The Silk Merchant8 min read


Ken Liu
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Addiction, Death or dying, Self-harm and suicide

My father lay dying on the cot, one of many in this draughty poorhouse. His lips trembled in the weak light of the distant fireplace. He was trying to speak, but the moans and groans, the uneasy snores and dream-speech, of all the other men on other cots around us drowned out his voice.

I looked at his alcohol-wasted body, angry and disgusted. This man had pawned my mother’s jewels and mortgaged our house, and put all our savings into a trading caravan to the distant island of Arecima to acquire the legendary shimmer silk, supposedly the finest silk in the world.

Only one member of the caravan returned alive, a boy. He had brought back nothing but the rags on his body and a head full of ghosts only he could see.

When he was pressed for what had happened to the others, he grew excited, laughed, cried, shouted “Run! Run!” and lashed out at those around him. He had to be held down and fed soporifics until the frenzy left his body.

Shimmer silk was nothing more than a myth. My father’s bet had cost us everything. Our family became a byword, a cautionary tale. Creditors chased us here, where my mother hung herself one night out of shame and my father drank until here he lay, dying.

He beckoned for me to come closer. I leaned down and put my ear next to his lips. No matter how unworthy a father he was, I owed him the duty of listening to his last words.


I stood up, furious. Even as he was about to die, he still held onto his mirages.

Slowly, his shaky fingers reached inside his shirt, groped around his heart, and finally emerged with a small square of fabric between them.

Reluctantly, I took it from him. It was silk, but like no silk I had ever handled. My fingers seemed to close around a bit of water, a bit of smoke. It felt insubstantial, yet luxurious, like stroking the skin of a pretty girl. I lifted it to the firelight, and light and shadow flickered through it like liquid gold.

My father’s lips continued to move. I put my ear to them again.

“… glorious…real…rich…”

His breath stopped.


I stared at the tiny square of silk in my hand, shimmering in the daylight. I could not say what color it was for it seemed to take on all the colors of the rainbow at once. It sat in my hand like a fragment of a dream.

If I wanted to restore honor to the name of my father, I had to prove that his dream was real.

I set off on the dangerous and long trek along the Silk Road to the mysterious Occident. I passed through the Caliphate of Ontario, where golden bears barred the way and had to be placated with offerings of dried fish. I passed through the Republic of Tibet, where nimble-fingered warlocks directed iron men to prey upon travelers. I passed through the Empire of Nova California, where cannibals brazenly plied their trade. When I ran out of land, I got into a canoe and paddled west.

At last, after days at sea, I arrived at Arecima, the island where the sun came to rest. I was half dead, delirious with thirst, and fainted as soon as I touched the beach.

When I awoke, I found myself in a soft bed in a small cottage with large, bright windows that let in the morning sun. I stared into the face of the most beautiful woman I had ever seen: warm, olive skin, wide, green eyes, and silvery hair that shone like dewy spider webs at dawn. She pointed at herself and said, “Taya.”

I pointed at myself likewise and said, “Sanu.”

The example of the boy from my father’s lost caravan warned me to be careful. I suspected that the people of Arecima guarded the secret of shimmer silk jealously. I would have to bide my time and wait for an opportunity.

Taya lived by herself. I gathered that she had inherited enough money from her dead parents to live comfortably. During the weeks that followed, she nursed me back to health and took me around the island to introduce me to its sights and sounds. I admired Arecima’s balmy climate, elegant houses, cultivated inhabitants, and their leisurely pace of life. Slowly, she also taught me her language.

Having never left Arecima, Taya was delighted by my stories about the adventures I went through on my way here. And of course the attention of a beautiful woman caused me to exaggerate the dangers, amplify the scenery, and generally stretch my tale until the facts only rattled loosely inside. I spun story after story like a juggler tossing baubles higher and higher into the air.

I smiled as Taya gasped while I recounted my deeds of derring-do, and she would wrap her hands around mine without even realizing what she was doing.

Slowly but surely, I was ensnaring her heart. Slowly but surely, a plan coalesced in my head.

Always, I kept an eye out for shimmer silk. But though I saw a great deal of silk in Arecima, and much of it of high quality, I never saw anything that resembled the small square of fabric I kept hidden next to my heart.

One day, Taya took me to a fresh part of the island, where we saw a grove of trees.

From a distance, a gauzy film seemed to wrap around the trees like the veil of a bride. Closer, I saw that thick strands of gossamer hung from every twig and sheets of filigree stretched between the branches, undulating in the breeze. The webs shimmered, and seemed to take on all colors of the rainbow at once.

So this was the secret of shimmer silk. Not silkworms, but spiders.

“I want this,” I said.

She laughed uneasily.

“This is the source of our wealth,” she said. “Every year, only twenty bolts may leave the island. We give them to princes and sultans who must give Arecima rare jewels and mountains of gold in exchange, and promise us the protection of their arms.”

“I have no gold or jewels,” I said. “But I must have this silk.”

“It’s forbidden,” she said. “Anyone caught stealing it will be killed.”

Her answer did not surprise me at all. I had suspected an edict like that.

Visions of the riches and honor I would receive back home if I returned with shimmer silk filled my head. Finally, my father’s name would no longer be synonymous with folly. Whether I accomplished the deed by force or wile, I would be forever remembered as the man who brought home the riches of the Occident.

This was finally the time for my plan.

“This is why I came. I will steal the silk even if it means my death. If you love me, you will help me.”

She trembled. I pressed. “I love you.” It was the first time I had said so to her. My father, wise in so many things, had taught me to be stingy with such words, for they have great power over women.

Her eyes were both happy and sad. She bit her lips in determination. “Come back at midnight,” she said, pointing to one particular tree. “The silk must be prepared before harvesting. Do not be frightened. The creatures will not harm you. But you must promise to leave the island as soon as you have gathered the silk so that you’ll be safe. I’ll leave a canoe for you next to the beach.”

“What about you?”

“Do not worry. I will be with you.”

“We shall have many adventures together, like the ones I told you about.”

She nodded and smiled.

I kissed her. She kissed me back and clung to me fiercely. Then she left to prepare for our escape.

I returned at midnight. Slowly, in complete darkness, I felt my way next to the tree Taya had indicated. Just then the clouds parted and moonlight lit up the scene.

My skin threatened to crawl away from me. Thousands of spiders writhed in a dark mass over the tree. Each spider was the size of my thumb, and the skittering sound they made was like sand being rubbed against a skull. As I approached, they retreated like a receding wave, leaving thick silvery strands of silk behind.

Forcing down my fear, I began to pull strands of silk from the branches and wrapped them around the spindles I had prepared. The silk was strong, thin, and felt light as air. I worked quickly, and soon had a pile of skeins about my feet. As I unwound the last strands from around the branches, my heart almost leapt out of my throat as I watched thousands of baby spiders emerge from beneath the silk and skitter away from me.

My legs felt rubbery, but I managed to bring everything to the beach and Taya’s canoe. I paddled away to the east without looking back. I had to trust that Taya would follow me, as she had promised.

I was picked up by a fishing boat and brought back to the mainland. I examined the silk in my bag, and it was every bit as beautiful as the small square that my father had given me: pearlescent, lustrous, smooth and soft, fit to grace the skin of princesses and queens.

Day after day I waited, but Taya never came. I hounded fishermen and travelers for any news. At last, I grew restless. Something was wrong.

Just as I had so carefully spun my tales to capture Taya’s heart, somehow my heart had also fallen for her in the process.

Ignoring her warnings, I went back to Arecima in my canoe. It was night when I arrived at the island, and I carefully made my way onshore in the darkness.

Taya’s house was deserted, locked with chains and sealed with official-looking stamps. What had happened to her? Was she made an example for helping me?

Not knowing where else to go, I went to the grove of spider-filled trees.

Several armed guards patrolled the area. After my stunt, I guess they could no longer leave the place unguarded.

I waited until one of them was alone and far away from the others, and I pounced, dragging him into the woods.

“What happened to Taya?” I asked, poking a sharp knife into the guard’s neck “Did you harm her because she helped me steal your precious silk?”

Chuckling bitterly, the guard told me the secret of Arecima.

The usual silk spun by the deadly spiders of the grove was too brittle. In order to make the prized shimmer silk, the spiders had to feast on the blood of a young woman who gave herself to the spiders out of love, with passion coursing through her veins. Such love-filled blood would not only soften the silk but also satiate the spiders, so that the silk could be safely collected.

This was why so little shimmer silk could be produced. Every year, on a certain day, pairs of lovers across the island would be brought before the elders. If she refused the sacrifice, he would be killed, and he would die knowing that she did not love him enough. If she agreed to the sacrifice, he would be spared, but he would live the rest of his life knowing that his true love died so he could live. The ceremony continued until the elders found enough women who said yes.

My Taya did not lie when she said she would be with me.

“You fool,” the guard spat at me. “Touch the silk you stole. Does it not feel warm? It still contains a trace of her life’s heat.”

The shimmer silk of Arecima began as a legend, and it will end as a myth.

The smell of sulfur, oil, and bitumen fills my nostrils. I have doused the grove with them. In a few more minutes these trees, these cursed trees and their evil inhabitants, will be gone. Young lovers will no longer have to die for shimmer silk.

I touch the strands wrapped around me. My Taya is with me, and will be with me until eternity.

I light the match.

  • Ken Liu

    Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

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