MJ - 1
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
I can remember, as if it were just now, the day when I began to work on my casket. I am sitting in my mother’s chamber, with the sunshine pouring in through the windows, with my sisters around me, and I am wishing that they would not meddle so much. They have all made their caskets long since (very long since, in Mary’s case, for she is ten years older than me, and married now too, but that does not stop her telling me what I should be doing, whenever she comes to visit), but they think I am of no account and must listen to whatever they say. But Mother looks at me as they speak, and gives me her special smile, and I know she understands.
“You should embroider the story of Isaac and Hagar,” says Mary, who is of a thoughtful and religious turn of mind.
“No, that is what you did,” says Harriet, who is very full of herself now Master Bond has offered for her hand. “I think she should embroider the Virtues.”
“Mother’s book of designs has pictures of the story of Joseph and his brethren,” says Dilly. “He had even more brothers than we have sisters.”
I think of all our little brothers, five of them, buried under the floor of the church in their tiny coffins, and two of our sisters as well. Our mother and father have had thirteen children, and only we five girls and little Tom survive. But I do not want to embroider Joseph, who although nearly the youngest was also much disliked by his brothers for his arrogance and for being so spoilt by his father. And Harriet has often said that I am also spoilt, because I am the youngest girl.
“It is my casket,” I tell them. “And I will have on it exactly what I want, not what any of you want.”
“Hoity toity,” says Dilly, who can sting like a wasp when she wants, though she is the prettiest of all of us. “If you wish your casket to be admired, you should listen to us. We are your elders, after all.”
“Let her do as she pleases,” says Pen, who is next in age to me, being fourteen to my eleven. “She is right, it is her casket. Would you have wanted to be ordered about like that?”
I smile at her gratefully. Pen and I are very close, thick as thieves so Dilly says, and sometimes it feels as if we two stand fast against the world. Or against our sisters. Pen put the story of Achilles on her casket, and was roundly abused by Harriet and Dilly for her pains, they telling her that Achilles was a heathen and heathens had no business on a casket.
“I have decided,” I announce, for that will be the best way to silence them, even if it is not true. “I will embroider figures who are the Five Senses, and perhaps the Four Seasons too. There are sure to be designs for them in Mother’s pattern book.”
Then Mother beckons me over to her table, where the book is laid out for me, and finds the pages that I want. There is Hearing, with a lady playing a lute and singing, and a gentleman, perhaps her husband or her betrothed, listening to her. For Taste, another lady is accompanied by a monkey, I have no idea why. The same lady, or one very like, has a dog beside her, and my mother tells me that she represents Smell – which I can understand, for Mother’s old dog Rufus stinks especially when he is wet. But I have a different idea, I imagine the lady sniffing a gorgeous rose, and I can see already, in my mind, the way I will work it, and perhaps sprinkle some rosewater onto the threads so that there really will be the scent of it on the flower. Sight is represented by a lady with an eagle, for eagles’ eyes are famously keen, so Mother says, and perhaps I will embroider an eagle, for if I can work it right it will be splendid on the front of the casket. And for Touch, the lady holds a strange creature like a ball, with legs and head sticking out, which Mother tells me is something called a Tortoise, and has a hard shell like a snail’s, but a soft body inside. So I can see that it too is fitting.
But then I begin to turn the pages, looking for other animals to decorate my design, and there are so many I exclaim in delight. There are dogs large and small, hounds and soft spaniels, a stripy cat just like Grimalkin who haunts the stables, a strange beast with a long neck and one with a humped back and another with a long nose, that I know is an elephant. I linger over a peacock, with his glorious tail, and a squirrel with hers, and I long to put them all on my casket, even though it would then have to be the size of the church chest, which a grown man can lie in, for all of them to fit on, and the working of it would take me a hundred years. And there are trees and flowers too, and strange looking castles or houses with towers, and I know suddenly that I will put our own house, that I love so well, on the lid of my casket, as a token of my family, who have lived here for hundreds of years.
“Have you decided, child?” asks my mother, smiling, and I shake my head in bewilderment, for I never knew there was so much choice before me, and I find myself unable to choose. “Perhaps this will help you,” she adds, and draws her workbox towards us on the table, and opens the lid.
Within are all her sewing silks, neatly wound and set in order of colour. There are deep greens and blues that I feel I could drown in, and yellows and golds made for embroidering sunlight, and rich reds and purples that would clothe a king. Best of all are the precious metal threads, glittering in the light. I stare in wonder, while a thousand possibilities race through my mind. I envisage flowers in all their brilliant profusion, and that soft rose would be the perfect colour for the mellow brickwork of the house, and the three glowing shades of orange-tawny bring the fur of a squirrel to mind, with its bushy tail and tufted ears. The lady will have gold in her hair and silver in her gown, and the jewel colours of bluebells to walk amongst. These are the colours of heaven, and I have them at my command, and although many have praised my needlework and I know I have some competence, for a moment I tremble before the task before me, and hope that my skill will be the equal of my vision.