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.
I am so proud and grateful to Achiote Press for making this book something I could hold in my hand. It began in 2013 when I sailed the arctic circle with a group of artists and came back empty… or I thought I was empty. For months I couldn’t write. Then one day I saw an image in my head. I hadn’t done any drawing for years, but I felt compelled to do something, anything, since the words weren’t coming. And then something happened: once the image was on the page, it began to tell me a story. I wrote the story down. Another image came… and so on until there were twelve drawings and twelve stories. As many of you know, I then created a hand-made book, bound with fishing line I found snarled on the arctic beaches. That version sold out, but the small, fierce things weren’t done with me. In the following months, the images continued to present themselves to me on my long walks, on the bus, in meetings, in my sleep, and I kept getting them onto paper, and each image had its story. Eventually, there were twice as many small, fierce things, and with the help of a wonderful publisher, they are now here in book form for everyone. I hope they burrow, claw, sneak, or steal into your heart and head the way they did into mine. I hope they remind you of what it is to be restless and curious and hopeful.
i walk on the beach a lot. i have noticed that dead birds often come to rest on the tide line, lying in the sand in shapes that i can’t help but find beautiful. i am going to be posting a series of drawings based on the birds i find. i am calling it children of the wind. i hope that others can see the beauty in it too.
read my 100 word story, “derelict”
featured on 100 word story:
otter and wolf
It was said that otter was not right in the head. She ran toward loud noises. She jumped from steep snowbanks that dumped out onto the highway. She shoved her nose into piles of scat, into cooling campfire embers, into snake holes. She took deep breaths and held them as long as she could, exploring the dim and tangled root-tunnels below the lake’s surface, never knowing if she had enough air to make it back. She acted without fear or worry, because she mostly got what she went after: if it was large and dangerous, she was fierce enough to startle it, and fast enough to get away. Otherwise, she proceeded to roll around in it, eat it, hide it, tear it to shreds, or grow bored with it and move on. All her life, otter had been able to catch anything she tried to catch, with one glaring exception.
It nearly always appeared at dusk, usually in the middle of the lake, but not always at the same time. she had tried swimming out to it, but it kept pace with her, drawing away as she neared until she couldn’t see it anymore, but when she turned to head back to shore, there it was, floating on the water in the direction she’d come from. It also sometimes appeared in puddles, or in the slow parts of the stream that fed the river, but when she pounced, it scattered apart into tiny, distorted pieces, bright and restless. It seemed to be breathing. She wanted to press her snout against it. She wanted to feel what it felt like between her teeth. Instead, she would crawl into her den and hold it in her mind until she slid away into the frictionless dark.
Wolf had been watching otter for many months. He had a reputation as a cynic and a loner. He sat outside the mouth of otter’s burrow and listened to the pattern of her breathing. Even in sleep, her heart rattled insistently. He had watched her chasing the thing in the water. He had never noticed it there. He had never thought to look down like that, to notice what was in front of him. He was always looking out at the horizon. He was always thinking ahead. He was always worried about what might happen, and always regretting what had already passed. This made him slow to decide. This made him cautious. This is what wolf was thinking about as he sat outside otter’s burrow and carefully licked his paws. Then he looked up and saw it appearing over the ridge, and he howled. Wolf howled not at it but because of it, because it rose a giant and grew brighter as it shrank. Because it grew thin and disappeared, and then it returned, swelling- a new light or the same light- he never knew. But always far away, always out of reach, no matter how he called to it, no matter how far into the distance he looked.
Otter emerged from the burrow, awakened by the howling. She strained to see what wolf was staring at, but she was near-sighted. All she could see was his fur and the nearby grass waving slightly in the breeze. But the sound he made was so horrible and wretched she had to do something, so she bit him, and ran.
Wolf caught up with otter at the edge of the lake, just as her tail and back feet disappeared into the water. After a few moments, she surfaced a few yards from shore, looking back at him, her whiskers limned with bright droplets. The water’s surface stilled, and in it, wolf saw the pale orb appear, huge, glowing, and close enough to touch, with otter floating in its center. Otter, squinting, saw that wolf had caught the bright thing, not once, but twice, with his eyes.