Threads of change – Morsel 2

The tea was nearly steeped.

Seya set down the mortar and pestle—grinding the last of the herbs for the recovering molts could wait. The worms needed their herbal infusion, but so did she. Seya was far enough along in life and career that when the steeping was done, everything else was put on hold.

Transforming a pot of hot water had the magical property of transforming all the water touched, somehow making its way to her very soul. She closed her eyes and savoured the first sip, bitter and hot, diffusing almost immediately to smooth and rejuvenating. This blend was particularly good; she would need to let Feirouz know his contacts in the itan district had done well. Though Seya hated tea when she was a child, mostly because her mother had favoured it, she tried now not to think on the lost years as she enjoyed her current cup.

Seya was sprawled across two cushions in her office, located in a cool dome below the rearing hall of the wormery. It was a chamber hollowed out of solid rock, and looked as though a single large scoop had somehow been taken from the surrounding area, but the smoothed stone and rippled surface gave testament to the true architect—an ancient river long since dried.

She let out a warm breath, watching it snake and slither to mist, disappearing along with the stress of her afternoon obligations. She could hear the soft footfalls from the rearing hall above, but they were a soothing background noise, barely in her consciousness. It was the perfect backdrop to the stillness and focus she required when assessing the health of the worms.

Her time was divided between inspecting the newly emerged worms for disease and fitness, and preparing the food that the worms of all stages required. Today that meant a little extra terenstal—about half a sprig—for the second stage larvae. If she didn’t balance out their colour, they wouldn’t silk, and the whole lot of those emerged on the same day would be lost.

The food preparation for the healthy worms was already done and sitting ready for feeding time in six large baskets at the bottom of the stairs. All that was left for Seya to complete before going home was the grinding of the supplements, and the examination of the day’s potentially diseased worms.

She drank her tea as slowly as possible to avoid having to continue grinding the herbs. It was her least favourite part of the job, and she always left it as the penultimate task, so that she could finish with her favourite, handling and checking the worms suspected of disease. Eventually she sucked the last of the tea through the dregs and powered through the grinding in the pestle.

Then, she wiped down her workspace with yallow pulp solution and a clean cloth, and carefully smoothed the examination mat in front of her before wiping it with yallow solution as well. She started with the newly emerged worms. Three of them had been flagged by the rearing hall staff for the small black dots that were visible near their heads.

Seya carefully unknotted the small cylinder holding the worms, and gently tapped a single specimen out. The silkworm, white as sun-bleached bone, flopped and gyrated, then struggled vainly to free itself from the black pincers that gently held it in place.

“Careful little buddy,” Seya whispered, “you don’t want to get hurt.”

But the worm paid no heed, and continued twisting and contracting, unaware that its struggle for freedom could ultimately lead to its death. But Seya hadn’t killed a worm by mistake since the beginning of her certified solo work, half a lifetime ago.

She used the back of her pincer to softly roll the squirming larva around, ensuring a clear view of its whole body.

The caretakers on the wormery floor were right to be concerned. The black spot near the head of this one seemed at first glance to be infected, but Seya needed a better look. She fixed the worm in place by sliding a soft squeeze around it, until the gentle pads were just touching the body. Then, she twisted the squeeze in place, which elongated the worm but finally stopped it from moving.

This procedure always brought back memories of her training, when Lakes had intentionally tightened the squeeze too far and too fast. Seya had never exploded a worm, not even for shock value during training. Lakes was probably the only one who could get away with such shock value, laughing off the official reprimands with an “aw shucks” demeanor that somehow placated those in authority.

For Seya it was more than following the rules—she was certain that all living creatures entered the world in a pure state, yearning only for food and propagation, and deserved to be treated with respect. Just like any person. And really, how different was she compared to the animals she tended? Seya loved a good meal, and had done her share of squirming under the auspices of reproduction, even though she wouldn’t be continuing her lineage—time and circumstance had seen to that.

Seya needed to examine the worm more closely than all of her facets focused together would allow, so she brought out the conical amplifier from its home on the corner of her work table, and held it against her tympan. It was a little awkward holding her pincer out of the way, despite the years of practice, but she managed with a grace and skill that only those in the profession could recognize.

She sent out a long-wave deep scan first. After minor adjustments to the focusing cone she closed her eyes, and the picture of the worm’s internals streamed past. There was no deep malignancy.

She let out her held breath. The worm was likely fine, and could be returned after a thorough washing. She would do a high-frequency pass of its skin to be sure, but that hardly ever turned up anything. It was a good start to the afternoon’s examinations.

Seya cleaned the mat again with the yallow solution, and was about to tap the second worm out when she heard footsteps descending the stairs. She assumed it was Lakes coming to collect the food, so she didn’t turn in greeting.

“Seya?” It was her Director.

Seya spun around on her cushion. The day had been going so well. Septhia only visited when there was a problem, so she mentally prepared for a long evening at work.

Oddly, Septhia seemed at ease. She was cradling a still-steaming cup of tea, both hands wrapped around it. “Has the ruckus kept you from your work?” Septhia asked.

“Sunuh?” Seya responded. “What ruckus?”. It was only then that she heard the shouts from the rearing hall above. “Oh,” Seya said, “I guess I’ve been too focused to really notice.”

Septhia seemed to want to chat, so Seya asked, “Has it been like this all day?”

It was exactly the small prompt Septhia had been waiting for. She pulled an extra cushion off the stack beside Seya’s desk, and sat down across from her. Seya poured a cup of now cool tea, and sipped along as Septhia groused.

Lakes was being obnoxious. He had been for most of the day, and it was what was causing all of the commotion. Lakes. And the poor new girl. She was doing her best.

Septhia went on in circular renditions of these same basic facts, wrapping them in different phrasings, but concluding with the same point: Lakes was being an asshole, per usual, but the scare tactics worked on the new recruits, and she was picking things up handily.

Seya nodded slowly. She knew what Septhia was going on about. Twenty years earlier, Lakes’ techniques had indeed worked to keep Seya herself on task. She had been certain she would be fired after the first day, and surprised when she lasted the week. And now, here she sat, chief of animal well-being, cold tea in her hands—but how hot it been only moments ago—moments that were in reality years.

“Would you do me a favour?” asked Septhia finally.

So here it was. The reason her exams had been interrupted. If it had been anyone else, Seya would have brushed them off, and could have resumed closing in on the end of her workday.

“Would you come up with me? Your presence always tempers his more cruel tendencies, and Charita has been having quite the first day.”

It wasn’t untrue. Lakes did like her, and had right from the start. He had even told her years later that he had cut her some slack that first week, which Seya found hard to believe given how difficult it had been. But over the years she had seen that it was true. Seya had never been tasked with shaving stains out of the flooring, or been made to pull the travois up the hill to the incinerator for no purpose other than the difficulty of the task.

Seya nodded, and followed Septhia up the stairs.

Lakes was in full castigation mode. “We never pull these racks, unless it’s for boiling, or unless we have reason to suspect –” Lakes saw Seya approach and pointed at her, “unless she has reason to suspect disease and we need to check.” He was chewing out one of the new wormgirls—likely Charita, based on what Septhia had said.

“You’re just lucky most hadn’t started spinning yet, do you know how much shit we would be in if you just pulled a rack whenever you felt like it?” All four limbs were raised, towering over the new girl, whose facets were clearly deforming in an effort not to cry.

Despite the verbal thrashing taking place, Seya felt refreshed in the rearing hall. As much as she liked her office, the airflow in the hall kept everyone awake and the worms healthy. The ceiling was high, supported by huge arches comprised of many small tanal trunks fastened expertly together. It was a thatched roof, similar in construction, if not size, to Seya’s own home.

Unlike Seya’s place though, the fungal husks used for the weave were more than the common dull browns and greys. The wormery was well funded by the Council, and blues and yellows and oranges threaded through the common thatch in a display that hinted at sunrise over the eastern end of the building. Seya gave a slight shiver. If she worked on the floor she would need to wear a thicker wrap.

Seya was good at ignoring Lakes during his rants, but he had apparently been trying to get her attention again.

“See?” he was saying, holding out a cupped hand to Seya. “Tell Charita here what this is. What she caused.”

He opened his hands to expose a single cocoon, and rolled it into Seya’s accepting hand. It was nearly pure white, like the mountain tops in winter, but with a single brown dot near one end.

“Is this from the cocoon stack?” asked Seya. Of the thirty-six rows of worms in the rearing hall, the six stacks on the west end by her office contained the youngest larvae.

“No,” said Lakes, gesturing toward the east. “We pulled it from a tray down there.” Each row contained six stacks of worms, and each stack housed six trays. The farther east one went in the rearing hall, the thicker and older the worms in the stacks became. The stacks were uniform in height, reached just below Seya’s shoulders, and filled the entirety of the rearing hall. The east wall was a mirror of the arched west one, with two doors that looked like giant eyes watching over the hall, and that led to the changing room on the left and the entrance to the boiling rooms on the right.

“Way ahead of schedule then.” Seya noticed Charita stand a little taller at her comment.

Seya remembered it all, being new. Being scared of screwing up. Lakes was just being an asshole. “Not really something you would expect, and you’d need to move it anyway. So it would be ruined no matter what,” she said.

As if commanded, the cocoon gave a slight jostle of its own accord, and the dark spot at the tip began to spread, like liquid had been released from the inside. Lakes and Charita crowded in for a better look. The spot rapidly darkened, turned black, and started to bubble at the center, finally forming a small hole.

The discolouration spread, widening the hole, until the unmistakable head of a worm popped through. It wriggled, freeing itself with remarkable speed.

Lakes deftly picked the worm out of Seya’s palm, and proceeded to snip it in half, directly in front of Charita’s face. One part adhered to Lakes’ pincer from the attached entrails, and the other bounced off Charita on its way to the floor, leaving a dark stain of guts on the light blue of her work-issued wrap.

“This is what a fuck-up leads to,” Lakes said, though his bluster had mostly blown out—Seya’s presence presumably at work.

The demonstration had seemingly done its job, with Charita now being either immensely impressed with Lakes, or completely terrified. The way her face was smushed together made it hard to tell. There was no symmetry in the way Charita’s mouth parts were constantly pressed forward as if reaching for food, and the small scales around her mouth were stretched such that the joints were nearly as thick as the scales. Some accident of childhood or reproduction.

“If the cocoons are handled too much, or get too cold, or too hot, or too anything,” Lakes crossed his pincers and drew them across his neck. “Then the worms get scared and melt their way out, and the silk is ruined, and we lose money, and you lose your job.”

Terrified. Charita was definitely terrified.

Seya rolled the damaged cocoon over in her hand, while Lakes walked Charita past the stacks of worms to the far end of the hall and into the change room. The first day and its hard lessons were over.

Unfortunately for Seya, the worms on her table would still be wriggling for her attention. She sighed at the retreating back of Charita and started for the stairs.