The Origin of Silk

By Damiano Austin


Silkworms are sensitive to heat, cold, food arriving forty-five minutes late, wind blowing dust from graveyards, vibrations from orgasms, dreams of the dead, women desiring men who are not their husbands, girls’ first menstruation, women smelling of fucking, men fearing they are nothing.

I may have made some of this up.


Gulnara’s daughter-in-law serves us green tea in the china cups Gulnara only uses when she entertains guests. I raise the almost transparent cup, patterned with blowzy red roses like cabbages. My hand shakes.

It is not unusual here, Gulnara says. There’s a saying. And she pauses as she translates from Karakalpak to Russian. “Every good marriage begins in tears.” Gulnara nods. I myself was bride-kidnapped.

Aiporshir, her daughter-in-law, will not meet my eyes.

Gulnara says, In my mother’s day, it was by horse. Now, by Lada. But you are a foreigner. Nursultan should not be seeking you.

My cup clatters into the saucer. Gulnara assesses me. Perhaps you need vodka, not tea.


The silkworms are in the rooms around mine; Gulnara and her family sleep in the shed or in the garden to accommodate the silkworms as they grow. They are voracious. They live only to consume. They want, they want, they want. They grow exponentially. The mulberry trees are bare for miles around the village.

The house smells of earth, of mulch, of buried memories.


When the silkworms doubled in size, I went with Aiporshir and her friends to collect mulberry leaves for the silkworms, taking notes in my journal as the women stripped the branches. We walked back to the village, carrying bundles of branches on our backs, knives, and axes. Aiporshir’s friends giggled, but she indulged me and gave me a small bundle, half the size of theirs; sweat soaked my shirt. Nursultan pulled up in a Chinese pickup truck, bumper tied on with rope, the engine rattling. He was one of the women’s brothers; they piled into the back and left me the front seat, next to Nursultan. His long hair streamed over broad shoulders. Twenty-five percent of the men in Central Asia have the genes of Genghis Khan. He wanted to practice his English, although I could have spoken Russian with him. I told him I was writing a book on silkworm farming, wove stories about the industrial clean-rooms in China and the organic Amish farm in Pennsylvania. Here, the government hands a household a box of newly-hatched silkworms, expects a delivery of cocoons. He wanted to know the salaries in China and the U.S., shook his head when I told him. He said, Last year, we were paid in crates of vodka.

I noted this for my research.

Gulnara says now, her tea steaming, delicately holding the plated-gold handle, You know what they think of American women. What do they think of American women? I want to ask her. But I don’t.

I am older than her silent daughter-in-law; I do not have a child on my hip; I do not wear a wedding ring. In the room Gulnara rents me, my backpack is already packed with the journals full of research notes and transcripts of interviews with the villagers, all with fake names so the government can’t arrest them for speaking about forced labor to fulfill quotas. Packed up everything, except the canister of pepper spray I couldn’t find.


Thousands of silkworms chewing sounds like rain falling. It never stops. In the desert, I dream of monsoons.


I couldn’t sleep, the greed of the silkworms was so loud. Aiporshir slipped into my room, sat on my mattress. I want to tell you, she said. I’ve heard that Nursultan is planning to bride-kidnap you.

That doesn’t happen anymore.

Her eyes closed; her scarf fell from her head. I was going to university. My husband took me as I walked from the bus. Gulnara locked me into this room and then let him in. I had no choice. My family would not have me back. She curled against me; I spread the patchwork quilt over us. The silkworms chewed and chewed. They did not concern themselves with two women.


On the trestles, the silkworm undulate on the mulberry branches. Like a lake endlessly rippling. They eat everything but the veins of the leaves; they transform each leaf into a skeleton. They seethe. They are a tsunami. Until they stop eating and turn translucent. Then they weave silk thread between dried branches, knit cocoons to trap themselves. The trestles are quiet, covered with webs, balls of what looks like cotton. In each cocoon, a pupa rattles.

Even if they were permitted to hatch, they’ve lost the ability to fly.


At first, after Aiporshir told me of Nursultan’s plan, I did what any American would do: I called the embassy in Tashkent. The low-level diplomat there laughed. He said, Bride-kidnapping has been illegal for decades.

So I called Tamerlan. I met him my first day in Uzbekistan, in front of the Ministry of Agriculture. He listened to me practice my presentation to the Deputy Minister of Sericulture. I wanted to study silk production. I thought I wanted Tam to peel off my clothes like the husk on an ear of corn; I thought he wanted me. But he said, The Minister will show you only what they want you to see. I know someone. Gulnara’s son. When I said, Isn’t it illegal for me to stay in someone’s house? Tam shrugged, I’ll work it out. When the tour group he leads is near, he gets a ride to this village, brings me British biscuits and Lipton tea from the expat grocery stores in Tashkent.

Where are you, I asked.

Khiva. I have some tea for you.

He was not far away. I told him everything. Come get me.

He paused, static on the phone. You’ll pay for the taxi and my time, right?


The legend: the Chinese kept the secret of silk production for thousands of years. The rest of the world thought that silk thread was from a plant, the webs of huge nightmare spiders, the fine hair of a mountain-climbing yak, mined in dark caves teeming with many-eyed creatures and guano, or spun by a virgin. But then a princess, betrothed to a man she’d never met and travelling west on the Silk Road to marry him, hid cocoons in her elaborate chignon. She could live with a barbarian on the steppes, as long as she had silk to caress her skin. She bore child after child for her barbarian king, listening to the steady crunch of the silkworms eating and imagining water running across the barren land.

I may have made some of this up.


Gulnara sips her tea. This drama I’ve made is so good that she has missed the start of the Mexican telenovela so popular here. She asks, Do you trust this man, this Tamerlan, trust him to save you?

Gulnara and her daughter-in-law were never saved.

I put my cup down. I don’t know. I trust Tam to bring me what I pay him for, do what I pay him for. What if someone has made a higher bid?


Bombyx mori. The genus and species for the domesticated silkworm. I think of memento mori, all those Victorians clutching photos of the dead, jewelry made of a dead person’s hair and shining jet.

Mori. The present infinitive of the verb morior, to die, decay, wither.

The silk thread is a momento mori. In order for us to wear the ikat scarves in bright colors, the jewel-colored dresses, the shirts with bows for lawyers, the slippery bathrobe your lover unwraps like he’s been given a gift, the silkworm must die. Boiled in its cocoon before the thread can be unspooled.


A car stops in front of Gulnara’s walled courtyard; I smell exhaust. Tam opens the front door. His dark hair is slicked back. The silkworms chew, louder and louder, as if a torrent spills down; I remember a storm in China, the wind whipping and the rain plummeting so hard on the asphalt road that the water ran sheer across it like a flood. Time to go. Tam is curt. He looks behind him. He picks up my backpack and throws it easily on his back although it’s over the weight cutoff for the airlines. Gulnara hugs me, and I bow to her, right hand on my heart. Aiporshir slips something in my hand, closes my palm around it. It’s the pepper spray and I wonder where she found it.

A horse’s hooves clop on the road. Or more likely a donkey, hauling a cart piled with white mulberry leaves. A car idling in front of the gate. Or is it two vehicles, idling at different tempos? The cottonwood leaves catch reflections and flicker. I grip the pepper spray. What has come for me, the horse or the Lada, or freedom?

I step into the blinding light of the courtyard.

By Lori Sambol Brody