Copyright©Oct. 2013 Suzy Stewart Dubot
Knit one, purl one, knit one, purl one…
The needles clicked with each stitch made. It was the only sound that filled the air in the square, coming from dozens and dozens of knitters’ needles. One would not be faulted for thinking that the sound was some sort of mating call of birds or crickets early in the morning.
The women had come at daybreak to claim the best places for the spectacle, but Madame Defarge reserved the right to choose her place no matter the hour of her arrival. The other women knew who she was and, while respecting her, feared her more for her relentless, pitiless battle against the enemy. Some said that her husband feared her too.
What were these women knitting? Each something serviceable, but nonetheless crafted to earn the admiration of the other women; mittens, socks, and sometimes something finer for a grandchild to wear. Years of practice meant the women could knit without looking, allowing them to watch the square’s centrepiece, the stage for theatricals.
There was a lull in the sound as Madame Defarge made her appearance at the edge of the crowd. As she weaved her way through the seated spectators, the knitters took up their work again once she had passed. It was those at the very front who waited to see where Madame Defarge would choose to plant herself.
Bitterness can transform a face. There had been very little joy in Madame Defarge’s life but a whole lot of misery to anchor her to an unwavering search for revenge. She would not rest until every nobleman had paid for what they had done to her family. Her face was pinched now as she settled herself on the crude stool she had brought with her. Her greying hair had escaped from the red cloth bonnet in an unkempt torment of frizz. Her eyes squinted permanently as she scrutinized all before her and her lips were barely visibly as her mouth was tightly clamped shut.
From a rough cloth sack, she drew out her knitting. It was a long narrow piece that had nothing to its credit except its length. If one were to guess its purpose, the only item coming to mind would be a scarf as it had long ago passed the dimensions for any other item of clothing.
Shouts and cries could be heard in the distance, gaining volume as the carts passed those lining the road and approaching the square. It was much like a lit fuse burning its way nearer to the explosive. Those seated didn’t bother to turn because they would soon have full view of the tumbrel as it rolled to a stop at the foot of its destination – the guillotine.
A pathetic assortment of prisoners was discharged from the cart, and with each one the noise rose as if welcoming a favourite actor to the stage.
Madame Defarge continued her knitting. Each thrust of the needle into a stitch had her swearing, damning Madame la Guillotine’s latest victims to hell. She no longer heard the spectators’ cries as her own words burst forth with such venom that the women either side of her shifted away a little, sensing an unhinged mind.
When the day’s last victims’ bodies had been removed with their heads in bloodied baskets, the crowds had already dispersed. Witnessing the beheading of one cartload of nobles in a day was often enough to satisfy the hatred felt towards them, while demonstrating that one had done one’s duty by being present.
Madame Defarge finally realised that she was one of the few remaining in the square. She finished the row of knitting with curses for each stitch and then wiped her mouth of spit with the piece, before stuffing it into the dirty hemp sack. She would be back tomorrow. As long as there were aristocrats to be rid of, she would have stitches to knit.
The Tale of Two Cities Press is based on the two cities where I have spent most of my life â€” London and Paris. The association of the two cities automatically brought to mind that Dickensian tale of the French revolution. Hence, you will find my own interpretation in the following short story. Madame Defarge leads a relentless combat against French aristocrats and then takes pleasure in seeing them die...