by Carolyn Hillyer
This book is written as a spiral that spins in both directions; stories gathered and hung upon a non-linear structure, memories and textures threaded around a circular loom, words spilled across the earth floor of an ancient sacred women’s house. Here are some fragments from the loom …
The Weaver’s Daughter and Other Yarns
She collected looms. The first was a rug loom, a simple frame bolted and braced and bound with twine, as tall as a tribes woman in her middle years and twice as wide. She came to this loom by chance or destiny or both. She had crept into the weavers’ monthly council because her fingers itched and twisted whenever she passed near their door and she wanted to know why.
She edged through small knots of women talking until she saw an empty waiting loom; and the warp strings were a-humming as she knelt down on the floor. Her hands felt hot and restless but when she held them over the cones of coloured wool piled to the side, they cooled at once and grew calm. She picked up a spool and wound some yarn then placed her fingers on the strings. The loom sang as she started to weave and the song continued all through the morning, beyond the dusk and far into the following day. She wove the yarns and wound the colours until the loom was full and the warp string song faded and fell silent at last. She was alone, for the women of the weavers’ council had long gone to their homes. She was hungry, not just for food but also for the loom song that was now buried beneath the finished, quiet rug.
So she found wood and knife and hand axe, and she cut and drilled and sanded until the timber turned into a tall rug loom, on which she wound a warp then placed beside her bed so she could hear the taut strings humming in the night.
The second loom was smaller, created by weavers who like to travel lightly and grow their weavings by the roadside, amid a tumbling mass of children or beneath the kitchen window as flat breads bake upon the coals. She took a bus into the mountain and she rowed across a wide lake and she drank tea beside the water as she twirled a spool around her fingers, until a weaver’s daughter found her there and smiled. They walked together through the houses on a trail of brilliant threads that wound out from every doorway to form a braid of women’s labour, which spread around the village like the sun. She sat with the weaver’s daughter every morning, every evening while the weaver’s old hands taught her how to stretch the fine loom threads from her waist up to a tree branch and lie back into the weaving as it danced and sang before her. And the song was of the berries that lay drying by the water and the song was of the girls that gather fruit into their tunics and the song was of the colours that battle on through pain and hunger to keep the people hopeful and to hold their dreams of free and peaceful lives intact.
So she held the weaver’s old hands and she kissed the weaver’s daughter; she rowed back across the lake then kept on weaving as she travelled and the fine threads sang her journey all the way back to her hearth.
The third loom came from the temples and from the prayers of healers who believe in wild weaving and the anarchy of yarns. She flew in dreams to meet them where they stood on stairs of white stone and the cloth poured from their fast looms down the steps in waves and wide cascades of colour. Old women banged on gongs and offered chants and warbled softly as they danced slowly through the weavings that kept on flowing out, beyond a wall of weeping shadows and a tree of weeping petals and a ring of weeping women who were laughing through their tears. And still the looms were turning and their songs were like quick water or the light tread of a heron on the sand.
So she woke up with the sunrise and the bright loom sang beside her; and its song will never stop, for how can wild threads be silenced or old women ever made to cease their mad exquisite dancing?
The fourth loom was born from ice and from cold roughened fingers. It was strung next to the stove inside a cave of sweet wood as the snow fell all around in frozen stars. The warp was spun from silence and the weft was wound from silence and the shuttle whispered back and forth across the solitary strings. The design was tight and careful, and the patterns were so subtle, and their symbols carried messages from rock and bone and drum. She balanced on the ice as she wove upon the cold loom and she leaned her head to catch the weaving’s delicate song. She heard the sound of women chanting in low voices and the creaking of their boots through the deep snow. She heard them calling out across the frozen land and her hands became still upon the chill and icy loom.
So she heard the murmur of their parting and a single note that sounded across the vast and empty space they left behind. The note threaded through the loom, a single cord of music; she leapt onto its tail and rode it home.
The fifth loom was broken, rescued from a trader who had cast it out into the rain. It was small and squat, and very complex in its various levers and components. The wooden frame was grimy and the metal combs were rusted, with springs stretched beyond their comfort and the sheds were held together by bits of rotting wire. She had once brought home a broken loom before; it was so neglected and dismantled, such a mess of weary pieces, so heavy with old dust, so stained by dull utility, that its song was completely dead. She burned it on a pyre and even as the flames licked through the loom it really was too tired to sing. But this little loom was different for it still had a spark inside it that tentatively pushed against the tangled strings. It was a song of resilience and the quiet power of people who refuse to be broken with their looms.
So she sat at nights and listened while the looms all sang together and at first the noise was grating for their very different voices could not find a song to share. But gradually their different yarns and fibres found harmonies and chords, and their songs all met at last within the cloth…
Rattling the Shadows
For a long time they sat in the west waiting to travel north. Their road led from the place of last blood to the place of dark blood. In the far north, beyond the limits of their perception, old women were standing on the track looking out for them. Eventually they started to walk but they wandered in a wasteland for they had no teachers but themselves, and no guide but for the distant sound of old women singing in the north. As they walked they found women’s skins left by the roadside, and they tried them on for size but nothing seemed to fit.
They walked through many nights, gathering up the darkness and absorbing the shadows from the land. They walked through the waning of the moon and through the trail of an eclipse, and they filled themselves with the black secrets of the road. They collected images from the edges of their eyes and soaked the silence into their skins, and they let the dark land feed them in this way. They walked through the boundaries of their courage and relied on the wild land to make them fierce and strong. They walked over bleak earth until they found a place that was gentle and unexpectedly kind.
There they made a vigil and sat through many hours facing the north. Each woman took on a task to help them find the route. There was a drummer of dark rhythms and a dancer of black circles; a guardian of gifts and a carrier of symbols; a protector of the smoking hearth and a singer of the balance between night and day. They shared a prayer for intuition and sang at midnight underneath the disappearing moon. They drank red tea to open up their eyes and contemplated the mysteries of responsibility and power. They gave voice to a song that opened up a gateway and then at last in the distance they could see old women beckoning from the north.
Now they carried rattles to call to the shadows, made of black deer toes strung with lacings onto wood. And as they walked they rattled to keep the gateway open and they rattled for protection across the hidden land. Now they made pouches of dark leather, which they filled with red ochre that they had pounded into powder on the road. And as they walked, they scattered the red dust before them to keep the gateway open and sang to the old women who were waving in the north.
Now they made prayers with their feet and created a road of symbols with the ochre that was painted on their soles. And they danced along the road inside thousands of ancient footsteps left by the women who had already travelled north. And they were getting very close when they saw the old women come to meet them, dancing out along the road that reaches north…
Fragment: The Promise
We were drinking tea together when the conversation turned to dying; not death at the doornail and dodo stage, not death as in the great beyond (which is another story) but the act of dying itself. Before the transitional passing-over phase, it would firstly be necessary, we pondered, to locate and reach the threshold of death’s elusive door. The preliminary period of deceasing, departing and expiring might in fact require a long, and possibly tricky, farewell. How does a woman actually accomplish the process of giving up her ghost? Of course we had no answers to this question but we did agree on one thing: that we would all prefer simplicity, kind hands, cool breezes and the quiet hills around us on that journey. The grace of a good dying is something we wished for ourselves and so promised to each other. We also knew that if any one of us was to reach a point where her life was hanging by a stray thread, she would be certain to call for her trimming scissors for every weaver likes a nice tidy finish…
How to Make a Fish Skin Drum
First, find your fish. This is not necessarily straightforward. Perhaps you have not eaten fish for, say, fourteen years and so it is necessary to make a journey south to a coastline where fish are caught from clear seas in traditional ways, so you may see your dinner being landed and then honour the eating of it next to the clear sea and in a traditional way. Thus you have sensitively reconnected yourself to a relationship with the bodies of fish and now know that, if in the future you should ever want to make a fish skin drum, you would be ready.
Now, find your fish. Of course it is important to discover what type of fish will be best suited to your drum. To do this you will need to compare the different physical qualities of a sea fish to a river fish, or perhaps salmon to trout. To understand the true nature of the fish (and remember your experience is still fairly limited) you will need to make something that properly honours the spirit of the fish but enables you to compare their skins.
So, first sew some fish skin bags. As well as one trout skin and one salmon skin, both sourced from wild free rivers (perhaps caught by a wild free local poacher), this will also require good leather with which to trim the bags. To ensure that the bags are rooted in a northern landscape, this should be sourced from reindeer, herded on clear snows and tanned in traditional ways. Travel to the north to find a woman who knows a woman who lives with a man who tans reindeer skin. Do not tell the tanner that you are planning to make a fish skin drum as he may tell you that this is neither traditional nor, in fact, possible. When you have traded for the reindeer leather, you are ready to prepare fish skin for sewing.
Gather urine; do not worry, this is certainly traditional but will probably require the preparatory drinking of tea. Avoid a full moon or an equinox or any time when the northern lights are in the sky. There is no stated reason for this but old knowledge is usually to be trusted. When you have soaked the skins overnight in the urine, then rinsed and dried them, then set up a smooth wooden pole around which to work the fish leather, you have reached the next stage of softening and cutting and sewing and finishing your fish skin bags… and will be nearly ready to make a fish skin drum. The relative qualities of trout and salmon will be obvious as you work the skins. In any case you realise at this point that a drum made from trout would be very small indeed.
Find your fish. You will also need a wooden hoop on which to stretch the skin. Although not as tiny as a trout drum, a salmon drum will require a very small frame. But you have just the thing: the frame you need is several thousand miles and at least twenty years back in the past but it is perfect. So you slice up the belly of your first precious but now voiceless drum, and you sand and smooth and oil the old black wood. It is possible that having travelled south and north, into mountains and across ice, back and forth through twenty years or more, gathering urine and avoiding full moons, you may indeed be ready at last to make your fish skin drum.
And when it is made, the silvery scraping of your fingertips across the fish scales will amaze you. This small whispered voice that sings of vast ice and huge oceans and resilient salmon will enrapture you…
Edge of the World
We were hunting the drum maker but she lived a long distance from the well-travelled road. All our compasses pointed north, even when we hid them in a box. Everyone we met along the route gave us clear warnings: it is too dangerous to go north. Some tried to tempt us with hot stews and warm beds but we longed for cold danger, and even when a path across the lake was lit up with a hundred lamps like golden stars inside the snow, we did not linger for the path was heading south. Sometimes we travelled with wolves but they were not much interested in us; we did not think that we were boring as we were heading north, so perhaps the easy hunting thereabouts had jaded them. Occasionally we hooked up with an elk; but they were dull companions and had no urge to go northwards any quicker. For a while we wondered if a great bird might land within the forest so we could cling onto its back and travel north at speed; but this is the stuff of myth and we only mentioned this to keep our spirits buoyant as we trudged the long slow miles. Eventually we came to the edge of the world.
The drum maker was wary by nature and accustomed to the company of bears and fierce men, both of which she knew how to tame. She lived in a round hut that was made entirely of polished ice beneath a roof of fur, not unlike a hairy crystal drum. It meant she could see us coming as we travelled from the south and she had already run off into the pines. We stood by the world’s edge and walked around the hut but there was nothing to be done. We could see her running up a slope away across the ice and it seemed that she was laughing as she ran. So we sat beside the edge and we brewed a pot of tea and the boiling water spat, and that was all the danger that we found. The edge of the world and the danger of the north and the wild of the drum were already held inside us as we roamed. The wild of the world and the edge of the north and the danger of the drum were all singing inside as we headed home…
© Carolyn Hillyer 2011
Sacred House is published by Seventh Wave Books, ISBN 978-0-9547379-1-7
She is a painter, musician, traditional drum-maker, workshop creator and writer. Her home is a thousand-year-old longhouse farm in the centre of wild moors, which she shares with her partner and family, as well as with the many people who visit the farm for workshops, exhibitions, and festival events. She travels extensively with her work, and has given concerts and workshops in the USA, Australia, Japan, Russia, Arctic, Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary, elsewhere in Europe and throughout the UK.
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- Excerpts from SACRED HOUSE: Where Women Weave Words into the Earth - 19th August 2015