Through the Needle's Eye

by Andre Norton


all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

Sisters of Sorcery: 1976) Edited by Soen Manley & Gogo Lewis, Published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, HC, 0-688-41765-5, $13.00, 220pg


1st PublishedHigh  Sorcery (1970) Published by ACE, PB, 0-441-33701-, $0.60, 156pg ~ cover by Gray Morrow


Available Now ~ Tales from High Hallack vol. 1 (2014) Published by Premier Digital Publishing, DM & TP, 1-624-67189-6, $22.95, 450pg ~ cover by Kib Prestridge


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It was not her strange reputation which attracted me to old Miss Ruthevan, though there were stories to excite a solitary child’s morbid taste. Rather it was what she was able to create, opening a whole new world to the crippled girl I was thirty years ago.

Two years before I made that momentous visit to Cousin Althea I suffered an attack of what was then known as infantile paralysis. In those days, before Salk, there was no cure. I was fourteen when I met Miss Ruthevan, and I had been told for weary months that I was lucky to be able to walk at all, even though I must do so with a heavy brace on my right leg. I might accept that verdict outwardly, but the me imprisoned in the thin adolescent’s body was a rebel.

Cousin Althea’s house was small, and on the wrong side of the wrong street to claim gentility. (Cramwell did not have a railroad to separate the comfortable, smug sheep from the aspiring goats.) But her straggling back garden ran to a wall of mellow, red brick patterned by green moss, and in one place a section of this barrier had broken down so one could hitch up to look into the tangled mat of vine and brier which now covered most of the Ruthevan domain.

Three-fourths of that garden had reverted to the wild, but around the bulk of the house it was kept in some order. The fat, totally deaf old woman who ruled Miss Ruthevan’s domestic concerns could often be seen poking about, snipping off flowers or leaves after examining each with the care of a cautious shopper, or filling a pan with wizened berries. Birds loved the Ruthevan garden and built whole colonies of nests in its unpruned trees. Bees and butterflies were thick in the undisturbed peace. Though I longed to explore, I never quite dared, until the day of the quilt.

That had been a day of disappointment. There was a Sunday school picnic to which Ruth, Cousin Althea’s daughter, and I were invited. I knew that it was not for one unable to play ball, race or swim. Proudly I refused to go, giving the mendacious excuse that my leg ached. Filled with bitter envy, I watched Ruth leave. I refused Cousin Althea’s offer to let me make candy, marching off, lurch-push to perch on the wall.

There was something new in the garden beyond. An expanse of color flapped languidly from a clothes line, giving tantalizing glimpses of it. Before I knew it, I tumbled over the wall, acquiring a goodly number of scrapes and bruises on the way, and struggled through a straggle of briers to see better.

It was worth my struggle. Cousin Althea had quilts in plenty, mostly made by Grandma Moss, who was considered by the family to be an artist at needlework.  But what I viewed now was as clearly above the best efforts of Grandma as a Rembrandt above an inn sign.

This was applique work, each block of a different pattern; though, after some study, I became aware that the whole was to be a panorama of autumn. There were flowers, fruits, berries, and nuts, each with their attendant clusters of leaves, while the border was an interwoven wreath of maple and oak foliage in the richest coloring. Not only was the applique so perfect one could not detect a single stitch, but the quilting over-pattern was as delicate as lace. It was old; its once white background had been time-dyed cream; and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

“Well, what do you think of it?”

I lurched as I tried to turn quickly, catching for support at the trunk of a gnarled apple tree. On the brick wall from the house stood old Miss Ruthevan.  She was tall and held herself stiffly straight, the masses of her thick, white hair built into a formal coil which, by rights, should have supported a tiara.  From throat to instep she was covered by a loose robe in a neutral shade of blue-gray which fully concealed her body.

Ruth had reported Miss Ruthevan to be a terrifying person; her nickname among the children was “old witch.” But after my first flash of panic, I was not alarmed, being too bemused by the quilt.

“I think it’s wonderful. All fall things—“

“It’s a bride quilt,” she replied shortly, “made for a September bride.”

She moved and lost all her majesty of person, for she limped in an even more ungainly fashion than I, weaving from side to side as if about to lose her balance at any moment. When she halted and put her hand on the quilt, she was once more an uncrowned queen. Her face was paper white, her lips blue lines. But her sunken, very alive eyes probed me.

“Who are you?”

“Ernestine Williams. I’m staying with Cousin Althea.” I pointed to the wall.

Her thin brows, as white as her hair, drew into a small frown. Then she nodded. “Catherine Moss’s granddaughter, yes. Do you sew, Ernestine?”

I shook my head, oddly ashamed. There was a vast importance to that question, I felt. Maybe that gave me the courage to add, “I wish I could—like that.” I pointed a finger at the quilt. I surprised myself, for never before had I wished to use a needle.

Miss Ruthevan’s clawlike hand fell heavily on my shoulder. She swung her body around awkwardly, using me as a pivot, and then drew me along with her. I strove to match my limp to her wider lurch, up three worn steps into a hallway, which was very dark and cool out of the sun.

Shut doors flanked us, but the one at the far end stood open, and there she brought me, still captive in her strong grasp. Once we were inside she released me, to make her own crab’s way to a tall-backed chair standing in the full light of a side window. There she sat enthroned, as was right and proper.

An embroidery frame stood before the chair, covered with a throw of white cloth.  At her right hand was a low table bearing a rack of innumerable small spindles, each wound with colorful thread.

“Look around,” she commanded. “You are a Moss. Catherine Moss had some skill; maybe you have inherited it.”

I was ready to disclaim any of my grandmother’s talent; but Miss Ruthevan, drawing off the shield cloth and folding it with small flicks, ignored me. So I began to edge nervously about the room, staring wide-eyed at the display there.

The walls were covered with framed, glass-protected needlework. Those pieces to my left were very old, the colors long faded, the exquisite stitchery almost too dim to see. But, as I made my slow progress, each succeeding picture became brighter and more distinct. Some were the conventional samplers, but the majority were portraits or true pictures. As I skirted needlework chairs and dodged a fire screen, I saw that the art was in use everywhere. I was in a shrine to needle creations which had been brought to the highest peak of perfection and beauty. As I made that journey of discovery, Miss Ruthevan stitched away the minutes, pausing now and then to study a single half-open white rose in a small vase on her table.

“Did you make all these, Miss Ruthevan?” I blurted out at last.

She took two careful stitches before she answered. “No. There have always been Ruthevan women so talented, for three hundred years. It began”—her blue lips curved in a very small shadow of a smile, though she did not turn her attention from her work—“with Grizel Ruthevan, of a family a king chose to outlaw—which was, perhaps, hardly wise of him.” She raised her hand and pointed with the needle she held to the first of the old frames. It seemed to me that a sparkle of sunlight gathered on the needle and lanced through the shadows about the picture she so indicated. “Grizel Ruthevan, aged seventeen— she was the first of us. But there were enough to follow. I am the last.”

“You mean your—your ancestors—did all this.”

Again she smiled that curious smile. “Not all of them, my dear. Our art requires a certain cast of mind, a talent you may certainly call it. My own aunt, for example, did not have it; and, of course, my mother, not being born a Ruthevan, did not. But my great-aunt Vannessa was very able.”

I do not know how it came about, but when I left, I was committed to the study of needlework under Miss Ruthevan’s teaching; though she gave me to understand from the first that the perfection I saw about me was not the result of amateur work, and that here, as in all other arts, patience and practice as well as aptitude were needed.

I went home full of the wonders of what I had seen; and when I cut single-mindedly across Ruth’s account of her day, she roused to counterattack.

“She’s a witch, you know!” She teetered back and forth on the boards of the small front porch. “She makes people disappear; maybe she’ll do that to you if you hang around over there.”

“Ruthie!” Cousin Althea, her face flushed from baking, stood behind the patched screen. Her daughter was apprehensively quiet as she came out. But I was more interested in what Ruthie had said than any impending scolding.

“Makes people disappear—how?”

“That’s an untruth, Ruthie,” my cousin said firmly. True to her upbringing, Cousin Althea thought the word “lie” coarse. “Never let me hear you say a thing like that about Miss Ruthevan again. She has had a very sad life—“

“Because she’s lame?” I challenged.

Cousin Althea hesitated; truth won over tact. “Partly. You’d never think it to look at her now, but when she was just a little older than you girls she was a real beauty. Why, I remember mother telling about how people would go to their windows just to watch her drive by with her father, the Colonel. He had a team of matched grays and a carriage he’d bought in New York.

“She went away to school, too, Anne Ruthevan did. And that’s where she met her sweetheart. He was the older brother of one of her schoolmates.”

“But Miss Ruthevan’s an old maid!” Ruth protested. “She didn’t ever marry.”

“No.” Cousin Althea sat down in the old, wooden porch rocker and picked up a palm leaf fan to cool her face, “No, she didn’t ever marry. All her good fortune turned bad almost overnight, you might say.

“She and her father went out driving. It was late August and she was planning to be married in September. There was a bad storm came up very sudden. It frightened those grays and they ran away down on the river road. They didn’t make the turn there and the carriage was smashed up. The Colonel was killed.  Miss Anne—well, for days everybody thought she’d die, too.

“Her sweetheart came up from New York. My mother said he was the handsomest man: tall, with black hair waving down a little over his forehead. He stayed with the Chambers family. Mr. Chambers was Miss Anne’s uncle on her mother’s side. He tried every day to see Miss Anne, only she would never have him in—she must have known by then—“

“That she was always going to be lame,” I said flatly.

Cousin Althea did not look at me when she nodded agreement.

“He went away, finally. But he kept coming back. After a while people guessed what was really going on. It wasn’t Miss Anne he was coming to see now; it was her cousin, Rita Chambers.

“By then Miss Anne had found out some other pretty unhappy things. The Colonel had died sudden, and he left his business in a big tangle. By the time someone who knew how got to looking after it most of the money was gone. Here was Miss Anne, brought up to have most of what she had a mind for, and now she had nothing. Losing her sweetheart to Rita and then her money; it changed her. She shut herself away from most folks. She was awful young—only twenty.

“Pretty soon Rita was planning her wedding—they were going to be married in August, just about a year after that ride which changed Miss Anne’s life. Her fiance came up from New York a couple of days ahead of time; he was staying at Doc Bernard’s. Well, the wedding day came, and Doc was to drive the groom to the church. He waited a good long time and finally went up to his room to hurry him along a little, but he wasn’t there. His clothes were all laid out, nice and neat. I remember hearing Mrs. Bernard, she was awfully old then, telling as how it gave her a turn to see the white rose he was to wear in his buttonhole still sitting in a glass of water on the chest of drawers. But he was gone—didn’t take his clothes nor nothing—just went. Nobody saw hide nor hair of him afterwards.”

“But what could have happened to him, Cousin Althea?” I asked.

“They did some hunting around, but never found anyone who saw him after breakfast that morning. Most people finally decided he was ashamed of it all, that he felt it about Miss Anne. ‘Course, that didn’t explain why he left his clothes all lying there. Mother always said she thought both Anne and Rita were well rid of him. It was a ten days’ wonder all right, but people forgot in time. The Chamberses took Rita away to a watering place for a while; she was pretty peaked. Two years later she married John Ford; he’d always been sweet on her. Then they moved out west someplace. I heard as how she’d taken a dislike to this whole town and told John she’d say ‘yes’ to him provided he moved.

“Since then—well, Miss Anne, she began to do a little better. She was able to get out of bed that winter and took to sewing—not making clothes and such, but embroidery. Real important people have bought some of her fancy pictures; I heard tell a couple are even in museums. And you’re a very lucky girl, Ernestine, if she’ll teach you like you said.”

It was not until I was in bed that night, going over my meeting with Miss Ruthevan and Cousin Althea’s story, that something gave me a queer start: the thought of that unclaimed white rose.

Most of the time I had spent with Miss Ruthevan she had been at work. But I had never seen the picture she was stitching, only her hands holding the needle dipping in and out, or bringing a thread into the best light as she matched it against the petals of the rose on her table.

That had been a perfect rose; it might have been carved from ivory. Miss Ruthevan had not taken it out of the glass; she had not moved out of her chair when I left. But now I was sure that, when I had looked back from the door, the rose had been gone. Where? It was a puzzle. But, of course, Miss Ruthevan must have done something with it when I went to look at some one of the pictures she had called to my attention.

Cousin Althea was flattered that Miss Ruthevan had shown interest in me; I know my retelling of the comment about Grandma Moss had pleased her greatly. She carefully super-vised my dress before my departure for the Ruthevan house the next day, and she would not let me take the shortcut through the garden. I must limp around the block and approach properly through the front door. I did, uncomfortable in the fresh folds of skirt, so ill looking I believed, above the ugliness of the brace.

Today Miss Ruthevan had put aside the covered frame and was busied instead with a delicate length of old lace, matching thread with extra care. It was a repair job for a museum, she told me.

 She put me to work helping her with the thread. Texture, color, shading—I must have an eye for all, she told me crisply. She spun some of her thread herself and dyed much of it, using formulas which the Ruthevan women had developed over the years.

 So through the days and weeks which followed I found cool refuge in that high-walled room where I was allowed to handle precious fabrics and take some part in her work. I learned to spin on a wheel older than much of the town, and I worked in the small shed-like summer kitchen skimming dye pots and watching Miss Ruthevan measure bark and dried leaves and roots in careful quantities.

It was only rarely that she worked on the piece in the standing frame, which she never allowed me to see. She did not forbid that in words, merely arranged it so that I did not. But from time to time, when she had a perfectly formed fern, a flower, and once in the early morning when a dew-beaded spider web cornered the window without, she would stitch away. I never saw what she did with her models when she had finished. I only knew that when the last stitch was set to her liking, the vase was empty, the web had vanished.

 She had a special needle for this work. It was kept in a small brass box, and she made a kind of ceremony of opening the box, holding it tightly to her breast, with her eyes closed; she also took a great while to thread the needle itself, running the thread back and forth through it. But when Miss Ruthevan did not choose to explain, there was that about her which kept one from asking questions.

I learned, slowly and painfully, with pricked fingers and sick frustration each time I saw how far below my goals my finished work was. But there was a great teacher in Miss Ruthevan. She had patience and her criticism inspired instead of blighted. Once I brought her a shell I had found. She turned it over, putting it on her model table. When I came the next day it still lay there, but on a square of fabric, the outline of the shell sketched upon the cloth.

“Select your threads,” she told me.

It took me a long time to match and rematch. She examined my choice and made no changes.

“You have the eye. If you can also learn the skill…”

I tried to reproduce the shell; but the painful difference between my work and the model exasperated me, until the thread knotted and snarled and I was close to tears. She took it out of my hand.

“You try too hard. You think of the stitches instead of the whole. It must be done here as well as with your fingers.” She touched one of her cool, dry fingers to my forehead.

 So I learned patience as well as skill, and as she worked Miss Ruthevan spoke of art and artists, of the days when she had gone out of Cramwell into a world long lost. I went back to Cousin Althea’s each afternoon with my head full of far places and the beauty men and women could create. Sometimes she had me leaf through books of prints, or spend afternoons sorting out patterns inscribed on strips of parchment older than my own country.

The change in Miss Ruthevan herself came so slowly during those weeks that I did not note it at first. When she began to refuse commissions, I was not troubled, but rather pleased, for she spent more time with me, only busy with that on the standing frame. I did regret her refusing to embroider a wedding dress; it was so beautiful. It was that denial which made me aware that now she seldom came out of her chair; there were no more mornings with the dye pots.

One day when I came there were no sounds from the kitchen, a curious silence in the house. My uneasiness grew as I entered the workroom to see Miss Ruthevan sitting with folded hands, no needle at work. She turned her head to watch as I limped across the carpet. I spoke the first thing in my mind.

“Miss Applebee’s gone.” I had never seen much of the deaf housekeeper, but the muted sounds of her presence had always been with us. I missed them now.

“Yes, Lucy is gone. Our time has almost run out. Sit down, Ernestine. No, do not reach for your work, I have something to say to you.”

That sounded a little like a scolding to come. I searched my conscience as she continued.

“Some day very soon now, Ernestine, I too, shall go.” I stared at her, frightened. For the first time I was aware of just how old Miss Ruthevan must be, how skeleton thin were her quiet hands.

She laughed. “Don’t grow so big-eyed, child. I have no intention of being coffined, none at all. It is just that I have earned a vacation of sorts, one of my own choosing. Remember this, Ernestine, nothing in this world comes to us unpaid for; and when I speak of pay, I do not talk of money. Things which may be bought with money are the easy things. No, the great desires of our hearts are paid for in other coin; I have paid for what I want most, with fifty years of labor. Now the end is in sight—see for yourself!”

She pushed at the frame so for the first time I could see what it held.

It was a picture, a vivid one. Somehow I felt that I looked through a window to see reality. In the background to the left, tall trees arched, wearing the brilliant livery of fall. In the foreground was a riot of flowers.

Against a flaming oak stood a man, a shaft of light illuminating his high-held, dark head. His thin face was keenly alive and welcoming. His hair waved down a little over his forehead.

Surrounded by the flowers was the figure of a woman. By the grace and slenderness of her body she was young. But her face was still but blank canvas.

I went closer, fascinated by form and color, seeing more details the longer I studied it. There was a rabbit crouched beneath a clump of fern, and at the feet of the girl a cat, eyeing the hunter with the enigmatic scrutiny of its kind.  Its striped, gray and black coat was so real I longed to touch—to see if it were truly fur.

“That was Timothy,” Miss Ruthevan said suddenly. “I did quite well with him. He was so old, so old and tired. Now he will be forever young.”

“But, you haven’t done the lady’s face,” I ventured.

“Not yet, child, but soon now.” She suddenly tossed the cover over the frame to hide it all.

“There is this.” She picked up the brass needle-case and opened it fully for the first time, to display a strip of threadbare velvet into which were thrust two needles. They were not the ordinary steel ones, such as I had learned to use, but bright yellow slivers of fire in the sun.

“Once,” she told me, “there were six of these—now only two. This one is mine.  And this,” her finger did not quite touch the last, “shall be yours, if you wish, only if you wish, Ernestine. Always remember one pays a price for power. If tomorrow, or the day after, you come and find me gone, you shall also find this box waiting for you. Take it and use the needle if and when you will—but carefully. Grizel Ruthevan bought this box for a very high price indeed. I do not know whether we should bless or curse her…” Her voice trailed away and I knew without any formal dismissal I was to go. But at the door I hesitated, to look back.

Miss Ruthevan had pulled the frame back into working distance before her. As I watched she made a careful selection of thread, set it in the needle’s waiting eye. She took one stitch and then another. I went into the dark silence of the hall. Miss Ruthevan was finishing the picture.

I said nothing to Cousin Althea of that curious interview. The next day I went almost secretly into the Ruthevan house by the way I had first entered it, over the garden wall. The silence was even deeper than it had been the afternoon before. There was a curious deadness to it, like the silence of a house left unoccupied. I crept to the workroom; there was no one in the chair by the window. I had not really expected to find her there.

When I reached the chair, something seemed to sap my strength so I sat in it as all those days I had seen her sit. The picture stood in its frame facing me—uncovered. As I had expected, it was complete. The imperiously beautiful face of the lady was there in detail. I recognized those wing brows, though now they were dark, the eyes, the mouth with its shadow smile; recognized them with a shiver. Now I knew where the rose, the fern, the web and all the other models had gone. I also knew, without being told, the meaning of the gold needles and why the maiden in the picture wore Anne Ruthevan’s face and the hunter had black hair.

I ran, and I was climbing over the back wall before I was truly aware of what I did. But weighting down the pocket of my sewing apron was the brass needle-box.  I have never opened it. I am not Miss Ruthevan; I have not the determination, nor perhaps the courage, to pay the price such skill demands. With whom—or what—Grizel Ruthevan dealt to acquire those needles, I do not like to think at all.



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