McKenzie Sheehy

Ona felt the chestnut mare shift, and she adjusted her seat just a hair, curling her fingers on the reins in warning. The mare settled, but Ona could still feel the tension beneath her, muscles bunched and tingling. This horse was hotter than a two-dollar pistol, as her father would have said. “Whoa, easy now,” she murmured. 

The mare flicked an ear back and skittered a few steps to the side. Ona’s lips quirked into a smile as she smoothly settled her seat and pulled the reins to her hip, bringing the mare’s nose to the scuffed tip of her boot. The mare spun a few circles before coming to a stop, licking her lips thoughtfully. “That’s what I thought, huh now,” Ona said. She waited till the mare softened into the reins before releasing her. 

Though already six years old—usually past the age of leaping straight into the air or skittering, again, at the sight of the sage rat she’d seen fourteen times that day—the mare remained stubbornly unpredictable and, thus, unsafe. Ona’d spent a year carefully gaining the volatile mare’s uneasy trust.

Ona had known the challenge ahead when they bought the mare in that freezing cold auction yard on the edge of town last December. The mare was hardly flashy then, her chestnut coat long and dull in the winter cold, skinny and knob-kneed. Still, Ona could appreciate the easy grace of her movements and the neat conformation of her body underneath the malnourishment, but she watched uneasily as the mare snorted and sidled away from the men around her. She could tell mistreatment when she saw it, and she couldn’t help but picture her stepdaughter Anna as a little five year old, skittish of the new woman in her father’s life after the first one had left before Anna was old enough to call her “Mama.” 

By the time they bought the mare, Anna had grown into a headstrong thirteen year old, halfway between an adult and a child, as gangling as the horse in the corral. As they watched the mare dance around the arena that first day, Anna had reached over and gripped Ona’s hand, her lips fixed in a determined line. Thinking back, Ona wished she’d held on to that hand a little longer. She’d glanced over Anna’s head and met Malcolm’s eyes, crinkled in a grin. Ona shook her head slightly, but she knew it was no use. Malcolm could almost never say no to Anna, and Ona was forced to concede, smirking at the two of them. Malcolm bought the mare for a song, and Anna was in love. She named her Ladybird, but Ona preferred to call the horse simply “mare.” Malcolm promised to help train the filly, but it was only a month later that he first became sick. Ona was left to the task of taming the frightened, flighty mare and navigating Anna’s desperation to take ownership of the horse.

Ona had worked with horses like Ladybird before, creatures whose only sense of humans was of fear and cruelty, and it took time to untangle the frayed knots of their understanding, teaching them that a human hand could be soft as well as firm. After over a year of working together, she and Ona had come to a sort of grudging mutual agreement. It was rare that the mare tried to dump her, but odd things frightened the horse, like riding too close to another horse or the snap of leather reins against a barn door. Ona didn’t trust the horse with Anna yet. She worried the girl’s sometimes frenetic energy would translate poorly to the equally mercurial mare, but Anna took it as a direct affront. 

Horses were easier for Ona. They were straightforward, mostly, and Ona could tell how they were feeling by the cock of their ears, the feel of their muscles beneath her. Earning their trust was simple, if you treated them right, but she couldn’t seem to sort out how to earn back the trust she’d so carefully crafted with Anna, a trust that had seemed to flicker and fade under the heavy pall of Malcolm’s illness. As that illness progressed, Ona half-guiltily found herself seeking the escape of working with horses more and more often.

Out here in the corral, under the watchful visage of the Three Sisters mountains, the sharp juniper peppering her nostrils and the dust of the high desert settling comfortingly on her clothes, Ona felt at home. The only sounds the creaking saddle, the soft beat of hooves on dirt, and that ever-present northeast wind traipsing across the flats. 

“All right, now,” Ona murmured. “Let’s try this again.” She shifted in the slim seat of the McClellan saddle and pressed her heels gently into the mare’s sides. The mare responded instantly, trotting forward a few steps before, with a bit more prompting, sliding into a collected lope. Despite this easy obedience, Ona was wary. She could feel the mare was nervous and edgy. Ona slowed her breath, willing calmness through the rawhide in her hands and focusing a steady gaze on the distant horizon. 

Ona noticed Anna before the mare did, and her stomach clenched. That was a mistake. The mare felt Ona’s change, and flicked an ear to the side. A flutter of Anna’s blue wool skirt in the wind was all it took for the mare to come unglued. She only spooked at first, leaping to the side, but it unseated Ona, who slipped, further startling the mare. Then all hell broke loose. The mare plunged forward, bucking and rearing. Ona only had time to see the pocked earth rushing at her before the ground smashed the air from her lungs. 

She blinked the dizzying colors from her eyes and tried to force air back in. She couldn’t speak. She was only able to wheeze. She knew she wasn’t badly hurt. Once she was able to draw a few ragged breaths, she sat up cautiously. Anna had clambered over the planks of the corral, but she hovered a few feet away, keeping an eye on the mare still dancing at the edge of the pen. The girl took a hesitant step forward, as if she wanted to help, but wasn’t sure how. She couldn’t very well help Ona to her feet. The girl was slightly built as it was, and Ona, tall for a woman, towered over her by nearly a foot. Desperate to help, Anna swung her eyes to the mare again, and, squaring her shoulders determinedly, stepped in that direction to catch her. Her movement toward the mare provoked a cold fear that clenched at Ona’s heart and burst out in rage.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Ona rasped. 

Anna blinked, taken aback. “I just—”

“Think, dammit! How many times have I told you not to come sneaking up on her?” 

“I wasn’t sneaking!” Anna’s initial surprise quickly also turned to anger, and her skin flushed red up to the roots of her hair. The girl could never conceal how she was feeling.

“Then what the hell were you doing?”

Anna fumed, “I was coming to tell you I saw the doctor coming up the road—for Dad.” Her eyes upbraided Ona and barely concealed the smugness of victory. She cocked an eyebrow at her before flouncing around and stomping away. 

It was the eyebrow that did Ona in. It felt so much like Malcolm that it hit her in the gut and stayed, knocking the air from her again. “Dammit,” she muttered. She raked a hand through her dark hair, which was streaked with dust, and willed away the tears. Shoving down the disquiet that set her hands to shaking, she turned to face the mare, who was eyeing her from across the round pen, a mix of wariness and guilt in her tense stance. 

“Not you, too, mare,” Ona said, as she moved towards her. The horse swiveled an ear, took a hesitant step. Ona felt the tension uncoil in her some as they met in the middle of the pen. The mare puffed warmth into Ona’s outstretched hand, and Ona closed her eyes, letting the sweet, musty scent wash over her. 

A few minutes later, as she finished turning out the mare into a paddock behind the barn, Ona saw the doctor riding up the drive. She immediately felt the sweat rise and prickle at her skin. It had become an instinctive, base reaction to the thud of hooves on packed dirt that inevitably brought the fat little pony carrying the doctor. He sent up a friendly “halloo” as they trotted into the yard. Ona pressed down the nausea in her stomach and forced a smile. She brushed most of the hay from her dress and went to meet him. 

She walked to the house with the doctor, a small bespectacled man who was constantly fidgeting in a way that made Ona take deep breaths. He talked up to her as they went, craning his neck just a tad to look her in the eye. Ona had broad shoulders and hands made strong by work. She towered over half the men she met. Her husband used to make her feel small and dainty, though, when most men shied away from her or were intimidated. Never bothered her much, and she took pleasure in being able to keep up with the men working in the logging camps in the summers and packing into elk camps in the falls. Men sometimes called her a “handsome woman,” an oxymoron that always rankled her slightly. Her husband had been one of the few to call her beautiful. 

As they entered the sickroom, the sweat began to trickle down the base of her neck, and her nausea grew. Ona clamped down on the emotions that spurred the stirring of her stomach. The smell hit her first, as always, a thick antiseptic mixing with the tang of sweat and that almost imperceptible heaviness of illness. 

The doctor bustled about, performing the myriad of medical necessities that Ona had no desire to understand. She took in required information, did what she could for her husband, but took no pleasure in the tasks, not the way her stepdaughter did. Anna cared for him with a gift that was beyond Ona, who was practical and brusk to a fault. Even now, Ona avoided looking at the figure on the bed who only vaguely resembled the husband she loved. She could only take in pieces of him, inevitably comparing them in her mind to what they once were. His hands, once deft and clever as he tied knots and tender when he stroked her cheek, now more closely resembled the clutching fingers of a skeleton. The broad bones of his shoulders that usually so easily hefted bales of hay, boosted his giggling daughter onto his back, and braced against the kick of a rifle, were stripped of their muscles, poking wrongly from the night shirt that hung off his frame. Ona turned her gaze from him, even as her mind rebelled from her act of weakness. Anna had no problem holding his wasting hand, kissing his gaunt cheek, patting his damp brow, while Ona couldn’t stand to be in the same room. Ona had often wondered if it was something lacking in her, some nurturing gene that was missing. If that were the case, how on earth would they survive without him? 

Suddenly, the nausea overwhelmed her. 

“Excuse me, doctor.” She bit out the words and barely made it from the room before she began to vomit into the bowl she’d brought up earlier for water. Tears coursed down her cheeks, and her breath came in short gasps. She was hot, the room was too close. She wanted to tear off her clothes and felt herself holding a scream at the back of her throat. “No, no, no.” She gritted her teeth and schooled herself. Deep breaths. This couldn’t happen now, she had to find control. Her fingers scraped down along the wall, finally finding the soft fabric of a quilt that hung along pine.

Her breath slowed and the sweat chilled on her skin as she caressed the familiar stitching. She couldn’t see the quilt’s colors, but she knew it was a rolling emerald field with a sapphire sky. She breathed in deep, smelling the earth as it swelled with rain, the grass pricking and tickling her fingers. Her breathing was nearly back to normal. The pit in her stomach hadn’t gone, but it had faded a bit. 

Slowly, she climbed to her feet, and began to clean up the mess. Her hands only shook a little. 

When she came back into the room, the doctor politely didn’t ask about what he must have heard. Ona felt a momentary gratitude that she knew was misplaced. For a doctor, the man was incredibly uncomfortable with human, particularly “female,” emotions, and the only reason he didn’t ask is because he didn’t want to deal with it. He clucked his tongue, adjusted his glasses, and fiddled with the clasp on his case. “Well, then,” he said. “Should be going.” He paused for a moment, and, leaning a little closer, lowered his voice. “I don’t think it will be long now. …” He shot a glance over his shoulder at the man on the bed. “All we can do is make him comfortable,” he said, his eyes carefully avoiding hers.

Ona closed her eyes briefly against the heaviness of his statement, even though she had already known it for weeks. She thanked him and shook his hand, following him out of the house to his pony, who was munching happily on alfalfa at the barn.

As the doctor trotted off, Ona turned and spotted Anna in the doorway. Their eyes met for a moment. Anna’s lip trembled, but she turned into the house before Ona could see her cry. Ona waited a beat before following her. She found her staring at a quilt hanging on the wall. Various quilts hung all around the house, the legacy left by Ona’s mother, grandmother, and on back. This one was a scene of a boat at sea. Ona felt a memory tugging, or perhaps many stitched together into an imagined memory that was no less true for its fabrication.

The floorboards creaked outside her door, and Ona felt a warmth enter the room. She glanced at the door and saw her mother there. Her mother looked as she always did, her brown hair a mane of curls, her face pale beneath freckles, and her ocean eyes crinkled. She wore a white nightgown and a bright yellow shawl around her shoulders that seemed to fight off some of the darkness.

“Thought you could use some love,” her mother said.

Ona nodded, and her mother came to sit on her bed. She hummed softly, out of tune, as she tucked the wildflower quilt tighter around the girl and smoothed her curls. “Do you know why we Blakley women make quilts, Ona?” 

Ona had heard the story so many times that it felt a part of her, but she shook her head. This was part of the ritual.

“Mmm, perhaps it’s time I told you, then,” her mother said, pretending to think for a bit. “Well, our family came from a place called Ireland that’s all the way across the world. Ireland, you see, is a place with a thread of magic running through its fabric, and that same thread runs through the Blakley women.”

“Magic,” Ona breathed softly, as if saying it loudly would scare it away. This, too, was part of the ritual.

“And our magic is in our storytelling. That is why the Blakley women make quilts: we make quilts to tell our stories and to keep alive those that came before us, to tell their stories truly, so that others cannot so easily damage or change them. We take big swaths of beautiful fabric and little crooked scraps and all the pieces in between, and we make them all into something wonderful.”

“What kind of stories, Mama?” Ona asked.

“Well, look at this one.” Her mother took a quilt from the wall. It looked almost like a map, with a ship riding gray-blue waves between two green continents. “This one is the story of your great grandmother who sailed across the sea for six weeks to come here. This beautiful green is fabric from the dress she wore when she married your great grandfather in her homeland, the same color of the emerald isle she left. You see the dark gray of the ocean? That was stitched from the cloth of the son she lost on the journey, and this lovely dark green that makes our country? That was made from the first cloth she bought when she landed.”

“Why did she make the ocean from the clothes of her son who died? Why did she include something so sad?”

“His cloth is the ocean because the ocean took him, and she took the ocean into her quilt in return. They are forever bound together. You see, baby girl, sorrow is part of life, and you must honor that part of life, too, even if it hurts.”

“How are the quilts magic, Mama?”

“They are magic because they hold our stories. When we make our quilts, we tell a story, each stitch a word, a memory. When they are completed, they hold that time and that story safe. If you close your eyes and place your hands on the fabric and listen and look and feel very carefully, you can understand.” She took Ona’s hand and placed it on the stitches of the foaming sea, “Here. Listen, look, feel.”

Ona closed her eyes, but all she could feel was an itch on her nose.

“Listen,” her mother’s voice urged. Ona strained her ears, and she could hear the creaking of the ship, the snapping sails, the ocean crashing against the wood. Then, out of a mist, she could see the water stretching in its immense and terrifying entirety, the blue, blue sky above her, the laughing face of a little boy with eyes like the gray waves, and a ship moving sickeningly beneath her. She could feel the spray of the salt water, and the cloying dankness of below decks. And she could feel a small, clammy hand within her own, and joy and sorrow greater than she had felt before. When she opened her eyes again, her lashes were wet, and she could still taste salt on her tongue. 

“Who made this?” 

Anna’s voice brought her back to the present. Ona lifted fingers she hadn’t realized she’d reached out to touch the fabric with. She blinked, feeling her body settle back into itself. “My great-grandmother,” she said. She paused, considering. “Your great-great-grandmother. She made it after she came over from Ireland.”

Anna snuck a glance at her, then looked away, skittish. 

“All of my ancestors made quilts,” Ona said. 

“Do you?” Anna asked, carefully, as if she didn’t want to seem too eager.

“Not for a long time,” Ona admitted. “I made one when your father and I got married, but you know that.”

Anna nodded. “The one with the house on it?”

Ona smile and nodded. Anna had been just a tiny thing then, just six, frail and frizzy-haired. The two of them had spent the year slowly circling closer to one another, building up a careful trust until Ona realized one day that Anna was as dear to her as the man she was marrying. She could remember Anna twirling in a purple dress on the wedding day as she tried to keep the girl still to weave the violet larkspur they’d picked from their backyard into the red curls of Anna’s hair. Ona had stitched the pattern of those larkspur into her quilt with scraps from Anna’s dress, the purple sweep of flowers spreading behind the log farmhouse Ona and Malcolm built in that stark and queer landscape of the high desert. Ona remembered carefully trying to capture in the quilt the dual beauty and danger of the land and life they were attempting to build there. That quilt was hanging in her bedroom, the sickroom now. Ona felt the smile shrivel on her face. 

Anna saw, but didn’t say anything. Ona saw the girl’s hands twist in her skirt, and she longed to take her hand and smooth the red curl hanging above Anna’s eye, like she used to when Anna was a little girl. She knew, though, that Anna would only retreat further, so she turned back to the quilt. “You can touch it, you know?” she said. 

Anna’s fingers relaxed almost imperceptibly on her skirt. “I don’t want to get it dirty,” she hedged.

Ona laughed and was surprised how it felt coming out. She hadn’t laughed in a long time. “This quilt is made from the sails of a ship, and a little boy’s shirt. You can’t really get it any dirtier,” she said. 

Anna looked at her full-on for the first time, her brow wrinkled in confusion. “A sail?”

“Yes, you can feel it,” she urged.

Anna reached out a tentative hand. Her fingernails had dirt under them, and there was scrape on her knuckle, the color of raspberries bright against her freckled skin, but Ona pretended not to see. “It’s rough!” Anna said in surprise. 

“It has to be, to withstand the winds on the sea,” Ona replied. She watched Anna’s fingers, long and delicate like her father’s, trace over the stitches. 

“I could teach you,” Ona said quietly.

Anna was silent, and Ona’s own hands fidgeted while she waited for an answer.

“I’m not a Blakley,” Anna said archly.

Ona felt a knot in her stomach unravel a bit. “That doesn’t matter a whit,” she assured her.  “You are an extraordinary woman, and that’s all the Blakley’s are.”

As the sun set behind the watchful Three Sisters, Anna and Ona sat by the fireplace, a needle in each of their hands. They had opened Ona’s dusty quilting trunk, and Anna had been intent on the fabrics, shiny and dull, sturdy and slippery. She couldn’t stop touching them, and Ona had even caught a smile tugging at her lips. She’d selected springtime green and silvery blue fabrics and gold thread. Ona showed her a simple diamond pattern, how to cut the fabric and place it to be stitched together again.

Anna was glaring at the needle, which refused to allow the thread through its eye. Ona could feel the fury rising up in the opposite chair. Without lifting her eyes from the pattern in her lap, she said, “Those damn eyes are the trickiest part sometimes. I always have to lick the thread to get it through. Always gives me a hell of a time, though.”

Anna stole a suspicious glance at her, then tried wetting down the thread. She didn’t say anything, but Ona saw the triumph on her lips and felt a matching one on hers.

Ona was careful never to give too much praise or censure. She pretended not to notice when Anna’s whole face turned red or when she cursed after pricking herself with a needle. Ona merely spoke as if she were talking to herself, reminiscing about the challenges she had encountered when she had begun quilting, and Anna pretended not to understand what she was doing. They both pretended not to think about the man lying in the bed upstairs.