Dry, brown mountains directly ahead. The highway cutting through fields. Row upon row of agave plants like a parade of blue-green swords under the hot Mexican sky. I asked the taxi driver if the agave were to make tequila but I didn’t understand his answer. After a pause he said that he worked on an agave farm. Not this one, another one. I wondered if he drove taxi to supplement his income. Since we’d left the city, he drove with the car tilted on the shoulder, letting the other cars speed past. When I asked why he wasn’t on the road, he said the other drivers were loco.
I had met Nita only once, a year ago in Montreal. A short woman with black hair gathered in a clip, a broad, round face. She called Oaxaca, where she came from, the Land of Clouds. Her grandmother had always kept birds and she did too. They were her Lovelies.
At first I thought Lovelies were a type of bird, but as she kept talking I realized it was a pet name for all her birds. Her English was good if unusual. She said she missed waking to birdsong in the morning. Fresh mountain air and clouds. Her expression was sad as she looked out the café window at the frozen slush of Montreal.
This isn’t the best time of year to see Canada, I said.
A dimple creased her cheek. The museum didn’t think of that, she said.
My friend Daphne, who works at the Centre de Conservation in Quebec City, had told me about the three-hundred-year-old fragment of plumed weaving that was being prepared for exhibit in Montreal. A Mexican artist had been invited to create a piece to demonstrate what the original might have looked like. The two pieces would be displayed side by side.
I am a textile conservator. I’m responsible for the analysis, research, care, and preservation of historical textiles. They’re woven from cotton, linen, wool, silk, hemp—any variety of hair, wool, or fibre. My artefacts are fragile, my tools delicate. But weaving with feathers? Was that even possible?
When Daphne told me she was bringing the Mexican artist to Montreal to visit the museum where her work would hang, I asked to meet her.
The three of us had lunch together. Nita explained that tlàmachtentli—weaving with feathers—was believed to be a lost art until a Swiss photographer and ethnographer discovered a fragment in a Mexican flea market in the 1980s. To date only six pieces, all Mexican, had been found, making the artefact in Quebec City the seventh. Unlike cloth decorated with feathers that were hooked into cloth that had already been woven, tlàmachtentli was woven with cotton that had been twisted with goose down. A small group of Mexican artists, like herself, had learned the technique and were using feathers from around the world to create art that bridged contemporary aesthetic, this ancient artisanal skill, and many lands. As she described her work, she delicately rubbed her thumb across the tips of her fingers.
I assumed she would be returning to Montreal to see the tlàmachtentli she was making for the museum, but she shook her head. She didn’t explain why. But maybe, she said, you will come to Oaxaca one day.
A year passed. It was winter again. From my kitchen window I saw sparrows perched along the fence. They were fluffed against the cold, waiting. The neighbour who gave them seeds was on vacation.
I upended the tray from the toaster oven on the back steps and watched them flit across to peck. I tried to think of them as Lovelies but they were so humdrum and brown.
Was it odd to recall the wistful expression on a woman’s face when she spoke of her work? To yearn to see how feathers were woven into gossamer? To hear someone say, the Land of Clouds, and want to set out like Gulliver?
What would Gulliver have made of his fabled lands had he approached by plane? Flight attendants hurried pell-mell to serve snacks and juice on the short flight from Mexico City. We were already descending, though we were still over flat land, the mountains so far away that they were decorative edges at best.
Mountain air? Clouds? Oaxaca was a city!
The van from the airport crept through rush-hour traffic past crowded, grimy buildings. No one sat in the dimly lit eating places that were too stark and mean to be called restaurants. Another passenger told the driver where to turn to drop him off. On the sidewalk stood a table with a dozen upright plastic hands, their fingers beckoning. For manicure?
The van continued to nose along streets that were ever more crowded with cars and people. Lights were brighter here. A different wave of music pounded from each shop. Along the curb, hidden among the legs of passersby, sat women with heaps at their feet. One had her head lifted, calling. Another took up the cry, then another. Empanadas! Empanadas!
Such a thumping caterwaul of screaming, bodies, bright lights, noise—so different from what I’d expected. I felt cowed. Appalled. I hadn’t let Nita know I was coming because I hadn’t wanted her to feel obliged to host me. Now I doubted I would have been able to conceal my shock.
I didn’t realize the van had stopped until the driver tapped me on the shoulder from the open hatch. Where? Dónde? Here? I scrambled out. The driver had already slammed his door, leaving my suitcase on the sidewalk. I grabbed it and stared wildly into the commotion and racket before recognizing the bubble-gum pink entrance of the hotel I’d booked online.
Why had none of the reviews said the hotel was at the full-decibel hub of the city? I asked the woman at the desk if the rooms were quiet. Sí, she said as if bored by ridiculous white-people questions. But the inner courtyard was quiet and my room was a haven of blue walls, dark wood, white linen.
I wanted to burrow under the blanket and hide my head, but I was hungry—and here I was. I washed my face and put on lipstick.
The woman at the desk directed me to the zócalo where I would find restaurants. I winced, stepping into the assault of noise and bodies. A boy sitting on the ground waggled carved spoons above his head. How did he not get trampled? A man at a cart was slathering cobs of corn with mayonnaise and handing them across to people who waited. The sidewalk wasn’t wide enough for all the shouting, eating, barrelling in and out of the stores, and gawping, one man even pushing a motorcycle. Empanadas! Empanadas!
The main square was busy too, but there were trees and wrought-iron benches and people walked more slowly. It was mild enough to sit outside with only a sweater. After the second glass of wine and a few bites of excellent chiles rellenos, I conceded that it was lovely simply to have escaped winter.
I woke to the sound of a bucket being rolled across cobbles. Breakfast was served in the courtyard which was open to a deep blue, sun-infused sky. Water plashed in a fountain where calla lilies leaned their coiffed heads against the carved rim. Through a swinging door I saw the women who sliced melon and papaya, cooked the eggs and tortillas, wiped their hands on their aprons to carry out the dishes.
I would still try to see Nita but first needed to rethink how and what I would say. In the street the cries had already started up. Empanadas! Empanadas! Buckets of soapy water were flung across doorsteps. Street vendors were unfolding metal cages where they hung babies’ clothes, sweat socks, sunglasses, and baseball caps from boxes they must have to pack again each night. They couldn’t afford a shop but they could afford a cage. Those who couldn’t afford a cage spread their wares on the sidewalk, their territory defined by a blanket.
In the zócalo men sat reading newspapers. A dog lay sprawled across the cobbles, trusting that no one would step on her. A man approached me with a shawl held wide but backed away with no argument when I shook my head. A woman carried a tray of white marshmallows, rolled in coloured sprinkles and stuck with toothpicks. People gave her a coin and took a treat. Marshmallows on the go.
From the plane the mountains had seemed far away but now I could see how they rose at the end of the long streets. The bright light flattened them into cutout shapes stoppering the distance. Streets were lined with stucco housefronts painted tangerine, rose, mint, cobalt, violet, yellow. The colours, even brilliant, were dry. The air was dry.
A man was hanging carpets against a stone wall. In the shade, yes, good. Sun ruined dye and fibre. But I didn’t stop to look. What I hoped to take home with me was a huipil like the ones Frida Kahlo had worn. A hip-length, squarish tunic without sleeves, hand-embroidered on dark velvet. I would ask Nita where to get one.
My friend Daphne brought Nita to my lab where I was working. I was repairing a dress, circa 1890, but couldn’t show her much since I’d turned it inside-out to work on the thin silk lining of the bodice. The silk was so brittle that the edges were flaking and I didn’t want to manipulate it more than was necessary. Gently, though, I unrolled the bottom of the dress so she could see the skirt.
The taffeta had once been crisp and lustrous, but it had been crushed in storage. I’ll try to flatten it with steam, I said, but I probably won’t be able to get the creases out—not if they’ve been there for decades already. Cloth has memory.
Nita repeated the words slowly. Cloth has memory. And after a pause, Feathers too. I can feel it when I’m handling them. They still— She broke off, eyes narrowing. What’s that?
On Tom’s table, next to mine, sat what looked like a battered wasp’s nest. When we’d first received it, it was a papery crumple, identifiable only from its ring of short claws. Tom had set in a humidifying box with a dish of water and alcohol until the thin leather became delicately workable again. Now it was filled with sand to help it regain its original pouch shape.
It’s for carrying sewing supplies, I said. Needles, sinew, and beads. It’s made from the leather of a swan’s foot, which is webbed, right? I held up my hand, fingers spread. So the leather is all one piece, drawn together at the mouth. I joined my fingertips to mimic the pouch. And do you see how the claws are still intact? A circle of five hooked spikes. We’ve got some made from goose feet too.
Who makes them? she asked.
You would have to talk to Tom, but I think it’s the Dene Peoples from the Northwest Territories.
Nita bent close, peering—or as if she might smell it. I was about to tell her not to touch but I think she knew. Softly she said, We always honour birds.
Did she mean her group of artists or Indigenous people? I wondered but didn’t ask.
Straightening, she turned back to my table, considering the bundled folds of the dress, the curved ophthalmic surgery needles I used for sewing, the thin entomology pins. You’re keeping the past alive, she said.
So are you, I said. Learning this centuries-old technique to make new art.
We both smiled. In recognition? Acknowledgement?
The moment was broken by Daphne who had been chatting with a colleague. She asked if we were ready to go for lunch.
Over bowls of chowder Nita talked about the Land of Clouds, the mountains where she lived, her birds which she called Lovelies. I had been to Mexico City but never farther south. I didn’t know how serious she was about suggesting I visit.
My long meander through the cobbled streets brought me to a park where trees arched a tender canopy of greenery, though the flowerbeds were bare and the fountain dry. It was winter here too, a time of dormancy. At the other end of the bench where I sat, a woman peered at her phone, a Chihuahua in a hand-knit jacket on her lap. The jacket had a rolled collar with a fancy picot edge, but the woman herself wore jeans and house slippers. Two kids in school uniform scuffed past, looking glum and hormonal. A small boy pulled his grandfather by the hand to a cart where a man had a small block of ice. With a knife the size of a cutlass he grated shavings he slid into a cup, then added a squirt of red syrup. A man hailed a woman rolling a metal shopping cart stacked with wicker baskets and buckets. She squatted to unload her supplies onto a nearby bench, prattling happily. Her tamales were good, oh yes, they were the best. That was why people bought her tamales. They were maravillosos! A young woman stopped to ask for one too.
Oaxaca wasn’t what I’d expected but it was charming me with its warmth and colours, its people. The woman grinned when she saw me walking across to her. Piquante? she asked. Sí, but no meat. She wrapped paper towel around a husk that enclosed a warm cornmeal cocoon of fried vegetables. She was right, her tamales were maravillosos.
In Montreal I had access to the museum outside of visiting hours. I returned many times to stand before the three-hundred-year-old fragment of tlàmachtentli and the larger piece Nita had created. The night after I first saw them, I dreamt I was weaving a cobweb of cloud out of goose down. The down was infused with light, the play of warp and weft iridescent. I’d never had a dream like that. Before taking a degree in conservation, I studied chemistry. I’m skilled with my hands, but I know I’m not an artist. I only had the dream once, yet the sensation of twisting weightless down with my fingers stayed with me.
Nita had given me her address and I sent her a card. I wrote that the delicacy of her piece was its power. I didn’t tell her that I’d had a dream of weaving feathers myself. Three months later I received a card of thanks from her. On the front of the card was a close-up photo of a row of catch stitch along an edge of linen. A catch stitch was how I’d repaired the hem of the dress I’d shown her. I remembered her saying it in Spanish, punto escapulario.
The textile museum in Oaxaca was a squat building in stone, but the courtyard was bright with archways, the terracotta walls patterned to look like openwork weaving. Nita had told me she had work on display here, and I walked from room to room, looking at the names. The museum was small and there weren’t many pieces. Only two were tlàmachtentli. One had a jute warp strung to hang unwoven except for a delicate tracery of down-cotton. The second piece was a smooth, red ground striped with woven tufts shaped like snails.
Neither was by Nita though. I returned to the entrance since the guard was the only official-looking person I’d seen so far, but it was the man speaking with him who answered me. Nita’s work had been exhibited and would be exhibited again, they hoped, but not at the moment. The guard nodded gravely, as if he personally curated what was on display.
Now it was almost dusk, the silhouettes of the trees black against a pinkish sky. I was sitting in a square, trying to decide what to do. Not directly across from me, but well in sight, was Nita’s address. It must be wrong, though, because it was a bicycle shop. Double doors stood open on rows of bicycles hung from the wall. No lights were on inside the shop, but the radiating spokes of the wheels gleamed, reflecting the light from outside. Above the open doors was a small balcony thick with a jungle of fronds. A man, coasting across the cobbles on a bike, swung himself off, and rolled it to the entrance of the shop where he and the man who’d stepped out began talking. They gestured at the back wheel, the man from the shop stooping to examine it.
It had been a year since I’d copied the address into my phone, but I could still visualize the purple ink on the café bill where Nita had written it. There were no tricky sevens that could be misread as ones. Maybe the eight was supposed to have been a three? There was no such number on this street. Nita hadn’t been at the museum, and now I couldn’t even knock on her door if I didn’t have the right address.
When the man finally walked away, leaving his bike, I decided to ask the shop owner if he knew where Nita lived. He was probably in his late thirties with close-cut black hair and a round, yet lean face, weathered as if from long bicycle trips. He’d already upended the bike and had a wrench in hand.
He glanced past me—looking for my bike?—then at me. Hola!
I explained that I was from Canada and was hoping to find someone I’d met there who was from Oaxaca but I must have the—
Juanita, he said.
My wife. She is not here now.
But this is a bicycle shop.
That’s the idea. He had a nice smile. We live upstairs.
Why hadn’t I thought the small balcony with its wealth of plants could be Nita’s? Why had I been so literal about the street address? Half-embarrassed, I took a step backwards. I just, I thought maybe, since I was in Oaxaca and I was passing—
Who are you from Canada? She told me about the people she worked with.
She only met me once—when she came to Montreal.
You showed her the swan’s foot sewing bag.
His enthusiasm surprised me. Also that she’d spoken of me so specifically. I could feel myself blushing.
His face sober again, he said Nita was in the Sierre Norte mountains with her father who was dying.
The trip was only supposed to be an hour and a half, but the taxi driver was so cautious about driving on the highway, and once we began to climb, he kept stopping. I thought he meant for me to look at the vista across the valley, and when he slowed to stop again, I told him to continue. He still pulled over. He tapped his head and pointed at mine. La altitud, he said.
Indeed, though we hadn’t driven even fifty kilometers, we’d crossed from one climate zone to another as we ascended. Dry scrub had become leafy bushes and then trees, until we were in a pine forest, though there were still cacti. Prickly pear and agave and other kinds I couldn’t name.
Nita’s husband, Eric, had said I was lucky. Cuajimoloyas, the village where Nita’s parents lived, belonged to an eco-tourist initiative so there were cabins where I could stay. He’d offered to make arrangements for me, closing the bike shop and inviting me upstairs. As I followed him through the inner courtyard, I wondered at the low chitters of melody I heard. Behind the grille that extended the length of the courtyard were small trees and plants, and among the shadows and branches, birds were softly muttering as they settled for the night. I recalled Nita telling me how she missed waking to birdsong.
The taxi was slowing again and the driver pointed ahead. I saw structures through the trees, but after Oaxaca, with its wide cobbled streets and stucco buildings, the village looked ramshackle and scattered. Dwellings seemed patched together rather than built. Planks, cement, bricks, cinder blocks. Dusty laneways and crooked fences.
Eric had said I wouldn’t easily find Nita’s house since there were no street signs, no cell phone reception, and her parents didn’t have a landline. He’d asked the people at the eco-tourist office to tell her that her friend from Montreal was coming. I wouldn’t have agreed to the plan if he hadn’t so confidently kept calling me her friend. Don’t sit around in the cabin waiting for Nita, he said. She’ll find you, don’t worry. Old-style social networking.
The cabins were on the highest ridge, overlooking the village. When the man from the office drove me up, he pointed out where I could get meals. The cabin, itself, was rustic yet handsome with a fireplace built into the whitewashed wall. He said he would return at sunset to make a fire. I said he didn’t need to but he insisted, either not understanding or not wanting to.
I stood on the doorstep as he drove off. His car, crossing the village, was the only mechanical sound. Once he shut it off, all was quiet. I saw no movement among the hodgepodge cluster of buildings below. Some of the flat metal roofs were spread with corncobs. The silence felt like a held breath. I was so high up that I could see past the slopes to a farther range of mountains, and behind that another and another and another. The landscape was folded like geological drapery solidified millions of years earlier. From across that distance of space and time I felt a light breeze on my face and neck. It stirred the branches of the pines behind the cabin, and looking up I saw how the trees, so straight and tall, seemed to touch the clouds. I stared until my neck ached.
People wouldn’t know to tell Nita I was there unless I made myself visible. I decided to walk down to the village. A goat chewing scruffy weeds eyed me. The stubbled ground was clumped with rock, and here and there flowers, tiny but vivid as tangerines. A woman carrying a heavy bucket across a yard glanced at me. I called, Buenas tardes! and she responded promptly but kept trudging with her load.
I walked along what seemed to be the main street. I could hear children’s voices in unison. I assumed a Pepsi sign signalled a store—and there were shelves, only they weren’t lit. Peering along them, I saw packages of cookies and chips. I didn’t normally snack, but what if Nita came to my cabin? I took two bottles of beer and a bag of crisped tortillas. At the cash a woman materialized from the shadows. I asked what was in the small barrel with a spigot propped on the counter. Mescal. She nodded at the plastic cups. Gracias, no.
The few people who’d seen me so far hadn’t reacted. Did they know I was the stranger who wanted to find Nita?
The tables in the restaurant were empty, but the young woman scraping vegetables at the counter waved for me to come to the stove, which was a brick block with an opening where embers glowed. One by one she lifted the lids of blue enamelled pots. Except for nopales—cactus—I didn’t understand the words she used, though I visually recognized stuffed peppers and potatoes.
She gestured for me to sit as she prepared a plate. From the overhead light in the middle of the ceiling an extension cord stretched to an electrical outlet in the wall. I couldn’t see a sink, though a tub larger than a sink sat on the counter. The woman had slipped out the back door and returned with a fistful of greenery she steeped to make a tea. I didn’t know what it was but it was delicious. As was the food.
I hadn’t heard footsteps behind me but a hand touched my shoulder. It is you!
Yes, I was— I could hardly say I was passing through. Nor did it seem that I had to explain. Nita was laughing. She looked younger. More at ease? Not shivering in a Montreal winter. Her dark hair was shorter, fringed around her face and cheeks. She called to the young woman who was already bringing her a cup.
When she left, I asked what language they’d been speaking.
Mixtec. Our language. She smiled so warmly—with her mouth and her eyes—that I couldn’t feel excluded. How long have you been in Oaxaca? she asked.
When I enquired after her father, she gave a little shrug. He’s been ill for a long time. It will be hard for my mother when he’s gone, but she has friends who are widows and they take care of each other. One of my nieces will come stay with her for a while too.
We had finished our tea and were walking through the village. She pointed out the primary and the secondary schools. The high school wasn’t large—there were only a hundred students—but having a high school meant that the kids didn’t have to be sent away to get an education. Do you know how important that is? she asked. My brothers had to leave. I did too.
I wondered if she meant leaving home, when she was still too young, or that white Spanish culture had been imposed on her. Maybe one day I would know her well enough to ask.
She led us up a steep laneway between houses and sheds. Everything was mismatched, made to make do—pieces of galvanized tin, odd lengths of board— yet neat. A shovel ancient as a museum exhibit leaned against a rock. Plastic jugs outside a door were filled with plants.
I was startled by an eruption of wavering chortles or barks that didn’t sound like an animal or a bird. Turkeys, Nita said.
People, crossing a yard or throwing scraps to chickens, called out a greeting and waited for Nita to introduce me. She didn’t always speak Spanish, but I made out the word Canada. I assumed that must seem far away and alien, but a man stooped over a cane asked how long I’d been on the plane to get there. His grandson worked in Japan and had to travel much farther to come home!
We had climbed the slope to the top and were walking along a path that was soft with needles from the towering, old-growth pines. Sheep grazed in a field with borders marked by bristly agave plants. Nita said that if people didn’t have their own land to farm, they worked in the mountains where there were fields of potatoes, corn, and cacti.
In the morning a truck comes to get them, brings them back again at night. They also knit and crochet. All those hats and bags you see in stores in the city. Every few pesos buys something. She patted the bag over her shoulder. It was brown with two turquoise stripes. I made this.
The bag was seamless with a curved bottom, the work neat and clearly crocheted by a skilled hand. But still, nothing special.
I heard squeaky pips in a tree and squinted into the branches. A flash of lemon and a black and white head. Nita said the name of the bird.
Do you weave its down? I asked.
It’s too small. The feathers could be used for decoration, but the down… She pinched her fingers together.
I hoped she would say more about weaving but she didn’t. She pointed out a shepherd’s hut down a rise. Every now and then she stooped to pluck leaves from the plants that grew along the path and dropped them in her bag.
Is that for tea? I asked.
To make a salve. It stops bleeding. This one— she fingered a broad leaf with a toothed edge—eases itching.
Anyone listening would think she was just another daughter of the village, collecting medicinal herbs, busy with a crochet hook.
A pale flag of cloth through the trees was a pair of woman’s drawstring bloomers swaying from a branch. Put a border of lace on those, I said, and they would look just like women’s underclothes I’ve prepared for museum exhibits.
Those are to keep coyotes away.
Before or after they’re worn?
She gave a short laugh. Good question.
Do women here still wear bloomers?
My grandmother did. My mother doesn’t. Again she crouched to a plant.
I’d kept trying to steer our talk toward her work or mine. I longed to know if she was still weaving with down. If we had both been conservators, I would simply have asked if she had any projects on the go. But she was an artist and that felt more private.
She glanced at the sky and said she should check on her parents.
Can I come? I asked.
If you want to. I told my mother about you.
Again, that note of warmth that made me feel welcome.
The house was pale blue stucco, the window frames and front door in varnished wood. The uniformity of design and construction alone made it stand it out.
Is this where you grew up? I asked.
This is the house my brothers and I had built for our parents. It’s not finished yet but it’s as far as we’ve gotten.
We walked around to the back where a goat was tethered. This is Graciela. Nita scratched her bony head. Don’t try to touch her. She doesn’t know you and she might—
More like taste you.
The floor inside was still concrete and there were no doors yet. The house was clean but cluttered with an assortment of worn furniture. Here and there, over a stool, covering a low bench, were woven blankets with a stylized horizontal pattern—the kind of work I’d seen for sale in Oaxaca. On the wall hung a length of simple linen weave with rows of tufted X’s that I recognized as tlàmachtentli. You made this? I asked.
My first finished project. I gave it to my mamá. She held out her arm to a woman who’d appeared in a doorframe and stepped into the embrace. Nita wasn’t tall but her mother only reached her armpit. She murmured a gracious welcome in Spanish and walked slowly but with sure feet from the room.
She’s going to make you weak, very sweet, milky coffee, Nita said. It’s disgusting but please drink it. I’m going to check on my papá. I’ll call you to come in a minute.
Her mother brought me a wide, flowered cup of milky coffee and a piece of yellow cornmeal cake. It was dry but I wasn’t sure if it would be impolite to dip it in the coffee. She gazed at me and smiled. I gestured at the basket of yarn and said that I knit too. Her smile didn’t change. I remembered that Nita had said everyone in the village knit.
Nita waved from the doorway for me to come. Her father, bald and with a shrunken mouth, lay with his eyes closed, tucked and neat on one side of the small double bed. Did that mean his wife still slept there too? I didn’t know if I could lie so close to death. He didn’t seem to be breathing or conscious. Nita caressed his head and murmured. Her mother had followed us and sat on the chair next to the bed. She spoke quietly to Nita, squeezed my hand, and we left.
The sun had dipped low to blaze across the valley. I wanted to stop and admire the light but Nita urged me on. The cabins where I was staying were built on the ridge so tourists could watch sunset from the top of the mountain.
The man from the eco-tourist office had started the fire, set two chairs to face the vista, and was watching us climb uphill. He bobbed his head at Nita. After he left, she told me that although he no doubt appreciated the tip I had given him, mostly he enjoyed prestige in the village for being able to hobnob with foreigners, since he spoke bits of English, French, Swedish, and German.
From up here, not only the valley but the distant mountain ranges were drenched with light. Below us, the tin roofs, the deadwood fences, the ramshackle sheds were gilt with brilliance. Even heaps of dry soil looked like unearthed nuggets of treasure. No wonder the long-ago conquistadors were bewitched by tales of golden cities.
I remembered the bottles of beer and tostadas in my knapsack and pulled them out. I expected a long sunset with an apricot sky fading through a spectrum of darkening mauves, but the sun dropped as if yanked down the suck of a drain. The peaks were still tipped with golden light, but the valleys between them were craters of dusk.
I’ve never seen the sun go down so fast, I said.
Because we’re close to the Equator.
Only a rim of coral edged the horizon. Against the indigo sky gleamed the moon—rising on its side like a broad U.
Your moon! I pointed.
Our moon smiles, she said.
How like her to see a smile, I thought. And how like me to see a letter of the alphabet.
Below us a dog barked once. From somewhere on the slope another answered.
We sat in the darkness with only the few lights of the village below, the crackle of the fire behind us, the moon and bristling pinpoints of stars above. I heard the tock of her bottle set on wood. And then her quiet voice, Being here is where my love of fibre is rooted.
I hesitated, then decided I could ask. I wondered if you’ve been doing new work.
Yeah… I’ve been waiting to get down from a Canada Goose for a new piece I’ve designed.
I was as pleased as if it were a personal compliment that Canada would figure in her art.
It’s taking a while because I have to go through the right channels. I don’t want someone murdering a goose.
Exactly. And after a pause, Do you remember the swan’s foot sewing bag in your lab? I have an idea for a piece that would incorporate down and leather and claws. I’ve been in contact with the Dene Peoples. They’ll help me but I don’t know how I’ll get the material. I might have to travel there and smuggle it back.
Maybe I can help? I’d spoken without thinking. For my work, we have to transport artefacts—
That would be great, she breathed. And then you’ll come to Oaxaca again!
I wasn’t sure what I was offering but I was ready.
Do you remember how you told me cloth had memory? That made me think because when I work with down and feathers, I can feel in my fingers how they still belong to the bird. I’m going to call this next piece, The Memory of Flight.
Every textile conservator knew that cloth had memory. You had to work with it. You couldn’t work against it. Nita was right, it was an interesting—a stimulating—a concept.
I can’t wait to see it, I said.
Cover photo courtesy of Mohit Tomar.