5 Jan

The first thing Aldus Belphegor did once he had occupied a hotel room in the town of Sericum was to find an art supply store.

“I need a fabric frame, weaving needles, and several spools of pongee,” he told the short, frail-looking proprietor standing behind a metalline counter. The little man grinned.

“You must be a screen weaver, with that request. Am I correct?”

“That is my ambition, sir, to learn portrait making with threads of silk. But I am only a beginner without experience. My knowledge is limited to what I can glean from books, mainly those about folk art. I have never worked much on silkweb creation, I fear.”

The other man stopped smiling. “You should find an instructor to guide what you do. There is no reason for you to waste time in trial-and-error wandering.”

“But I am completely new here and know no one who engages in portraiture, no one.”

Aldus looked at the storeowner with frustration on his face.

The other took the bait offered and made a suggestion to the customer he was serving.

“If you wish me to, I can get you in contact with someone who is a well-known operator in that ancient art. Her pictures have been exhibited in galleries and won prestiguous prizes.”

The cobnut eyes of Belphegor brightened into a glow.

“I would be deeply indebted to you for such aid, sir,” he muttered in a soft tone of voice.

“Let me, then, write down the address of Surah Lanugo for you.”

It took only seconds for that to be done on a sheet of silkpaper. Soon, the artist left the store with his supplies and the recommended reference.

Aldus took a rickety, clanging ascender as old as the decrepit apartment building up to the top, fifth floor. He had to knock only twice before a tall, slender young woman with dark brown hair and eyes opened the door. “Yes?” she questioned the stranger before her.

“Pardon me. Miss Lanugo, but I was informed that you might be willing to assist me. My name is Aldus Belphegar, and I came here from the capital with the aim of mastering the craft of screen-weaving in silk. My dream is to become a portrait artist.”

The two of them stared at each other in silence until Surah spoke.

“Come in and sit down. We can discuss the matter at ease inside here.”

He entered and took a grosgrain silk sofa chair. She herself remained standing.

“Image-weaving is by no means an easy skill to acquire,” Surah said in a dreamy voice. “It helps to start early in life, because learning takes years of effort and concentration. A person must possess almost selfless dedication in order to fulfill all the demands. Let me tell you that only a screen-maker can describe the terribly high cost in time and labor that is involved.”

Aldus nodded his head. “I realize all of that, Miss Lanugo. But I have harbored this ambition my whole life from a very early age. Although I attended an art school for several years, the training was unsatisfactory. It came nowhere near the area of my aspiration. So, I immersed myself in folklore studies in order to learn as much as I could about the traditional, once popular art form done in silk.

“But I finally realized that only by coming to Sericum would I truly become a screen-maker. The people of your region have always been the leaders in silk art. My dream has now become attainable, if someone like you agrees to become my tutor in the craft.”

He gazed intently at her, watching for any sign of what her answer might be.

“You appear quite determined to succeed,” she finally said. “Everything that we weavers do is full of risk, let me tell you.” She paused a moment. “Yes, we can begin your instruction tomorrow.”

A smile of joy came to Aldus. “I have already purchased some tools and materials,” he informed her. “My promise to you is to be as cooperative as I possibly can.”

After a few details were decided on, he departed in a mood of high ecstasy.

In the month that followed, the student learned the techniques involved in the weaving of varieties of silk: rough and knotty pongee, strong and coarse tussah, nubby shantung and delicate, soft surah. He became famliar with brown and yellow natural colors, fine and rough textures.

His instructor took him on autobus excursions into the countryside to see the plantations of white, red, and purple mulberry trees. Several local nature museums furnished displays of the various silkworms employed by producers in the region.

It was after a day of tiring work at a portrait frame in Surah’s apartment that the new weaver unexpectedly brought up the subject of silking. She reacted with a look of wide-eyed surprise.

“You are interested in that ancient concept of our folklore? I can tell you quite a lot about that complex of ideas, because my very own grandfather was known to be an adept at silking. I only knew him when I was a small child, but my memory of him remains in my mind. He spoke not at all about the system to me, perhaps because I had not yet reached an age when the subject becomes comprehensible. But a few things stay in my mind.

“My parents would tell me that he was busy in his room, communicating with the dead. That did not have any effect upon me until the old man passed away and became only a memory. Later, I learned that he was engaged in the art of silking. My reading in the area of weaving exposed me to general ideas about what it meant.

“A weaver who composes a silk portrait of a deceased ancestor can make contact with that individual. Into the mind of the silker come words and thoughts originating from the dead one. It is an uncanny power that depends upon the application of a special compound to the silk that is woven into the portrait.

“Though I have imagined myself completing a silking, I have never had the courage to try.”

She looked at Aldus with a question in her eyes.

“Would you like to attempt such a link by assisting me?” she asked him.

A flood of emotion engulfed the mind of her student.

“Yes, of course I would,” he managed to reply. “I believe we can succeed.”

Spools of the finest, thinest, most expensive honan variety were purchased by Aldus for the project. He helped Surah look through her archive of family actinographs for clear, detailed images of dead relatives. She herself rejected the targeting of either of her parents.

“They were too close to me, and died in recent times,” she told her partner. “I believe that the most favorable candidate for linking would be my grandfather, the screen-weaver. He would have understood what I am attempting to accomplish.”

“Yes,” agreed Aldus. “I can see the logic of that choice.”

Both of them spent hours in the Sericum Library searching for any references to silking in the literature of folk traditions. From scores of sources, the two learned useful, applicable details.

“We must coat the honan threads with serine crystals,” said Surah one evening. “That can only be obtained by boiling great quantities of silk and distilling the residue of oil that is left.”

“I can take charge of that task,” volunteered Aldus.

Quickly, the day set for the first silking arrived. The weaving loom was placed in a comfortable position in Surah’s living room. Aldus took charge of the frame holding the spools of delicate silk to be used in the portrait. On an easel rested the selected actinograph of the grandfather. The face on it reflected the aspect of the weaver when he was in his twenties, before time had aged him.

Out of the yellow, brown, white, and orange strands of fine honan emerged the image on the easel. Then came the serine coating of the silk surface with a fine brush by Surah. She sat on a stool, gazing at her handiwork, Aldus standing immediately behind her.

The mind of the weaver fell into a swirling swoon in which a voice from the past sounded.

“Who is it out there that is silking me? This has not happened to me from the time when my life came to an end. I am surprised at what is occurring because of the great danger involved in such communication. Let me give you a sincere warning, whoever you may be among living beings.

“As a silker, I came into psychic contact with several predecessors in that area of activity. They revealed to me the peril that destroyed all of them. Without exception, the fate of a silker who weaves portrait screens is self-destructive extermination. One turns into a self-annihilator.

“There is something in the nature of silking that results in torture and destruction of the weaver who puts together the portrait frame. There arises a drive to mutilate oneself.

“How did I come to recognize the truth of the inevitable self-laceration of the artist?

“First, it was given to me in communication from silkers of the past. Then, I experienced the tragic consequences in myself. Let me confess what I committed. It was my act of suicide. Do not doubt what I now tell you. My family concealed the cause of my death. It was a form of self-murder, carried out by use of a very potent poison.

“There was no way for me to have escaped my fate once I was engaged in silking. Nothing was written anywhere about the grave danger of suicide. No one’s will could be strong enough to resist the force flowing forth from the portrait frame. It was too late to rescue myself from the trap I was caught in.

“Do not let this doom fall upon you, too. Break off your present contact and avoid any future attempt at silking. Do not believe any source that contains a silent gap concerning the results of silking. Self-generated death hangs over all silkers because what they attempt and achieve was not meant to happen with live and dead humans.”

Surah abruptly turned away from the woven face. Spinning around, she spoke to Aldus.

“I am breaking off and stopping this business,” she whispered. Her lips trembled with a cold fear.

The two stared at each other without blinking.

“I understand,” confessed her partner at last. “The message from your grandfather came to me as well as you, Surah.”

“We must cease at once. My intention is to leave Sericum as soon as possible. You must never go back to silking ever again. It would end in catastrophe, believe me. I myself never want to have any connection with the hellish art in times to come. Will you stay away from it, too?”

She silently nodded her head yes.

Aldus soon left the apartment, never returning or seeing her again.


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