My hands know how to introduce the wool. They guide the needle through the loop, joining in a familiar rhythmic pattern moving toward the strand wrapped tightly around my finger. My hands reach out to include the new wool within the circle. I listen as the needles speak to each other, and push one of them down, gently freeing the new stitch into existence.
My hands know how to push the swing forward and back, forward and back again, soothing Maria this afternoon.
“Hey, lady,” she turns to me, “that’s my brother, Carlos.” She points across the yard to where he is dribbling a basketball in front of the garage. “Don’t tell them,” she adds, whispering in her Hispanic accent. " Carlos is really 14; he’s too old to stay here.”
“No, I won’t tell,” I assure her.
She takes my hand as we walk together in the last warmth of Indian summer, beneath the maple trees that give their bright colors to the backyard of the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition, a shelter for abused women and their children. We sit together in a place Maria calls her “fort” under the protective boughs of a pine tree.
Maria rests her head in my lap, wanting me to stroke her dark hair.
“Your jeans are really soft, lady,” she says, touching my pant leg.
“I bought them in a used-clothing store,” I reply.
“Oh, the stores that smell bad, like cigarettes? I hate those stores. I have to buy my clothes there. Kids make fun of me at school ‘cause of what I wear.”
“Your clothes look fine to me,” I try to reassure her.
“Not to people at school. I just wanna die sometimes.”
“Oh, don’t say that. Tell me why?” I ask her.
“So I can see heaven. I wanna see God, you know?”
“It feels like heaven here to me sometimes,” I tell her. “See how the leaves fall like a colorful scarf wrapping up the yard. See?”
She stares at her Mickey Mouse watch.
“My dad died when I was 4. I don’t remember him though.” She turns towards me, checking to see if I am listening. “You know, I can’t even see my 16-year-old brother. He has a new foster family,” she confides. “We’ll never be able to visit him now.” She covers her face with her hands.
Carlos walks toward us nonchalantly, smoothing back his sleek hair, working in the most recent application of thick styling gel.
“Why she crying?” He questions me with a concerned look. “I loves my sister,” he continues. “I’d beat up anyone if they try to hurt her. Really I would.” To convince me he rolls up his shirt sleeve and makes a fist. Sitting in my lap, Maria cradles her face in her hands. He turns and leaves.
“Watch me make the dunk,” he calls to us, racing toward the basketball hoop. Maria is silent. I watch as tears escape from behind her hands and fall down onto my jeans, creating three perfect, dark-blue circles. I want to play basketball with her, to toss the ball in a curve, like a bridge over her tears, but we are surrounded by a silence that the backyard is unable to swallow.
Next Friday, when I return, Maria has moved out of the shelter. I am left alone on a gray, unnamed street. I fold into myself, listening, waiting. I can hear her small voice again: “Hey, lady, promise you’ll come back next week to see me please.” I will see her always, waving good-bye at the gate.
I stand ready. My hands are willing to push the swing again for a new girl who sleeps on white pillows marked “shelter” in indelible green ink. I am ready to be guided by hands more experienced and knowledgeable than my own. I am ready to learn how to move my knitting needles in intricate patterns with increasing confidence and compassion. I want to weave together the silent threads of suffering, introducing new strands of hope into a soft shawl, to wrap lovingly around the shoulders of the world.
A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week