Naomi Kelsey’s His Mother’s Quilt won the HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition in 2021. It’s a dark, gothic-tinged story of oppression and loss with supernatural undertones, which the judges praised for its “tense, delicate writing. Lace woven with steel threads.”
To celebrate the opening of 2022’s HWA DDS competition to entries, we’re publishing Naomi’s winning story in full. And if you’re interested in entering this year, we’ve got details at the bottom of this page.
You must rest, they told me, but there is nothing restful about being instructed to sleep. Rest, rest: it chafes like damp lace, a veil dragged across flinching skin. In the darkness I toss and turn, as if I might leave my thoughts on the other side of the bed. With every twist, the sheets snare my ankles and my flesh catches on this quilt, and the cotton breathes rest and the silks hiss rest and I can no longer tell if I do not sleep because they will not hush, or because I am bent on contrariness. I have been instructed to be less contrary too.
The quilt was Mother’s. She died in it, giving birth to a stillborn baby eight years after Lavinia was born. Or on it: Simon would not clarify. He said I should not be so morbid, and talk of his mother’s demise distressed him, but how should I know whether a woman gives birth atop a quilt or beneath it? The latter presents certain practical issues, such as burrowing midwives, but the former is surely rather undignified, though childbearing seems to entail a general loss of dignity. I am sure I have read of birthing stools, but that does not seem to chime with the story of Mother’s death. Not my mother, who is cheerfully alive in Islington and writing letters to newspapers about women’s suffrage, though I am not permitted to see her, lest that further unsettle me and place the baby in greater danger. When we say Mother in this house, we only mean Simon’s mother. The last Lady Ryecroft.
I wish I could tell if it were bloodstained. Perhaps the pieces were chosen with childbirth in mind: scarlet silk, crimson damask, ruby velvet, rose-sprigged cotton. They certainly weren’t chosen with ease of sewing in mind: the weights are all wrong. Maybe Mother enjoyed making her sewing projects as daunting as possible. If she was anything like her daughter, she would have taken great pleasure in comparing other people’s work unfavourably to her own. “You sew such neat seams! I wish my embroidery contained more straightforward sewing.”
The quilt is well-made, I must admit. I have searched for flaws, along with bloodstains, and I cannot find many. A tuft in the damask, which my fingernails may have snagged; a velvet diamond’s nap running the wrong way. Perhaps Mother placed it thus deliberately. Though since her hands would have run across softness in every other velvet patch and jarred against this one rough spot, I doubt she would have deliberately set herself up for irritation. Unless she was the kind of woman who wore hair shirts and refused pudding with a sanctimonious sigh, while watching everyone else lick berry juice and cream from their lips. Misery has its own pleasure, for some.
Rasp, rasp. I do it on purpose, knuckles scraping satin, nails ticking against taffeta. I imagine it annoying Lavinia. “Follow the weave,” she’d chide. “This silk is delicate.”
Delicate. What is not? I am delicate, they tell me, every day, as often as they can – del-i-cate, as carefully as if I am a wilful horse they would placate, each syllable patting the mussed air around me. My situation is delicate, or is it ours? There are delicate matters they cannot discuss with me, which means all matters other than birdsong and embroidery, provided I have slept well. Otherwise, needles are best kept away, apart from the doctor’s, of course.
What a delicate thing I am. My delicate veins are eggshell blue and the doctor breaks them open as often as he pleases. My delicate skin, porcelain white, so pale it is nearly translucent: bone china would look grey beside me. But I am too delicate to contain hot liquids: no Darjeeling can be poured into me lest I shatter, nor anything so exciting as a spiced posset. I may only have possets thick with milk and bland as porridge. I dream of lemon’s sharpness, nutmeg’s breathy sweetness, ginger’s supple thrill.
What else am I too delicate for? Leaving the house. Leaving the room. Leaving the bed. Drawing. Writing. I can listen to music, if Lavinia will come upstairs and play for me, but she says she prefers the piano to anything more portable, and her playing on other instruments would merely unsettle me further. I think watching Lavinia struggle with a harp would be immeasurably pleasant, but thinking is among the activities I am discouraged from pursuing. Yet telling someone not to think is the single most effective way to make them think, and so here I am, alone with my thoughts.
For someone so delicate, they have surrounded me with delicate things. Perhaps delicateness is contagious. Thread a pearl earring through your flesh and lo! You are as delicate as the silver filigree enmeshing the pearl. Trail a forefinger against the china shepherdess’s primrose skirts, and you stiffen into fragility, not knowing if you cannot move because you are china, or if you are breakable because you dare not move. Lift up your arms for the white muslin nightgown, and you too will whiten and grow thin, and after a while, you will become easily torn. Or perhaps you were always easily torn and you didn’t realise you should avoid nails, metal or finger, until it was too late.
Maybe I am too delicate to damage the other delicate things. Or they are too delicate to damage me. If I am not permitted to leave the bed, I may never find out. Like picking strange mushrooms: if I never rip them out of the ground, I will never know if they could have poisoned me, and so we both live on, uncertain just how destructive we are.
I wonder if I could damage this quilt.
I dreamed of Mother last night. She was standing over the bed, inspecting me – there’s no other word for it. I’ve worn the same expression myself when deciding between bolts of turquoise moiré or cornflower taffeta, searching for a flaw in the weave, assessing whether sunlight or candlelight might render it dull. And I saw it on her face, the one I’ve seen every day of my marriage until I was ordered to rest, in the dratted photograph on the drawing room mantelpiece, and in the portrait on the landing. Mouth like a taut seam, white skin never creasing to crepe; she will forever be younger than I am. Her eyes lingered on the mole by my left eyebrow, hunted for lines around my eyes and mouth. I almost expected her to pull my lips apart to see if my teeth were chipped. But then her stare slid – no, slithered downwards, to the quilt covering my stomach. Her quilt, atop my body, my baby. The quilt she died on. And then she opened her mouth and said, quite simply, quite clearly, “No.”
I jolted awake then, and I cannot decide if I am glad. Her disdain, her disappointment: even in a dream, they made me quite cold. As precious as this quilt is, I must say it is far from cosy.
But what did she mean, no?
The doctor says dreams are merely my sub-conscious, which I know is very fashionable these days. But even if it was my unconscious self, what am I telling myself? Is no an instruction? A rejection? I have been forbidden quite enough things already: surely there is nothing else left of which I can be deprived?
Or was she speaking not about me, but about my child?
I dare not think about it.
It is raining. It usually is, these days. Or perhaps it is just that rain is so much more noticeable from indoors than any other kind of weather, tap-tap-tapping at the windows like impatient fingernails. And then the drops slide down like the memories of snails that never were, and go where? From my bed, I cannot tell. They might pool on the windowsill, slowly penetrating the wood so that in twenty, fifty, a hundred years’ time, it will warp and rot and spit the glass from its frame and a Lady Ryecroft who is not me will have to have words with her staff. Or they might worm their way down the walls, past the drawing room window and down to the roses beneath, making their petals glisten. Or perhaps the petals have already wilted and fallen, and it will only be thorns gleaming in the rain, like blades sheathed in silvery blood.
But how should I know? Days bleed into days, and although my belly swells, I no longer know how many weeks until my baby should be born, and all I see is pellet after pellet hurling itself against the glass, pock, pock, pock. It is falling almost horizontally. Or maybe the world has turned on its side, and I am under the glass, staring helplessly up at the water that would drown me if it could.
It rained on our wedding day. I remember the silk of my gown was marked, damp seeping up from the hem like mould across a wall. The peonies in my bouquet showered the guests with droplets when I threw it, so that they all seemed to be weeping for me, or for missing their chance to grab it. Simon’s hat kept the worst of the rain off his face, but when he bent to kiss my cheek, water dripped off the brim and down my neck, slithering under my corset like a cold finger.
Mother was not there, of course; she was long-dead, if not forgotten. Perhaps that is why we laughed. Or perhaps because Lavinia was kept away from us by having to converse with various distant cousins and great-aunts – or because my mother was there with us. I have not seen her since. Three years, and five lost chances, and countless letters read aloud by Simon, telling me that my mother is busy, or unwell, or away elsewhere, or simply cannot face the journey north.
I think of our journey north, sometimes, through valleys guarded by twisted hawthorns, across vast moors, greens and purples undulating towards a kestrel-stitched horizon. It was not so terrible. Long, yes, but scarcely arduous, for the Ryecroft carriages are exceptionally well-sprung and the seats newly upholstered, though three-year-old leather is perhaps no longer new. I am sure my mother would cope admirably.
But the doctor says she cannot come now. No one can come, save Lavinia and Simon, not until after the baby comes, and so I wait and wait in a silence broken only by salvos of raindrops against glass.
She comes, though. She comes almost every night now. Her hems rustle like skeleton leaves, like a whisper behind my back, and there is the damp, reproachful smell of clothes that no one wears, and another smell, the kind that used to make me ashamed every month, a smell of dirt and silence and secrets. And then she is there. Her eyes pierce me, scissors breaking through my skin, picking me apart. She lifts a pale hand towards the quilt, and the mound where my belly rests, and each time she says “No.”
I have torn the quilt.
I must have done it in my sleep, though I cannot fathom how, because I tried tugging at the seams a little yesterday, just experimentally, but it transpired Mother’s stitches were exceptionally strong, quite as exemplary as her every other skill and virtue. This morning, however, there was a rip, about eight inches wide, gaping like a wound. Not along a seam, but straight through several pieces, sundering little roses; the ragged edges of silk waft like crimson cobwebs.
I would almost imagine a knife had done it. But knives have not been permitted in here since I fell ill.
What will Simon say? Perhaps I could conceal it with a cushion, or a book. But it is somewhat wider than my volume of Northanger Abbey, and why would I have a cushion on my lap? The cats never came near this room before, and they will hardly start because I wish to conceal a torn quilt.
Besides, the tear is above my belly: the first place anyone looks. Before my eyes, the colour of my cheeks, before taking my hand, everyone looks at my belly. And now they will see I have torn Mother’s quilt.
How, though? I have nothing sharp enough to tear my own skin. My fingernails are kept quite short, and I would hardly have set about the cloth with my teeth. I may be delicate, but I am not savage.
Simon has spoken with the doctor, who talks about rather than to me, of course. Apparently women in my condition can often exhibit unusual strength. It is part of becoming a mother: the animal instinct to protect. Though Simon could not say how tearing a quilt was protecting either me or the baby, and only told me I should not worry.
I would be less likely to worry if I were as delicate as he insists, rather than capable of ripping cloth in two with my bare hands. Or a knife; I still think it was a knife. But that is worrying in itself, for where on earth did it come from?
Lavinia is sewing it back together, of course, tutting all the while. She’s sitting by the window, for the light, and so I am wrapped in a couple of shawls, without the quilt atop me, and feeling remarkably well. Perhaps not well enough to ride, or climb a hill, as I used to, before – but I am sure I could stand, or walk in the garden. I should like to smell lavender, fresh, that is, not the brittle, greying stuff Lavinia leaves in bowls. To see a bee, fat and yellow among purple irises, or brush my fingers against fern leaves, gleaming green in the sunshine. Marigolds. Hyacinths. Violets. Anything but red.
“There,” Lavinia says, snipping her thread. “You can scarcely see the stitches. Mother would be proud.”
She rises, the quilt draped across both arms. As she crosses to my bed, she looks as if her arms have been dipped in blood. Lady Macbeth, scarlet with slaughter.
I did not do it. Of that I am certain.
I dreamt of Mother again. Her face so close I could smell the grave-dirt on her breath, see each thread in her white shroud. Her vein-blue eyes bored into mine, and then she looked down my body and said again, “No.” I woke up screaming – only to discover that the quilt was torn again. Not along Lavinia’s seam, but in the same place: above my stomach.
She means me harm, I know it. She wants me dead, just as she died. If her baby cannot live, she will murder mine.
Simon will not believe me – he will not even listen. “You must calm yourself,” he repeats. “This is not good for the child.”
“It’s hardly good for me either!” I scream.
“If you carry on like this, I shall have to ask the doctor for laudanum.”
But I do not want laudanum. He knows it makes me vomit, and I do not like the dreams it brings: too bright, too loud.
What I want is for someone to take this quilt away and burn it.
If they will not help me, I must do it myself. But I am delicate, delicate, and there are no matches, no scissors.
There are windows though.
I cannot drag it to the window, so I must bring the glass to the quilt. Yet I did not think the quilt would be so heavy. I knew it pinioned me to the bed like a weighted net, but when all is said and done, it is just cloth, just threads and scraps, so how can it refuse to be pushed off me?
I cannot get out. Every time I try to roll over, slide, swing my legs to one side, it clamps me tight, a red straitjacket cocooning my limbs. It will not let me out.
No. She will not let me out.
As realisation dawns, pain rips through me. Nothing like the pains of before, but a black, razor-clawed, jagged-toothed roil of pain, and I cannot get away. All I can do is scream.
There is no baby.
They have told me this but I cannot bring myself to believe it. If there is no baby, what was it all for? All the blood, the screams, the pain – and nothing. My belly is empty, my arms are empty, and I lie here, raw and ripped apart, unable to even moan as Lavinia draws the quilt up over my shoulders.
There was a baby. There was. But she said no.
The 2022 HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition is now open for entries until 1 July, 2022. We’re looking for stories of up to 3,500 words, set at least 35 years in the past, which explore every aspect of historical fiction, from literary to adventure, crime to romance. We hope for great storytelling, fresh voices and new perspectives, and encourage you to be ambitious and imaginative in your themes.
The first prize is £500 and publication in Whispering Gallery and in Historia, plus a mentoring session from an author and agent. The winning story, two runners-up and three shortlisted stories will all be published as an ebook (also printable on demand) and all six finalists will be invited to the HWA’s annual awards celebration.
We’ll announce the longlist on 14 September and the shortlist and winner on 4 October, 2022.
For full details of the competition and how to enter, go to the HWA website.
Past winners of the HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Prize:
2020: The Race by Alice Fowler
2019: The Daisy Fisher by Kate Jewell
2018: Nineteen Above Discovery by Jennifer Falkner
2017: A Poppy Against the Sky by Annie Whitehead
Naomi Kelsey teaches English at a high school in Newcastle. She writes historical fiction set mainly in the 16th century and is currently working on a supernatural novel about an explorer’s wife and a globe that is not all it seems. She won a Northern Writers Fiction Award in 2014 and the Northern Writers Arvon Award in 2020.
She has been writing stories since she could hold a pen, and recalls being particularly aggrieved to discover, aged 5, that the title The Little Prince had been ‘stolen’ by another writer. In 2010, she won the Wicked Young Writer’s Award for her story Captain James Hook’s Most Estimable Treatise in Defence of Prospective Infanticide, which was in no way whatsoever inspired by a Friday afternoon lesson with Year 9. Her short stories have also been published in Mslexia and shortlisted for the Bristol Prize, and the Bridport Prize. Naomi is represented by Anne Williams at the Kate Hordern Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter at @naomikelsey_.
- New Year’s Eve Quilt by judy_and_ed: Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
- Woman Sewing by Mary Cassatt: Wikimedia (public domain)
- Derby porcelain shepherdess, c1770: photo by Samuel Uhrdin for the Hallwyl Museum via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
- Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman) by John Singer Sargent, 1893 (modified): Smithsonian American Art Museum via Wikimedia (public domain)
- Cameron and Taylor family wedding – Sydney, N.S.W. – August 1897: Picryl (public domain)
- Stork embroidery scissors, c1910: Mario Hains via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)