The Carpet Makers is one of my favorite sf books of the last twenty years, and I do not say that lightly. Little by little Eschbach builds up a world, and with every revelation comes a fresh twist of the knife until he has bored a wide and fleshy hole. The climax is one of the cruelest things I’ve come across in a long time.
And, because the book takes the form of a series of linked short stories, each with a different set of characters, it means I can talk about its opening story. (Including the ending, so spoilers.) It begins:
Knot after knot, day in, day out, for an entire lifetime, always the same hand movements, always looping the same knots in the fine hair, so fine and tiny that with time, the fingers trembled and the eyes became weak from strain – and still the progress was hardly noticeable. On a day he made good headway, there was a new piece of his carpet as big as his fingernail. So he squatted before the creaking carpet frame where his father and his father before him had sat, each with the same stooped posture and with the old, filmy magnifying lens before his eyes, his arms propped against the worn breastboard, moving the knotting needle with only the tips of his fingers. Thus he tied knot upon knot as it had been passed down to him for generations until he slipped into a trance in which he felt whole; his back ceased to hurt and he no longer felt the age in his bones.
This is Ostvan, and his hair carpet is his life. Since he became a man he has done nothing but weave this one carpet. He has a wife and daughters who supply the long fine hair with which he weaves, and a son who will become a carpet maker when he comes of age. In several years the carpet will be complete, at which point Ostvan will sell the carpet to a hair-carpet trader for such so much money that it will support his family for a generation, until the time comes when his son Abron is Ostvan’s age and has completed his own hair carpet to sell.
Such is the life of a carpet maker, laid out from the moment of birth. With it comes concerns unique to the profession, like choosing a wife on the basis of the quality and color of her hair. Or that Ostvan’s wife is soon to give birth, which is why he waits nearby with a knife. If it is a girl he will raise her, for another girl means another head of hair. But if it is a boy he will kill him, for there is only enough money to raise one carpet-maker in the family. Such is the way, just as Ostvan’s two younger brothers died when they were born.
Still, Ostvan is proud of his trade and his heritage, and it worries him that Abron is so unenthusiastic. Ostvan has taught him all the family secrets of dyeing and weaving, and yet the boy persists in attending school. He is almost sixteen and shows no sign of commitment to his task. Worse, he is spending more and more time in the city, and it is a corrupting influence. When Abron returns that night he declares that he doesn’t want to be a carpet maker, and the two argue bitterly.
When the unspeakable has been said, Ostvan leaves his son and soon hears the screams of a newborn baby. He is greeted by a Wise Woman carrying swaddled baby, and the story ends:
“It’s a boy,” she said calmly. “Will you kill him, sir?”
Ostvan looked at the rosy, wrinkled face of the child. “No,” he said. “He will live. I want him to be named Ostvan after me. I will teach him the craft of a hair-carpet maker, and should I not live long enough, someone else will complete his training. Take him back to his mother and tell her what I’ve said.”
“Yes, sir,” said the Wise Woman, and bore the child out.
Ostvan, however, took the sword from the table, went up with it to his bedchambers, and killed his son Abron.
I love the immersion of this piece. I can feel the weight of obligation that Ostvan wears about his shoulders, the delicate economic system he works under – and indeed the next chapter explores fears that one day the traders will suddenly not want to buy hair carpets anymore – with no leeway for deviating beyond its set path.
And if this tickles your fancy I heartily recommend checking out the rest of the novel, because it gets a whole lot worse. But in a wretchedly enthralling way, of course.
The Carpetmaker’s Son by Andreas Eschbach (translated by Doryl Jensen)
Word count: 2,400
First published: Flugasche, Dec 1985 (under the title ‘Die Haarteppichknupfer’)
First published in English: Fantasy & SF Magazine, Jan 2001
Where to find it: The Carpet Makers, 2005. Tor