Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wonderful Ugly

The Wonderful Ugly Cloth

Time were tough, so blind Ilona figured she couldn’t just give away a dozen eggs. The last litter of piglets was runty, every one. The milk cows had eaten down all the grass on their pasture and, by the taste of their milk, had begun on the milk-weeds. Even the cat, who lived on field mice, had grown thin and scruffy, and had taken to spending a lot of time in the catnip patch. Times were hard.

So, when a deep-voiced stranger (Ilona thought it was a man but, being blind, she couldn’t be certain) came to the little farm asking for eggs, Ilona said plainly that there would have to be payment.

“We have only six hens,” she said, trying to sound apologetic. “It takes them four days to lay a dozen eggs.”

“And I don’t want a dozen,” growled the peculiar deep voice. “I want thirteen.”

Ilona cocked her head slightly at the voice. With her staring blind eyes and thin face, this always made her look a little like one of her hens.

“Even so,” she shrugged and spread her hands apart. “We have mouths to feed. Children.”

“Ah.” The voice faded slightly.

He turns to his mule, thought blind Ilona.

She knew it to be a mule by its hoof beats as it had come up the cobbles. But by the same senses she was unable to guess the size of the stranger, only that he or she wore soft shoes and shuffled rather than stepping. An old person, perhaps? The voice seemed to come from everywhere; it was hard to judge height by it.

“I carry no money,” continued the stranger. “My gold I had to leave with the customs men. I am not fond of your iron coins. Will you take goods in trade?”

“That depends,” replied Ilona drily. “Books, for example, are of little use to me.”

“I have books that even you would treasure.” There was laughter like the faltering of an organ. “But one such I would not trade for many thirteens of eggs. Perhaps a tin pot?”

“Alas, we need no pots,” sighed Ilona with elaborate regret. It was true: her brother-in-law Piotr made all their tin-ware.

The voice faded again. “Something else, then.”

Ilona flared her nostrils to sniff the air. A man smells one way, a woman another, even a very old woman. Suddenly there was an overpowering sweet smell.

“Here is perfume from the islands,” ground the voice like the stone of the water-mill. “It is very dear, and this is a very small bottle. Just for you.”

It was lovely and it reminded Ilona of a night long ago when she and her sister Alana had picked thousands of wild blossoms for the king’s anniversary parade. She did not stretch out her hand for it.

“I can’t expect the family to suffer for my indulgence,” she sighed wistfully.

The lovely scent faded.

There was a grunting sound, as if the stranger was lifting something ungainly from the mule.

“Here is a bolt of cloth,” growled the voice, like distant thunder. “Strong, soft.”

A cool boney hand took Ilona’s calloused hand and thrust a fold of fabric between her fingers. With a gasp she took hold of the cloth with both hands and fondled it over and over.

The cloth was strong, yes, and thick, but it was as soft as a chick. She wrapped the cloth around her hand. It was warm. It was as warm and comforting as the nest under a hen on a cold morning. Without thinking, she held the cloth against her face. It SMELLED warm and soft. It smelled like new hay.

“I cannot pay you what this must be worth,” she protested, continuing to fondle the cloth.

“Oh, no,” chuckled the stranger. The voice was like stirring a bucket of gravel. “Thirteen fresh eggs is all I ask. The cloth is old stock.”

“Then you may have your eggs,” agreed Ilona, still clutching the cloth.

The stranger placed the bolt of cloth in her arms and she stumbled it into the kitchen. She laid the cloth on the heavy wooden table and felt for the egg basket.

Carrying the egg basket out to the gate, Ilona called out:

“You understand that some of these eggs are two days old. Only a few of them are really fresh.”

“They will do, thank you. Here is a basket to put them in.”

Ilona counted the eggs carefully from basket to basket.

“Brown eggs! Very good,” grunted the voice.

“I’m glad you approve,” replied Ilona with a wry smile. “They are all the same colour to me.”

She stood in the gate, egg basket in hand, until the mule’s hoof-beats faded around the hill. Then she went to feed the hens.

By the time the family arrived, the children from school, Alana and her husband from the fields, Ilona had worked up a fair excitement about her trade.

“Come! Come and see...,” she gestured them into the kitchen. “Such cloth for a dozen eggs! And so much of it!”

The family followed her, laughing with her enthusiasm.

“Here! SEE?”

There was a confusing moment of silence. Ilona cocked her head to hear.

“It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” said young Ilsa frankly.

“That colour...” whispered Joan. She sounded ill.

“What a pattern!” hooted Janosh. “It looks like the chickens pooped on it!”

The children collapsed, laughing. Alana gently took Ilona by the shoulder.

“It really is the ugliest cloth. But how were you to know? There is a lot of it. We can make grain sacks of it.”

“Grain sacks, yes,” agreed Piotr. Ilona heard him turn to leave.

“Grain sacks? No!” protested Ilona. “Piotr, here! Close your eyes and feel this cloth. Feel it!”

Bemused, Piotr closed his eyes and took a fold of the cloth in his huge, hard hands. A small exclamation escaped his lips. He lifted the cloth to his face.

“That smell...” he murmured. “Alana, it smells like your hair after a rain.....”

He wrapped a fold around his hairy arm.

“So soft. As warms as...as...it’s like the straw where the milk cows have lain. Feel, Alana.”

Alana dubiously felt the cloth, tested it between her fingers, tugged it briefly. She held it to her face and closed her eyes.

“No...it smells of warm milk, fresh from the cow. And it feels like...like the smooth hearth stones while the fire burns. Oh, Ilona! It’s wonderful cloth! But so ugly! What shall we do with it?”

Ilona laughed a rivulet of relief.

“Ask the children!”

The children had left off their laughter at the look of wonder on Piotr’s face. Ilsa stood and pressed her face to the cloth.

“It’s like a new lamb, dry and warm!” she cried with delight. “And it smells like my favourite quilt after Ilona freshens it outside. MMMMMM!” She took Ilona’s hand and tugged eagerly. “A nightie. Make me a nightie of this. In the dark, who cares what colour it is!”

Joan gingerly caressed the bolt as if it might leap at her.

“So thick, and so soft!”

She closed her eyes and bunched the cloth in both hands. She held it to her lips.

“Like the sweet breath and soft nose of our good horse,” she sighed. “It will make the loveliest petticoat. Ilona, please? No-one will see this colour, then. What wonderful, ugly cloth!” She wound the cloth around herself in a delicate pirouette. The family laughed at the incongruous combination.

Janosh was standing quietly to one side. He stepped forward to unwrap his sister. He hugged the swath of cloth to him and bunched it around his chin.

“And you, Janosh? What shall we make for you?” teased Ilona. She could not see his shining eyes.

“Just put a length aside for me, for now,” he muttered. “I’ll decide later.”

Something about the roughness in his voice stirred Ilona. Why, he’s almost fifteen, she realized.

“Well, I know what I want,” said Piotr. He lifted his sister-in-law in a bone-crunching bear-hug. “The lining of my cow-hide jacket is wearing out. If you could replace it with this cloth, that would please me.”

“And I, for one, am not going to hide my portion away,” announced Alana. “I’m going to make an apron to wear about the house, so I can brag about the amazing bargain my sister made!”

Ilona was pleased to be able to handle the cloth, to cut it and stitch it into loving patterns for her family. The cloth seemed to bend itself to the scissors no matter how she cut it, and the thread slipped through it as easily as a cat through the grass.

After Janosh’s portion was set aside, and Ilona had made Ilsa’s nightie, Joan’s petticoat, Alana’s apron and Piotr’s lining, there was enough left of the cloth for a pair of sheets for Ilona’s bed. There was enough left for a belt, which Alana embroidered and gave to Janosh. There was enough left for a small bed for the cat. There was enough for a blanket for the horse.

The family came to love their special items, as much for the fact that Ilona had made them as for their remarkable properties.

Ilsa claimed that she only had nightmares when her “ugly nightie” was in the wash.

Joan reported that the boys were uncharacteristically polite to her when she wore her favourite petticoat.

Janosh wore his embroidered belt to school on the day of a test.

“I can’t imagine why I ever thought mathematics was difficult,” he remarked at the end of the day. It was the beginning of a change in his school work.

Alana wore her apron extravagantly around the house. Devastated when she spilled coffee all over the front of it, she was delighted to see the stain rinse out with cold water!

Piotr took to wearing his jacket in all weather, and often Alana would look to the fields to find her husband and locate him by the flash of the lining where his jacket lay thrown sprawled across the fence. The farm began to prosper, and even the cat became fat again, although it gave up sitting in the cat-nip patch and took to sleeping constantly on its new bed.

Ilona only smiled at these stories. In her dreams, on her soft, warm sheets, she strode the multi-coloured hills of memory and laughed to see the birds flying in the dream-sky.

Janosh courted and married a pretty girl from the second valley. At their engagement he presented her with his portion of the cloth. She was as enraptured with it as he had been. He did not tell her that he had previously broken off with two other girls based entirely on their reaction to the cloth!

There came a time when, quite suddenly, Alana died. The house continued under Ilona’s hand, with the help of Joan and Ilsa. But a sadness lingered. In the years that followed, old Piotr would sometimes bury his face in the lining of his old jacket and be comforted by the smell of his wife’s rain-soaked hair.

In the end, time takes even the most durable thing. Ilsa inherited Ilona’s sheets, which frayed and were made into favourite nightgowns for Ilsa’s children, who made them into blankets for their children to hug. Joan’s petticoat became a stuffed horse for her daughter’s daughter, who swore that it smelled like new clover.

The cat’s pillow became too soiled to clean and, when the cat died quietly at an extreme age, the pillow was thrown out onto the midden. Birds used its threads in very ugly nests and sang beautifully of home and family.

But at the last, after only a few generations (no time at all by the ticking of the great clock of the Universe) not a scrap remained of that bolt of cloth.

Or can even that be truly said?

At the confluence of the rivers that flow from the three valleys is a cross-roads known of old as “Ilona’s Dozen” or “Ilona’s Bargain”.

And when the villagers there want to describe a thing that is better than it seems, they call it “wonderful ugly”.

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