Swaddling, by Nicole Rogers


The hat was lucky, of that I was sure. For starters, it had been rediscovered. Two days after my grandmother’s funeral, right there in the attic, tucked away in some forgotten box. All those years wasted slumbering away, yet when I lifted it out from the clutches of the ancient sweaters and faded blankets, it still looked bright and new. The hat was round and soft, made of black yarn with a delicate silver thread woven through. What was less subtle was the pom-pom sitting on top.

I washed the hat anyway. By hand, of course, and carefully. I set it outside to dry in the sun on the back porch. My husband noticed when he went out to water the garden. “Hat season already?” he asked. It was August.

I set some irises I’d brought back from the funeral in a vase, attempting to nourish them for a couple more days of life. “It will be soon enough.”

He squinted up at the blazing sun. “I’m in no rush for winter.”

“You’re in no rush for anything.” I finished clipping the stems and carried the vase inside.

That autumn I started wearing the hat in the afternoons, as the leaves fell all around us. I thought it almost chic in its own way. My friends disagreed.

“It’s ugly,” they said.

“It’s too warm for a hat.”

“It doesn’t suit you.”

I brushed them off.

“It’s lucky,” I said.

“My ears get cold.”

And, at last, with a shrug:

“You’ll get used to it.”

And I was right. In the end, they grew accustomed to it. I hadn’t told them that my grandmother knit it for me herself when I was a child; it wasn’t any of their business. The hat was too big for me then, so my mother had packed it away. I’d wanted to wear it, anyway, flopping over my eyes and obscuring my vision. She hadn’t let me. She cared too much about what others thought, and in truth, the hat did look a bit silly. Now it fit perfectly, pulled down on my head, skimming the tops of my ears.

Admittedly, though, my friends had been right about it not suiting me. My look tended to be clean, tailored, polished. The hat would have been more suited to a snowboarder, perhaps, or an artist. Or anyone with the confidence to pull off an outfit that on me would look ridiculous. I kept wearing it anyway, to carry a piece of my grandmother with me, though I knew it wasn’t necessary. We all carry the dead with us in our own way, whether we realize or not.

The hat began to define me. That was the second sign that it was lucky. Strangers started to recognize me as “that woman with the hat” and I stood out. I enjoyed the attention; I’d had so little before. Covering my head uncovered a different side of myself.

I stepped out of the shadows. I stood out. I watched my reflection as I passed by windows and mirrors. Now, when I look back at the photos from that period in my life I wonder:

Was I foolish?

Was I brave?

Had I become a caricature of myself?

My change in attitude obviously made my husband uncomfortable. He made subtle jabs about my appearance, joked that was I trying to hide a bad haircut. At first, I ignored the comments, but that only seemed to encourage him.

“Here, let me take that from you,” he said as I stood in the entryway after work one evening. He reached for my hat.

I brushed away his hand. “Please. Leave it alone.”

“Wearing hats makes you go bald, you know. At this rate, your hair will be gone by the time you’re 40.”

“That’s a myth.”

“It’s not, I’m serious. I’m just looking out for your best interests.”

I looked down at my purse, my fingers still clenched on the leather strap. “What,” I said, “is your problem?”
He was silent for a moment before he finally said, “You wearing that stupid hat all the time. It’s creepy.”

“You think it’s creepy? Why?” I turned to face him.

He looked down at the floor. “I don’t know why, it just is.”
I pulled my jacket back on. “I’m sorry you don’t get it.” I walked out, slamming the door behind me. When I returned home later that night, he was already in bed asleep.

After that I really did begin to wear the hat all the time, even indoors, and my husband dropped the subject. When I wasn’t wearing it I felt strange, exposed, nervous. As though I were a fraud, somehow, without it. Everything I’d never dared to be, every trait I wanted to test out, rose like a beacon out of the pom-pom on my head.
When I did take the hat off, I couldn’t stop touching it. I stroked the top, weaving my fingers through the strands of yarn. I twirled it around in my hand as I spoke with people on the phone, letting it wrap around my knuckles, my fist, my palm. I nuzzled it against my cheek as I watched TV at night.

“Enough!” my husband said. “I can’t focus on anything when you fidget like that.”

A football game flickered on the TV. I put the hat on my lap, staring at it until my eyes unfocused and the black shade of the yarn swam against the edge of my vision, my mind blank.

At work if they noticed the change, they didn’t say, but I noticed. Feeling trapped behind my desk at the bank, I starting taking long walks during my lunch break, pushing the boundaries of acceptable lateness as I went. Wandering the streets, I thought of my mother. She had often taken me walking when I was a child, before the years and miles and values separated us with a rift too large to cross. It was the only time she ever listened, outside of the house away from distractions. Now I walked along the city streets alone, always making my way to the triangular park in the center of town. I liked to watch the other people ducking through the trees, half shaded from the waning autumn sun underneath the dying leaves.

And that’s when I saw him.

My jaw actually dropped open. Dropped open. I always thought that was a cliché. But, no, I found out. It’s an accurate description.
He was only a kid, about 19 or so. Dressed in black skinny jeans, a faded Stones t-shirt and an olive green military jacket. Smoking. Bearded. Talking on his phone. Wearing a hat.

My hat. Silver thread, pom-pom and all.

I touched my head; it was still there. Yet somehow I was staring at an exact replica of my grandmother’s handmade one-of-a-kind hat.
When he walked by, he didn’t catch my eye. He didn’t notice me at all, so I fell into step behind him. Soon enough I realized he was walking in circles around the park. Around the bums drinking coffee and playing chess on sidewalk tables. Around the girls hula-hooping in knitware and the tourists studying maps. Around and around. He was walking in circles, talking on his phone, and clearly making a spectacle of himself.

And as I followed him, my temperature rose with every pounding step. My face felt hot against the cool autumn breeze, my fingers wrapped around themselves in tight little balls. Who was he to flaunt what was so obviously mine?

Focused as I was on the boy, I tripped over a tree root broken through the sidewalk. My hand shot out to steady myself, the rough bark of the tree scratching the skin of my palm. When I looked back up, the kid had broken away from the park, heading down the street and shrinking against the concrete buildings. I let him go. I realized that I was shaking a little, like I’d had too much caffeine, though I’d had none. I touched my hat again. Ran my fingers along the lines that radiated out of the top. Brushed the pom-pom against the pads of my fingertips.

Then I took the hat off.

How could he have known my grandmother? I didn’t even consider another possibility until I spoke to my husband that night.

“The guy bought it,” he said. He was chopping onions on the glass cutting board. The noise of the knife striking the board hurt my ears. Seeing me flinch, he paused. “You don’t think?”

“Not possible,” I said.

“How else?” he asked. I shrugged and he resumed his chopping.

A call to my mother confirmed it. “Your grandmother couldn’t knit,” she said.

“Not at all?”

“She tried when you were younger.” My mother paused. “It didn’t work out.”

“Then where did the hat come from?” I asked.

“I don’t know. She must have bought it.”

“Where? And why tell me she’d knit it herself?”

“How should I know?”

My mother never was very helpful.

In the days that followed, I didn’t wear the hat. Everyone noticed.

“Lose the hat?”

“Not cold enough for you?”

“Do something different with your hair?” my husband teased.

I had not. But maybe it had grown hidden there under the hat.
With my head bare, I felt like a part of myself was missing. It did not free me. It scared the hell out of me.

I still kept my eye out for that kid, though I didn’t see him again. As the days stretched to weeks, the darkness descended and I quietly put my hat back on. The fall turned into winter and the leaves froze to the ground, trapped under a layer of snow. I welcomed the gray sky, the crisp catch in my breath, the cold lobe of my ear. It was the coldest winter I ever saw, everything silent and suspended. The snow kept us home at night and I paced the rooms like a cat, pausing at the windows, looking out over the icy roads. My husband settled in, building fires downstairs and hunkering down on the couch in front of the TV.

“Think of it as an opportunity to relax,” he said.

“I don’t need to relax,” I said, drumming my fingers against the windowsill.

I continued to walk around town every day, heedless of the weather and the wind that whipped through my wool coat. I still felt drawn to the park, to the triangle in the exact center of the town with the cold stone slabs that served as benches and the tables with their painted checkerboards. I ran my fingers along them as I passed, expecting to feel the difference in textures, but I did not. My fingers were numb.
By the time I saw the kid again, I had stopped looking. It was early spring and the snow had melted, leaving behind a raw, brown, soggy mess. One afternoon I looked up, and there he was.

This time I waited for him to leave the park and then I followed from the other side of the street. He walked away from town. He walked and walked and I followed him until he reached an empty parking lot. He leaned against a lonely streetlamp and pulled out a cigarette. I didn’t want him to get away, so I ran across the street before he could walk off. I scrambled over the graffiti-covered concrete blocks on the side of the lot instead of going around. He was on his damn phone again and didn’t notice me until I stopped right in front of him. He put up his hand in surprise. The smoke hung in the air.

“Hey, gimme a sec,” he said to the phone. “What?”
I touched my hat.

“Ok, yeah,” he drew out the word like he was stalling for time. “Huh,” he nodded. He tried to step around me and resume his conversation.

“Where did you get it?” I asked.

“Hmmm?” He stopped with the phone hovering in the air halfway to his ear.

“The. Hat.” I said slowly, like he was stupid. “Where did you get it?”
He looked puzzled now and the more confused he looked, the angrier I became. He shook his head. “I don’t remember.” He exhaled a long cloud of smoke and tried to step around me again.

“Let me see,” I said, lunging at his head.
He jumped to the side and backed away from me. “Whoa! What the fuck is your problem?” He flicked the butt of his cigarette down and hurried off.

“How can you not remember?” I shouted at his retreating form. He didn’t look back.

Alone in the middle of the parking lot, I didn’t know what else to do so I took off in the opposite direction. I walked and walked. I kept walking until I found myself at an abandoned building by the river. Something about the building reminded me of the old changing rooms at the rec center my grandmother used to take me to when I was a child. I walked up and put my hand against the concrete wall. It felt cold against my fingers.

The doors and windows of the building were crudely boarded up, but I noticed a loose piece of wood. I pried it off and slipped inside. The room was dark and empty. The air smelled damp but the plank felt good in my hands. I swung it around. I swung it at barrels, at walls, at the floor. I swung it faster and harder until my muscles ached and my fingers were covered with splinters and blisters and then I swung the plank some more. I flung it out of my hands at the far wall where it landed with a thud.

I took the hat off my head and began to tear at it. I yanked at the loose threads and ripped them apart, one at a time. This one for my grandmother, dead in her grave. This one for my mother, never truly lived a day of her life. This one for their mothers before them, forgotten over the passage of time.

This one for me.
This one for me.
This one for me.

I pulled until the whole hat unraveled. The threads piled up on the floor beside me, the pom-pom sitting on my hand–the only tangible connection I had left to a woman whose blood ran through my veins. And I noticed then the tears streaming down my face. The cold dark of the early dusk settled through the cracks in the windows. I gave in and sobbed. Heaving, racking breaths until I was hoarse and the darkness threatened to overtake me entirely.

I scooped up the threads and the pom-pom, gently placing them in separate pockets, then I slipped out the window and walked all the way back to the car. I was done being defined by my family. I was done needing their approval.

When I got home, my husband was waiting. “You look a mess,” he said, more alarmed than concerned. “Where’ve you been?”

I pulled out my phone and checked the time. Half past six with seven missed messages. I never had gone back to work. “She didn’t knit the hat,” I said, walking past him to the bedroom.

He followed me. “You already knew that.”

“I did,” I said. “And I didn’t.”

He crossed his arms, studying me.

“Why didn’t you come to the funeral with me?”

“I was working,” he said. “You know that.”

“Yeah, I guess I knew that, too.”

Before he could say another word I went into the bathroom where I locked the door. In the mirror, I studied my reflection without the hat. My hair was matted. My hands were bloody. There was dirt all over my face and my clothes. I started the shower and stripped off my clothing. I heard a knock on the door.

“Can I come in?”

I ignored him and stepped into the water. I curled up in a ball on the floor and let the stream of water flow over my head, down my body and into the drain. I breathed in the rising steam and inhaled it deep in my lungs.

When I got out, I grabbed a bag. My husband stared at me as I placed the items in the suitcase that connected me to my past and grounded me in the present. A photo album from my childhood, my mother’s diamond earrings she gave to me on my wedding day, the remains of the hat.
“Why?” he asked.

I shook my head and stepped around him.


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Posted in 2013, Fiction, Mystery
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