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The Virgin's Knot


A long time ago in ancient Anatolia there lived a peasant farmer named Gordius who ruled an ancient city of the Lydian Empire. One day when Gordius was plowing his fields, a flock of birds gathered around his oxen. The image startled Gordius, and he knew it must be an omen. He set out to consult the augurs in a nearby town, where he met a beautiful maiden who told him the birds were a sign of his royal destiny there. Realizing the value of this peasant before her, the maiden offered herself to Gordius as his queen.

Gordius then drove his oxcart to the temple, where he was immediately greeted by the people as their ruler. An oracle had informed them that the first man to arrive at their temple would be their king, and they accepted the peasant farmer with great reverence. To show how grateful he was for his new power, the farmer decided to enshrine his oxcart to the temple by attaching the yoke to the shaft with a long, elaborately knotted strap, the legendary Gordion knot.

The elaborate knot had no visible end and was considered impossible to unravel. Legend had it that whoever succeeded in unraveling the knot would be the next ruler of Asia Minor. When Alexander the Great arrived to set up his winter quarters in Gordion in 334 B.C., he set out to fulfill the prophesy and climbed the citadel to Gordion's oxcart. Although he knew that a knot must unravel itself, Alexander failed to loosen it and instead, sliced through it with his own sword.

June 1953
Southwestern Turkey

Nurdane moved between the looms, inspecting knots. The room was cool and smelled of burnt cedar. The floor, damp, freshly washed. The chairs and desks had been pushed against the walls, where skeins of colored wool hung like wigs from the hooks and half—carved reed flutes lay propped in the windows. The lodge was normally used as a music school for boys, but on Saturday afternoons the headmaster allowed her to teach the village girls weaving, the only formal education they would ever know.

She stopped in front of a larger loom shared by two sisters and moved her fingers slowly over the pile of wool. She wiggled her pinky between the strings to search for gaps, poking her finger through the weft. She had found a large hole, the size of a coin. She raised her eyebrows in disapproval.

The young girls sitting at the loom stiffened, slowly lifting their small chins to meet her gaze. They watched her lips part, waiting for a smile, begging her approval with their dark eyes. But she withheld, careful not to mislead them with a false sense of accomplishment. She found their workmanship satisfactory. They had woven a prayer rug filled with scatter motifs, stylized representations of familiar objects. A deer, flowers, sheep, water, the concerns of daily life in the village. It was not a difficult pattern, a modern prayer rug of no great beauty or merit. The center, or field, consisted of a plain red mihrab, or prayer niche, surrounded by a green border of angular flowers. The motifs, like all motifs in Turkish rugs, were based on geometric units. Called nakis, embroidery, the motifs had functioned as a language among the women of the weaving communities. Passed from mother to daughter, the geometric symbols were the basis of communication among the Anatolian women kept illiterate under Islam. Birds for the soul; stars for eternity and marriage; eyes, hooks, and amulets to protect against evil; roses for happiness; running water for a long life; swastikas and dragons to protect the tree of life; apple blossoms for fertility; pinwheels, symbols of heaven, fortune, and hands for protection.

To weave was to write and to write was to be understood. Using any one symbol or a combination of several, a Muslim woman was safe to express herself, channeling her creativity into a body that would survive her long after the Prophet had stripped her of her tribal solidarity. The sum of symbols, too, insured the Turkish woman with the only possession she could own. In possessing the rugs, women owned a part of themselves that no fundamental law could ever compromise.

Like any good grammar instructor, Nurdane looked for errors in the compositions she read, her unflinching eye slashing mistakes. She had reminded her students that the choice of symbols was not the point of weaving, despite how poignant or obscure the themes they conveyed. She wondered if the two sisters had ever listened. The goal of every weaver, she reminded them, was to tie knots so strong they could hold the dead.

She picked up a beater, a wooden comb, from the floor, and handed it to the youngest sister.

Tighter, she instructed.


The girl panicked and dropped the comb. Her sister snatched it from the floor.

I know how to make them tighter, she said.

Nurdane dropped her hand on the older girl's shoulder. She spoke calmly.

I know. So let her try.

The older girl sighed and reluctantly passed the wooden comb to her sister's trembling hands. She was younger than the rest and bony, wearing her elbows like weapons on bent arms. Her nails were dirty and her hair fell out of her headscarf in multiple braids, like a bride's. She looked vulnerable beside the others, anxious, too, and yet she had about her a determination that Nurdane recognized as her own. She could see the pride in the arch of the young weaver's back while the others sat slumped and defeated at the loom. The girl looked up at Nurdane with expectant eyes.

What do you want me to do?

Pack it harder.

The girl inserted the long, forklike slats of the beater between the weft and pulled down on the pile. Her tiny muscles bulged from her forearm.


But it's already tight.

Nurdane shook her head and poked her finger through the weft again. The hole smaller, but still there.

Is it?

The girl lowered her gaze to the floor and shook her head, ashamed. She spoke quietly, humbled.

It's hard.

I know. It takes time.

The girl shifted her eyes to balls of wool scattered about the floor.

You were better than any of us at our age.

I had a lot of time to learn. You must be patient.

The girl swallowed, her eyes glazed like large round tiles in the light.

You were better than our mothers. Better than our grandmothers, she insisted. How did you ever learn to tie them so well?

Nurdane stepped behind the loom and stood in front of the window, a silhouette in the backlight.

Put your hand over your heart. All of you.

Nurdane panned the room from one loom to the next until all the girls had followed her instruction.

Now close your eyes.

The girls shifted, the wooden benches creaking beneath their weight.

And listen.

The room fell silent. Only the tinkling of goat bells came in through the window. Nurdane continued.

Imagine the rug has a heart. It has a rhythm, a beat. Your job as a weaver is to breathe life into the knots. Feelings. Emotions. When you're sad, the knots will be sad too. When you're happy, they will sing. When you are confused or lonely or excited or scared, the knots will hold it all. They will remember everything about you so you don't forget who you are.

Nurdane paused for the caw of a raven, the flap of wings. Then silence again. She whispered.
Every weaver records a part of herself in each knot.

She watched their faces twitch, the nervous bite of their lips. Some had opened their eyes to peek at the others, then shut them quickly when they caught Nurdane watching. She continued.

Now imagine your heart with a hole.

Gasps from the girls.

What do you hear?


Right. Nothing. A broken heart can't beat. You see, if the rug has a hole because the knots are loose, the rug won't sing. And we like songs—because they tell us stories.

She watched the girls nod, small smiles stretched across their faces as they remembered bits of folktales too ancient to unravel at the loom. Perhaps when they were older, better weavers, they would find a place for their stories in the rugs.

Nurdane stepped out from behind the loom and crossed the lodge. The slow squeak of her braces broke the silence. She stopped at the door.

You can work now.

The girls rubbed their eyes, trying to focus again in the harsh light that fell in triangles across the room as the morning sun shifted over the village. The air was warm and dry, sweet with sage.

Nurdane stood at the door and ran her hands along the old Arabic carved in the wood, prayers she could not read.

Let me hear the songs.

The girls began to pluck the weft like the strings on a harp. They worked up their speed, each relying on the other to keep the pace until they synchronized the twanging of fingers into a soft, hypnotic percussion.

Nurdane stepped outside and followed a stone pathway to a group of elderly women and their married daughters, who sat cross—legged, spinning wool under the shade of a fig tree. Three of the eldest and most experienced weavers were building a warp, the foundation of every carpet. They used no formal measuring device to build the apparatus, estimating the length of the warp with a long plank, which they laid across the ground, and two adjustable posts, driven into the earth with stakes. The warp was prepared as one of the women walked from one pole to the other, wrapping yarn continuously around the posts, where the other women sat, crouched on their heels, inserting twine between each thread, ensuring the sequence of the warp. The process would take about five hours, so they worked quickly, speaking little, concentrating. Together with the spinners, they formed a colorful sight. Their bright, baggy trousers, blouses, and vests were a mismatch of prints and patterns leaving no empty space for the eye to rest. Most of their heads were wrapped in two cotton scarves, a white one covering their hair, tied behind the nape of their brown necks. The other, either a pastel or elaborate floral design folded into a flat band, then tied around the forehead, framing their faces like a crown.

Nurdane joined the spinners, lowering herself to the ground slowly, awkwardly, beneath the braces. The wind lifted her skirt, revealing her legs. The muscles were severely atrophied, the skin purple and green, her knees imprinted from the metal rim. Her upper body was completely disproportional to her lower body. Her arms were healthy, long, and slender, the muscles tight and cut over her shoulders, defined by years at the loom.

The women did not stare at her legs, their eyes locked on the spindle passing into Nurdane's bare feet, bare humps and bulbs, too misshapen for shoes. The soles had grown thick and yellow with calluses, and the toes curled like talons and reminded them of raptor's claws. Nurdane took the spindle, anchoring the pointed end between her toes, and spun in silence. The women did not disturb her when she was teaching and kept their questions to themselves. They worked quietly, listening to the thwap of combs pounding the knots tighter on the loom. Toothless smiles among them. They were content to hear the labor of others after spending a lifetime tying their own knots, sowing, weeding, harvesting crops in the fields. Their hands had become gnarled, their fingers bony and twisted like the ancient roots of an olive tree. Most suffered from arthritis, but they insisted on spinning. They insisted in putting a part of themselves into the rugs for as long as they could.

Nurdane could feel them watching her work, studying the turn of her fingers, the way her left hand fed the wool into the spindle while her right rotated it clockwise, making a Z—twist with the yarn. Her speed, twice theirs. Her movement effortless, seemingly involuntary. Spinning ran deep through her blood, passed down from her mother and grandmother and the women of Anatolia. She had never seen her mother weave, nor had she ever seen her mother, dead after childbirth. June twenty—first, the solstice, at once a celebration of life, had also become a reminder of death.

It was her father who taught her to weave, borrowing from his wife's techniques. He taught Nurdane to manipulate the flywheel, as she did now, by tilting the spindle every few seconds, to either slow down or speed up according to the dictates of her fingers. Faster now. The cadence chased the song from her lips. Songs of the nomad. The drop spindle was old technology, the most practical, too, for the nomadic life from which she came. She stopped only when the spindle was full and heavy with wool, and only then did she pause to massage the cramp in her hand.

You've been working a lot.

She nodded, shifted her eyes to meet the crinkled faces of the older women. They were filled with concern now and pressed her for answers.

I'm catching up, Nurdane said.


Fast enough.

How many knots are tied?

I haven't counted yet, she said, cutting off their questions. The women lowered their heads, ashamed. Nurdane guarded her secrets well. The women knew better than to beg for answers from her, but the nervous twitch of their hands, the way their fingers picked at the wool, gave them away. The women wanted to know more.

When will the rug be finished?

A rug is never truly finished. Is it?

She looked up and locked eyes with them. Her quick answers frustrated them. She removed the wool from the spindle and began to spin again, interrupted by the hand of a short, squat woman pressing on her shoulder.

Don't forget who you make the rugs for.

Nurdane lifted her eyes and searched the woman's weathered face. Two silver braids dangled over the woman's milky eyes, challenging her not to look away too soon.

A bride waits for you.

They always do.

The old woman shook her head and leaned closer. She pressed her cheek against Nurdane's and lowered her voice. This one is different, she said. Her life depends on you.

The men came in droves to the orchard to offer bids as the shadow of the minaret stretched longer through the trees. Cherry blossoms covered the ground where Nurdane's father sat cross—legged, listening to the village men plead for her rug, a chance to buy the virgin's knots for their daughters' dowry. He did not stand to greet them, nor look up at them, fixing his eyes on the ground to study the advancing feet, the display of shoes he would never own.

The men always wore shoes for the occasion, leaving the usual rubber galoshes on the racks outside their homes. Most were like him, too poor to afford shoes with the pittance they earned making charcoal, selling trout and wheat. The shoes they had managed to buy over the years were used and too small, making them walk funny, waddling with their toes scrunched inside the leather. Or too big. Dusty halos around their ankles as they shuffled across the road, then stood shifting, ill at ease in Ali's presence.

He rolled cigarettes on his thigh, one by one, lining them inside a small tin can perched on his knee. He did not speak and turned his eyes on the ground, roving the cherry pits as if he were reading. He was a thinking man, always deep in concentration. He possessed the cold, classic features of an Ottoman aristocrat. His nose was long, his cheekbones sloped elegantly down his face, and beneath the stubble on his chin were scars and their secrets. His eyes were steel gray, tired, darkened, it seemed, from the demons of sleep or a darker betrayal. On his bottom lip he wore a constant cut from chewing it too long when he worried.

He held a cigarette between his teeth and managed to smoke it without ever taking it from his mouth, exhaling only when he met the gaze of the men as if the smoke were meant to screen them. He noticed several of the men had been crying, the quick flick of their hand against dirty cheeks stained where the tears had dried. Some turned their faces into the shade to hide their eyes, pleading for salvation, believing Nurdane's rugs could answer the prayers that Allah could not.

He did not trust them. Few understood the true worth of his daughter's work. Most were bent on superstitions, the babies conceived on her prayer rugs, the animals healed, the crops saved. The diseases cured. The lives made prosperous.

Only a rare man considered the miracle of the knots themselves, the fact that his daughter could tie them in her condition. The polio had reduced her activity to the loom, where her hands took the place of her feet. Through her fingers she traveled to places where her legs could never take her. The loom, her tiny universe. The upper side heaven. The bottom earth. The left and right sides, both east and west. The ways of the spirit, good and evil. She had learned to inhabit that world with a passion, grateful for the life it gave her beyond the stillness.

To set a price on her rugs was futile, but Ali did so year after year. It frustrated him to spend so much time with the brides' fathers, and their stories left him tired and irritable. But he continued to entertain their desperation, perpetuating their belief in the powers of the virgin's knots.

The men stood with their hands behind their backs, feeding prayer beads through their fingers, one by one, like gears on a clock. They were nervous and chatted quietly about the coming weddings, the slaughter of lambs, the prospects they had for their daughters' futures. Their pants were ironed and their shirts were clean, starched to impress him. In Homeric times, the father of the bride organized a competition among her perspective suitors, or he set himself against them like the story of Oinomaos and his son—in—law Pelop, who competed in a chariot race to win the heart of his daughter, Hippodameia.

In a way, Ali felt like Oinomaos now, setting himself against the perspective bidders. Nothing had changed this time except for his own plan for Nurdane's rug. The men did not know this, and he felt foolish, even dishonorable, allowing the bidding to drag on through the day. He was bored and drew Arabic letters in the ground with a stick, testing himself with verses, laws from the Koran. Allah changes not what is in people until they change what is in themselves. He blamed nobody but himself for his suffering and did not expect Allah to help him now. He had waited too long to make his decision. He thought about it now, dragging the stick through the dirt, hoping she would forgive him.

The late afternoon sun burned through the trees and made him eager to end the bidding. His stomach growled. His throat was dry. He had not eaten since dawn and felt light—headed in the heat. He had been there all morning, and the offerings only half filled the threadbare kilim at his feet. Incense and candles, live goats and chickens, antique coins and wooden bowls carved from Asian sandalwood, even a brand—new magazine featuring Rita Hayworth had been offered in exchange for the rug.

What is this?

He took the magazine and waved it at the man before him, cowering in the funnel of light coming through the trees.

Rita Hayworth.

Ali stared at her, his pale eyes soaking in the light.

Who is she?

A star. From America. She's Muslim. Married Ali Khan in 'forty—nine.

A star.

Yes. A movie star.

Ali sucked on the cigarette, then exhaled slowly. The slow, shrewd look in his eyes silenced the men.

The only stars we know are those Allah puts in the sky, he barked, hurling the magazine at the man so hard, the cover tore on a stone, ripping Rita's face in two.

You're not from this village. Are you?

The man shrugged.

No. But I've heard about your daughter's rugs.

From who?

The shepherds. They tell us. Everyone knows, Ali.

The man stared at him quizzically, uncertain if this was news.

Ali pushed himself off the ground, towering above the others. He dragged his eyes over the stranger, studying him. His thin arms. Oiled hair. The shoes that fit.

How did you find us?

The man looked around at the other fathers, who had suddenly fallen silent, eyes thrown at the kilim where Ali had been sitting.

Tell me.

The man shrugged. Ali continued.

This village is not easy to find. Especially before summer. The roads are impossible.
He tossed his cigarette at the man's shoe.

Somebody told you. Didn't they?

The man shot a look at Ali.

No. The shepherds did.

When have you ever talked to a shepherd?

The man stepped back from the cigarette and Ali stamped out the ash with his bare heel. He picked up the torn picture of Rita Hayworth.

Is this a joke?

The man shook his head.

It's a collector's item, he persisted. It will be worth something.

What is it worth today? Nothing more than the dead tree it came from, Ali said, wadding up the movie star's face into a ball, hurling it through the trees.

The man stepped back in line and did not take his eyes off the ground until Ali finished speaking.

You come here wanting the virgin's knots. You bring me incense and candles, but don't be fools. These things can never compensate for Allah's work.

Allah's work? asked one of the younger men.


But your daughter makes the rugs.

Allah makes them through her. You see?

Ali touched his heart with his hand, then extended it outward, proffering a response. He had rehearsed this for years and the words rolled off his tongue, no longer contrived. He believed a man could convince himself of anything, over time.

It's true, then, said the stranger, stepping out of the shade. About her hands.

Ali took another cigarette from the front pocket of his vest and caressed it between his thumb and forefinger. He then jammed it between his lips and spoke quickly.

She's been blessed.

She'll never marry, will she?

He paused before speaking and shifted uncomfortably.

It was not Allah's will.

His voice had suddenly grown thin and glassy, and he turned from the men and stepped into the dappled light.

Allah yazmis. Allah has written it.


In her hands.

Ali pointed to the kilim, flicking his wrist at the array of offerings.

Take it with you. It means nothing to me.

The men looked at him, eyes shifting slowly.

Then how will you decide who gets the rug?

I won't.

He panned each of their faces, studying them, wishing to remember the crestfallen stares. His own face softened in the light when he made his announcement. His eyes apologetic, yet without regret.

The bid, he said, was accepted long ago.

Excerpted from The Virgin's Knot © Copyright 2003 by Holly Payne. Reprinted with permission by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved.

The Virgin's Knot
by by Holly Payne

  • Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Plume
  • ISBN-10: 0452284457
  • ISBN-13: 9780452284456