Production of Silk

Miho Nonaka

Heavenly Worm

Mrs. Itō, our fourth-grade teacher, drew a new kanji character on the board: 蚕. “Worm from heaven,” she announced, “as you can see.” Heaven splits open like a curtain (天) and inside it dwells the worm (虫). For each student, she took out five worms from her basket and put them in a small paper box to take home. Having just hatched from their eggs, these worms were still covered in little black hairs. That’s why at this stage they are called kego (hairy baby), Mrs. Itō told us. To feed these dark babies, julienne your mulberry leaves first.

 

Cowboys I

They were like “cowboys,” someone said afterward, the two white American poets visiting our month-long workshop in Europe. Many of us, including me, admired their poetry. Wasn’t it worth traveling to the Continent, if we get the chance to see such stars on their summer gig/vacation? Mr. P, a prominent poet in his own right, led the workshop, and I was his wild card. For their particular visit, he casually chose my poem that had silkworms, mulberry leaves, and the image of a mother inside a cocoon like a chrysalis.

“I don’t believe this,” Cowboy 1 said of my cocooned-mother imagery.

Like a patient father, Mr. P tried to ease the tension by turning the visitor’s aversion into advice. “What changes would you suggest to make it real?”

“As I said, this isn’t a poem,” Cowboy 1 growled. “I just don’t believe any of it for a second.”

“I don’t mind the image of mulberries, though—I used to eat them,” Cowboy 2 said, grinning like a kid under his wide-brimmed hat. “They’re rather tasty.”

 

City of Fabric

Even during the summer vacation, my mornings were purposeful. Like previous summers, I woke up early enough to dash to a nearby park and join other children to have my card stamped for the mandatory radio exercise I had just missed. Then, I would set about collecting breakfast for my infant worms. I would bike up the sharp hill to the secret spot I shared with few of my classmates: the remains of an old mulberry orchard. Our city was once known for its fabric industry, I read in a textbook, in the time before the Second World War, when all sophisticated ladies in America wore silk stockings from Japan and were (figuratively) devastated when our countries entered the war. To commemorate that history, the city lined its main street with mulberry trees, only to cut them down at the turn of the twenty-first century. When I stand at the intersection of the Hachiōji Station Square, with multiple footbridges reflecting neon light, I feel my feet about to rise in midair, and I hardly recognize the city I used to believe was my home.

 

Platinum Boy, 2006

After decades of research, Japanese silkworm breeders discovered a reliable method of hatching exclusively male silkworms. Female silkworms eat more, sleep more, take up more space, and are measurably less efficient in transforming mulberry leaves into silk. The verdict was clear: female silkworms are inferior for silk production.

Silk spinners and kimono weavers are unanimous in their praise of male silk: their thread is consistently finer, sturdier, glossier, whiter, and their cocoons are easier to harvest when boiled.

The birth site of Platinum Boy is literally black and white. When you look at a piece of paper where silkworm eggs are laid, white eggs are the empty shells from which male larvae have already hatched. They will thrive on the diet of tender mulberry shoot which, combined with their spit, will eventually turn into raw silk, translucent like frosted glass. The dark eggs contain female larvae that will never hatch and only keep darkening.

 

Cowboys II

That evening, the two poets gave a reading at a modern black box theater in the heart of the city where Kafka was born. During the obligatory Q&A afterward, for the last question, my Filipino-American friend stood up. She was many years younger than I, full of elegance and sass. She asked them which female poets’ work they admired and would recommend reading. They looked at each other.

“Ahhh, Emily Dickinson?” Cowboy 1 twisted his nose as if he were about to sneeze.

“Elizabeth Bishop?” Cowboy 2 shrugged with a tight-lipped smile.

“Wait, what was the name of that woman I chose for the poetry prize last year?” he asked the audience in genuine confusion.

 

Feast

Silkworms are remarkable eating machines. As “hairy babies,” they are the size of an ant, yet they increase their body weight ten thousand times in less than a month. Each morning, as soon as I put the shreds of washed mulberry leaves into their paper home, my three worms (two of them had shriveled up and never made it past the hairy-baby stage) would start gorging. My younger sister put her ear next to the box: the sound of a passing rain.

 

Ten Thousand Leaves I

Compiled in the mideighth century, Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) is the oldest Japanese anthology: more than forty-five hundred poems in twenty books. In the sweltering heat of the attic, I wasn’t looking for any particular motif when I happened on poem No. 2495, composed by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, a low rank courtier and one of the “Saints of Japanese Poetry”:

like my mother’s
silkworms confined
inside cocoons,
how can I see my love
who lives secluded at home?

Poem No. 2991 is almost the same poem by another poet, simply tagged “unknown”:

like my mother’s
silkworms confined
inside cocoons,
sadness clouds my heart
when I cannot see her

The motif of a silk cocoon as the inaccessible, lyrical interior goes back to the dawn of Japanese poetics. The cocoon encases the image of the beloved, the poet’s longing that keeps building inside, and in my poem it holds the mother as a mythical seamstress, stitching blue in each wrist of her unborn daughter.

 

Silk Mother

Silkworms are considered livestock, so we use the character 頭 (head) to count them like cows and horses. They are the worms from heaven, nonetheless, and the older generation still uses two honorifics to sandwich the name kaiko (silkworm): o-kaiko-san.

I read somewhere that in southwest Nigeria, Yoruba men are forbidden to spend the night with the women engaged in spinning silk for the season. According to the Chinese tradition, you are called “silk mother” while attending silkworms. No shouting or crying is allowed. No stranger is welcome in the house. You wear simple, clean clothes, and abstain from smoking, drinking, putting on makeup, and eating garlic. You must not stir up the air by causing noise or giving off unpleasant smells. Raising silkworms and extracting their silk are a sacred project, and you must consecrate yourself as such. To my parents’ chagrin, by the time my little sister finished middle school, she had managed to disqualify herself for every requirement to be a silk mother.

 

Absinthe

“I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me,” I read in the opening of Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. Afternoons, I would sit by the window of Café Slavia across the street from the National Theatre, facing the Vltava River. What ecstatic love would let me see each person that way, an hourglass full of both magical and familiar waters? On the wall was a painting titled Piják absintu (Absinthe Drinker), a man staring into a woman, the Absinthe Fairy, whose body was made completely of green mist on the table. I have been drunk too long on the mixture of two feelings: the uncertainty of being a student and the guilt of a tourist. I could hardly taste the different pastries brought to my table each time; my senses became both numb and painfully acute the more I focused on the inconsequence of my being there.

 

Dream Tree

My mulberry tree stood behind the rusty fence along the downhill road to school. While struggling under the weight of my leather rucksack, art equipment, and calligraphy kit, I would give the slightest nod in the direction of the tree each time I passed by the fence. I loved that tree with all my childish imagination, and I continue to believe in making polite gestures, however subtle, once I feel connected to someone or some thing, regardless of whether such an exchange is one-sided or not.

One night, I saw myself in a dream, sitting on a branch of that mulberry tree. My cheeks were flushed, and I looked upset about something. It must have been late spring; the leaves were still fresh green, and my eyes squinted from the brightness, trying to hold back tears. I didn’t notice a girl on the upper branch until the tree shook. “Fairy” isn’t the right word; I somehow understood that she was the essence of the mulberry tree. She came down to sit next to me and put her mouth close to my left ear. Her mineral-dark hair and olive skin were clearly “other” to me, but her voice was not.

I don’t remember what she said, only its cadence. It came like a thick liquid being poured right next to my eardrum. She was singing an elegy. There was a distinct point in which her voice started to rise instead of giving in to the weight of grief. I saw my tears evaporate, very slowly into the air, waving with golden heat.

I won’t say I miss the tree and its song, a nostalgia for half-remembered dreams. Simply, I’ve never felt spoken to in such close proximity to another soul.

 

職人 I

I used to blame my grandmother on my father’s side, who was described to me as fierce, frantic, funny, a destructive visionary and unsuccessful business entrepreneur during the critical times of the Second World War. When I felt defeated by the radical pull of my own emotion, I would attach them to the face of the woman I had never met in person, only in a fading picture where she stands next to my young father without glasses, still a student with surprisingly gentle eyes.

My father recently told me during one of our late-night international calls from Tokyo: “Your grandfathers were both shokunin (craftsman), remember? It’s in your DNA, too.” His father had come from a large family of silk farmers. After he left home, adopting the newly introduced Singer sewing machines, he began manufacturing Japanese cloven-toed socks, the traditional kind that used to be hand-sewn, and during the war, he took the assignment to sew parachutes for the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force. While he worked under dimmed light, my young father put up his primitive drawing of warplanes on the wall, covered in fine grains of sand.

 

Ten Thousand Leaves II

Poem No. 1357 of the Man’yōshū invokes the mystery of silk production:

if prayer can turn
the mulberry trees
from my mother’s garden
into silk kimono,
why don’t I pray for my love to be felt in return?

The earliest Japanese poets attached power to longing. I hold onto this fact when ironic distance becomes too tempting or simply expected. If your intense desire can move the gods to transform mulberry leaves into silk, then surely your difficult love has the chance of being requited. After all, the creation of silk is nothing short of magical: no pearl extract, but worm spit transforms leaves into a thread, a precise mixture of proteins that hardens into a fiber once exposed to air. Like a prism, each fiber is triangular in shape, and it glistens, refracting light.

even if
the gem string called
“life” gets cut short,
I would rather be born
a silkworm than a human person

My American friends were shocked by the blunt pessimism of poem No. 3086. I confess that I find myself wishing the same for brief moments when I am in a particularly hostile writing workshop, or more generally, when the gap between language and life seems to have grown to the point where the very act of translation feels gratuitous.

 

Snow Country

In Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari, an idle intellectual from Tokyo named Shimamura visits a remote hot-spring town where he meets Komako, a young geisha apprentice. One afternoon, Komako insists that he stop by the house where she lives with the dance teacher and her sick son. Here is a fragment I translated:

Once inside the earth-floored entrance hall, it was cold and still, and Komako led Shimamura to climb a ladder even before his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. It was a real ladder, just as the room above was a real attic.

“Are you surprised? Mine is the room where they used to keep silkworms,” Komako said. . . . Shimamura looked around at this curious space. Although it had only one skylight open to the lower south, the sun seeped through each surface of the freshly papered shoji screen with a fine crisscross frame. The wall was also painstakingly covered with rice paper, and it made Shimamura feel trapped inside an old paper box, while the overhead roof was bare, sloping down to the window, casting a dark and lonely shadow over him. He wondered what was on the other side of the wall. What if the entire room was hung midair? It unsettled him. Nevertheless, he noted that both the wall and the tatami mat were kept spotless despite their wear. Komako must have been living in this tidy room with her nearly transparent body like a silkworm.

 

職人 II

My grandfather on my mother’s side was also a skilled craftsman who made anything with wood: chairs, rice tubs, washbasins, traditional bathtubs, perfect cubes to make camera obscuras on special commission from the Konishiroku Company. During his courting days, when my father came to visit my mother, my grandfather would ignore his presence completely by occupying his hands. Only after the clock struck five in the evening would he put away his tools, turn to my father as if noticing for the first time, and welcome him with a thin, but not unfriendly smile. “Your mother’s father was a true shokunin,” my father said. “From his back, I understood something about the virtue of craftsmanship.”

Of all the ways I reassure myself, I am most comforted to remember that I come from the families of shokunin. I never believed that the self is a project of one’s own making, and having a specific role assigned to me is, paradoxically, a form of freedom. From day to day, far from the sublime, what saves me is not magical encounters or words of charisma, but small works I am equipped to do, tasks that require faithful use of my hands, shaping things for someone beyond my immediate reality.

 

End of Summer

My three silkworms shed their skin multiple times. They graduated from a small paper box for fish crackers to the jewel case that once held my mother’s pearl necklace.

That summer was unbearably hot, especially in the basin-shaped city of Hachiōji. With our AC broken, I worried that my worms would not survive; the heat and humidity of July would stifle the imperceptible breath coming through their nine tiny nostrils along each side.

I left my worms in the care of my classmate Yukari, whose parents had some experience in silk farming, and after my family spent a week relaxing in the cooler mountains, I returned to her house.

“You won’t recognize them,” her mother yelled amidst the hiss and splutter of frying oil from the kitchen. “They are so much fatter now!”

I looked into the pink jewel box. The worms’ bodies had definitely grown thicker, fairer, and more translucent. Hard to believe their diet consisted solely of the leaves from the mulberry orchard left to run wild. I passed my finger over their white backs, marveling at their smooth, cool touch. For the first time, I felt guilty for letting the other two die while they were still dark and hairy. Put five of them together, my grown worms would have made a knobby hand of a craftsman.

 

Liquid Silk

In its fifth and final instar, a silkworm eats ferociously for a week then abruptly stops. In preparation for cocooning, it must digest all of the mulberry leaves and expel all of the resulting feces and urine from its body. When its silk glands are heavy with future threads, it raises its head and starts swaying as if looking for something in the air. By this stage, the silkworm has turned translucent like melted sugar, signaling that every leaf has finally been transformed into a liquid form of silk, and its body is now free of other impurities.

 

Spanish Synagogue

The Spanish synagogue is on the site of the oldest Prague Jewish house of prayer, known as the most beautiful synagogue in Europe. The elderly woman at the ticket counter had correctly guessed my nationality. “No photos allowed,” she said. I tried to explain that I didn’t own a camera, even though I was from Japan. She repeated “No photos allowed,” giving me another suspicious look.

I was in the synagogue for only a few minutes when I had to start looking for a toilet. It might be just me, but I believe that being inside interlocking layers of myriad openings to rich interiority—say, a bookstore or a library of any serious depth, certain museums, and in this case, the synagogue’s gilded galleries and balustrades all covered in a flowing arabesque of stylized Islamic motifs, mounting onto the nave—inspires a profound and often biological response.

“Excuse me, where is the toilet?” Again, the woman wasn’t listening to me. The difference was that this time I really couldn’t afford her lack of response.

“Bathroom? Lavatory? Loo?”

She looked at me as if I were a turbaned rider from the Golden Horde.

“This is a temple.”

“I know, but I need to use the restroom . . . ”

“I told you, young lady—this is a house of God,” she nearly yelled, shaking her head. “Does that mean anything to you?”

 

Cocoonery

After climbing onto straw holders divided into hundreds of rooms, each silkworm sits in its own cell in the cocoonery, throws a wispy web to anchor itself, and starts tossing its head in a figure eight with single devotion. Once emitted in the air, the clear liquid solidifies into a shimmering fiber. This is the only way silk comes into being in the world. Mulberry leaves become such prismatic threads through the steady digestion of the stubby worms.

If premature worms happen to climb onto the cocoon holder by mistake, their urine and feces could spoil the cocoons spun by their other fully mature neighbors. In some cases, premature worms are so sluggish in settling in their cells that they use up all their strength before completing their task: their cocoons remain gauze-thin, barely hiding the lifeless bodies of their makers.

 

Small Things

They say (I love the convenience, but who are “they”?) that attention to detail is a characteristic of the Japanese. I am drawn to small things: tadpoles, silica beads, star sands in a vial, a notebook the size of a thumbnail, fish scales, a nativity scene inside half a walnut shell. I am terribly myopic like my father, and I like things that are near. Large things loom over and terrify: airports, Costco, churches in Texas, the Tokyo Skytree, Mount Rushmore (those granite faces I once believed had surfaced in response to the historic atomic bombing), and that elusive word “global.”

 

Figures

It takes more than a hundred cocoons to make a tie, over six hundred for a blouse.

 

Finest Silk?

Silkworms molt a total of four times, but in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture, silk-producing experts have successfully made them start cocooning after the third molt by giving them special hormones. Because younger silkworms have smaller mouths, it results in a thinner, longer, and stronger thread that can be used for surgical suture or the string for shamisen, a Japanese lute with its sound box traditionally covered in cat skin. In theory, we could produce the ultimate silk by using these hormones on Platinum Boy caterpillars, like a vast choir of Castrati, singing piercing soprano through their ever-immature vocal chords.

I wonder which color, what pattern of weaving would give the most life to such superb silk of unnatural origin. Texture is story. Whose skin would brush against it, and for what occasion?

 

Girl with A Horse’s Head

In northeastern Japan, many old families worship a pair of dolls called Oshira-sama, mulberry sticks with a female face and a horse’s head painted or carved on one end. It is a tutelary spirit of agriculture and silk production. Women play the central role in the festival rites of Oshira-sama, based on the old folktale that features a horse instead of a prince:

Once there was a poor young woman who took care of a white horse, and eventually she fell in love with it. When her father found out, he killed the horse by hanging it from a mulberry tree. The daughter wouldn’t stop crying, clinging onto the dead horse under the tree, which enraged her father even further. As he chopped off the horse’s head with an axe, it flew up with his daughter, and together they were ascending to heaven.

“It was my fault! Please, don’t leave me!” the father cried out to them.

“We don’t begrudge you, father—tomorrow morning, look inside the stone mill in the yard—you will find our gift,” said the daughter before she disappeared with the horse’s head, “our heart for you.”

I never enjoyed this story, but it helps explain my unsettling feeling when I bring my face too close to the silkworm. There is something in its features that doesn’t belong to the caterpillar kind. A combination of the snow-white skin and its tiny horse head.

Many Japanese folktales end happily with a reward of rice for a good deed, a sign of blessing. In this story, where you would expect the gift of rice, silkworms appear, crawling out of the granite bed.

 

Komako

It didn’t occur to me until I tried translating a few passages from Snow Country that the young geisha’s name Komako (駒子) means Pony Child. What inspired the author Kawabata to portray his heroine as a woman of equine grace? We don’t know her family name. On the other hand, we don’t know the first name of Shimamura, who is referred to only by his last name.

I imagine if your family name is a gate to the house, your first name must be its interior. In the days when the first book of Man’yōshū was composed, asking a maiden’s first name was synonymous with proposing to her. Knowing it meant possessing the person.

Komako’s body is translucent like a silkworm, and an unearthly room encloses her fruitless passion like a white cocoon. While writing Snow Country, Kawabata says he distanced himself from Shimamura, who serves merely as a foil to Komako. “As an author, I entered deep inside the character of Komako, but casually turned my back to Shimamura,” he writes in the afterward. “Especially in terms of emotion—Komako’s sadness is nothing other than my own sadness. . . .” And so it is; his heart has become subsumed into her heart.

 

Cowboys III

When I think of the school of “cowboy” poets, I imagine them wrangling ornery beasts, galloping on horses, leading the herd of worthy emotions to water and new pastures, bringing back the voice of any voiceless cattle that has wandered off, and occasionally wasting their bullets by shooting in random directions, just because, and why not?

 

Silk Kimono

Some people are surprised that even though I am from Japan, I don’t own a single kimono. To make a one-layer kimono for a woman of average size, you will need two thousand cocoons. What would feel more luxurious than having two thousand silkworms munching mulberry leaves in unison for the sake of producing a thread long enough to encircle your body many times over? I can picture a room full of silkworms making the sound of spring showers as their invisible teeth snap off the veins of mountainous leaves. Who owns the body that is worth such a concerted endeavor?

 

Records of Ancient Matters

Susanowo is the Shinto god of savage storms. Banished from the Plain of High Heaven, he visits Ōgetsu-hime, the Great Food Princess, who offers him what she has harvested from her nose, mouth, and anus. Disgusted, he kills her on the spot. She is not done giving, though. Her corpse becomes the original site of farm produce: rice from her eyes, millet from her ears, azuki beans from her nose, barley from her genitalia, and soybeans from her anus. All the grains emerge from her body orifices with one exception. What crops up from her head is silkworms.

There is another version of the Shinto myth where rice comes from her stomach, two kinds of millet from her eyes and forehead, barley and soybeans from her genitalia, and silkworms appear just above her eyebrows.

 

Body

I find it impossible to talk about the body (mine and everyone else’s) without sounding embarrassed or oddly distant. I don’t mean to self-deprecate, but it has been almost too fashionable, too charged a topic for me to feel safe around. (A cowardly thing to say—the truth is, no one is safe.)

I won’t pretend my body is a plain blockhouse, or a slab of flesh aching with desire or lack thereof. Who could have taught me to stay at home in my own body all the while I traveled from one country to another, turning from the spontaneous, if careless, music of my mother tongue to the cautious economy of English, reaching out, in the hope of actually reaching and being reached?

For the subjects most critical to me, I find no teachers. Perhaps there is not enough demand? I believe I am badly behind everyone and that I missed an opportunity to ask questions long ago. People my age in this country sound fluent in the body, discussing it with just the right amount of sarcasm and laughter without revealing much, like they have been on intimate terms with it since they learned to speak. I suppose I should have listened to the body harder, without ulterior motives.

 

Pause

In an attic room toward evening, the silkworm suddenly stops chewing on a mulberry leaf. Which veins do I bite next, and in what order?

It may ask, as I have asked myself many times before: How is it that I am here? Where does this appetite lead, if hunger points beyond its immediate end?

 

Unraveling

As soon as our assigned worms enveloped themselves in thick ovals of silk, we had to bring them to school. Their metamorphosis into moths takes about ten days. You must harvest silk before they emerge, Mrs. Itō said, before their hard, wet eyes break open their cocoons and ruin the fine threads. Like an offering, each student deposited their cocoons in the shallow bamboo basket. Once part of the collective heap, none of us could tell which cocoons used to belong to whom.

Led by Mrs. Itō, our whole class marched to a nearby farmhouse; the wooden one-story building stood against the hill with a steep, rocky backyard that stretched all the way to my favorite mulberry tree. While we sat upright on the sunburned straw mat, the old woman of the house worked quickly with the cocoons inside a deep wooden tub full of boiling water. Her dark and wrinkled face was reminiscent of the Nō mask, of an ancient god with the rounded eyebrow. She plucked thread ends from half a dozen stewed cocoons and started unraveling. As the white threads continued being pulled out, the diminishing cocoons would bob left and right like miniature souls on their toes. My throat tightened. Pupae were being stifled in their brown shells, the cocoons kept reeling, and the woman’s hand gathered filaments as fine as smoke, clear like threaded sugar. This is what she had done for the last fifty years.

 

If I Were

A caterpillar of any kind, somehow blessed (or cursed) with a mind, I would leafmeal pray that I be spared from the fate of dying with unspun thread still inside my body: my ritual before writing. In the end, silkworms die soon enough whether or not they have completed their cocoon project. They keep pushing forward—knowingly or unknowingly—spinning out a thousand yards of lucid strand in no more than three days. The rate of their own shroud-making is one foot per minute.

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