconnected, unable to fully connect with a world that will always pass her by.
She pulls up relationships by fraying threads, threads that may last five years or forty, but always, always, break.
There’s a man who makes sculptures of driftwood, brittle tree-bones he hauls from the sea to his trailer, from the trailer to his shed. They rise up amongst the long grass of his front lawn: the painted-boy with his wheel-barrow, the gnarled hands of the watching witch. Tourists stop and point over the fence and sometimes they put money in the honesty box, commenting how trusting people are out here, and sandwich one of the sculptures into the car, an arm of driftwood jabbing one or other kid’s shoulder at every corner on the long drive home.
It is not for the man who makes sculptures of driftwood that Talia decides to wake up, but it happens at around the same time – to within the month, anyway, which is a short time when you have lived so long – that she first kisses his rough mouth, feels his salt-dashed skin against hers.
She wakes up because although people can do a lot of things in their sleep – and they’re starting to make up names for them: somniloquy, somnambulism, parasomnia – the world is becoming harder to be asleep in. You need identities and driver’s licenses and bank accounts. When you have them, you need to age. Talia takes a new date of birth and the passage of time begins and she is awake, awake, awake.
The man who makes the sculptures from driftwood dies, as they all must do. His last sculpture is a boat, with two thin masts and port-holes drilled along each side.
She says to his daughter and his son, who are sorry they can’t be there, that she will bury him at sea. They say it seems very fitting and appropriate and thank her for taking care of everything, and she wraps the body in an old bedspread and puts it in his trailer to take him down to the sea.
She walks into the water and the body is so light that she just guides it gently and it floats beside her. She wades until the water is higher than her chin and then the water begins to carry her too, and she reaches into the water and pulls it into thick threads and wraps them around her lover. She sews him up in gossamer blue and cotton foam and thick heavy velvet, encasing him firmly in the sea. As he floats out threads are warped and torn by driftwood but his coffin does not break and slowly, slowly, he begins to sink.
Talia wonders if anyone will claim the driftwood now, or if it will stack up on the beach, a dead forest upon the rounded stones and the black-iron sands.
Once, long ago, Talia pricked her finger pulling a sewing machine from the sea, but all the ships have radar now and there hasn’t been a wreck in fifty years. She feels the loss of gifts from the sea more acutely than the loss of those from any lover, more acutely than the loss of her lovers, because she expected the threads to them to break but the threads to the sea are many: nylon ghost-nets and cotton foam, wool bought with the sale of fish or salvage.
Sometimes, though, containers fall from ships, get tossed on the rocks and their contents wash up on the beach just like they used to. She remembers the years. She remembers 1961, when there were forks and spoons, hundreds of them, though no knives, and she set places for imaginary guests and long-dead brothers. 1985 brought plastic toys, brightly coloured dogs with over-sized ears and plastic hoops like those her uncle once made from willow. There was little she could do with them but she salvaged some anyway and now she has hoops hanging from the roof of her porch, a dog – the bright colours sunlight-faded – watching passers-by from her front window.
Only three years ago the fridges came, white like shards of ice-sheet, doors half-open, sinking into the sand. Some authority or another had claimed jurisdiction and sent guards to watch them, but Talia had got there first, dragging the fridge onto the trailer, using her knee to push it up and that knee still hurts a bit, she thinks she pulled or tore something, but she’s hundreds of years old now so can’t really complain about such things. She never expected the fridge to work, and it sits in a corner, storage for vegetables and bread, keeping the flies off.
Talia’s sleep separated her from the world; she still lived and ate and pulled things from the sea, but it was all as if from behind a veil. Her body did not age; her needs did not change.
Now all that was once muted and dull is sharp and urgent. The storms come more frequently now, tearing at the rocks and the dunes. People talk about insurance exclusions and moving away. There are projections of land lost; concentric land-shapes in blues and greens.
Talia hasn’t used the sewing machine she pulled from the sea in decades. She used it once to take up trousers and let out dresses for the neighbours, and to make herself skirts and hem scarfs, but she bought a new one with a foot pedal, and then one that ran on electricity, and the sewing machine she pulled from the sea got left in the loft space.
But for what she needs to do now, she needs her old machine.
It’s still cold and the cold feels slightly damp. She turns the balance wheel carefully. It’s stiff, but after a few rotations it begins to move easily. She looks round for fabric to sew and is suddenly paralysed by indecision. There are piles of cotton on the floor but none of them seems quite right.
She keeps turning the wheel. Time is moving and she is awake and she is ageing. Hanging by a thread.
There’s the roar of the sea behind her. The sewing machine sews air onto air onto air. Water blurs the sun, rushes up the beach and against the windows, worse than the storm of ’59. The needle moves up-down-up-down. The water seeps inwards, picking up the plastic hoop and the over-sized dog, a thread of water moving under the door and inside. She picks it up gratefully, guides it to wind its way around the bobbin. A wave washes over the bed plate, and she sews water to water, keeps sewing until it is all around her.
She sews complicated curves. She sews limbs and she sews fins, the fine circles of nostrils and the slits of gills, all the while the water is swirling round her knees. She sews eyes and fingers. She sews a daughter of the land and of the sea. She is sure her last breath is near, but she sews details until she can sew no more.
She stops. The machine is silent. She’s choking, desperately holding up her head to the little pocket of air.
Then movement, below her. Waters receding.
A door, opening.
Death will come for Talia in time, but not yet. She will clean her house even though her joints hurt. She will have to throw away the carpet.
Out across the beach, her daughter stands, new as the day and old as the world. She is a daughter of land and sea, a daughter of threads drawn and webbed and tangled. The water is up to her ankles. She’s looking out to sea.