Bombyx mori (Silk and the Sky)

swanepoele01pic2.jpg Floating free.

My home was the sky. Well, OK – it was a clapboard shack seven miles from Arabia. No, no camels: Arabia, Nebraska, USA. It’s a hamlet. There’s a lot of space there. I guess you’d know if you’ve seen a Western, but they don’t seem to show them these days. One person per square mile. You can drive and drive and not see anyone. Valentine was the big city, population 2,800. I guess it’s lonely for a kid, but it was all I knew. OK, that’s not entirely true. I knew Edinburgh.

So, the sky… Everything’s flat in Nebraska, or near enough. The tallest things in our yard were the trees: the cottonwood and the mulberry. I would watch the leaves in the wind and think about how their movement related to the clouds. Out there you have big weather. When it rains, it rains. When it’s hot you can fry eggs on the roof. When it snows it snows – sometimes we were snowed in. When the clouds roll in, they roll in on a massive front, a huge wave of cumulonimbus or a delicate canopy of altostratus. If you watch the horizons you can see what’s going to happen. The sky was always a draw. Especially I would dream of floating away on a cloud – escaping – over the horizon to other lands where everything was possible. I would climb the mulberry (better for climbing than the cottonwood) and stare at that horizon. I loved the jets’ vapour trails, pointing the way.

Bombyx mori

The Domestic Silk Moth is one of a family of about 300 species. Adults have heavy bodies and cannot feed because of undeveloped mouthparts. The forewing has a hooked tip. They are flightless.

Escape. That’s what brought my parents to Nebraska. Dad came from a poor part of Glasgow, a Gorbals tenement. Dad’s father was a communist and a docker, imprisoned in the 30s for organising a strike. He was a member of the Marxist Book Club. He encouraged Dad to read, but he was often away from home and so was my grandmother – she ran a women’s group. When Dad did see his parents they were talking about ‘The Party’. His first escape was the cinema and the window it opened: wide horizons and manly deeds. He loved Westerns.

The larvae of Bombyx mori are called silkworms. They feed only on mulberry plants. They moult four times before spinning cocoons of one continuous fibre, the commercial source of silk. Bred in captivity for thousands of years on trays of white mulberry (Morus alba), Bombyx mori is fully domesticated.

Dad’s parents were devastated by the news of Stalin’s purges – the USSR had been their beacon. Dad told me he was glad the old man died before the final humiliation of the Soviet Union’s collapse. His mother, my grandmother, went senile and ended up in a nursing home, but way before that Dad knew he wouldn’t be a Commie. He had to get away and start anew.

Mum’s parents were different. I was a toddler when we left Edinburgh, but we visited them when I was seven. They lived near Blackford Hill: trees, proud privet hedges, lawns, floral borders, and greenhouses smelling of tomatoes. Grandpa was a partner in an architecture firm – Macdonald, Heath and Morris. He was Morris. Grandma was a bubbly woman. She didn’t work; in those days the wife of a professional man didn’t. Today she’d have been a successful artist. She was always painting and sketching. She made wonderful birthday and Christmas cards, and all her own clothes. She was one of the smartest women around, in both senses of the word.

They met in 1945. Grandpa was in the Home Guard. He had a clubfoot so wasn’t eligible to fight. Grandma told me how upset he had been. I remember he was always proud of his fitness. Right until near the end he went for a daily walk up Blackford Hill – him and his walking stick – and he went swimming two or three times a week at Warrender Baths. I believe he was highly thought of in the Guard. He didn’t talk much about this though. The only story he liked to tell about the war was how he met Grandma.

If the moths were allowed to emerge, they would damage the silk. The farmers kill the pupae by baking them in an oven. Then they soak the cocoons in boiling water. The end of the thread is attached to a bobbin. A machine winds the silk from five cocoons to make one silk thread.

When we left for the States it must have been hard for the old folks. Dad’s parents would have felt doubly betrayed because he was going to the arch-enemy of the Soviet Union and the invader of Vietnam. I suppose they must have realised that they had taught him to think for himself. Mum’s parents were desperately sad to lose their daughter and grandson. In a way, they were also responsible for her leaving. Their relationship – of utter devotion to each other – was the model that she was following: her husband was headed for the wide blue yonder and she must follow.


The first trip back to Edinburgh was one of the highlights of my life. Grandpa met us at the airport in his Jaguar. He wasn’t materialistic, but he did love this retirement present to himself. He drove it with such gentleness. It smelt of aftershave and leather. As a treat, and because I tended to be carsick, I sat in the front. Edinburgh was amazing – all the people and the grey stone buildings and the small green gardens and the bright red pillar boxes and the windy roads and the castle high up there and all the people and the grey stone buildings…

Mum had just qualified as a teacher when she met Dad. She was to have one pupil – me. Occasionally she drove me to Valentine where she tried to find some children’s group, so that I wouldn’t grow up completely asocial, but I hated teamsports and once I got into a fight at a summer camp over my accent. At last she found a kids’ band. I played the bugle.

Books – that’s what I remember most. When I wasn’t dreaming in or under the trees, I had my nose in a book. Sometimes I would read up in the mulberry tree. Grandpa and Grandma sent books at birthdays and Christmases, and every week the Dandy and the Beano were slipped in with the Sunday paper, rolled up and marked ‘REDUCED RATE. PRINTED PAPERS ONLY’ and posted to us. ‘Posted’ not ‘mailed’ – I kind of grew up Scottish in the heart of America. Oor Wullie was more familiar than Superman. When I was older they sent novels – The Famous Five, Swallows and Amazons, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows – and science books. My favourites were the Explorer Books.

For this experiment you will need a sheet of foolscap paper, sticky tape, two tall drinking glasses and a teacup…

…Now roll the paper into a tube and use some sticky tape to fasten it (Diagram 3.3). Pass the tube of paper through the handle of the teacup and place the tube across the two glasses as before (Diagram 3.4). Unless your tube is too thick or too thin, you will find that the paper easily carries the weight of the cup.

- What the hell? The building’s shaking! An earth tremor? My mobile’s ringing! ‘Yes, I’m fine! What? Hallo?’ Sh_t! -

Grandpa was good with his hands. Like Grandma he could draw anything. When he was dying he drew this diary. You half want to cry when you see it, but it’s too funny – his observations of people, postures betraying their agenda: the bossy ward sister intimidating the neophyte intern, the bored kids forced to visit a distant uncle, the young lovers tragically separated by infirmity… Pitiful and hilarious. Drawing wasn’t the only thing he could do with his hands. He would cup them together and make a squeaky sound. He teased me about the little mouse he was holding – when he opened his hands it was gone! I’m told I would laugh and laugh and ask him to do it again. He was a good man, a ‘pillar of the community’ and a church elder, but he had a streak of mischief.

The most wonderful thing was his silk handkerchief. During our holiday in Edinburgh if I were very good then Grandma would make my favourite dessert and Grandpa would bring out his handkerchief. The adults would sip a postprandial whisky (‘a dram a day…’), I would have cocoa and he would say, ‘Well then, Andrew. I believe that you’ve been a good boy and helped Grandma with her shopping. Something very special wants to thank you. Do you know what this is?’ He would wave his handkerchief.

In accordance with the ritual I would answer, ‘It’s a handkerchief, Grandpa!’

He would reply, ‘But it’s not just a handkerchief is it?’

‘No, it’s a magic handkerchief!’

‘That’s right!’ With that he would turn his back, mumbling, ‘Abracadra, allakhazam, let this be magic and work like a charm!’ Then he would turn round again. ‘Now, lay-deeeeez and jennilmin, what you see before you is just an ordinary silk handkerchief.’ It was big and white with a colourful pattern on one corner. Although everyone had seen his act many times there was laughter and clapping and heckling. Coins and baubles, and the handkerchief itself, would materialise and de-materialise and move in strange ways. I loved it.

One Sunday over breakfast he told me he was going to show me a new trick – on Blackford Hill. I was desperate to go, but the usual routine was observed. After church there was a magnificent lunch – roast beef with horseradish, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, carrots with nutmeg and coriander, peas with butter and mint, tomatoes from the greenhouse followed by Queen’s pudding – and then the siesta. I was allowed to watch TV, provided the sound was turned down. I couldn’t concentrate, and explored the sitting room, looking at the books (the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the collected works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Jane Austen), the ornaments on the mantelpiece (vases, China dogs and brass sphinxes) and the photographs (Mum and Dad’s wedding, me at various ages). At last it was half past three and time to go. I heard stirrings and, sure enough, Grandpa appeared. ‘Sssh!’ he said, ‘Grandma’s still sleeping and I think your Mum and Dad are too.’ I was thrilled by the clandestine air of our mission, and tugged his hand all the way, pestering him to tell me what the magic trick would be. ‘Well, it’s not exactly a trick,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!’ He was an expert tease. Our first port of call was the duckpond. He took out his handkerchief. It was full of breadcrumbs and crusts.

‘Is that all?’

‘Patience, my boy. Here now, feed the ducks. And this is a clue.’ I temporarily forgot what we’d come for in the fun of the moment.

‘Now, what are those things you are feeding?’


‘Yes. What makes them special – different from dogs and us, say?’

‘They’re in the water!’

‘Yes, but if I threw you in the water what would happen?’

‘I’d get wet!’

‘Yes, but what would the ducks do?’

‘They’d fly away!’

‘Exactly.’ Crumbs finished, we climbed the hill. I raced ahead. He tarried behind a clump of gorse, emerging with his handkerchief bunched in his hand.

‘Show me the trick, Grandpa! Plee-ease!’

‘Patience! We’ll go to the top first.’

Blackford Hill is magical. Even the lower slopes are a wonderland. There are succulent brambles amongst the gorse. If you take a flattened cardboard box you can slide down the grassy patches, tumbling off amongst rabbit droppings and lying sprawled, crushing the clover between your fingers and smelling the sweetness. Higher up, you can see for miles – just like in Nebraska, only the view is better. You can see most of Edinburgh, dominated Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. You can see across the Firth of Forth to Fife. You can see North Berwick Law, the Bass Rock white with seabirds, the Pentland Hills… You can see the most important part of the world, everything clear and exposed. Above it, the clouds – always changing, always glorious. Grandpa never tired of pointing out landmarks. We must have been there a dozen times before that day, and he pointed to some of the features and asked me to name them. Several times he made as if to prepare his hankie for action and then ‘changed his mind’: ‘Well now, Andrew…’ (clasping the folded silk at chest level between his two hands) ‘…no, I think you should tell me what that hill is…’ (lowering it to his side in one hand and pointing with the other).

‘Arthur’s Seat, Grandpa! But show me the trick, plee-ease!’

‘OK, OK, Andrew. The time has come, but first I want to tell you a wee story about this handkerchief. Do you know where it comes from?’

‘Grandma gave it to you!’

‘Yes, but where did she get it?’

‘A shop?’

‘No. She made it. Grandma worked in a parachute factory during the war. Do you know what a parachute is?’

‘Of course, Grandpa!’

‘Well, this little piece of silk was going to be part of a big parachute, but the war ended so it never got a chance to fly. Today we are going to give it that chance.’ I was dancing up and down. Grandpa laid a hand on my shoulder. ‘Sssh. There’s one thing we need to know first. Can you guess what it is?’ He blew theatrically, raised his eyebrows and followed the clouds with his eyes.

‘The wind? The way the wind is blowing?’

‘Yes, exactly! And how can you tell that?’

‘By watching the clouds?’

‘Well, ye-es…’

‘The smoke from chimneys?’ I pulled up some grass blades and cast them into the air. ‘This grass?’

‘Yes, those all work, but I’ll show you another wee trick.’ He licked and raised a forefinger. ‘Now then, the coldest side is where the wind is coming from. OK, so it’s safe, because it’ll go that way and there’s no gorse…’

I was unconvinced but bursting with impatience. ‘Throw it, Grandpa, throw it!’

‘Righty ho!’ He swung his arm. ‘And a-one, and a-two, and a-three!’ The little white bundle arced upwards and opened just as it was starting to descend. Suspended from the four corners of the billowed handkerchief was a lollipop. The breeze carried it about ten yards.

‘Yippee!’ I rushed to collect it. I hurled it into the air. It plummeted.

‘No, no, Andrew. If it’s going to open you have to fold it carefully. Here, let me show you…’

Quiet for once, I sucked the lollipop as we walked home hand-in-hand.

Back in Nebraska I went through a parachute craze. I used an old cotton hankie and plastic bags. I discovered that the strings had to be quite long or the ‘chute didn’t open properly. And Grandpa was right – the way you folded it was crucial. I would climb the mulberry tree and throw my creations as high as I could. When Dad had to bring a ladder to retrieve my parachute from an upper branch he forbade me to play near the trees. I jumped off the roof, umbrella in hand. I was a bit bruised but the umbrella was ruined. Dad walloped me, but the next day he showed me how to make a kite. This was great, but it was calm for endless frustrating days. When the wind came Dad showed me how to send messages to the clouds, threading the line through a hole punched in a piece of paper and then letting the paper whoosh up to the kite. Up and away.

Blackford Hill wasn’t all fun. In those days myxomatosis was rife, and rabbits with eyes oozing pus loitered, waiting for death. Grandpa’s lips would tighten. ‘Now you go over there, Andrew, good lad, and see if you can spot our house. I’ll just put this wee chap out of his misery.’ He told me that the germs had been spread deliberately because there were too many rabbits. He said he thought it was cruel. ‘But you know, Andrew, I’m sure that this won’t last forever and the rabbits will be back. There are millions, so I think there will be some that will survive, and they won’t get sick again… Good always wins in the end. Good always wins over evil, even if sometimes it’s difficult to believe. And love always wins over hate. Remember that. Love always wins.’

- Elevator? Oh God! Fire escape? Smoke – fire! No way am I going down there! -


Three years later, Grandma died suddenly – a stroke – and Mum went over to Scotland to comfort Grandpa and help with the funeral arrangements. Dad was too busy on the farm to go, and I stayed with him, helping as best as I could. When Mum came back, she brought Grandpa. He seemed smaller and older, but he was very pleased to see me. A routine was established. Mum would give me my lessons in the morning and Grandpa would take the afternoons. He was so enthusiastic and inventive. One afternoon it was hot and he was sitting on the porch when I emerged from the lounge. He was staring into nowhere, tapping the fingers of one hand on the arm of the rocking chair, all slumped and defeated-looking. His other hand was clasping his handkerchief, the thumb running over the embroidery on the corner.


He started and straightened up, looking almost guilty. ‘Well now, young man, fancy sneaking up like that! Well, well, what shall we learn about today? Shall we have a look around? Get your hat, will you?’

In a trice I had retrieved my Stetson, of which I was hugely proud.

‘Okey dokey, jiggery pokey. Pass me my stick would you, my good man? Thank you. That’s fine. I’ll manage now.’

I jumped onto the lawn. He edged himself down the stairs and looked around. ‘What have we here, then…? Fields, trees, grass, flowers… Mmn…’ He looked at me sideways, with that delicious spark in his eyes. ‘Mmn… Do you know what that tree is? It looks like a poplar.’

‘It’s a cottonwood, Grandpa!’

‘Mmn… It looks a thirsty sort to me… I see it’s growing near the edge of the garden, where there’s a drainage ditch…’

‘It’s the state tree, Grandpa! It’s the tree of Nebraska.’

‘What – this particular one?’

‘No-o! Sillybilly! I mean that type of tree!’

‘Aha. Well now, I’ve got a very strange question for you.’ He pulled out his handkerchief. ‘Where did this come from?’

‘From Grandma – a parachute factory?’

‘Yes, but before that?’

‘Don’t know… A silk factory?’

‘Yes, but where does silk come from?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I’ll give you a clue: another tree in this garden.’

‘The mulberry!’

‘Yes, that’s right. Have a close look and tell me where exactly the silk comes from.’

I hesitated, squishing a berry and shredding a leaf before patting the bark uncertainly. ‘Here?’

‘No, you were warmer before. It comes from the leaves.’

‘Oh.’ I must have looked at him disbelievingly as I tore another leaf, trying to find fibres.

‘There’s something I haven’t told you. The leaves have to be eaten…’

‘Is it a type of animal, like a sheep, that eats the leaves and then grows silk instead of wool?’

Patiently, forcing me to think for myself, Grandpa told me the story of silk. We went indoors and found my junior encyclopaedia.

‘But what happens to the caterpillars inside, Grandpa?’

‘Well at that point they’re no longer caterpillars. They’re called pupae – see this picture here? In order to unwind the silk they have to unstick the cocoons. They put them in boiling water…’

I looked at Grandpa’s handkerchief in horror, and ran to my bedroom, imagining the little creatures dreaming of becoming moths, when suddenly their dreams were interrupted as it got hotter and hotter and they couldn’t escape… Desperate and in agony, they died.

‘I hate you and your stupid handkerchief!’

‘Listen my boy, there’s something you should hear.’ Grandpa had let me be for a few minutes, sobbing into my pillow. Then he knocked on my door and came in and rested a hand on my shoulder.

‘I hate you! Go away!’

‘Silkworms don’t live in the wild. They can’t. And the moths can’t fly, and they can’t eat. All they do is come together, lay eggs and die. That’s not much of a life. The best part’s over by the time they spin the cocoons… And because men look after them, millions of silkworms have a chance to live. Just think of that. And they are looked after very well. People bring them fresh mulberry leaves, so they don’t even have to find food. They just eat and grow fat and spin cocoons. And when they are killed, they die very quickly. They’re alive one moment and dead the next, and there’s no suffering.’

I sniffed. ‘Like Grandma?’

He cleared his throat. ‘Yes, I hope like Grandma… You know something?’

I had stopped sobbing but didn’t want to give him any satisfaction by being too responsive.

‘I really think that if you explained to a baby silkworm that it was going to be given all the food and care possible, and then it would be allowed to spin a nice cosy little bed for itself and then, when death came, that it would be instant and painless, and that it would never be forgotten because its silk would live forever in beautiful things that gave pleasure… I think if you explained all that, it would be happy. I really believe that. Now, Andrew, how about getting your own silkworms!’

I looked up from the pillow.

- The heat is terrible. Something plastic must be burning… that foul black smoke! Must it end like this? -


It was four years before I saw Grandpa again. I was 14. The previous Christmas I had bought a silk dressing gown with my Christmas money. I had had to order it from a catalogue. Dad was rather surprised – alarmed even – but Mum had smiled. I often slept with it on and nothing else. I loved the sensation of silk. I imagined it was how a woman’s skin would feel.

I was glad to get away from Nebraska and return to Edinburgh with Mum, even if the purpose of our visit was to say goodbye to Grandpa. I hated my boarding college in Lincoln, Lancaster County, and weekends at the farm were insufferable – Dad was always pestering me to help and I just wanted to be somewhere else. Somewhere over the horizon. Somewhere big and exciting. Somewhere with girls.

Grandpa was in a hospice, in the terminal stages of disseminated bowel cancer. He was a wizened little bird of a man but he still had that spark in him, or at least seemed to when he saw me. ‘Goodness gracious, Andrew! You’re quite the man, now! It’s good to see you again! How are you?’

We visited him most days. As far as those kinds of places go, this must have been one of the best – flowers and as much sunshine as Auld Reekie allowed. One day Mum said she had some business to attend to and that I should visit him on my own. I felt important and grown-up as I nodded at the pretty nurse at the reception, blushing a little. Grandpa was propped on his pillows, sketchbook open. ‘Andrew. Good. I’m glad you’re here on your own, because there’s a little man-to-man talk I’d like us to have.’ He closed his book and put it on his table next to the radio. ‘Do you know what this is?’ He pulled the old handkerchief from the breast pocket of his pyjamas.

‘It’s your silk handkerchief, Grandpa.’ Was he was losing his marbles?

‘It’s much more than that, Andrew. It’s magic. Do you know why it’s magic?’

I shifted my weight and looked out the window.

‘Go on, Andrew…’

I cleared my throat. ‘Because you can do magic with it?’ Jesus! Did he think I was still a little kid?

‘Yes and no. What’s this?’ He was pointing to the multicoloured corner.

‘It’s some embroidery.’

‘Here. Take it and look at it closely.’

‘Well, there’s the letter A. Your initial? Very fine work.’

‘Yes, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? Your grandmother did that. You know the story of the parachute factory. But what you don’t know is the full significance of this embroidery. Your grandmother started that not long after we met. She said she knew the moment she saw me that I would be her husband. She was poor, but she wanted to give me something special. She spent four months on it – every evening. She used the finest thread. Have a close look.’

I did as I was told.

‘Here, take this.’ Grandpa passed me his reading magnifier.

‘It’s amazing!’ The delicate threads were interwoven so intricately.

‘She gave it to me the day I asked her to marry me. She said she’d put all her love into it, and it would last forever – that it was a symbol of the fact that she would always be with me. But I think it’s more than that. I think that this handkerchief is not just a symbol of our love. I think it’s a symbol of the power of love in all circumstances. It’s a talisman… A reminder that love will always find a way.’

I was still fingering the vibrant colours.

‘Your Mum says you’re going through a difficult stage, Andrew. Well, believe it or not, I know what it’s like.’

I looked up.

‘Lots of people will give you advice, some of it good and some of it not. I’m going to give you some advice too: whatever you do, Andrew, always follow your heart.’ He coughed, his face briefly betraying his pain. ‘It may take you a long time to learn this, because we all have to learn it for ourselves, but I have a feeling that this handkerchief will save you. Take it. Shake my hand and we’ll say goodbye. I don’t want you to visit me again and see me die. Have a good life. Go and find love.’

The magnitude of the moment yawning beneath my feet, I shook his hand. ‘Goodbye, Grandpa. Thank you.’

Before I got to the door he called me again. ‘One more thing, Andrew. Love only works if you are prepared to give, and pass it on. That goes for the handkerchief too. Good luck. Find someone worthy.’

The light was incredibly bright, and the birdsong very loud. I collapsed onto a bench and cried, wiping the tears with his handkerchief.


I grew up, went to business school. No way was I going to sweat my butt off on a two-bit farm in the ass end of nowhere! I moved to New York – buildings and people and excitement. Sure, I missed the horizons but I could fix that. I worked long hours. I figured to be a millionaire by 35. The penthouse first – and living with the sky again. Then the furniture – especially an enormous bed with silk sheets – and then ease off a bit when the money side was sorted, and go out and find that woman. Only it wasn’t so easy. Hell, I love my work, and I’m good at it, so why stop? It’s all a game. Big bucks. My beautiful Honda S2000! People would tell me that I was a parasite, buying and selling lives. I didn’t think of it that way. OK, basically I didn’t give a flying f___, but where was the woman? They were all taken, and the few that weren’t were gold diggers… and then there was Aimée. She said I was immoral, materialistic and superficial, and I didn’t have a hope in hell of finding love. Silly cow, I thought. Only I guess I didn’t really. Yeah, OK, she hurt me, and that’s when I bought myself the car. Trouble with cars is that they have passenger seats, and this one’s was empty, and so all I had was living in the sky and trading shares which were supposedly killing people in Colombia or Nigeria or wherever, and, yeah, I was empty and I wanted to escape again.

And then the bomb, and now I’m trapped. F___ing trapped like a rat!

Stay close to the floor. I need a mask. Handkerchief? Grandpa’s handkerchief! God, it doesn’t make much difference! Useless piece of sh_t! If they don’t come soon… A gonner, I’m going to be roasted. Where did I go wrong? My childhood… Green days on Blackford Hill… The lollipop parachute… Oh, my God – that’s it! The silk sheets! Scissors – kitchen drawer. Cut one into long strips. Tie. Cough! What if it doesn’t open? Sh_t, it’s hot! Need to prop it open. Just paper on my desk… How…? Tubes – roll it up. Should just hold it open enough for the air to catch it. In place with sticky tape – where’s that, where’s that? Yes. Quickly. Window. Will this work? No time. Jump!

A new start – Edinburgh? This time I’ll be good. This time I’ll deserve her. This time she won’t get away. This time – love! Thank you, God! Thank you, Grandpa! Thank you, Grandma!

swanepoele01pic1.jpg Floating free. At last.

© Eric Swanepoel 2006