The Price of Silk

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Silkworms

In truth, every peasant woman weaves silk for the Imperial family. Attired as we are in hemp and ramie, every landed farmer keeps a mulberry grove on his plot so that when spring comes, the women of his household can ascend ladders to gather up the leaves by the fistfuls. It was there among the boughs of a mulberry tree that my mother initiated me into the long-coveted tradition of sericulture.

Upon returning home, we would lay the leaves out on bamboo trays for the worms, watching their white bodies wriggle where they greedily devoured the hand-gathered landscape. Braziers would be lit to warm the room, trays would be changed and cleaned, fresh leaves would be scattered to replace the old. And in due time, the worms would grow fat and sluggish and indolent, moving only enough to swaddle themselves in gold filaments, lulled to sleep by the peaceful rhythms of our tending. Only once they were safely dreaming, once they had surrendered completely to our care and cultivation, would we bring the water to a boil, and turn their cradles into coffins.

It took three-thousand cocoons to weave a length of silk, twenty lengths of silk to pay the summer taxes, and six-hundred thousand households’ taxes to support the Imperial Court. Only by feeding the Dragon Throne’s insatiable appetite for such supple fare could we afford the rights to our land, expending 60,000 little lives each summer to preserve the four of our own.

My brother, Yingjie, used to cry whenever we boiled them, unraveling the cocoons upon the bobbin of a reeling wheel. I would hold him as he wept, whispering what little comfort I could offer. “Don’t be sad,” I’d say. “A few will yet live. Look. We’ve put these cocoons aside. They will be moths in a few days. Then, there will be a thousand more worms the care for. Please don’t cry.” And truly, a few of them would emerge as moths, fat, white and trembling, their useless wings beating feebly against the unyielding air. They would lay a few hundred eggs, and from there, the cycle would begin again.

Soft-hearted though he was, I loved my brother more than anyone. From the womb and into the world, he was my constant companion, a piece of my soul broken away into a separate body, the divisions of yin and yang made manifest between us. Being a boy, Yingjie would go out with my father to work in the fields, his gentle attentiveness put to good use tending to the crops from seedling to harvest. Ill-suited as he was to the perpetual tragedy of silk-farming, it was a blessing he was born a son.

I, on the other hand, being born a girl, understood the twin natures of beauty and brutality, sericulture being an exercise in both. The most precious things in life emerged only through great suffering, hanging forever upon the cross bars of life and death. And though I watched entire generations suffer and die before my eyes, their spirits would forever speak to me.

That is the only way I can explain it, what happened to me while I worked at my loom. I would fall into a sort of trance, caught between the crossing of warp and weft, and there the spirit of the silkworms would guide my hand. There was some strange, inexplicable logic within the tension of the threads, the shifting of the heddles, perceptible only by their subtle direction. After hours of sitting at the loom, the patterns would appear beneath my hands, and within the convergence of fibers, a meaning would emerge, redeeming a million lost lives in its pursuit.

My mother would chide me for it sometimes, telling me that my work altogether too extravagant for any practical use, but she never told me to stop. Yingjie was the only one who knew the true reason for it. Upon the emergence of a new pattern, I would go to him straightaway to relay the message. “A late frost this year,” I’d say. “Tell father he should hold off on planting.” Or sometimes it was, “We’re in for a harsh winter. Stock up on firewood.”

My brother would faithfully follow my predictions, finding them true time and time again. He became all the more our father’s pride and joy, who thanked the gods every day for bestowing a son with such a knack for farming. But the secret of the silk was held between the two of us like pearls on a string, given to scatter if loosed at either end.

It was in our thirteenth year that I found an altogether different sort of message in the silk. I told Yingjie, one late summer night in the garden. “We’re going to have a little brother.” The lanterns were lit, drawing wispy clouds of moths to tap like rain against the silken screens. So too did the fireflies flicker round us in bright clusters, their light catching in Yingjie’s eyes.

“It’s going to be a son?” His voice was bright with hope.

I smiled at him, nodding. “Next spring.”

He let out a sigh, his head falling to my shoulder under the weight of his relief. After all, we were the only progeny the gods saw fit to grant our parents. All the others now dwelled in the shrine with the rest of our ancestors. Every time we made offerings there, my eyes would fall to the four smallest wooden tablets, veiled behind wisps of incense. I could not read their inscriptions, but I knew without knowing the words exactly who they were for: two other daughters, two other sons, dead before leaving the womb. My brother and I were the only two who did not make a tomb of our mother’s insides. Whatever we did beyond the confines of her body would have to make up for all the losses she suffered within it.

But with this news came a promise of another vessel into which our parents’ could pour their hopes. No longer would my brother and I hold it between the two of us like buckets balanced across a beam. As her belly swelled with each passing moon, so too could we dare to hope that this one would make it, this one would come to know life beyond the contours of its mother’s womb. And when the eighth moon cycle came and went, without blood, without difficulty, we were almost certain this would be so.

But life can unravel so easily, ending as abruptly as a broken thread. The midwife told us it was a difficult labor, the baby wrongly positioned, the cord twisted round its neck. By the time they got him out, she had lost too much blood. They couldn’t save him, they said, he’d been without air for too long. Him, not her. Women die in childbirth all the time. The loss of a son is a far greater blow. Regardless, both mother and son went to join the rest of our ancestors behind the incense veil.

Had my mother survived, she would have been making arrangements for my marriage. Instead, all such plans were postponed over the twenty-seven-months of mourning. During this time, my father collapsed inward under the weight of his grief, like a wave forever curling in on itself. Every morning, he would go to the shrine to make offerings, and every evening, he would return to do the same. He would eat, he would work, he would sleep, but he hardly spoke a word to either of us. He couldn’t even bear to look at us, the sight of her absence etched into our features.

So too did my mother’s loss have an effect on my own work, which became very plain from then on. Up shed, beat. Down shed, beat. Even-weave as predictable as sunset. No longer did I lose myself in the patterns. No longer did I wish to decipher whatever ill-tidings the worms had in store for me. My hatred for them now burned like oil under the fury of her loss. If she had to stay dead, why shouldn’t they?

Yingjie never asked me about it. He understood without speaking, the way it so often was with us, why I had stopped giving him messages. Instead, he would come to me after the evening meal, take my hand and say, “Come out to the garden with me, Sister. The moon is beautiful tonight.” He would say this even when the moon wasn’t out, but still it gave us reason enough to slip away. Only when we were alone in the garden, would I lay my head into the crook of his neck and weep. He would remain still all the while, catching my tears on his tunic, giving me a solid place to fall. I could only wonder how much deeper his own grief was, its surface so still and unbroken. I only ever saw proof of it at the shrine, occasionally glimpsing the glimmer of tears on his cheeks as he made his triple obeisance.

But it wasn’t long after the mourning period that I lost my brother as well. Word spread that the Tibetans had seized control of four majors cities along the southern silk routes. At the same time, the Steppe barbarians were wrecking havoc along the northwest. It wasn’t long before mass conscription swept the villages. I could not imagine anyone less fit to be a soldier than my brother. He still cringed whenever he slaughtered a pig, and between the two of us, only I had ever used our father’s hunting bow. But he was young, strong, and healthy, and peasants’ sons made easy battle fodder.

“Please,” Yingjie whispered to me before he left, “Look after our father while I’m gone. Take care of him in any way you can.”

In any way you can. I knew what he meant by this. I knew he was worried what would happen if he couldn’t be there to help on the farm. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Somewhere deep down, I blamed myself for what happened, for the messages that perhaps invited that misfortune upon my mother. Still, I looked after my father just as he asked, devoting myself to garden and livestock, to my worms and my loom. I wove the required lengths for taxes and sold any surplus, using the money to hire laborers for my father. And every night, when he returned, I had supper waiting for him. Every morning, there was millet porridge on the table.

My newfound filial piety did not go unnoticed. One day, as I was helping him to his feet after his habitual prayers, he looked at me and said, “You are turning into a fine young woman, Jiaying. I will make arrangements next spring to find you a worthy husband.” To this, I could only smile and kiss his cheek, knowing that he couldn’t afford a dowry nor were there any husbands to be found, not while the war still raged to the north and west.

By the next spring, it became abundantly clear that I should have listened to my brother. Our crops were scarcely out of their infancy when the torrents came, pummeling the land for days on end, bringing the rivers to overflow. We lost three quarters of our millet field and half the mulberry grove. What little else remained was devoured by locusts in the coming summer. The granaries were opened, but just as soon ran empty, and as starvation set in, the corpses lining the streets disappeared overnight to replace the absent grain. Having no other recourse, we were forced to rely on what little remained of our winter stores, or else forage and hunt for our survival.

“There must be something terribly wrong at the Palace,” my father told me softly one night over a meager supper of roots and stewed rabbit. “Heaven has withdrawn its good graces from us.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded, completely at a loss for what to say. To speak such words, to even think them, was an outright act of treason. Men had been put to death for much milder slights. To suggest that Heaven had withdrawn its Mandate was an outright affront to the Emperor.

“You mustn’t say such things,” I hissed, leaning in close.

“Why?” My father smiled wryly. “Because I might be executed? Look around you, daughter. We are being executed already.”

His words struck a chord in me like a zither. It had not been lost on me that I might have prevented this, that the patterns might have warned me of the coming floods, that my father might have planted his crops on higher ground. Now our family was coming apart, strand by strand, and soon there would be nothing left.

That night, I slipped out to the garden on my own, and lit the incense in the ancestral shrine. The moon was full, its silver light dripping from the eaves of the altar where the darkness enclose me. There, I bowed, pressing my forehead to the ground. “Please.” I rasped out the word, sibilant, barely audible. “Please, help me fix this. I don’t know what to do. Please.” I bowed again, remaining on the ground. All around was stillness, only the soft whisper of crickets to disturb the silence. As I lay wilted before my mother’s funeral tablet, it came to my attention that there were tears on my face. I might a have stayed there, curled in on myself the whole night, but then a sound met my ears. The bell dangling from the eaves of the shrine began to ring, its tintinnabulation calling me from abject despair. There was no wind, no subtle breeze, but nonetheless, it was swaying. Heart rekindled with hope, I bowed one final time, then returned to the house.

I didn’t expect anything else to happen. I certainly didn’t expect a carriage from the Imperial Palace to pull up outside our gate the very next day, just as my father was on his way out to the fields. Hearing the commotion, I rushed outside and saw the horse-drawn vehicle, flanked on all sides by armed imperial guards, and fell to my knees beside my father.

“Is this the household of Wei Cheng?” A voice from within the carriage inquired.

“Yes, Your Excellency,” my father answered quickly, not looking up.

My heart hammered in my chest. After our conversation the night before, I was dreading the worst. Perhaps my father had said something to one of our neighbors and word of his treasonous sentiments had reached the capital. Perhaps the Emperor, Son of Heaven that he is, simply knows and hears everything, even the faintest whispered words uttered over two hundred li away. Either way, such a visit did not bode well.

There came a rustling from within, then the man spoke again, “Did your household submit this cloth for summer taxes a few years prior?”

At that, I tentatively lifted my head just enough to look at the speaker. His face was soft and round beneath his dark cap. Likely a eunuch later on in his years. He had drawn the curtain back, and was offering out a swatch of white fabric, which one of the guards took and lowered for my father’s inspection. I recognized the fabric immediately.

It was the same piece I had woven the year my mother died, its medallion patterns curved inward like a thousand sleeping fetuses. I suddenly recalled my mother’s scoldings, her reproach that such fabric was too gaudy and impractical to be put to any use. Still, it never struck me that it might not be an acceptable form of payment. I certainly didn’t think it would bring the palace guard straight to our gates. I swallowed the panic in my throat and lowered my eyes back down.

My father inspected the cloth silently for a few moments, then returned to a respectfully low bow. “I could not say, Your Excellency, but I do know we submitted silk for the cloth tax last summer.”

I could feel the man’s eyes boring into me even before he spoke. “Would your daughter happen to know?”

It was a stupid question. Of course, I would know. As a woman of the household, textile production would naturally fall to me. Still, protocol demanded that he address my father first. “Yes, Your Excellency,” I answered before my father could. “I recognize that design. I am the one who wove it.”

My father’s gaze shifted nervously in my direction. I very well might have been out of line, answering a question not addressed directly to me, but if I was to be punished anyway for my recklessness, I would rather turn myself in than force my father to.

The man’s eyes were still on me. He was quiet for a long while, as if he did not believe me. Then, he said, “You are to come back to the Palace with me at once. The Empress wishes to have a word with you.”

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