The secret was in the pattern of the rug itself, in its vibrant geometry of reds and blues and greens and lines and triangles and flourishes. The rug’s soft fibers stood erect but were pressed and angled subtly by her bare toes and the vacuum, creating highlights and shadows when sunlight hit. Often she lay on it, stretching. She never suspected a thing, not since her mother gave her the rug twenty years ago. If she wondered at all, it was only to question if the rug was actually supposed to be a wall-hanging. It was so light and fragile and soft.
She washed it for the first time just recently, when her mother told her, horrified, that she should have cleaned the rug yearly. (If not oftener.)
She plunged the rug into the bathtub, splashing it, swirling it, warm soapy water wrinkling her fingers. Brown tendrils began to diffuse outward, curling smokily through the water, and she pulled her hands away and left the rug alone to soak a while. When she drained the rug, as the last dark drips trickled down the white porcelain, her last few weeks were sucked imperceptibly down the drain.
She washed and rinsed the rug again. It needed it. The drain clogged itself with her brown and gray hairs, with escaped blue and green triangles, with memories of years past. She cleaned out the riotous clumps matter-of-factly. It took several paper towels.
The third and most vigorous wash was her downfall. The rug’s geometrical designs swirled edgily, loose in the tub. Octagons and fleurs-de-lis fought each other as they submerged her subtle recollections and deepest memories beneath the dusty water, everything twirling together in a dance down the drain.
The rug was left clean, wet, and solid red.
Later, leaning lightheadedly against the sink, she waited for the rug to dry, listening to the splatter of its drips. Its still red form was folded double over the drying rack she had tilted and wedged into the bathtub. Hoping that a touch would help her remember something, anything, she reached toward the damp red. She traced one faintly visible flourish with her fingertip. The rug’s fibers reacted, greening themselves where there was only red, patterning wildly under her milky hand. She drew back abruptly. As the pattern faded, she tried to recall why she had washed the rug.
She tried to recall who she was.
Clearly, she was the woman who owned the rug.
Bemused, she spread the dry rug out flat onto the cool wood floor at a haphazard angle not parallel to any wall. The red fibers began to rise, freed, no longer crushed together or splayed apart. She ran her hand down the rug’s length, aligning the fibers, wonderingly, as it moved under her touch and the patterns grew on it in small riots of color and form. Then she lay on it, naked, smooth and unwrinkled, glossily dark-haired, pale. The geometrical patterns poured outward from her in blue and green waves upon a sea of red.
And she remembered. The day she got the rug, how she packed it and carried it, heavy, through an airport, leaving her family for the dubious comforts of the north. Its dusty colors under her desk, its folds as it caught in the wheels of her chair, how she stood on its corners to prevent the vacuum from eating it, its comforting presence in a succession of apartments. The rug’s pattern brightened, darkened, intensified, stabilized. Her hair grayed, but just in a few places. Her knee swelled just a little and the laugh line to the left of her mouth deepened. The rug’s colors faded a bit in the sun. She remembered she had an appointment the next morning to dye her hair.
Renewed, she lazed in the sunlight on the rug.
Perhaps she should wash it again.
But her mom said once a year was enough.
LAUREN O’DONNELL is a scientist and flamenco dancer who has recently decided she wants to write too. This is her first published story.