The chamber seemed to be buttressed by large roots that held the walls of soil in place. Thin, hairy roots burst in masses through the walls. Instead of feeling comfort in being in a better lit space, she felt more anxious as she saw the details the light revealed. Her breathing became more distressed. She nearly blew out the flame in her trembling hand. She could still hear the crying in the darkness ahead, but the humming had stopped.
She moved forward, toward the crying, toward the sound of suffering. Deeper and deeper, the tunnel wound its way into the earth. The light she sought seemed to be just
around the bend. Now she could hear, in addition to the crying, the dull whooshing of something rhythmic and precise. As she came around the corner, she saw a woman with a slight hump on her back. She was working an enormous loom that was surrounded by several oil lamps.
Alana had the luxury of being undetected by the weaver. She looked around carefully, wondering if it would be best to speak and let the weaver know she was nearby. In her moment of quiet observation, she watched with a voyeur's anonymity.
A strange, hanging headpiece covered the weaver's head and face; it took several moments for Alana to realize it was a shoulder-length veil. How the woman was able to work in this dim light and wearing a veil besides, she couldn't begin to imagine. Alana moved forward until she was standing just behind the veiled woman, who was dressed in a simple, long-sleeved, gray tunic. Her hunched shoulders gave evidence of the long hours she'd spent bent over this great loom, weaving with a precision that could only be earned through endless hours of working her craft. The woman's hands, her only unveiled aspect, had swollen knuckles, skin as thin as an onion's stretched across bulging blue veins, and bony fingers neatly capped by short fingernails made glossy by long hours working with natural fibers.
The hanging roots around her grew in every color. When the weaver finished a row, she pulled a root out of the wall or ceiling and tasted it, confirming it was what she hoped for with a scratchy “Mhmmm.” Then she wove it into the emerging composition. But some of the roots were apparently bitter, and those she spat out onto the floor, though she often wove the root in just the same, murmuring to herself in a confusion of indiscernible sounds.
Because she was so deeply engrossed in her work, the weaver remained oblivious of the fact that she was no longer alone. Alana walked past her, still staring, and then she spotted the yards and yards of a massive tapestry piled neatly at the end of the broad horizontal loom. The crying she'd heard earlier was very close now, but she couldn't take her eyes off the weaver and the dark pattern the old woman was weaving, with its slowly widening streak of gold contrasting against its surroundings.
The sobbing suddenly got louder, drowning out the sound of the loom and the old woman's humming. Alana looked down. Lying beneath the loom on the cold, damp floor, cradled between two enormous roots, was a nude child. She bent down to look more closely at the weeping child, extending the clay lamp to illuminate the area. The child was shivering and filthy.
Kneeling down to reach for the child under the loom, Alana saw that the roots were part of a trunk. The tree trunk grew out of the roots cradling the child and branched out across the bottom of the tapestry the woman was weaving. The roots, trunk, and branches combined to create a stunning illusion that the woven tapestry might be the sky, it seemed to be so far above her. Alana wondered at the sight of the lush growth --branches, twigs, and leaves springing from branches beneath the tapestry and woven into the pattern with the roots the old woman selected. All this was done so expertly that they disappeared entirely into the pattern.
Alana turned her attention back to the child. A tangled mass of filthy hair hid its face. Above them, the shuttle was still moving back and forth. “Come closer,” Alana whispered, beckoning the forlorn child. Tears began to flow from her own eyes. She couldn't make eye contact with the child because of the thick mass of its unkempt hair. She wanted to help the child. Clean it, feed it, dress it, brush its hair. Maternal desperation overwhelmed her.
She put down the lamp and crawled under the loom, finally going deep enough to wrap her fingers around the child's arm. She pulled it from beneath the loom and into her arms. Rocking and comforting the child at last gave her a feeling of well-being she could share with the child. Gently, she pushed back the mass of filthy hair and tenderly brushed her hand along the child's face. It was a girl.
"There, there,” Alana said. “You'll be okay now.”
Sitting under the edge of the loom and comforting the child, she hadn't noticed that the shuttle had stopped. The room was still. The old woman was crouched down now, silent and unmoving, looking over Alana's shoulder at the forlorn child.
Feeling the sweetness of the visitor's touch, the little girl curled up in her lap, resting her head on one breast. Alana looked into the girl's eyes and was amazed to see, even in this dim light, that they were no particular color, yet seemed to have an iridescent quality that reflected all colors. The perfectly round iris looked almost silver.
"I must not be seeing this right,” she muttered to herself. She turned to reach for the tiny oil lamp.
The old woman leaned closer until her veiled face was nearly resting on Alana's shoulder. Turning her head, Alana suddenly found herself face to face with her. The veil fluttered…