Only allowed to work in the morning when the studio was unoccupied, it had taken Toko two more days to finally satisfy Ana.
“Perfect selvages,” Ana said with a smile. “You are learning quickly. It has taken some of my students a full week to get this far. And then some never do.
“Now you must learn to spin. It is the only way to feel the properties of threads and yarns. And that, my Toko, is what makes a master weaver.”
My Toko? Toko bristled but held her tongue.
Ana took her down the hall to a room where three priestesses sat at spinning wheels. Juno was among them and that pleased Toko.
Toko thought she saw disdain in Ana’s eyes as she was nudged into the room. “When she has spun enough to warp her loom, let me know,” was all Ana said before turning and abruptly leaving.
“Ah, you must have passed your weaving.” Juno gave her a welcoming smile. “That is good for if you did not, you would spend your life spinning with us here.”
“Or worse,” the skinny short priestess piped in. “You’d be sent to the Priests and goddess help you then.”
“But only if you cannot pass spinning either,” the oldest of the three said. She was plump and jolly with two long thin braids that she kept tossing back over her shoulders. “Don’t worry, dear,” she chuckled. “Spinning isn’t that hard, once you get the hang of it.”
“Both literally and figuratively,” Juno added. “You are going to start with the drop spindle.”
In this room, there was a whole new set of terms to learn. The drop spindle was just the first of many. Roving was unspun fiber. It was twisted and whirled with the spindle, finally forming into a neat yarn. Toko watched intently. The quicker she learned this skill, the quicker she’d be back weaving.
But seeing and doing were worlds apart. More than once the twisting threads separated and her spindle fell to the floor with a resounding “clunk.” This always amused the skinny one who, despite disapproving looks from the older woman, delighted in responding, “Yes, the priests will love this one.” It made Toko nervous, so nervous she could not relax and settle into a rhythm. The spindle hit the ground again and again.
At the end of a second frustrating day, Juno bent over Toko and whispered, “I put a spindle and some roving in the toilet. Tuck it in your apron before I take you up to your room. You can practice in peace tonight.”
By the third morning, Toko could spin well enough to keep the roving from separating. The spindle no longer fell to the floor. “Now, let’s see if it is strong enough to warp,” Juno said, giving it the same tug test she’d seen Ana use. It broke easily.
“Give it more spin, not more fiber,” the older woman said as she pointed to a spider weaving its web. “Strong but delicate, that is what you want.”
Toko tried and then tried again. But each time the tug test was applied, the thread broke and the skinny one laughed even louder. “Like I said, the priests will love this one” she continued to comment.
That night and the next, Toko practiced in her room. The thread seemed to be getting stronger, but still it broke.
Toko was about to give up for the night when a spider floated down from the ceiling, dangling just in front of Toko’s face, then drawing itself back up. It stayed just above her head, not moving at all. It was as if the spider was staring at her, watching as she twirled her spindle. Spider, spider on my wall. Make mine strongest of them all.
She found herself chanting her little rhyme as she practiced, finally relaxing and falling into a rhythm. Then, when she had no more roving left, she gave it the tug test. It held. She tugged again, this time harder. It still held.
I’ll pass tomorrow she thought finally crawling into bed for a deep sleep.
Indeed, the next morning she did pass, filling her spindle with fine strong thread until the spindle was too heavy to spin any more. Juno tugged and it held. The older woman gave it a try, too, and still it held. Finally the skinny woman said, “Give it here.” Gritting her teeth, she tugged at it so hard it bit into the skin of her hands. “Ouch,” was all she said before passing it back to Juno.
Juno inspected the thread again. “Very good and even, too. But not long enough to warp a loom. Let’s find you a spinning wheel.”
That, Toko learned, was a whole different skill. But persistence won and within the week, Toko had mastered that, too. Over the next few day she spun and spun and chanted her rhyme.
Spider spider on the wall,
Make mine strongest of them all.
Juno was finally satisfied. “Come, now,” she said. “Off to do some dyeing.”
Toko was pleased to find Juno was her teacher here, too, and with nobody to distract them, they fell into a pleasant companionship. Juno showed her how to mix and set dye, but Toko was the master at seeing and producing colors. Once she got past her shock that just three dyes would produce any color she could imagine, she quickly sensed how much of each she’d need to nuance not-this-not-that shades.
They worked with many different fibers, many different textures of yarns, each absorbing and holding the dyes in different ways.
Dyeing was easy, Toko decided and more than once she wondered if she might be able to stay here, doing the dyeing, never spinning again, never having to go back to Ana to learn to weave. She trusted Juno. She had even opened up to her companion, talking about Nanna, about her father and about her life before being brought here. If she had to stay here in the dyeing studio, well maybe this was not so bad after all. Maybe she could make peace with herself and her fate. Maybe Juno and I can be true friends. I need to tell someone about my mother, about the tiles, about how I was kidnapped and imprisoned here.
Over the past few weeks, Toko found she had more and more freedom. Though still locked away in the attic at night, she could wonder the textile studios as she pleased, have meals with the other priestesses, even wonder in the garden and talk to them when not at her lessons. She used these walks to explore her surroundings but soon discovered the high wall surrounded the entire building with no obvious gate or entrance. The exit must be underground, Toko reasoned, it was the only explanation.
When Juno told her she would be returning to Ana, Toko made her decision. She’d go talk to Ana, ask for permission to stay with Juno in the dyeing studio.
After lunch, while the other priestesses strolled in the garden, Toko went in search of Ana. She was not in her office, so Toko went to the weaving studio where she wondered among the looms, hoping Ana would come along soon.
Piece after piece intrigued Toko. In many of them she recognized her not-this-not-that colors. But what fascinated her the most was how her colors worked together, how they blended when used one with another. Dyeing yarn meant working with only one color at a time. But here in the weaving room she could put her colors together. And not just the colors together, here she could work with texture, too. Maybe I do not want to be stuck in the dyeing studio, maybe I do want to learn to weave.
The yarns were stored in huge bins against the back wall and Toko decided to explore there. Standing on low stool, she was bent over one, rummaging through it when she heard someone coming. Ana? Could it be Ana? Standing and turning too quickly, she fell off the stool, hitting the floor hard. It took a minute to regain her composure but then she heard M’Lady screeching. Toko crawled behind the nearest bin, hoping it would hide her.
“The girl’s made no progress at all. None. We know nothing and it has been what? Almost a year?”
“Six months M’Lady, only six months. Juno is trying, I know she is. She knows the consequences of failure,” Ana pleaded.
“Does she? Does she? And do you? I should have fed you to the crocodiles all those years ago. I know you had something to do with Iona’s escape.”
Iona? Iona was my mother.
“But M’Lady I swear I did not know she was leaving.”
“So you say. But what proof of that? None. Absolutely none. Iona did not get out of here without someone’s help.”
“It was not me, M’Lady, I swear.”
“Six months. That is all you and Juno have left. Six more months. And if I do not have those tiles, both of you are going to the crocodiles, along with the girl.”