Chapter 17

He was pulling at his hair, evidently in a kind of ecstasy. His voice had risen to a thrilling shout.

Avery Deane’s landlady, Sandra Smith, hadn’t been born yesterday, not at all, and when exotic looking women began climbing the stairs to his studio apartment, she knew there was going to be trouble. Two, three, and finally four dark-eyed women entered Deane’s studio apartment, just above her own. Not that she was old fashioned. She had never told her guests that they couldn’t have company of the opposite-sex, but four women wearing veils? Not veils like Shaharazade but scarves pulled over their heads to make them look sexy, or maybe to make them hard to identify in a police line-up. They all had big brown eyes and looked like they might be exotic dancers. Some of them carried…instruments. Wooden things possibly involving torture; that or they looked a little like spinning wheels.

Inside her own apartment, she peered at her ceiling and listened for dancing or ecstatic shouts from above, but she heard nothing. She climbed the stairs and, in the hallway above, walked slowly past her tenant’s door. It was ajar but the light inside was so dim that she could make out nothing, and she walked on. When she was just a few feet further down the hallway, she heard his booming voice behind her. He sounded excited. “My dear, would you like to see something interesting?” She stopped and looked around as if she couldn’t imagine who was talking to her, then glanced over her shoulder and seemed surprised to see Deane.

“Ah, Mr. Deane, my head was in the clouds, you might say. I didn’t even know you were home.”

“And what a home it is, too. Feels like home, the nice way you furnished it with the doilies and all. Wonderful way to live. I owe you, dear. But do come and meet my spiritual teachers.”

“Spiritual teachers, Mr. Deane?”

“Salt of the earth. You’ll love them. Do come in.” Deane’s right arm swept the air before the door to his castle and Sandra followed his gallant flourish. Inside, Deane’s voice rang, “Mrs. Smith, please meet my gurus, my teachers, my guides: Zainab, Soroya, Katija and Fatima. Ladies, please welcome Mrs. Smith, a gifted interior designer.” Four pairs of big brown eyes looked up, though not the eyes of harlots, as she had imagined them, but the soulful eyes of peasants—was that the right word? Country people, anyway, she thought. People from some other country. They were sitting on pillows on the floor and were working or making ready to work at what, after all, could only be spinning wheels. The women smiled soft, doughy smiles at her. No, they were not women of ill repute.

So Mr. Deane liked the way she had decorated his furnished apartment! She had always taken pride in decorating each apartment individually, though not every one of her tenants over the years had seemed to appreciate it. This apartment was what she thought of as the doily unit. Most of her guests were ladies, and she had had them in mind when she gathered every piece of fancy lace she had ever owned—from under her bed and from ancient trunks in her attic and from high closet shelves—to make this room special. She had draped a lacy old tablecloth over the back of the brown mohair sofa, for instance, and she had deployed doilies nearly everywhere, sixty, eighty, maybe a hundred of them! She placed them on the tops of dressers and on the dining room side table, on the coffee table, on the dining room table, on the bed. She even put all the waste-paper baskets on doilies. And Mr. Deane seemed to love them! “Feels like home,” he had said. What a pleasant man.

Sandra Smith smiled at the brown-eyed women sitting bare-footed on the floor. They had begun to work. One turned her wheel, faster and faster now, while her partner played out a stream of wool fibers that soon became a long and ever-growing strand of yarn that wound onto the whirling spindle. “The ancient art of spinning, Mrs. Smith! May I call you Sandra? They’re teaching me its mysteries,” Deane said, beaming, “and through spinning I hope to glean the eternal spiritual truths, just as Mahatma Ghandi did. The Afghans owned the skill before Alexander the Great explored their country, Sandra. They could spin three thousand years before Gengis Khan invaded their homeland. And I? Hah, hah, hah!” He laughed at himself dismissively. “I sometimes feel clever because I can balance a check book or pass a driver’s test. But can I work this magic? Make woolen yarn from a sheep’s back? Not I. But I can learn! I can learn!” Sandra wondered whether she too could learn how to spin. The ladies hunkering there on the floor seemed so… centered. It all seemed like so much fun, and Mr. Deane’s enthusiasm was catching. Avery, she would call him Avery.

“Well what do you think, Sandra? Shall we lend a hand? Spindle’s nearly full. Maybe we should bundle the yarn up into skeins. Perhaps they’ll show us how.”

“Oh yes,” she said, and she kicked off her shoes. “Maybe they’ll show us how.”

The day passed pleasantly, and she learned so much. “Where did the wool come from, Mr. Deane? Avery. Did they really cut it off a sheep’s back?”

“Wrong kind of sheep here, my dear. I ordered Chinese wool. The best. The best! Gorgeous, buttery stuff. Our friends here didn’t clip it, but rather an industrious Chinese shepherd did. Bloody U.S. Customs Service did their best to sabotage my shipment. Couldn’t figure out how to classify it for duty so they were ready to send it back to China. Bloody fools.”

Sandra Smith had noticed that Avery could be quite up-and-down. He could snarl. Then, the next thing you know, he’s as excited as a kid and he’s got everyone running around doing things and having fun.

“What will happen to the wool once they teach you how to spin it?” she asked. “Look how much there is already!”

“Well then, we’ll have to learn to dye it, won’t we? Roots, fruits, bark and all that good stuff. Grind it all up and let it boil for a few days. Then we plop in all that nice wool and we have something.”

“My goodness! You’re going to learn to dye the wool as well? From fruits and roots?”

“And bark. Bit of a problem, though. There’s no one around who knows how to do it. Of course it’s a cinch with synthetic dyes—anyone can do that. But I’ve only heard of one person in America who is really expert at dyeing with natural substances.”

“Why, who is that, Avery?” As she and Deane talked, his spiritual teachers continued to turn out an impressive quantity of hand-spun wool.

“Woman in Oregon. A witch. Casts spells and all that. But she knows how to use natural dyes and can even dye a specific color from Mother Nature’s bounty.”

“Hmmm. Is she going to be your spiritual guide, too?”

“If I can find her.” Suddenly Avery stopped winding wool into skeins and stood straight. He looked at Sandra as if surprised to see her. “Why that’s it, my dear. You can help me look for her. We’ll have a lark! Oregon! I’ve never been there!”

“Why Mr. Deane!”

“Cherise Hollander, that’s her name. Said to live in the woods somewhere around Coos Bay. I’m sure we can find her. How many witches could there be in Oregon?”


What a time! They drove up the Pacific coast in Sandra’s car. (Why had they decided to take hers? She couldn’t remember.) What a time they had had in ridiculous but at least cheap little motels—which was good because it always seemed to happen that Avery was somewhere else when it came time to pay. What a time they had had asking here and there in Oregon about a witch named Cherise Hollander. And finally they had crunched up a long gravel driveway lined with conifers, tooting the horn to announce their approach to the lonely cabin. No need to surprise someone who, startled, might cast a spell on intruders. And now it seemed as if they had found her. A woman stood before the door of her cabin and watched them approach. She neither wore a pointed hat nor did she have a pointed chin, and, though a cat sat beside her looking at the strangers, it was a calico. The woman was soft and mild and vague-looking in loose-fitting, hand loomed clothes of tasteful colors, a shawl around her shoulders. Deane eased the car to within a few yards of where she stood and turned off the motor. He rolled down his window and a smell of conifers and high mountains blew into Sandra’s car.

“Have we found you then?” Deane called to the witch. “Cherise Hollander?” When she neither answered nor moved, he went on. “It is said, my dear, that you have unlocked the secrets of natural dyes and we have come to learn from you.”

She considered. “I’m not taking students,” she said.

“Apprentices, then: two learners who will clean up after you for scraps of wisdom.” Sandra wasn’t so sure she wanted to become an apprentice. After all, she would have to get back home before long. She was hoping that Avery could work out something short of an apprenticeship.

The woman smiled. “Scraps of wisdom?” She shook her head and invited them to come in.

She had soon heated a brimming kettle-full of vegetable soup. Fresh-looking, leafy garden things floated in its bubbling broth. Sandra examined them suspiciously, but Avery Deane ploughed into his soup with relish. “The earth’s bounty,” he said between spoons full. “Homegrown! Fresh from the garden soil.” Then, “Earthworms!” Sandra recoiled in horror from her bowl, confirmed in her worst fears. But Deane went on, “Earthworms. Those natural tillers of the soil! What a job they’ve done to the soil in which these vegetables grew. Health! Nature’s bounty, not so, Sandra? Ah, the good life!” For a moment Sandra felt almost jealous. He seemed nearly as enthusiastic about this witch’s soup as he had about her own doilies. But soon Sandra herself began to notice just how fresh and tasty the soup was, and she lost her thoughts about earthworms and her jealousy as she gave herself to nature’s bounty.

“Yum,” she said aloud.

After lunch, while they sat and chatted, Sandra noticed that Avery eyed Cherise’s homespun clothes.

Suddenly he jumped up. “My God, “it is true, isn’t it? Your clothes! You’ve made them yourself, haven’t you? And their colors—how they glow—you’ve dyed them from nature, haven’t you? By God, I can’t stand it!” He was pulling at his hair, evidently in a kind of ecstasy. His voice had risen to a thrilling shout. “And see here!” He had taken a corner of her shawl. “You’re wearing a textile that should be admired by thousands! Wearing it when it could be in a museum! Lock it up!” he cried. “Lock it up, lass. Mount it, frame it, photograph and publish it, but lock it up!

Sandra noticed Cherise’s shawl for the first time. It was pretty, like hippy clothes from the 60’s, but this one was really good. Even Cherise looked down at it—at her own shawl—and seemed surprised to see what a fine thing it was. She stroked it appreciatively, but soon she peered closer at Deane, who was stomping about like Rumpelstiltskin.

“I can say a few words that will make you feel much better,” she told him. “Or I can brew something special for you.”

He calmed down right away. It was a good thing, too, because Sandra had resolved that there was no way she could let him take something the witch gave him. But he appeared to have had the same thought, and he carefully backed away from Cherise. “No, no,” he said. “But really, dear, I can’t tell you how much I admire your work with natural dyes. I mean, if you aren’t taking students, well, I wonder whether you might be interested in dyeing some wool for us. Handspun Chinese wool. It’s in the car.”

“A commission?”

“Yes, yes, a commission. But a difficult one, because the wool will have to be dyed particular colors, you understand? I have six very particular colors in mind.”

“What for?”

“Why, for nothing, dear. For the lovely colors. For fun, you might say. For love! For truth! For beauty!” He was beginning to get wound up again.

“Maybe you’d better show me the colors you have in mind.”

“Splendid. But all I have to show you is a few photographs.”

“Of?”

“Of old rugs, dear. Old Chinese rugs.”

“Oh I can do those. That’s where I started, 20 years ago. The colors in old Chinese carpets. I can do them in my sleep. Would you like to see my garden?” That’s when Sandra found out where all those leafy and twiggy things in the soup came from, and all the roots and fruit skins and whatever that Cherise made her dyes from. Right there beside her cabin. It was a wonderful garden, but not a single thing in it looked familiar to Sandra.

Four days later, when it was time to settle up with Cherise for the sixty skeins of wool she had dyed to order from natural substances, Avery was tromping around in the woods somewhere and Sandra wrote a check. $450. But she decided not to worry about it. She was having the time of her life.

handspun wool for oriental rugs

When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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