First published in The Writer's Cafe magazine
-Time was, her nana always says, -any good woman round here could make one.
Her biting responses go unvoiced as she sits and learns, never understanding why. Smacks to the knuckles discourage the habit before she’s old enough to ask, leaving her to resent each endless and wasted hour of practice.
Kneading the memory of pain from stiff joints, she glares at laid-out textiles, before picking a needle from the tin. Her hands remember, her fingers stitch without her even needing to think about it.
With the work comes the old question.
Not why she’s making it; not who she’s making it for; not even what the point is. No, she wants to know why it has to be made out of burlap, which nana calls burrrel and dad calls hessian. She can use whatever else she needs - any thread that gives the right look, any tools - but the hood has to be made of the same stuff as the potato bags and coffee sacks that sit in the back of the shop.
She pauses. Clearing her head. Sat, not sit. The shop was years back.
How long was that exactly?
They all burned, each mask, one after the other. Unused and unworn, all so she can make the proper one perfect. She hasn’t done this since nana died, she happily forgot the practice, but she could never unlearn it.
She’d never expected this.
Time was, she’d never be called. Time was, any woman round here could make one.
Funny thing, time.
Where’d you get burlap these days? She’s never seen it, even in the big Tesco. But it’s waiting, just like nana always promised it would, in her own kitchen. No hint as to how, or why.
As she stitches the right-eye, she realises she can’t remember nana’s eyes. The same beady marks she’s patterning onto the face of the hood stare back at her over fifty years.
It would do for a scarecrow, she thinks, not that she ever sees such a thing outside of the telly. But she has no idea what else it could be useful for.
She did get an answer once, about the burlap, but that was from her dad.
Dad has no interest in making them, which is normal. She tells them this. No point her dad concerning himself with women’s work, that was just how everyone thinks, really. Irritated by the idea, she gives them what for, someone needs to. Her dad never thinks like that. Her nana never thinks like that.
-No-one really thinks like that! Halfwit!
She stops, realising she’s shouting at the mask. She was shouting at someone. Wasn’t she? Their faces slip from her mind again. She looks around the empty kitchen, and she remembers they’re both gone, her dad and her nana, and everyone else. This is now, they were then.
She remembers dad answering the question, the one-time she’d asked him.
-It were for judged men, the ones they had killed.
-Killed?’ she asks in mock alarm, seeing his face, his smile matches the thick smirk she’s almost finished stitching.
-Aye, killed. By the king. Or them in charge. Weren’t a king done it in France. Think they done it to him there.
-You mean like a hanging dad?
-Nah. In the old days, the proper old days mind, hanging was just for the poor. You were a rich man, you got a proper killing. They took your head.
-Did they dad?
-Aye. Sometimes with a machine, but before that, they did it proper. Man with an axe. You knew what was right, and you were next, you gave him a coin.
-So he’d let you off?
-Nah, so he’d sharpen the axe, so it wouldn’t take five bloody goes!
Her dad laughs for a while, the drink is in him. Then he remembers what he’s telling her.
-But that’s why. Hessian. For the head. You don’t want that rolling all over. So, sometimes, they’d drop it in a bucket with a sack inside. And sometimes, they’d put the sack on the head first, tie it at the neck like.
He says more, but she just stares at the grinning mask, not listening now. The neck is mostly done. She imagines waiting for the axe, one of these things already over her face.
Are they for a head-chopping? Do they still do that? She thinks they’ve banned it now, but she isn’t sure. They haven’t used one of hers for that. Every mask she makes is a practice, nana checks it, then she burns it, and that’s that.
But this is a proper one, and she still doesn’t know why.
No-one’s asked. No-one’s left a message. No-one’s demanded. She just has this compulsion, never known it before. She’s dreaming of it, and then the hessian is just here. All ready for her in the kitchen.
She realises her memory is playing funny buggers again, she’s already done most of the work.
It’s all too easy.
The mask stares back at her.
Nana make a noise that might be approval, or might not. Dad just nods, and turns away.
But he’s ready.
Copyright John Conway - January 2021