The screaming makes it hard to concentrate, but I do my best, making sure the knife follows the lines Grandma’s drawn on Mr. Weaver’s back. Blood starts to well up in the knife’s wake, and I start to feel sick, but then I think of mother, saying “Not yet, she’s not ready,” and I grit my teeth together and force myself to focus on the cut.
When I finish the last cut and Grandma says, “Very good,” and pries the patch of skin off with her tweezers. Now Mr. Weaver screams even louder, but Grandma deftly drops the flap of skin into the flat tray of preserving oil and presses the poultice we’d prepared beforehand down against Mr. Weaver’s back. Grandma hasn’t taught me yet what goes into the poultice, but I know it works because Mr. Weaver’s screams fade into whimpers. “The worst is over,” Grandma tells him. “You did very well.”
Later when he’s gone, Grandma takes the square of skin out of the preserving fluid, and slides it into her special oven. While we’re waiting for it to dry, Grandma takes out the soul-quilt and tells me the stories of each of the patches. “This one was Mr. Valaries’,” she says, fingering a tan and freckled square. “He wanted his cattle to be the strongest in the land.” She points to a patch of almost pure white. “And this one came from Miss Elaina Hockman.”
“What did she want?” I ask.
“To be free.”
“Miss Hockman was a slave?”
“There’s more than one kind of slavery, child,” Grandma said gently.
“What about Mr. Weaver?” I ask.
“He wants a son. His wife is barren. At least she was.”
We take the skin out of the oven then, and it feels strange, dry, but supple, almost as if it was still living.
Grandma sets me down and says, “Are you sure you’re ready?”
I nod and take the needle from her hands. She spreads the soul-quilt out on my lap and I start to sew. At first I have to focus hard on the task, but then the needle starts to move faster in my hands, as if someone else was holding it instead of me. For a moment the world goes fuzzy, and I see a picture in my mind of Mr. Weaver on top of Mrs. Weaver, heaving up and down, and Mrs. Weaver making the kind of sounds Mother makes some nights when she and Father think I’m asleep.
When I’m finished, the feeling goes away, and I’m just me again. I run my fingers over the patch of skin, and look at the rest of the quilt. Some of the patches are hundreds of years old, from even before the time that Grandma was a little girl. But here close to the end there are a great many patches of the same color, squares of skin with a bronzed, nearly reddish tint that almost seems to glow.
“There’s something you want to ask,” Grandma says. “I can see it on your face.”
I nod. “Its just…there’s a man-”
“You call him the patchwork man,” she says.
I’m startled and then she laughs. “Don’t think I haven’t got my ears out too.”
“It’s just…he doesn’t have anything. But he’s got more scars than skin. What is it he’s paying for?”
“His daughter’s happiness.”
“Who is she?”
Grandma points to the castle on the hill, and suddenly I remember how that last year the king’s son happened through the town and fell madly in love with a simple farm girl, carrying her off to his castle to marry her.
“But she’s Mr. Tekles daughter.”
Grandma laughs. “Yes, that drunkard has been all over town bragging about how his daughter is the fairest in the land. But he’s not the one who can’t sleep at night for the pain of lying on his squares of raw flesh. That’s what love is, child. That’s what a true father would do for his daughter or a mother for her son. And don’t you forget it.”
I look into her eyes and there’s something dark and sad there. “There’s something else, isn’t there?” I say.
She looks at me, a little surprised, and then she lets out a sigh. “You’re a Seamstress sure enough, no matter what your mother says. The Patchwork Man, well, he couldhave been her father.”
“You mean it isn’t true? Why don’t you tell him?”
“Because he loves her. Because he’s better for her than her real father ever could be. Because it would kill him if he knew.”
“But it hurts him so much.”
I see a tears brimming in the edge of Grandma’s eyes, and he pulls me tight against her chest. “In the end child,” she says, her voice quavering, “love always does.”