The demon and I had been crocheting for hours, in what appeared to be a sliver of space it’d created between Here and There. Around a plush couch floated pale, winter fog that obscured anything more than a few feet past the limits of the cushions.
I’d only ever heard of devils challenging people to chess, or the fiddle, or riddles, maybe. I think this demon had only ever done those things, too, so when I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind, well, we were both kind of stuck, weren’t we?
I pulled the blue thread around my hook and tucked it under the previous row of the blanket, forming another triple-crochet shell.
“You’ll mess up eventually,” the demon said. I had to admit, I was impressed it could do anything with those enormous claws. It laughed. “Or, rather, you won’t. You’re too much of a perfectionist to intentionally include a mistake in the thread.” It rummaged in its carpet bag for a change of colour.
“One mistake is all I need,” I said, muffled, biting my tongue to keep the tension right. A bead of sweat dripped down my hairline. “The knots only trap me if it’s perfect.”
“Exactly,” the demon said. It smiled, and a trickle of smoke escaped its teeth. “Since when have you allowed yourself anything less?”
My grandmother told me about the trap when she was first teaching me to crochet. She’d taken me aside one October after a panic attack in school. I still remember, her old hands smelling of the garden, holding my blindingly-hot pink yarn.
“Life is imperfect, hun. You and me are no different,” she’d said. “Always leave just one mistake. Or the lace… it’ll slowly draw out a bit of you — just a bit — with every stitch. Not that different from the rest of life, really.” She’d held my hands to correct the tension, hers trembling slightly. “There we go.”
“That’s not real though, Memere,” I said, my thumb already twitching from overuse. “Magic isn’t real.” I thought bitterly of dragons and unicorns.
“Do you believe your soul is real?” she asked.
“Do you notice, when you pick up your crochet again after a day or two, you can remember exactly what you were feeling, and what you were doing the last time you held the yarn?”
I gasped. “Yeah, I do… that’s…?”
She nodded, and all the air seemed to be sucked out of the room.
“Be careful, honey. Always leave one small mistake. Nobody who doesn’t crochet will notice, and nobody who does will say a word. It’s an art, but it requires control. You have to protect yourself.”
In the present, I met the demon’s eyes. They smouldered a dusty white, like hot coals.
“You want a stitch counter?” it asked, nudging the box of supplies with its tail.
As a kid, I’d won awards for crochet. Lace collars, sweaters, skirts… I’d wait till the week before the due date to start my project, and the pressure bled me dry, but winning gave me such a high. My grandmother always hugged me and told me how proud she was, beaming like a cut gem, which meant even more than the ribbon did. But when no one else was listening, she’d whisper, “You left one?” And I’d grip her hands and nod, and she’d smile.
But I lied.
The guilt sat inside me like a stone. And then my Memere passed away and… I couldn’t crochet anymore. I can’t say I made lots of friends… but by the end of senior year in college, no one was surprised I was valedictorian, and everyone knew I was the one to beat at table quizzes. Even if, as I sometimes wondered, they didn’t necessarily want me there in the first place.
A few years after graduation, one of my few friends invited me over for drinks, dancing, and tarot card readings. At first I’d said I couldn’t go. I had a review at work the next day; I had a stomach ache; I didn’t really care for candy corn. In reality, every October I thought about what my grandmother said — and I’d wonder, if just for the 31st, if what she’d said was true.
It scared the shit out of me.
But, inevitably, I went. 1) I have an honest to goodness FOMO problem and 2) Spooky Sara Yoo, in addition to being a legit witch, was also super pretty, and wielded eyeliner so slick and sharp you could cut yourself on it, and even though she had a girlfriend, I couldn’t help myself.
I arrived fashionably late.
“Lucie!” Esther Ngugi, Sara’s girlfriend, greeted me at the door. Her “this is fine” meme costume was on point, but in all honesty, I admit I was searching the crowd behind her for Sara. “Come on in, the snacks are over there, drinks are in the kitchen — great costume!”
Internally, I felt some tension release. I’d seen Beetlejuice only once but had spent the entire day driving from thrift store to thrift store until I found the absolute perfect pieces for the look. My makeup, admittedly, had taken the longest. I let Esther take my coat and stepped over to the snack table—
Perhaps if I’d gotten there on time, and not listened to my own poisonous voice that kept insisting the “eyebrows were wrong”, and everyone would laugh unless I redid them again, perhaps I wouldn’t have entered the party when it was so dark, when cups had already been emptied and forgotten, when bits of candy wrappers had drifted to the ground like autumn snow—
I searched the crowd. Where was Sara? God, everyone’s costumes are amazing— and suddenly felt my center of gravity slip up and back and slam—
I skidded into a table leg and landed on my ass. Pain shot up my hip, and I wondered if this was one of those dumb injuries that’d haunt me forever. Then—
—the mirror propped on the table tipped and shattered on the floor.
Everyone stopped dancing — a crowd of masked faces stared at me, in the dark, in silence. Sara broke through, her necromancer costume billowing around her like a hurricane. The stone was in my stomach again, pinning me to the floor.
“Oh my god, are you okay?” Esther asked, running to me. She reached down to help me up; I peeled back the half-melted Butterfinger from the bottom of my shoe.
“I’m sorry!” I managed. Sara was staring at me. “I’m so sorry!”
“You broke the mirror!” Sara whispered. She stood, frozen. Her knuckles showed white where her hands clenched.
“It’s okay, babe,” Esther said, reaching for Sara’s hand. “I’ll take care of it.”
Sara finally pulled her eyes from me and the shattered mirror to look at Esther.
“Sage,” she whispered, nodding to herself, and fled from the room as quickly as she’d come.
The DJ, a boy named Takeshi that I only kind of knew, called out, “We got some witchcraft goin’ on in the house tonight!”
The crowd cheered, broken from the spell, and started dancing again, migrating drunkenly away from the glass. I could feel myself sweating beneath the thick cheap makeup. Esther ran for a broom.
“I can clean it up,” I said. Heat ached behind my eyes. “I’m sorry, Esther, I didn’t see—”
“It’s not your fault,” she shook her head, and let me take a trash bag. “So long as you’re okay, no harm, no foul.”
“But Sara looked so upset—” I held it open while Esther dumped in fragments of glass.
“She’ll be okay,” Esther said, and tried to smile. Even in the half-light, though, I could see the tightness of her expression. “It’s not great luck to break a mirror, and on Halloween, you know, I think it spooked her a bit… but then, ‘tis the season, right?”
Sara appeared just as we were finishing up, blowing out the spark she’d started at the tip of the dried sage bundle, and trailing a long snake of white smoke behind her. She wove it over the table, over me, over Esther, the broken glass, and even across the doorway. Then she stopped, hand on her hip, and nodded.
“That’ll have to do,” she said. Then she looked up at me. “Gosh, Lucie, d’you want a drink or something?”
“You know,” the demon was saying. We hadn’t spoken for an hour or more, engrossed in our task. “I have to say, this is harder than it looks. I think I like it, though.” It held up its end of our blanket, inspecting.
“Your tension’s definitely getting better.” I wiggled a finger through a hole between shells where it’d started, too slack and a little unsure. “Be careful you don’t go too far the other way, though — I’ve made that mistake. See, here,” I pointed to a place in the row it had just finished, where the shells clustered claustrophobically tight.
“Hm.” The demon nodded. “You’re right. You think I need to take it out?”
“Of cour—” I bit my tongue. The demon laughed, a sound like falling bells. In one liquid movement, it extended its arm and pulled. Wriggling like worms in a sped-up film, the entire row undid itself.
“No half measures,” it said, and picked up its hook again.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” my boyfriend Eduardo was saying as I fought the urge to rip my iPad in half. Four years after the disastrous Halloween party, we were working on a fundraiser for our work, and like always I’d left the design till the last minute.
“It’s just this eye!” I howled. “This banner is supposed to have a whimsical-slash-creepy cat monster and I—I can’t get it right—”
“So it’s an eye,” Eduardo said. We were the only two left in the office, and we’d missed our anniversary dinner reservations by an hour. He’d been patiently sitting with his bag slung over his shoulder for thirty minutes. And I knew that. But.
“If this isn’t perfect, that’s my reputation. Gone.”
“Hun, it’s a banner across a temporary page on the website. Who’ll notice?”
I gripped my digital stylus so hard I thought the plastic would snap.
“I didn’t even want to do this in the first place because I knew it would be shit!” I shouted. “Jason will realize he never should’ve hired me, and it’s all because you convinced me to—”
“No,” Eduardo was on his feet now, his face like stone. “No, you don’t get to blame me for this.”
“You never even try unless it’s perfect—”
“I am a designer, if I churn out shit work, I don’t get hired—”
“I knew this relationship would be tough ‘cause I knew you were like this, but I tried anyway—”
My mouth dropped. I looked at him.
“Every anniversary and holiday for two and a half years, Lucie.” He worked the muscles in his jaw and shook his head. “I wish you cared as much about us as you do about the goddamn ad.”
I watched him go, his steps echoing through the empty office. My stomach twisted. I knew I needed to chase him, needed to run after him through the darkened cubicles, catch him before the elevator doors closed, and tell him I was sorry.
I gripped my stylus.
…the eyeball turned out great.
Yarn over. Pull six loops through. Chain one. Yarn over, pull through—
“Angels, man,” the demon was shaking its head. “They always go on about meditation, the rosary, inner peace, blah blah,” it nodded over its half-moon glasses. “But this is kind of meditative, you know? I kind of get what they were on about. Not that I wanna do it, you know, long term.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, finishing another star stitch. A thought crossed my mind, and I switched my legs on the ethereal couch cushion.
“Do demons ever worry about failure?”
“Whoa there tiger, we did not agree to Philosophy 101 as part of this little tête-à-tête—”
“But, you must have quotas.” I pushed up my glasses. “KPIs. Weekly targets. Something.”
The demon adjusted the hook in its claws. Its form dwarfed it so much that the hook appeared more like a toothpick. “Well, of course. I mean, Hell would be chaos otherwise. Pandemonium.” It giggled, a sound like churning rocks. “That’s a joke.”
“But what does that look like?” I asked. “I can’t imagine eternal damnation as just some big office building.”
“Plenty of people would disagree with you,” the demon muttered as it finished some lovely Irish rose lace. “I mean, there’s a soul quota, for sure. Time is a flat disk so it’s not really like you’re imagining, but we still have to hit our targets. ‘Keep the temperature high, let the souls cry’, that’s the motto. And we get audited sometimes.”
I took out my stitch counter. “Do you ever get anxious about it?”
“Pfft. Anxious? No. Why would I?”
“Well, I dunno. Sounds like a lot of pressure.”
The demon’s shoulders had slowly started to hunch around its ears. “It is, but it’s fine. It’s not enough pressure that it ever gets to me. I’m not human,” it spat, working at a sudden knot in the middle of its stitch.
The day the demon appeared, I’d been cleaning house. I was changing jobs, changing cities, and had a week to move out. Most things had been boxed and bagged, all that was left was my bedroom.
Reaching under the bed, expecting to unearth dusty paperwork, I’d instead pulled out a plastic container filled with soft bouncing riotous colour. Ocean blue. Fuzzy green. Hot pink. And the soft twinkling sound of loose hooks rolling.
How long had it been? I reached, like a ghost discovering its body, towards the half-folded blanket beneath the skeins. Soft with age, the cheap acrylic draped over my hands in mismatched shades. Everything we’d been able to scrounge at the Woonsocket Salvation Army, “Sally’s Boutique” as my grandmother called it, had been poured into this. My first big project.
The first row was so tightly laced that the blanket edge had warped and curled. Tie-dyed cerulean, turquoise, and white yarn melted into larger and larger stitches, Memere’s shells that she loved so much. The final row had lost a few, just from being jostled around over the years, but the stitching was good and clean. A practised hand.
Waiting to be finished.
I’d given it up once I’d gotten good enough. My heart prickled with the pain of half-healed cuts, remembering how I’d abandoned it. I could run my fingertips over the stitches and pick out every one my grandmother had done for me, to show me. She was woven through this as deeply as I was.
The new apartment would be small. With two parents long-gone and no siblings, it’s not as though I could foist this on someone else’s closet. I had plenty of other things Memere’d made, exquisite pieces of art that I’d never part with—
I ran my hands over the blanket again. It drooped like a tamed wave.
You have to protect yourself.
I wavered over two boxes. One marked “Donation”, the other, “Bedroom” in scrawling marker.
You left just one, didn’t you?
My face felt warm—
The blanket seemed heavy—
Would she be disappointed? Did Memere know?
I dropped the blanket. As it tumbled into the busted cardboard, a booming, creaking sound unfolded behind me, like a heavy door cracking open. Shadows ribboned out from beneath my bed, spilling — knotted, tangled, and unlovely — into the room. A figure stretched and yawned, an ashen demon with horns that scraped the ceiling. Smoke clouded its claws as they dug into the carpet.
I fell to my knees—
“I hear breaking a mirror is seven years’ bad luck,” it said with a voice like banked flame. “Misconception about the rules there, I’m afraid.”
“Hope the last seven were perfect.”
The demon had finished its end of the blanket long ago, and sat watching me, its head in one of its pale hands.
“You missed a loop,” it said, pointing.
“Shut up,” I said. Under my arms and beneath my chest and all down my back were drowned in sweat. “Shut up.”
“You’ve really left it to the last row,” it said. It sighed, producing a small bone and picking its teeth. “Honestly, just wrap it up so we can both go home. I’m not supposed to accrue overtime if I can help it.”
“By ‘home’, you mean—”
“Eternal damnation in the nine hells, yes,” it said, nodding. “Well, I suppose one of the nine hells. Did you make your First Communion? Limbo’s pretty boring, I feel like you’d make it to at least, I dunno, the Sixth or Seventh level. I could pull some strings—”
The yarn, the same patterned blue-tourquoise-white that was so familiar to me, seemed slippery between my fingers. While the demon wondered if my sins “counted as Sorcery, ‘cause then the Eighth would be more your jam—”, I carefully counted the loops I had left.
Eight. Eight loops, enough for two shells. I hadn’t been working shells in this row, all the rest were part of a complicated popcorn stitch. But somehow I knew that I needed two of these old-fashioned stitches there. Abstractly I also knew that if this blanket were not tied up with my immortal soul, the final row of the afghan would be a simple single crochet, or a slip stitch, all the way around to strengthen the ends—
But my life wouldn’t be decided by a simple slip stitch.
I wiped my palms on my jeans.
“You don’t have to be nervous, I’ll show you round,” the demon was already packing up, tucking its hooks into a crochet wallet with loving care. “There’s this gelato shop just outside the Ninth ring—”
In my mind, I saw myself standing in my room, again, hovering over those two boxes.
“—blueberry mochi on top—”
I saw myself from the side, like a film reel played back. A muscle in my forearm flickered beneath the blanket; my gaze scattered back and forth.
“…are you even listening?”
Which box did I put the blanket in?
“Lucie, we both know what you’re doing. Let’s go, there’s only so many trains this time of neverwhere—”
I watched myself in my memory, where I’d stood by the bed, undecided—
Which box did I put the blanket in?! “Donation”, or “Bedroom”… I knew which one I hoped I chose, the one with so little inside—
My stomach ached. I squeezed my eyes tight where I sat, so tight I saw stars like white fireworks shatter across the velvet black.
A lifetime of guilt—
The missed chances.
Lies to people I’d loved. I’d wanted so badly to be accepted, but in the end, what had I done?
My grandmother’s face flickered.
Without opening my eyes, I hooked the last stitches onto the blanket and broke the thread.
“There, that’s better,” the demon sighed. Somehow it had fit a green trilby hat between its horns. It reached down to the blanket we’d made, worked from either end, and gently began to fold it into its carpet bag. “I have to thank you, this has actually been quite enjoyable—”
My face flushed, and heat began to slice my cheeks.
“Ah, don’t cry,” the demon paused. “It’s not all bad.” It reached a claw around my shoulders and squeezed. “I admit, I’m pretty grateful. I don’t think I’ve got the hang of that granite stitch yet—”
Then a jolt of electricity sparked across my shoulders, sending us leaping away from one another, energy singing the air.
“What!” Maw open, confusion, hurt — then rage boiled from the demon’s eyes. Its cutlass tail thrashed, and the handle of the carpet bag snapped in its fist, tumbling our blanket to the ground. Gone was the personable pencil-pusher — what stood in its place was the blue flame of a welding torch; the combustion heat of a star. “WHAT DID YOU DO—”
I shook my head, eyes wide—
Out of the top of the abandoned bag hung my corner of the blanket. And even from this distance I could see the corner of the last shell… two long treble stitches, where there should have been three.
Life is imperfect, Memere’s voice whispered, and we are too.
Intoxicated relief burst from my mouth. The scent of my grandmother’s perfume caught me, filling my lungs with what felt like pure oxygen, and my head swam.
“No!” the demon roared. “I’ve beaten seventeen chess champions and a goddamn Grammy nominee, this is not how it happens!” Its voice took on the poisonous tinge of my own, heard too often, in the soft moments when I needed comfort, and instead doled out cruelty to myself, again and again.
The forever space we’d inhabited began to pucker at the edges, and a seam was forming in the air. A white, icing-sugar smoke was seeping through, grasping the demon’s arms and legs and throat. It fought them off, wrath and spittle flying. “You’re incapable, you’re self-obsessed, you drive everyone away—”
“I’m not perfect,” I said, shaking. “And I have to learn to be okay with that…
“I’m not. And neither are you.”
The demon leapt, claws out, the scream of a steam train on its lips—
And in one swift flick of a cosmic wrist—
—the world unraveled.
And I fell.
© 2023 by Julie Le Blanc
Author’s Note: My academic background is Irish mythology, and my personal background has involved crochet since I was 9 years old. Like the girl in the story, my Memere Florence taught me, and as we’ve both grown older (she’s 98!), it’s become more and more something we bond over. Last year, I came across an old tweet about crochet in Irish folklore. While it proved unfounded, it got the mythology and fiber craft parts of my brain working. What if someone did have their soul on the line, Seventh Seal-style, with nothing but their handy crochet hook and a bit of yarn? That was the first spark of what eventually became this story. As a side note – the turquoise blue blanket is real: it was my first big project Memere taught me. This story is for her.
Julie Le Blanc (she/her) is a Rhode Islander currently living in Galway, Ireland. She once wrote 100k words about the Irish goddess of war, the Morrígain, and got a PhD for it. Her fiction has been published by Paper Lanterns Literary Journal, Channel Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. When she’s not writing or crocheting, she’s studying Italian and Irish and going for rainy walks along the beach in Salthill.