“Three Hundred and Sixty-Four Hand-Tied Knots”
by R. Y. Brockway
Today I tied thirty-seven knots and completed my rug’s missing rosette. It took all the orange silk I unraveled from the obi I found stashed amongst the ingots to complete most of the petals. I had to improvise the rest. Using my own hair twisted into thread, for the highlights. The final result, I have to admit, is quite stunning. The sun and the sea has turned me quite blonde, and the two colors complement each other better than I expected.
Now that the last flower is done, there is only the green field and the border to finish before the rug is fully mended. As I stand at the mouth of the cavern, whispering the words of protection and re-braiding my hair as I’ve been instructed, I wonder how I will accomplish this. So far, the right color threads for these sections have eluded me, and there aren’t many piles left in the horde that I haven’t searched.
Before I start my rummaging, I’m careful to scan the horizon for a glimpse of black sail. The Captain warned me not to disturb his treasure when he first left me here. But I’m beyond that now. If he were to return and catch me red-handed, there isn’t much more he can do to punish me. Still, I hide the rug away before I start looking—just in case he comes back early.
It is not a large rug, and it tucks away easily. In fact, I’m lucky I found it at all, discarded as it was in the very recesses of the cavern in a heap of broken bits and flotsam. Unrolled, there is just enough room for me to kneel at one edge and fold myself over. If I stretch my arms over my head my fingers meet the damaged edge, the burnt section I’ve been patching. I lie this way often. With my forehead pressed against the soft pile I breathe deep, my fingers exploring the work left to be done.
Before I had this ritual I used to huddle beside my food barrels and cry for hours. Screaming in frustration until my own voice strangled me, and the echoes of my howls reverberating off the rock walls like a dozen banshees, deafened my ears. I would walk along the jagged rocks of the outermost shoals and stare out at the sea, imagining myself falling into its depths and letting the current carry me away from this prison.
In a way, the Captain should be thankful I disobeyed him. The work yet to be done to mend the rug now occupies my mind instead of these dark thoughts. Otherwise, I might not have the strength to tie up my hair each morning and whisper the words of the spell that keeps his ship from sinking.
The Captain has returned only twice since abandoning me. Each time the stores of food he brings are smaller; the bread already stale, the water barrels filled with murkier contents. I can tell he thinks of me less often, and though I don’t look forward to his coming, I’ve begun to worry about the day he doesn’t come at all.
The one thing I do have in abundance is time. I’ve used it to meticulously examine every inch of my surroundings. I sift through the piles of treasure. I wander through the nooks and crannies of the cavern carved by the wind. I’ve turned over my rug to study its underside, the rough side. That’s how I’ve uncovered the secret to its creation.
I wonder if the Captain knows that the way he has taught me to braid my hair is so similar to the knots in a rug. It is a coincidence, I’m sure: he’s never struck me as someone who pays attention to such fine detail. His eyes are more attracted to things that shine, to young girls who can be swayed by amorous words.
To date I’ve tied two hundred and fifty-seven knots into the rug. I’ve kept track of the numbers as I go. It is more satisfying than tallying the days of my imprisonment.
Before I started, I laid out a map of the missing part of the pattern using what I had around me; gold coins for the orange yarns, pearls for the white, the black mussel shells I’ve collected from the tidal pools for the blue.
The arrangement stretches for twenty paces, and sparkles when the sunlight hits it. It is far larger than the rug itself, but it helps me keep track of where I’m going, where I’ve been. When I’m bent over the rug tying the strands it is easy to lose sight of the big picture. I cannot afford to make any mistakes and waste my precious thread.
This morning I found a tattered shawl tangled in a mound of silver plates and candelabras. It caught my eye because its blue fringe matches the diamond pattern in my rug’s border. It took me nearly an hour to dig it out of the heap. But once I had it free I understood why it resisted all my tugging.
The shawl was much larger than it first appeared, and it was wound around itself, forming a makeshift sack that clattered when I set it on the stone floor. My now practiced fingers worked fast on the knot that held it together.
I withdrew the contents one by one and laid them out in the shaft of sunlight before me. A tin locket with the letter V engraved on its face, a porcelain bowl with hand-painted lilacs, a wooden mirror with only a sliver of glass remaining. My stomach clenched as I removed the last item and placed it next to these three. An ivory comb, so like my own, but in whose teeth were caught a few strands of black hair.
Snatching up the shawl, I ran back to the mouth of the cavern. My fingers trembled as I began to pick apart the fringe. I couldn’t help but picture the girl whose shoulders it may have once covered: a girl whose name started with a V, who smelled of lilacs, who walked the halls of this cavern combing out her dark hair before braiding it back into place.
Where was she now? How long had it been since her things were discarded to make room for more treasure? It’s unnerving to think that I might not be alone—that the ghosts of those who came before me may still linger, unable to escape.
As I fill in the border with the blue thread, I can’t stop worrying about what is keeping the Captain. I’ve been dutiful– tying up my hair every day. So I know his ship has not run afoul a storm. But my food supplies are beginning to dwindle.
Would he leave me here to starve and risk the safety of his ship? Or is there another girl in some distant port who he’s training to tie up their hair? A girl, who one day, might find this rug and wonder who had taken the time to weave their own hair into its pattern.
My progress has been slow as of late. Hunger has made me tired, light headed, and prone to making mistakes. Much of what I’ve been able to accomplish these last few days has had to be redone. It is painful to backtrack when I’m so close to completing the rug.
To make matters worse, I must save my energy to scavenge in the shoals. The tidal pools don’t provide much in the way of food. There are the little blue crabs, some seaweed that has drifted in from further offshore. The sustenance they provide is barely worth the effort.
It is my water supply, however, which is most dire. I’ve only one barrel left. Once it is gone there is no amount of foraging I can do to replace it. I look out to sea everyday as I tie up my hair, hoping to see the sails of the Captain’s ship poking above the horizon. It is painful, to see such fathoms of blue knowing they cannot quench my thirst.
My time with the rug now is spent lying on its surface. I run my hands against the mended area and feel the fruits of my labor. My fingers find the remaining holes crying out for completion. But I’m still missing the green thread for the field, and I haven’t the energy to search for it.
Rain, blessed rain! I’ve been sleeping so much lately that when I heard the pattering upon the sea I was certain it was still just part of a dream. But then the wind began to blow, and I woke certain I heard my name whispered from the mouth of the cavern. I forced myself up from my rug and stumbled toward the sound.
Oh, how it felt to have all that water pour down on top of me! I don’t know how long I stood there; my head thrown back, my arms spread wide, letting the water run into my mouth and soak my skin. I only thought to move when I realized I could be filling my empty barrels. I rolled them out as my eyes shed tears of joy now that they had the means to produce them.
But as the storm raged outside, filling the barrels until they overflowed, I recognized my folly. Never had a storm crossed these waters. I looked out at the black clouds and reached up to push back my wet hair. All my braiding, the knots I was supposed to tie each day, had come undone in my sleep.
Furiously, I searched for my comb. It snagged in my wet hair as I pulled it through my tangled tresses. New, hot tears of dismay poured down my cheeks as I worked the braid back into my hair.
With a last distant boom of thunder, the storm clouds broke apart and golden shafts of sunlight penetrated their dark folds. I looked at my barrels full of water and dropped to my knees. I had traded one catastrophe for another–death by thirst for death by hunger. I could only hope I was not too late, that the Captain and his ship were hardy enough to survive this single storm.
The storm may have destroyed my only chance of getting more supplies or off this cursed island, but it has left me with some consolation. The surge has filled the tidal pools full of fish which have no means of escape. When the waters lower I only have to reach in and pluck them out and I can have my fill.
Their sustenance has given me strength and my thoughts have again returned to finishing my rug. When the tides roll back in, I leave the shore and return to searching through the piles of treasure for any hint of green that might reveal itself to be some kind of fiber. All I find, though, is hard stone. There is no lack of jade ornaments, of emeralds the size of my fist, but try as I might I can’t find a single scrap of cloth that will suit my purpose.
In frustration, I’ve turned my attention to my continuing survival. The fish, I’ve found, dry nicely in the sun. I’ve made it my primary task to collect as many as possible before they too starve to death in the shoals. I go from pool to pool, wading in the water and feeling with my hands in the tangles of seaweed for any fish left hiding beneath the surface. Once I’ve had them all, I plan to pull the seaweed out too. It doesn’t taste of much, just the brine of the sea, but there is more than enough to fill my stomach.
It’s too bad that the seaweed is not as pliable as twine, as the color is perfect. I would have my heart’s content of the right color thread if only it were.
There is still no sign of the Captain or his ship. But I’m not saddened today; I may have found the solution to my missing green thread.
When I went to collect the dry seaweed this morning I found the rock where I’ve been drying the fronds stained a yellowish green. It is not the exact hue I need. It is, however, close. I suspect the dye may become more vibrant if it had a lighter surface to start with.
I’ve torn off the bottom half of my petticoat and have spent all afternoon washing it in the surf. I’m determined to get as much grime and sweat out of it before I begin my experiment.
Once it is clean, I plan to lay the sheet of fabric on the flattest, sunniest rock I can find, weighing down its edges with gold ingots. I will choose only the most vibrant colored vines from my collection and pile them high so that every inch is covered. For good measure I will beat the weed into a pulp with one of the jade statues. But carefully so that I don’t damage the fibers.
I’ve had such a strange feeling all day, I think it might be hope.
The rug is now complete and I’m bittersweet about the accomplishment. There is satisfaction, I’ll admit, in finishing the task. But now that it’s done, I’ve only my survival to think of and the hopeless prospect that I will ever be free again.
I’ve taken to lying about. Using what mental strength I have left in the mornings to force myself up and to drag my rug out into the sunlight. Otherwise, I fear, I’d just wallow in the cave all day, slowly succumbing to its shadows.
How many days has it been since my captivity? Here, in the tropics, the sun does not waver in its path across the sky. Baking in its rays, my eyes closed against its brilliance, I brush my hands across the rug’s surface.
The sensitive tips of my fingers make quick distinction between the original threads of the pile and those I have woven into it. I know without looking that here is the orange thread from the obi, here the blue thread from the shawl—the remains of my sisters of misfortune, bound together now by the completed border.
I can hear the tide coming in; the sound of the water breaking over rocks is growing louder. I place my hand against my breast and try to still the beating within so that it’s in time with the sea. Katosh, katosh, goes the waves against the rocks. Katosh, katosh, courses the blood through my veins.
For a long time, there is no other sound. Then the wind begins to stir and I hear a whisper. It’s coming, as it did before, from the mouth of the cavern. A low wistful howl—it is calling my name!
My eyes snap open and I’m blinded instantly by the sun overhead. I try to blink away the negative image burned into my vision as I sit up and turn towards the cavern. But the landscape remains blurred, and the opening of the cavern is blocked by a black orb that hovers and bobs at its center. The dark stain follows my gaze, intent on obstructing my view as I search for the source of the calling.
I squint, hoping this will help. But the orb only increases in size. I’m not sure at first, but it appears to be changing shape. Cleaving at its center, it separates into two distinct forms and I fall back on my heels when I recognize the shape of these new shadows—a pair of women, holding hands! They take turns calling my name with the gentle cooing of doves in discourse.
A moan escapes me. Is this it; is this the way it ends? My knees shake as I struggle to my feet and take a first hesitant step towards them. But the moment my foot leaves the rug, their cooing becomes a frantic chatter and the shadow women throw up their arms in protest.
I shake my head, befuddled by this action, and a lock of hair comes loose and falls over my eyes. I go to brush it away but their calling becomes more insistent. For the life of me, I cannot understand what they are saying, it is as if the words are in a foreign language—two languages, actually. Slowly realization dawns: all this time, it wasn’t just the god of the sea that I’ve been binding with my hair.
But again my understanding has come too late—already the shadow women are beginning to fade, their voices growing more distant. Frantically, I begin pulling at my tresses. My fingers, hooked into claws, tear wildly at the knots and tangles. I try to maintain focus on the blurring form of the women. But it is of no use, they melt into the sunlight faster than I can pull loose the braids of my hair.
“No!” I cry, standing on my rug, panting in exhaustion and disbelief as the shadows fade away completely.
Sobbing, I crumple to the ground and beat my fists against the rug’s pile. Mashing the heels of my palms until the flesh stings and my hair tumbles over my head.
A soft breeze caresses the back of my neck, and I go still.
“Arayan,” the wind whispers. “Arayan.”
I look up, and the breeze blows harder. Encircling me and drying the hot tears on my cheeks as the waves in the sea begin to swell, their caps growing white with foam.
“Sisters,” my voice cracks, “is that you?”
In response, my hair ripples—flaring outward as it catches in the current of air rushing around me which is becoming quite strong now. I grasp the edge of the rug to buttress myself against its growing force. A bolt of lightning streaks across the sky the moment my fingers make contact and a sudden gale hits me from behind—catching me off guard and sending me tumbling forward as both I and the rug are snatched in its grip and vaulted into the air.
A deep boom of thunder rolls across the sea as I spiral upwards towards the growing storm clouds. Clinging to the edge of my rug, I peer over the edge, gasping for breath as I watch my island prison disappear beneath me. It shrinks to the size of the smallest black pearl then it’s gone completely, and just like that the shackles around my heart release their clasp and I can breathe deeply.
The rug ceases its dizzying climb and hovers just beneath the clouds. I can see further now than I ever could before. The raging ocean stretches out before me, an upside down bowl. On its horizon a dark blur comes into focus—the mast of a ship hung with billowing black sails. The Captain is finally returning.
I sit up, my spine straight, my hair loose in a golden corona around me. I lift my arm and point to the ghastly ship.
“Sisters,” I call. “Due east.”
They waste no time. Together we go hurdling in the direction of my outstretched finger. The storm clouds follow in my wake, rumbling and flashing with pent up ferocity. I bare down on my rug and urge it forward. Beneath me the ocean waters churn into walls of destructive power as I ride ahead of the storm, leading it in a furious charge.
When I reach the ship, it is already tossing to-and-fro. I zoom past the crew struggling with the rigging and make my way to the stern where I know I’ll find the Captain. I want him to see me, to see my hair flying free. To know that it is I who is the source of his misfortune!
Sure enough, I find him at the wheel, straining to hold it steady. We lock eyes, and it takes him a moment before he recognizes me. Then his face goes slack and he drops to his knees. The wheel spins wildly as he clasps his hands in prayer. But plea as he might, I cannot help him. A whirlpool has opened beneath the ship, and the prow is already dipping into its gaping mow.
Even at my height, I can feel the force of the maelstrom—this powerful magic is not of my doing. It can only be the god of the sea, arriving now to take his own revenge. My rug struggles against the sucking breath of the watery abyss, and I realize if I don’t flee now I risk being caught up in the sea god’s fury. So I urge my carpet upwards, and leave the Captain to his fate.
Above the clouds, all goes quiet, and peace washes over me. I gather my hair together and loop it into a single knot as my rug skims over the light and wispy surface. It is not long before my eyes grow heavy. Laying my head down on the soft pile of my rug, I let them close and sleep overtakes me.
When I awake it is to the all too familiar sound of the ocean. But this time, when I raise my head, it’s not the rocky shores of the Captain’s island I see, but the soft white sands of a new beach that stretches for miles in either direction.
I caress the rug’s surface and automatically my fingers find the mended section; the orange thread from the obi, the blue thread from the shawl. One by one, I undo each knot and release the fiber into the air. The wind carries the threads out over the sea, where they catch in the current and head in separate directions.
When all is done and the rug is returned to the state in which I found it, I stand and head up the beach. In the distance there is a lighthouse. A familiar flag flies from its gallery, and I know I am home.
R. Y. Brockway’s work has appeared in the Mind Candy anthology, Stupefying Stories, Acidic Fiction, and FictionVale. She lives in Northern Virginia, where she enjoys lurking in the shadows, emerging every now and then with a new story idea.