Denise O’Hagan: ‘The hemline of lost memories’

The hemline of lost memories
Lier, Flanders, 22 October 1569

I know what you’re thinking, but there’s no need to be scared. This is my spot, these old church steps; this is where I pass the time wrapped up in my gown, the fabric of my life, all forty-three years of it. They tried to take it away once, but what they didn’t realise is that the inner lining is padded thick with moments, memorable in their miniscule-ness. My adolescence is woven into the deep of my folds and the flares at my wrists; love lurks in the lace of my collar and in my caul, embroidered curves and loops of hopes and fears; but my undergarments have faded long ago with disillusionment, and I wear the seam of my youth behind me. Wool has hugged me in old age, cushioned me in my time on the streets and, in case you’re wondering, that hemline that I keep on stitching up, it’s swollen with instances that slip down the inside and could fall out and be washed away down the gutter if I didn’t catch them. And maybe I’d do better to let some of them go, but there’s one I won’t let them make me forget, even if it’s over twenty years since they took her away from me. Malformed as her little limbs were, they swore she was marked by the Devil himself and would bring a curse on the family. On the third day, I woke up in the night and she was gone. I never found out what they did with her, though I spent years roaming the back streets and beyond, my moans washing down the river long into the nights. The townsfolk said I was possessed, but I paid them no heed. I’ve stretched out those two brief days of ours together until they’re taut as cardboard, and double-stitched them into the hemline of my past with the crimson thread of love: now no one, not even you, with the curious eyes of a foreigner, can take them away.

Denise O’Hagan

In the sixteenth century, physical deformity was believed to be not only the mark of the Devil but, especially in the case of a female, evidence of diabolic nature.


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