She learned to weave a nest by watching her parents. It was a skill and a language, a music she could not describe except by building it around herself from strands of hair and fluff and old strips of cloth.
Her parents assured her there was nothing she couldn’t achieve if she worked hard enough. That is why we are here, they told her. That is why we live in this place, where anyone can have a nest as long as they are willing to work hard, and to keep weaving. But be careful not to weave too well, they warned. When the nest is perfect, go back and pull out the final strand: keep it and it will keep you safe.
Truthfully, the nests she saw around her neighborhood tended to be scruffy and unkempt, certainly not in any danger of being perfect. Some were chewed in places by rats, and became mildewy from the fog. This was not so much the fault of the weavers, but of the low piece of ground they lived on. Her mother and father would never have said so, but like most children, she learned the hard things by overhearing them. Watching a well-dressed couple moving quickly down her street, she caught their conversation: Who would want to live here? one said. The poor don’t choose, the other answered.
Though she understood the truth of this, she was also unconvinced it was the end of the matter. It seemed to her, watching the mud flow down the gutters carrying gum wrappers and plastic bags, that all of this state of collapse needed was a bit of care, and a weaver that did not leave strands out.
Over time, she came to understand that things were more complicated than she had observed as a child. Life was not simple, like a TV show where everything ties up neatly in the end. People had to eat and pay parking tickets: some went hungry or went to jail, and some, despite working as hard as they could, never got ahead. Some wove the most beautiful nests she had ever seen, then took them apart again for the sheer satisfaction of having some ounce of control.
Like her parents had taught her, she worked hard, and became no more special than the next person. But she did not want to be special: all that really mattered to her was the weaving. And so she built nests. At first, they were overwrought snarls that leaned at odd angles and made people feel awkward. Later, she experimented with slick nests made of folded junk mail. Then she spent her days building sturdy, functional nests to make a living, and her nights spinning gothic castles and flying buttresses into nests as high as the ceiling. When it no longer mattered if she failed or succeeded, she made the best nests of all: of cigarette butts and cotton candy that turned to mush in the rain; of live spiders and dust bunnies; of leaves and kelp washed up in storms.
When her parents died, she took over their nest, and began giving those she built away: warm nests for those who were old and infirm. Treehouse nests for the kids in the park. Nests that connected distant buildings so no one would have to wait for the bus. She kept on and on, and by the time she was nearly an old woman she had filled her once dirty, once poor neighborhood with objects of beauty: a nest made of sea glass and damselfly wings. A nest of steel cable and hemp rope in the shape of a ship. Nests that chimed and played music in the wind. Nests filled with books that gave off the scent of cedar and cinnamon. She did not pull strands. She did not keep anything. She trusted the work to hold.
One morning, she watched a well-dressed couple stroll slowly down her street, writing down house numbers and taking pictures with their cell phones. They stopped in front of her building and gazed up at her nest, though they could not see her looking back. This is such a charming neighborhood, one said. How much do you think these places are worth? said the other.