BY CASEY DEANE
Copyright is held by the author.
SHE WAS the greatest needle farmer in the Ottawa Valley, my Grandma was. That’s what they say. In my mind it went far beyond that — the entire province and maybe the world. Though she being humble would never admit as much.
“Mostly practice and most could do it,” she’d say, “with help from a little luck.”
She’d wink at me as she led me by the hand, my little feet shuffling next to her big boots over late autumn soil as black as oil.
Haystacks planted in row after tidy row silhouetted against the silver light of dawn and we’d tread in the intimacy of familiar rolling fields that sank and crested like ocean swells. My hand in hers and I could feel the calluses on her skin and the scars etched deep and ancient into her palm.
“Early morning,” She’d say, a stick of straw clenched in her teeth and her cap brim low over her brow. “Is when’s best. Before they wake and become aware of the day.”
As the first rays of sun pushed pools of fog from the shallows and evaporated feather-fine fingers of frost from the furrows we would stop and she would settle her free hand on a particular stack of hay and slowly nod her head. A haystack ripe for picking.
“Now take a step back,” she’d say and she would run her hands over the straw and she would lean her body close, her cheek mere inches from the yellow mound. As I stood captivated she would push her fingers into the haystack up to her wrist and push further until her entire arm would sink up to her shoulder and her face would be pressed against the side of the stack, her lips pursed and her eyes narrow and focused in concentration while I held my breath.
When she pulled her arm out I would clap and beam for there it would be. Slender and silver, long and sharp, pinched between two fingers. A single shiny needle. Hand sown and haystack-harvested.
These mornings were my favourite. The two of us, Grandma and me. Me begging her to have a try at it and she shaking her head, telling me that I was still too young, my arm too short and the needles too sharp.
It was hours into a morning such as this, after we’d both returned from the fields with a bundle of freshly picked needles when uninvited and unannounced, the camel rider arrived.
I was inside with my Grandpa as he tended to the carpet he was growing. The day before I had watched as he painted a thin layer of adhesive onto the farmhouse hardwood floor. He kept the shades open and all day amber sunlight streamed through window glass in a shifting arc as the world turned. The house dust that hung suspended in the still air eventually settled into a fine coating over the adhesive and by early evening the floors had developed into an inch of soft felt. Overnight the carpets grew and when we woke in the morning they had matured into luxurious plush, though Grandpa wouldn’t allow us to tread on them; the carpets he grew weren’t for us. They were to be rolled up, stacked and sold later at market.
“Outside with you. Go on.” He said when he spied me edging a toe into his work. He stood on a strip of exposed hardwood with hooked carpet knife in hand. “And close the door behind you. One stiff breeze and this will all turn to shag.”
So I sat down on the porch steps with one of Grandma’s needles clenched in my hand and from there I saw the camel and the rider. They were approaching along a gravel lane that led from the main road. The lane cut along the side of one of the hayfields and along the length of it were a row of fat deciduous trees. The trees had shed most of their leaves save for a few that now fell silently around the man on his mount. Leaves of red, gold and orange that fell to the gravel and were crushed beneath the hooves of the camel as it neared.
Grandma stood close to the house. She was under a lone pine where the lane passed near the porch and she was turned away from me with her eye on the peculiar pair.
The man on the camel was dressed in a fine tailored suit and his hair was combed shiny and flat on his bare head but his eyes were sunken and his skin pale and pasty. The saddle he sat on was of oiled and ornately decorated leather. It was bound with copper rivets over ebony hardwood, studded with beads and jewels and embossed with swirling patterns and intricate designs. Behind him rose a tall and richly carved backrest of the same ebony and in the front of him a prominent forked horn extended to the height of the top of his head. The saddle rested on several folded saddle cloths heavily embroidered in a labyrinth of golden thread and dyed in a myriad of yellows, reds, and oranges and from them there hung tiny bells of gold and silver that chimed and sang with every step. The rider sat cross-legged on the saddle like a crown atop the camel’s shoulders and when he had come quite close he pulled up on braided reins, came to a stop and gave a nod to my Grandma, she chewing on her stick of straw with her dusty cap and hands buried deep in her coverall pockets.
“That’s an impressive beast you got there,” Grandma said to the man. The camel snorted and shifted its eyes under heavy lids.
“Yes. Yes, it is. Too impressive I’m afraid.” The man pulled from a breast pocket a large white silk handkerchief with a rusty stain the size of a fist and holding it over his mouth broke into a lengthy fit of coughing.
“Not something we see around here often.” Grandma continued while the man continued to cough.
When the man had at last ceased his spasms he held the handkerchief up to an overcast yellow sky, the stain now wet and dark. He scowled, shook his head, folded the handkerchief and tucked it back into his pocket. He peered down at me and then at Grandma.
“I hear you’re a needle farmer.”
“Heard you’re the best there is.”
Grandma flashed me a glance before answering. “Can’t say whether that’s true or not, but there ain’t many of us left anymore.”
“Well it’s been a long, tiring and tedious search for you so I know the latter of what you say to be correct.” The man stopped his speech and held his hand to his chest as though waiting for another cough to erupt. The camel chewed its cud and swatted at a fly with its tail. The moment passed without cough and the man lowered his hand and continued.
“Let’s get down to the tacks.”
Grandma nodded. “Ok let’s.”
The camel paused briefly mid-chew and a sudden wind swept past. Several of the bells sounded and then went still.
Grandma pulled the piece of straw from her teeth. “Sorry to hear.”
“Happens to us all someday, but that’s not the point. The point of my visit is that I need a needle and when one is in need of a needle I’m told you’re the one they need.”
“And the point of your point?”
“My point being that this need is a little different than most. I say this because the point isn’t the point at all.”
“No. It isn’t. It’s the other end where my interests lie.”
“Yes it is. I’m interested in not the point but the eye.”
The man and Grandma locked eyes. The camel snorted and swatted its tail and my gaze shifted between the two, man and Grandma, back and forth. They contemplated each other for what seemed like a long time until at last the man struggled for a breath. “What I need . . .” He reached for the handkerchief and hesitated with it still folded. “. . . Is for you to find me a needle . . .”
He was interrupted by a throaty hack and with a practiced flick of his wrist covered his mouth and coughed bright red specks into the stained silk.
Grandma chewed on her straw and watched as the man let out a long wheeze then wiped his lips before continuing.
“A needle large enough for me to drive this here beast I’m sitting on directly through the eye at the blunt end of it. To put it bluntly.”
Grandma let her jaw drop and the stick of straw clung to her bottom lip.
A large crow sitting on the farmhouse weathervane cawed loudly then spread its wings and slowly took off into the late season flaxen sky.
The camel chose the moment to evacuate its bowels and the results plopped in a steaming heap onto the lane.
Suddenly Grandma erupted into a deep laugh and the straw hanging from her mouth bounced and quivered and shook. She bent over and held her side while her body trembled and the straw danced.
Then the camel took a step forward, let out a heavy sigh and allowed its legs to fold beneath it as it sank to its knees.
The man, his face aghast, widened his eyes and tried to force a piercing stare. “I’m bloody serious. I’m in a dire state and I’m convinced that it may be my gate into paradise.”
Grandma shook out her head and the last of her laughter and even the grin faded from her face.
The man pulled a bloated velvet purse from a pocket. He hefted it over end and let it bleed several gold coins into his hand. Each shimmered one by one as they fell. “Whatever the cost.”
The camel rolled its eyes and let its tongue glide over its lips.
“Isn’t the cost that concerns me.” Grandma reinserted the straw between her teeth.
The man began to wheeze and with his next breath burst into another coughing fit, handkerchief withdrawn, open and over his mouth.
“What concerns me . . .” Grandma tilted her cap brim up on her head and turned to survey the fields behind her, “What concerns me is the logistics of it all. If it can be done at all, that is.” She sighed and went on: “Never farmed a needle larger than what could fit into my hand.”
The man on the camel, his attempt at wide eyes exhausted, eyed her where she stood from beneath heavy lids, his handkerchief still held to his face and he still coughing and sputtering into it.
Keeping her head turned Grandma said, “Then there’s the time of course. Too late in the day today. In fact too late in the season. Would need to start early next spring soon as the ground thaws. Hayseed a whole field just for it, maybe more, can’t say right now.” She slapped at a fly on the back of her neck. “A whole field just for it.”
The crow cawed again, this time from the top of the lone pine. It spread its wings lazily then folded them and watched from where it sat perched high on a branch.
Grandma kept talking. “Growing the hay will be the easy part of the thing. Even the cutting won’t be so bad. But the stacking — I can’t even imagine it right now but I imagine it’ll be a mighty sizeable stack judging by the size of that there camel you came riding in on, if you’re so determined, and you claim you are, about —”
“Grandma?” I tried to interrupt her.
“And come to think of it, it’ll take more than just an arm length to find the darn thing once and if we ever do get all that hay to stack. I imagine I might need to crawl right inside —”
“Grandma?” I tried again.
“So I’ll need a ladder or some sort of scaffold seeing as how I’d rather search from the top than reach up from the bottom on account of most times the eye being right side up and the point pointing down, so it saves a lot of skin as opposed to the other way around and that’s only if —”
“Grandma!” I finally shouted.
Grandma stopped her speech and looked at me and I indicated with a nod to the man on the camel.
He sat dead on his saddle with legs still crossed, his head tilted forward and his chin resting on his chest. His eyes were shut and his arms hung limply by his sides. He had surrendered his purse to the ground. The gold coins in a pile there on the ground and his open hand free of them. The handkerchief was picked up by a breeze and danced away along the lane like a leaf. The bells that hung from the saddle cloths rang together and the crow lifted up from the top of the pine tree and flapped away into the late morning sky.
Grandma walked over to the man, reached to one of his eyes and gently lifted a lid. It stayed open and behind it his eye was foggy and grey like a piece of smoked glass. With her finger she pulled the lid down closed again and brushed her hands off on her coveralls, “Well I suppose that puts and end to that.”
Grandpa slipped out of the farmhouse door and stood on the porch shutting the door behind him. “I heard bells. What the . . .” He pointed with his carpet knife at the animal sitting on the lane, “Is that a camel?”
Grandma pulled her cap off, slapped the dust off it and refit it on her head. “We could probably use one of your carpets dear.”
Grandpa went back inside and I still holding the needle brought the eye up to my eye and beheld through it the entirety of the camel; head, neck, saddle, dead rider, hump, legs and tail. When I lowered the needle I saw Grandma smile at me.
“Let me see your arm, hold it out,” Grandma said after she’d walked over and taken a seat.
I held out my arm.
“Turn your hand over, palm up.”
I turned over my hand and she took it into hers and examined it, her thumb tracing over the fold lines in my skin. She took the needle from my other hand and held the eye up to her eye and I could see her gazing at the camel and the dead rider through it.
“There’s a small haystack in the far back corner of our field back there.” She lowered the needle and motioned with her head to the field that she spoke of. “It’s ripe for picking. If you think you’re ready, that is.”
She turned to look at me and I met her eye with mine and the both of us allowed smiles to break across our faces while the bells on the camel saddle rang, gold and red leaves danced over the lane and the crow circled high in the sky above.