PG-13, for needles and blackest thread.
The Weaver Retires
by Kai Hudson
They come from all over: exotic, far-off places with names Weisa can barely pronounce. Australia. Japan. Venezuela. Last week, some alien-sounding place called Pen-sil-vay-ni-yah.
Her grandson Ashti says they come because she’s famous. She’s on the Internet, he tells her, this great big place like a temple in the air, full of books and magazines anyone can read at any time. Apparently someone wrote about her a few months ago, and that’s why people come.
She doesn’t mind it so much. They break up the monotony of the day, when she comes back from feeding the pigs or killing cockroaches with her sandals to find yet another foreigner sitting awkwardly with Ashti inside the hut. Today it is one of the ones with skin like someone dusted him with bread flour, with a balding head and damp patches decorating his brightly-colored shirt. A fat woman presumably his wife slumps in Ashti’s usual chair, fanning herself with her hat. Ashti has politely moved to the floor.
“Ah, Ima,” her grandson says, rising upon her entrance. The foreigners don’t move. “We have visitors.”
She’s always amused when he uses that word. When Weisa was little, visitors meant aunts and cousins from the next village over, or perhaps traders from afar, their donkeys laden with bright plastic toys and exotic candies that burst like bubbles of honey on her tongue. If they were really lucky, visitors meant a small group of slightly bedraggled people, lean and dusty from travel, who smiled with gaps in their teeth and offered, in exchange for food and lodging, her absolute favorite thing: stories.
The weavers, as they were called, were a spectacle throughout the village. A visit from them meant hot food and laughter shared late into the night, music and dancing around roaring bonfires. And, of course, the stories. Flashes of light and threads of darkness twisting through the air like errant snakes, setting their hearts afire with tales of brave warriors and faraway battles, great floods and seasons of bountiful harvest. If Weisa had been very good, her mother would let her have a story, and many a time she would fall asleep in an adult’s lap as dawn broke over the horizon, dizzy with the magic in her skin.
Weisa nods at her grandson and starts across the hut, intending to fetch the small cookie tin sitting next to her sleeping mat. The white man, however, heaves himself up with much effort and stands in her way to jam his hand forward. He smiles and says, “Hah-lo-ai-muh-but,” which she assumes is a greeting in his language.
She smiles back and shakes his hand. It’s greasy with sweat and he squeezes too hard, making her knuckles ache, but she makes sure not to show it on her face. They’ve journeyed very far to see her; she doesn’t want to make them uncomfortable. The man’s wife stops fanning long enough to bark something at her husband, but doesn’t seem able to summon energy for much more than that. The man nods and lifts the heavy camera hanging from around his neck, turning to say something to Ashti as he indicates Weisa’s bare arms. Ashti shrugs permission. He knows Weisa doesn’t mind.
And she doesn’t, even as the man follows her across the hut, camera going click click click as he photographs the stories inked all over her skin. She doesn’t mind at all. Stories are meant to be remembered, and if this is how they do it in today’s world, not with needle and thread but a big clunky machine, then so be it.
She bends slowly down and picks up the tin, unable to help a soft groan as her back dutifully protests. It seems everything in her body is going these days: the stiffness in her ankles, the painful grinding of her knees, her swollen finger joints and fading eyesight. Nicola, her great-granddaughter, says she calculated it and Weisa is over ninety years old. “That’s almost a century!” she’d said the last time they spoke on the phone, like it was an important thing. Weisa doesn’t really understand. The stories she weaves are much, much older.
She motions for the man to go outside. He does, and with a loud, whooshing sigh that dramatically announces how difficult this all is, his wife gets up and does the same.
Ashti smiles sheepishly. “Sorry, Ima. They came a long way.”
“Did they come from the Internet?” Weisa asks, and doesn’t really know why Ashti laughs. The world is a strange place nowadays.
In the patch of cracked dirt outside the hut, the foreigner’s wife has already plopped herself down in the only shaded area beneath the grassy awning, leaving her husband to sit awkwardly cross-legged under the sun just outside the door. Ashti immediately goes back inside to fetch the umbrella. It’s bright orange with some foreign company’s logo on it, a gift from the people who came a few months ago and did whatever they did to put her on the Internet. It doesn’t always open right and one of the spokes snapped off a while back, but Ashti manages to wrestle it into position, standing over Weisa to provide some relief from the relentless sun as she squats down next to the white man and opens the tin.
Inside is a set of needles, long and thin and ghostly silver. No thread. Weisa nods at the man. “Where?”
Ashti translates for her. The man rolls up the sleeve of his shirt and points to the bare patch of his upper arm. Weisa was taught that one’s first story should always be near the stomach where the spirit resides, but she makes no objection. For some reason, most foreigners prefer the arms or the back, though she’ll never know why.
She doesn’t ask the man what kind of story he wants. It’s not his place, or hers. Stories do not come from the weavers themselves.
She squints into the tin for a moment, the smell of metal and rust filling her nose as she struggles to distinguish the different needle lengths through the slow-expanding clouds in her eyes. One day she will not be able to do this anymore, when age and fatigue become too much. But today, her eyes, though blurry, can see, and her fingers, though aching, can move. She selects a medium-length needle that glints in the sun.
The man startles and draws in a hissed breath at the first puncture, laughing a bit to cover it up. Weisa ignores him and uses her thumb to swipe the blood away as she moves the needle through soft, pliant skin. Cloth rustles and there is movement out of the corner of her eye: the man’s wife finally lumbering to her feet to lift her own camera. Click goes the shutter, as she steps directly into Weisa’s light. Click, click.
Weisa doesn’t say anything, just pauses for a moment, needle tip still embedded beneath the man’s skin. Eventually the wife decides she wants a better angle and moves away. When the light returns, Weisa turns the needle and forces the tip back up to pierce the air. The man gasps and trembles.
The needle draws out of the man’s skin, trailing a thin, wispy thread of black. Weisa hums and tugs until she feels resistance about a foot later. It’s not bad, really. When she was a child, people’s stories were many feet long, shimmering in a rainbow of colors. Weisa’s grandfather only ever had one story, but it took three days to complete and splashed color from his cheeks all the way down to his ankles. By comparison, Weisa’s longest story only took one night, running from the base of her neck down to her left hip.
The foreigner’s black thread shimmers weakly in the sunlight. His wife gasps and quickly snaps pictures. Ashti read Weisa a few articles from the Internet in the beginning, people with faraway jobs living in faraway cities with faraway ideas about what it means to weave. There were many photographs of her work, and these people claimed the story was in these images, that if one were to squint and study hard and long enough, one would be able to see a neat beginning, middle, and end in the blocky lines and nonsensical shapes drawn into dozens of people’s foreign skin.
They are wrong.
Every weaver knows the story is in the thread.
The man has an odd name: Herbert. The thread wants it to take the form of a teardrop, so Weisa weaves it into his skin accordingly, squinting to make sure the thread sinks in completely, transforming into dark ink to cement the name. Herbert. He’ll turn fifty-six next month, and he wonders if Shelly will even remember. They haven’t had sex in months because Shelly keeps saying she has migraines, even though she never has migraines when it’s time to go out to the pub with her friends from the pool club.
Herbert’s resentment becomes a small black diamond in his skin. The next section of thread vibrates with guilt, because he feels bad about sneaking into the basement every other night to beat off to porn, but not bad enough that he thinks of stopping. He’s been ogling the cute maid at their hotel all weekend too, which has made Shelly snap at him twice, but Shelly has no right to be jealous, does she, because she promised him she’d be better, she promised him last summer she’d start her diet and go swimming for real and make it so that he doesn’t have to be married to a goddamned whale, but she didn’t keep her end of the bargain, did she, so he’s allowed to look, it’s not like he’s going to do anything.
Three parallel black lines for Herbert’s desperate disgust with his wife.
The story turns, and this is where Weisa has to be especially careful. Two years from now, Shelly will find a lump in her breast. She’ll be dead by the turn of the next decade, and Herbert will cry at the funeral and be relieved that he is still able to feel something for her, that she didn’t kill his humanity completely. Four wavy lines for Herbert’s future widower status.
Six months after that, he’ll meet a young twenty-something with fake-blonde hair, and he’ll fall head over heels for her giant tits and how she laughs at all his jokes, even the ones that aren’t funny. He’ll marry her by the end of the year, he’ll buy her a new car and spend whatever’s left of Shelly’s life insurance payout on jewelery and dresses and fancy dinners out, anything to keep her around, to keep her smiling and looking at him like he is the most important person in the world. An eye-shaped ellipse for Herbert’s naïveté.
When she vanishes three months after they marry, taking with her all the money in the house along with his social security number, bank cards, and retirement savings, he’ll drink. Weisa is very careful now, drawing the thread around in a series of slow-expanding concentric circles. One rainy evening in October, Herbert will stay out late at the pub, have one too many drinks. He’ll get angry. He’ll get stupid.
The thread is almost gone now, only about half an inch left. Weisa bends in close, squints down her nose at the needle to complete the final circle. A car crash at sixty miles per hour, a forehead slamming into a thick windshield hard enough to spiderweb the glass. A helicopter, surgery, ventilator. She must not allow her hands to slip and make a mistake. She must not accidentally save his life.
Herbert’s story finishes with a decision by his eldest daughter, years from now, to take him off life support. The last bit of thread sinks into skin, the curve of Herbert’s upper arm now a conglomeration of seemingly random black shapes and lines. Weisa sets the needle, bloody, down onto the lid of the cookie tin with a soft clink.
There are tears in the man’s eyes — from the pain, Weisa assumes, because only the weaver can see the story. She still has bits and pieces of it, enough that she remembers his name starts with a “huh” sound, and he doesn’t like his wife much. After a few seconds, even that fades away.
The foreigner gets shakily to his feet and says something to Weisa that probably communicates gratitude. She nods. Ashti speaks with them for a few moments longer, money changes hands, and then they are gone, disappeared down the road in the old, beat-up Jeep driven by Weisa’s grand-nephew. Maybe the story she wove today will be on the Internet tomorrow.
She doesn’t think much about the story as she washes the needle and shuts the tin. It could be considered cruel, she supposes, to see someone’s grim future and not do anything to change it. But that is not the expectation of a weaver. Whether someone’s life is to be long and adventurous or short and boring or any combination in between, it is not for her to judge. She works the needle, not the thread.
Ashti counts the money in the sun. “This can buy some of that tea you like, Ima,” he says, and Weisa smiles. Her grandson has never asked for a story, and she has never offered. She likes that about him, that he is a blank canvas so full of possibilities, yet he chooses to stay here with her. He makes things easier as she is getting old.
As if in agreement, her fingers ache. She groans and massages her wrist. Ashti goes to fetch some cooling herbs as Weisa heads back into the hut and her sleeping mat. She eases herself onto the soft, woven grass, breathes in the comforting smell of home, and closes her eyes.
When she dies, so will the art of weaving. That is not so bad. The world has a story in and of itself, and she is just one part of it.
She takes that comfort with her into sleep.
She dreams of a story. She is young, lithe, beautiful. Her skin shines clean, ready for the thread of her life, so she draws it from herself and it is a beautiful glimmering red, the color of celebration, and so long it reaches all the way to the stars. Buzzing with anticipation, she grasps the needle and weaves, in and out and up and down through the canvas of her skin, pictures of dragons and monsters and great houses in the sky, handsome men and dancing women and festivals full of music and more food than she could ever eat. The story of the world, and she has been blessed to carry it.
She wakes to Ashti gently shaking her shoulder. “Ima,” he says, and his face is as if he can’t quite decide whether to smile or grimace. “Ima, wake up. Nicola is here.”
Weisa blinks the wisps of sleep from her eyes and slowly sits up. It is late afternoon now, the sun slanting in through the door of the hut, and she can see her visitor sitting in the corner, half in shadow, half in light. She frowns and beckons. “Come here, child.”
Her great-granddaughter shuffles forward obediently, and Weisa’s heart sinks. Nicola’s left eye is swollen and purple. She cradles her arm to her chest, and even with the cataracts Weisa can distinguish the deep, finger-shaped bruises there.
“Oh, child,” she murmurs, opening her arms, and Nicola crawls into them, shaking with tears.
Ashti explains in the background, voice a low growl. Weisa can’t distinguish the words between her hearing loss and Nicola’s sobs, but she doesn’t have to. There is a story on Nicola’s skin that Weisa didn’t weave, but it’s old and deep nonetheless.
Nicola quiets after a moment, enough for Weisa to catch Ashti’s words. “I’ll kill him,” he hisses, and he’s already standing by the door of the hut, fists clenched, as if the story is already written, as if, in his head, he’s already in the city, seeking out the owner of the hand that bruised his daughter so. “I’ll drag him into the street and beat him like the dog he is. I’ll cut his throat. I’ll shoot him through the heart.”
This only makes Nicola cry harder. Weisa sighs and looks at her grandson. “You can’t do that. You’ll go to jail, and then who will take care of Nicola?” And me, she doesn’t add.
Ashti shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “He can’t be allowed to do this anymore, Ima. And Nicola, why do you keep going back? I told you before —”
“Stop it,” Weisa snaps, and Ashti’s mouth shuts with an audible click. She strokes her great-granddaughter’s soft black hair and sighs. “We’re all tired. Nicola has come a long way. Let’s all eat dinner and have some peaceful conversation, and then go to sleep. We can talk about it more in the morning.”
“But, Ima —”
“That’s all, nanu.” And with that, all the fight leaves Ashti in a breath. His shoulders slump and he nods, turning to fetch the old tea kettle from the corner.
Nicola stirs in Weisa’s arms. Her great-granddaughter lifts her head and wipes tears from her face. “Don’t worry, Amima,” she says, and it breaks Weisa’s heart how reedy-thin her voice is, fake bravado stretched taut over a yawning chasm of despair. “I won’t go back. Not this time. I promise. Me and Diago are done.”
Weisa smiles at that, and hopes it looks encouraging. She gently wipes a last tear from Nicola’s cheek with her thumb before resting her hand on the story that starts at the girl’s collarbone. Nicola asked her to do it when she turned sixteen, and it’s just a small one, only reaching past the curve of her left breast. Weisa wants Nicola to be like her, to have several stories that honor the change and choices she makes in her life.
Right now, though, she feels only sadness as her fingers tingle with the echoes of the girl’s future. She already knows how this story goes.
That night, she can’t sleep. Weisa lies on the mat and stares up at the hut’s ceiling, at the bits of black sky visible through the thick grass. Ashti’s snores drift from the other side of the hut, a slow, comforting rumble. Nicola’s warmth settles reassuringly at her side.
She turns to regard the girl. Nicola twitches in her sleep now, cries out occasionally even, and Weisa knows this is because of Diago and the meanness in his eyes. There’s a full moon tonight so she can make out the curve of Nicola’s bare shoulder, and this close she can see the scars: a long diagonal scratch that might have been accidental, and beneath it, a raised, ugly burn that is decidedly not.
The anger isn’t new. You don’t get to be as old as Weisa without having seen things that sometimes make shutters come down behind your eyes, make you want to lock yourself away from the world for a while and want nothing to do with stories. But that is dangerous too. And Weisa has a choice.
Weavers are storytellers, not storymakers. Weisa is a medium for a person’s story-thread; she draws it into whatever shape or pattern it wishes to take, but she never dictates. She never alters the ink.
But she loves Nicola, and she is getting old.
Perhaps here, on this cusp of night when the last weaver in the world is in the twilight of her days, something can change.
Nicola doesn’t stir when Weisa rises slowly off the mat. She is exhausted from her journey, and from Diago before that. Even so, Weisa tiptoes to the back corner of the hut. She feels out the slight depression in the dirt there by memory, and begins to dig.
The soil is arid and dusty and throws up the scent of dried-up things. Weisa ignores it. Her hands flare up in pain at the exertion but she ignores that too, because the object she is looking for is not buried very deep. In fact — there. Cool metal against her fingers.
She draws the pair of scissors from the earth and blows on it to get the dirt off. It is made of the same material as her needles, but has seen far less use.
Nicola complies with barely a snuffle when Weisa returns to the sleeping mat and gives her shoulder a gentle nudge, encouraging her to shift onto her back. The moonlight reveals her story, all done up in multicolored experiences, and it takes no time at all for Weisa to find the piece she is looking for, a two-inch-long band of black just above the heart. It sends a tiny frisson through her when she touches it, an echo of love-hate-fear-pain and a mixture of memories, some happy, most sad, and all featuring the same young man with glittering coals for eyes.
The thread materializes when she asks it to, lifting up from the skin and manifesting from ink to fiber without hesitation. She is a weaver, after all. Weisa bends close — she must be very careful — and makes sure to cut in the right places. Snip: the start of the black band, that sunny afternoon in the park when Nicola first looked over her laughing friend’s shoulder and caught a glimpse of a toned body and the most handsome face she had ever seen. Snip: the end of the band, Diago’s sneering, flushed-red face an instant before his fist ate up her whole vision and exploded the world in bright white agony.
Weisa sets the scissors down and regards the limp length of black thread now pinched between her fingers. Such a small, insignificant thing for a small, insignificant man. Below her, Nicola shifts in her sleep and lets out a sigh. For the first time that night, her shoulders relax into complete peace.
With a tiny shudder like a dying earthworm, the thread disintegrates. Weisa lets out a breath. When she wakes in the morning, Nicola will not remember anything of a savage named Diago.
But Weisa will. And she is not done.
She packs only what she needs: some bread and fruit, an old plastic bottle half-full of water, and Nicola’s ID card, printed with her current address. She reburies the scissors and leaves the needles where they are.
Ashti will understand, when the dawn wakes him tomorrow and he sees his grandmother is gone. He will know that she decided to write her own story.
It takes her a day and a half to get to the city. It’s a confusing mess, especially since she can’t read any of the signs or understand the dozens of different languages being barked and shouted all around her. Most of the people brush her by in their hurry to live their lives, running from one place to the next and yammering on their phones like it means something, but some are polite; the bus driver doesn’t charge her fare because she doesn’t know she has to pay for it, and tells her which direction to walk so she can reach Nicola’s neighborhood. A middle-aged woman who could pass for Nicola’s mother — may the gods bless her with great stories in heaven — walks several blocks with her to locate the exact apartment building, and even offers to accompany her in the elevator up to Nicola’s floor. Weisa politely but firmly declines. She will be the only witness for this.
The man who answers her knock has the same face she cut from Nicola’s story the previous night. There are bags under his eyes, he is unshaven and unkempt, and the stench of alcohol clings to him like a coat. He snorts, swallows mucus, and looks Weisa up and down. “Yeah? Who’re you?”
Weisa smiles. “Hello, Diago. I am Nicola’s great-grandmother.”
“Oh, the weaver.” Diago instantly looks wary, but it seems his mother did not raise him as a complete buffoon: he shuffles aside to allow her entrance. “Uh. How is she?”
“This is a very nice house,” Weisa answers. She imagines that to be at least partly true: the place is probably tiny by city standards, the garbage is overflowing and there are a few days’ worth of dishes in the sink, dirty clothes on the floor and the whole place smells of beer and cigarettes. Still, it is maybe twice the size of her hut, and the sunlight shining in through the grimy windows paints the place in bright, cheerful yellow.
“Thanks.” Diago shuts the door, but doesn’t quite seem to know what to do about Weisa being suddenly in his home. “What do you want?”
Weisa sighs and allows her shoulders to hunch. She sits down on the stained couch and smiles up at Diago. “Nicola has told me many things about you,” she begins, and instantly sees his wariness increase.
“I’d like to offer you a story.”
From the way Diago blinks, this was the last thing he expected. Weisa adjusts her seat on the couch and groans as her back protests. “I am getting old, child. Very old. Almost a century. And as you have no doubt read on the Internet, weaving will die when I die.”
“I’m sorry,” Diago says, in the same flat way Ashti might say I have to piss.
“I’m not bothered by it,” Weisa says. “But I am bothered that, after I go, there will be no more stories. So I wish to weave as much as I can before the time comes. To . . . leave a legacy, I suppose.”
She sees it the instant Diago understands. His eyes light — not with joy or honor, but with greed. No doubt after she dies, those who carry her work will suddenly be very important. Such a small, insignificant man.
“Child,” she says, looking into those dark, glinting eyes, “Will you allow me to weave your story?”
He sinks down next to her on the couch before she even finishes the sentence. “It would be an honor, Amima,” he says. Weisa has to resist the urge to wince at his use of the honorific. Only family can call her that.
Given the enormity of what she is about to do, though, she lets it slide.
“Where would you like me to start?” she asks, and predictably, Diago turns and tugs his shirt off, tapping between his shoulder blades.
“Make it come out in like a wing pattern,” he says, “so it’s not all lopsided and ugly like Nicola’s.”
“I understand.” Weisa lays a gentle hand on Diago’s back. The skin there is warm, almost feverish, as if even now his body cannot contain the burning, rageful fire inside. Oh, Nicola, she thinks. I will never regret this.
It takes no coaxing to draw the thread out. It’s thicker than the foreigner’s from yesterday, solid obsidian-black, and doesn’t catch the light at all, seeming instead to suck it up and swallow it. Weisa tugs gently. Six inches, then eight. Ten. A full foot.
Then she feels it: the resistance that tells her she has reached the end. The thread vibrates against her fingers, heavy with story. Past, present, and future.
Gods forgive her.
She clamps her fist around the thread and yanks.
The thread snaps from Diago’s back with a sharp crack and a brief spout of blood. The man howls and falls forward, smashing into the coffee table and sending empty beer bottles and full ashtrays scattering every which way. Weisa leaps to her feet and plasters herself against the wall.
Diago doesn’t even notice. He writhes on the floor as if in a seizure, eyes shot so wide she can see the whites all around. Thick cords of vein and muscle strain down his neck and arms. His mouth opens and closes but emits only a thin, high-pitched “ah, ah, ah” as if even language has fled him. And in a way, it has.
She’s breathing hard. Weisa stares down at the thread in her hands. It wriggles like a beheaded snake, twisting about as if in pain but she keeps her grip on it, forces herself to hold on even as tears prick her eyes. The story sears through her in brief, crazy flashes: Diago as a little boy, screaming as he leaps on his father’s back to protect his bruised, bleeding mother. Diago as a teenager, riding his bike as fast as he can, thinking that if he just aims for that wall, that rotting brick wall and gains enough speed and doesn’t stop then maybe he’ll smash and break and everything will end. Diago as a young man meeting Nicola and thinking she’s pretty enough. Diago digging his dad’s old revolver out of the closet when Nicola tells him she’s never coming back, and going to the village where she lives with her retarded backwards country family and shooting all of them in cold blood, yes, even that shriveled old weaver grandmother of hers. Diago in prison smoking and laughing and playing cards, Diago getting released eight years later because he knows the right officials to bribe, Diago trying to find work, Diago failing, Diago alone, Diago drinking, Diago getting hit by a bus and bleeding out in the street while they wait for an ambulance that doesn’t get there in time.
The thread gives one last shudder and goes limp. Weisa opens her hand, fingers trembling, and the ugly black thing disintegrates into so much wispy smoke. She looks down once more at Diago, sprawled on the floor, still making those horrible wordless sounds, and shakes her head.
“May the gods bless you,” she whispers, “with great stories in heaven.”
She exits the apartment and shuts the door behind her with exaggerated care. She will never forget those terrible sounds, or that awful look on his face. She will never be able to look Nicola in the eyes again, knowing what she has done. She will die in a few years — of pneumonia, not a bullet — and make sure she never teaches anyone her craft so that the weaving of stories into skin will become a mere memory after she passes, and then eventually a folk tale, and then a legend.
All this will happen, and the story of the world will grind on.
The wetness on her cheeks surprises her. Weisa doesn’t know why she is crying, but she doesn’t mind. It’s a beautiful day. Ashti and Nicola are waiting for her.
Wiping away the tears, she asks her aged body for a little more strength and points herself in the direction of home.
About the Author
Kai Hudson lives in sunny California where she writes, hikes, and spends entirely too much time daydreaming of far-off worlds. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, PseudoPod, Metaphorosis, and Anathema: Spec from the Margins, among others. You can visit her website at www.kaihudson.com.
About the Narrator
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include Knite and Fisheye Placebo webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature. You can read her comics for free at YuumeiArt.com, Follow her on Instagram, or support her on Patreon.