The Ship of Silk on the Calmest Sea (A Fable from the Forgotten South)

/ by Daniel Ausema

The bars of the prison were invisible. They had been there so long that Tima no longer thought of them, seldom remembered that they were there, except in her dreams. She lived in a small village beside the Calmest Sea, and there she sewed together her marvelous, magical boats: solid workboats of burlap; leisure caravels of cambric; fustian feluccas that carried soldiers swiftly along the shorelines. And every few weeks those soldiers would appear, shattering the peace of the village, to carry off her work for the Suzerain and fulfill his royal demands.

Tima was an old woman now. Hard for her to believe, but lines bit deeply into her face, creases that no careful sewing or folding could undo. Her hair wisped about her head, short and white, no longer the strong threads that had once fallen down her back. Her fingertips were callused, immune to the countless needles she had poked into them over the years.

Hers was a strange magic, one none of the Suzerain’s magicians could explain—or imitate, which was what had built her prison bars. She could take cloth, any cloth from the coarsest pressed felt to the finest woven satin, and somehow when she sewed them up into boats, they became strong, able to sail the sea. Even she did not know how she did it. Many years ago she had tried taking on apprentices, and her hope flared as the invisible bars seemed ready to break, but none could learn her magic, none could understand what she did. And the bars returned, and she sewed away the years, building ships outside her small house for the Suzerain and his court, for his servants and merchants.

And every boat she loved, for it was her art, her passion, her gift. And every boat she hated, for it was her cage, her prison, and she sewed her own fetters even as she sewed the keels and gunwales up tight.

She dreamed, though, and in her dreams she built a ship of silk, the finest work she could do, a masterpiece to sail the Calmest Sea.

And so, the long years spun by on the spindle of time and the bars of her prison seemed to close ever tighter. Knowing that her own spool of years was running out, she looked for spare minutes to work the precious silk. At first she would sit in her hearthroom, sewing pieces by candlelight late into the night. After a day of threads and needles and rough-but-sturdy boats or gossamer sloops out in the yard behind her house, her eyes were tired and her fingers sore, but she ignored the aches and lost herself in the creation of her masterpiece.

When a year of working late had passed, the pieces of Tima’s ship could no longer fit inside her hearthroom. The lengths of cloth spread too far around the room until she feared the fire would jump from the hearth and burn her work away. She moved the silk to her workplace behind the house.

Villagers noticed then, as she sat in the courtyard with a small lamp to push away the darkness. Tima paid no attention to them, only worked later and later as the ship of silk neared completion.

The Suzerain, however, did pay attention to the villagers, listening to the rumors they told of Tima and her mighty work of silk.

Finally the ship of silk was complete. With the last twist of her magic, the airy craft billowed but would not break, and she knew the silk would withstand the salt waters of the Calmest Sea. Her heart soared, finally able to hope for escape from its prison. She pulled the light ship down toward the water, her old feet moving quickly.

There on the beach stood the Suzerain and his soldiers.

“Gifted Tima.” He bowed his head slightly, though she had not knelt down before him as she ought. “You continue to amaze us. This,” he gestured at the ship, “is a wondrous craft. When we heard of it, we knew that we must have more of these ships of silk.”

Tima made no response. Since he had begun talking, her head had remained bowed, her eyes looking at the sand.

“We wish to commission three more of these immediately. You will be well paid, of course. You will be the richest person in your village.”

“That I already am, Your Majesty.”

The Suzerain laughed, as if it had been a joke. “Yes, you will be among the richest even in my entire kingdom.”

He looked at Tima, then at the boat behind her. “Surely you were not planning to take this ship out alone?” When Tima did not answer, he continued. “We wouldn’t hear of it. To sail alone at your age would be foolish, even on the Calmest Sea. We will send two of our own personal guards to help you sail and keep you safe.”

“You are kind, Your Majesty.” Tima’s voice was flat and empty.

With the ship in the water and the soldiers stationed at bow and stern, Tima climbed stiffly into her masterpiece, refusing any offer of help. The Suzerain sat in the shade created by a linen awning to watch the ship of silk set sail. Like all Tima’s creations, it soared easily over the waters, smooth as the silk it was made from.

Tima guided the ship far out into the sea where the waters became deep. Not a ripple disturbed the Calmest Sea where they paused. And there, Tima let go the threads that guided the ship. Her face was calm, her wrinkles seeming to smooth out, as she reached into the fabric of her clothes. The beating of her heart betrayed none of the excitement and fear she felt. She drew out from the cloth a long pair of sewing shears that glinted in the fierce sunlight.

Without a word, she plunged the shears downward. The silk parted easily and the blades entered the water below. Then something happened that had never occurred in the history of the sea.

On the Calmest Sea there rose a storm. Clouds descended, and the waves rose to tear apart the little ship. Tima and the soldiers disappeared into the water. If they cried out, their voices were lost in the storm.

Now some hold that she died there, and her magic left this world. But others tell the story that she was transformed into a young woman who lives on beneath the water, sailing in her underwater ship of silk, holding her shears high upon the prow. All agree, though, that in the salty waves she found her release from the prison of her art, from the cage of the Suzerain.

Daniel Ausema has a background in journalism and experiential education and is now a stay-at-home dad. His fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including Reflection's Edge, Nemonymous 7, Raven Electrick, Mytholog, and Spinning Whorl. He lives in Colorado, and can be found at danielausema.blogspot.com.