4 comments

East Asian Fantasy Indigenous

It was a windless day of cloud and rain when the mute girl Milaka began to notice things. 

She lived alone, on the outside of the village circle where only the noise of the wind, when it blew, could be heard. It was the side where, rumor had it in her village, the winds of change blew.

That day, a day of grayness and cheerless chill, Milaka had left her stool and her quiet, lonely meal, and had gone to stand by the open window. For two days she had not moved.

Her sisters, Darva and Kaleena, were beginning to worry.

“Milaka,” they said on the morning of the second day, at the time they always came by to  visit. “Come sit with us and eat some of this good warm bread. It is new and fresh--the first bread of the week!”

But their smiles faded when Milaka remained motionless, because it seemed as though their sister had turned deaf as well as mute. At last her sisters left.

By noon of the third day, the clouds and the cold remained unabated, and neither had Milaka moved from her stool. That day a small wind came through the window and seemed to awaken the girl from her trance.

She shuddered and put her hand to her mouth. Turning about suddenly, she pulled in her skirt and sat on her stool before the loom. 

In a basket at her feet Milaka kept an assortment of colored threads for her weaving, all dyed by her own hand, and all as beautiful and bright as the colors of day. Now Milaka took the blue thread, which was pure as water and rich as honey, and she set to weaving the first tapestry.

First she wove a bright blue sky, broad and generous. It was a sky more convincing than the real thing, so deeply, beautifully blue that a person might imagine no cloud had ever dared to blemish it. When her sisters came in the next morning bearing a bowl of porridge for her morning meal, they were delighted to see her busy. They saw her weaving, and unfinished though it was, they set the bowl on the table and ran to look at it.

“Oh, Milaka,” they gushed. “You have learned to weave the true color of the sky! How do you make it so beautiful? Tell us, sister!” But they might as well have been moths in the room, for all the notice Milaka paid them. She wove on, swiftly as ever, like a miniature thunderstorm in the tiny room. Before long her sisters grew bored, and slightly irritated at being thus ignored, they left.

For the next two weeks Milaka wove. She ate next to nothing, drinking only a little, and slept only when she could keep her eyes open no longer. Her sisters learned not to speak to her, for she no longer offered any kind of response.

On her loom Milaka wove a hill, a healthy apple green against the crystal clearness of sky. White doves she added to the sky, flying up and away in beautiful grace. Their beaks she made short and black, and each eye shone in a brightness more alive even than the eyes of real doves. Last, she wove a border of gray, upon which twisted the dark green leaves of a plant; three leaves on each stem, and each shaped like a sickle.

The first weaving was completed when the moon was at its peak on the fourteenth night. Milaka took a wooden post, buried it in the ground outside her house, and hung the tapestry there in the sight of all before returning inside. Promptly Milaka laid herself down in her bed, and fell exhaustedly into the arms of sleep.

At noon time the next day, she awoke. It was a moment before Milaka realized the entire village was crowded outside and inside of her house. All were talking loudly and shuffling for space to stand in her tiny room, and all were discussing her tapestry.

Immediately Milaka was on her feet. She pushed her way through the crowd of chattering villagers until she was out the door at the place where her tapestry stood hanging. 

“How wondrous!” Milaka heard people saying. “I believe this is the very hill upon which our village sits. The houses are gone; it is empty, yet all the more lovely for that! And the birds flying into the sky--how exquisite! Yet all tapestries tell a story; I wonder what it could mean.” 

Milaka’s sisters were gathered on either side of it, talking excitedly and raising their voices over the babble like twin auctioneers. Milaka put out her thin white arm to touch Kaleena, engaged in rapid conversation, on the shoulder.

“Just a minute, wait your turn like everyone else!” her sister called over her shoulder. Then she saw it was Milaka.

“Oh, sister!” She turned about at once, a grin spreading across her rosy cheeks, and clasped Milaka’s hands in both of hers. 

“You will not believe what the people are saying! Where, oh where did you learn to weave like that? The whole village has come! They are saying it is good enough for the lord’s hall! Listen: the mayor himself has just been to see and place his bid. Eight thousand rubles, he said! We accepted at once, of course, and now everyone in the village--” 

Milaka’s mouth dropped open in surprise. She shook her head violently at Kaleena and gestured that the tapestry was to stay here. Kaleena was astonished. “You do not want to sell? Milaka, you must think--” Milaka stood miserably for a minute, wishing fervently for a tongue with which to tell the people why they must not take the tapestry away, why they must only look and what they must know. The tapestry was not meant to be a beautiful thing! Her sisters tried to tempt her with descriptions of riches, but Milaka was adamant, and at last her sisters sent the people home.

When the house was finally empty, her sisters implored her of why she was so upset, but Milaka would not have them in her house either, and with a will exceeding her size she drove them out as well.

Milaka straightened her stool and collapsed on it. Her dirt floor was scuffed and loose and the air was dusty, and her furniture had been shoved against the walls. Milaka took the tapestry and unfolded it before her. She gazed at it long and sorrowfully, and after a time went out and hung it back on its post. The tapestry was insufficient. None knew her message. She drew up the stool once more and set to weaving the second tapestry. 

It was very much like the first, except this time the sky was empty, and upon the hill there sat a circle of houses. Small and fine in the center of the circle grew a small dark sapling--leafed with the same sickle fronds that had grown around the border of the first tapestry. Equally fine was the farmer who stood beside the plant, holding out a bowl. Inside the bowl lay a leaf. The tapestry was hung beside the first. 

Again, the villagers came to see. Again, they begged to buy it, and again, Milaka shook her head.

“What skill! What fine stitches!” cried the mayor’s wife. “I can clearly make out our village on our hill. It is as though one might reach out and touch the wood of the houses, feel the grass beneath their fingers! And yet all the detail lies in this one small farmer in the center, standing before this odd plant. I wonder what it means! But it is a mystery, I suppose, and that is a pity, for the weaver is mute.”

Later, after all the people had left once more, Kaleena and Darva were left alone with their sister in front of the tapestries. They were growing weary of turning away villager after villager, purse after purse.

“What is the use of displaying them in the sun and the rain where they will soon be ruined, when you could sell them and be famous?” her sisters demanded. Milaka shook her head in  frustration, gesturing wildly. Her sisters exchanged glances. “We will leave you to rest,” Kaleena sighed, and they left.

The next day, a cry of wonder went up from the village center. A dark green sapling had grown up in the night, and upon its branches grew the strange sickle-shaped leaves. The villagers gathered around it, chattering about Milaka’s weaving which resembled it exactly.

“Could it be that we have an oracle in our village?” gasped a young woman.

They wondered at the plant and admired it for many days, but when any villager came to ask Milaka’s sisters about the meaning of the tapestries, they could say nothing, for they were just as clueless. Milaka remained silent, as always, and inside her house she had already begun a third.

Now Milaka wove a forest of the sickle trees. She stitched tiny people moving to and fro among the village houses, carrying baskets and armfuls of leaves. Children sat happily in the crooks of the trees, passing down branches to the people below. Sitting on the ground, more people crushed the leaves with mortar and pestle. A fine yellow powder rose up from the bowls and became the tapestry’s border.

“If it is indeed true that the weaver tells the future,” said a man peering closely at this tapestry, “It seems that our village will soon be filled with these plants!”

And sure enough, in the days following, the single sickle tree in the village center unfurled into a forest. A spicy, sweet smell wafted from the leaves and drew the villagers outside. It was not long before the boldest villagers tried the leaves in tea. They drank as their fellows watched, and their faces lit up in wonder at the taste.

“Why, I feel as light as the wind!” one drinker exclaimed.

“The colors are so bright! The sun is so warm!” cried another.

“It is as though I am a child once more!” they all agreed. And the villagers became like children, greedily pulling leaves into their bowls to make into tea or grinding them into fine powder for eating. They did not forget the one who had foretold it, though, and soon they were crowded with gifts and money at Milaka's door. They begged her to predict their fates and wheedled for the secrets of her powers.

But Milaka shook her head at their words of praise and pushed away the handfuls of coins. She looked beseechingly into the eyes of each, trying to express what she would never be able to say. But of course, the villagers did not understand. 

When the villagers had left, Milaka’s sisters came running ruddy-cheeked to her house, each bearing a double handful of the leaves. They tugged at her arms and called for her to come join them, but Milaka swatted the clusters out of their hands into the dirt. Her sisters eyed her in annoyance and left.

The fourth tapestry was almost finished.

Now the woven forest had grown such that it almost concealed the hill’s bright green, and nearly obscured the sky. Now children ran, plump-faced and smiling and each holding a sprig of sickle leaves. The villagers sat outside their houses with bowls full of yellow powder, and spoons in their hands. Their cheeks bulged with it, and they smiled like infants. In the border, around it all, were hands passing leaves into hands.

The villagers said, “It seems we will soon have even more leaves of the sickle trees! All praise Milaka!” 

As the villagers smiled among each other and bowed to her in thanks, Milaka almost despaired. Were the people merely blind, or was she herself merely stupid? On her stool before the loom, all alone in her room, she wondered what she was doing wrong. She let out a long, weary sigh, a meer hiss of air in her throat, and set to weaving the fifth tapestry.

This time she wove the border first. With black thread she wove branches around the entirety of the tapestry. With white thread, she wove doves perched on the branches. Next, she took her small ball of red thread, and seeing the color was dull and faded, she set the ball on the ground and took up in her right hand a needle. This needle she put the faded thread through, and then holding up her left hand, Milaka pierced her own thumb so the blood dripped forth. She pulled the needle through, and where the thread entered the thumb dully russet, it came out a glistening, scarlet red. Now Milaka wove with it upon the white breasts of the doves.

Milaka locked the door behind them. The birds were not beautiful. She was not finished with her weaving. 

Now she wove the same image as before, of the village on the hill in the forest of sickle trees, except this time the people were not smiling happily. They were grinning twisted grins, mouths stretched exquisitely like cruel gashes or melted wax. Their heads were bent back upon their necks and their limbs were contorted in the way of spider legs. Like bubbles in a boiling pot, their eyes bulged from the skulls, and like curled claws their hands beseeched the heavens.

This was what the leaves were doing to them. This was what would happen if they did not heed Milaka’s warning.

From their mouths gushed red. It spilled down their fronts and stained their throats. It splattered in the air before them and made mud of the earth beneath them. Mixed like soup on the forest floor were hundreds of sickle-shaped leaves, and hovering in the air above their heads was a fine yellow smoke.

This was what the leaves were doing to them.

It was the end of the tenth week since the day the wind of change had come to Milaka by her window. Five tapestries were now finished, and all hung on wooden posts side by side just out her door. Milaka put away her threads and drank a little water, and laid on her bed to await the morning.

Milaka’s sisters came as they always did, with a tray of food for her. 

As always, their eyes went eagerly to her loom, but this time they screamed and flung the dishes into the air, and fled.

It was not long before the villagers arrived, pushing and shoving to be first to see the new creation, but at the sight of it they yelled and leaped back.

“A monstrosity!” wailed a woman.

“She’s mad!” bellowed a man.

“It is a thing of evil! Take it away!” yelled all the people. Then the very villagers who had vied to be first to praise Milaka for her talent, now rushed to rip her work from the posts.

In horror Milaka sprang from her bed and raced out the door, but the people had already marched far away, shouting angrily and hoisting the tapestries high over their heads. They pooled in the village center and set to building a pyre. 

Milaka, running as fast as her weak legs could bear her, opened her mouth to scream. Only a rush of air came out, feeble as wind through a hollow reed. She ran straight into the crowd, pushing between the people, hammering her fists on backs. A few people noticed her. 

“She’s mad!” they yelled, and at once a man seized her by the arms. 

“Light the fire!” roared the mayor, and with a whoosh and a crack the pyre rose high in flames. 

“Bring out the powder!” someone yelled, and soon a bowl full of the stuff was in every villager’s hands. The villagers ate where they stood.

One by one each tapestry was cast on the pyre. The people roared in delight. They brought out more sickle-leaf powder and ate greedily with joy. They danced like savages and paraded around the fire. The soot stained hollows into their cheeks and turned their eyes into shadows. The smoke made Milaka choke and cough. 

Suddenly the strong arms holding Milaka went slack. There was a great thump as the man fell to the ground, but none of the villagers took any notice.

The man writhed on the ground. He twisted in the dirt and curled into an infantile ball. His eyes bulged and his hands curled. Then his head flipped back and his mouth spurted forth a jet of scarlet.

No one noticed. But some of the man’s blood had found its way into the fire, and it hissed like a wild creature. The villagers nearby ceased dancing in surprise, before they, too, doubled over. 

Now all the people screamed in horror. They dropped their bowls and tried to run, but before they made it a few steps they fell coughing, vomiting blood.

The fire sputtered and crackled with it. The ground turned to mud with it. The people turned mad and fought each other. They grinned twisted grins, mouths stretched exquisitely like cruel gashes or melted wax. Their heads bent back upon their necks and their limbs contorted in the way of spider legs. Like bubbles in a boiling pot, their eyes bulged from the skulls, and like curled claws their hands beseeched the heavens.

This was what the leaves had done to them. 

From their mouths gushed red. It spilled down their fronts and stained their throats. It splattered in the air before them and made mud of the earth beneath them. Mixed like soup on the forest floor were hundreds of sickle-shaped leaves, and hovering in the air above their heads was a fine yellow smoke.

September 18, 2021 00:59

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

4 comments

Josh Raisher
22:25 Sep 23, 2021

Really liked this story! I liked the whole concept, and the way it was told - the pacing of the reveal - was really great. My only feedback would be that I think it would be more powerful if you pared down the stylistic flourishes a little bit. I liked the sort of fairytale/parable approach, but there were places where I thought it would have been more effective to say things more simply. Anyway, really good overall!

Reply

Leah Bartleson
14:11 Sep 24, 2021

Thank you so much for the feedback! Yeah... I sometimes get a little carried away with the embellishments.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Joseph Isenberg
21:34 Sep 23, 2021

I like this a great deal. It is an excellent story to begin with, but I want to talk about the technical side, which I find especially compelling and which shows a wonderful display of language. You have clearly put a lot of thought into the word choice here, and that has paid off splendidly. A "folk tale" has a certain pacing and diction, a speed at which it unfolds, and you have caught that perfectly here. Then, when the story turns, and things begin to go wrong, the change is accomplished very subtly-the pacing picks up but the word ...

Reply

Leah Bartleson
14:12 Sep 24, 2021

Thanks so much! That means a lot to me. Thanks for reading it!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply