A short story
by Jessamyn Johnston Smyth
Hawk brought a message to Wu Wei Yin, in her garden. The bird looked very tired. She gave him a rabbit and a dish of water in thanks, and while he refreshed himself, she unrolled the scroll he’d carried to her. It was thick paper of a softness Yin had never felt; it looked more like finely woven silk than pressed rice, and was of every color that existed.
How beautiful, Yin said, and traced the page with her fingertip, entranced by the beauty of the paper and the calligraphy on it, which seemed familiar though she knew she’d never seen it before.
Dear Yin, the letter said. I need your help repairing a loom. It is most important. Please come, and bring your tools. I will keep watch for you.
It was signed by the ancient goddess who lived in a boat at the eastern edge of the world.
Is it more poetry? the tiger asked, lolling in the sun beside Yin.
I must go, Yin answered, and rose. She began gathering her woodworking tools from around her house and garden, and putting them into a leather sack.
Go? Tiger said, pacing along behind Yin. What now? You’re always going these days.
Yin stopped, and placed her hands around the tiger’s face.
Don’t touch me, he growled. You burn me.
You are not burned, Yin said in a gentle tone. I’ll come back.
When? he asked.
Yin did not answer.
She dressed in her whitest robes, and asked Tiger to pull the laces at the back as tight as they would go.
I thought only brides wore these, he said.
Warriors, too, sometimes, Yin answered. And athletes. Travelers. Robbers, also.
Oh, Tiger said, and gripped the laces in his teeth: he pulled with all his might. Yin was yanked backwards and made both taller and smaller at once. She knotted the cords around her waist before they could loosen.
Thank you, she said to the tiger.
He did not speak, he only watched her.
Her dress bound tightly, Yin took her sword off the wall and unsheathed it: she cut off her hair, which fell to the ground in one long ripple. She put the sword away.
Tiger roared in pain.
Goodbye, she said.
When she had gone, Tiger gathered Yin’s fallen hair in his mouth very gingerly and brought it to the garden, where he made an altar for it.
Yin walked east, through wild stretches of woods and well-organized farms running with the regularity of clocks, through wide rice paddies whose waters kept her cool and steep mountain passes with little air, through desolate steppes punished by wind and deserts whose sands concealed an abundance of obstinate life.
She spoke to no one. After three years, she came to the sea.
The old woman’s boat bobbed at a distance, a ramshackle thing, and very large: it was formed in many styles and of materials that did not blend. A wide, square base of weathered and battered-looking boards made the body of the houseboat, which rested low and loose in the water. A sloppy bamboo hut on deck made a large second level: this was topped by an exquisite temple roof made of sandalwood inlaid with finely carved jade animals. From the temple roof on the hut, a crow’s nest rose. The ladder was made of crossed swords and staffs, and the nest itself was one: a rounded basket of grasses and reeds housing a family of pelicans.
Yin stood patiently on the shore, but she did not have long to wait: the pelicans alerted the old woman that Yin had arrived.
Presently, a crane flew from the boat to Yin, carrying a thick sea-rope. You are welcome here, Crane said. She invites you to hold on tightly to this rope and not let go so we can pull you aboard. We are just about to have tea, and hope you will join us.
Yin bowed to the crane, picked up the sea-rope and—with some difficulty because it was so thick and stiff with salt—secured her grip around it. Immediately, she was drawn into the water and pulled with ease across the waves to the boat, up through the air, and deposited on the deck.
An old woman stood before Yin, her face so lined and caved-in she looked like an apple in late November. Her hair was the white of bones. Her hands were crabbed but visibly strong, her posture curved. She wore robes made of the same material upon which her message to Yin had been written: a fine silk thread of great, thick softness and every possible color.
Yin bowed so low her forehead touched the deck.
Oh, please don’t do that, the old woman said, gathering Yin up and guiding her into the hut. I am so glad you’ve come, I have news for you. But first, come have some tea with me.
It is an honor to be asked to come visit you, and to help you repair your loom, Yin began formally.
Yes, well, that’s part of my news, the old woman interrupted, as she poured for Yin from a simple clay pot.
Please, let me pour, Yin said.
Just sit down and listen, would you, the old woman replied.
Yes, Ma’am, Yin said, and sat, holding the sea-rope in her lap and dripping.
I have many looms, as you probably know.
One for each.
Yes, Ma’am, I know.
Have your tea.
Yes, Ma’am, Yin said, beginning to feel foolish for repeating herself, but uncertain how to behave. She drank her tea. It smelled like the air in the early morning of a summer day after a haying, tasted like snow, and left bitter ashes on the tongue.
They don’t take much maintenance, the looms. Some small adjustments here and there are what is most usual, if the threads tangle too much. I’ve gotten very good at taking care of those. Is your tea all right?
It is exactly as tea should be, but rarely is, Ma’am.
Good, the old woman said. As I was saying, on the whole, I fix these things myself, but I ran into something strange a while back. There was a large tangle between several looms. The tangle created a tapestry of beautiful color and complexity of subject, but it was hanging in mid-air, completely off the frames. Do you understand?
Yes, Ma’am, Yin said, but I don’t understand how this was possible.
Everything is possible, the old woman answered.
I see, Yin said. How can I help fix the broken loom, then?
You can’t, the old woman said. That’s my news.
I don’t understand, Yin said.
I realized, some time after I’d written to you, that the loom is not the problem. The loom is what it is. To attempt to repair it is both risky and unnecessary. The problem is the tangle.
The tangle, Yin said.
Yes, yes, the tangle.
Ma’am, forgive me for asking this, but why have you asked me to come? I have brought my woodworking tools, but surely you are the master of working with tangled threads.
The loom has your name engraved on it, Yin, the old woman answered.
Yin put down her tea. I see, she said. And you are going to have to cut the threads?
No, no! The old woman laughed. My scissors aren’t involved. Come out on deck with me, and I’ll show you the problem.
The old woman led Yin outside.
On the deck of the boat, the old woman took up the loose end of the sea-rope Yin still carried, and held onto it tightly.
Now, she said to Yin. Back up until there is tension on the rope between us.
Yin backed up.
Now lean back, the old woman said, and did so also. The taut rope between them held them soundly, at an angle impossible to maintain without the sea-rope’s support.
There was a long silence. Well? The old woman asked, finally.
Having no idea what was expected of her, Yin said: I feel very secure. The rope holds me well.
Yes, yes, the old woman said. As long as we both lean back. But can you touch me?
I cannot reach you without falling, Yin answered.
Can you build a house, or shape-shift and fly, or do anything useful at all if I do not also do it?
If you do not participate, I can do very little except strain at the rope, Yin answered.
Can you unweave the fibers of this rope and use the threads to make a tapestry?
We will fall if I try, Yin answered. My hands are occupied.
Well? The old woman asked. Do you understand?
I’m sorry, Ma’am, she said, her voice steady and polite in spite of the sudden tears that fell down her cheeks. I don’t.
The old woman sighed, and looked up at the sky. Several hours passed in this way: Yin and the old woman leaning back away from each other, bound and supported by the sea-rope between them. Yin’s tears did not stop.
When the sun began to set, Yin said, quietly: but it breaks my heart.
Good, the old woman answered, still gazing at the sky. Heartbreak’s good. Because then the thread untangles, and the weaving can continue.
Very slowly, Yin stepped forward and stood straight, easing the tension on the rope. The old woman mirrored her movements so neither of them fell. The heavy sea-rope dipped toward the deck at the center, finally coming to rest on the boards. Yin bent, lowered her hands.
They opened, and the rope left them.
Well done, Yin! The old woman said. I have many other things for you to do, but for now, we are finished. Go home.
Yin looked up from the rope. The old woman was young, her face unlined and smooth, smiling.
Yes, Ma’am, Yin said. For a moment, she did not move.
This is all so interesting, isn’t it, the woman said, and went into the hut, closing the door.
Yin knelt on deck for a few minutes, looking at the sea-rope lying on the deck like a snakeskin. Then she loosened her bones to turn into a swallow for the trip home.
Oh, Yin said aloud, and started to laugh. Right.
She untied her tightly laced robe. The binding fell away, and she breathed, deeply.
Crane brought her a bolt of the every-colored fabric. A gift from her, he said. Yin bowed, and wrapped herself in the threads.
She laughed again, visible for miles in her new robes.
Crane laughed, too.
Yin’s bones moved, and she transformed.
Copyright © 2010 Jessamyn Johnston Smyth
Photo © Toos
An earlier version of "The Sea-Rope" was published by The Women’s Times Fiction Issue in 2007
"The Sea Rope" comes from a series-in-progress called Koan Garden. With archetypal stories and myths from around the world as wellspring, the world of Koan Garden started emerging in 2006 when I began studying martial art. The central character, Wu Wei Yin, is a shape-shifter who embodies strength through receptivity and nonresistance; her journey traverses animal and spirit worlds, and brings her into conflict with the laws and bonds of each. The stories are meditations on our relationship to the natural world, to conflict, to love, and to community. Writing them is a process of getting out of the way.”
Jessamyn Johnston Smyth’s writing has appeared in American Letters and Commentary, Red Rock Review (forthcoming), Nth Position, Abalone Moon, qarrtsiluni, and other journals and anthologies. She won a listing in Best American Short Stories/100 Distinguished Stories of 2005, and has received a Pushcart Prize nomination, a Bread Loaf Writer's Conference grant, a Vermont Community Foundation Artist Grant, and a writing grant from Change, Incorporated. Jessamyn has just finished a collection written during a year spent in the forest, and is working on placing Green Mountain Prose Poem. She has several other books in progress. She can be reached via her website at http://www.jessamynsmyth.net and via email at email@example.com.