The Sewing Project


On the morning after she turned 21 years old, Eudela borrowed her uncle’s horse-drawn carriage and for half a day journeyed through the inner city’s confusing warren of streets. Despite that it was already a feat that she made only one wrong turn, ending up on a sad concrete strip populated by shriveled old women selling prayers for the dead, braided hair belonging to lost loves, and bottles of fetus floating in formaldehyde, she still screeched, “Punyeta!”—a noise loud enough to send the fetuses into hiccups. Eudela was not a girl to make light of mistakes, especially not if the mistakes were hers.

It was a little past one o’clock when she finally arrived at the Chinaman’s shop. Followed by a shopgirl who squeezed her girth through the stacked aisles by walking sideways, Eudela did her shopping. Consulting a list meticulously made the night before, she chose four meters of sturdy cotton 160 inches in width; a pair of Solingen scissors that she was assured was so sturdy she could pass it on to her children if she felt so inclined, a packet of golden-tipped needles, and a roll of ordinary white thread, this last marked down to 75 percent its original price because street dust had turned the first layer a dull brown. (Eudela was a perfectionist, but this did not prevent her from being frugal when she could.)

As soon as the doors had flung open on his shop of notions and all sorts of knickknacks, Inkong had put the greasy tabloid he was reading down on the wooden counter to watch the girl enter with the brisk strides and purposeful gestures of someone at least a full head taller. He thought back on his daily horoscope just read: “Today you will make a fortuitous acquaintance.”

Thinking of that line, as he was making change for the girl, Inkong asked, “Is it for a sofa slipcover, or for curtains to diffuse the noon light? ”

Eudela hesitated for a moment, then shook her head no. For the first time outside the presence of family she declared, “I am going to sew myself a man.”

Adam’s apple crazily bobbing up and down his thin neck, Inkong swallowed down a chuckle. From the way the girl in front of him had squared her shoulders as if for a fight, he wisely figured out that to laugh was not a good idea. So instead he reached from behind the counter and tossed for free into Eudela’s basket a square of cardboard on which two overlarge plastic buttons were attached. “They might come in handy,” he said, “for making the eyes.”

That night, back in the upstairs room she occupied in the enormous ochre house she shared with her grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, stray family friends, and an ever-expanding variety of cousins, Eudela swept the dust bunnies out from under her fat, lumpy bed and slid her purchases into the dark space.

The next two days were busy at her grandmother’s sewing studio where Eudela worked as quality controller. They were finishing an order from the first prince’s best friend’s company for ten thousand and one hundred ten shirts made from cloth woven by the women of a famous coastal village two days away eastward. Save for the curious blood-red hue of the dye extracted from the exploding pods of the granada tree, the fabric looked like ordinary cotton, but warp and weft were woven together so tight and using a technique passed on from mothers to first daughters that the cloth would never wear thin.

In the studio they employed only magichands, gifted artisans marked from birth by having extremities that ended with at least six fingers each. Eudela had never come across a misaligned hemline, and only once on a loose button, and then only because the magichand responsible was an aging dame who needed a pair of eyeglasses but was too vain to admit the fact.

Eudela enjoyed her job immensely because in the factory she rarely had to deal with errors and mistakes. She felt strongly that she really had had enough of those, that she had been plagued by them all her life.

A big part of her woes had to do with that although there existed passionate attraction between her parents Celina and Eduardo, man and wife were also hopelessly incompatible.

They would spend their nights locked in their room making love so loud that every time they climaxed the ground on which the house stood would tremble, waking everybody and their next-door neighbors up. Members of the village’s various religious organization even began holding prayer vigils for the souls of the inhabitants of the ochre house. After cracks began to appear all over the walls, requiring expensive repairwork, Eudela’s grandmother finally put her foot down: either the couple find their own apartment, or else they install soundproofing.

Daytime, the noise they made came from vicious spats that would begin from nothing at all but could escalate to plates being hurled and names being called. Eudela had been born on the same day as a girl cousin, and in the confusion that inevitably followed one of her parents’ fights, she would spend days being called by the wrong name and sucking from the wrong teat. (Her aunt, her cousin’s mother, for myopic reasons was rarely able to tell Eudela and her own baby apart.) When Celina would finally notice the mistake, the infants would change hands; but then Eduardo would find out, and the couple would be bickering again.

This state of affairs continued until the two girls were six, when Eudela’s cousin’s parents moved their family away to the colder countries, where they set up a business selling fried lumpia. Eudela was finally left at peace, but indelibly marked.

As a reaction to the early chaos, Eudela developed a rigid, exacting personality which served her well first at school, and then now at the sewing factory, but which had the effect of leaving her almost in a perpetually agitated state. The slightest disorder stressed her out.

The sewing studio was her oasis. From eight in the morning until five in the afternoon, enveloped by the hum of sewing machines, she would make her way through piles and piles of clothing, knowing that they would all be the same, shirt after shirt after shirt, and the same with the pants and the skirts. She would always feel a tug of regret when the end of the workday came.

Given her personality, Eudela was the kind of girl who usually tried to do things right, but despite the entire family’s urging, she would not do as expected of women her age and try to find herself a spouse.

“You’re going to end up a sour-faced old maid,” was her grandmother’s perpetual warning, often said right in front of her Aunt Nelisa, whose face was set in a perpetual grimace and who was, in fact, an old maid.

“Che!” her aunt would mutter under her breath, only to pull Eudela into a quiet corner to tell her of the cold frustrations of lonely nights.

Her Uncle Guevarra, who was the village basketball coach and thus knew all the young men who lived in the area, would every other week find an excuse to invite one or the other of them over to present to her niece. Guevarra taught Eudela to ride a bicycle when she was a child and she was fond of the man, so she suffered the introductions, but as soon as it was polite to do so, Eudela would excuse herself to go hide in the big house, leaving the young man to discuss sports with her uncle over perspiring glasses of kalamansi juice.

It was her father Eduardo who finally changed Eudela’s mind. The man had long ago found a solution to his marital woes by going to work on a fishing vessel. He would leave on voyages for months on end, coming home only four times a year, enough to quench his and his wife’s passions, but never staying long enough for plates to start getting smashed.

On one of his stays home, over Sunday family dinner and tired of hearing grandmother, uncles, and aunts complain about the nonexistent state of his second daughter’s romantic life, Eduardo snapped, “Just let Eudela be!”

Now as anyone who put half the effort into it could guess, the problem was that Eudela had made up her mind not to end up like her mother, married to somebody she seemed to detest half the time. A girl who wanted to be clear about her positions on all the important issues, Eudela had some time ago decided that while she wasn’t very fond of Celina, Eduardo she positively disliked. From her childhood she remembered him screaming the loudest. She didn’t relish the thought of having her father on her side.

After a week spent thinking and another spent planning, writing down the pros and the cons, outlining logistics, and calculating expenses, Eudela came to another decision.

She had only the regular eight fingers and two opposable thumbs, but so fascinated by how expertly the magichands worked, the willful young woman decided that she was going to eliminate at least one of life’s uncertainties. She was just going to go ahead and make herself the most perfect of men.

After her trip to Inkong’s shop, and with the last of the indestructible shirts folded, packed, and shipped, Eudela went home and took a long bath. Free of lint and well-perfumed thereafter, she unrolled a sheet of brown paper and did her pattern over twice.

She was certain that her man must be exactly four inches taller than she was. “So I only have to tilt my head back slightly to look him soulfully in the eyes.” Eudela had other precisions—the distance between the eyes and the the angle of the jawline included. She also had down pat the length of the neck, the width of the shoulders, the breadth of the chest; the diameter of upper arms and thighs; the thickness of wrists and calves.

Just before applying pattern to cloth, she snipped off a corner of fabric and went in search of the individual whose opinions in terms of aesthetics she trusted most.

Her elder sister Marina had, unlike Eudela, survived their shared childhood largely unscathed. She now travelled all over the twelve continents, exhibiting her canvasses painted with women whose torso grew various fruits and flora. At that moment she was on creative hiatus, and when Eudela found her she was parked with her easel under the backyard’s century-old mango tree, accompanied by the wooden dog that had been her pet since the age of seven.

The artist looked unconvinced at the limp piece of fabric her young sister held out. Unravelling an inch of thread, she put this in her mouth, chewed for a second, and then spat it out.

“There is only one color for a man,” closing her eyes, in her throaty alto Marina began. “Make him an azure forehead, ultramarine lips, and beryl cheeks. I see a sapphire nose, navy ears, and—”

The artist dramatically gasped, touching her throat with red-manicured fingernails and opening her eyes wide.

“What is it?” Despite that Eudela was familiar with Marina’s theatrics, she was nonetheless slightly alarmed.

“I don’t know about you, but personally I would die for a guy with brilliant cerulean eyes.”

A week later, Eudela was back in Inkong’s shop. Trying to ignore the shopgirl crowding her from behind, she investigated the display of embroidery thread, paying particular attention to the blue selection.

Sensing her exasperation, and of course it must be admitted attracted to the way her firm breasts pushed against her linen blouse, Inkong approached and helped her figure out which shade of blue was which. Then—and at this the shopgirl lifted her eyebrows in surprise—he invited her to the eatery across the street to chat over jasmine tea and sweet hopia. Despite that she appreciated how Inkong was so helpful and that she found him to have a very nice smile, Eudela very firmly shook her head and declined.

For the next few months, when Eudela wasn’t working, she spent almost all her time with the sewn man. The family was not sure what to make of the the plan at the beginning, but whatever misgivings anyone had was soon erased by Eudela’s impressive dedication to the project.

She bought a used embroidery book, and tattoed the torso with an intricate assortment of fauna. There were two wild cats, a monkey-eating eagle, and a nest of serpents, mainly done in chain and blanket stitches, bullion knots, and couching. On a rainy Saturday morning, the girl in her could not resist; Eudela permitted herself a trio of lasy daisies on the lower back.

When Aunt Nelisa saw the results, the older woman began to hyperventilate and almost passed out.

Eudela’s man was going be a showcase of all things she admired and found beautiful, and she wanted him to be just exactly right. So at least once a month, after diligently examining her work and making sketches of what she still wanted done, she went with a shopping list and made the trip to Inkong’s shop.

February, because she had had enough of embroidering in blue, Eudela allowed Inkong to introduce her to filaments named carmine and cerise, saffron and bisque, lilac and heliotrope—different shades of red, yellow, and violet. Ever so practically, she also chose some alabaster, jet, and umber.

March, she made up her mind that the cerulean eyes Marina saw were going to be of hand-blown glass. Promising Inkong that the buttons he’d given her were to be used on a jacket, Eudela had the shopkeeper send an order off to the artisans in Venezia.

On a hot April day, Eudela was in the shop stocking up on fine wool, using the money she had initially saved up for a beach holiday. “He will always be dressed in suits,” she explained to Inkong, who himself went around in jeans and old T-shirts, although when he knew Eudela was coming, he did take care to wear one of his two tops that were not already saggy around the collar.

As he was wrapping the wool in brown paper bags, Inkong flashed Eudela one of his easy smiles and then, thinking that after months of getting acquainted he now had a chance, he asked Eudela if she now wanted to get some tea and hopia. After she had said no, the young woman was surprised at how bad she felt seeing Inkong looking crestfallen. She was even more surprised that she felt such an urge to then say yes that the only way she could stop herself was to grab her bags and run out of the shop.

It was a Sunday afternoon and she was quilting a belly. Her man’s stomach had to made of sturdy stuff, Eudela had decided, the better to swallow life’s challenges. To that end, she had chosen squares of tough corduroy and high-quality batting from Europe, and was hand-sewing together the fabric squares at the large wooden table in the kitchen

It was one of those rare moments when Eudela found herself alone in the same room as her mother. After giving birth to Eudela, Celina had taken a break from baby-making, only to take it up again seven years later, when Eduardo began working on the ships and the long absences enhanced their fertility. She produced five children in quick succession, and had still not gotten herself rid of the perpetually harrassed look shared by mothers of small children everywhere.

After watching Eudela stab her finger a few times and curse repeatedly, Celina stopped stirring the porridge she was cooking in an aluminum pot, lit herself a cigarette and, with the stick clamped between her lips, sat beside her often ignored second daughter.

She had never said anything to Eudela about what she thought of the sewn man, but now she foraged through the huge wooden sewing kit, finding a ball of yarn and a crochet hook. She made a few chain stitches, some slips, a triple treble. For a few minutes, they sat quietly together, each one absorbed in her task. The younger woman even stopped cussing.

When Celina was done, she surveyed her work, then passed it to her daughter. It was a loud purple, lopsided and loose, one lobe larger than the other—an imperfect heart. Not saying anything, only exhaling cigarette smoke, Celina stood up to stir her porridge.

It was October, there was the beginning of a chill to the air, and a beautiful young couple sat together on the garden swing of the ochre house to enjoy the evening breeze. Eudela was pretty in a white dress and her hair brushed in soft curls around her shoulders, and the sewn man was indeed a sight to behold—
patchworked, quilted, and embroidered to such beauty, each stitch perfectly in place!

Eudela was trying her best to enjoy the singing of the frogs in the pond and the humming of the nighttime mosquitoes, but after a while, she decided that she needed some conversation. For the best part of an hour, she told him stories from the sewing studio. All throughout, it was a monologue; the sewn man uttered not a word. Eudela had sewn his mouth into a tight line, because she had been convinced that the perfect man should be the silent type.

Her throat sore from talking, Eudela finally shut up and rested her head on the shoulder of her perfect man. She rubbed her cheek against the wool of his jacket. Beneath his clothes she could feel his muscles made strong by the polyfill she had packed in there very tight.

In ten minutes, Eudela was sitting upright again. The wool was scratchy on her skin and made her perspire, while the muscles were much too hard, they hurt her head.

It took the young couple just eight days to figure out that they were not meant for each other. On a Thursday morning, they said their goodbyes at the door of the ochre house, surrounded by Eudela’s family, who were of the position that although the sewn man was a little too stiff for somebody who was after all sewn and stuffed, he was not at all of a bad sort. Aunt Nelisa could not help but sigh as with admirable stoicism the sewn man got on the horse-drawn carriage and went away to the coast, where the women weavers awaited him.

As soon as the carriage was out of sight and she was done waving, Eudela took out paper and pen to begin making a list. The failure of her project had led her to much self-examination. One of her realisations was that she was much too tense, and a little hobby like cross-stitching would help her relax. All the supplies she needed were to be found at Inkong’s shop. With the sewn man out of the picture, she might even ask him out to drink jasmine tea and snack on hopia.

Apol Lejano-Massebieau was originally a newspaper reporter and magazine editor before making the jump to writing fiction- and creative non-fiction a few years ago. She has since published her short stories in magazines such as Philippine Free Press and Philippine Genre Stories, and in book anthologies, such as the Philippine Speculative Fiction volumes (Kestrel), Sawi (Milflores), and A Time for Dragons (Anvil). For her creative non-fiction, she has won a Palanca Award, and in 2009 launched a collection of essays, Provenciana (Visionaria Publishing), currently available in Philippine bookstores.