An adaptation of Ovid’s story of Arachne and Minerva written in the style of Nalo Hopkinson for a final project.
“Nena, are you ready? It’s time now, mijita.”
“Yes, Mami. I’ll be out in a second,” I called to my grandmother. Creeping out from underneath a nest of leaves, I stood at the edge of my alcove and prepared for my fall as practiced. I let out my silk and began my descent. Stretching each arm as I basked in the soft moonlight and cool breeze was an indulgence far more delicious than any fresh caught meal. The taste was even sweeter knowing that on this particular night, I was to finally learn the family art of weaving.
Mami smiled as I landed on her lower branch, and she swept me into her embrace. “Okay Nena, I know you’re excited for what I have to teach you tonight, but you must pay close attention. You’re growing up now, so you must learn to weave for yourself so that you can survive in this world.”
“Sí, Mami,” I sighed, “I know this is important. You said the same thing to all my sisters when it was their time to learn. I’m ready for this.”
“Muy bien, Nena. Let’s begin.” We walked to the higher end of the branch, and Mami pointed to a nearby batch of dried leaves— the endpoint of our silken tapestry. “Now watch carefully,” she said. I gasped as she leapt over the chasm before me, her lifeline threading behind her like the tail of a shooting star, and landed silently on the biggest leaf. My grandmother was a fearless warrior in my eyes; no matter her age, she could still catch flies and dance around her tapestries with as much grace and focus as any other creature. The creation of her masterpieces was something I’ve always admired; the orb designs were always perfectly symmetrical, and her silk glimmered radiantly against the darkness of night like stars.
“Don’t be afraid, Nena,” she called, “as long as your silk is with you, you’ll be fine!”
I crawled to the tip of my branch and looked down into the abyss. It was a long jump across, and an even longer fall down. The humid night air calmed me as I took a deep breath, crouched down to set my silk, and jumped.
Landing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I managed to perch myself right next to my grandmother. My thread lay directly over her own, which she said would make for a stronger reinforcement of the structure. “Now Nena, I’m going to lay the outer lines of the tapestry, and after that, you can see how to cross weave and begin connecting threads,” she said, laying down the first silk line. With this new point stuck, Mami jumped across the chasm as effortlessly as before to make a new parallel thread. She climbed to the center of the new string and released a shorter line that stuck to either side of her, creating a hanging loop, which she then attached to our first thread. This process only took Mami a few seconds, and with the foundation now set, she returned to my side. I sat dazzled at her precision and agility.
“Mami, how did you learn to weave so wonderfully?” I asked.
“Well, Nena, I learned from my abuelita the same way I’m teaching you now. And she learned from her abuelita too, and so on.”
“But who was the first one to ever learn?”
“Ay mijita, es tan curiosa! You really want to know the whole story?”
“Of course, Mami! I want to know where our family learned to create such beautiful tapestries.”
“Well Nena, many generations ago, back when our two-stepped ancestors’ earthly lives intertwined with those of the heavens, there lived an old great weaver named Araña…”
“Ay que bonita,” whispered Araña as she finished weaving the last blood red petal on her newest huipil. The stark shades of the floral hem and collar contrasted against the white fabric that made up the majority of the traditional dress. “Thees ees my best one yet,” she breathed again, careful not to lose any focus on her meticulous work. She clipped the red thread from her loom’s stringing shuttle and gazed upon the finished dress. The various shades of red and pink flowers surrounded by luscious leafy green vines shown brilliant in the Yucatán sun.
Araña lived alone in a cottage near the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. After Canul passed away many years ago, she decided to isolate herself from the people, and would seldom venture back only to barter her handmade dresses for food and supplies. Many citizens often traveled to Araña’s cottage to observe her weave her renowned huipiles. They would gather around her open porch, and marvel at the speed her shuttle moved between the threads, and how her frail yet nimble fingers would flick through all the reds, yellows, greens, and blues of her elaborate designs.
A crowd of men and women from the city all gazed in awe as Araña removed the new dress from her backstrap loom, and set it on a nearby table. A little girl with braided hair walked up to the busy seamstress who was scanning the gown for any loose strings.
“Señora Araña! This huipil is so pretty!” she exclaimed. “It’s my favorite one that you’ve made yet!”
“Gracias, chiquita,” Araña replied. “Ees very sweet of chu.”
“Where did you learn to make these dresses Señora?”
“Well mija, after mi esposo Canul died, I hat to learn to manage alone. So I tot myself to make thees huipiles that I trade for food y otras cosas.”
“Perdóname Señora,” apologized the girl. “La diosa Ix Chel must have truly blessed you then, so that after your husband passed away you could make such beautiful dresses.”
Araña halted her hands from picking at the fabric. She looked up to the sky and pondered at the girl’s words. “Pienso que no, mija,” she said. “I hat to learn thees craft without the help of anyone, especially the gods. After los pinches dioses took Canul from me, I never prayed to them again.”
The girl stepped back, her brown eyes wide and looking around as if to make sure no one heard the widow. “Por favor Señora Araña, you should never disrespect los dioses. You wouldn’t want them to hear you insult them; who knows if they might be watching…”
“So then what happened?” I asked. Mami had just finished laying out intersecting threads throughout the base of our tapestry. She halted her story of Araña as she laid the last silk line through the center.
“Un momento, Nena. Come here first so I can explain what to do next,” she beckoned.
“Sí, Mami,” I called back. I crossed over the soft tethers she had weaved and joined her at our original spot. I knew the next part of our construction was connecting the threads with one continuous spiral of silk. Meticulously watching my grandmother perform this all-encompassing weave in the past allowed me to study her movements and technique. The excitement to begin the process ached through my arms.
“Bueno. So what you must do now is lay your silk at this first line, and slowly go around and around as you connect each thread you pass, all the way until you reach the center. Es muy simple.” She motioned for me to step forward onto the perimeter of the structure. I took my silk into my hand, and pressed it tight against my grandmother’s line.
“Like this Mami?”
“Sí, mijita. Pero despacio, slowly now. Take your time, there’s no rush. As you weave more and more, you’ll learn to spin your tapestries faster than anyone else.”
“Just like you!”
“That’s right, Nena.” She watched as I carefully inched my way around the first quarter segment of the web. My lining was crooked in comparison to the exact patterns of my grandmother’s past works, but she continued to watch with a proud gaze. I figured completing my first tapestry would take much longer than I anticipated, so I asked Mami to continue her story while I worked.
“Well after the child’s warning to Araña, things took a turn for the worse. Little did she know, la diosa Ix Chel was indeed watching from her throne amongst the stars…”
Ix Chel pet the serpent braided into her black hair as she contemplated the widow’s words. The sound of the viper’s hiss near her ear felt like a tempting call to take action against Araña. She pulled out her weaving shuttle, and examined the smooth tip. Disrespecting the divine was punishable in the Red Goddess’ eyes, and she devised a plan to convince the seamstress to apologize for her insult.
Later that night, after Araña had safely packed away her latest huipil, the goddess came down to the earth in a shower of moonlight wearing the disguise of a young girl in white. In place of her green snake, white plumeria blossoms adorned her head. The girl approached Araña’s cottage and found her cooking fresh tortillas over an open fire. She watched as Araña’s wrinkled hands picked up a mound of corn-flour masa, and span it against her palm to flatten into a perfect circle. Within minutes the widow had doled out tens of them. Ix Chel imagined the wonders those hands could produce when working at the loom.
Sensing an unknown presence, Araña stopped and looked up to find the child staring at her from beyond the trees of her porch.
“Buenas tardes chiquita. Are chu lost?”
The child crept out from the darkness and into the light of the fire. From this distance she could make out the many wrinkles on the widow’s face— telltale signs of a hard-earned life. “No Señora Araña, I’ve traveled here to see your famous huipiles. The people say your blessed hands have mastered the loom, and they create the most intricate designs. Surely you must be very loyal to la diosa de la luna, Ix Chel.”
Araña set down her bowl of masa and turned to the girl. “Niña chu are the second person to mention that tonta diosa’s name to me today,” she snapped. “Ebbryone says I owe my talents to her, but I say no! My hands create sush beauty because I taught them to, not because of her.”
“Señora, you should be careful of what you say about la diosa,” the girl glared. “You might regret those words.” The pale flowers braided in the girl’s jet-black hair instantly folded shut and uncoiled into a writhing green viper, and as she doubled in height her white dress flooded with a rainbow of colors. Ix Chel had revealed her glowing true form.
Araña dropped her bowl of dough and stepped back towards the cottage door. Her initial shock at seeing a divine being up close quickly subsided, and she regained her place by the fire. Araña did her best to look unfazed.
“Stupid woman! You have insulted me one too many times, and while I should make you beg for mercy, I have decided a challenge would be best to show you I am not someone to be toyed with. Let us take to the loom, and see who can weave the best huipil. To make this competition all the more interesting, there is a twist: each of us must weave a dress with a beauty we see fit for one another. When you lose this challenge, I expect a swift display of humility from you, Araña.”
The widow stepped up to face the beautiful goddess. Araña wasn’t about to let her win. “Ix Chel, for years now I haff been told I owe my life to chu, but I will nefer agree. Eef you think eentrooding on my property and challenging me to a contest weel make me sobmit to your power, then chu are een for a sorprise. I accept your challenge.”
“Let us begin then…”
“—Wait Nena, go over that last thread once more. It’s not tight enough, and I can see it rustling in the wind.” I was nearing the center of my tapestry, and had done fairly well so far with only a few mistakes. I cut the silk line I was about to lay, and crawled to the loose thread Mami pointed to. With a quick bite, the silk was off and flew away with the breeze. “How about you take a break and we have some dinner, sí?”
“Yes I think that sounds good,” I yawned. If I had known weaving was so much work I probably would have eaten before starting, but sharing a meal with my grandmother would be a good excuse for her to finish the story. We climbed back up the branches into our nesting web, and Mami brought out two flies she had captured earlier. She handed me the smaller of the two, and we commenced the meal.
“So Mami,” I said, wiping the juice from my mouth, “what happened after Araña agreed to the goddess’ contest?”
“Well Nena, word of the challenge spread throughout the city, and a crowd of people gathered to watch the two face each other. The goddess and Araña agreed to have the people act as judges, and whichever tapestry they liked the best would be declared the winner.”
“So who ended up winning, Mami?”
“I’ll get to that part in a bit, Nena, but first, let me tell you what happened during the challenge…”
As the competition began, each challenger weaved like never before. The crowd watched in complete silence as fingers flicked and strung through brilliant colors, and shuttles flew in and out in intersecting motions between threads. The many gaping faces of the onlookers didn’t know which huipil to focus on more: both the goddess and the widow worked with such amazing speed and accuracy, it was difficult to tell who would reign as the winner.
Both challengers finished their dresses at the exact same time, just as the sun began to set. The spectators cheered at the unmatched talents and quieted as Ix Chel spoke.
“Thank you all for acting as judges to our competition of the threading arts. Allow me to present my finished huipil to my senile challenger.” The goddess removed her completed dress from her backstrap loom and displayed it to the crowd. Along the bottom hem, the most magnificent flowers reflected in the fading light: golden plumerias intertwined with purple orchids in brilliant nests of green vines and thick leaves; a bright blue border flowed along the floral design symbolizing Ix Chel’s associated gift of the waters of life; orange rays beamed around the neck line providing a stitched sunlight for the vibrant red roses nestled among equally bright green leaves. The goddess’ artwork was greeted with a massive cheer from the crowd of excited citizens. Their roar quickly hushed in patient silence as Araña stood up to present her huipil.
“Before I refeal what I haff weafed, I would like to say someteeng to you all. For many years, los dioses were said to haff blessed me weeth such talent, and while I am proud of my work, I refuse to give thanks to una diosa who only weeshes to steal my glory. Therefore I preesent her with this huipil that I haff weafed to show what I theenk ees her true beauty!” With a fierce look upon her face, Araña lay out her gown: where she would normally have weaved vines and flowers crawled long black centipedes, their thousand legs clawing at whatever they could feel; amongst them a sea of round brown cockroaches flooded the space between writhing pink worms that sprawled throughout the hem. Bees and wasps danced around the neckline, their stingers all pointed toward the wearer’s throat in a show of malevolence. The crowd gasped at the horror produced by Araña, who had never before created such a repulsive dress.
No cheers rang about the people, and the only sound heard was the angry snarl of the goddess. Ix Chel stomped over to Araña and ripped the dress from her aged hands, and furiously tore it to pieces. “Stupid woman! How dare you show me such audacity and total disrespect! I warned you before that you would be begging for mercy, but now you will suffer a fate worse than any humiliation you’ve ever faced!” Ix Chel grabbed her weaving shuttle and plunged it deep into Araña’s stomach. A dark crimson seeped through Araña’s white dress, and she screeched in pain as she fell to her knees. Where the blood touched her fingers turned jet-black and spread down to her palms and covered her arms.
“What deed chu do to me?” cried Araña as she tried to clean the black off her shaking hands. It was to no avail, and her thumbs suddenly fell off and disintegrated into dust as her remaining fingers elongated like branches of a tree. She felt her legs give way and break off with an audible crunch, causing her to let out one final scream. Sharp fangs jutted forth from her mouth, and her entire body began to shrink. Soon there was no sign of the old woman left.
Ix Chel kneeled down before the pile of Araña’s clothes, and carefully dug around the bloodstain. She pulled out her hand, and opened her palm to reveal a small black spider with a red hourglass on its underbelly. The goddess brought the spider to her face and spoke. “Arrogant widow. For your insolence to a goddess of the heavens, you are doomed to weave for the remainder of your life without rest. People will no longer flock to you for your talent, but greet you with hostility and violence for the insect you truly are. Your descendants shall suffer the same fate until the end of time, and you will all be marked with the Red Goddess’ symbol of permanence. Know that you have brought this punishment upon yourself.” With her last words left echoing amongst the terrified crowd, Ix Chel set the spider down by Araña’s fallen backstrap loom, and vanished.
“So what happened to Araña after, Mami?” I asked, sitting in the center of my first completed tapestry.
“Exactly what la diosa said, Nena. Araña continued to weave, and she eventually taught her children her ways, which were then passed down throughout the history of our familia, and eventually to us. This is why weaving is such an important craft you and your sisters had to be taught when you came of age. By creating our silken tapestries, we keep the story of Araña alive and give reason to our work. You also learn the meaning of our family mark; the red hourglass that symbolizes Ix Chel’s cruel punishment.”
“That was a good story, Mami,” I yawned. “Thank you for telling it to me, and for helping me with my first tapestry.”
“De nada, mija,” she said as I hugged her. “I think it’s time you get to sleep now, though. We can always practice more weaving tomorrow.”
“Okay, sounds like a plan,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “Buenas noches, Mami.”
She bent over and gave me a cool goodnight kiss on the head. “Buenas noches, Nena.”