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Knot after knot, day in, day out, for an entire lifetime, always the same hand movements, always looping the same knots in the fine hair, so fine and so tiny that with time, the fingers trembled and the eyes became weak from strain – and still the progress was hardly noticeable. On a day he made good headway, there was a new piece of his carpet perhaps as big as his fingernail. So he squatted before the creaking carpet frame where his father and his father before him had sat, each with the same stooped posture and with the old, filmy magnifying lens before his eyes, his arms propped against the worn breastboard, moving the knotting needle with only the tips of his fingers.

Thus he tied knot upon knot as it had been passed down to him for generations until he slipped into a trance in which he felt whole; his back ceased to hurt and he no longer felt the age in his bones. He listened to the many different sounds of the house, which had been built by the grandfather of his great-grandfather – the wind, which always slipped over the roof in the same way and was caught in the open windows, the rattling of dishes and the talking of his wives and daughters below in the kitchen. Every sound was familiar. He picked out the voice of the Wise Woman who had been staying in the house the past few days in anticipation of the confinement of one of his wives, Garliad. He heard the muted doorbell clang; then the entry door opened and there was excitement in the murmuring of the voices. That was probably the peddler woman who was supposed to bring food supplies, textiles, and other things today.

Then heavy footfalls creaked up the stairs to the carpet-knotting room. That must be one of the women bringing him his midday meal. Below they would be inviting the peddler woman to the table to learn the latest gossip and to let themselves be talked into buying some bauble or other. He sighed, tightened the knot on which he was working, removed the magnifying lens, and turned around.

Garliad stood there with her enormous belly and with a steaming plate in her hand, waiting to come in when he gave permission with an impatient gesture.

‘What are the other women thinking, letting you work in your condition?’ he growled. ‘Do you want to deliver my daughter on the stairs?’

‘I feel very well today, Ostvan,’ Garliad responded. ‘Where’s my son?’

She hesitated. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Then I can imagine where he is,’ snorted Ostvan. ‘In the city! In that school! Reading books until his eyes ache and having his head filled with nonsense.’

‘He tried to repair the heating and left to get some sort of part. That’s what he said.’

Ostvan hoisted himself up from his stool and took the plate from her hands. ‘I curse the day I allowed him to go to that school in the city. Was I not blessed by God until then? Didn’t he first give me five daughters and then one son, so that I didn’t have to kill any of my children? And don’t my daughters and wives have hair of all colors so that I don’t have to dye the hair, and I can tie a carpet that will be worthy of the Emperor one day? Why can’t I succeed in making a good carpet maker of my son, so that someday I can take my place beside God to help him tie the great carpet of life?

‘You’re quarreling with fate, Ostvan.’

‘Should I not quarrel – with such a son? I know why his mother didn’t bring me my food.’

‘I’m supposed to ask you for money to pay the peddler,’ said Garliad.

‘Money, always money!’ Ostvan put down the plate on the windowsill and shuffled over to a chest with steel fittings. It was decorated with a photograph of the carpet his father had tied and contained the money left over from the sale of that carpet, packed in individual boxes, labeled by year. He took out a coin. ‘Take it. But remember that this must last us for the rest of our lives.’

‘Yes, Ostvan.’

‘And when Abron returns, send him to me immediately.’

‘Yes, Ostvan.’ She left.

What kind of life was this, nothing but worry and aggravation! Ostvan pulled a chair up to the window and sat down to eat. His gaze became lost in the rocky, infertile desert. He used to go out occasionally, to look for certain minerals needed to make the secret compounds. He was even in the city several times to buy chemicals or tools. In the meantime, he had accumulated everything he would ever need for his carpet. He probably would not go out again. He was no longer young; his carpet would soon be finished, and then it would be time to think about dying. 

Later, in the afternoon, quick steps on the stairs interrupted his work. It was Abron.

‘You wanted to speak to me, Father?’ ‘Were you in the city?’

‘I bought sootbrick for the heating.’

‘We still have sootbrick in the cellar, enough for generations.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘You could have asked me. But any excuse to go into the city is good enough for you.’

Unbidden, Abron came closer. ‘I know it displeases you that I’m in the city so often and read books. But I can’t help it, Father. It’s so interesting . . . these other worlds. There’s so much to learn – so many different ways for people to live.’

‘I want to hear nothing of it. For you there is only one way to live. You have learned from me everything a hair-carpet maker must know; that is enough. You can tie all the knots, you have been instructed in soaking and dyeing techniques, and you know the traditional patterns. When you have designed your carpet, you will take a wife and have many daughters with different colored hair. And for your wedding, I will cut my carpet from the frame, bind it, and present it to you, and you will sell it in the city to the Imperial trader. That’s what I did with the carpet of my father, and he did the same before me with the carpet of his father, and he with the carpet of his father, my great-grandfather; that is the way it has been from generation to generation for thousands of years. And just as I pay off my debt to you, you will pay off your debt to your son, and he to his son, and so on. It was always this way, and it will always be so.

Abron gave a tortured sigh. ‘Yes, of course, Father, but I’m not happy with this idea. I would rather not be a hair-carpet maker at all.’

‘I am a carpet maker, and therefore you will also be a carpet maker.’ With an agitated gesture, Ostvan pointed to the uncompleted carpet in the knotting frame. ‘For my whole life, I’ve worked on tying this carpet – my whole life – and from the profit, you will one day eat for your entire life. You have a debt to me, Abron, and I require that you pay off that debt to your own son. And God grant that he will not cause you as much sorrow as you have caused me!’

  • The Hair Carpet Weavers

  • In a distant universe, since the beginning of time, workers have spent their lives weaving intricate carpets from the hair of women and girls. But why? Andreas Eschbach's mysterious, poignant space opera explores the absurdity of work and of life itself.

    'A novel of ideas that evokes complex emotions through the working out of an intricate and ultimately satisfying plot, with echoes of Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Isaac Asimov' The New York Times Book Review

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