The Art of Unpicking Stitches
By Jennifer Hudak 
Technically, all I’d done was come up with the idea for doing a spell; Kimber and Cassie took care of the rest. As my father used to say, they cut their own pattern. I merely threaded the needle. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
For Kimber and Cassie, this was an adventure, and way more interesting than just hanging out in a café on our last day together. It would be a ritual celebrating our friendship before we all went our separate ways. Really, before they went their separate ways —Cassie to state college, and Kimber to the Coast Guard Academy— and left me here. We knew we wouldn’t see each other for a long time, and that even when we did reunite, things wouldn’t be the same. I told them that rituals like this one created a space out of time, and that this one would sanctify our friendship and give us luck for the future. But it was just a game to them. Neither of them actually believed the spell would work.
I was the only one who knew it would.
Cassie, eager to help, hit the library and pored through books about herbal magic. Kimber thought it was more important to use intuition. She spread a creased, old-school map out on Cassie’s bedroom floor. None of us were used to reading a paper map, nor were we used to doing this much research without online help. But that was part of the spell, Cassie insisted —no electronics, nothing but paper— and she and Kimber were so excited by the novelty of it all that I didn’t have the heart to tell them they could have used their phones and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
“We’ll need a stream, for water,” said Kimber, pointing at a blue line on the map. “We’ll have to hike in, but I don’t think it’ll be too far.”
Cassie groaned. “Can’t we just bring water bottles?”
“Oh my god, Cassie. Where’s the fun in that?”
“Fine, but you’re going to have to carry me out if I hurt myself.”
Kimber flung her arms dramatically over Cassie’s shoulders. “I’ll save you, my delicate flower!”
I’d miss this so much. Just this: Kimber’s rough jostling, Cassie’s wide-mouthed laugh, the typical formation of the three of us on Cassie’s floor. We hung out here most often because Cassie’s place was midway between mine and Kimber’s, and I’d memorized every scratch on the hardwood, every sticky tape-remnant on her wall.
“Mish,” Cassie asked me, “have you finished making the dolls?”
The poppets were the one contribution I’d made to the sprawling spell they’d cobbled together. They were also the only thing that really mattered. I’d started making them over a year ago, way before I’d floated the idea of a spell to either of them. Back when Cassie was helping Kimber study for the SATs, and both of them started getting excited about futures that took them far away from me— from us. I’d labored over the poppets in secret while the two of them applied to colleges; while they waited, in desperate limbo, to hear back; while they celebrated their acceptances and taped banners up on their walls and bought sweatshirts in their future school colors. The stitch work on each doll took months to plan and execute, and I wanted all three of them to be perfect. Now, in the waning days of summer, the poppets were nearly done. This was the first spell I’d ever made from start to finish by myself, and it killed me that I couldn’t share that achievement with Cassie and Kimber. But, in the end, it would all be worth it.
“Just about,” I answered. “They’ll definitely be ready by tomorrow.”
Kimber rolled onto her back and stretched her legs out over my lap. “Lucky us, to have a seamstress to do our bidding!”
“A tailor,” I murmured.
“I don’t know. I hear the word ‘tailor’ and I just think of your dad. You need a different title.” I squirmed, and Cassie shot Kimber a look. “Sorry,” Kimber said. “I mean, it’s great you’re going to take over the shop. I just meant—”
“It’s fine,” I interrupted. “Really.”
Cassie changed the subject, thankfully. Neither of them understood why I hadn’t applied to college. I think they suspected I was staying home just to make my father happy. Then again, they thought that all my father did was take in dresses and let out seams. They didn’t know what he really was. What I really was. No one knew that, outside of my dad and me.
That was the first lesson he’d drummed into me, back when I’d first picked up a needle and a scrap of fabric: You can never tell anyone. Back then, my stitches were halting and uneven, some so loose I’d catch my fingers in them, while other pulled so taut they puckered the fabric. My spells looked nothing like my father’s elaborate designs, and I had felt certain they never would.
“Pull it out and try it again,” he had said. And I did, but the fabric was no longer pristine. Thread always leaves a mark when you pull it out, the tiny holes a reminder that messy stitch work can never be undone. Not entirely.
“It’s just so ugly,” I wailed.
“It doesn’t have to be beautiful to work,” my father reminded me. “It’s what’s behind the stitches that’s important. Your intention.”
I didn’t believe him. How could he understand? His stitch work was beautiful, and still he hid it inside the linings of coats or folded into the seams of dresses and the cuffs of pants. Even the people who wore his garments weren’t aware of the spells tucked inside.
I used to watch the customers come into the shop. When the door jingled, my father would take my fabric away; back then, I wasn’t allowed even to practice without his direct supervision. Instead, I’d hide behind the table and watch. Once, my first-grade teacher had come in to try on a coat my father had altered for her. Even from across the room, I’d seen the flush of confidence that bloomed on her cheeks, confidence that she thought came from wearing a well-fitting garment, and not because of the threads of magic that spread outward along her sleeves and around her collar.
“You’re a miracle worker,” she’d said to my father. And she’d paid him and left the shop without a clue of the miracle he’d actually performed.
“Why do you even bother doing the spells?” I’d asked him. “When no one sees them?”
“Helping people is its own reward,” he answered, and then laughed when I made a face. “Think of it this way: when people wear a dress or a suit that’s been tailored to fit them perfectly, they feel good about themselves, right? And when they feel good about themselves, they spread that goodness around. They smile more; they’re more likely to reach out to other people. That’s what a tailor does, Michelle. It’s not just about the clothes, it’s about the community. The spells just add a little something extra.”
“Plus, people will come back and get more clothes tailored.”
He laughed again. “That, too.”
“Still, if I could make spells that good, I’d want people to know.”
“No one can ever know,” he told me firmly. “You can never tell anyone.”
“Not even friends?”
“Especially not friends. Not if you want to keep them.”
Maybe it would have been better if I’d never made friends at all, but now that I had, I did want to keep them, more than anything. And yet, after years of following my father’s rules, I was going to lose Kimber and Cassie all the same.
Unless I did something about it.
Cassie shut her notebook. “Okay! I think we’re ready. Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow!” said Kimber. “I can’t wait!”
I squeezed her ankle. I couldn’t wait, either. Tomorrow I was going to stop following rules. Tomorrow, I was going to take matters —and magic— into my own hands.
The next morning, I put the finishing touches on the poppets— one for each of us, sewn together from scraps of old clothes we’d worn. I’d been working on them in secret, way past midnight, for most of the summer, before heading to work each morning at my dad’s shop. But the last details had to be completed the morning of the ritual for the dolls to retain their potency. It was risky to use the workroom after dawn, even on my dad’s day off, but I had no choice.
He walked in, fully dressed, just as I was clipping off a lock of my hair to braid together with the red and brown strands I’d collected from Kimber and Cassie.
“Do they know?”
Of course, that was his first question. I finished braiding the hair. “No.”
His voice tightened. “Michelle…”
“I’m not stupid. I didn’t tell them the truth. They think I’m just making dolls.”
“That doesn’t make this better.” He looked one of the poppets —the one that looked like Cassie— and shook his head. “You are not equipped to make a spell like this on your own. I can’t believe you even attempted this.” My dad sounded shocked. No: he sounded disappointed, and that pierced me in a way I wasn’t willing to admit.
“I’m eighteen,” I snapped. “I’m sick of you watching over every stitch I make.”
“I don’t care if you’re sick of it! Those are the rules of this house.” 
I gathered up all three of the dolls and gripped them tightly to stop my hands from shaking. “I followed your rules my whole life. Now everyone thinks I’m just a boring kid who’s too stupid to go to college. Are you happy?”
“No, I’m not happy. Not at all.” He stooped over and put his hands on the table, bringing himself to eye level. “Magic is selfless. It has to be. Even if your spell doesn’t go sideways…”
I bristled. “It’s not going to go sideways.”
“Even if,” he persisted, “it’s not going to go the way you think it will. It will be wrong.”
Lines ringed my dad’s eyes, and I wondered how long they’d been there. He was changing, too. Everything was. I turned away from him and shoved the dolls into my bag. 
“The spell isn’t just for me,” I told him. “It’s for all three of us. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Michelle. You’re stronger than you know. And you’re right, this is your spell. You created it, you executed it. You own it. If it goes wrong, I won’t be able to fix it.”
His words chilled me. Every stitch I’d ever made, every thread I’d cut, I’d done so knowing my father could alter it if he needed to. Sometimes, I chafed under that knowledge, but mostly, it was a comfort. It was safe. Now, my first time doing a spell on my own, it felt like my father was ripping off my only coat.
But I was going to have to learn how to sew my own coat eventually. Today was as good a day as any.
I shouldered my bag. “I don’t need you to fix anything,” I said, and at the time, I believed it.
We’d planned to hike to the creek early in the day, before it got too hot, but it was sweltering in the woods anyway. When we got to the stream, Kimber crouched down with the crucible she’d brought in her backpack, trying to get more water than sludge.
“It doesn’t matter if the dirt’s in there,” Cassie said. “Dirt’s good. It’ll help anchor the spell.”
I busied myself with my bag to hide my nervousness. Cassie was right— the dirt didn’t matter. But neither did the water, or the ritual itself. The only real spell was in the dolls I’d made, in their stitches and seams and in the precise clipping of loose threads.
Cassie pried a patch of moss from the forest floor and ground it up in a mortar along with some chamomile flowers, a sprig of sage and a sprig of rosemary, and a spoonful of grounds from the pot of coffee we’d shared that morning. The coffee had been awful, bitter and burnt —none of us were used to brewing our own— but we drank it anyway. Now, it sloshed uncomfortably in my stomach, sending waves of acid up my esophagus.
Kimber added the creek water to the mortar, and Cassie mashed it all into a thick paste. “Okay, Mish,” said Cassie. “You’re up.”
I took the poppets out of my bag. We each took a scoop of paste from the mortar and stuffed it inside the dolls. Then, I threaded a needle and sewed up the seams, sealing the paste inside. The paste had been Cassie’s idea, and it wouldn’t hurt anything; all of the stitch work my dad had taught me was strong enough to resist dirt and damp. Plus, I loved the idea that the poppets would always contain a bit of the ritual. It wasn’t magical, but it would remind me of this moment: the bitter coffee I could still taste, the trickling water of the stream, the smell of the herbs, the moss beneath our feet.
When I was done, I struck a match and sterilized the needle. 
“Are you guys going to poke your dominant or non-dominant hand?” asked Kimber.
“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Cassie answered.
“Non-dominant,” I said. When they looked at me, I shrugged. “I mean, might as well, if it doesn’t matter.”
What I didn’t say was that it was always the non-dominant hand. Had to be. You held the needle with your dominant hand. It was the other hand, supporting the fabric from underneath, that got punctured— accidentally or on purpose.
I remembered the first time I’d pricked my finger and looked aghast at the tiny bead of blood that blossomed from the nearly invisible wound. My father had gently grasped my hand and pressed my finger to the fabric, staining it with a small but shocking dot of red. “All spells need power,” he’d told me. “Sometimes the stitch work is enough, but some spells need more. Some spells need a sacrifice.”
Remembering this, I almost lost my nerve. A sacrifice was no small thing. If we did this —if we spilled our blood to feed the spell— I’d have no choice but to see it through. But then, I looked at my friends. Cassie, with her sharp eyes and her sharper mind; Kimber, the strongest and most daring of us, whose hair turned to fire in the sunlight. When we were together, our auras merged into a prism that scattered rainbows all over town, and neither of them knew it. And now, they were leaving, and I’d never get a chance to tell them.
You can’t tell them, my father had said. They can’t know who you really are.
What if it would make them stay? I wanted to whisper back.
I pricked my finger. After Cassie and Kimber had done the same, we pressed our fingers together, and dabbed a bit of blood on to our dolls, right where the heart would be. I tucked the needle into a tiny envelope I kept in my pocket, and then we stood around the mortar, like three vertices of a triangle.
“For protection,” said Cassie.
“For luck,” said Kimber.
“For friendship,” I finished.
Their eyes were closed, so only I saw the strands of light curling outward from the dolls like thread, wrapping us from hand to hand, braiding us together as tightly as the hair on the top of the dolls’ heads. The magic pulled taught, like a too-tight elastic band worn around our wrists, but neither Cassie nor Kimber noticed a thing. You only feel what you expect to feel, and both of them still thought this was just a game.
The spell would work. The spell wanted to work. All those hours I’d spent sewing the dolls was worth it; the spell was strong— so strong, it looked like someone else’s hand embroidering our circle, drawing stitches in the air to manifest itself. 
This is how it will go, whispered the spell in thread and blood and magic. And I saw it. Our futures.
We’d open our eyes feeling shaky, as if we’d just had a shared dream. We’d laugh and joke, and say our goodbyes, but before tomorrow, both of them would cancel their plans to go to college. They wouldn’t even know why; they’d just have a feeling that if they left, something terrible would happen. And, they’d stay.
The magic continued to weave itself around our circle, sewing Kimber and Cassie’s feet to the ground, anchoring itself with locking stitches, pulling tight, so tight that the fabric that made our friendship puckered and strained. I chanced a look at Kimber and Cassie; they both still had their eyes closed, oblivious to the magic working to tie them in place, unaware that they’d been ensnared.
Magic is selfless, my father had said. It has to be.
The threads continued to pull and tighten. To strangle. Cassie wouldn’t go to college. Kimber wouldn’t go to the Coast Guard Academy. They’d stay in this town that they’d both been so desperate to get out of, abandoning the futures they’d planned. And, I’d watch as everything I loved about them —their curiosity, their brightness, their drive— withered here. I’d watch them become something other than themselves.
Wait, I thought, and I tried to loosen the threads that bound us. Not like this. But the spell continued to rise. It had moved beyond me now, picking up strands of many possibilities and knotting together the sturdiest, the easiest to manifest. The stitches overlapped and reinforced each other, and I knew that I’d never be able to pull them out now without leaving tiny holes behind: the echoes of the spell marring our future.
In that moment, I wished —oh, how I wished— that my father was here, but he’d made it clear that this was my spell and mine alone. I had done this. And now, there was no undoing it. I dropped my head.
Then, I saw a different kind of thread: a loose one, the exact orange of my t-shirt, emerging from the v-neck. I squinted. A delicate embroidery looped along the edge of the shirt: perfect stitches, so tiny, they were nearly invisible. I imagined my father peering through his bifocals, imagined his fingers pulling the needle through. I imagined how much time he’d taken to craft the spell and wondered how he’d known I’d wear this particular shirt today.
Or maybe, he hadn’t known. Maybe he’d added this layer of protection to all my clothes, and I’d never looked closely enough to realize it. My father’s magic was always subtle, only used to enhance, never to overwhelm. Never to compel.
I heard his voice in my mind, as clearly as if he were standing in the circle with us. Holding my hand.
You’re stronger than you know.
Guiding my needle. Showing me that even pulled-out stitches, even damaged fabric, could be powerful. 
It’s what’s behind the stitches that’s important. Your intention.
I took a breath and closed my eyes. What I wanted —what I really wanted— was to wrap my friends in a coat of magic, with all of my love tucked into its pockets and woven into the seams. I wanted the threads that bound us to stretch across continents and over waters— to stretch, not to bind.
But some spells need a sacrifice.
I held up my doll and looked at the stitch work hiding in the embroidery. Then, I pulled the needle out of my pocket, slid it under a stitch, and snapped the thread.
The spell didn’t break all of a sudden. Our stitch work is too strong for that, mine and my dad’s. But as I unpicked the stitches, one by one, the tendrils of magic loosened, releasing Kimber and Cassie’s feet and wrists. I pulled thread after thread, gathering it up into a small bundle, and the magic continued to retreat, until at last, the spell dissolved with a sigh.
I examined the doll when I was done. It was still intact; only I would notice the tiny holes marring the fabric where the spell had once been.
I grabbed my friends’ hands, our dolls sandwiched between our palms. Kimber and Cassie reached for each other as well, closing the circle. Even without looking at them, I knew that Kimber’s polish was chipped and that Cassie had been chewing her nails again; that was how well I knew them both. I squeezed Kimber’s hand once and, a moment later, an answering squeeze came from Cassie. Just a quick pulse that said, I’m here. I see you. I know you. I closed my eyes and imagined my needle picking up the loose threads of this moment: the scrape on Kimber’s knee, Cassie’s ragged cuticles, the callus on my third finger from holding fabric scissors. The late summer sunlight glancing through the trees. The pinpricks of blood on each of our fingers, our hands holding tight. Nothing was binding us together now— nothing but what we brought into the woods with us. And that would be enough. It had to be.
A squirrel skittered up a tree. The creek trickled inexorably from past to future. We opened our eyes.
“Do you think it worked?” Kimber asked.
“I don’t know,” said Cassie. “I think so? It felt like something happened.”
I looked at them both, each of them on a cusp of a brand new adventure, and I felt so full of love and hope, I could have burst with it.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.” I squeezed their hands once, and then I let them go.
DreamForge Anvil © 2022 DreamForge Press
The Art of Unpicking Stitches © 2022 Jennifer Hudak 

Reprint. Originally published in Metaphorosis, July 2021