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January 23, 2023

The Aser Stories 68: The Silk Fable

By Sand Pilarski

It was Twosday, the day the market really starts to heat up with buying and selling and undercutting and promoting. I sat beside the silk-seller's booth because it was unshaded and warm in the autumn sun. Across the lane of the marketplace, an elf held a silvered hauberk aloft and without speaking, let the passersby know that the pretty, shiny thing was for sale.

My staff was upright before me, and not too long after mid-morning, a small crowd of children stopped before me. "Ay, Shaman, where you been? No one's been here to tell stories since last spring! We thought you got et by that big, scary troll!"

"The troll is my friend," I said. "But the troll has a job with Caravan Security during the winter. Here I am, and is there anything you need to know?"

Some of the children remembered me from the spring before and so did not need to hear how I came to be a shaman or came to this village. But all of them watched with awe as the merchant plied her ware of richly dyed and patterned silk fabrics.

"That's the beautifullest cloth in the world," said a girl. "What's it made from that it shines like that?"

"That's silk. The thread is made from the cocoon of the silkworm."

"A cocoon? Like a spider web?" asked a boy who was old enough to have started learning a trade rather than spend his time wandering the marketplace. "Are you telling me that cloth comes out of a silkworm's butt?" The children laughed.

"No, my young dolt, a silkworm is not a spider. The cocoon is made from the silkworm's spit. Perhaps one day people will find a use for your drool."

"Ha ha, Rolf, the shaman must have seen you snoring under the hay wagon!" cried a girl who was shepherding two younger siblings.

"But Shaman, how did people find out that something made from worm spit could be used to make cloth?" Asked another child.

"Well, there's a story about that. Do you want to hear it?"

"No," said Rolf, walking away.

"Yes," chorused some of the other children and they made themselves comfortable on the sunny ground and I began my tale.

"In the days of the warlords, before the great Emperor of the East was sent to bring order to the people, no one was safe traveling the roads alone, and everyone who went from town to town banded together for safety.

"There was a farmer named Lai Lao who was impatient when the caravan with which he was traveling stopped at a town to rest for the night. He wasn't at all tired yet, and he was eager to get home to his tiny house and garden and family and buy his sack of next spring's seed corn for the lowest prices before the other farmers returned with their coins. 'I don't need all these slow people around me,' he said. 'I can run quickly and far, so I will go on ahead to the next town, and be home the next day.'

"So off he ran, quickly and far indeed, but not quickly enough or far enough before he heard the sounds of hoof beats on the road ahead of him. Now the only people who used horses in those days were warriors; for plain folk needed only their own feet to serve them well. He looked around wildly for a place to hide, because everything he had earned at the Great Market was in his pocket, and he didn't want to be beaten and robbed. But the only thing around was a giant mulberry tree, with rustling leaves and dripping mulberries.

"Lai Lao climbed into the tree as high as he could go, but he knew that if anyone looked up, they might still see him perched up there. The hoof beats came nearer.

"'Look,' a voice shouted, 'a mulberry tree! Let us stop and eat some fruit and make this our camp for the night. We can attack the caravan in the morning as they come out of the city!'

"At this, Lai Lao knew that he was in danger, but he was trapped. Just then he noticed a furry little ball that a worm was making in the twigs of the tree. 'Worm!' he whispered, 'gather your brothers and sisters and cover me up, too!'

"'No, sir,' said the worm, 'you would get too comfortable and cozy, for our fuzz is soft and warm.'

"'Please cover me, or else the highwaymen below will see me!' whispered Lai Lao.

"'No, sir,' replied the worm. 'If the night turns hot, you will want to sleep here always, for our fuzz is smooth and cool.'

"'You must cover me, or else the robbers will kill me, and my blood will be on your heads,' pleaded Lai Lao.

"'And what can you give us in return? For many of us will have to give up our own fuzz to save your life, and postpone our own long, long sleep inside our warm, soft, cool, smooth cocoons,' asked the worm, who knew an opportunity when he finally saw it.

"Lai Lao had nothing he could offer the worms, as they lived on mulberry leaves alone and were quite comfortable when they slept in their fuzzy beds. 'I don't know what I can give you in return! What do you need except the mulberry tree that you already have?'

"'Can you keep the birds away from us?' the worm asked.

"Lai Lao was desperate. 'Yes, yes, I will find a way to keep you safe from birds! I'll tell everyone how you saved my life and we will come and keep the birds away from you!'

"'Very well,' said the worm, and his brothers and sisters nodded their tiny heads and agreed, 'Very well!' and they began to wrap Lai Lao in soft strands, round and round.

"'Wait!' whispered Lai Lao. 'What if I fall from this branch?'

"'Sir,' said the worm, 'the fuzzy strands are strong enough to keep us safe while we sleep our long, long sleep. They will keep you safe and sound here, too.'

"So the worms wrapped Lai Lao all around, and no one could have seen him up there in the branches. He was safe. In fact, he was so comfortable he fell soundly asleep, just as the worms did. And though the night was chilly, he was warm as could be. And though the next day was hot, he slept right through, cool and content on the smooth threads. In fact he slept all the way through the winter, and all the way through the summer, cozy and safe, for a hundred years.

"When Lai Lao awoke, he stretched, and the fabric of his tunic and his pants began to rip and crumble because they were so old! And when he put his hand to his face to rub at his eyes, he found that it was tangled in a long white beard! He pushed and pulled at the cocoon he was in until his face was uncovered and he could see silkworms crawling on the last mulberry leaves of the winter. 'Worms!' he cried. 'What has happened? Why did you let me sleep so long?'

"'Who are you?' asked a worm, for of course no silkworm would live for a hundred years. 'Whoa, you are the ugliest silk moth I have ever seen! I'm sure glad you aren't my mother!'

"Lai Lao grumbled to himself, pushed his hands and feet out of the cocoon, and climbed down the tree. He was surprised had how hard it was and how slowly he moved. He felt like an old, old man, as anyone does who sleeps for a hundred years.

"He hobbled all the way to his village, which in a hundred years' time had become a large city. People stopped and stared at him in his fuzzy cocoon covering. 'What is that?' they asked. 'A monster sheep?'

"Lai Lao shook his fist at them and returned to his own home, only to find that his tiny house and garden were gone, and a larger brick house had been built. Many children played in the gardens in front of the house, watched over by a young woman. When she saw Lai Lao, she screamed, and a man came running out with a stick to beat him.

"'Stop! Who are these children? Where is my house?'

"'These are my children, and this is my house!' said the man. 'Who are you?'

"'I am Lai Lao, and I built my house here on this very spot! Who are you?'

"'Lai Lao? But that's impossible! For I am the great-great-great grandson of a man named Lai Lao who was killed by robbers a hundred years ago!'

"The man and his wife listened to Lai Lao's fantastic tale, and gave him a robe to wear and some soup to eat. While the great-great-great grandson brought Lai Lao up to date, the young woman took the furry cocoon to wash. 'This looks like wool,' she thought. 'I could spin thread from it and make a blanket.'

But when she pushed the cocoon into the hot water of the tub, a strand like thread came loose. The woman backed away, holding the strand, back, back, back -- she grabbed an empty spindle and began winding the strand of silk around it, and filled up ten spindles of soft thread! By the next morning she had woven a shawl from the wonderful stuff, and she showed it to her husband and Lai Lao. 'Look at this!' she said. 'This is the most beautiful fabric in the world! If only we had some more of that fuzzy stuff you were wearing, Lai Lao, this kind of cloth could make us rich!'

"'If I tell you where to find this fuzzy stuff, will you let me live in your household and eat from your table?' asked clever Lai Lao, who had not only just discovered that he held the secret to a profitable commodity, but also figured out a way to keep his promise to the silkworms.

"'Yes, yes!' said the great-great-great grandson and his wife, for not only were they glad to be learning the secret to a fortune, but also because Lai Lao was family, after all, and they could now take care of the old man without him feeling like a mooch.

"They took a horse and cart and the nimble sons and daughters and went to the great mulberry tree, where the last of the worms had made their winter cocoons and gone to sleep, and they gathered up every single one. Then they planted mulberry trees in their gardens. Seven times seven cocoons were lovingly placed in each tree, and the rest, the wife threw into the hot water of the tub, and unwound the cocoons to make the shining thread. Lai Lao lived in comfort for the rest of his life, and his great-great-great grandson and his wife became embarrassingly wealthy and handed the secret of the silkworms down through their family."

"What happened to the worms without their cocoons?" asked a boy.

"They were cooked in the boiling water and made into potstickers," I told him.

"But wait, didn't Lai Lao promise to protect the worms?" protested the boy.

"From the birds," I answered. "And believe me, Lai Lao's great-great-great grandson and his descendants protected their silkworms from the birds with scarecrows and cats." I stood up, and dusted my robe off. "Did you learn anything from this story?"

"Yes," said the girl who was babysitting her younger brother and sister. "Even frightening misfortunes can turn out well in the end."

"I did, too," said the boy who had asked about the fate of the worms. "Be careful in what you say when you're striking a bargain."

"Anything else?"

"I think that we can learn a lesson from the caravan," said a small thin boy thoughtfully. "If we all stick together when we're on the street, Rolf won't be able to catch us alone and take our bread and apples from us."

"Remember all of that, children," I said. That many lessons from one tall tale? I do believe I earned my Twosday night beer.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-09-29
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