Lying on the green grass, on a fluffy synthetic maroon blanket, another tartan blanket of red and yellow recycled wool over the top of us. It was a brilliant warm day of sudden hard and fast cold winds. Like being in bed on high seas. Just above our resting bodies an inch of still air floated. Just above this warm sleepy buffer rushed fast cold wind that severely rumpled our hair should we venture to lift our heads even slightly. Strata of air stacked up over us, each layer increasing in wildness and turbulence. Vast heights of fantastically shaped and tossed air rose above the trees and raged around the sun. The wind could be heard approaching, beast-like, from the bluebell woods, flowing fast across the field, reaching the nearby trees, shaking them slowly, then more and more firmly by their trunks, until a hurricane rushed about in their upper leaves. Epic and mythical wind-carved cloud monsters ranged about in a bright blue and white sky.
Early summer, so unpredictable and all the flowers were out. We were in the grounds of an old Tudor house. There were not many people about so it felt like it was all ours. We were on a tilting green slope near trees and in the distance were fields and the bluebell woods from whence the small storms emerged, in intermittent stampedes. I dozed peacefully, listening to the roar of an imagined sea, on the tilting raft of green grass, white tree blossoms raining down, sea foam, pollen shaking out of branches, sea spray.
Hiding in a slip of warm air from the terrors of daily life, the fragile frame we had erected around us shuddering, promising to fracture. In an old tale I weave a new body out of silk thread the colour of a dark rose. Embroider a flush on my cheeks, spin my hair into coils and fronds. An intricate and delicate lace stitched into intimate spaces. I make myself rich brocade button nipples. I stuff my insides with downy feathers, silky kapok, pearls and sequins, so when I rupture it will be entrancing. Seams coming apart, leaking the exquisite and the excoriating, the soaring and the falling. Her body of feathers exploded covering the world, her mate circling the dark pool of eternity. The universe cracking and splitting beneath.
This time around I must live life in a real body. There is no escape. Anyway, in this era who could manage the loom? As big as a small house, the multi-tiered flower tower loom. Once again, I would watch over the threads of my body as they grew. Supervise the feeding of white swaying worms with the freshest of mulberry leaves.
I will tell more of my old tale in a while. For now we drink tea in the pavilion by the laurels. I remember the line from a Walter de la Mare poem, ‘Very old are we men, our dreams, are tales told in dim Eden’. Very old are the women with bodies of silk and ornament. Beautiful bodies made over and over. But no one can tell. My companion in this particular life and I, now drink tea and eat soft crumbling cake, the icing has escaping sugar crystals. I still feel a swaying movement from sleeping on the billows. We sit next to two men. One is quite old, maybe eighty years old. He is of gentle frame and countenance to fit. He wears a very neat, rough woven woollen jacket with large dark brown buttons. A neat hat of similar fabric and colours, woollen blues dark browns with yellow strands – the sort of blues browns yellows that only wool can be, not like silk blues browns and yellows. The hat rests quietly by the master’s teapot. His white beard looks old fashioned and comes to a point in nineteenth century style. Maybe Freud had such a beard. Well, it looks familiar. He is neat in his movements and his nails are very short and clean. I imagine he lives alone as he exudes a kind of neat controlled loneliness, listening to Radio Four, making tea and toast. Wearing very clean old slippers. He talks quietly to the man opposite him. Perhaps this is his son, he is about the right age, fifty maybe. The ‘son’ wears his more modern clothes in the same way somehow and they both talk in the same gentle even tones. They are discussing the coming weekend. The older man will stay over with the younger man and the next day there will be some kind of family gathering. A lavish feast in a grand yet dilapidated country home. Wicker chairs and roses in the garden. Old Persian rugs. Strawberries and cream. I want to go along. The older man offers to pay towards the meal but his offer is waved away with a ‘we’ll see’ and ‘it’s fine’ and ‘really no need’.
I watch a man at a table further away. His mother is at the table in her wheelchair. They are just finishing tea with friends. The man is embarrassed because his elderly mother wants to take the little pats of butter wrapped in gold foil home with her in her handbag. He is a little sharp about it and tells her she must not, laughs nervously looking up at the friends. They all arise from the table. The son goes behind the wheelchair to move his mother away, but not before asking her if she is ready. A formality. A necessary formality, the semblance of choice, to be wheeled away now or a moment later. Would she like a strong new silken body, and to choose her lace, her colours, her embroidery, her skin, her endings and her beginnings? She is not allowed to take home the little pats of butter.
We take a walk in the flower gardens. An old red brick paved courtyard has a pattern of purple and orange tulips growing across it. I see an old stone water fountain against a wall, with stone steps leading up to it. The water is green, as green as moss, so green it looks surprising in the whitish stone basin. Fallen coppery leaves and rusted pink petals float on the surface of the green liquid, we see our reflections, whitish and far away beneath. Carved wooden hounds chase across a wooden seat we rest upon. I put a hand into that green water and think about my silken hand, the one I had before, a long time ago.
Let me say more about this old time, this old repeating past that lives in the future. I was explaining about the loom. To work the loom that weaves the body silk you must learn the songs. The songs contain lines of mnemonics that you must sing over and over whilst working the loom, as these songs are the patterns and sequences of the knots. The patterns of your body. Patterns held inside shapes of sound. The sounds in your voice hold your DNA, your fingerprint, blueprint, a sound-touch imprint. You can pay someone to work the loom, create an almost-you, but it is best to weave your own silken body, sing the songs yourself. Once the fabric of your skin is woven, the surface can be imbued with the sumptuous embroidery of sensations. The price? All the sensations of the world, from which there is no escape.
You can choose embroiderers and lace makers, take them the silk threads from the cocoons that you raised. Spend time having the silk skeins dyed carefully in the shades you would like for the ornamentation of your weightless silk skin. The palest of lavenders, all possible shades of jade, pinkish stone colours, snowfalls, ice-colours, cloud-colours, strawberry creams, chocolate pinks, ebony, liquorice, onyx, jet, olive, black olive, misty foggy opal tinted greys. Deepest cherry satins for the insides and undersides, of lips, folds. The darkness of the forests with glints of sunlight, or the prismatic colours of the universe. A feast, a slaughter. Metallic threads of gold, silver, copper, titanium, rhodium, platinum, palladium, stitched with peacock feathers, and the embroiderers create marvels around the eyes.
How the colour of your body turns out also depends on the type of moth you choose. Choice. The semblance of choice. So necessary. But really it depends upon who owns what, who has the most, can get the most, can best exploit Earth, her rare metals, her rare creatures. And how will it help them live? Live better, live longer, live forever? Aren’t we just another creature crawling on Earth’s beautiful skin? Crawling on our bellies.
Exquisite flesh tones can be achieved using the cocoons of one kind of the Bombyx. Its rare short-lived body so soft, the cocoons lustrous. You can have your silk/skin dyed in the most gradually shifting tones of almost any colour imaginable.
To live life in such a body of ornament, every touch enhanced. Every feeling and emotion magnified, ecstatic crescendos of the mundane. Tendrils of thread picking up the finest tremors of sound, conducting them into the heart of the body. Glass eyes, stitched in with a web of silk that collects minute light diffractions off the lamellae of butterfly wings, detects the refraction of light from within a liquid drop on a petal in the rainforest. The black wing of the crow in the golden cornfield is incandescent with fiery brilliance. Multi-dimensional eyes. Searing light. Search light.
I must tell you, for those with even greater wealth there is the purchase of secret and ancient weaving songs. These can yield a silken body fabric that is like the famous Nanjing Yunjin, cloud-pattern brocade of such subtle changes in colour and texture that your silken body seems to transcend materiality. Light is dappled and altered as it passes over it. Flames flicker through it. And a light is shining from within as if from down deep within a well. Surging electricity. Nano-vibrations. A silk velvet skin ripples over muscles like the velveteen hide of a clouded leopard.
Enough. A chasm of darkness has opened, a black hole incorporates eternity. The world of shimmering iridescent light and trembling sound is closed. It is now, I am here, the body is flesh and dull. Yet there is comfort in that. The sensation of the ornamental body is pain, constantly, exquisite pain. The cost of taking everything for yourself should be feeling everything, every single creature’s pain. Every feather plucked and butterfly wing pinned and each back broken down the mines. Every leaf from every felled tree. And so it was. My perfect and eternal body of beauty and pain.
We look around the inside of the old house. The ceiling of the living room is a white iced filigree hanging above the chintz furniture . Every one loves the art deco bathroom and wants to have a bath in the big tub whilst looking out of wooden shuttered windows at distant fields. On a table I notice a pile of receipts yellow with age and I find that I can read the writing although it is not in English. They are receipts for skeins of silk thread, listing colours like jade, stone, kingfisher, silver wing, pinkish silver, copper pink, black peony, midnight sky, desert obelisk, dark pool, pitch, moon colour, earth of Mars, a pair of glass agate coloured eyes, peacock feathers, black silk lace of the finest grade. Gold and silver skeins. Kapok stuffing. Pearls. Sequins. Cherry brocade buttons with a raspberry textured surface.
Our day is nearly done. We sit on the edge of the gardens overlooking hills. The chestnut trees are giants, their white or blush coloured blooms like so many huge candles on every branch. The sun is sliding away and the lambs are new to the fields. We drink another pot of tea on the grass. Back to work soon. A lorry can be seen coming along the road towards the great old house. It seems too large to come along such a narrow country lane. It pulls up. A crowd collects. Men start opening the back and taking out barrels and boxes. They disappear one by one down the side of the house. People look on. Now a huge crate is being taken out. What can be inside such a vast crate asks an onlooker? The removal man nearest says, ‘it is a loom, you know, for making cloth, a really very, very old one. The odd woman who bought the house recently, had it sent over from Nanjing in a container on a ship’. A lady nearby laughs, she says she weaves at home and no loom could be that size, the size of a small house. The removal man says, ‘there are all these strange foreign people coming over to work it’.
I laugh inside my head, my real head, where I must live now. We walk back to our big old shiny blue car. There is a fine powder of red dust over it. The door on the driver’s side doesn’t open so the passenger seat has to be clambered over each time. It is hot and still inside the car. Outside a cold wind tumbles over and shakes the candles in the trees. We are driving home, there is traffic. We will make some supper, drink tea in the garden, get an early night. There is a summer storm. The storm comes out of the trees in the park and carves up the clouds into fantastical wild shapes that fly up around the moon. I fly upwards. Within the quiet, everything is exploding, as if on a distant star. Within the peaceful bluebell woods lives a beast.
Salma Ahmad Caller is a British-Egyptian artist whose practice involves creating an imagery of the narratives of body that have shaped her own body and identity across profound cultural divides. It is an investigation of the painful and contradictory mythologies surrounding the female body, processes of exoticisation, and the legacy of colonialism as a cross-generational transmission of ideas, traumas, bodies and misconceptions. Her work is informed by a Masters in Art History and Theory, a background in medicine and pharmacology, and having taught cross-cultural perspectives at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.