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Shortlist Saturdays: Thread of Indignity by Melissa Ridley Elmes

Gavin Helmscott III had lived, if you could call what he did living, nearly three centuries whole and unmolested, if a bit faded of late. He had counted himself safe from damage and danger, preserved from the elements in the now climate-controlled ancestral home of his family, set off from visitors by a thick velvet cord, a large sign on the wall prohibiting any physical contact between him and the hundreds of people who traipsed annually through the hall to look at him. Until this morning, every one of those visitors had followed the rules, ogled him, oohed and aahed over his handsomeness, made gratifying comments about how sweet he was, dark-haired and blue-eyed, lips plump and cheeks rosy, dressed in his favorite ruffled shirt, breeches and boots, holding his little golden ball and smiling endearingly at the onlooker from the safety of his childhood domain, all heavy furniture and thick rugs with a fire in the background and his little spaniel at his side: Young Lord Kettingsley aged 8 at play in the children’s nursery, 1718, tapestry, provenance unknown.

            Well, unknown because no one had bothered to ask. Gavin knew the tapestry’s origin; it was his uncle Fitz’s company, based in the Netherlands. Gavin enjoyed when visitors who knew something of textiles debated whether his was English or Dutch; as with so many arguments, technically they were each partially right: English sensibilities, Dutch workmanship.

Gavin enjoyed hearing visitors exclaim variously through the years that he was perfect, perfectly preserved, something you don’t see anymore, and a real treasure. Naturally, he thought so as well, but it was always better for someone else to say it; one oughtn’t be boastful. Still, three hundred years of admiration unmarred by anything like a criticism of any sort had lulled him into a sense of serene self-importance. Tapestry Gavin, young Lord Kettingsley, had quite simply been a happy and unbothered figure since his creation.

His happy and unbothered existence in the stasis of perfect preservation, however, had ended abruptly moments ago, when a girl about his age slipped past the exhibition cords separating them. As her parents spoke with the docent standing off to one side of the room, this unsupervised girl without warning or so much as a by-your-leave pulled on a loose golden thread.

At first Gavin didn’t notice anything. But once the girl had managed to pull the thread free to about the halfway point, everything went strange.

First, his face sank downward on one side, as though melting. This sliding of his features and form continued as the thread traveled all the way down the right-hand side of his body, so that he looked like a living ripple. With a small noise of satisfaction, the girl yanked the thread free of its moorings and slipped back past the cord to the visitors’ side. No one but Gavin had seen what she had done. And now, he saw everything slant, his perfect view, like his perfect form, skewed by the girl’s action.

She didn’t even apologize. She didn’t even notice the damage she’d wrought upon him, he thought angrily. He tried to straighten back up, but couldn’t. She’d pulled a thread, and there was no returning to his former state. He would just have to live with it, this inconsistency in his appearance, this altered view of the world around him. It happens that quickly, the damage that can be done to someone. It’s just that most people wear their pulled threads and snags on the inside. But tapestries … it’s all there, for everyone to see, every blemish caused by every thoughtless choice made by someone else.

Gavin didn’t have any real memory of his weaving, but he had heard about it multiple times over the years as told by the docents: how long it had probably taken, the painstaking work of ensuring that every row of thread was placed just-so, carefully pressed against and into the one next to it to create a perfectly unified whole. He was, they had said year after year, among the most perfectly preserved of tapestries from his time. And now, because of one careless, spoiled little girl, he was ruined.

Worse, he could feel it. Not only the blank absence of the missing thread, and the sagging of his form in its wake, but the cool of air where it had never before had access to him; not only the changes in his appearance, but the motion of the thread, which the girl was now waving aloft, watching it zig and zag and catch the light from the window to shimmer as it moved. Gavin felt each zig, and he felt each zag. It was as though the thread were still connected to him.

Yes, he felt it and didn’t like it; didn’t like that one thread pulled from the whole could so affect how he felt, and definitely didn’t like that his discomfort was wholly orchestrated by this stranger who had pulled him apart for her own amusement. He was altered for the worse forever, and she? She would walk out of this room with a golden thread as a souvenir. The indignity of it was not to be borne!

The girl’s parents turned from the docent to gaze upon him, and the girl balled the thread up and stuffed it into a pocket. Neither the docent nor her parents had seen her actions. Every adult in the room was delinquent in their responsibility to Gavin, and he was on the verge of a rage.

“The sign says he’s playing in the nursery, but he looks upset,” the mother observed, leaning closer for a better view of Gavin’s expression.

“Really?” The docent came to stand beside her. “Most people comment on what a sweet expression he has.”

“No, he looks angry, as though he’s about to throw a temper tantrum.”

“Do you know, I’ve never noticed it before, but now you say so, he does rather look cross, doesn’t he?” The docent titled her head, squinting a bit as she contemplated the tapestry.

“There’s something different about him,” she announced after several moments of silence. “I can’t put my finger on it, but his appearance is quite changed, remarkably so.”

It’s her fault, Gavin screamed, and pointed at the girl, now standing behind her father, as though he could shield her from her guilt.

Give me back my thread! Gavin yelled at her.

The adults noted neither his words nor  his movement.

The family turned to leave the hall. The docent, murmuring about how odd it was that he looked so different moved back to her corner to await other visitors.

Stop her! She stole my thread! Gavin shouted as the family neared the doorway leading to the next room.

It was then Gavin knew the girl heard him, because she turned her head to look fearfully at him, hand in pocket, squeezing the thread. He felt her squeezing it.

“Stop!” she muttered, and he knew then she felt him moving, too. The thread was still a part of him, connecting them.

He kicked at her. She shoved the thread down deeper into her pocket to squash him. He punched at her. She closed her fist around the thread seeking to contain him. He yelled at her that she was a thief and a vandal and belonged in jail, at which she pulled the thread from her pocket and tossed it to the floor, then ran through the door ahead of her parents to flee his accusations and her shame.

You’ve ruined everything! Gavin shouted after her.

A passing visitor, ignorant of textiles, saw the snarl of discarded thread on the floor, picked it up, and tossed it in a nearby wastebin, happy to help keep this beautifully-preserved hall neat and tidy.

That afternoon and thereafter, guests swore they heard a child crying in the hall. Some thought it clever (and some, gimmicky) of the museum to rig the sound effect to accompany the tapestry of the sad little boy. Others thought it was the ghost of young Lord Kettinsgley himself. Many wondered what had caused his disfigurement, and debates ensued–Bell’s Palsy, perhaps, or a childhood stroke? Gavin saw now that people paid admission not to admire but to invent ideas about him. He brooded at them all year after year, feeling the golden thread to which he was still connected make its way through the world without him, indignity to indignity: garbage truck to landfill to bird’s nest to child’s room to doll’s necklace. He wondered if the thread could feel his grief as he did its experiences. He thought about the girl who had stolen it and wondered if she ever thought of him. He raged alternately over how one stranger could impact one’s world view with one action and how one unguarded moment could so alter one’s existence. And he contemplated: what even was the point of preserving a thing when no one knew or cared about the truth of it?

Melissa Ridley Elmes is a Virginia native currently living in Missouri in an apartment that delightfully approximates a hobbit hole. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Black Fox, Poetry South, Haven, Star*Line, Eye to the Telescope, World of Myth, Reunion: The Dallas Review Online, and various other print and web venues. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Dwarf Star award for best short speculative poem, and her first collection of poems, Arthurian Things, was published by Dark Myth Publications in 2020 and nominated for the 2022 Elgin award.


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