Knitting needles work to craft a figure from the ether.

Cast Off Tight

Illustrated by Katie Chandler |  Edited by Julia Rios

June 2018

On the one hundredth day anniversary of her death he picks up the needles.

It is all an accident. She had been knitting the night before she died—a ritual as sacrosanct as morning coffee—and left everything unfinished, sprawling, as anyone would if they didn’t know they were going to die. He has been too afraid to look at her things, let alone put them away, delicately navigating the trip-wire maze of painful memories that is the apartment. But after three months of dazed semi-living he is careless, too careless. When he is walking back to his bed with water he looks down to avoid the glazed clay tiles made during their third date—his: obsessively neat grid of fish scales; hers: slightly misshapen engraved raven adorned with border of perfect roses—but his eyes flicker to the glint of a needle peeking out under the throw pillows.

He breathes thrice and the accursed needle winks at him, flaunting its object permanence, how it has been waiting all this time in patience for him to make this mistake. Fine. The cup is discarded and forgotten. He marches to the couch, stiff with anger.

Up goes the Cheshire Cat pillow and one of the last things she touched looks back at him. A memory: he sat down on a needle once, swore and spilled soda everywhere. She laughed and apologized profusely all at the same time and promised to put a pillow over knits-in-progress in the future. No one knows this detail besides the two of them, and she is gone forever, and when he dies and his neurons dissolve their interactions will be truly erased from the universe.

He is falling again, drifting down an infinite spiral, the simultaneously squeezed and stretched feeling whenever he thinks too much about death—all too frequent nowadays. A tingle spreads from his chest outwards and he is both hot and cold, all of his nerve endings blaring white noise. There is nothing to be done but wait for his mind and body to realize he is not dying. Not yet.

An unknown amount of time later he finds himself on the couch clutching the knit, quicksilver slowly draining from his eyes and limbs. He examines the two by five inches of scarf? hat? rectangle? very much unfinished, still rigged on the two heavy silver needles with a series of hooks and moored to a large bundle of yarn tucked in the hollow between the cushions. The pattern is thick and complex and reminds him of instant ramen, except the yarn is blue-green and shot with tiny streaks of silver. She loved ramen, especially the spicy seafood—

He massages his temples to stem the bleeding of old memories. The muzziness of his head saves him from another chain reaction of uncontrollable recollections. He should probably resume his routine of lying in bed now. While gingerly maneuvering the needles he begins to lay down the knit, fixing the angle of the oblique cross so the yarn doesn’t come undone—

Her laughter blooms near his ear.

It is unmistakable, a peal of silver bells dissolving into full-throated guffaws. Like a finch morphing into a goat, he thought when they first met. The yarn falls into a twisted heap, dropped in shock.

His forehead ripples into deep furrows. Sure, he is deeply depressed, but auditory hallucinations?

He touches the yarn with a finger, his heart roiling, but nothing happens. So he tries again, emboldened by failure. Brushes the yarn in every direction like an enthusiastic toddler fingerpainter. Presses and pulls. Nothing.

A long breath in, out to unwind his frustration. He can do this. Twists the panels of yarn back to how he thinks it was, picks it up as he did, slowly puts it down and half-accidentally grazes the edge of the yarn, and there she is again.

He repeats it five, ten, fifty times like a scientist until he can reliably duplicate the experience. The trick is applying a very specific amount of pressure to the side of his pinkie, the needle to the vinyl of the yarn. He knows the settings are correct when instead of the soft frizziness of normal yarn, he feels a strange sensation, electric and faintly buzzing.

This must be what the ancients felt when something utterly new shatters their sphere of understanding. The sun disappearing in the middle of the day only to return a minute later. Stars falling from the sky. Yarn that revives the dead. Instead of looking for answers—he is far too confused for that—he falls asleep on the couch to the sound of her laughter.

The store is a short ten-minute walk around the corner, tucked under the wooden cornflower blue sign of an owl pulling at a string in a grid and the hand-painted words WARP ON WEST. Isn’t this the best name? She had squealed with delight when she saw the sign and practically dragged him in by the arm while explaining the pun in frenzied detail.

If you don’t count the morgue and the funeral—he doesn’t—this is the first place he has been to in a hundred days besides work or home, and he has been banished from work indefinitely until he puts himself back together. But he does not want to think about that.

Instead he stares at the door and the calm people milling about through the windows, none of whom are screaming about possessed yarn. His resolve swirling down the drain, he puts his hands in his coat pockets, as one does when one has made a mistake, but this causes another: he accidentally brushes the yarn that he has forgotten about, and her laughter conjures phantom fingers around his elbow that pull him into the store. The cascade of bells tied to the door rings far too merrily in response. Yes, she would be delighted that her laughter is what sends him back.

At the counter to the right stands a clerk who makes eye contact and smiles so wide he has no course but to proceed.

“What thread is this?” He throws the bundle of blue-green-gray loose guts on the table. The unfinished knit, tethered to the flop of yarn by one string, continues to hide in his pocket, the needles poking his thigh. He is irrationally afraid to reveal it, lest the magic or whatever it is evaporates upon observation.

“It’s yarn, merino wool,” the clerk corrects with another ingratiating smile. “Looks like our memory collection.”

“Memory?” He repeats dumbly.

“When used with the memory needles, it records the environment into tactile data. Did you hear or feel something when you touch it?”

He nods, bewildered. That’s a thing?

“The needles have a microphone and little accelerometers inside that measure movement.” The clerk mimes crossing needles with fists. “When you’re knitting, they apply an electric field to the nanoparticles embedded in the yarn to create a landscape of the sound and movement. Touching it recreates the scene at the time it was made. It’s like a magic eye optical illusion, but for your fingers. Pretty cool, huh?”

Oh. He usually loves technology, but right now all he can think of is the bits of patterned color popping against the mental map of their apartment and all the secrets he might extract from them.

The clerk mistakes his silence for rapt attention. “It’s based on sensory substitution—you can look that up if you want to learn more. I think it was discovered like a decade ago, but no one has really found a good application beyond memory yarn and fancy alternative education schools. It has some use for the seeing- and hearing-impaired, but the quality varies a lot and some people can’t read with touch at all. A company was just sued for selling a glove that’s supposed to make you happy. I guess it didn’t work.”

He feels submerged, the muffled words pressing into his ears without imparting real meaning. Pinpricks tumble out from his numb mouth and land dully on the counter:

“She never told me.”

An awkward pause.

“I’m sorry. Would…you like to talk about it?” The clerk asks, not unkindly, but it is too much. He grabs the yarn and dashes out.

Back home he destroys the careful configuration of tripwires, turns the apartment inside-out to find these hidden memories she had saved, knowingly or not. He regrets not paying more attention to her hobby now, as none of the scarfs and sweaters he remembers are there, perhaps given away as gifts or mere creations of his desperate neurons. After half an hour he finds his first prize: a wrapped flexible bundle for one of her best friend’s birthday sitting on her shelf. She was always preparing for special occasions way ahead of time.

He opens the package carefully, unpeeling each piece of tape with infinite slowness so the paper does not rip. He will give it to Laura, of course, but surely she would not begrudge him reading from it. He finds two mittens and a note inside, densely packed with her spidery writing.

I played our favorite song on repeat when making this! xoxo Talia

The yarn is iridescent white and very frizzy, but after several attempts he picks out a sound. Deep bass dance beats. He traces the peaks and troughs to discover a soaring soprano vocal layered on top and the knitting needles dancing to the rhythm of the music. It’s a song he’s never heard of—must be one of those times she’s wearing headphones because of his disdain for pop music. How much of her did he not know despite their five years together?

After sifting through her chaotic desk he finds the pink hat she wore often in the winter inexplicably squashed under a pile of papers. She didn’t have it on when she died, probably because she couldn’t find it. It still has several of her dark curls inside and smells like her leave-in conditioner, pleasant but too complex to dissect. This one she’d worn since before they met. He touches it over and over at every angle and velocity to no effect, finally accepting that it’s just normal yarn.

Then he sees something so obvious he nearly missed it. The giant shawl draping over the couch, purple and red with thick waves, took her weeks of work. It’s practically buzzing with data when he hovers his palm over.

He takes his greatest trophy to the nest of pillows he made in their bed and scans each line of woolen poetry with his fingers in the dark. It seems inconceivable that he never discovered its secrets though he pressed his back against the shawl every night, napped with it, even used it to take cookies out of the oven when he couldn’t find the mitts. But just splaying his palm on the ridges now inundates him with sounds and feeling.

With practice, he learns to read with his entire hand, conjuring a polyphony of moments.

Here in this patch she was laughing at something he couldn’t hear. Alex Trebek’s voice filters in, tinny and not distinct enough for him to make out the questions. Her fingers flit quickly with no conscious effort during the Final Jeopardy jingle.

His mind eagerly fills in the whole scene, so strong is the memory. Her toes are poking his to the rhythm of the yarn shuttling back and forth. He holds the bowl of miso sesame popcorn in his lap, some slightly burnt because it was a fancy Internet recipe and his first time popping on the stove. She tries to throw pieces into his mouth as they laugh and laugh. The weight of her head on his shoulder grows until she drifts off and he has to nudge her awake to brush her teeth.

He falls asleep to the discovery that wet yarn makes the memories run like a watercolor painting in the rain.

When he wakes in the pile of wool his body feels lighter, wrung of tears. He has a job to do now. He has no interest or knowledge in knitting, but damned if he isn’t going to finish her last project.

Half an hour later he wants to throw his laptop into the wall. Apparently knitting is much harder than microprocessor design. The fingers in videos are practiced and sure, like hers, and he has no idea what to do even watching at quarter speed. The written instructions are even worse, given in undecipherable alphanumeric code—what in the world is k6 p1 kpk p3tog?

His only recourse is around the corner and down West Street.

“How do I finish this?” He takes the knit out of his pocket this time.

A different clerk with silver hair looks down, taking off her glasses to peer at it, then back up at him. “It looks like a raspberry stitch. How much knitting experience do you have?”

He shakes his head. “None.”

“Oh, for beginners I recommend doing an easier project, perhaps one—”

“No. I just want to finish this. Please.”

She looks at him for a moment, her dark eyes inscrutable.

“Let’s go over there.”

She gets someone else to cover the counter and takes him to a table. Teaches him how to knit and purl, count the stitches, figure out the pattern. Her hands are deft and precise despite the wrinkles and spots, but in his hands the needles rebel, tangling themselves in all the wrong ways while the yarn slips off again and again. He is frustrated beyond words, but she never loses patience, takes out her own pair of needles so he can mirror her actions.

“Don’t worry, you can always undo any mistakes.” She shows him how to knit backwards and push off the wrong stitches.

She observes him for four full rows until she is satisfied that the movements are fixed in his working memory, leaving him with a neatly written list of instructions. He has never been so grateful and stammering thank you thank you thank you does not seem sufficient, but she waves off his attempts to pay her like feathers deflecting water.

“You can stay here and work on it if you want.” She squeezes him on the shoulder, a hint of warmth seeping into his bones that lingers long after she left.

And he does, sitting on the couch, slowly working the pattern into his muscle memory until it is almost automatic. There are many modes of failure, and he has surely discovered all of them. Sometimes he knits too tightly and can’t bring the needle around again. Or he miscounts and has to start the row over. When he finishes, the scarf will be riddled with memories of past errors, like a blemished portrait hidden beneath a painting.

The sun dips through the window slowly until it sets the silver streaks of the yarn aflame. He is so focused he does not hear the bursts of bells and quiet conversation, the staccato hum of sewing machines nearby, or the gradual absence of sound, but the yarn will remember all of it imperfectly.

A hand on his shoulder again. The woman smiles at him, and he realizes he has missed all the auditory cues of closing. He promises to come back tomorrow to repay her kindness.

“We open at ten,” she waves him goodbye.

He does not sleep that night. Instead he sits on her spot on the couch and half-imagines her presence around him, easy to do even without his finger running across knots. The couch itself has surely absorbed much of her over the years: her scent, the impression of her body, her dead skin cells. He thinks about the unique spectrum of her laughter etching invisible grooves into the cushions and the wrinkles of his brain. With the shawl on his shoulder and the television buzzing in the background he weaves his grief and love across and over. He fancies that another set of fingers—smaller and more skilled—ghosts across his, guiding him to knit-purl-knit then purl thrice.

He has not pulled an all-nighter since college, but the rhythm and details are familiar. Dry eyes, twinge in his neck and back. Despite the lack of caffeine, he doesn’t feel tired. The scripted shows turn into infomercials and some birds begin to sing near midnight. Occasional car alarms and revving engines punctuate excitable peddling of jewelry and ornamental swords.

The morning news begins even before night slowly shrugs into day, and suddenly there is no more yarn. She didn’t teach him how to finish the scarf! After a few moments of bright panic, he finds an online tutorial on casting off for dummies, and this time he can follow it: knit two, pass one over. At last he pulls out the last stitch and passes the end back through the last loop tightly, causing the end to curl up. With a final snip, the scarf is done.

He runs his hand down the long edge, reading the bundles of raspberries. It is obviously where her section ends and his starts—his loops are clumsy and irregular, culminating in the unsightly curled tip, but worse they are suffused with silent sorrow. Why would anyone want a scarf that makes them sad?

It is snowing outside, the sun hidden but still throwing diffuse light everywhere. He puts on a coat, wraps the scarf around his neck. It is ridiculously long, twice around his neck and still droops past his waist. The sadness weighs on his neck but does not press him down, for he is already saturated with grief. After a while, he doesn’t feel it at all.

“You finished it!” The same woman runs her hand along her torso, the same place where his scarf hangs. The wrinkles around her eyes deepen as she smiles in genuine approval.

He smiles back sheepishly. “I did the casting off wrong and the end is weird.”

“It’s too tight. I can show you how to fix it.”

He grips his end, feeling protective of his mistake all of a sudden. “Thanks. Maybe next time.”

“And what will you do with all this?” She asks as she rings up the completely absurd amount of yarn he randomly took off the shelves.

He shrugs. Frankly, he’s not sure he wants to knit ever again.

“Why don’t you come to our knitting club? We meet every Thursday at seven. There’s no obligations, no pressure.”

A polite refusal is at his lips, but somehow he finds himself nodding first. She smiles again.

“I’m Andrea.” She puts out her hand and he clasps it like a lifeline.

He walks home from Warp on West slowly, breathing in the cold clean air they both love. A rabbit is tweaking its snout in the snow on the small patch of grass at their street corner and he stops to watch. When a clump of snow falls from the tree and hits it in the face, causing an explosion of flakes, he brushes his hand against one end of the scarf almost unconsciously and laughs along with her, feeling the knot inside him come loose ever so slightly.

© 2018 Hal Y. Zhang

About the author

Hal Y. Zhang

Hal Y. Zhang is a lapsed physicist who splits her time between the East Coast of the United States and the Internet, where she writes at She has a language-and-loss chapbook, AMNESIA, from Newfound, and a women-with-sharp-things collection, Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms, from Aqueduct Press.

About the artist

Katie Chandler

Katie Chandler is commercial illustrator and designer in Columbus, Ohio. She loves bold color and big ideas; using simple shapes to encourage empathy and education. Nine times out of ten when you flip through her sketchbook a leaf will fall out (you’ve been warned).