Bess’ Tapestry (Andruss)
As we saw women traditionally wove not only cloth, but also spells.
This is how labour-intensive weaving was:
In 2003 Dr Jacqi Wood recreated a collared hood beautifully preserved in a peat bog. A collared hood includes a yoke sitting over the the chest and upper back. Using early medieval technology, Dr Wood took 102 hours to spin the thread and 98 hours to weave the garment.
Classical Greece and Rome denigrated women’s skills. While some goddesses were highly skilled weavers, such as Athena, they are not goddesses of weaving. Athena was so proud of her weaving skills, when she heard Arachne boast she could teach the goddess a thing or two, she challenged the girl to a contest.
There are different versions of the tale. In some Arachne swears never to weave again if she loses, in others she wins and is forbidden to ever weave again. In despair the girl commits suicide by hanging herself with a skein of thread she spun. In a pang of conscience, Athena turns the girl into a spider – the ultimate weaver.
Then there is Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus. Odysseus joined the decade long Trojan War, and after being blown off-course, spent another ten years trying to make it home. Seven years of which, it must be said, he spent in the bed of the demi-goddess Calypso on sepulchral island of Ogygia; a land of the dead. Calypso’s name means to hide or deceive. It comes from the Indo-European word ‘Kel’ that gives rise to ‘Hell’, the eponymous kingdom of Loki’s daughter.
With her beloved husband missing so long, Penelope delayed giving an answer to the loutish suiters (eating her out of house and home and determined to claim her lands through marriage) by saying first she must weave a burial shroud for Odysseus’ farther. She diligently worked all day, while at night unpicking what she had woven.
The Incas took weaving (essentially knotting two or more threads together) to a new level with the invention of Quipu, or talking knots. Initially it was believed Quipu was simply a counting system: with different coloured threads representing different products, or groups of people. They were certainly recognised as legal evidence in mercantile disputes.
However, there is evidence quipu is a complete writing system. Professor Laura Minelli of The University of Bologna discovered nine folios in Spanish Italian and Latin written by two 17th century Jesuit missionaries discussing how to read quipu. It states syllables were represented by symbols formed in the knots. There is even a list of words found in quipus. Unfortunately, as the conquistadors destroyed most of them, there are too few to study and so the history of a whole civilisation was wiped out.
When writing Thomas the Rhymer, I drew on these threads (pardon the pun) when thinking about how fairies might preserve their own history. As fairies races are matriarchies ruled by fairy queens, it seemed they would choose weaving skills to keep memories and traditions alive. And so each fairy queen weaves a tapestry of her life, for her successor to read.
Bess of Holborn’s tapestry often shows images of London through the 400 years she lived. (illustration: Andruss)
In contrast fairy queen Sylvie chooses to conceal her tapestry within another, an ancient work of ruptured threads showing St George fighting a dragon. (illustration: Andruss)
In the extract from Thomas the Rhymer this is what happens when Bess’ servant Polly takes Jack’s friend Catherine to see the tapestry…
Catherine followed Polly down a drab corridor to yet another dilapidated room. This contained a vast loom upon which hung a tapestry as big as a carpet, hand knotted in scrumptious colours that seemed to trap the light and reflect it back in a glorious rainbow.
There were shades of crimson, carmine, vermilion, scarlet and cerise; blues from sky to sea; greens dark as swamp cypress at midnight, bright as a spring morning. Yellows of liquid sunshine bled into tawny amber and sunset orange. Royal purple, mauve, puce and fuchsia jostled russet, sepia and sombre ochre. Veins of copper, bronze, silver and gold marbled voluptuous violets, inky indigos and whites, pale as moonshine. Such polychromic splendour left Catherine giddy, breathless, and a little overwhelmed.
“Beautiful,” she sighed, mesmerised by the shifting hues washing over the weave like skeins of mist.
“I saw London once,” Polly confided. “But it ran from my eyes.”
“I see it too!” Catherine faltered as ghosts of shimmering buildings, iridescent, pearlescent, lustrous, melted into the chaotic maelstrom of the tapestry.
“Where is it?” Polly demanded.
“There!” Catherine answered, stabbing the cloth with a finger and falling down as if dead.
* * *
The boys found the tapestry by following Polly’s screams.
“What’s wrong?” they cried.
Catherine lay unmoving on the floor.
“Is she dead?” gulped Ken, struggling for breath.
Jack was too horrified to say anything at all.
Stooping, Ken felt Catherine’s forehead; listened to her breathe through clenched teeth. “She’s still alive! What happened?”
Polly was crying hysterically into her apron. “I never thought she would,” she wailed.
“Would what?” he demanded, looking up at her from down beside Catherine.
“Touch the tapestry,” she bawled, dabbing at her eyes with the hem of her pinafore.
“What do you mean?” Jack was instantly suspicious. Catherine looked pale, broken. As if some part of her was stolen away. Rosie was right, nothing good ever came from the fairies.
“Only a queen, or a queen to be, may touch the thread of memory,” Polly dully quoted.
They looked at the huge glowing tapestry filling the room. It seemed woven from light, a living thing. Shifting images suggested buildings, even entire streets, thronged with haunted, hollow-eyed frantic souls. Crowds lost before ever fully formed, nothing more than recollections, regurgitated on a whim or a word, to be reabsorbed, stillborn, into the boiling vaporous colours. Tearing their eyes from the mayhem of the weave, they bent down to gently pick up their friend; wanting to get her far away as possible from its fevered threads.
“Where can we take her?” Ken demanded.
“I thought we couldn’t go in there,” Jack protested, suspecting a trick.
Polly was honest. “You can’t. It is dangerous. Especially now the tapestry wakes. You may be snatched into the dream to never return. Yet her only hope is with my mistress. Catherine must go to her.”
“I’ll take her,” Ken announced. “My mum’s in there. If she doesn’t come out I haven’t got anyone else.
Jack thought about what Ken said. It was the opposite for him. His parents had already lost one son. What would it be like if they lost another?
Opening the door to the reception room, Polly assured Jack she and Ken could manage. He shrugged her off.
“Don’t do it, Jack!” Ken was adamant, knowing what his friend was thinking.
Jack smiled, trying to look braver than he felt. Then it came to him. Something Catherine once said when they were exploring the ley lines. “It’s supposed to be all for one isn’t it?”
“And one for all!” Ken sheepishly grinned. “What happens if we don’t come back?”
Jack looked hard at him. “We’ll have to make sure we do.”
The instant they took Catherine in, the tapestry came alive. It was as if it had been waiting for them to step into Bess’ presence. Erupting like a volcano, or a solar flare from the face of the sun, it spat streams of pure colour, which stained the floor and walls for an instant before fizzing into the ether. The eruption became stronger, bolder; then just as quick, died away.
It was not over. The tapestry had only paused, gathering its strength for one last push that came in a brilliant explosion of living light. A crazy rainbow bouncing from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, sparking and spluttering white hot with every collision as it went ricocheting down the hall towards Catherine and the boys.
* * *
Catherine woke on a piece of embroidery stretching for miles in every direction. Turning her head, she saw the whole world move. It was so weird she sat up for a better look. When everything moved again, as if adjusting to her new viewpoint, she realised she was not so much lying on the cloth as woven into its very warp and weft…