Warm afternoon sunlight filtered into the village from behind the volcano and across the lake, through bushes and crude fences and dust particles, over tin roofs covered with drying corn, coffee beans and jocote fruit, past white-washed adobe walls and dark doorways, and finally into the hard-packed dirt yard outside the simple one-room house where the Weaver sat, brightly colored threads stretching out on the loom in front of her. Somewhere nearby a radio played.
Weeks ago she had come to this village to learn to weave on the backstrap loom, a centuries-old technique practiced by the women here, passed down from generation to generation from the time of their Mayan ancestors.
It was a technique the Weaver found intriguing in its simplicity; the vertical threads of the warp were wrapped around a stick at one end and tied with a length of rope to a tree, rafter or anything similar. The other end of the warp was fastened to another stick and attached to the weaver’s waist with a belt wrapped around her backside. Kneeling on the ground, or sitting on a low stool the Weaver kept the warp threads taut by leaning back as she wove the horizontal weft threads, back and forth, back and forth, pounding down each pass with the batten. Slowly, slowly it was beginning to feel like a rhythm.
The Weaver liked the people of the village and admired some of the women she had come to know. But they seemed so bound by their traditional roles. Their lives seemed to be expressions of tradition and history. She wondered who they were as individuals, or whether they even thought of themselves that way.
Outwardly little had changed in the village for probably centuries. Many of the small adobe houses were whitewashed now instead of the natural mud color. And some of the new houses were even being built with concrete blocks instead of adobe. Most had corrugated tin roofs instead of thatch.
Electricity had come to the village a few years ago and now many villagers had radios and some even had televisions. But these changes seemed as superficial as the dust which settled on every horizontal surface.
Most of the men and all of the women still wore their traditional clothing; the women wore a knee-length, red-striped blouse, called a huipile, under a long blue skirt. Then men wore a similar red-striped shirt under a brown-checked, knee-length wool skirt.
To the Weaver this seemed to reflect an inner lack of individuality, but she wondered …. Was there more than she was seeing?
An exception was the woman who was teaching her how to weave on the backstrap loom. She was defined by her culture and lived within it, but she had a strength of personality that transcended her traditional role. The Weaver sensed an inner spirit within her teacher which set her apart from the other village women the Weaver had met. She felt a growing admiration for her, and a deepening friendship.
But there was something else, too, something that both the Weaver and the Teacher had felt from the beginning. It was a bond that seemed to bridge the gap between their two cultures, a gap that was centuries wide, between the modern world from whence came the weaver, and the teachers village, where time had brought few changes. There was a feeling of familiarity that both the Weaver and the Teacher felt, but neither had the words to express.
The Teacher was a patient woman, skilled not only in weaving but in sharing the ancient knowledge. Her movements, sure and certain, communicated clearly what often words could not.
At first the Teacher came every day; after she taught the Weaver the beginning steps the two worked side by side, the Weaver watching the Teacher’s motions, absorbing the natural movements of body, arms, hands and fingers.
The Weaver learned quickly and the Teacher began coming less and less, and now came only a time or two each day, partly to look at the Weaver’s progress, but also just to talk and spend time together. Each marveled to herself how comfortable it felt to be around the other, and accepted the feeling without comment.
The sun reflected against the whitewashed adobe wall behind the Weaver and illuminated her weaving. From out over the lake she heard a clear, piercing cry that penetrated the noise of the village. She looked up and saw the hawk-like bird that seemed to come every day at this time, circling and soaring in front of the village. It was golden-black, and huge.
She liked watching the bird. There was something about the ease and elegance with which it moved that made her feel free and hopeful. She watched as it effortlessly sailed high above the village and the lake.
Afternoons were the Weaver’s favorite time of day. She could look at what she had woven earlier and compare the day’s work to that of previous days. Gradually, she saw, she was improving; the edges of her weaving were straighter, the texture of her material more even.
On recent afternoons, as her hands became more confidant her mind had begun drifting.
The weaving was becoming almost meditative for her. She was beginning to think of the piece she was working on as a metaphor for something; she wasn’t quite sure what.
The threads of the warp stretched out in front of her, straight and even, reminded her of the days ahead. The warp was perfect in its potential. The quality of the material it would become depended on how skillfully she cross-wove the weft.
Her weaving reminded her of the past too. She kept the finished material rolled up on the stick attached to the front of her waist to keep the part of the warp she was working on within arm’s reach. But sometimes she would stop weaving and unroll the material. She could see nubs here and there and remember when a thread had broken and she had knotted it back together. She could see the spot where one day a small black-brown feather had floated down on the breeze and had gotten trapped by the weft as she wove. She had decided to leave it there. And she could see her steady improvement in the weaving technique from the day she started up to now.
Maybe that is what weaving is, the thought, a timeline; the future becoming the past with each passage of the weft.
She wondered about the women represented by each piece in this woven timeline; what would each tell about the weaver? Who were these women? What were their lives like? And what did they think about when they were weaving?
The Weaver heard the call of the hawk-like bird, and as it passed between her and the sun its shadow streaked across her weaving. The call seemed to echo against the distant volcano. For an instant, almost as quickly as the shadow of the hawk-like bird had passed over, she felt odd-—like something within her had changed. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to identify the source of the feeling, then opened them and returned to her weaving.
As she began to work again she looked at her hands and arms and saw that the days in the sun had darkened them. They looked brown and dusty.
The days had brought other changes too, some she seemed to notice now for the first time. She had gradually grown accustomed to the noise and bustle of the village and she wasn’t as bothered by it as she was at first, but now things started to seem unusually quiet.
She had the odd sense that there were fewer people in the adobe houses around her, that the village itself had grown smaller. She couldn’t quite focus on what it was that seemed different to her. She felt that she was different too, somehow. She had a fleeting, odd sensation that her world was fading away in the distance.
She looked over at her own small house, at the mud-colored walls and thatched roof. A child played near the doorway. That’s different too, she thought— but then wasn’t sure.
The call of the hawk-like bird floated through the air to her again and she returned to her weaving, content that everything was as it had always been in her village, from the time of her ancestors.
The setting sun reminded her it would soon be time to begin preparing the evening meal. She always felt reluctant to leave her weaving, but she enjoyed cooking and making tortillas too. She liked the smell of the wood smoke which enveloped her as she worked near the cooking fire.
She could remember learning how to make tortillas as a child at her mothers side–dip hands in water, scoop up a small handful of moist masa flour, pat the dough in the palm of each hand, back and forth, back and forth, turning it a little each time until it formed a round, flat tortilla. Then cook it over the fire on the hot, lime-covered clay cooking slab.
She had made so many tortillas now she could do it without thinking. But she smiled when she remembered her first childish attempts.
Soon it would be time to begin teaching her own daughter how to make tortillas, as mothers had done for countless generations. And shortly after she taught her daughter how to make tortillas she would begin teaching her how to weave. She hoped her daughter would enjoy weaving as much as she did.
She looked with satisfaction at the piece she was working on. It was as perfect as anything she had ever done. When finished it would be her new huipile, and she knew she would be proud of it.
She had only a few more days work to do on it. She liked the way the unwoven warp looked, the orderliness of it. The weft would add texture and permanence to the stripes of the warp, but the design of the material was pretty much determined from the beginning.
It was comforting in its predictability, just like her daily life. She knew her role, first as a young girl, then as a wife and mother. She had known this all her life and accepted it without question. It was the way for everyone in her village.
But still, sometimes she felt something deep within her, a part of her that didn’t belong to the routines and tradition of the village; something that was not wife, mother or woman; something that was just her. She had no words to describe the feeling; it was a sense of herself which was apart from all the things she did every day of her life.
A shadow passed across her weaving. She paused and looked up, up past where the threads of her warp stretched out in front of her, into the sky where she saw the golden-black hawk-like bird. She watched as it soared and circled high above the village.
She watched it nearly every afternoon, but until now, this minute, she hadn’t realized how much it reminded her of that part deep within her. Maybe it was the freedom and beauty with which it soared, every movement perfect. Maybe it was its self-sufficient solitude, or maybe it was just the wildness of it.
She looked back down at her weaving, and in an instant she knew that she must find a way of weaving the bird into her new huipile. With a certainty and a growing excitement she realized that adding the new design to the old would be a way of expressing how she felt about her life.
The stripes of the traditional design were like the orderliness and predictability of her life, from birth to death, and the perfection she tried to achieve in her tasks and roles. But into the straight lines of the warp she would weave the figure of the hawk-like bird, which would remind her of that part of herself which soared above everything else, free.
The weaving style of her village was simple, without designs except for the stripes of the warp. As far as she knew no one had ever tried to weave another design into the material. She wasn’t sure how it could be done, but there must be a way, she thought.
Another thing she was unsure of was what the people of her village would think of adding something new to the traditional design. It had been the way it was for longer than anyone could remember, without even the smallest change. For the villagers tradition represented strength and stability. But maybe, she hoped, there were those who felt something within themselves as she did, who would understand the meaning of the hawk design.
She unhooked the strap that wrapped around behind, stood up and rolled up her weaving. She heard the piercing call of the hawk-like bird, and smiled to herself as it circled away, growing smaller and smaller.
She could smell the beans cooking and could hear her older sister making tortillas. Her daughter was playing outside the adobe cooking room. She tucked the weaving under her arm and walked over and took her daughter by the hand. It’s time she started learning, she thought. Late that night, after cooking the evening meal and feeding her husband and daughter, and after she and her sister had eaten and cleaned the cooking pots, and put corn and beans in pots of water to soak for tomorrow’s meals, she lay awake on her thatched sleeping mat, thinking about the hawk-like bird. Was there a way of weaving it into her new huipile?
And still later, in the early hours of the morning, after she had slept, she half awoke and realized she knew how to do it. I will weave it, she thought. And when my daughter is old enough I will teach her how to weave it.
She smiled to herself and drifted back to sleep.
The Weaver awoke to the early morning sounds of the village. She heard the pat, pat, pat of women making tortillas, accompanied by music coming from a radio.
She felt an unusual eagerness to return to her weaving. There was something different she was going to do today. Then she remembered; she was going to weave the hawk design.
She remembered dreaming about it last night. The dream had seemed so real she could almost see how to make the design. She had been thinking for several days how the traditional design of the village seemed static. Every huipile was the same; but what about the women who wore them?
Her teacher certainly wasn’t static. She was so full of life and had a spirit that made it impossible to think of her as a faceless figure simply fulfilling her traditional role. Were there others like her?
The Weaver wanted to surprise her teacher with the hawk design. In fact, she thought to herself, she might even surprise herself since she had never woven such a design before. But she felt certain that she knew how it could be done.
She bathed and ate breakfast quickly and set up her loom out in the hard-packed dirt yard. She began weaving rapidly with sure, confidant movements. The edges of her weaving were perfectly straight, the texture of the material smooth and even.
As she progressed the black-brown form of the hawk-like bird began to take shape. Its wings stretched out over the underlying stripes of the material and seemed to float above them.
Early in the afternoon, as she finished the design, she paused to inspect her work which seemed to have taken on a life of its own. She turned over the fabric, looked at the backside and saw that the figure of the hawk was as perfect in every detail as on the front.
There was something about it that connected with something deep within her. It gave her the same feeling she got when she watched the hawk-like bird souring out over the lake in front of the village.
She became aware of her teacher standing behind her. She looked back and smiled at her, then noticed the look on her teachers face. It was a look of surprise, but more.
“Who…?” the Teacher started to ask. “How did you know how to do this?”
“I’m not sure,” the Weaver admitted. I dreamed about it last night and today I knew how to weave it.” It seemed like an inadequate explanation even to her.
“I must show you something,” her teacher said. “Come with me.”
Together they walked down to the Teacher’s adobe house nearby. Outside in the yard clothes were drying on the line. The Teacher reached up and took down one of her own huipiles. She turned it inside out and there, visible only on the inside, was the hawk design, identical in every detail to the one the weaver had just woven into her material.
It was the Weaver’s turn to be surprised and she looked wordlessly to the Teacher for an explanation.
The Teacher paused, then began: “This design has been passed down through the women of my family from a time farther back than anyone can remember. We are the only ones that know how to do it, or that it even exists.”
“Do you know where it started?” asked the Weaver, wondering how she fit into this story.
“Along with the design,” the Teacher replied, “we learn the legend of the one we know of only as the “Hawk Woman.” Like all legends parts of it may be true, other parts maybe not. But the story we learn is that after the Hawk Woman wove this design for the first time the people of the village, this village, saw what she had done. They didn’t understand why she had changed the traditional design, or even how. They were angry with her, and maybe afraid of her too.
“She was driven out of the village. She may have died, or was killed. It’s possible that she went to live in one of the caves up on the mountain.” The Teacher pointed to the dark holes in the steep mountainside behind the village. “In any case she was never seen again.”
“What happened to the weaving she had made?” asked the Weaver.
“The Hawk Woman had a sister and a daughter,” the Teacher said. “The sister hid the weaving and told the people it had been destroyed. She raised the Hawk Woman’s daughter, taught her how to make tortillas and how to weave. And when the girl was old enough she gave her the weaving and told her about her mother.
“The sister did not know how to make the design so she couldn’t teach the daughter how to do it. But the legend says that the Hawk Woman came to her daughter one night in a dream and taught her not only how to do the design, but how to weave it on the inside of a piece of material so it wouldn’t show on the outside.”
“The way yours is woven,” the Weaver said.
“Yes, and as I said, to this day only the women of my family, descendants of the Hawk Woman, know this design exists, or how to weave a design the way we do.”
The Weaver didn’t know what to say. She walked to the edge of the yard and looked out over the lake where she could see a soaring, circling speck.
“There is one more part of the legend,” the Teacher continued, walking over to where the Weaver stood. It is said that when the people are ready to accept what the hawk represented to the Hawk Woman, and to us, her descendants, she will appear in a dream and teach the design to someone new. But she will teach the weaver how to weave the design so it will appear the same on both the inside and the outside of the material.”
Off in the distance the circling speck grew larger and larger. The clear, piercing call of the hawk-like bird floated through the air to where the two women were standing side by side.
copyright©1998-2012 Jim McCluskey