short story by Linden Thorp
Spinning incessantly. Eager to get the yarn ready to be taken down the mountain to the weaver on the solid backs of mules, waddled not wheeled down steep stone slopes. They sit out in the threshing yard where the hemp and flax plaits are laid to dry after they are harvested. Sweet hemp and musty flax swingled and combed during the winter. Long fingered thread taken to be made into cloth, millions of lengths pulled together, crossed and tightened. Several of their best fleeces are to pay for the weaver’s time, his tired eyes, his calloused fingertips.
They chat. They chit-chat. The women spin. Spin-spun-spinning-spare moments fitted around spools and spindles, subjected to winding and tension. They deftly spin away knots, twisting and pulling ends to make continuation. Knots and giggles and eyes like sponges absorbing the gossip and knots, the warm air fretting as wisps and whispers, and loose strands of flax float up into the rapid mouths and eyes red with it. Talk and flax and sunshine, and the first falls of apples. ‘Thud!’ Ignored for now, but wide heavy aprons will call for them later as the spinners go back up the steep hill to the domus, rolling them down the fabric hills of their skirts into safe soft valleys. Talk and strands and heavy giggles. Eyes scanning long threads for knots, and quick arms drawing out the good yarn, the wooden spindles whirring and wobbling and tirelessly working.
‘And do you know, they plucked nearly every hair out of his donkey because they wanted souvenirs. The monk said t’was Christ’s beast!’
Pulling and winding and twisting on in the dappled shade. Wimples wrinkling and quivering with the effort and the talk.
‘That was no fair swap, Pierre said. The peddlers wanted twenty squirrel skins for scarcely a cup of cumin and only 6 needles of very poor quality! They are cheats. Never satisfied they’re not!’
Ripe apples fragrancing the sky. God’s sky. They drop here and now, there and then, to leave apple holes in the sheltering canopy of leaves and branches, letting in more sunshine which finds its way on to the top lips of the ladies where it is miracled into moisture. Flax needs humidity after all. And lady-like belching, and ‘beg pardon,’ and drawing out thread and more crack.
‘And he, Peter the Poor, led his poor donkey bald, smarting it was and tripping, all the way across Germany and the Low Lands to Jerusalem with enough followers to kill all the Jews within sight.’
‘Ah. He loved that donkey he did. They looked like each other they say. Its hair never grew again. Plucked and bald and smarting it went into Battle.’
And the making of something out of nothing with work, with raw fingers rough, with piles of dried plants worked into spools of yarn. Transformation. And such joy at fashioning God’s things into garments to keep out draughts and hurricane, and at knowing what to make.
Burble and tickle of throat with curly strands in the air, and itchy nose rough and rubbed with broad forearms while they spin, never stopping or quiet or still. Content to do God’s work. Spools and spools, plenty, heavy and hairy, waiting in the cellier amongst damp wine barrels and the water troughs. Keeping damp ready for the donkeys to descend to Guillaume the Weaver.
‘I hear they are forced to eat bark and roots, and the odd crow down on the plane. The floods of mud have ruined their corn and oats. Many have died. We are safe from that up here.’
And rocking a little to move plump buttocks to be comfortable, and to release bubbles which build up during turnip-time. Fidget. Frivolous. Fecund. Their faces honest and walnut shined with bee wax, hair and neck wrapped away in dense wimples. Women without ears and hair, just fleshy-forever souls of faces. Honest. Unadorned. They go on drawing yarn and twisting and straining out knots and talking of relics and crusades, Jews and Saracens, Popes and Anti popes. I meantime concentrate my anatomy into the apple trunk against which I lean. I am still. I am silent. Not spinning. My pale face framed with hair and combs and pale long neck, and the space above my head swimming with souls and spirits dripping songs into my heart and lungs. For I am Mistress of Song in these parts. My hair and fingers and toes grow up into apple limbs and apple twigs, and my love surging on beyond through apple holes to celestial skies.
Women watching. Spinner watching. I look forward to the apple gathering in their full precious skirts. The rhythms, the snippets of gossip, the tireless twining of fibres which will allow the weaver to get them enough cloth to make another skirt. The mules carrying their kops of yarn coated with laughter and gossip and flatulence, their sun-soaking, grass-sitting and apple-dreaming.
I do not spin. I cannot. My mother taught me embroidery and tapestry instead, and reading Latin, writing letters, playing chess. But I do not mind that I can’t. I love to watch them, and if I was to do it myself I would not be able to do that. It is so satisfying for them. They make skirts and exciting tales at the same time. Meanwhile my heart is both here and reaching out through the apple holes to the top of the Earth. And mingled with their drawing and twisting, their winding and pulling is another song. I feel it bobbing in their fingers, under nails, tucked behind a wimpled ear, wedged in the turned-up toe of a wooden clog. And I never want this arbour to end.
I love all the spinners. They have been around me since I was a child, when I would lie on my back near them and hold my finger up to feel the twine emerging and touching my lips as it moved on to the spool, and beyond the laden apple branches and bright blue apple holes. These holes have always appeared towards the end of summer. And always will. And the smell of hot sweet flesh which I can easily reach out and bite into.
As a child the spinners all looked the same to me apart from their noses: Brune – thin and long; Raymonde – turned up with a mole like a small black grape at one side; Vuissane – long and fat with pock marks; and Guillmette – the smallest and bonniest. Noses matched with eyes and cheeks. It was their noses that made wonderful childhood companions for me. They were so changeable. Often running, or chapped with the cold, or burned from the searing sun, and all wrinkled in their own unique way from when their keepers laughed, which was most of the time. But sometimes they were still and serious like when Raymonde’s husband got leprosy and had to go to live in the leper village high in the mountains, and Guillemette’s family could not pay their tax on lambs and so were prohibited from going to church. Then the noses cried and were wet and pale.
I loved their spinning times, at apple-time, at turnip-time, and in the winter by the magic light of the fire, for candles were too precious to burn except on special occasions. Then deft hands worked out of the dark smoke, and rapidly flickered in the flames. The spinners felt their knots and rolled their fingers together to twine their ends and dreamed of a new skirt, or a new wimple or smock.
Sometimes I would sing a song to them which I plucked into my heart from an apple-hole, and their spinning would slow down a little, become more serene, not as energetic. Their hands would move with less want, slowed by love and listening. Their eyes would look down at their work, ceasing the playful flashing, and their whole presence listened to me. They listened with all their souls, as if nothing else mattered in the world, or in heaven. When the song was finished their hands would caress their thread, softened, their eyes perhaps closed, and there would be no sounds except the purr of deepened breath. The first to speak would ignite other eyes which momentarily disapproved of the breaking of the spell. All their spinning would stop to admire, their noses passionate, lingering with the trace of the song which was left behind.
Although the spinners spun wherever they could, whilst sitting in the sun in the threshing yard, or in the turnip field tucked inside the dome stone-shelter when it was windy or raining torrential, they never neglected their duties. They could somehow watch and listen whilst spinning away as if they were spinning spirits, for all time, making continuous lengths of thread from plants. They resembled cloth-wrapped spiders with twitching noses and many legs under their voluminous rough skirts.
I dreamed one night that they all came to my bed to clean me. They removed my thick linen night-dress and began to wash me in warm water sprinkled with lavender flowers. Their large hands turned me and limb-lifted easily as if I was their flax and hemp being spun. They twirled me and twisted me and wound my long hair around my head. Then with their noses close to me, they bent to look for fleas and lice, holding their olive-oil lights so they could see them clearly. Fingers and thumbs pinched the pests out of their hiding places. Thin long nose Brune working in one arm pit, turned-up mole-covered nose Raymonde in the other, long and flat pocky nose Vuissane in one groin, and small bony nose Guillemete in the other. Then they turned me, and noses and fingers and thumbs probed in the crack between my buttocks, the nape of my neck, behind my knees, and between my toes. They were laughing and applauding each other when they had a catch, one of them proffering the honey box to drop it into.
Once they were satisfied that I was no longer infested, they produced their huge wooden spools of thread and each starting in a different place started to wind me with it, carefully aligning each wind next to the last until I was completely covered. My eyes were the last to be bound. Their noses twitched with delight at the thought of no more infestations.
‘Close your beautiful eyelids my precious,’ Vuissane whispered, and I felt the thread coiling slightly over them. The last knot tied, I became a child hemp plant growing down in the orchard.