I Sing a Song of Needles

Maya Levine


When I was seventeen I killed my mother
I took of her what I needed: her sinews,
Fingerbones, eyes
thinnest layer of flesh
She would make the most Beautiful Dress
The World Had Ever Seen.

Though I wondered if her body
Known far and wide for its talent,
Coast to coast for the colors she wrought
If such a body could grind to nothing
But her bones became needles like any other

My mother’s training rejected thimbles
So I left drops of blood where my fingers went.

To hear her say again her favorite adage:
“What stops the drops
Will bind the mind
To live: you give.”

So I took of her body what I needed
She gave me the rest
In this congress was made
The Most Beautiful Dress
The World Had Ever Seen.

My Workroom

When I was sixteen I had my first commission.
My mother was a dressmaker
Her mother before
And on, through the ages
They were all named Eleanor
And they were all the most Beautiful Dressmakers
The World Had Ever Seen.

My mother does not call me beautiful
She calls me Girl and Love
Industrious and Unique

My mother makes dresses that
Gleam like starlight
Petticoats light as a cloud
Bodices sleek as selkie’s skin
My colors are not as bright
My stitches not as small
My mother calls me Unique,
Commends My Effort, but
She does not call me talented
She does not call me beautiful.

I am not beautiful. My Eleanors
Ensnared no men with their smiles
Stirred no songs for their bodies but
It’s said that when they took their
fingerbone needles with sinew thread
And stitched
Beautiful dresses,
Eyes focused
Lips pressed
Minds churning
They became this beauty.
I sharpen my bones
I spin my thread
And there is no magic to my designs
The sleeves distracting
The bodices garish in simple lace
My face does not come to life
This is the ugly: me, mundane.
I Am Not Beautiful.

I met her when I was sixteen. She was beautiful.
Her lips, her teeth, her breasts,
Her hair, her nose as sharp
As my fingerbone needles screeching on a whetstone
Here is what matters:
Her ears, overlarge, her laugh, her fingers
Running over my attempts
At the Most Beautiful Dress
The World Had Ever Seen.

Her name was also Eleanor.
No tradesmen for her: she hailed
From a long line of dukes.
When she was young
She slept in the ashes
Though those could hide her beauty
She was used to being the most beautiful
When she saw my mother she smiled
When she saw me she grinned.

She was my first. She walked
Inside our home
Like she owned us
Asking for The Most Beautiful Dress
The World Had Ever Seen.


She said, to me, alone
In the back, the ugly place
We do not show our customers
She brought me there
And said

“It is for me, so
I will be beautiful.
So when people see me
They know me as dutiful
Loyal and patient,
Divine and devout
Malice and avarice
I’ll be without.”

Here, she grinned:
“And yet, all of these
things are not me.
Only you know, for
I don’t let them see.
No, my trust goes to you,
So you are to blame
Though Ella to Ella—
We are the same.”

When I was sixteen Eleanor
Wanted me to make her dress.
And stood before me
Arms outstretched until
I measured with string
My knuckles brushing her bare throat.
She stared me in the eye
And smiled.

And my mother warned
I have watched and wept and waited
But never before brought forth
A dress of my own mind’s making
Let alone a dress fit for Eleanor.
I will fight but what is fighting
And I will try but what is trying
Without the skill to back it up?

Eleanor looked at me
And I knew in that look—
As if I was beautiful, talented,
My mother and grandmother and the women before—
And she said
“She may be fresh
But she knows how to shine
And illuminate me
With all that is mine.”

And I saw in her eyes—
And if I was beautiful—
So I told her I would do anything.
“Yes, anything.”
And she demanded again the Most Beautiful Dress
The World Had Ever Seen.

Laid Out

I made her a dress
Of finest flesh
The skin of a winemaker’s wife
A good woman in her day who
Died of a fever, leaving her skin
Warm and lily-white
Sleeves encircling her arms
Bodice shooting out into
An upside-down tulip
Dress of decadence,
Of a royal court.
The dress was from me.
And it was Beautiful.

Pretty, she said, but not more
And the dress dimmed before me
Not enough to match her
The beauteous Eleanor whom I loved and
Loved me, unique, my mother said
For it was not enough
And I was not enough

Eleanor raised up my chin
And told me to try again.

So into her life I delved
To see her dance and talk
Host feasts and grip her prince’s hand
The flow of her body
The push and pull, the force of will
It was not enough to sew:
I had to build, from ground to sky
A dress to keep her dancing
To keep her herself

And I found beauty there,
In this court of whispers, where she stood
Until her feet hurt and smiled
Until her lips bled
And I loosened her stays in the night
And tightened them in the morning and
Watched the drape of damask over her

And tried again.

I made her a dress
From the flesh of her lady
The lady-in-waiting who could not wait
Who had voice of silk
And silk skin, too
A generous beauty
Divine and devout,

A dress I made of her:
The skirt slim and sleek
A river in motion with
Bodice clinging opening to sleeves
And again, it dimmed compared to her
Again, I was not enough.

I had sinew and bone
And skin thin as gold leaf
I had bejeweled eyes, flowery cheeks
The bodies of the beautiful:
Most coveted materials of the dressmaker
All in my workroom for the taking
Just like me, and I told her so

She surveyed my life
Like her kingdom and told me,
“Beautiful, they’re not enough
I need something brighter
Something that can catch all eyes
And make me dance the lighter.
I’m asking you, my Ella
To make me what I need
And I will aid you, I will cry,
I will work, I will bleed.

“A beautiful dress,”
She told me,
“starts with lovely form,
and for this I need
The best talent,
beauty ever born.”

I agreed when she asked
She was the Most Beautiful Woman
The World Had Ever Seen,
Tortured by her stepmother
Her goodness so obvious to all that a
Prince married her on sight.
And she wanted me.
I had to give her
The Most Beautiful Dress
The World Had Ever Seen.

When I was three, my mother told me,
“The time will come for flesh and bone
And I will trust you to do
What you need to, if you bleed to
Make the dress.”
Fill every order
Weave colors beyond imagination
Wrap people in skins until they glow
My people are dressmakers
We live to serve.

Eleanor’s dresses told me secrets:
She didn’t belong
Her husband’s family hated her
She wasn’t enough
She could sweep and dust and nothing else
And that did not befit a queen
She was powerful and beloved
And she was terrified

My lips told her mine:
I didn’t belong
I wasn’t enough
My family, not my family
These secrets make a family.

In The Night

When I was five my mother gave me a needle
A bone expertly sharpened
Carved with dolphins, jumping light
Or selkies: the memories are dim
It is beautiful, like my mother
Like the other Eleanors
My mother carved it
My mother is talented whatever the action
And when she sews her face becomes the sun
And all she could give me was a needle.

“My mother’s skin?” I asked again
And Eleanor grasped my face
“And so, Ella? Will you remain?
Will you allow me to see
The thing of beauty you create?
The kind of beauty matching me?”

In a way I understood her need
Bones, skin, nimble and golden.
Face, eyes, hands, opposite
Of Eleanor’s stepmother
Definition of an Eleanor,
Of Dressmaker,
Of the Most Beautiful Dressmaker
The World Had Ever Seen.

“You and me, my Ella
When I have my gown
Will always be together
Both of great renown
When I walk into a room
I will have you by my side
The Eleanors, and we will love
As friend to friend, bride to bride.
I love you, Ella, and all I need
All I want, all I ask
Is that for me, your finest friend
You complete this simple task.”

When I was seventeen
I went to my mother’s room
Gibbous moon above
Glowing in the sun’s reflection
Ella to Ella, we are the same
Yet here I am, not as much
An Eleanor lacking the essence of such

My mother sleeping alone
I am from a long line of dressmakers
We are all called Eleanor
And she was the most Beautiful Dressmaker
The World Had Ever Seen.

and the moon overhead.

when i closed my eyes i saw Eleanor’s eyes
diamonds to sew into a dress
diamonds dripping down her sternum
encrusting her temples
she would be my stars.
my mother’s eyes are not stars
not diamonds not emeralds something less
pathetic how the most Beautiful Dressmaker
The World Had Ever Seen
had nothing on this woman i knew,
my Eleanor moved with music
left diamonds in her footprints
and for her i must make the dress.

when i was seventeen my mother awoke
to a pair of sewing scissors
buried in her throat

she opened her eyes and asked me why.

i hated her voice, her layman’s prose
my Eleanor was beautiful
her voice was Beautiful
torture to miss a single phrase

“for a dress,” i explained,
“for a dress,” i begged
“for a dress,” i snarled,
“for a girl,” i said
and my mother nodded and closed her eyes
a dressmaker eternally
she lived to serve.

She breathed
I cut the skin from her bones
And removed it like a delicate silk.
Silkworms live: vomit, enclose
Transform, die. But flesh is different.
Flesh is innocent, flesh is smooth
Flesh carries no sordid stories.
I took my mother’s bones
And sharpened them
And bored a hole:
The finest needle
I carved the dolphins, selkies jumping.

Her sinews made the finest thread.

I pulled the dress together gently
A satin layer against the skin
Bodice came together, stitch by stitch
Sewing rubies and diamonds into the cloth
Every movement, a cyclone of color
Flame and air, air and flame

The people clustered
Outside the shop while
I took up my place, my commission
Lit with talent and beauty
The Most Beautiful Dressmaker
The World Had Ever Seen.


The day I finished she came
Without my summoning, she knew
She felt it in her bones.
She walked into my workroom
Like she owned it

The dress: boxed for transport
Each cranny stuffed until there was no time,
There was no space, there was no
Rustle of air or paper

She shook her head and took my hand
And led me to the back
The room of skins and silks
Our place of labor, filled with gems
Like a dragon, passed to me

“The hands that dress me pull too tight
Both my sisters and my maids
And they forget the thorns upon
The roses that adorn my braids.
So just this once, my Ella
It’s your touch, I confess:
I want your hands to be the first
To put me in this dress.”

And so I was the first that built
The figure of beauty: dress and girl
The two together, scaffolded
Alone in the dark room
While the green eyes watched from their jar
And she lifted her arms and spun about
And felt the kiss of my dress on her skin

And then she stopped and
Took my hands and
Wordlessly leaned in
She touched my lips and I felt a spark
Like lightning storms on August days
When the wildflowers bloom between the bodies
Of silk and sinew and bone
And her grin, her teeth, her cheeks as she struggled
To contain delight at the dress
At me
And I told her
“I have made you
The Most Beautiful Dress In the World.”

For you, for a girl—
For we are the same—

“Look at you,” she said
“And look at me
Two Eleanors together
Who will never be free.”

Her words wrapped around my head:
Choking tulle. I said:
As long as we stay like this.
As if the love I bore her
This girl, this Eleanor—
As if that could heal all
As if I understood the world around me
And knew my own mind
And knew my own Eleanor.

For a dress, for a girl—
For a girl—

Bleeding Upon

The news came slowly
Trickling like quiet blood
How she entered the hall
Lit by the dress
How her feet flew across the stones
How her dance entranced the crowd
My mother’s flesh and sinew and my own
Blood and sweat dripping off
Reflecting the light
Rubies and diamonds

She is a diamond, I thought, as I heard
How she danced and how she laughed
How she kissed her prince and swore
Her love, eternal,
How he kissed his Eleanor
My Eleanors have never been beautiful
But his Eleanor was enough to stop a heart.

How she took the skirts in her fists
And spun and said
The dress was her
And she, the Eleanor,
The Most Beautiful Dressmaker
The World Had Ever Seen.

I approached her and was turned away
I knew she burned my little notes so
I dreamed of fires and crackling skin
She crushed my pleas into diamonds
All left in her footprints
She danced around the world

And here? And here? In my shop
In my workroom where the good things grow
Where I know I have worked
Where I studied my mother
Where the ones surrounding me slowly forgot
That I was she who made the dress.
If I could have convinced myself:

Simpler that way.
Then I could have slept
Under gibbous moons
Next to my needles.

But I know the real,
And I know her.

I searched myself for bitterness
The anger that could warm me
The rage that would make me
Forget all the hours I sketched
And sewed
And the droplets of blood
Scattered across her skin

I saw my mother’s flesh
Whisked to and fro
Her unfading beauty gleaming in the sun
Matched by the dress
By me

So I let myself sew

And I pricked my fingers

And I did not bleed.




Maya Levine is a writer with over 20 works published in various journals. Levine was raised in Chicago and currently lives in Stanford, California.