Technically, Laurel, my first boss, didn't swallow a needle. It was a pin. One of those white-plastic-ball-tipped pins that you always put in your mouth without thinking because the pincushion is never handy. You probably have 3 or 4 pins in your mouth while you work, and maybe you have those 3 or 4 dangling there as you fit a wedding gown while the bride stands cooly on a pedestal with arms held out, and you're making small talk and pinning, so maybe now you only have 3 in your mouth, then 2, then 1. And then you cough.
And then there are none.
And you come stumbling into the back room with eyes watering because you can feel it dangling at the back of your throat, and because you're clawing at your neck and can't speak your assistant thinks you are choking. She is barely 19, but she's been taught the Heimlich Maneuver at school (fist inside cupped hand, then position behind the victim, bend knees, this might crack a rib but be firm, then, no, wait ... there was that important part ... oh yes, always ask first: "Can you breathe?").
Good Lord, you don't need the Heimlich Maneuver, so you push her away. And then there must be something like a swallow or a gag, or maybe another cough.
But the greater sudden mystery now is where that pin has gone.
* * *
We are disappointed when pins bend or needles snap, when safety pins specifically labeled "for quilting" have tips so poorly machined they snag fabric. We remain loyal to favorite brands from Europe or certain lengths and sizes that fit our hands perfectly, allowing fingers to fly with precision and prowess. The animist tradition believes such simple objects as tools are infused with their own spirituality or soul. For 400 years, kimono-makers and needle-workers have gathered at Shinto and Buddhist shrines in February to bury their broken needles into a tender bed of tofu or jelly cake during the festival of Hari Kuyo. By honoring these tools, women ask for better sewing skills in the coming year. It is a thank you to the hard working needle and a final resting ground for the many losses that women throughout history have swallowed, quietly burying their pain into cloth, one needle stab after another.
My own myths and superstitions around the inanimate object vary, but feel real and rooted in a form of practicality often verging on this animism. Eddie, the tailor from Hong Kong who I worked with for over 3 years, claimed that every time a pair of scissors dropped on the floor a tailor somewhere died (not only this, but crap if it doesn't ruin your good scissors, too). I was never clear on whether the spirit of the dead tailor was now in the scissors once they'd fallen, or if it was this spirit who'd made the scissors spin off the cutting table and onto the concrete floor, or fumble out of my hands and land, point down, in the fiberglass boat hull next to my 2-year old, or nearly miss my open-toed sandal/good tights/other cutter working next to me in the first place.
My mother's warning when I was 6, was to never leave the little golden bird scissors lying anywhere other than on the table in front of you, always in sight. Her story involved a woman who'd been sitting at the kitchen bench seat in the Swedish farmhouse chatting and embroidering. She left the table and when she returned she sat on the bird scissors she'd left lying on the seat cushion, and they stabbed her.
In the bottom.
I have never owned golden bird scissors; I do not trust them.
And this brings me to tsukumogami -- objects that have become self aware, usually after they have turned 100 years old. Harmless pranksters, talismans, good luck charms -- all this, yes, but these inhabited objects are easily angered if disrespected or needlessly discarded. Leave your golden bird scissors lying around? I guarantee they'll come back and bite you in the butt.
And this much I know first hand: leave pins in your mouth and momentarily forget their humble power? They will disappear into your body.
* * *
I still know what I worked on that day at the shop 25 years ago when Laurel was in the emergency room -- a pearl encrusted bustier for a January bridal show -- the first runway show I'd ever felt the time pressure of preparing for. I layered the most enormous beads I could find knowing on stage it would look stunning, but up close it verged on a pearlescent malignancy. My fingers were sore, the work was heavy, gaudy, slippery. But I was fast and focused.
An x-ray confirmed the worst suspicion: Laurel hadn't swallowed the pin, she had inhaled it, and now it dangled in a chamber within her left lung, an obviously machined object inside a maze of tender tissue. That weary pin would have been thrilled to rest in such a warm place, I'm sure. Perhaps this was its intent all along.
After the second failed attempt to send a scope and suction into Laurel's lung, the surgeon informed her that he would try one last time. If he couldn't find the pin's route, he would have to saw open her chest and surgically remove it. If he didn't, Laurel would eventually suffer from pneumonia and die. Her father was with her. We received phone calls at the shop with updates. Friends stopped by to visit. No one had cel phones then. No one texted. This was old fashioned waiting, the kind I now regard as steeped in tradition. If waiting were an object, it would have turned 100 years old 100's of times over. I sat on the carpeted stoop by the phone, a wedding gown in my lap, a tray full of pea-sized pearls on the floor beside me. One stays busy while one waits.
Laurel returned to work the next day, hoarse, phlegmy, bearing an enormous x-ray film and a new rule: No one, ever, puts pins in her mouth. For months we caught ourselves, we reminded each other, we teased -- only gently -- because the greater reminder was the shrine thumbtacked to the wall opposite the phone: a ghostly grey image of Laurel's lungs and ribs, and an unblessed stark white pin hovering there, content.
The offending tsukumogami never received its final rest in a soft bed of tofu or jelly or lung; it wasn't that deserving. Laurel stabbed the thing through the x-ray film, dried blood and all.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.