My mistress told me three things. She said that butterflies were the souls of lost children, that silkworm larva were women, transformed by an evil magician to weave silk for the emperor. She said that millions of mummified Egyptian cats had been sent to Great Britain where they were ground into powder and used to fertilize farms in England and Scotland.
She said if I could guess which one of these things was true, she would set me free.
I had been sold to her when I was eight. My small agile fingers were good at sewing buttons and unfastening hooks. But I was not as diligent as the older slaves, so perhaps that is why she gave me a chance to win my freedom.
I guessed that the souls of lost children turned into butterflies. It seemed the most likely. Butterflies were so lovely and delicate, so fleeting and ephemeral. The notion of mummified cats being used as manure in England’s green and pleasant land seemed far-fetched. And I already knew how silk was made.
The caterpillars, the silkworms, are fed on fresh mulberry leaves for thirty-five days. Then they begin spinning a cocoon. Inside, their bodies will liquefy and change. Transforming, metamorphosing into moths. Wild silk moths have large wings marked with strange symbols. They look like flying messengers with hieroglyphic notes. Captive silk moths have small, dull wings so small they have lost the ability to fly.
Most captive moths are killed while still in their cocoons, boiled alive in water so hot the silk begins to unravel. The corpses of the worms, the pupa, are roasted and served as delicacies. I saw a picture of one. It was brown and segmented. It looked crunchy.
Silk weavers unwind the covering from the dead bodies into strands a mile long. Single filaments are too fine and fragile for commercial use, so the weavers spin three strands together to form a single thread. The weavers are always women or girls because, like me, their fingers are small and dexterous.
I knew this because every night after chores were done and we were sent to bed, I crept upstairs to the library and fled into the land of books. But I knew nothing of mummies or cats, and it seemed strange that animals thought to be gods should be used as fertilizer.
But my mistress said I was wrong and sent me to work in the fields.
I was planting mulberry trees, burrowing in the dirt. Something jagged sliced my hand. A drop of blood, round an as insect’s egg, pushed through the dirt on my finger. I dug out the jagged thing. It was a broken femur. Later, I found an ear, dry and leathery, and a tooth sharp and smooth as ivory. I wondered if it were too late to tell my mistress I knew the truth.
That night in the library I read about the mummy cats. They had been bred in Egypt long, long ago, raised en masse and killed when they were big enough to look impressive wrapped in bandages. Their heads had been smashed by hammers. Their necks wrung by strong hands. Their bound bodies sold to those currying favors from Isis or Osiris. There was a picture of one. It looked like a giant cocoon with a grinning cat’s face.
The cats were found in the late 1800s, hundreds and thousands of them, buried in tunnels as offerings. Treasure hunters flocked to these caverns of death hoping to find the gold and jewels of ancient Pharaohs, but they found only the dried, bandaged carcasses.
A local contractor brought them by the pound. Men were hired to peel cat after cat of its wrappings and to strip off their brittle fur. They piled the bones in black heaps a meter high. There was a photo. The remnants looked like haystacks on the sandy plain.
Some were sold to local farmers. The bigger lots were bought by an Alexandrian merchant and sent by steamers to Liverpool. The bindings and bodies of the cats were ground up, scattered onto fields like manure. The article did not mention what happened to their souls.
Nor did the piece on the women who unwound cocoons from the bodies of dead silkworms talk of souls, neither the women’s nor the silk worms.
I remained a slave. I toiled by day in the fields and read by night in the library.
It was so till I was twelve or thereabouts. I never knew my exact age. Slaves have no need for birthdays. Numbers are only useful for calculating the thread needed to sew a dress or weave a shroud.
I had not eaten much. So, on my way to the library, I snuck into the kitchen.
The mistress had entertained a merchant that day. A trader who had traveled all the way to China and brought back silk and jade and ivory. He had left her some Asian delicacies as a courtesy. They were piled on the counter, brown and segmented, the shape and size of a giant’s tears. I ate one. It was brown and crunched, but inside it was gooey.
That night I felt ill. My stomach churned. I barely managed to crawl out of my bed and flee into the darkest corner of the library. My insides heaved. I gagged, but instead of bile rising to my mouth, fine filaments of thread began to pour out of my eyes.
I turned and twisted, wrapping myself inside myself. Losing the world in darkness.
It wasn’t until I emerged ten days later, dripping pigment from my wings, that I knew my mistress had been wrong.
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